Wednesday 25 February 2009

Habitat for Humanity: Giving Back to New Orleans

6:15AM wakeup call for Habitat for Humanity! If one truly wants to experience New Orleans, one needs to understand the after effects of Hurricane Katrina. Albeit the fact that it is impossible to empathize with the tragedy experienced, the attempt must be made. Thus, for us, the best way to try to understand would be to participate in the rebuilding of the city.

Chad and Susy came with us to Musician's Village. This area was created after the Hurricane to bring musicians back to Nola. The idea was created by natives Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis to make sure music, the heart of New Orleans, would be kept alive. Thus, displaced musicians and their families can live in this area that will serve as a place for teaching and preserving music.

Musician's Village; rebuilding New Orleans

The area was flooded over five fee high, so as one can imagine, the foundations were extremely tall! The four of us worked with Angie, an 18-year-old Americorps member who decided to spend a gap year helping others. Amazing!

As the foundation serves as the most important part of any construction, we double checked to make sure nails laid where they were supposed to. Second, we actually went under the foundation to push up and fix any nails that weren't attached to boards. It was hard work and somehow each time I struggled would be the same time that the cute Volunteer Coordinator would see me!

The foundation raised high enough to avoid the past tragedy

We had lunch at Poppa's Seafood; it was only $1.25 for a burger! Sweet!

After lunch, we built three huge walls. The boys took just half a dozen hits to nail in the wood - too bad it took me over twenty times! Ahaha.

Yeah, Habitat for Humanity!

At the end of the day, the taxi never came. We had our personal taxi and called the company, but neither came through. Luckily, we found a sweet old woman who offered us a ride! As it was a far ride over the freeway, we gave her $20 as a thank you. She didn't want to take it, but I responded as we ran out, "Oh, but we're already out of the car, bye!" Southern hospitality!

I took a quick walk down Magazine Street before leaving for the airport. Conclusion: I love Nola!

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Mardi Gras!

We had a 7:30AM wake up call! I grabbed my Venetian mask and we were ready to go!

Note: The entire season of parades and festivities is known as Carnival. Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is actually just one day, the last Tuesday...TODAY!

Our Venetian masks for Mardi Gras!

Out of all the kings, Zulu is the only one to be able to choose his own queen. The Zulu parade is favored by locals and tourists alike as during this parade, coconuts (a.k.a. "Golden Nuggets") are passed out! An older gentleman next to me copied the idea of holding a hat to get attention for beads and yelling "Hey, Mister Zulu!" - whatever works! He was so kind that he actually lifted me up to the height of the floats, so that I could get a coconut. I actually have a full conversation with the Zulu float person, yet he still didn't give me a coconut; it was harsh!

Even while sitting on Chad's AND Susy's shoulders, I managed to get stuffed animals and beads, but no coconut! We soon had the brilliant idea of putting a beer into the hat, and you guessed it! We scored a coconut for Susy!

Greg called and we met up with him at the Walgreens. On the way there, I asked an eleven-year-old to trade for some awesome New Orleans-specific beads that listed all the major attractions. He used my cell phone and I gave him a poker set strand.

We walked with Greg to meet up with his friends at Voodoo BBQ, voted the best BBQ in Nola. I asked the bartender for something non-alcoholic to which she responded, "Oh, honey, there's nothing like that here." Ahaha.

The Rex Parade

The Rex Krewe was the first to hold an outdoor parade and thus, led the way for the celebration of Carnival and Mardi Gras as we know it! They also started the tradition of giving away "doubloons," medals with the parade's emblem. At the King Rex parade, one of the Jersey boys complained that he couldn't get any beads. Low and behold, when he took my hat and offered a beer, we acquired an entire BAG full of beads, cups, a Rex baseball, and a stuffed animal. Love it!

The Rex Parade ended and we headed over to Brian Baskin's friend's house for a kickback. Best thing about meeting old friends of someone you just met? They can tell you all of the embarrassing stories! Ahaha.

We played Jenga for a bit and then Greg was gracious enough to walk me over half and hour back to the hostel and then back. Becky, Susy, Chad and I then grabbed dinner at the Garden Cafe and we soon found out that we had a birthday girl at the hostel. Thus, we took Rachel to Bourbon of course!

Mardi Gras festivities!

