Lafayette, La. — ON a recent winter's afternoon, I visited the 19th century Laura Plantation in Vacherie in southern Louisiana. The main house had nearly burned down in 2004, and it's still being repaired, but tours of the grounds and other buildings have continued. A sign on the front gate now declares, "Fire-Flood-Hurricane-Lightning-Earthquake-Cannonballs-Tornado. Laura's Here to Stay."
All of southern Louisiana seemed to echo that sort of attitude: here to stay and open for business.
It's impossible to ignore the hurricane devastation of New Orleans and the land stretching from East Texas across to Mississippi. But much of Louisiana suffered little or no physical damage from Katrina and Rita. Large swaths of prairie, swamp, delta, basin, bayou and riverfront came through largely unscathed. Louisianans who weren't forced to flee are shaking off the trauma.
In 1991, when Cajun was all the rage up north, I had come here looking for the authentic heart of Acadiana, the home of the Cajuns. When I returned recently, I discovered not much had changed. Despite time and tempests, most parts of Cajun Country were intact.
Survival calls for celebration, and I found plenty of it -- dancing, singing, sharing gumbo and planning for Mardi Gras (which this year is Tuesday) as it's rowdily observed on small-town streets and country roads.
I started out to find some of the things I remembered most vividly from my last trip, and that meant being here on a Saturday, when the Cajun music wails away all day long and well into the night. Food, of course, is everywhere and is a big part of the experience: gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, etouffee, oysters, alligator and on and on.
On a mild, cloudy Saturday morning, I found a line of cars and pickups parked along a stretch of U.S. 190 near Eunice, about 20 miles northwest of Lafayette.
As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear fiddles, guitars, accordions and concertinas scraping out a lively Cajun tune at the Savoy Music Center. It's a ramshackle green building with a cluttered display window, but the sounds inside were true and clean.
About 30 spectators sat in folding chairs or wandered around the wood-paneled room, while eight musicians played a couple of violins, three guitars, two accordions and one concertina.
"That guy playing the concertina drove here all the way from Alaska, just so he could join in," said Marc Savoy, the patriarch of the musical Savoy family, who was working the cash register. "He'll get his bellyful today."
That's the main purpose of a Cajun Country Saturday. The Savoy jam sessions start around 9 a.m. and break up around noon.
Other musical get-togethers occur all around the area, including at the Liberty Theater in downtown Eunice and Fred's Lounge in Mamou, a hard-working, no-nonsense little town about 10 miles up the road from Eunice.
The brick and cinderblock bars in downtown Mamou might seem forbidding if it weren't for the music coming out of Fred's Lounge and other places up and down 6th Street.
Starting at 9 on this and other Saturday mornings, a Cajun band plays in the middle of the lounge, and patrons dance wherever they can find a little floor space.
By mid-morning, empty beer cans cover the bandstand railing and anyone not doing the two-step will get jostled into some kind of movement, because the place is packed.
The bar is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. only on Saturdays. After that, another bar might feature a different band, and the revelers will go there and keep moving until they can't move anymore.
Music isn't the only expression of creativity in these parts. Artists have clustered in and around Lafayette, and the galleries downtown demonstrate that there are some forms of enterprise that Wal-Mart still can't usurp.
In this case, it's Jefferson Street, a pedestrian-friendly few blocks rich with art galleries. Several murals depict Southern culture or display artistic whimsy. We're talking \o7trompe l'oeil\f7 violins, a swamp scene, a building made to look like a giant concertina, the finny rear ends of 1950s cars.
I spent more than an hour browsing the consignment booths in Jefferson Market -- jewelry, paintings, vintage clothing, furniture and chinaware.
Later, I dropped in on Bruce Odell's Garfield Street pottery studio. He was busy shaping a large clay urn.
The artist, a world champion in his field, knew why a writer might be poking around the region just now.
"Clearly, we are not underwater," Odell said. "And nobody's robbing anybody over here. We're not having any problems at all."
At the Acadiana Center for the Arts on Lafayette's Vermilion Street, artists filled two galleries with their interpretations of the damage -- physical and mental -- that nature had wrought.
The works by Gulf Coast painters, photographers and sculptors make up an exhibition called "Sustained Winds," running until March 18.
Themes range from anger, despair and frustration to defiance, determination and hope. Photos of abandoned New Orleans refrigerators and houses show them scrawled with warnings ("Do not open," "Looters will be shot").
Paintings and graffiti lash out at politicians or mourn the losses.
A grocery cart filled with discarded or lost possessions (dolls, tools, trinkets) is encircled by even more hasty discards -- all carefully cleaned and, where appropriate, polished like new.
All in all, I sensed more optimism than any acceptance of defeat.