Towards the end of our time in New Orleans, the stars aligned for a perfect night. We had just finished a fabulous cruise along the Mississippi River and headed towards Frenchman Street to continue the fun. The live jazz music seemed to get better and better at each bar we hopped to. We were finally experiencing what New Orleans was all about. At around our third stop, we got hooked on the music and the vibe of the place—everyone was on the dance floor—so we decided to post up and stay awhile. At one point, two of the dancers became inseparable, and we became entranced. They danced the night away, reading each other’s every move and gracing us with the best dancing we’d ever seen in real life. It was exciting and deeply moving, so we were curious to know how long they’d been together to be able to mesh like that. We spoke to the man during a brief break in the music, and he responded in an accent, “I’ve dreamt of coming to New Orleans to dance to the jazz music for years, and I finally made it. I actually just met her on the dance floor here tonight.” We couldn’t believe our luck—stumbling into a bar playing the best jazz music and getting to witness two strangers come together to create something truly beautiful.
So how did I end up in New Orleans? I had some free time before graduation, and being the travel-lover that I am, quickly filled it with a trip. After six years of intensive coursework, I began to realize I knew nothing. My eyes were really opened to that fact when I went on this trip to New Orleans, with stops along the way in Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Natchez, and Tuscaloosa. It was my first time in the South. Sure I had mastered a subject, but in the process I hadn’t been exposed to much about the world in general, or even the country I grew up in. Like most journeys we take, I couldn’t have foreseen how impactful this one would be; I considered it one last hoorah before real life began, but it’s had a profound effect on me to this day. I still think back on those moments I experienced that completely broke my heart and the others (like above) that filled me with intense joy.
My family and I started in Louisville, KY, desperate to get our hands on some Kentucky-fried chicken. When in Rome, right? I will confirm that eating fried chicken in Kentucky is highly satisfying. After a short but successful stay we were off to Nashville, the home of country music. Despite some areas being touristy, we all had SO MUCH FUN. The energy in Nashville is great and live music is everywhere (side note: I highly recommend seeing a performance at the Grand Ole Opry). Memphis was our next stop, and I didn’t realize until I got there that it was home to so much American history—think Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr. What bubble was I living in? It was so surreal visiting such iconic places like Sun Studio, Graceland, and the Lorraine Motel. Being in Memphis reminded that the civil rights movement actually happened; it wasn’t some abstract thing in history books. I don’t think I would feel that way if I hadn’t seen this all first hand, and it’s had a huge influence on the way I view the world today. We then headed to Natchez, MS, a lovely town with plantation homes galore. We were taken aback by the beauty of the place but also shocked that no one would acknowledge Natchez’s role in the slave trade. I started to become more aware of racism I was previously oblivious to. Travel forces you out of the comfort zone you’ve been living in, and the South was my wake up call. This new awareness continued when we went out for dinner in the college town of Tuscaloosa, on campus at the University of Alabama. We learned from talking to our waitress that up until 2014, sororities and fraternities were segregated. 2014?!?! Come on America.
I’ve been to a lot of cities in the US, but none of those trips have felt as substantial. After reflecting on my time in the deep South, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to experience the real America. It’s an area that embodies the struggles we still face, the achievements we should celebrate, the history we should take responsibility for, and the understanding that we can create something beautiful by coming together. I’m so grateful for having the opportunity to travel, be inspired, and change for the better. I hope you feel moved to get out there and be open to the discoveries that await.
Quick recap on why I recommend visiting the South:
- The iconic history. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, so you can visit the Lorraine Hotel and surrounding museums. You can tour Elvis’s mansion outside Memphis as well as Sun Studio. You can visit the town of Natchez and learn about its role in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (and tour the antebellum homes).
- The mouth-watering food. Fried chicken in Kentucky, BBQ in Tennessee, gumbo/po’ boys/crawfish in New Orleans. It’s all amazing.
- The music. Nashville is the home of country music and the energy there backs that up. Beale St. in Memphis is famous for the blues. New Orleans has the best live jazz music in the world. You’re definitely in for a good time.
- The soul. The South has been through a lot, and it will leave you feeling inspired by how far we’ve come but humbled by how far we still have to go.