Sunday, May 27, 2007

New Orleans adventures, part one.

So, recently I went to New Orleans with a volunteer crew from my school, the University of Mary Washington, to do work in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was an incredible, life-changing experience, to say the least. All of us who went on the trip left the city feeling that we really accomplished something. I’ll give you a blow-by-blow of the past week. Be warned, it’s incredibly long, since we were there for about 5 days. These are the first 2.

We left Fredericksburg around 5 PM. About 16 of us piled into 2 university vans and set out for a long, long, LONG 17-20 hour (I lost count after awhile) car ride.
One of my professors, Nabil Altikriti was the one who “organized” and led us on this trip. He’s a native of New Orleans, so he had a lot of knowledge and insight into the city.
The long, long van ride in itself was an experience. Luckily, my roommate, Anna, came with me on this trip. I didn’t know anyone else going in, but by the end of the trip, the 16 of us had gotten to know each other pretty well I think. We went through Virginia, down past Charlottesville, Roanoke, Blacksburg, and on into Tennessee. I lost track of things after that since I tried to get some sleep. But I do know we went through Tennessee and on through Alabama and Mississippi. I wish it had been light outside, because I didn’t really get to “see” Tennessee and Alabama. I tried to sleep in the van, since it was an insanely long ride. However, I have a hard time sleeping in cars, and especially on this trip since we had to stop every few hours to switch drivers and that just generally kept me quite awake. Also, the drivers tended to play loud music in order to keep themselves awake. So…yea. No sleep for Lindsey.

On the border of Mississippi and Alabama we got into an accident. One of our vans hit a small car as we were trying to merge onto a major road. Luckily no one was hurt and the damage was minimal but yea…it was interesting. It took forever for the police to show up so meanwhile most of us sat around and chilled on the highway. The two boys from our group, Peter and David, ran off to go pick honeysuckles. Some very manly men we had on this trip.
A couple hours after that we finally hit the state of Louisiana. We switched drivers every few hours on the trip. Al-Tikriti did a good deal of driving, but near the end of the trip, he was sitting next to me in the van, grading papers. I looked over and noticed that he was grading the final exams for my Arab-Israeli Conflict class. It was quite a horrifying moment. A few minutes later, he asked me if I had ever taken one of his classes. I answered that I had taken Islamic Civ a few years ago and Arab-Israeli this past semester. By the way, my Arab-Israeli class has somewhere between 25-30 students. Not that small but also not that big. And I sat at the front two. Four months of that and he only vaguely remembered that I might have taken a class with him at some point…wow. I asked, “So, those are our exams you’re grading?” and he replied, “Yup…don’t look.” Except he kept commenting on other peoples’ exams (such as angrily shouting, “Joe, you lazy ass!” while grading one of my classmates essays). And then as I was zoning out watching the bayou go by, he said, “Wow, you didn’t learn anything this semester, did you?” and I whipped around and asked, “Are you talking to me?” He said he wasn’t but…that was a horrible, freak-out moment. Awkward too. Having your professor grading your exam sitting right next to you, quite oblivious to it all.

