Admittedly, it's been 28 hours and I'm still in deep recovery mode from my trip to New Orleans. I won't even attempt to recount all my adventures, insights and Abita-fueled escapades in this forum. If you want juicy details about the bouncer who willingly plied me with shots of Patron or tales of extreme bar hopping, you know where to find me. For the purposes of Shtetl Fabulous-ness, I wanted to focus on some of my perceptions and impressions of the Crescent City.
If you have never been to New Orleans, go. Go now. Just as the media reported, the French Quarter and Central Business Districts escaped the storm's major wrath and you will see very little evidence of Katrina in the downtown areas. I highly recommend the Doubletree Hotel on Canal Street between Peters and Tchopitoulas (hope I spelled it right!). Great location, reasonable price and close to both the streetcar and Harrah's Casino.
What sets New Orleans apart from any other American city and what makes it so incredibly compelling is the culture. Nowhere else in the US can you experience a fully-developed local cuisine. While most of the Creole and Cajun specialities fell outside the bounds of kashrut, the essential flavors and spices carry through even without the pork sausage or shrimp. And if you do eat those things, then NOLA is a foodie's paradise on par with New York and other cities five times its size. And those beignets from Cafe duMonde do live up to the hype. Just skip the always long sit-down line and jump into the shorter queue in the back. You may even be able to flag down a tip-hungry waiter who will bring you your order to go.
Luckily music has fewer boundaries and the traditions of jazz and zydeco flow out of nearly every club and permeate your eardrums with their soulfulness. On one afternoon, my cousin and I strolled down Bourbon Street and heard the fascinating sound of a guy playing a washboard. The instrument covered his entire torso like a shield and he put his entire body into playing. A few days later, I heard classical jazz from an astoundingly fast trumpeter and a perfect rendition of the blues come from an wizened man on the harmonica. And where else in America can you walk down the street and randomly bump into an eight college-age guys in a jazz band?
Of course, all of these wonderful sounds, smells and tastes exist against the backdrop of the costliest natural disaster in our nation's history. After Hurricane Katrina hit, 80 percent of the city was under water and 120,000 residents still have not returned. On our tour of the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernards Parish, we saw abandoned shopping centers, dilapidated houses still tattooed with spray painted Xs and water lines.
Our guides told us that every green patch dotted with slabs of cement was once a home. I couldn't help but think of what would happen if the areas around the levees were allowed to revert to marshy swampland. How would the environment change? Would it be for the better? Would these newly rebuilt levees and houses be protected from the next storm?
As we drove through the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth, we saw kids playing on the porches of rebuilt homes. Again, I wondered what it must be like for them to grow up as tourist attractions? We clearly were not the first bus to roll through their streets and I hope we are not the last because I think it's really important for all of us to understand what happened in NOLA and to work to keep it from happening again.
Time and time again during my trip, people asked what we could do to help. Our entire group of 550 young adults spent a day volunteering at a former high school that spent two months under 12 feet of water after the storm. It was such a big deal we made it on the local news.
I don't want my experience to exist in a vacuum, so I hope hearing my stories will inspire you to take action. Here are some sites you can check out to learn more, give of your time or money and to make a difference.
United Way of St Bernard's Parish - a forgotten area deeply impacted by the storm
Make it Right Foundation - the closest any of us will likely get to Brad Pitt
Common Ground - great local group, plus my friend works there
Musicians Village - provides affordable housing for musicians to keep the music in NOLA
This is a really small sampling of all the amazing groups working hard (for very little money) to make New Orleans great again. If you know of other organizations, please post them in the comments section. Now, get packing!