Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trip Report: NOLA (Part 1)

After my recent post about my lack of a trip report for my New Orleans trip, I received a couple messages from various people encouraging me to write one. So here it goes!

I found out I was leaving for NOLA on my birthday in September. I have never been thrust into a situation where I felt so unprepared, and plus, I only knew one person there. I sent out probably 30 emails to various people around the country, asking for their support in finding myself a ride from the airport, people to take me around, people to talk to, etc. The immense amount of responses and compassion I found was so incredible. I eventually got in touch with a family there, a friend of a friend, and an old friend who I hadn't seen in years. So one and a half weeks after I learned that I had gotten the grant to go, I departed for the city.

My first twenty minutes in New Orleans made me quickly realize that I had never experienced diversity in this type of setting before. My skin color has never made me a minority in my life, and suddenly I was in a situation where this was the only thing that I could see: a separation and a difference. "Uncomfortable" isn't the word that I would use to describe this feeling, but it's something that I believe everyone should experience at least once in their lives. It was a paradigm shift, and I was grateful for it.

Walking down Bourbon Street from my hotel with my friend Katherine who I hadn't seen for years, I was made aware of the culture instantly. In Laramie, the bars are the only places open past 11 PM which was not the case here. Everything was open, there were lights and colors and people pouring out onto the streets. We sat down at the bar and got ourselves some seafood to go, when I got a call from the family that I was directed to before I left. As soon as we ate, we were off with them for frozen yogurt at a delicious little shop. We talked about the hurricane and everything that I wanted to see and do and visit.

The next day, I woke up ready to go. We had a quick stop by a coffee shop by Tulane while Katherine ran to a meeting. I wandered around the school, and stopped under this tree with an insane amount of Mardi Gras beads hanging off of it's branches. I think this is when I realized how important culture is to this city. It's not a "party" city, it dawned on me that this is a city that enjoys celebrating their mixing pot of culture and food. Tulane was a beautiful campus and I was told that it was not touched by flooding at all. We drove away from the old building structures and big rooted trees and started driving out from the city.

Very quickly, things turned empty. When I say this, I mean to say that buildings turned into shells with broken windows, and houses turned into shipwrecks.

I was amazed how much work had not been done to clean these things up. People lived next to this and walked past the black mold everyday. Sidewalks became covered with vines and weeds and there was so much abandonment. I learned after the trip, that many people didn't have the choice to come back. The amount of money and manpower that it takes to tear these things down is unrealistic.

We tried talking to some people working on a house about the storm, but I realized how difficult it was to start up a conversation with people. Hurricane Katrina, for many people is associated with a lot of hurt, loss and grief. And for going up to talk to complete strangers, many people's defenses go up immediately.

So we drove back through the city, winding through city roads and highways. We passed the Superdome, which if you watched the news when the Hurricane was happening, was the place where thousands of people lived in unbelievable conditions for an unbelievable amount of time. This was five years after the storm, and it was pretty symbolic for me to see the Superdome being resided and renewed. We made our way to City Park to check out some trees that I was told had lichen lines growing around them. The thought is that when the toxic water floated through City Park, it killed the lichen, which is now growing back in distinct rings around the trees there. We made small talk with a couple people, and my main question I was trying to answer was, "Why would you come back here?"
Not being from New Orleans, or not spending more than the past 12 hours there, I couldn't understand why people would come back to a bowl shaped city that could fill with water again any minute. No one could tell me a straight answer, all they could say is that New Orleans just had...a feeling to it.

We also chased pigeons through the park.

I was starting to panic a little because we hadn't talked to anyone that would let me photograph them, let alone talk in depth about the storm to a complete stranger. I felt really unprepared and discouraged, and I was starting to get pessimistic that I would be able to fulfill the requirements for this trip at all. To bring back 25 gallery images in only 2 full days in a new city seemed like an unrealistic expectation.

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