Around 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, we finally arrived in New Orleans. We drove past New Orleans East and the neighborhood of Arabi and into the Lower Ninth Ward. Before we arrived, I still had this idea that New Orleans would look like the picture that I had always had in my mind of it. Namely, the whole French Quarter/Mardi Gras kind of thing. And I thought, since Hurricane Katrina happened almost 2 years ago, that the majority of things would be cleaned up. It was a huge eye-opener to drive through those neighborhoods and see just how much hadn’t been done and how much there was still left to do. I couldn’t believe it. Most houses were still in a state of disrepair and dilapidation, abandoned and falling apart. Most business and shops were closed and boarded up. You could tell it had been a pretty poor neighborhood before the hurricane and now it looked like a ghost town almost. The city itself was a huge transition from what I’m used to, living in a relatively well-off area in the Northern Virginia/DC area. Even the run-down parts of DC don’t look as run-down as a lot of New Orleans.
We stopped off at the HQ of the Common Ground Collective, the group we’d be working with. They’re a volunteer organization that’s dedicated to helping victims of Hurricane Katrina and rebuilding the buildings that were damaged. They’re a really good organization and they don’t have a lot of money to work with or a lot of resources available to them, but they do an incredible job with what they have.
A woman from Common Ground showed us around the neighborhood. Common Ground HQ is located right near where the levee breached, so she took us over there. It was quite interesting to see. Very surreal, in fact. Later on, she took us into one of the houses, where a bunch of drawings were tacked up onto the wall. A local artist wrote down stories from some of the survivors and did sketches of them. The group of us spent a few minutes looking at the drawings and reading the survivors accounts. Then we went outside where someone was cooking crawfish, so I got my first taste of crawfish. It still looked like it was alive too, with the legs and eyes and everything. Didn’t taste too bad though. They had a big bucket of live crawfish also sitting out. There were hundreds of the critters in the bucket, wiggling about and looking quite pathetic.
We all crawled back into the van – tired, sweaty, and hungry. Al-Tikriti dropped us off at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mona’s somewhere around Faubourg Marigny. It was really tasty. I got stuffed grape leaves and basmati rice and Anna and I split a chicken kabob. They had some of the best hummus I’ve ever had as well. I think it was nice just being able to sit for a while and stretch our legs and eat some decent food in a nice, air-conditioned building after the grueling car ride. Once we stepped outside, we were greeting by dozens of those ugly black bugs. I don’t know what their scientific name is – the locals we talked to just refer to them as “love bugs”. They looked like two bugs – connected at the butt or rear. I think it was their mating season. This is what they look like After that, while walking back to the vans, we stopped at a place called the Iron Rail. It was some sort of bookstore/lending library stuck in an old warehouse. It was really neat. I think it specialized in activist, radical, liberal kind of literature. And used records/cds.
Finally, we headed towards Carrollton United Methodist Church, where we’d be staying for the week. On route, Al-Tikriti took us through a good portion of the city. We drove briefly through the French Quarter and Uptown. The church is located in a pretty nice part of town, on Carrollton Avenue. After dumping our stuff, taking some much-needed showers, and setting up all the air mattresses, a couple of us went to Walgreen’s (of which there seem to be many in New Orleans) to buy some necessities like shampoo, soap, snacks, deodorant, etc. We walked along the river for awhile, before heading back to the church.
Al-Tikriti met up with us at the church along with a friend of his who teaches Women’s Studies at Tulane University. We headed to the French Quarter to have some “good times”. The professors dropped us off in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral and told us to meet back there at midnight. They also took note to advise us not to drink or at least not to drink too much. Al-Tikriti’s friend said, “You’re going to Jazzfest tomorrow, you need your energy, you don’t want to be hungover. Plus, there’s been problems in the bars with people slipping things in your drinks, so it’s just not a good idea.” Most of our group, except for Anna and myself and two other girls, were under 21 anyway. Anna and I thought we would find a decent place to share at least one nice girly drink, but we had no luck finding a bar that didn’t look too sketchy. Anyhoo, the group dispersed, onto our separate adventures.
Anna and I started along Decatur Street, walking up and down. I was a little bit disappointed at the fact that a lot of the block we were wandering along was very tourist-y. We wandered up one of the deserted-looking side-streets to get away from some of the hustle and bustle. After this we found some pretty interesting sights. Really cool houses and buildings and shop windows to peer through (though most were closed). I was feeling a little bit peckish at this point, so I convinced Anna that we should try and find the Verti-Marte, a deli/grocery store that I had heard good things about. Though I confess probably a big, dorky reason for me wanting to go there was because the place shares the name of one of my favorite Twilight Singers songs. All I knew was that it was on Royal Street and Royal Street turned out to be easy to find. While we were wandering there, a very drunk, shirtless man stopped us to ask where Bourbon Street was. This would be one of many encounters with drunken men and probably the least creepy.
We found the Verti-Marte easily enough where we encountered drunken man #2. He was standing outside the Verti-Marte, shoving macaroni and cheese into his mouth. There was a tour group nearby (I think they were doing one of those ghost walks) and he asked us, “Are you with those freaks?” We shook our heads. He continued to stuff himself full of macaroni and take swigs from a can of beer. “This shit is AMAZING!” he shouted at us. He looked quite raggedy and homeless. His eyes were very bloodshot and his hair was long and scraggly, along with his beard. The man just had a generally creepy vibe to him, so Anna and I ran inside the Verti-Marte.
