Leaving Port-au-Prince.

We left Port-au-Prince three weeks ago for the southern coastal town of Jacmel, where we’ve rented a little white bungalow with a huge green garden on the beach. We can’t actually see the beach over the security wall, mind, unless we’re standing on the roof of the house, but the sound of the crashing surf reassures us it’s there. We have a little gazebo in our huge green garden, to which we retire at the end of each work day to play cribbage and drink rum and watch the sun set. We have trees that drop heavy things from great heights—almonds, mangos, coconuts, some kind of unidentifiable and terribly ugly fruit. We have bougainvillea and poinsettia. We have lizards and roosters and sometimes a dog that likes to sleep in our doorway. Once, we heard a pig snuffling up against the gate.

We came to Jacmel for a bit of peace, a bit of distance from the relentless PaP. We came so Brett could draw, and I could write.

For the first week, we mostly slept and read and floated in a long, skinny pool amidst the ruins of what once must have been a very grand Jacmellian home. I listened to tape, made notes. At night, we talked stories, edited pictures. And after a month without, I started writing again, first overdue hellos to friends and family, then pitches, bits of scripts, and finally this post.

I had stalled mid-way through my last post. We’d been invited to a party at one of the big NGO compounds, a sprawling property with a couple of massive houses—maybe 6,000 square feet each—and a twinkling garden that easily accommodated the 70-or-so of us that had showed for dinner (prepared by an in-house army of Haitian women) and dancing. At the time, nine aid workers were living there. Nine.

That night marked the beginning of a series of surreal encounters with the ex-pat community in Port-au-Prince. There were well-heeled artisan bazaars and Christmas parties and beach resort days. There were MONGOs (My Own NGOs) and missionaries, aid workers and medical teams, diplomats and developers, adoptive families and business opportunists, Hollywood stars and fashion designers. There were evangelists and drunks and slightly maniacal teetotallers who had come to Haiti because they had “love to share,” because they were certain they could save the “wild-eyed and desperate.” And there were architects and journalists. Us.

At some point, I began to feel as though we were living in the pages of a Graham Greene novel. And every time I sat down to write, I had no idea where to begin. I realized I’d need a book to unpack it all.

Many people have written eloquently and convincingly about the unwieldy behemoth that is the aid industry in Haiti—particularly in these last weeks leading up to today’s grim anniversary. So for now, I’ll leave that to them, and the parties and ex-pat archetypes to Greene.

Instead, I offer Five Weeks of Haiti From the Back of Ambulances and Pick-up Trucks:

Week 1: Port-au-Prince, Petionville, the coast running north from the capital. Brett makes a deal with the owner of our guesthouse: design services for room and board. The main house had collapsed in the earthquake, killing five. They need a new one. Thus begins our whirlwind tour of Haitian guesthouse, hotel, and resort architecture, much of which is very beautiful in its ironwork detailing and overgrown bougainvillea. Most have lolling resident dogs and remnants of at least one collapsed structure—usually half a wall or an exposed tile floor. Meanwhile, my work continues, but more on that in a later post.

Week 2: Port-au-Prince, Petionville, Croix des Bouquets. We meet a fabulous Canadian, whose family has been working in agriculture in Haiti for nearly 30 years. She gives us books to read and introduces us to Haitian artists, woodworkers, fashion designers, diplomats, ex-pat elders, the Colony Club English Lending Library. She shows me a thing or two about bargaining for iron art in Croix des Bouquets, where she buys half a dozen mirrors, dozens of trees and angels, a pair of flamingos. Somehow, I end up with 10 bracelets. On the way home, we have a good laugh at a recent addition to collections of Haitian folk art for sale by the side of the road:  wooden carvings of the much-reviled MINUSTAH soldiers.

