Louisiana: Part 5, Last Days & Back to Canadiana

Thursday was another full work day. Keeping with tradition, I painted.

In the evening, the Habitat workers took us all out to dinner in Downtown Lafayette. We went to Dat Dog, a gourmet hot dog restaurant that oozed personality.IMG_5176.JPG

Dat Dog – everything inside was extremely colourful: IMG_5186.JPG

Food & drinks at Dat Dog: IMG_5182.JPGIMG_5179.JPG

Afterwards we spent some time wandering around Downtown Lafayette. We went to a park where we saw fire spinners and a hula hoop artist, and they were kind enough to teach us some of the cool things they were doing (minus the fire).IMG_5189.JPG

Our whole group, taking a picture with the Lafayette letters:28161710_10215840331991238_3833224057176863766_o.jpg

Friday was our last day of work at the site. Shocking no one, I painted again all day.

For lunch, one of the Habitat workers was super nice and made us the most amazing crawfish etouffee, which is kind of like a stew, served over rice. “Etouffee” is a French word that translates roughly to “smothered” – in the case of the etouffee, I think it refers to how the crawfish is smothered in butter and good spices and veggies. The whole dish only had seven ingredients in it. It was absolutely delicious, and once again, really nice to have some authentic Louisiana cuisine!

Aside from the food, Friday was very Canada-themed. One of the Habitat workers wanted to hear the Canadian anthem, so during lunchtime we all sang Oh Canada for him. We were the first Canadians that some of them had ever met, which makes sense when you consider that Louisiana is about as far as you get in America away from Canada. Go any further and you’d be in the water. Luckily, despite the distance, they seemed to have a pretty positive perception of Canadians and Canada, which we tried our best to uphold.

I had brought some maple candies with me and gave them to the workers and volunteers that day. Before I gave one of the University of Louisiana volunteers a candy, I asked if he’d had maple syrup before, to which he scoffed and said of course. And then he ate it, declared it was amazing, and asked to know what was in it. The answer? Nothing but pure maple syrup. Those ‘Muricans. Likely he had maple-flavoured syrup before, but as any good Canadian will tell you, it can’t even compare to real maple syrup.

In addition to syrups, our group noticed another difference between ourselves and our Louisiana friends, namely how Canadian culture is often focused on America, but the reverse isn’t nearly as true. One of the college volunteers began a story once by saying “our former president, Obama…” and our group all burst out laughing, because he genuinely thought that we might not know who Obama is. Canada hears about American politics all the time, listens to American music, and watches American movies and TV shows. Most Canadians could name the last several American presidents, but most Americans couldn’t do the same for Canada. The college volunteer we were talking to couldn’t name Canada’s current Prime Minister, and after we told him it was Justin Trudeau, he admitted he would never have guessed that. Canadian culture is very Americanized. Compared to how aware Canadians are of the happenings of their southern neighbour, Americans seem to be much less aware of what’s going on in the great white north (although some of the workers had heard of Rob Ford, Toronto’s former mayor). Considering that, it was really nice to be able to expose them to a little bit of Canadian culture.

At the end of the work week, we got to pitch a sign for our university in front of one of the houses we worked on. The sign will stand until construction on the house is completed.

Our sign (we may have played a little joke and painted an igloo as our school. But the Timmie’s, at least, is accurate):28337330_10215870544906542_1636535815547303077_o.jpg

Our sign in front of the house that we did the most work on: IMG_5215.JPG

In the evening we headed back downtown to spend the night at a local bar. The next morning we would wake up, pack our bags, and make the long drive home to Canada. We didn’t get very much reading done, but I’m proud of the work we accomplished, and everything that we learned, during our time in Louisiana.

The drive home: IMG_5259.JPG

A stop along the way home at the “Devil’s Crossroads” in Mississippi. Legend has it that musician Robert Johnson once sold his soul to the devil at this crossroads, in exchange for success and the ability to play really good blues music. Photo is blurry because it was raining tons on the drive back: IMG_5250.JPG


Louisiana: Part 4, Jambalaya & the “First-world Bubble”

Wednesday was our third day of work. I spent the morning inside painting, and then at lunchtime we got a bit rained on.