Everywhere we went, she shouted, "It's my birthday!" and she received beads galore! We then headed off to the Maple Leaf Bar from a tip from the people we met at The Spotted Cat. At arrival, the locals stared at us intently, but once I yelled "Happy Mardi Gras!", they were so welcoming!

Rebirth playing "The Mardi Gras Mambo!"

The Rebirth Brass Band was fantastic and we danced the night away! I ended up talking to some nice people who said that they were in the parade and that they were at The Spotted Cat yesterday. After about ten minutes, I realized that they were the same ones we spoke to last night! I kept quiet. Ahaha.

Rebirth Brass Band

Hats off to Mardi Gras!

Monday 23 February 2009

Jazz and Beads and More Jazz and Beads!

I woke up this morning and apparently, somebody had stolen my fettucini alfredo from the hostel's refrigerator. Grr!

We headed down the street to the New Orleans School of Cooking! Located in a renovated molasses warehouse, one can really learn how to cook Southern-style! Beyond the amazing cooking lesson, the chef was so funny and entertaining! Kevin, standing at 6'6" and over 300lbs., told so many jokes like, "Mardi Gras is great. You can dress up as anything you want. Me, I'm going as a small person." Ahaha.

Learning at the New Orleans School of Cooking

The show was fantastic and the cooking was delicious! The cornbread was truly amazing and delectable as it gently crumbled in your mouth.

By the Riverwalk, King Zulu held a Lundi Gras outdoor jazz concert! The year 2009 is monumental for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club as it marks the club's 100th anniversary. The community came out while we danced the electric slide Nola-style (no cross-over step)! The day was beautifully sunny and I was in heaven!

Mr. Big Stuff! Another member of Zulu's Krewe

The Lundi Gras Jazz Concert presented by the Zulus!

At Jackson Square, I bought a gorgeous $35 oil painting from a local artist and then took a walk along the Mississippi River before checking out the Riverwalk Mall. Also known as Place d'Armes, was unfortunately the prime site for the public execution of disobedient slaves during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, there is a rich diversity of locals and tourists along with street painters and performers.

It was soon time for the arrival of King Rex and King Zulu! In New Orleans tradition, Mardi Gras cannot occur unless the mayor provides his or her blessing. Thus, King Rex asked Mayor Nagin for his blessing. He responded, "Wait, you want me to cancel school? (cheers) You want me to have no laws tomorrow? (cheers) So you're saying that people can run around drunk without getting arrested? (louder cheering) I concur!" Haha, no where else in the country!

Arrival of King Zulu from the U.S. Coast Guard

It was; however, very touching and empowering to hear the Mayor speak of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Only four years earlier, the city had been drastically distraught and nearly wiped away. The city still has heavy remnants of the disaster, but it is amazing to see how far the city has bounced back. The speech was appropriately ended with fireworks!

The celebration after the mayor declares that Mardi Gras shall occur!

Becky and I headed off to Kevin's Restaurant, Lil' Dizzy's where I enjoyed the shrimp. The waitress showed some more Southern Hospitality as she would sit down right next to you!

It was soon time for yet another parade. Chad and Suzy from the hostel met up with us at the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas to watch the Orpheus parade. Orpheus is the largest of the new krewes and is anticipated as the best night parade on the Monday before Mardi Gras. Joan Rivers was the Grand Marshal and worked so hard to please the crowd with goodies - I received a plastic cup from her!

After hours of needing a bag, Becky finally caught the attention of Jim Belushi. "Do you want a bag?" he yelled. And so Becky got it!

Suzy and I then beg for about ten minutes for a football necklace from a stopped float. "Hey, Mister. Is that for giving out? Hey, Mister! Can we have the football bead? Down here!" Haha, but after our tenacity (and another guy hiding from us), we got it!

The hostel crew!

It was time to finally check out some Nola jazz! We headed off to The Spotted Cat Jazz Club on Frenchman Street. It was very low-key with quite an intimate sitting. A few people danced and only locals seemed to congregate there - love it!

As everyone stood in close proximity because of the limited space, I ended up meeting Greg Robbins and the rest of his friends from New Jersey. After a good conversation (mostly about how Jersey smells), we said we would meet up the next day for the Zulu and Rex parades. Soon after, we met some locals that told us to check out The Maple Leaf the next night if we liked jazz. As they would be in the parade, I was supposed to yell, "Spotted Cat" so they would remember me.

