New Orleans in March, i.e. preparing for the trip Thursday, Mar 3 2011 

A note to my students:

New Orleans is not New Hampshire. If you moved the compass 180 degrees from New Hampshire, the point would lie somewhere near New Orleans. But that is not a bad thing.

We will be leaving a pretty sizeable snow pack. Yes the temperatures are improving, which means we are moving wildly between single digit wind chills and days approaching the fifties. Maddening, pneumonia producing weather. But it is what New Englanders are taught to expect and glorify.

Madonna Manor, March 2009.

Last year, New Orleans was weird. They had had such a cold winter – deep freezes – meaning below 32 degrees. But it was cold enough to kill off the olive green of the live oaks so that we were greeted by chilly weather, no azalea blossoms, and a brown back-drop. Not your usual March, New Orleans experience.

New Orleans had cold weather this year, but not like last. We should see flowers and daytime temperatures in the seventies. The nights will cool down to the fifties, but that is the way it is supposed to be. New Orleans in March.

So, what should we bring? As we look forward to a week of sightseeing and working in the outdoors, how should we dress, what should we expect. And how do nine of us fit all of this stuff in a Ford van?

This will be my sixth trip since Katrina. Hard to believe, but it has almost become commonplace. But I’ve also learned to expect the unexpected. You can have days approaching eighty and a few hours later, a twenty mile an hour wind can come across Lake Pontchartrain making you wish you had your winter parka.  Here is a list of my packing suggestions:

We will be working with Operation Helping Hands, renovating and painting homes. This is hard, physical labor and appropriate clothing is required. Remarkably, the answer is something that should with which New Englanders should be familiar: layering. Yes, there may be days where shorts and tee shirts feel just fine, but mornings can start in the fifties. I’d recommend bringing long sleeve shirts and long pants.  These are useful not just for warmth, but if you are working with insulation, you’d rather not have a lot of skin exposed. I have found it helpful to bring a canvas grocery bag in which you can store a lunch and have a place to store layers that you shed during the day. It is better to have long-sleeve shirts and pants and not need them, than to need them and not have them.

Beginning of trip home, March 2010.

The most important thing you need to bring would be suitable shoes. You should have work boots, hiking boots, or some closed/sturdy shoes that cannot be penetrated by exposed nails and debris. Please avoid open-toed or athletic shoes when working in such conditions. If you end up painting, fine, but if end up walking through nail-filled rubble without proper shoes – it is not fun.

And finally, what to bring when you are not working? We will not be staying at the Hilton or even the Days Inn. You will need bedding, toiletries, and the limited comforts of home. Most students bring sleeping bags and pillows, not just for the stay in New Orleans, but for the 3000 mile round trip between New Hampshire and New Orleans. I usually pack a fleece bag and an extra fleece blanket, but I have to admit, there have been times when I have been a bit chilly. You’ll need towels, bath cloths, and the stuff that hotels generally leave on the vanity. In addition, you’ll be sharing quarters with 35 of your closest friends, so gym shorts, robes, or whatever you need to walk amongst everyone else on the trip are necessary.

It sounds rough and it sometimes can be a test, but such experiences make memories. And memories are good. So be prepared both concretely and emotionally. It is not your normal travel experience, but that in itself can be special.

Check with your leaders, because all of them have spent a week or more at Madonna Manor, Operation Helping Hand’s housing on the West Bank. It is an experience, but one that should be embraced and not fought. It is a necessary part of the trip. And the experience will be much more memorable than your last trip to Holiday Inn Express.


Moving Day Monday, Mar 22 2010 

Saturday, March 20th, was that day that most of us moved out of the not-so-cozy confines of Madonna Manor. We packed our belongings, packed our respective vehicles, and went into the City once again. The last two vans ventured in for one last visit before hitting the road. I had the weekend to look forward to.

I went with Sasa and Trevor’s group to the St. Louis Cemeteries just outside of the Quarter. I was excited to find the tomb where jazz guitarist and raconteur Danny Barker and his blues singer wife “Blue Lu” Barker are buried. And at St. Louis #1, we visited the highly decorated burial place of Madame Laveau, the so-called “Voodoo Queen.” From there we entered familiar territory.

It was a beautiful morning in the French Quarter. I spotted a number of students running in and out of the French Market and the souvenir shops along Decatur Street. Musicians and magicians and performance artists lined the streets. And the lines wrapped around Cafe du Monde as those on spring break, tourists, and NCAA basketball fans sought their fix of cafe au lait and beignets.

Around noon the remaining groups hit the road and headed into St. Bernard Parish for the Islenos Festival. Los Islenos first came to St. Bernard Parish from the Canary Islands in 1778 at the behest of Spanish governor Bernardo de Galvez. They settled the frontier east of New Orleans and helped provide New Orleans with a buffer against the British. Many St. Bernard residents trace their ancestors to these Spanish-speaking pioneers and the festival was created to celebrate this history. On the grounds of the Islenos History Center, there were crafts, Spanish and Islenos food, music, and both St. Bernard residents and visiting Canary Islanders in period costume. I enjoyed wood carvers, boat builders, historical interpreters and some very very good food: alligator sausage and grilled bananas wrapped in bacon leap to mind. Fredy Omar con su banda provided the music and the crowd provided a surfeit of dancers.

As much as I enjoyed the festival, the call of a hotel room with a clean shower and proper bed linens called. I drove back into New Orleans and enjoyed such luxuries for the first time since I left home. I ventured out for a bite to eat and to sample the musical wares of Frenchmen Street. However fatigue and the overwhelming crowds made me brave a light rain to cross the French Quarter and hotel bed resplendent with proper sheets. And I enjoyed them.