Nawlins: A city of many faces

6 days, 10 grimy fingernails, sunburn, a grossly expanded stomach and a tattoo later I’ve just crossed the border back into Canada. Going into Canada takes a fraction of the time it takes when going in the other direction. US customs is unlike anything else, the bus driver sternly tells us to not make jokes, wear headphones or do anything suspicious. It was a close call, I got asked if I had a gun and I almost burst out laughing. I swallowed any emotion as it was clear he was being completely serious. Amazingly we all made it back through customs and onto the bus pretty swiftly although it was too good to be true. As we were driving away we suddenly pulled over and men with big guns came on and started rummaging around in the toilet and in the storage spaces below. Then they left. Then they returned. With dogs. They rummaged around in the toilet once more. Then we waited. And waited some more. We were eventually allowed to go on our way and made it to the station less than an hour late, which is apparently a pretty good achievement.

I was staying with a friend in Detroit who told me about how even she would be aggressively questioned, as a US citizen, upon returning to her own country, as if, why the hell would you ever want to leave in the first place!?
We went to a bar come bowling come pizza place which blared out dirty rap music so that we could hardly hear our thoughts. Worth it for pastrami, cheese and gherkins though.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I would be doing upon arrival in New Orleans, the only certainty was that it would be lovely and warm. Maybe I’d find a bus, or I had jotted down some vague directions to walk if need be. Little did I know that Google had given me the wrong directions from the wrong airport, luckily that didn’t really matter, just resulted in my sense of direction being really confused. There only seemed to be shuttles or taxis going from the airport and I was feeling stubborn so I decided to walk. It turns out that they don’t actually build pavements or pedestrian crossings to allow for this so I ended up running across a crazy highway like a madwoman and walking down the hard shoulder until I could get onto some grass. Something tells me that this probably wasn’t legal. So I’m walking along and a bus pulls in ahead of me and sits there waiting. I keep ambling at my steady pace and realise I ought to just give in to my defiance and get on the bus. Two dollars later I’m wondering where the bus will take me and how will I figure out where I am. I have no working phone and no map. The last stop happens to be right outside the public library which allows me to determine my path to get to Common Ground Relief, my home for the next few days. I walk all the way through the French Quarter and all I see is ugly and garish tourist shops with stupid t-shirts and silly necklaces that 6 year olds like to wear. I’m feeling a little dismayed, is this really what New Orleans is like? I keep going and find a nice Market which restores a little hope. I have soon left the French Quarter behind and I’m now walking through the Bywater. I can really see the beauty of the houses, each and every one is brightly coloured, filled with character. I love it. Not only that but every one I walk by waves, smiles or says hello to me. It feels like there’s not a single stranger in this city.

The landscape becomes progressively more industrial, but it’s so gradual that I don’t really notice it. The people are so friendly that I am completely unaware of the fact that I am walking into one of the most dangerous areas of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward. I finally make it to my destination and I knock at the door, there’s no answer so I sit on the porch and wait for two hours thinking that they must all be out working still. A couple people appear outside on the pavement below and they look like they’re probably volunteers so I ask them and it turns out that everyone was inside all along. In the meantime my friend had been getting profusely worried about me and I had been waiting on the porch all that time! Typical.

There were a lot of people around and it was quite disorientating not knowing what the system was but I didn’t get too worried about it. Everyone was so friendly that I knew that I would settle in pretty quickly. After dinner I went for a walk with a couple friends. We were on the levee when a black man appeared on a bicycle. He said that it was dangerous for us to be out, our lives are at risk and what are we doing here? Why do all these white people keep coming and interfering? Go home, he said. Repeatedly. But he wanted to really understand what we were hoping to achieve by being there. In return we also wanted to hear his story, empathise with the community there and discover the impact that the organisation was having on the neighbourhood. He invited us to his home for a beer, saying that we’d be too intimidated to accept, yet of course we weren’t and we kindly accepted.

There was a lot to take in, the history of the place, how the blacks were treated as slaves and segregated afterwards. There is still a lot of pain and hurt, he grew up with the KKK terrorising friends and family and this will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Despite making it clear that the white people are hated, that one day one of us will get killed and that that will be what it takes for us to leave, he did not hate us personally. He is a seaman and has travelled the world, he has a daughter who is terribly sick in hospital whose mother is a drug addict. Shit gets real. He drove us to the local convenience store and bought us 25 pieces of fried chicken with fries. His hospitality had no bounds. I learnt about the tours that are happening in the area, which sickens and alienates those who live there: bus loads of tourists are taken around the streets to see what poverty looks like, they want to take pictures of poor black people, reducing them to animals in a zoo. People want to constantly interview them, they feel harassed and bombarded.

