on May 23, 2012 on 5/23/12 from ,

NOLA: “Do you want someone to cast a spell for you or on you?”

I am exhausted. My eyes haphazardly glaze over, eyelids and lower lid feel like magnets.. I’m seeing doubles. Then blurry triples. Eyelids. So. Heavy. Just before they close, I gather all my strength and take a swig of water or stretch. But they don’t refocus and I’m doomed for the next hour. We’ve all reached this point. The constant discussion, mental stimulation (heavy, uncomfortable, heated talks about race and class), packed schedules and feelings the need to explore during every free minute have been unexpectedly draining! So here I am. I just trudged zombie-like to my favorite tea shop and proceeded to order a white chocolate mocha with 2 shots of espresso and a slice of “Death by Chocolate” cake. Eyes are still blurring as I type on this bright yellow screen, but bear with me as I sum up the week!

We spent Monday at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and broke into smaller groups to practice interview skills and the research methods we’ll utilize in our case studies abroad. I visited with the director of the Office of Public Health’s Maternal Child Health Program, Dr. Karis Schoellman first. I found it really interesting that here in the U.S., hiring a midwife or doula to deliver your baby is considered a privilege reserved for those with the greatest resources. Midwifery is also considered a “traditional” practice, under the umbrella of traditional medicine. In developing countries, it’s the complete reverse; traditional medicine often caters instead to those without the resources to afford Western medical care. Dr. Karis embodied the image of a defeated and exhausted employee trying to function within an incredibly bureaucratic and complicated system of offices under the state department. She spoke about the politics in the office: a fashion designer was once appointed to a leadership role because of her relationship to a higher-up, and her incompetency led to a mass exodus of frustrated employees from the office. Dr. Karis showed us a billion flow charts to demonstrate the communication barriers and inefficiency. We touched on sex education, chronic underfunding for mental health, and strategies in developing effective health social media campaigns.

Next stop was the NOLA Birthing Program and Sister Friend Delegations, headed by Luanne Francis. We trekked across the city and found Luanne to be quite a source of inspiration. She’s one of the few professionals I’ve met who, after researching organic chemistry for a few years, entered medical school then transferred to an MPH program instead! Beyond teaching jazzercise classes at the health clinic she runs, she directs the Sister Friend birthing program. The women here are doing great things. Older women partner with generally low-income African American, single pregnant women (there are 50 pairs in New Orleans) to foster supportive relationships. Supportive is widely defined as checking pregnant women’s homes for baby-safety, accompanying prenatal doctor visits (OH! Medicaid in Louisiana covers ALL pregnant women regardless of employment status!), providing emotional support, attending the delivery and serving as a person the child knows who cares about him/her. Luanne also showed us these way cool $5 birthing kits being distributed in rural developing areas across the globe! Everything you need to deliver a birth in one little package. Pretty unbelievable. Bureaucracy was nonexistent at the birthing program center…but I think it was the oversized comfy couches and pile of chocolate kisses awaiting us that really helped paint a picture of the working environment contrasts between Luanne and Dr. Karis.

On Tuesday we looked at health through a cultural lens. We headed to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation in Treme and heard from Scott Aiges, the Director of Programs, Marketing and Communications. We gathered around this beautiful table and listened to Scott speak. I’d love to someday return to NOLA for the Jazz Festival, where 90% of the music played all week is local. It rivals Mardi Gras as one of the city’s biggest draws, showcasing the music, food, and art that define New Orleanian culture. Scott talked to us about where the $300 million raised from the festival goes—like helping musicians who return post-Katrina find affordable housing, offering travel grants to artists, and running a music school for youth. The best part was hearing from a panel of three community members: Bruce, Felice and Jeremy. Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes is a 6’5” 300lb African American park ranger, musician, former NFL player, 2nd chief to the North Side Skill and Bones Gang, and member of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club. These Social Aid and Pleasure clubs date back to the 1700s and provide a space for community members to gather and pool their knowledge and financial resources to help certain members in need of money or who can’t afford a proper burial. Bruce was intimidating but sarcastic and friendly, and described in hilarious detail his dance moves through the streets of New Orleans during club parades. Next was Felice Guimont, a singer/songwriter who is an RN at a “Musician’s Clinic” where she is also a patient. Felice was around my mom’s age but her spunky purple glittery eyeshadow, lacy tops and overlapping funky jewellery would make you think otherwise. She gave the most charismatic and poignant speech we’ve heard yet, and I won’t soon forget her descriptions of the city today as full of the “walking dead,” as Katrina has populated the city with mere human shells and has removed spirits. Our third panellist, Jeremy Cooker, ended our visit on a lighter note. He deals with NOLA’s tourism and marketing, keeping the city humming by promoting its authenticity and organic, unfabricated culture, host to over 100 festivals a year. After the Jazz and Heritage Foundation we headed down the street to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a non-profit holding the world’s most comprehensive collection related to NOLA’s Orleans’ African American community-based masking and processional traditions, including Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs, and Skull and Bone gangs.

