Down on the Bayou

Although I love Connecticut, there is something that captivates me about the South and its culture. Growing up, I had seen many movies about the South and read quite a few books, but it wasn’t until my aunt moved to Louisiana over ten years ago that I got to truly “taste” it. My first experience in my early teens involved a lengthy train ride from Hartford to Slidell where she lived (she has since relocated to New Orleans!). The train ride was horrible in every respect except for the scenery. To my surprise, much of it was just as I had imagined: I saw many families sitting outside on their porches trying to catch a breeze, and tall magnificent oak trees that bend so graciously. What I remember most about this trip was the heat (the minute I got off the train it hit me, hot and sticky) and a tour through the bayous on an air-boat complete with ‘gator sightings! While this first trip to Louisiana was memorable on many levels it wasn’t until two years ago when I went back again to do some volunteering post-Katrina that the unique subculture, history and resilience of New Orleans really resonated with me.

My friend and I arrived in Louisiana in early May two days after our college graduation full of ambition and excitement about our plans. We had contacted a few non-profits about volunteering. We selected Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) and OnSite Relief who help to rebuild homes that were still desolated from Hurricane Katrina. It would be the work at these two organizations that drew me into the depths of New Orleans and its culture.

When you work, rather than visit a place, you become part of the atmosphere and history. My friend and I woke early every morning, stepping outside into the already humid, thick air of Louisiana and started out on our forty-five minute drive to New Orleans…most of which was spent on the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain. Our first five days would be spent at ARNO, working with the animals who had been left behind or lost in the flood. It was a very moving experience: my friend and I both being animal lovers. Our job included feeding the dogs and cats, cleaning cages, walking the dogs, and most importantly spending time with animals and giving them the love and attention they needed. A rewarding experience, but very difficult in the end having to leave all our new friends behind hoping that they would be reunited with their owners or find new homes.

Oscar was one of my best friends at ARNO. Although the animals weren’t supposed to come out, Oscar just really wanted to be loved!

After our stay with ARNO was over, we headed off to the heart of New Orleans for our work with Onsite Relief. It was eerie to be surrounded by these houses that once were so full of life and now had the infamous X with numbers painted on the doors, a visual sign telling police and emergency workers during the hurricane if there were any survivors inside. The first house we worked in was a very old home on a quiet street. It was hard work scrapping the paint off the walls and wearing masks to protect ourselves from the possibility of lead paint. After meticulous measuring, I used a drill for the first time to drill holes in the wall where new electrical sockets would go. On the last day at that house we raised the roof…literally, with large wooden beams.

My first time with power tools

During our breaks, my friend, four other volunteers, and I would sit outside on the big, concrete front porch to eat lunch and watch the passersby while taking in the sounds of daily southern life.

Crawfish mania

I tried my first crawfish (and then ate tons more!) and Po’ Boy Sandwich along the Mississippi river in blazing sun. On our last day of volunteering, we were invited to a southern style picnic. Picture this: a small side street (just a few blocks from where the levees broke) was closed off and in the middle of the street was a large table piled high with crawfish, and another with boiled potatoes and corn on the cob. At first my friend and I were weary of eating the food; basically everyone just stood around the table and ate with their hands. There were also, of course, flies buzzing around but, as they say, when in Rome…! The crawfish were delicious. The townspeople boil them in spices making them very flavorful. We had fun eating and enjoying the company of the other volunteer groups and some of the neighbors.

Abandoned

It was also on that last day of our volunteering that our group leader, Justin, took us around the ninth ward. Three years after Katrina, the neighborhood was still in ruins. Garbage and debris lined the streets, and houses looked as if the hurricane had just blew through days earlier. It was unbelievable to me that nothing had been done yet. People were still without homes and some living under a bridge in the city. It seemed as if the world had forgotten.

Destruction in the ninth ward--3 years after Katrina
Ghost town

The trip was everything it should have been. Besides our volunteer work, we of course experienced all the charms of the South: adventures on the infamous Bourbon street, a ghost tour through the French quarters, delicious french beignets from Cafe du Monde, and my personal favorite breakfast spot, Waffle House.

If you plan on visiting the “Big Easy” or just want to experience a little southern flare from your home, here are some materials from OWL to check out:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (DVD Drama CUR): Set in the heart of New Orleans, this is a very different yet beautiful story full of southern love and magic.

The New Southern Cook: 200 Recipes From the South’s Best Chefs and Home Cooks by John Martin Taylor (641.597 TAY). A great cookbook to get you going–features a recipe for Fried Soft-Shell Crab/Oyster Po’ Boy and Shrimp Creole.

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Lousiana Tastes (641.597 PRU). When traveling south, you have to try Jambalaya: typically a spicy seafood and rice dish. Prudhomme mixes it up a bit in his recipe, Seafood and Eggplant Jambalaya on pg. 236. You can’t go to the South without having a little fried food. Be sure to try his recipe for Buckwheat Batter-Fried Shrimp and corn relish on pg. 214 too!

Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans by Dan Baum (976.3 BAU). Publisher’s Weekly writes that Baum “captures the essence of the city through the lives of nine characters over 40 years, bracketed by two epic hurricanes: Hurricane Betsy in the ’60’s and Katrina in 2005.” Baum explores the contrast between the corruption of the city and the desire to live there.

Get groovin’ with The Blind Boys of Alabama CD, Down in New Orleans (CD Blues Bli).

William Faulkner has written many great pieces about the South. One of my favorite short stories by him is A Rose For Emily, which can be found in his Collected Stories (FIC FAU).

When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts ( DVD DOC WHE) is a documentary presented as a tragic play by director Spike Lee. Lee said he was moved to film this “modern American tragedy” not only because of the disaster itself, but because of the “slow, inept, and disorganized response of the emergency and recovery effort.”

New Orleans Yesterday and Today: A Guide to the City (917.63 NEW). This guide has some interesting historical information and sections pertaining to the unique subculture and traditions.

Sarai is the Publicity Coordinator/Library Assistant and is humming the tune City of New Orleans off Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby…”I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”