Week 3: Fonbatis, Delice, Saint Marc. We pile into an ambulance with our fabulous Canadian, an American contractor, four Mennonite missionaries, and a couple of Haitian agronomists, and head for rural Haiti. The mountain switchback roads are wild—narrow and rocky (or bouldery, if that’s a word) and offer breathtaking views out to the sea, down into the valleys. We pass donkeys and naked children and motorcycles four passengers deep. Sometimes, LeGrand has to climb out, remove boulders the ambulance can’t clear. We’re happy to be squeezed in for the ride, as the less space there is between us, the less likely we are to be injured. We meet representatives from six agricultural co-ops who have come together to agree to construction terms for seven new silos. We meet peanut farmers at harvest. We visit a sugarcane mill where molasses is made. We walk an irrigation project in the gorgeous Artibonite valley, where we see the lushest farms. There, I ask a man if he ever worries about theft, of his crop, of his tools. He tells me that we are in the Artibonite, where zombis are made. Only the stupid steal here. We get stuck in a mudhole, though it hasn’t rained for weeks. A woman doing her laundry in the river holds my hand while I ford it, hopping from wet rock to wet rock. We are chased by laughing boys. We are left after nightfall in a restaurant in Kabaret, formerly Duvalierville. After two days travelling these roads, I am at least half an inch shorter, but happy for the beer and goat in front of me.

Week 4: Jacmel. We’re dropped at the bus station in Port-au-Prince. It is utterly bonkers, people, motos, buses, tap-taps, vans, loud music, vendors everywhere. We negotiate the backseat of a van for ourselves and our bags. The trip is three hours, again over switchbacking mountain roads, and  I concentrate very hard on keeping my breakfast down. In Jacmel, we hand our bags through the window to a moto taxi driver. At the hotel, we have our first argument over fare. We attract a good crowd, but prevail.

Week 5: Jacmel, Cayes Jacmel. After a week of holiday lazing about and clearing the Port-au-Prince air from our lungs, we begin to make friends—artists and musicians and filmmakers. It’s impossible not to, Jacmel is so friendly. A 10-year-old painter asks me for my number, so that we can “talk art.” I give it to him. We visit an AFH project up in the hills beyond Cayes Jacmel, a free school for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to education. I fall instantly in love with the school’s tireless headmistress, Madame Vieux. We meet Prince Luc at the arts collective FOSAJ and he tells us of his vision for arts education in Haiti while showing us the work of his students. We eat lobster on the beach. We wander the city streets at night, and when the moon is full, sit on our back stoop and watch the light reflect off the palms. We listen to the surf, and on weekends to whichever bands are playing next door at the beach club. One night, we stumble on group of horn players jamming in the ruins of a tennis club. I cannot get enough of the ruins, the Miss Havisham-ness of Jacmellian architecture. We cannot believe we stayed in Port-au-Prince as long as we did.

But you know what they say about all good things.

Tomorrow we head back to the capital, where on Monday Brett starts two months with Architecture For Humanity. I’ll go up with him in the morning, to check in on a few sources, meet with some local journalists, and pick up a case of bug juice before I return to Jacmel for a week on my own, while Brett settles into his new gig, and our new digs.

I’ll miss the freedom we have here, the ease with which we’re able to get around. I’ll miss having a kitchen. But that’s for another post.

On to the next chapter.

Freelancing in Haiti: the logistics.

It’s been a restorative week.

Mostly we’ve been catching up on sleep and conversations about what happens next—which interviews to chase, which outlets to pitch which stories, which communities to visit next, which architects to work with, which city to settle in. And I’ve been listening to tape. Hours and hours and hours of it.

Looking back now on those mad months before our departure, I’m a bit stunned by how remarkably little time I spent thinking about the logistics of being a foreign—and freelance—journalist in Haiti.

I wasn’t prepared for how exhausted I’d be at the end of each day, how little energy I’d have for editing and writing and getting pitches out. (And yes, posting the promised pictures and video and audio.) But then, I wasn’t prepared for a lot of things.

For one, operating out of Port-au-Prince can be incredibly expensive, even prohibitively so without the backing of a big organization. Unsurprisingly, accommodation has been the most difficult to secure—a simple, furnished room with water and power, and central enough to get around by foot or tap-tap in decent-ish time, is hard to come by, and as likely as not to cost upwards of five times our monthly mortgage rate.

