Well, that statement is fun to say but, personally, not even close to being true. Simply said, this trip and all the experiences that came with it will stay with ME for the rest of my life.

When I was informed that I would be joining Berklee faculty and staff on this last yearly “Habitat” trip to New Orleans, I was filled with unrelenting anticipation that made the days and weeks leading up the trip drag by slowly.  Although I had heard amazing stories of team building, indulgent cuisine and loads of music from others that had gone before, I am still in awe of the fact that none of those stories can and would ever be able to describe what I would experience on this brief journey.

Yes, there was decedent and culturally rich cuisine everywhere. Muffuletta, Beignets at Cafe Dumonde, a backyard party with wine and cheese at Bacchanal,  “Hurricane” cocktails and 10 variations on Jambalaya that are all authentic to the region. The sounds of brass instruments could be heard on every corner – some large groups of street musicians entertaining walkers-by on Bourbon St. and in one case, a single dude with a big ol’ tuba playing for what seemed to be just himself. Bourbon Street was more lively and full of great people-watching than I ever dreamed. Every walk of life co-exists on this 13 block road (extending from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue) from street people, wealthy travelers, locals, college students, vacationing families and…well, us. Our first night in NOLA, we whole-heartedly embraced the energy of  Bourbon St. by dining at Oceana Grill, walking 8 miles or so exploring various side streets, dipped in and out of clubs, bars and eateries and finally, showed our Berklee spirit by hoola-hooping and singing Karaoke at the world famous Cats Meow.  Our second day of exploration of the city brought us to Lafayette Cemetery, the oak-shaded streets of the Garden District and the oh-so-kitschy Magazine Street. And still, this was just a glimpse of what this place is really about. The weekend had heightened sense of musical and artistic diversity. Frenchmen Street was rich with live bands, dance halls and local artisans. You could catch latin and meringue at  Blue Nile ,  Soul and R&B at Marigny Brasserie or the sound of traditional jazz and dixieland almost anyplace else. In between club hopping, we checked out local artists showcasing their creativity at places like the brightly lit, somewhat hipster Frenchman Art Market. But all of this was to be expected when you consider all you’ve ever heard about New Orleans.

What I didn’t expect:  I had heard stories in the news about the devastation that occurred after Katrina. I saw some pictures and read a few articles. But, until I was touring the Lower 9th Ward, I had no idea of the physical and emotional aftermath. You can cut the eerie feeling with a knife. Beautiful, newly built homes are scattered about thanks to organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s initiative Make It Right.  But locals tell differing stories about the resurrection of this area that makes my bones chill. There is heartache that can’t be mended here. I could only imagine what it must be like – if there is even a feeling of comfort – living in a new home right across from the levy that caused a tragedy that took the lives of your family, your home, all of your belongings and any sense of security and peace. Is that possible? So much still to do in this place. It’s not time to move on – it’s time to ramp up. Adam – let’s take it from here.

I also didn’t expect the feeling of accomplishment that came with using my own hands, sweat and a lot of teamwork from building one of these homes. Not negating the fact that the feeling of loss can never truly be replaced by bricks and mortar, it still gave me pride to watch the children playing in the yard next to our worksite – enjoying the comforts of a “home” built by others like myself. Volunteers that want to make a difference in this community. Our Habitat leaders Hans, Henry and Ceasar were knowledgable, helpful and steady in their commitment to get us through 4 days of hard labor none of us had ever experienced before. Their guidance was monumental and the stories they shared about themselves and NOLA (which they’ve come to know quite well), made for fun breaks in between hammering soffit (notice the spelling), pouring concrete and digging trenches.

Lastly, MOST unexpected was the bond (that word doesn’t actually cover it) that occurred between the 8 of us. As a group, we had natural synergy and camaraderie. Can you grow to “love” 7 people you’ve never met before in only a week? Hell, yes. I did and I do. I had the chance to spend time with some of them one-on-one:  a side conversation at dinner, a walk to Dumonde for gifts and oysters, a healthy late night chat by the pool. I learned that these are some of the most giving, caring people I will ever know. I could write 5 more paragraphs trying to explain but it would never suffice. It’s not a word or a phrase that can make clear what we shared. As we departed the airport having said our goodbyes, I found myself feeling very melancholy. Sad. Ripped away, in a sense, from my new Berklee family. On my own with my swollen ankles, sun-burnt shoulders and sore back. But happier and more fulfilled than I’ve felt in years. There was an unspoken “oath” that took place on this trip. Something that only the 8 of us will know or understand that is uniquely ours. Yes, some of what happened in Nola might stay there, but the rest we take home and keep with us for eternity.

Cassandre McKinley
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