HOUMA, La. —You could come all this way to watch alligators eat raw chicken thrown from a tour boat and say you've had an authentic Cajun experience. But ask a good 'ol Cajun how to find the real thing, and the answer isn't quite so tidy.
"Go up and down the bayou and see the shrimp boats," said Werlien Prosperie, a lively, compact 74-year-old who owns Jolly Inn, the lone Cajun dance hall in an area once teeming with Cajun dance halls. "See how people make a living. We still live off the land here."
Traditionally, to be Cajun has meant being different: different language, different food, even a wariness of "Americans" — the sometimes pejorative term for those outside their cultural borders. But the differences are shrinking. Prosperie's born-on-a-houseboat-in-the-bayou upbringing is mostly gone. The last generation that grew up speaking French in the home is in its 50s and 60s. And the region's gentle country sensibility — punctuated by dance hall joy and Mardi Gras celebration — has been diluted by the uniformity wrought by television and the Internet.
The losses are part of the reason that Prosperie opened Jolly Inn 12 years ago. His wood-walled dance hall is no down and dirty Texas honky-tonk; it's a clean, well-lit, family-friendly place to put on your best jeans and let a fiddle-accordion-washboard band propel you all night from the Cajun waltz to the Cajun shuffle.
"The younger children knew nothing of this, and the middle-aged people weren't enthusiastic," Prosperie said. "It's a beautiful culture, and I wanted to restore it."
After an evening of bottled beer and rusty moves, I took Prosperie's advice and sought out what I could of the old Cajun life. No offense to the relatively landlocked prairie Cajuns north of Lafayette, but it brought me more than anything else to water: kayaking with alligators in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, sleeping on a houseboat in Henderson, eating seafood at least twice a day and, yes, taking swamp tours.
There are the large swamp tours, such as Ron "Black" Guidry's in the soupy waters west of Houma. For his 30-plus passengers, Guidry puts on a show: He talks French, guarantees a gator sighting (thank you, raw chicken) and strums Hank Williams' "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" on his battered acoustic guitar.
"If someone wants the true Cajun experience, you have to go to the most out-of-the-way places you can find," Guidry said (it seems there are about eight last names down here, and Guidry is one of them). "I used to play music in those places. Man, they're all gone."
Then there is Norbert LeBlanc (another of those eight last names), who wears a bushy white beard and takes just seven people at a time into the cypress-thick swamps near Breaux Bridge. For 40 years, LeBlanc trapped gators in these swamps, a brutal process involving meat, a hook and a pistol. He laments that none of his kids speaks French or has mastered the family tree's peach-tinged moonshine that his uncle taught him to make.
"Most of the kids are too busy with computers to watch a flame burn for 12 or 14 hours," LeBlanc said.
Moonshine is illegal, so I don't want to say that LeBlanc serves samples to his guests, but if you get thirsty on the water, let's just say you'll be set. And happy. You also won't have a problem getting close to gators, because LeBlanc knows where to look.
"That one there is a finger alligator," LeBlanc said, pointing at a 2-footer sunning itself on a log. "They only take one finger at a time!"
In Point-Aux-Chenes, I met David Nehlig, 55, and his son, Alvin, 35, who fished in a marsh that seemed like the end of the earth. David, a retired crabber, had just lassoed a red fish the length of his arm, which he proudly led me to his truck to show off while a cigarette hung from his lips.
"If someone gets stressed out, they just come out here and catch a fish or two," he said. "There's a lot of work going on down here but a lot of pleasure too. It's all good, man."
Finally I took my own shot at the life. In the map-speck town of Chauvin, I went to Sportsman's Paradise to hit the water with Cuda Scheer, a boyish 33, who got his first boat at 8 and started running charters after graduating high school. Beneath a high, bright sun, we visited the grassy marshes just north of the Gulf. I hooked my first fish — a 28-inch red drum — within two minutes. The next one, a black drum, found me 30 seconds later.
Six fish later we were back at the dock, Scheer slicing, dicing and spraying the cleaned fish. He kept half the fish for his family, and the kitchen grilled and fried the other half for me. I asked Scheer if he often ate dinner that had been swimming a few hours earlier.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "We never freeze fish. Living here, what's the point?"
We said our goodbyes, and I drove around a bit more, winding up on Louisiana Highway 55, another two-lane highway that ends at the bottom of the state. As the sun got low and orange, I passed a man and woman lying on a porch while smoking cigarettes and watching dusk approach. A positively idyllic scene. At the dead end half a mile on, I turned around and came across that same couple. This time they were engaged in an act of, well, let's call it physical admiration. Right there on their festive Cajun porch.
Laissez les bon temps rouler. Right?
IF YOU GO:
WHAT TO DO:
Jolly Inn (Cajun dance hall), 1507 Barrow St., Houma, 985-872-6114
Lake Fausse Pointe State Park (kayaking, hiking and sleeping with alligators), 5400 Levee Road, St. Martinville, 337-229-4764, crt.state.la.us/parks/ilakefaus.aspx
Ron "Black" Guidry, Houma (swamp tour), $25 adults, $15 children 12 and under, 985-868-4625; cajunman.com
Norbert LeBlanc, Breaux Bridge (swamp tour), $20 adults, $10 children under 12, 337-654-1215
WHERE TO STAY:
Grand Bayou Noir B&B, 1143 Bayou Black Drive, Houma, $120-$160 double, 985-873-5849, grandbayounoir.com
Wildlife Gardens (rustic cabins built over a swamp), 5306 North Bayou Black Drive, Gibson, $95 double, 985-575-3676; wildlifegardens.com
McGee's Landing (docked houseboats available for nightly rental), 1337 Henderson Levee Road, Henderson, $100-$125, 337-228-2384; mcgeeslanding.com
WHERE TO EAT:
Bayou Delight, 4038 Bayou Black Drive, Houma, inexpensive, 985-876-4879
Suire's, three miles south of Kaplan on La. 35, inexpensive, 337-643-8911 suires.oldnewbie.net
A-Bear's, 809 Bayou Black Drive, Houma, inexpensive, 985-872-6306