The city’s expansive too, its streets always, always jammed with traffic. It takes a long time to get anywhere. The sun sets early, and it’s not always a good idea to be wandering around after dark (the lack of electricity means navigating the sidewalks can be a great adventure, nevermind the high probability that I will turn left instead of right and promptly lose my way). So unless we’ve got a car and driver, our days in the field are necessarily short. And at 150 US bucks a day, we won’t often have a car and driver.

Then there’s the pre-production—the research, the pre-interviewing… the work I usually do from home. In Haiti, I’m learning, this is all best done in the field. Emails often go unanswered. Phone calls can be confusing (for me, at least, still learning to communicate in the local languages without the help of a fixer) and usually end with the suggestion to ring when we’re in the neighbourhood and ready to meet. “M’ pa gen pwoblem—I have no problem,” they say. Just show up and we’ll talk.

But just showing up can present its own set of challenges. There is, understandably, a lot blan fatigue and mistrust. We are often asked what our intentions are, what we plan on doing with the stories we’re entrusted with, how we will give back to the community we are taking from. We’re told again and again how weary people are of aid workers and foreign journalists parading through their communities, taking pictures, asking a few questions, and piling back into their SUVs, never to be seen or heard from again.

It can be difficult, that first hour, navigating a way in through all the expectations and emotions—both those of the people we’re meeting and our own. We’ve learned to stay as long as we can that first visit, to listen closely to what we’re told, and to be careful with what we promise. If we say we will visit again, we must.

Of course, this is the luxury we’re afforded as freelancers. We’re in Haiti on our own, and for many months. We have the privilege of time to build relationships, to earn trust, to follow the story of a community over a long stretch… and to meditate on that question of what our intentions are, of how we will give back.

We expected this. But perhaps we didn’t expect to struggle as much as we have been with where we fit in the muddy ethical landscape our respective industries occupy here. And the reality of our financial situation may complicate things further: we’ll soon be chasing commissions.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many local journalists these last few weeks. Veteran or rookie, they have all told me the same thing: they need more training, better tools—the proper resources to ensure the freedom of press to tell their own stories. Sometime in the next couple of days, I will sit down with Claude Gilles, director of the local chapter of Reporters Sans Frontieres. I hope there’s something we’ll be able to do together—maybe a project that can make use of my past life as a producer of conversations between journalists about the issues we come up against in the course of our business.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to more conversations with the people we’ve come to know, and the people we hope to. And maybe one of these weeks I’ll  figure out how to take advantage of these long nights, to listen to the day’s tape, to write, to edit, and to get some damn pictures up already.

The air we breathe.

It’s humid tonight in Port-au-Prince, the air thick and soft and still. For the first time in two weeks, I can’t taste the dust. It smells sweet, stormy.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the way this city smells. This afternoon the scent of something nutty roasting on an open flame carried me years back to Italy, and a perfect winter’s night I spent eating my way through a chestnut festival in a tiny village in the hills below Monte Amiata.

This was followed closely by the stench of rotting vegetables. And then a couple of goats wandered by, and a rooster, kicking up dust, tamping the rot.

PaP is a constant assault on the senses. I love that in the early hours of the morning, the sky is a dreamy diffused pink, the sun rising through the embers of the night’s fires. The air is coolish then, and it smells almost as if the ocean is as nearby as it actually is.

By mid-morning, the pink has given way to the dust and the diesel, and the markets—which occupy every major (and many minor) intersection in the city—are heaving, men and women and children tending turtles, making sausages, butchering goat, grilling chicken and other meats I still haven’t learned to recognize on charcoal-fired drums.

There’s slop too—a lot of it—the rotting foodstuffs carried away on streamlets of raw sewage, picking up bits of rubbish en route to the nearest open sewer or sidewalk dump.

