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.