Since Hurricane Katrina 8 years ago, the area has still not fully recovered. Brad Pitt felt moved to start a charity, Make it Right, which invited architects from around the world to design homes for the people who lost everything. They had lived in their homes for generations and had owned them outright, they had been convinced by the insurance companies that they didn’t need flood insurance, they were prevented by some government law, which then fell through after Katrina. These people had nothing left, so they left themselves, abandoning their past and their history. Brad Pitt hoped to restore the community and enable people to return, however, as usual nothing is perfect. The homes cost so much more to build than necessary; 3 times as many homes could have been built with the same amount of money. Locals were hired at first, but then there was a lot of faffing around and contractors kept changing hands and workers from elsewhere replaced them. People inevitably complained and they went back to hiring locals again, wasting much money in the process. The houses would never just be given to the locals either, a huge downpayment had to be procured with a fat mortgage attached. The people had gone from owning their homes outright, to being forced into a predicament whereby they had to be burdened by debt. There has to be a profit made somehow.

It is very apparent that tension exists between the neighbours and Common Ground, simply because it hasn’t been clearly established as to what their purpose is. There is also a fine line between volunteers helping out those in need and volunteers taking away jobs. A couple of days later another black man who is good friends with the organisation was hanging out in the dining room. People were drawn to hear about the situation from his perspective. Common Ground has indeed tried to reach out to the local community and they are always invited to meetings, yet they don’t show up. So what can be done? Perhaps go to each house physically and introduce yourself, put more effort into bridging a connection.
Going back to the tour buses, in a way they spread awareness of the situation to the rest of the country, and the locals haven’t realised that they have an opportunity to make their fair share. They could easily approach the tour companies and say that they’d like to get involved, they have every right to, and even give the tours themselves perhaps. Everyone has the ability to empathise. Even tourists.

All that I have mentioned barely scratches the surface, I was only there for 5 days. But I appreciate immensely that I have been able to see the other side of New Orleans, not just the side that tourists see, and the contrasts are enormous. I spent one night in the French Quarter  and it was as wonderful as I had anticipated. Strolling along with buskers here, there and everywhere, some singing, some with their saxophones, and live jazz and blues emanating from every bar. One bar had a particularly impressive band playing so we went inside and enjoyed a glass of red wine. Tarot card readers were dotted around amidst homeless folk sleeping on benches and doorsteps. Another night was spent at a less touristy jazz bar in the Bywater. It cost $10 to go inside, yet it was perfectly acceptable to stay outside and listen, drinking cheap beer and dancing as the rain, at first intermittent, became a heavy downpour. I also spent most of my days driving around in the back of a pickup truck, which feels like freedom and being radical and never gets boring.

The work was very varied. The first day we cycled out to a house that needed to be gutted down to its bare structure. Every time I cycle I usually end up crashing, so I couldn’t believe it when I made it there and back in one piece, especially after cycling down the main roads the wrong way and crossing them precariously, as usual. My mind is often thinking, “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.” Until I remember that I need to think positive so I yell in my head, “I’m gonna live! I’m gonna live!”
The house had only finally been restored after the damage Katrina had caused and then it caught fire, and was completely destroyed again. It was tough work, we had air masks since the air was so laden with soot and dust and it was difficult to see anything that we were doing through our goggles, so we tended to take them off and suffer the consequences of getting dust in our eyes. We also wondered whether the structure of the building was still sturdy or would the roof collapse on top of us? We weren’t exactly wearing the best footwear either, would we get a nail through our foot? But it was all fine and dandy and none of us got hurt. Instead we had a good time karate chopping down the walls despite the resounding fact that this used to be someone’s home.

The second day we drove out to the nursery which turned out to be in a parking lot. It’s filled with grasses and trees that they are growing to plant in the wetlands. There was something dismaying about being on concrete, exposed to the cold wind, with hotels and fast food closing us in. Not like tree planting at Chisholme, that’s for sure. We had po boy for lunch, basically a giant sandwich filled with sea food. I had deep fried oysters in mine, and it was surprisingly tasty. Never have I eaten so much, there’s something about volunteering and overeating. So many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…

The final day was the best. We drove out to the wetlands, I was prepared in my wellies, with two pairs of tights, three pairs of socks and a plastic bag on each foot for added protection. We were planting grasses right in the water and cedar and cyprus trees along the banks, to help slow down the fact that a football field sized portion of land is lost every half an hour in New Orleans. It was good to see water and greenery, although there was still a highway close by.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave. Spent my last few hours in the French Quarter and ate the most delicious marinated lamb ribs. I left it stupidly late before making my way to get the bus, which took longer to walk than anticipated and then when it finally arrived the bus driver told me it would arrive 15 minutes before my flight would take off. I tried to stay calm and got off at the very next stop thinking I’d find a taxi. I was running around like a headless chicken… apparently, since I had no luggage, not a single taxi stopped for about 15 minutes. Then it turned out to be rush hour. Somehow I made it and I had luck on my side since the plane was delayed by 15 minutes. I made it through security with time to spare.

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