A week vacation turns into love for a city, the culture and its people
(August 20, 2008)  By Allison Winfield Kaloo

Joshua, future veterinarian, loved every pet and every minute of his volunteer duties.

Joshua, future veterinarian, loved every pet and every minute of his volunteer duties.

My 17-year-old son and I decided on NOLA for our annual “Mom & Josh’s Great Adventure.” The trip would mark going into his senior year of high school and prove to be a landmark excursion. Veteran visitors to ‘the crescent city’ are intimately familiar with its magic, but we’d never had the pleasure. In the aftermath of the storm, I thought it would be all the more significant to find out for ourselves how such a legendary destination recaptures its vitality, recoups its vigor and restores its soul. I was unprepared for what we found and the effect it would have on us.

For me, Katrina had galvanized an image of New Orleans as this stranded, isolated place.

On the contrary, its survival has drawn from the historical confluence of international forces and its persistent diversity. Its culture is a reflection of France and Spain, but also of Haiti and Senegal, Cuba and even Congo. You can hear it in the music, see it in the art and architecture, taste it in the cuisine and feel it in the hospitality — thick like their air in August. New Orleans natives and transplants alike appear to share certain core beliefs and values. Beyond “letting the good times roll,” they seem to celebrate NOLA as a fundamental global city because of these vibrant links and the value they place in their human (and pet) connections.

Joshua and I had the good fortune of spending our days volunteering at ARNO (Animal Rescue New Orleans), an organization born of Katrina’s displaced animal population and which continues to serve the community in remarkable ways. (Okay, so the truth is that he looked at me rather askew at first mention of the ‘volunteer’ idea — work during vacation, Mom??!) Being the good sport that he is, however, I didn’t actually hear the objections. But I digress…

ARNO operates a no-kill shelter with daily care, medical triage, and even a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats. We met amazing people like Charlotte Bass Lilly, ARNO’s executive director, who braved the waters along with other first responders to find animal survivors. She and her all-volunteer staff are still reuniting pets with their owners as many New Orleanians still live out of state, unable to return to their homes. ARNO also helps owners gain access to other supportive local resources that impact their ability to reunite with and care for their animals. More and more, they nurse animals back to health to be relocated to loving homes out of state and other no-kill shelters across North America. We walked dogs, cleaned cat cages and learned more than I thought possible about the impact our pets can have in our lives.

Allison and Joshua, wonderful volunteers… great human beings

Allison and Joshua, wonderful volunteers… great human beings

We spent our evenings exploring NOLA, once by streetcar and once by taxi, but we ventured out mostly on foot. I had been advised that a plethora of activities would be within walking distance of our hotel. As it turned out, it was the only way to appreciate the full texture of the city. It came as no surprise that the cuisine was obscenely good and the arts scene was invigorating.  We didn’t realize just how transformative and varied our experiences would be.

We soaked in the beauty of the Garden District, got lost in a mob of fellow white-linen-wearing art aficionados during what can only be described as a super-sophisticated gallery block party — complete with wine and cheese. We were lucky, too, that our stay also coincided with the annual Satchmo Summerfest at the Old Mint. We had beignets at the legendary Café du Monde in the French Quarter and outrageous oyster ‘Po’ Boy’ sandwiches in Mid City near Bayou St. John. Looking around at the staggering array of options, I am convinced that one can never really take in all there is to experience in New Orleans. I also realize that we would have cheated ourselves had we simply gone for Mardi Gras or limited our experience to the French Quarter.

For all the fun to be had in the tourist-heavy areas, however — which went largely unscathed by Katrina — our visit confirmed that there is still a lot of work to be done. The task remains enormous and the contrasts stark. We were fortunate to be able to see firsthand the outlying parishes on our “devastation tour” with Charlotte. She drove us through the neighborhoods of Gentilly, St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward and we saw with our own eyes where the “real people” live, areas that were under water for weeks and are now largely off the collective radar.

It was shocking to see to what extent, three years later, many homes and neighborhoods are still ghost towns.  We were told that they’re still finding bodies when the boards come down. It was difficult to make heads or tails of what assistance they’re receiving, but it’s obvious that they still need help. The collective conscience simply cannot move on as if everything’s “all better.” It’s not.

Despite facing a series of tough challenges, the people we met were — without exception — the most generous and genuine people I’ve come across in a long time. They’re the kind who greets strangers when they pass you on the street. In the face of unthinkable adversity, we found joy and laughter and real engagement. Many we encountered told us that people just showing up to lend a hand encourages them to keep going. It lets them know that they haven’t been forgotten.

Josh takes a break and makes friends with one of ARNO’s shelter pets, Mimi the Queen of the shelter.

Josh takes a break and makes friends with one of ARNO’s shelter pets, Mimi the Queen of the shelter.

The short report on NOLA could simply be that it is a study of contrasts. It’s full of juxtaposition: Old meets new, chic meets gritty, down-home meets worldly. In the aftermath of Katrina, it’s also devastation meets renewal. For all of its frenetic energy, New Orleans even manages to be very relaxed and groovy. The amazing, now indelible images of these relationships and landscapes move beyond art to now become testimony. Birthplace of jazz? I’d add “guardian of the human spirit.”

If you have never been to NOLA, I guarantee a life altering, grounding and elevating experience. If you haven’t been in a while, time to pay them another visit and refuel. By virtue of one week’s worth of exposure to the place, we can vouch for what it means to miss New Orleans. Joshua tasted frog legs, crawfish and jambalaya for the first time and achieved real perspective on the value of his contributions. He’s joined ARNO’s yahoo board and is more committed to becoming a veterinarian. I’m sure it’s the first of many trips, but listening to live stream of WWOZ in the meantime will have to suffice for me.

I struggle to adequately capture in words the breadth and significance of our trip, but the common denominator of our NOLA experience was its fabulous, endearing people. And I’m sure they helped us more than we could have ever helped them. In addition to an invigorating dose of beauty and history, arts and culture, jazz (and zydeco!) and architecture, New Orleans is truly food for the soul. Go and be moved.

About the author: Allison Winfield Kalloo is passionate about marketing, writing and design. A recent Connecticut transplant, she creates branding for a disease management company in South Florida. Allison is also committed to optimizing equity in healthcare and delivering messages of impact to communities in crisis. Toward that end, she is working toward the launch of a new company. Allison earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University and a master’s degree from Yale. Her love of animals first revealed itself when she “helped out” on her grandparents’ farm as a small child, enjoying the pigs most and proclaiming a favorite she named Runt.  Allison still enjoys doing things that remind her of childhood in Washington, DC:  attending live jazz and symphony concerts, art and museum exhibits and student performances at local schools, volunteering in the community, exploring food’s cultural diversity and scouring for treasures at thrift stores. The light of her life, Joshua Jarvis Kalloo, is a gifted seventeen-year-old who has a passion for music, technology, cooking, sports cars and animals and hates thrift stores. Josh is entering senior year of high school and plans to become a veterinarian. They currently share a home with two shelter cats, Chutney and Rascal and share love-filled memories of a very special Keeshond named Piper.