On our way back home, we took Bourbon Street! Chad had stated that he tried flashing the night before, but came home with zero beads. I simply raised my hand and said, "Hey, I want beads!" and some just magically appeared! Haha.

Thanks to a tip that we received from the Canadians, we actually headed up onto the balcony at the Cat's Meow! It was just as much fun throwing beads down to people and making them dance for them! Suzy actually used her skill to wrangle a necklace around a random guy video recording. Props!

Cat's Meow provided a good time as they had karaoke downstairs! What a good, crazy, fun night! Lundi Gras is done, but onto the surprises of Mardi Gras!

Sunday 22 February 2009

Carnival Parades Galore!

Because of the jet lag, Becky and I woke up around noon-ish. The late rising; however, provided a great opportunity to eat lunch at the Gardens Cafe with Chad and Suzy, two students from Colorado. Beyond that, we also ate BBQ hot dogs in the hostel's garden with some Canadians as well!

It was soon time for the King Thoth parade! Each parade during Carnival is associated and organized by a specific krewe. The Krewe of Thoth started in 1947 and was named after the Egyptian god of wisdom. We stood on the main street, St. Charles, with hundreds of families. When a band came by, everybody would watch in silence; when a float arrived, everybody jumped up and down screaming like crazy for beads! It was hilarious to watch this for hours on end.

The King himself!

At the end of the parade, I won a boa, while Becky proudly displayed her spear. John Woodbridge texted me that he was in Nola as well, so we headed down St. Charles to meet him. Right away, we joined him and a group of Southern folk from Atlanta.

The fabulous goodies we received from The Thoth Parade

The nicest people in the world are arguably from the South! Beyond the gentle accent which I loved so much, people were extremely polite! In other cities where one would say "Excuse me," people would just move out of the way; here in the South, people would respond, "Of course! Not a problem!" Southern hospitality!

We watched the nighttime Bacchus parade where Ben Myers and I competed for beads! I caught a million that day, but sure enough, I couldn't get anything during the competition. Haha.

The parade is named for Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. The Krewe of Bacchus broke Carnival tradition by having a Sunday night parade that was bigger and better than any other floats during Carnival.

With the drivers of the Oscar Meyer Wiener Mobile! Seriously!

Becky and I ate at Italian Bistro on Magazine and then headed back to the hostel. When calling around to bars, I asked when they would close. The responses I heard were, "Whenever" and "When the people leave." Haha, oh Nola!

After I called John to see what he was up to tonight (to which he responded, "I'm hanging out with you!"), jumped in a cab to St. Joe's Bar down Magazine. The second we met up, we started a two-and-a-half-hour laugh! Good friends, beads, nice people, parades, what more do you need?

Saturday 21 February 2009

The Infamous Bourbon Street

The Burbank Airport provides an easy check in as the airport is ridiculously small! I had a small layover in Salt Lake City where I apparently fell asleep eating my Sbarro lunch. Luckily, Becky Johnson soon joined me!

View of the Wasatch Mountains

The second we landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport, a banner greeted us with the words, "New Orleans: We're so jazzed you're here!"
After the $30 flat rate taxi to St. Vincent's Guesthouse, we headed straight to the French Quarter! And so the Mardi Gras adventure begins!

As parades occurred earlier in the day, the trash left behind littered the city. Luckily, the cleaning trucks quickly came.

Tip: When you see the cleaning trucks after the Mardi Gras parades, get out of the way! Otherwise, you'll be soaked with cleaning solution.

At a no-name street shop at Bourbon, we picked up Hurricanes and went back outside to the crazy madness! Bourbon homes restaurants, bars, and strip clubs and is world-renown for one of the craziest night spots in the world. During Mardi Gras, this eight-block section of the French Quarter becomes shoulder to shoulder crowded with crazy antics occuring in the streets and off the balconies.

The craziness of Bourbon Street

Being young girls, beads were just randomly thrown and given to us; all we did was look up and smile! If there was a particular bead strand one wanted, he or she would have to scream for it. A man and woman yelled at me to "show something," to which I responded, "Sorry, I only flash my smile!" My response was so loved, I received a blug dog stuffed animal!

We walked up and down the street laughing at the ridiculousness! We soon started to get picky and only chose the special beads with symbols or medallions. Coming home with about fifteen beads, I made it a goal to reach three dozen beads by the end of the trip. AND I didn't flash anything but my smile. Love it!