Saturday, January 12, 2013

24 Hours in NOLA

Fog and Clarity in NOLA

What can you do in 24 hours?
I arrived to NOLA, that’s Nawlins, New Orleans, the thriving, or rather struggling, hub of the Deep South.
Recent movies come to mind:  The Mist, The Fog, Les Miserables.  The first is a horror film about this powerful fog that captures lives and eliminates them for just breathing in a bit of the moist air.  The latter, an obvious success in current. box offices.  This is the film I saw just before I left for the Pilgrimage with some roommates.  This is the musical I studied as a freshman in high school, “singing the songs of angry men” in Choral Club.  This is the country I have always dreamt of going to visit, really “On My Own.”

January 9, 2013 and its weather combined the correlating theatrical themes.  Caution for the unknown.  NOLA really came to the forefront of my mind as of 2005 and its notorious storm.  I anticipated seeing the destruction, encountering poverty, and interacting with a different kind of people.  The dense evening fog brought these feelings to another level.  “Use the buddy system.”  “Make sure you don’t go out alone, especially in New Orleans.”  Just breathe it in a moment too long, and you’re gone.
I walked with hesitation, looking for the old bricks beneath my feet and the oil streetlamps breaking through the dense fog about ten strides ahead.  I walked across Decatur Ave, past Café du Monde, toward the sidewalk along the Mississippi.  I climbed the stairs, crossed the trolley tracks, and saw a frosty, moist gray.  Something I knew was right there, so big and grand, I could not see.  But my friends told me it was, and I believed in the beauty I was missing through the fog.
Cue dinner with friends: two small tapas of jumbalaya and red beans and rice.  Signal beignets, powdered sugar, and the checkered white and green tile floors of the café.  Zig zag through the streets, head down Bourbon Street past the all the culture that truly is Bourbon Street.

Beignets at Cafe du Monde
Waking up the next morning—bus tour of the city.
Colors and creativity.  Creole, the new people of the area.  Creole, the many definitions and understandings our guide explained as we bumped along through the rugged streets of their neighborhoods.  Their belief?  Why paint a house white when you could paint it beautiful colors?
The 9th Ward, heavily hit and beaten by Katrina, was an entirely different image.  Our weather forecast was 100% chance of rain, and man, did it rain.  The rainwater poured off the tangled, elevated freeways.  It dripped from the emergency exit in the roof of our bus, onto the girl sitting right next to me.  Avoiding each drop, she inched closer into my seat and my space, forcing me closer to the window to look what was on the other side of the foggy bus window. 
This massive area was crowded, drab, and the complete opposite of manicured.  Now, besides Selma, Alabama, I don’t think I’ve experienced poverty in such a way.  NOLA 9th Ward is a different story.  There were no yards, which is the case in about any city.  All that is fine and good, but these shotgun houses, faded from vibrant paint, with railings on some stoops rusted 5 feet high, with black evaluation marks on the front door, demonstrated a new perspective of life.
Thank God for hope and for change.  We visited the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music right in the middle of this community.  This neighborhood consists of all new homes, built by volunteers, funded by celebrities and donors, and re-birthed with a purpose of support and prosperity.  At the middle was this beautiful, blue educational center, allowing about 50 students per semester to come and study music.
These students only have to pay $30 for a semester’s worth of lessons here.  That’s equivalent to a cheap music practice book.  This fee includes lessons, instruction, instrument, classes, etc.  The rest comes from donations, and as one of the center’s administrators recognized, the power of giving is real.  Most donors will never even see the change and impact that they’ve been a part of at that center.  Coming from a family with my mom as an elementary teacher, sister as a K-2 music teacher, and a dad who could listen to jazz albums and records all day long, this stop was a beautiful, pleasant surprise.  These educators are qualified, passionate, focused on health, wellness, innovation, success, and equality.  If this sparks of any interest to you, please, please, please check out their website to leave your own impact.
The rest of the afternoon included soggy feet, art galleries, cafés, markets, rain, my Canon, and sharing travel stories with my former Journalism professor, her daughter, and a classmate studying English from Mexico.  The evening included dinner at an oyster bar (definitely not eating oysters, but other Cajun delicacies) and a night on Frenchmen Street listening to some hearty, swinging jazz in a lounge. 
The best part of my day was simply the fact that nothing really went as expected.
This trip, I did not come with my best friend, a roommate, a teammate, or a boyfriend.  I have come instead with a few things:  an addiction to travel, a passion for learning, an open mind, and goals of intentionality in growth, progress, and reflection.  I have been able to bond more with my acquaintances.  This has come from divine conversations, eye contact, an inclined ear, and willingness to stray from any agendas.  I had plans yesterday to go to the WWII museum with some friends.  Instead, miscommunication led me to a different group, with whom I enjoyed a lovely afternoon of strolling around, gawking at art, and casual conversation.  These plans changed my dinner plans, and I ended up eating late with an inspiring underclassmen, processing through his identity and planning out his future, heavily involved in our college and surrounding community. 
I am learning more and more that no matter where I go, there will be people.  Those people are different.  Those people are beautiful.  The ones before will always be important, and when the time comes to reconnect, it may happen, and it will be extraordinary. 
But the unknown, the fog will not scare me.  I know that the big Mississippi is before me.  I am having one hell of a time trying to see it.  I certainly can’t see the other side, as I can’t even see the beginning of the bank right at my feet.  But I know it’s just ahead.  I know that it’s beautiful.  It started at something so small, miles and miles North, back home.  In NOLA, it’s something a little different.
Come May 18th, when I graduate, you better believe it’s going to be different.  But there is promise.  There are people to meet, work to do, friends to make, and change to be done.  There is change to be done, and I’m going to be a part of it.
That was 24 hours in NOLA.
Karen Hansen
Senior at UW-Eau Claire

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