At night it’s the smoke from the fires—for cooking, for gathering, for clearing the piles of rubbish. Here in Delmas 19, it’s usually for burning plastic, the fumes so acrid we’re often driven to our room long before bedtime. And at a community event last week in Cite Mericain, we stood in the dark watching short films and kids dancing, and it was cigarettes and garlic and bug juice and a joint, of all things.

I have tasted all of it, my lungs heavier than they’ve been in a long while.

The air is thick with gorgeous sound too. Haiti is a cacophonous country, a radio producer’s dream… if you can get away from the generators. Even the language is evocative, onomatopoeic, the earthquake called not the earthquake, but Goudou Goudou.

There are the roosters, always, and trucks tapping through the streets, honking, stalling, coughing to life. There are the sounds of reconstruction, of rubble being crushed one rock at a time for reuse, of concrete blocks being formed, of cement being pargeted, of water being sprayed to keep the dust down, of rebar being dragged behind a motorcycle taxi.

There is music everywhere, people singing together in tap-taps, or alone, along with a song only they can hear. Private water trucks play canned jack-in-a-box tunes through loudspeakers tied to the roof—Haiti’s version of our ice cream trucks. Everything is a drum. Lunchtime conversation is shouted over blaring hip-hop, konpa, hymnals. And such conversation there is, a babel of Kreyol, French, English, Spanish.

In Croix-des-Bouquets, a village famous for its iron art, the maddening sound of metal being hammered carries from the yards of dozens of ateliers for miles. I was happy to spend my time there interviewing artists—an excuse for using a directional mic, and wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

And in the fishing village of Luly, the peaceful sound of the sea at dusk, fishermen mending nets, boatbuilders making small repairs, quiet conversation around the fire and the buckets of fresh fish.

At night, I sleep with earplugs, not because the city makes such noise, but because the fans do.

This week we hope to move up the mountain above Petionville to Thomassin 25, where the air is clearer, cooler, quieter. I wonder if we’ll be as happy up there as we have been down here.

The days in Port au Prince, how they melt away.

It’s been a dizzying first week in Haiti.

We landed as the sun was setting over Port au Prince on Monday. We forgot to take pictures, it was so riveting, the city spilling down the mountains into the ocean, the dust, the concrete, the tents spreading out seemingly forever.

And now suddenly it’s Sunday, and we’re on our own for the first time, our wonderful fixer Emmanuel Midi having given us the day to sleep late, reflect on the last many days, and look forward to the months ahead.

I’ve been trying to work out how to organize this blog so as not to bore you all with long-winded posts. In the meantime, we’ve had a bit of a week.

We’ve spent much of it learning how to navigate PaP’s insane traffic. As a pedestrian I’ve been unsure of which is more dangerous—looking down to avoid falling into an open sewer, or looking up to avoid being run over by a motorcycle screaming by, three, sometimes four, people deep. As a passenger in the backseat of jeeps careening wildly through the city’s broken streets, I’ve stopped being surprised by the number of blow-outs and broken axels we’ve seen. And as a lover of public transportation—which in Haiti is largely an unregulated fleet of battered, brightly coloured, pickup trucks called tap-taps—I’ve discovered my nirvana.

We’ve found local numbers, maps (extremely rare, apparently), rum, an already-favourite restaurant, two excellent lunch spots—both, oddly, in nightclubs. We’ve traded a mosquito-infested shower for a pipe spouting blessedly cool water over bright pink tiles at the guesthouse. We’ve been through our first rent-term negotiation (not at all like it sounds), our first lightning and rainstorm. We’ve visited markets and museums, and come unexpectedly upon the crumpled National Palace, the Champs de Mars tent camp for the displaced, Cite Soleil.

We met a young PaP-ian with dreams of reforesting his city, one seed at a time. We met fishermen, netmakers, boatbuilders, banana farmers in Luly, a fishing village north of PaP. We met Haitian journalists at Reporters Sans Frontieres, where we talked press freedom here and in Canada, and made plans to meet again, and consider what projects we might do together. We met students and teachers and volunteers and journalists-in-training at FAD, a free school for at-risk kids founded and run by a team of remarkable young Haitian men who believe the future of their country is in the education of its children—children who find us weird, amusing, huggable.

