Carriage Driver - Tour Guide
Maia Settle has Soleil, her favorite mule, hitched to a white carriage that is parked in front of Jackson Square as she waits for her next customers. Her style de jour is almost all black, with her monogrammed one-color tennis shoes, jeans, gloves, and hat, only contrasted by a warm brown jacket and a beige turtle-neck sweater. “Working outside is great,” she says as she zips up her jacket. “The fresh air keeps me healthy.”
And so begins another day in Maia’s seven-year career clip-clopping around the streets of the historic French Quarter with tourists in tow from yet another medical meeting. Fortunately, I am along for the ride, since Evan, my 10-year-old grandson, insisted we take a carriage ride as we crossed Decatur Street from having beignets and hot chocolate at Café du Monde. Negotiations were quickly completed and we climbed aboard for a special tour of the French Quarter and St. Louis Number 1 Cemetery.
Maia was definitely in carriage driver-cum-tourist guide style with her black hat securely pulled down on her head of auburn-colored curls and Soleil responding to her firm hand on the reins.
“She’s my friendly partner who likes people and enjoys her daily romps along the narrow historic streets. We are a good pair because we both are energetic and love being outdoors.” Traffic doesn’t bother this driver. “It is what it is,” she adds. “I can’t let it bother me; I just relax and don’t fight for the right of way.”
She stops to pose for photos in front of the cemetery with Soleil, who is 24 years old and nearly at the retirement age for a mule, which is usually about 28 years.
“When she retires she will probably be adopted out by a person who loves animals and live a quiet retirement life,” she says. “I have heard of carriage drivers adopting their favorite mule after retirement.” Then she walks over to pet Soleil and the mule raises her head and firmly gives Maia a kiss, seemingly to validate her affection.
We line up behind several other tour groups to enter the mysterious world of the dead where bodies were originally buried above ground because of the low water table of the original part of New Orleans. “Here is the fabled Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb,” Maia tells us. “Her body is no longer in the tomb; she was moved long ago.” Then she walks over to the newer tomb of Mayor Dutch Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans. “He isn’t here either, I was told his family moved his remains to another cemetery,” she adds as she turns down another pathway pointing to a pyramid-shaped tomb. “This is actor Nicholas Cage’s empty tomb and don’t miss the seeing eye of the winter solstice on it.” Cage’s tomb seems somewhat out of place with the old tombs and stacks of bricks here and there from old tombs that have fallen down.
A carriage driver/tour guide for MidCity Carriages, she has lived in the New Orleans area since her childhood. Today, Maia lives in Arabi with Joe, her husband, and their four cats and two dogs. She also owns a horse named Precious.
“Yes, there is no doubt that I am an animal lover,” she says, then she smiles and adds, “I think of Soleil as an extended member of my family. She is always happy to see me when I come to get her and my carriage at the stable. I like the way she throws her head back and makes a lot of noise when I arrive. I reward her with special treats and off we go to pick up our first passengers of the day. We are limited to 10, 30-minute tours per day. This keeps both of us from being overworked.” I make a note that Maia prefers to use the word carriage rather than buggy.
From Maria Laveau to Nicholas Cage, Maia knows all of the tales hidden behind the tall walls of the historic cemetery. She never rushes the members of her tour and is quick to patiently answer each question. Well versed in the history of the cemetery, she seems to delight in providing detailed information.
Maia brings us safely back to the French Quarter and patiently takes photos of the four of us with Soleil. Later I asked her if she is usually tipped well. “Actually, only about 30 percent of my riders tip me,” she said. “But I did have a windfall once when I received a $200 tip.”
We all leave Maia and Soleil well satisfied. “Wow! That was fun,” my grandson says. “I can’t wait to tell my friends at school that I went for a buggy ride when I was in New Orleans with a mule named Soleil – that means the sun in French,” he proudly adds, remembering Maia had added the information when he asked her the mule’s name.