Letter from New Orleans: Friendshipment winds its way to Cuba

The 20th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba is making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border, picking up humanitarian aid along the way and educating the public about why the U.S. should normalize relations with Cuba.

But the Pastors For Peace Friendshipment, July 3 – Aug. 3, also gives ‘caravanistas’ a chance to visit many places in the United States.

John Thomas, from Newfoundland, Canada, is on this year’s caravan and wrote the following letter after visiting New Orleans. We publish it here with the author’s permission.

I’m in New Orleans, tired and emotionally shaken from a levy tour that I just did.

We’re staying in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighbourhood that was hit the hardest by Katrina back in 2005, four years ago, but the houses look as if the hurricane had passed a lot more recently than that. Foundations have been reduced to rubbles of brick, rooftops caved in, abandoned cars wait for a government response that is not coming, doors hang open to reveal hallowed out interiors, driveways undistinguishable from the bayous that surround New Orleans, hardwood floors like broken matchsticks, emptiness and silence.

The Lower 9th Ward had a population of 17,000 before Katrina, 3,000 remain. The city of New Orleans the same: 650,000 to 350,000. Entire buildings are boarded up and thick grass and weeds populate the parking lots.

Speckeled throughout this are brand new KFCs, Wal-Marts, Walgreens and other corporations that have the financial resources to rebuild. This is a black neighbourhood. This is their reality. Most people left after Katrina and they’re not coming back.

Other parts of the city, the more affluent neighbourhoods that were hit just as bad as any other part of town, look as if nothing happened.

The mansions along Lake Pontchartrain have groomed gardens, oblivious joggers and Hummers that sit securely behind the impenetrable levy conveniently disguised as an urban green space.

On the way to the French Quarter is the inner city, which is dominated by sheets of plywood over the windows and doors of low-income housing.

Then, the French Quarter is as charming and colourful as you’d see in a travel magazine: voodoo boutiques encouraging the sale of quirky souvenirs, restaurants that serve gumbo and crayfish, Mardi Gras beads hanging in trees and new sidewalks and floral arrangements on street corners.

I’m sorry this is not so uplifting but I just had to get this off my chest. I’ve been writing a lot lately, which I’ll hopefully get to share with you at a time when an internet connection is more available. The South is a place I want to come back to, racially divided but an endearing human spirit that I haven’t seen in a while.

Keeping it light enough to travel even when things get heavy,