And we met with Architecture For Humanity and MASS Design. AFH Haiti staff is huge (35), MASS tiny (two). Both are wonderfully open to having me nose into their business over the next many months, and to introduce us to whomever they can. I suspect that soon I will be buying rum off the street on my own, having lost Brett to design work.

I’ve been surprised by many things. The dust, for one. There’s a Haitian saying that I’m certain to mangle, but that goes something like: Even when it pours with rain and you’re watching your feet to avoid stepping in the mud, the wind blows dust in your eyes.

Then there’s the way the city smells during the day, not so different from my own east Vancouver neighbourhood and its alleyways.

Earlier this week, Brett and I sat on the roof of our temporary home and watched the traffic below. It was early, maybe 7. I could hardly understand how in such a massive city, I could look up, and see the stars, how I could look around, and see nothing but headlights, the odd porch light, a fire. The next night, we sat in traffic (always, always traffic) on a major city road that happens to run through PaP’s largest slum, Cite Soleil. Beyond the road it was dark, so dark, the market stalls lit only by candles, schoolchildren in uniform walking home by the light of passing vehicles, and bonfires of rubbish. There was such a crush of people, on foot, on motorcycle, even on bicycle, emerging from and disappearing into that impenetrable darkness, and we could barely breath for all the dust and the exhaust and the smoke.

More than anything, I’ve been surprised by how comfortable we are here.

This coming week will be as intoxicating as the last. We’ll be looking for a more permanent place to lay our heads for the next months, meeting with ever more architects and engineers and designers, taking our first non-Pimsleur Kreole lessons with our new tutor, and learning to make our way around (and me to find my own stories) without the help of Emmanuel, whom we lose on Friday.

Already, our French has improved a thousand fold. We’ve made a friend in André, a French Canadian filmmaker who’s been coming to Haiti for many years, and is here now to make a film about unions. He’s been so generous, as has everyone we’ve met, in sharing his love of the country, and what information and contacts he thinks may be useful for us. And I’m getting used again to just ringing people up, as is the way here.

This week, I’ll upload pictures, videos, and shorter posts.

Bear with me. I’m new to all of this.

 

 

Looking back on NOLA from PAP.

Bonswa from Port au Prince!

Drinking in our first full, chaotic day in Haiti over a coldish beer on a very hot night. There’s a boisterous church group from West Virginia here at the guesthouse, in town for a few days to help build a school. It’s hard to process all that we experienced today, surrounded as we are by such joyful, good-intentioned conversation.

So I’ll save the processing for tomorrow. (I am very good at procrastinating.)

Instead, I’ll look back on our time in New Orleans by paying an homage of sorts to my dear friend Amy Jones, whose own blog is devoted to making lists—a practice I would like to believe she perfected when we travelled through eastern Europe together many, many years ago. At the end of every day, Ames would write (in spectacularly tiny handwriting, if my memory serves…which it very well may not) a blow-by-blow account of our misadventures. I dearly wish she were here now, making lists over my shoulder, reminding me to remember everything.

Twelve things we learned over 10 days in New Orleans:

1. NOLA bureaucracy makes reconstruction—particularly in historic districts—a very frustrating, if not impossible, thing. One architect we spoke with has yet to work on a project that didn’t involve greasing palms and breaking rules.

2. There is a parking lot full of abandoned cop cars.

3. Chef John Besh’s Lüke has my kind of happy hour. From 3-6 every day, delicious Gulf oysters are only 50 cents apiece, and all cocktails and wine half price. Best place to enjoy them is at the bar, where the shucker has a generous idea of what a dozen is; the bartenders like mixing the perfect drink so much they’re known to bring their own bottles to work; and you’re as likely to talk race politics with Clark Johnson as you are to share Haiti contacts with a producer for ABC News.

4. Bicycle tires are wide for a reason. You could disappear into those potholes.

5. According to Chef Will, New Orleans has one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the US. He was horrified when I told him that I assumed it was fine to drink from the tap.

