After a trans-Atlantic flight and a missed connection at Chicago’s O’Hare airport we eventually arrived at our son’s home in Little Rock, Arkansas in the early evening – for us it was the early hours of the next day GMT. So what better thing to do the following morning – bright and early – than to get into a car and drive 450 miles to The Big Easy.
Over the approaching weekend, New Orleans was to be home to a National general knowledge quiz, known as a Quiz Bowl in the US, and our grandson Henry had been selected for the team that would represent his school, Pulaski Heights Middle School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The team had been successful in the preliminary rounds against other schools in their home state and adjacent states. Now was the time for the Grand Final. As it was Memorial Day Weekend, a national holiday, the family had decided to have a long weekend in the city of jazz, Cajun food and the odd bar or two. And we had arranged to fly in a little earlier than planned to take part.
The road signs as we left Little Rock said we were on the road to Pine Bluff. It sounded quite an innocent place until we were told it is has 3 1/2 times the National average for violent crimes and property crimes. It is the second worst metropolitan area for crime in the States after Detroit. It all looked peaceful and a nice place to live with its green lawns and plenty of trees. Clearly it isn’t. We drove as quickly as the speed limit allowed until the town was a blip in the rear-view mirror.
The journey south approximately followed the Arkansas River to its confluence with the Great Mississippi River then following that river till it entered the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. I use the word “follow” but for the most part the Mississippi was obscured by levees, the high earth banks that stop the waters from flooding the vast agricultural plains of the river delta. The main stretches of water we did see were the Ox Bow Lakes, some several miles long and two or three hundred yards wide, that mark places where the river used to flow before erosion led to a new river course.
Beside one of these ox bows we stopped for lunch in Lake Village, AR. From the outside Rhoda’s Café looked a ramshackle hut and not exactly inviting but our son and his wife had eaten there on previous occasions and told us to reserve judgement until we were inside. Once inside it was even more ramshackle and even more intimidating. As you enter there is a high counter separating the dining room from the open kitchen. The dining area had a collection of tables and chairs, no two pieces the same. At one table sat Rhoda, a large black lady of about sixty, carefully icing and decorating a large pile of small cakes or cup cakes.
When she saw us come in, Rhoda was immediately instructing the staff to rearrange tables and chairs so that all six of us could sit together, whilst she continued with the cake decorations. The house speciality is tamales, a traditional Central American concoction of masa, a starchy dough made from corn. The masa is mixed with various other ingredients, in today’s case it was meat, then wrapped in the leaf of a corn cob, held together by a loop of thin string and steamed. The result is a cheap and tasty bit of food. We made an initial order of 24 tamales but soon had to order another dozen. They were washed down with ice-cold water.
Whilst we ate, Rhoda kept a close eye on us and indicated that we would not be allowed to leave until we had each given her a big hug. All I can say, or am willing to put in writing, is that there is a lot of Rhoda to hug. And so we set off back to the highway with full stomachs and memories that would last for a long time.
We first visited New Orleans in June 2013. If you want to read about that visit just go to last year’s blog. As the primary purpose of this visit was to support Henry at the Quiz Bowl, we stayed at a hotel on the same side of the city as the competition venue. It was the rather swanky Hilton St Charles in the CBD (Central Business District) close to most places we wanted to visit and with one of the famous New Orleans Streetcar lines passing the front door. By the way, using public transport in New Orleans Louisiana (NOLA as it is known for short) is great value at $3 (~£2) for a day pass.
I don’t plan to go through an hour-by-hour story of our three days in NOLA, but rather, over this blog the next, will lift out some of the highlights. Do I hear a sigh of relief?? In the next blog I’ll cover the all important subjects of food and music which NOLA has in abundance. In this blog I’ll just cover the Quiz Bowl.
To give it its formal name it was the 7th National Academic Championships. Because of the vast geography of the US, the event was being carried out in three locations over three weekends. New Orleans was the first followed by Washington DC and finally Chicago. Each team could choose which location to attend. In the NOLA event there were teams from all over the South, from Texas to Georgia, but also one team from Anchorage in Alaska. I guess that distances are so vast for them that it didn’t matter which city they choose.
I had a certain degree of trepidation about the idea of mixing with hundreds of potentially nerdy teenagers and their pushy parents desperate to see their Johnny in the winning team. This turned out to be a baseless worry. There was one incident in one match when a parent intervened, convinced that an answer given was correct when the question master said that it wasn’t. But that was it. The parents were supportive and the participants were just ordinary teenagers although obviously from the brainy end of the spectrum.
The format of the quiz was straightforward. There was a quiz master with all the questions and answers on a computer on the desk in front of them. They also kept the score. Each leg was a head-to-head between two teams of four. Between each round of the quiz the teams could choose to swap players from the pool sitting close by. Some teams elected to make no substitutions whilst others involved as many as possible.
The questions asked were more academic than trivia. As an example, one team was asked to give the capitals of ten named countries. The countries were relatively hard and included Nicaragua, Serbia and Uzbekistan. (I’m not giving you the answers – that would be too easy). Another question was who attends the coronation of a new monarch in the UK. They were given the options of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope. (The team giving the answer got it wrong).
Henry’s team did well but not well enough to get to the finals of this event. We were all disappointed for him but also very proud that he had got so far and had now got the experience of playing at National competitive level. Not bad for a 13 year old. By early evening the team were at Mulate’s enjoying Cajun food and we happy to be with them. More of that in part two.