Verti-Marte advertises itself as being “The Best Kept Secret in the French Quarter” and this proved to be true. In all aspects, the place doesn’t look like much. It looks like an average, slightly run-down deli with a small convenience store shoved in as well. Like a sketchier 7-11, almost. But the food. Wow, the food is amazing. Despite the small size of a place, we ran into a sizeable line of people, waiting for late-night snacks. Anna and I grabbed a menu and tried to decide what to get. The place has many options, as far as food goes. And everything is incredibly cheap and comes with at least 2 sides of whatever you want, pretty much. We decided to split a muffuletta sandwich, which is a VERY VERY large greasy sandwich which consists of ham, salami, mozzarella, mortadella, provolone and an olive salad on Italian bread. Everything is toasted and melted together in a deliciously greasy concoction. Apparently, to my disappointment, it’s hard to find this sandwich outside of New Orleans. It’s incredibly tasty, but also incredibly greasy and salty. Anna and I had trouble finishing it between the two of us, because it was just so large and flavorful. We also got a spinach artichoke dip, which was also quite tasty. We had a fun time talking to some of the other people, standing in line ordering their po-boys and sides of mac and cheese and fries and whatnot. There aren’t any tables or anything at the Verti-Marte, so we paid for our food and went to find an outdoor café-type thing to sit at. We found ourselves back on Decatur Street, sitting at a table outside and enjoying the pleasant night air.
Anna gets a call on her cell phone and I sense it’s gonna be a few minutes, so I go to call sometime. A very drunk man (Drunk Man #3) stumbles over to where we are sitting and looks at us incredulously.
“Whaaaaat? What is thiisss? You’re BOTH on your cell phones? Aren’t you guys supposed to be friends??”
Anna and I hang up our phones, a bit confused and frightened.
“You’re supposed to love each other!” he continues and then starts pounding on his chest. “THIS! This is all we have! This is love! I’m an executive chef and whenever one of my friends comes by, I say to my boss, I says, ‘Boss, I’m gonna gotta go talk to my friend now!’ And I do! Cuz that’s LOVE! Love each other! Now!”
We tried to reassure him that we did love each other and were good friends and all that. He didn’t seem to believe us though and ambled away. It was a very weird incident. We saw Al-Tikriti and his friend Angela a few moments later, sharing beers and cigarettes and they asked how we were doing. We did not tell them about the drunken man.
After that we wandered around all the side streets, taking in the atmosphere. We found ourselves on Bourbon Street, where there was, of course, much partying going on. In front of one bar, we spotted a man in a cowboy hat, and his pet pony. The pony was about the size of a golden retriever. And it was on a leash, like a dog. I think the guy said his pony’s name was Rudy. Anna asked if it was past pony bedtime (it was around 11:00 at this point) and the man laughed and said, “Almost!” We popped into the bar for a minute, only to be greeted by many shirtless men wearing cowboy hats. I have no idea if the fact that it was Cinco de Mayo had anything to do with the prevalence of cowboy hats that evening.
Across the street, we popped into the Marie Laveau House of Voodoo, which sold all manner of strange things for practicing voodoo (alligator claws, chicken feet, bits of hair, etc). It was a bit tourist-y but still pretty creepy.
Feeling all manner of sleepy at this point, from the lack of sleep the night before, Anna and I headed back to where we were supposed to meet our group, but not after passing by an old man playing the waterglasses - - and enjoying beignets at the Café Du Monde.
Meeting back up with everyone at midnight, as scheduled, our professor strolls up. He asks who’s driving back. We all go silent and look at each other dumbly because we kind of assumed that HE was going to drive, being the only one who knows his way around the city. I realize at this point that our professor must be a little bit tipsy. He hands his keys to one of the girls and we pile into our vans. Al-Tikriti tells us that we have to pick up Angela, his friend. He calls her up and she’s at a bar nearby. However, when we get to the bar, she is nowhere to be found. My professor lets out a stream of curses, JUMPS out of the van and yells at us to just go “park it somewhere”. Panic moment. We’ve just been quasi-abandoned by our professor. The light that we’re stopped at turns green, so we have no choice but to go. Of course, there is no where to park two huge vans, seeing as how we’re in the FRENCH QUARTER. We drive around in a little circle-cube kinda thing until we find our way back at the bar again. Al-Tikriti and Angela are there, waiting. Al-Tikriti gets into the front passenger seat and Angela yells at me to get out of mine. A little bit unnerving. And the journey back begins.
Al-Tikriti is giving the girl bad directions, while Angela contradicts and berates him, saying, “Why are you telling her to go that way? We should take this street, yadda yadda.” Oh, I should mention that this woman is pretty darn drunk. She’s making very little sense. She started telling us about how Nabil (our professor) was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for “skullduggery”. Which apparently means, “being a general nuisance”. And then she started yelling, “Naaaaabiiiiillllllll, take me home! NABIL! Take me home!” She kept yelling that even after he told her he was “taking the kids home first”. I kept staring at the other passengers in the car in a weird combination of horror and amusement. We all were pretty weirded out that we put our trust in the hands of these two drunken professor.
Somehow, miraculously, we made it back to the church. As we got out, Al-Tikriti told us that he was taking Angela home. Which makes so much sense, you know. He’s unable to drive back to the church, but he can take his friend home. Hopefully he was sober by then.