6. According to Clark Johnson, Wendell Pierce fakes playing the trombone on Treme, the HBO series that has renewed my love for that instrument. But we understand he’s taking lessons. He’s also done a lot to help with post-Katrina reconstruction.

7. A particularly bucolic stretch of land along the river—perfect for bicycle-riding, picnicking, and napping in the arms of a lover—has been refurbished, but is closed to the public because the parish can’t afford to police it.

8. Many houses still bear their Katrina markings. (There’s a fascinating online “x-code” exhibition here.) In the areas hardest hit, I felt disoriented by the odd gap-toothed-ness of the landscape. Some owners have rebuilt above the high-water flood mark. Some have rebuilt to the height required by insurance companies. Others simply fixed up what was there, insurers be damned. In the Lower 9, many houses were sheared clear off their foundations. There are steps that lead nowhere, weeds growing in fields of concrete where houses once stood. And there are many abandoned houses, still standing, but gutted, moldering, weeds growing through their roofs. Without density—and the taxes that come with density—it’s difficult to imagine how some neighbourhoods will look in five, 10 years.

9. It is very difficult to avoid malls when one is looking for last-minute Haiti supplies. And avoiding malls is exactly what one should be doing in New Orleans.

10. Kermit Ruffins has been playing a late-night gig at Vaughan’s in the Bywater every Thursday for nearly 20 years. The night we saw him play, most everyone laughed when he announced that he’s retiring from late-night shows, and that as of December 1, the Vaughan’s shows would be underway by 7. Turns out he’s serious.

11. “Neutral ground” means median. There are many neutral grounds in NOLA.

12. Brett kept confusing people by asking which way was north. Directions are best understood as upriver or downriver, lakeside or westside (which is, of course, not west at all), and the like.

We had a spectacular time in New Orleans. But I was ill-prepared to do any kind of real reporting for this project in Louisiana, despite the willingness of people—Katrina-fatigued though they may have been—to answer our many questions. We had simply run out of time in Vancouver, and were exhausted when we landed.

It seems a planet away now that we’re in Haiti, first interviews already in the can. But we’re making plans to return in the spring. There’s still so much to see, so many conversations to be had, so much delicious food to eat.

A bientot.

What to pack for five months in the field.

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning (and Saints day, I understand) in New Orleans—the last of our mornings here. Brett is out running the cracked sidewalks, leaving me to edit video and sound of our time here. But I haven’t the patience to navigate editing software right now, so instead will nerdily talk gear.

We had a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues about what to pack for Haiti. Though my documentaries will be for radio, we wanted a good camera for shooting both stills and HD video. I wanted a more muscular recorder than the Zoom I’ve been using these last couple of years, and a warmer microphone to go with it. We wanted a mic that would also work with the camera, a variety lenses, a lightweight but sturdy tripod. We needed storage, phones, batteries, solar chargers, adaptors, every kind of cable you could possibly imagine, waterproof and shockproof bags, a featherweight computer, notebooks, pens.

I began to miss the days when I worked in print, and print alone.

On the advice of several friends, and our own long experience with the brand’s cameras and lenses, we settled on the Nikon D7000. I invested in a Marantz PMD661, and a Shure omnidirectional mic. Both are sturdy, intuitive to use, and make beautiful sound. I packed my Zoom as a back-up as well, and an external mic that will work with both it and the camera. And we threw in a small arsenal of unlocked phones that take decent pictures, and mini mics to go with them should it come to that.

But of course, gear is gear is gear. It’s the storytelling that really matters. And for that, I’ve packed everything I’ve learned over the years from my many mentors and colleagues. (I’m particularly indebted to the faculty over at the UBC School of Journalism—which, incidentally, is administering the award I’m now travelling on—and to the producers who have so generously taken the time to work with me at CBC’s The Sunday Edition.)

Our bags are surprisingly light, and will only get lighter as we run through our supplies—the batteries, the anti-malarials, the oregano oil, the water purifiers, the contact lenses.