One of the houses across the street from the worksite, the rain pouring down:IMG_5157.JPG

Luckily the rain cleared up by the end of our meal and we were able to move outside, working on the exterior details of the house and putting up corners.

In the evening, we had been invited for dinner with some of the University of Louisiana Habitat for Humanity club members. We met them at a jambalaya place and enjoyed some more local Louisiana cuisine.

Talking to the UL people was really interesting. We chatted about the weather, how cold it gets in Canada, and the accommodations Habitat provided for us.

When we first arrived, we were told by the Habitat coordinators that if we liked to run, not to run around the neighbourhood. It was recommended that we stay in our house and only go places by car. Despite this warning, our trippers had gone for a few walks around the area. We’d also talked and hung out with several of our neighbours, who we found to be really friendly.

One of the UL girls was shocked to hear that we’d been going for walks. They were also surprised that we talked to the neighbours, which apparently most groups do not do. On one level, I could understand their point of view, because we weren’t exactly in the nicest area. But personally, I found it really beneficial to be in the type of neighbourhood that  the people we were building houses for could be from.

One of the girls on the trip had mentioned something she had learned about on a previous volunteer trip, to an underdeveloped country: the “first-world bubble.” Though America is a first world country, I think that the principle still applies. As Canadians, we live in a place that’s pretty amazing, and it can be easy to forget that life isn’t like that everywhere. Especially as university students, living in a university town, we forget that there’s a world outside our own: where everybody lives in nice houses, has enough food to eat and free healthcare, and gets a high level of education. We’re all extremely privileged. But there’s a whole world of people with lives very different than our own. Those lives aren’t necessarily worse than ours – lots of people are just as happy with their lives – but a lot of people are also suffering, and many of them are looking for something better (for example, the people who apply to become homeowners through Habitat for Humanity). We have to remember that there is so much more going on in the world than our own lives and our own perspectives.

Our group outside the Jambalaya Shoppe. We’re making the UL sign with our hands:28238924_10215838023013515_382241527021452107_o.jpg

After supper, our group headed to the Blue Moon Saloon, where we enjoyed some local beers and hung out for a while before heading home.

The quirky Blue Moon Saloon:IMG_5162.JPG

At the Blue Moon Saloon:28238130_10215832012063245_5979258712671342336_o.jpg

Louisiana: Part 3, Sweat Equity & LSU Basketball

Tuesday we had another day of work on site, and I spent the day painting again. We also got to meet some of the future homeowners. The way Habitat for Humanity works is that it doesn’t just give away houses for free, it sells them at below market price and with affordable financing, making no profit. Future homeowners, once selected, have to put in a number of hours of “sweat equity” working on site. They also have to spend a number of hours working on their future neighbour’s houses before work is started on their own home. Homes are built in a cluster, and with all the homeowners helping to build each other’s houses, it’s intended to provide a little community of support.

After work, the trip leaders had planned a “study night” for us. I had brought zero study materials with me, knowing that I wasn’t about to waste valuable adventure time. You can study anywhere; you can only do Louisiana things in Louisiana.

Fortunately, the other trippers felt the same way. A couple of the guys suggested we go to a basketball game at Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge, and the entire group decided to go.


It was a lot of fun to see LSU and compare it to campus life at our own university. Sports games at my home university are pretty low-key, whereas this game had a huge audience, all decked out in the school’s colours of purple and yellow, and many of the audience members seemed to be alumni. They had their own jumbotron to show us close-ups of the game. There was even a brass band present, that would leap into enthusiastic playing whenever there was a break and the cheerleaders jumped in.

Cheerleaders during the break. You can see the band, “Bengal Brass”, along the top middle:


After the game, our whole group was allowed onto the court to take pictures! I’m still not sure how this happened or why we were allowed to do that, but it was awesome.


Finally, we wandered around the campus for a while, enjoying the beautiful architecture and large courtyards, before heading back to Lafayette for the night.


Louisiana: Part 2, Work Site and Swamp Tour

Monday was our first day at the work site, and our first time meeting the fabulous Habitat for Humanity crew in Lafayette. On site there were several paid workers, our project manager, and many volunteers, all of whom were endlessly patient with us over the coming week as they taught us various house-building skills. There were three houses on site, all at different stages of development. I spent the first day in the house that was the most done, putting on finishing touches. With a team of three we spent the day painting doors, door frames, windowsills, and trim.

