NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Our building crew arrived as strangers from different directions in Canada and the U.S. but we were all spending part of our vacations helping this wonderful city recover from the still-visible scars of Hurricane Katrina.
"We wanted to come to New Orleans just because we've never been here and wanted to help out somehow," said Jessica Hopkins, 29, who flew here from Glendale, Calif., with her partner, Mike Valdez, 33.
That parallels the motivation for my daughter, Lisa, 25, and me, plus the opportunity to see relatives we'd never met before - cousins whose shared ancestors' paths included Winnipeg.
We found a unique and welcoming metropolis, hurting to be sure but bouncing back and eager to show visitors the kind of good time the Big Easy (more easygoing than the Big Apple) has been famous for almost since it was founded by Montreal-born Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718.
We were marking my birthday at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which was hard hit when 80 per cent of the city was flooded after Katrina swept in from the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29, 2005. When levees failed, at least 71 percent of the city's homes were damaged, many completely swept away, others ruined by water several metres high that stewed for weeks before it was pumped out.
More than a million voluntourists (volunteer tourists) have responded and more are needed. I signed up for the Habitat opportunity online (see If You Go) and at 7:15 a.m. we took a $10 taxi ride from the tourist-magnet French Quarter, passing hundreds of derelict and abandoned homes and an alarming number of weedy, vacant lots where families once lived. There were encouraging signs of new and restored homes and businesses bringing life back to the area.
We gathered with a few dozen other volunteers at a corner of the Musicians' Village, a visionary project of 72 homes conceived by Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis after many of the city's beloved musicians were forced to flee by Katrina.
A Habitat supervisor assigned us to a crew of seven putting up siding at 2113 Louisa St., a typical single-level Habitat home of about 1,100 square feet on a 35-foot lot with three bedrooms and one bathroom.
Some of us were experienced but Lisa and I were pretty much novices. While measuring was challenging at first, the fiber cement siding was easy to cut and hammer and we got into the swing of it.
Everybody brought their own lunch and sat around on building materials in the warm 16C sun in the backyard getting to know each other, including musician and budding homeowner Jesse Moore, who was putting in part of his 350-hour sweat equity by working with us.
The homeowners' sweat equity constitutes their down payment and then they pay off the $75,000, 30-year, no-interest mortgage at about $600 a month.
Moore, a 61-year-old singer-songwriter, had been living in Austin, Texas, when he returned to New Orleans and was approved for the last available house in the village.
"I was very excited about that," he said. We were excited to hear Moore's music and most of the crew turned up the next night when he performed at a French Quarter pub.
Music is central to the New Orleans experience and helped make another opportunity to volunteer great fun. A local couple, Keith Crawford and Deborah Frydman, hosted a Christmas dinner for seniors and posted on the New Orleans craigslist site for 30 people to help serve. We signed up.
They hired caterers and a three-piece band that set a warm and lively tone for the 300 seniors who were bused into a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in suburban Harahan. We enjoyed chatting with the guests and serving the lunchtime meal.
That night we volunteered at a New Orleans Hornets NBA game after finding the chance online. We were given official Hornets shirts with "Volunteer" on the back to wear and keep, and assignments. I put temporary Hornets tattoos on young and old while Lisa coloured fans' hair with purple and gold hairspray.
By halftime we were sprung loose to watch the rest of the game, a 100-87 losing cause against the L.A. Lakers, but it was a thrill to see Kobe Bryant play.
Our tastiest "volunteering" was the New Orleans Cooking Experience, a half-day extravaganza with chef Chiqui Collier at the House on Bayou Road, a circa-1790s Creole plantation house. Guests pay $150 each for the privilege of helping prepare elements of a fabulous four-course meal, sipping on wine and then sitting down to enjoy the fruits of their and the chef's labours.
That's a great splurge. But eating here is a passion that doesn't need to break the bank. The brand-new Zagat guide credits New Orleans with the lowest average meal costs in the U.S. - $28.52 compared to the national average of $34.31.
We ate at the tony, venerable Galatoire's restaurant but also budget meals like splitting a heaping roast beef Po'Boy (like a sub) for $9.95 at Messina's. Another day we popped into Frank's Restaurant for takeout and carved the $13.75 Muffaletta, a massive sandwich with a round, flat bun of near-Frisbee proportions, into quarters for two meals.
As much as the food, people are drawn to New Orleans for the music, and more specifically the jazz. We sat on the floor of the famed Preservation Hall a few feet from hot trumpeter William Smith and the 726 Jazz Band. A few times we caught sizzling musicians at the Spotted Cat on Faubourg Marigny's Frenchman Street, which has better music than Bourbon Street.
New Orleanians love to celebrate. I kept hearing that the city's Jazz Fest, April 24-26 and April 30-May 3, is unbeatable for music lovers.
Most celebrations emanate from the French Quarter with its narrow streets and Spanish-flavoured architecture. "Like Havana with newer cars," said my daughter Lisa. The Quarter is on higher ground and was not flooded.
We enjoyed browsing the antique-store treasures on St. Louis Street, café au lait with doughnut-like beignets dusted with icing sugar, pecan pralines at Aunt Sally's, touring grand old homes and cruising by the house that Brad and Angelina bought. Pitt's Make It Right Foundation is building homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.
And if you want to help New Orleans, the city wants you. "We have come a long way but we've still got a lot of work to do," Mayor Ray Nagin told me in an interview. "Come down, do some good and enjoy the city of New Orleans."
You'll feel good. "It almost felt like we were being ambassadors for Canada," said Lisa. "We were making a difference in people's lives."