And if a friend on the ground in Haiti is to be believed, my bag may very well be relieved of my bras as we travel through customs tomorrow. I suppose every little bit of extra space counts, non?

Finally, I’d like it to be on the record that Brett packed more pairs of shoes than I did.

And so, ever-so-softly, the adventure begins.

I started this post 15 months ago. Back then, Brett and I were making plans to spend five weeks in Haiti as part of my thesis field work, before an outbreak of cholera and political unrest convinced us to put the trip off. We reluctantly abandoned our tickets, and with them, our blogs.

It seems impossible so much time has passed since then. I turned from Haiti to my own neighbourhood, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and the impact of humanitarian architecture there, for my thesis. It was a wonderful, challenging year. And through it, I continued to think about Haiti, and the documentaries I had hoped to make there.

Then in May, I won an IDRC grant that would fund five months of documentary-making in Haiti. And so Brett and I began building plans again. It was a welcome—and at times overwhelming—distraction from the chaos of finishing thesis and renovating our Vancouver home.

A week ago today, we shut the door on our loft, and boarded a train for Seattle. We spent a beautiful autumn day there, walking through the city, and a field of Richard Serra’s magnificent Korten steel sculptures. We had lunch at Cafe Campagne, where I uttered these unlikely words: “Good lord, this butter is delicious.” I can still taste it.

That night, we caught the red-eye to New Orleans, where we’ve been since. We spent a wonderful first weekend at Maison de Macarty, a grand Victorian mansion in the Bywater. Chef Will spoiled us with fabulous three-course breakfasts every morning, before he and his lovely co-host Loren sent us off with a long list of must-try restaurants and diners and cafes. (For years, Will had a chocolate shop in Denver. Learn how to make his ganache here.)

We also met the artist Robert Hite at the Maison. A sculpture, painter, and photographer, Robert’s beautiful work has explored issues around architecture and human rights. We had a lot to talk about.

Between breakfasts and conversations, we walked the levees and the Quarter, and took in Bywater’s annual Mirliton Festival, a celebration of a squash-like veg. Local restaurants offered up dishes of shrimp-stuffed mirliton, mirliton and crawfish bisque, and mirliton gumbo. New Orleans blues guitar legends Little Freddie King and Guitar Lightnin’ Lee took the stage together for the first time in almost 40 years. Neighbourhood favourite (and Treme regular) Kermit Ruffins closed the day with a swinging set that included, bizarrely, a cover of the Black-Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling, and a lot of howling “we be partyiiiiiiiin’!!”

From the Maison, we moved a few blocks to a 200-year-old shotgun on Royal Street, where we’ve been sprawled out in comfort (thanks to hosts Susan and David Korec) since.

We’ve eaten extraordinarily well. Piles of BBQ at The Joint, outrageous pork loin out of a truck at Bacchanal, po-boys at Liuzza’s By The Track and the Parkway Bakery on the Bayou, and fresh oysters, wherever we could find them. There have been cocktails too, of course, and so much music.

And through it all, there have been last-minute supply shops and post-Katrina reconstruction conversations ahead of Haiti. We’ve talked with residents and architects and humanitarian workers. We’ve been to see Brad Pitt’s projects in the Lower 9. We’ve driven through east New Orleans, and taken our bicycles through City Park, with its odd abandoned golf course, up to where the 17th Street Canal levee was breached. Today we ride to Gentilly and Pontchartrain Park.

We’ve been surprised and moved by much of what we’ve seen and learned. And we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of New Orleanians. This is the friendliest town I’ve ever visited. And I come from the Maritimes.

We leave New Orleans for Port au Prince before first light on Monday. We’ll be sorry to go so soon, but a project in the spring with writers Joseph and Amanda Boyden may just bring us back. And in the meantime, we’ll be in Haiti.

And what a great adventure that will be.

Thank you for checking in on us over the next many months. Please send news of your own, and title suggestions for this blog—which I promise will start to look better in the coming weeks, with pictures and video and sound.