For lunch that day we were treated to a Louisiana special – red beans and rice, served with cornbread. This is a classic Louisiana Creole dish and the site workers told us that red beans and rice is always served on Mondays, although no one was sure why. A internet search now tells me that it’s because Monday used to be wash day, and people would simmer the dish while doing their laundry. As well, ham was traditionally served on Sundays, so leftover ham could be thrown into the red beans. It was pretty delicious, and also a treat to have a homemade, authentically local meal while travelling!

After work, we went out for a swamp tour at nearby Lake Martin. We arrived just in time to be the last tour of the day, and the sun was setting as our guide took us around the lake and bayou.


With the warm sun, several alligators were out sunning themselves on the north side of the lake, giving us some amazing views.


Lake Martin also holds some of Louisiana’s largest nesting colonies for water birds, and adjoins a nature preserve. The bird life was abundant (which I loved!); we saw lots of Great Blue Herons, Great White Egrets, Anhinga, Little Blue Herons, and more.

The whole swamp was absolutely beautiful. Our guide told us that Lake Martin is a relatively young swamp, with the oldest tree only about five hundred years old. As well, he told us that swamps are extremely clean ecosystems, and that if there’s that “swampy” smell, it’s because something else has gotten into the water or is disrupting the system.

Swamp sunset (photo from my friend Jen). These are Cypress trees, the state tree of Louisiana.



The tour finished with the guide taking us to look at an old alligator nest, which basically looks like a mound of dirt. He moved the boat about ten feet and showed us this year’s nest, which was teeming with baby alligators. Then he casually pointed into the water at a pair of eyes, floating five feet away from our boat, and said, “There’s the mother.”

After spending a minute to determine we weren’t about to do anything, the mama alligator moved away and hung out about twenty feet from our boat while we took photos. We were less assured after our guide told us that alligators can propel themselves out of the water if they want to.

Mama gator – you can just see her eyes and back in the water:


We got back to the docks just as the sun was setting – another full day done.

Sunset in the bayou (photo from Jen):



Louisiana: Part 1, New Orleans

Every winter semester, Canadian universities will typically get a “reading week” to let students catch up on their studies, read, and prepare for upcoming midterm tests.

Instead, this year I left all my homework and worries behind and joined a group from Habitat for Humanity – University of Guelph chapter, on a reading week trip to Louisiana!

We left the first Friday night of reading week, and drove down there in vans in one straight shot. It took us about 24 hours and was an adventure and a half, but we got there all in one piece on Saturday night. We settled into our accommodations, provided by Habitat, where we’d be staying for the full week.


The next day we headed out for New Orleans!

Our group started with lunch together on a balcony in the French Quarter. I split several dishes with friends so that we could taste a little bit of everything, including crab cakes, gumbo, jambalaya, alligator sausage, and crawfish mac ‘n’ cheese. Before I left on the trip, somebody advised me that the two great past times of New Orleans were music and food, and this certainly held up!


After lunch we split into smaller groups, and spent several hours exploring the city. The city had hosted their biggest party of the year, Mardi Gras, just a week beforehand, and though they seemed to have done a pretty good job of cleaning it all up, there will still remnants from the party, including beads hanging off wires and trees and glitter ground into the sidewalks.



We wandered around by the river, the parks, and enjoyed some live street music, which seemed to spring up everywhere in New Orleans. It was beautifully warm there – we had left temperatures hovering around freezing in Ontario, and in Louisiana it was a gorgeous 27 degrees Celsius and sunny!


The architecture was also really beautiful. New Orleans has both strong French and Spanish influences and is a truly unique city, probably one of my favourite cities that I’ve been to.



In the evening, we rejoined our group for a walking ghost tour of New Orleans, which was satisfyingly creepy.

(This building isn’t haunted, it’s just beside one of the buildings that is haunted, and I thought it was really pretty. Taking pictures of the actual haunted buildings is supposed to be bad luck, and who am I to mess with spirits?)


After an exhausting but very fun day, we headed back to our accommodations in Lafayette, to rest up for our first day of work at the site the next day.