We had to get up early-ish, around 8:30. A group of Quakers was coming in at 9:30 for a meeting that was in the same room we were using to sleep in. Everyone got up and showered and breakfasted. Anna and I, along with a bunch of others, headed down to La Madeleine, a French café down the street from the church.
Al-Tikriti came and picked us up to get ready to go to Jazzfest. On the drive down, he gave us a quick tour of Magazine Street and Downtown. Then we ended up in what I think was the Garden District. We parked our vans in a really nice park by the art museum. It was quite a long walk from there to the New Orleans Fairgrounds, where Jazzfest was being held. We got to take in all the weird festivities on the walk up. The houses along the street up near Jazzfest were all decked out and partying. Many were selling beers, waters, cokes, and other beverages.
Once we got to Jazzfest, we bought our tickets and headed inside. It was steaming hot outside. I was sweating buckets. I knew already that I was going to get really sunburnt, no matter how much sunblock I put on.
Jazzfest is huge, by the way. HUGE. I have never seen such a large music festival. Jazzfest is meant to celebrate the music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana and there is a lot, a LOT to take in. There’s jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun music, rock music, folk music, bluegrass, just tons. It was incredible. Everyone had a great time. There are many stages for musicians and performers, some nationally known, some more local. I think the headliners on the day that we went (which was the last day of Jazzfest) were Steely Dan and Harry Connick Jr. Although I hadn’t heard of most of the people performing that day, I really wanted to see Taj Mahal, who is a really good legendary blues musician.
Anna and I walked around a lot, checking out some of the performers and generally people-watching. There was a lot of good, cheap food. We had some chicken tasso over Cajun Rice, and some Po’boys. We checked out a lot of the crafts booths. There were some really good local artists there. There’s really too much to describe, and we were there all day, from 11 AM to about 7 that night, so most of the pictures I took will do a better job than I can of describing the scene. I loved, loved LOVED all the music. My favorite part was at one of the smaller stages, I think it was called the Fais Do Do. They featured local Cajun music for the most part. We saw a band (whose name escapes me) but they had an accordian and some guy playing the washboard, so I liked them a lot. Everyone around was dancing and doing jigs, it was a lot of fun to watch.
Taj Mahal’s set was started soon, so Anna and I headed off towards the big blues stage. We had a big of time to kill, we we checked out some of the gospel music and got strawberry daquiris. Although we got to the blues tent early, it was pretty packed and we had to cram in to find some standing room. Taj Mahal’s set was great, and I ended up buying one of his cds. He also has that weird, deep, gravelly, blues-man kind of voice, if you know what I mean. He played guitar and piano, for the most part, but near the end of his set, got out a banjo, saying, “You bougeosie best go home now, ‘cuz I’m bringing out the banjo!”
His set was one of the last of the evening, so after that Anna and I had to meet up with the rest of the group to head home. We also met up with one of our other professors, Brady Earnhart (who both of us had had for a creative writing class) and a friend of his who had also come to New Orleans to see Jazzfest. Then we made the very long trek back to the vans. On the way there, we stopped at “Shellfest”, which was a party held at a Shell gas station. There was a DJ and many people dancing and a fountain that was spraying water (which was quite refreshing, after being out in the hot hot sun all day). On the way back, we stopped at a Winn Dixie for groceries and then went back to the hotel and crashed for the night. Tomorrow, we would begin our first day of work.

1 comment:

chris said...

that drunken man #2 could easily have been my friend jim