Now I get to talk about the most interesting person I spoke to in NOLA. Or in my life. I, along with Niv, Christina and Karen (the traditional medicine case study group) stumbled upon a Voo Doo shop and temple. You know, complete with herbal incenses, fend shui crystals, potion oils, gris gris bags, Voo Doo dolls, Haitian and African spiritual arts and crafts, sacred healing mist, masks, and a Voo Doo healer in the flesh. From the start, our harmless but probing questions directed at this pony-tail-clad, heavy-set, bearded “healer” were met with honesty. After all, he “knew we were coming” 30 minutes before we arrived…he could “sense it” and “feel that our energy was not hostile, just reflected a desire to gain knowledge.”An hour-long conversation ensued, surrounded by jars of exotic herbs and flags depicting Voo Doo Gods and Goddesses. The healer (I think his name was Rav?) dove into details about his past, the history of Voo Doo, and his capabilities as a practitioner. Rav is half-Jewish, half- Cherokee, and identifies himself as “Bokor”—the traditional Voo Doo form local to New Orleans.

The practice, religion and medicine of Voo Doo are rooted in the Pope in Benin, Africa; they believe in one God, one creative source. Rav ranted about the inherent “flaws” in the Bible due to mistranslation and expressed his belief in incarnation when he said to us, “Your children are your parents in your former life.” But I had to suppress my laughter when he questioned a customer on the phone, “Do you want someone to cast a spell for you or on you?” Rav offers services for telling the future, healing physical or mental ailments, playing with love and changing the trajectory of relationships and transforming the energies present in your life—all through herbs, roots, and prayerwork. He insisted that all the Voo Doo dolls in the store were “locked down” through prayer and thus incapable of harbouring evil- which common folk often associate with Voo Doo. Allegedly, the early Catholic Church “craved power and demonized what they couldn’t control;” they falsely informed the public that the pins often in Voo Doo dolls cause pain, when in fact they are used to pinpoint physical pain of customers as a record-keeping device until healed. I asked Rav how he sees the future of his shop, and in his response he casually mentioned his intention to build a homeless shelter through NOVA: New Orleans Vampire Association. A whole lotta polite questioning later, and we found out all the juicy details of Rav’s nocturnal, sanguine lifestyle drinking 1-6oz of human blood about three times per week. The “non-vampire voluntary “donors” live in his home and receive free rent in return. Personally, I trace all this wackiness to his deeply troubled childhood; Rav’s father was a Methodist minister and referred to Rav as his “greatest mistake” and threatened to kill Rav upon learning that he was openly gay. At the age of 13, Rav bit his uncle in a fist fight and the energy and “sparks” he felt in response to tasting blood were transformational. Only after drinking blood does he feel “100% healthy.” Thoughts y’all?

For our last night in New Orleans, SherriLynn invited us over for a farewell dinner of gumbo and king cake! Remember Al “Carnival Time” Johnson from Habitat for Humanity’s Musician’s Village? He played the piano and sang the whole night and we all danced and sang along..we really came full circle from 2.5 weeks ago. I’m finishing this post while attempting to stay up all night til our flight pick-up at 4am. The real closure of our time in New Orleans came with the squashing of the bedroom cockroach! Okay, my exhaustion is reaching the point of delirium. See you in India!