TRAVELTEER: Where Travel Meets Volunteering

1 Before I embarked on this Travelteer journey, there was one city in particular that stood out as such a unique part of the United States – New Orleans. Despite having realized that every city has wonderful parts to offer, I am still as eager as ever to explore The Crescent City. Hyped up on Anthony Bourdain features, HBO’s Treme, and a never-ending playlist of cultural Jazz & Blues from the area – I set out to venture through New Orleans myself. After about a 9-hour drive from Tampa (and time traveling an hour back) I HAD FINALLY ARRIVED. The first day I was set to volunteer at NOLA Tree Project , an environmental organization that has strived to help the community by restoring some of the 100,000 trees that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, The Weather Channel (or whoever controls the weather), had a different idea as it was forecasted to storm all day long. Luckily there was one thing that a downpour of rain could not stop me from doing – EATING! I headed to the Cochron Butcher, a popular spot in the area that was featured in the Travel Channel show, The Layover. Escaping the rain I was greeted with a warm welcome and an assortment of quirky decor and specialty sauces. I decided on the Backwood Bacon Melt…as one of the Yelp reviewers put it, “It’s the best gosh darn sandwich I have ever had the luxury of meeting.” Devouring that savory goodness with a side of brussel sprouts, I then set out to experience the infamous Bourbon Street (a recommendation in which others online had said was mysterious in the rain).
Taking the St. Charles Streetcar to Bourbon Street, I was immediately welcomed by a heavy downpour of rain. I guess what some people call “mysterious,” I call wet and uncomfortable. Luckily I found an escape from the rain in a local cocktail bar on the edge of the French Quarter, Amendment 21. Walking into a bar straight out of the 1940s, this fancy jazz bar had live music and a plethora of drink concoctions that would make Ron Swanson proud (or maybe he would just tell them to get the bitters & vermouth away from his scotch). I had a Louisiane, which was created like art by the bartender and even more enjoyable going down. Once the rain stopped I headed out to explore Bourbon Street.

2 With all the hype around this area of New Orleans and all my expectations, I was surprised to feel emptiness as I wandered through the streets. As any tourist spot, there is a lot going on, and everyone and everything is seeking your attention; strip clubs, bars, and even food vendors. It felt as if I was being catcalled for my wallet. The rain started coming down again, and I found myself in a quaint coffee shop inside the New Orleans Music Legends Park. Sipping on Chicory Coffee, I sought refuge under the canopy and met a very kind, temporarily homeless man named Mike. We chatted for a while and I learned of his experience in the city, the effect on 24-hour drinking in New Orleans, and also some of the local shelters and food banks that would be great to help out. Soon enough the storm lightened up and we said our goodbyes as I went back to brave Bourbon Street. As the night progressed, I found myself unable to relate to just about anyone in the streets. Those that know me know that I am not a judgmental person, and I am always willing to make a new friend, but everyone on Bourbon Street appeared to have their mind set on getting hammered on $10 drinks and embracing the sinister lure that has been portrayed through media. I managed to find a few spots that didn’t have a drink minimum and appreciated some of the jazz music, but as the night winded down I found myself eager to explore what the city is truly about beyond Bourbon Street.

3 With a fresh, sunny day ahead – I woke up around 6 AM to volunteer with Crescent City Cafe , an organization that prepares quality food for 60+ hungry in the area with dignity. I arrived and met a ton of kind passionate people eager to serve, one of who works with a food bank I was to volunteer with afterward. I was given the task of cooking in the kitchen (something I warned them wasn’t particularly on my resume) as well as the partial photographer for the organization. To start, I took the brave task of chopping onions, and to this day, I still say that the tears shed were because of the smell of crackling bacon, as bacon just gets me. After crying more than I did when Leo fell into the sea at the end of Titanic, I cracked a few egg and worked on my whisking skills. After getting to know everyone in the kitchen, I was excited to try some of the food and go out and talk with those we were serving. I talked with a man named Winston, who had originally come from Alaska and was on a fishing crew before he found himself in New Orleans. Soon after wrap up, we cleaned dishes and I said my goodbyes to see where my Saturday would take me next!
After Crescent City Cafe, I headed to Second Harvest Food Bank , an organization that feeds 200,000+ individuals in the area. I arrived and met with the volunteer coordinator who put me with a group of local high school students and a few other individual volunteers. Unlike other food banks I have volunteered with, this one had a fancy piece of technology known as a conveyer belt. All of the volunteers worked well together, some working on picking up various food, some sorting food through a conveyer belt, and others weighing and packing boxes. As I worked, I learned of all their ambitions and college aspirations and also found that most had an eagerness to travel (potential demographic for Travelteer? I think yes!). After labeling thousands of pounds of rice, I set out to experience New Orleans culture the right way.

4 Thanks to one of the local recommendations, I headed to Freret St. Festival, a yearly fest thrown on Freret Street, just because every street deserves a festival. After browsing the marketplace and deciding on one of the many culinary food truck options, I had an Abita Purple Haze lager in one hand and a brisket slider with raspberry jam in the other – both were delicious. I found myself in front of a stage with an amazing band called Tank & the Bangas. Unable to stop myself from starting my own dance party, I had a blast hearing and dancing to one of New Orleans’ own absolutely kill it on stage. My New Orleans trip was certainly turning around.

5 The next morning I woke up super excited for another festival set in New Orleans City Park – SPCA BRUNCH FESTIVAL! I have a love for all things breakfast, brunch, and brinner and so I set out to get my brunch on (and explore city park in the process). Arriving, I strolled through the massive park, discovering amusement parks, miniature golf, various markets, as well as the simply gorgeous scenery along the way. As I found Roosevelt Mall, I was let into the Brunch Fest and was immediately distracted from the crepes and mimosas by the massive amount of puppies everywhere! As an SPCA sponsored event, not only was the festival dog-friendly, but they had official pups you could adopt on the spot. I fell in love with a black lab puppy named Drew, and I shih tzu you not, I almost adopted him on the spot (I shouldn’t advertise this, but dogs are my weakness when it comes to logical thinking). After getting my pet on, I checked out the fantastic band on stage playing some contemporary jazz music (Seriously, does this city have bad music?).

6 I soon had a craving that even brunch couldn’t fulfill – THE PO’ BOY. I headed over to a recommended spot, Parkway Poorboy Tavern, to indulge in my Po Boy craving and try one of New Orleans’ classic meals. I got the Surf n’ Turf Po-Boy (Roast Beef + Shrimp + Gravy) and Alligator Gumbo – both were absolutely delicious (and properly messy). As I headed out to find a place to sit for my oncoming food coma, instead I walked right into a parade. Asking one of the locals, I found out it was a Super Sunday parade specifically for the Mid-City area, starting around Orleans St and heading off Bernard in the Treme area. I immediately went to my trunk and grabbed the closest maraca and tambourine I could find (which surprisingly wasn’t that hard). I joined in the festivities, following one of the Mardi Gras Indians shaking both body and instrument to the music from the bands that followed. Local vendors and residents with enough ice to keep beer cold for days lined the street offering a taste of what a proper festivity should be! Arriving at the end spot I said my goodbyes to those I had met, to which they jokingly replied, “See you next week!”. What a weekend it has been, and now as I type this away I can’t think of a better place I would like to spend the rest of my week. With each new area I discover, New Orleanian I meet and my disappointment in Bourbon Street all but forgotten, I think it’s safe to say, I love New Orleans.