Photo Journal: New Orleans, 10 years post-Katrina…

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It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina tore apart New Orleans; 10 years ago I was half way through my university degree, still living at home, in a relatively new relationship with the guy that would become my husband. When we first started dating, we spent a lot of time talking about all the places we wanted to travel to (and it was a bloody long list), the places we wanted to see and, more importantly, experience. New Orleans was a city pretty high up on both our lists, and we were both equally surprised at the others’ desire to visit. New Orleans, pre-Katrina, wasn’t exactly a big ticket city; at least not for 2 Aussie uni students. It wasn’t a Paris or a London or  a New York. But we both wanted to go. He wanted to go for the music, the night life, the care-free atmosphere in a city that seemed to be built on fun. I couldn’t actually put into words why I wanted to go; it was one of those weird “I don’t know why, but I know I belong in that city” things. Something about the music, the art, the voodoo, the cemeteries, the literature, the food – I just knew that any place there was a coalescence of all those things was a place I needed to be.

But we were still kids. We were both full time uni students. We had big dreams, but no money to fund them. When Katrina hit the city, we were both devastated; for some still unknown reason, we felt a strange connection to this mysterious city on the other side of the world. We debated over and over again whether it’d still be a city we’d want to visit post-Katrina. Would it be somehow tainted? Would the recovery effort have taken away all of the magic and the charm we wanted to visit for? Would they, a people so fiercely proud and protective of their city, still accept visitors as openly? We weren’t sure, but we were both determined to visit anyway and find out for ourselves.

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Ten and a half years after we started dating, and nine and a half long years after Katrina hit, we finally made it. We finally visited this city we were both so strangely drawn to. And while the spirit of the people was so strong, the physical effects of Katrina were still so punishingly visible.

This storm caused damage on a scale that can’t be accurately understood through words. We’ve all read the numbers, the statistics, but even they seem completely unreal.
80% of the city under water.
Almost 2000 lives lost.
Close to $110 billion in damage.

There have been hundreds of articles written about it all, and nothing I write will be as meaningful as some of the first-hand accounts written by the residents and survivors (I’d especially recommend watching  HBO’s Treme and reading Nine Lives by Dan Baum). What I can say, as a complete foreigner and outsider, is that New Orleans changed the trajectory of my life. Even post-Katrina, it was still magic. All of the imperfections made it so perfect. My soul was different for having visited. And all of our reservations were completely unfounded; the charm was still there, the recovery effort was incredible, and the people couldn’t have been more kind and welcoming. Instead of writing about the recovery ten years on, because (let’s be honest) I really don’t have the insight into it like the locals will, let me show you New Orleans through my eyes almost 10 years on. And I’m not talking the pretty touristy sights. Let me show you some of the more real, less brochure-worthy, genuine places and things I saw.

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Desert sunrise, a police convoy, and Abu Simbel

I won’t lie – I was more than a little pissed off when our poor, patient guide Medo told us we’d have to be up around 4am to join the 4.30am police convoy to Abu Simbel the following morning. We’d just had a pretty long day, disembarking the Princess Sarah in Aswan and visiting the Nubian Village where everything had changed for me – I was physically and mentally exhausted. “But there’ll be a beautiful view of the sun rising over the desert! And I’ll bring you all breakfast!” Dude, 4am.

I’m a pretty solid morning person, with my body clock usually waking me up by 7am if I haven’t set an alarm. But 4am hurt. We piled into our little van and stared bleary eyed out the window as others did the same. We saw the police, dressed to the nines and accessorised with machine guns, directing the early morning operation. We sat together on the bitumen for a while, wondering what the hell was taking so long; eventually, engines started to hum to life and the convoy began the long, 300km drive from Aswan. We all found comfy spots in our little van and promptly fell asleep.

Why the need for the police convoy to get to Abu Simbel? Medo simplified it for us: “Money making.” Ahh… those two little words that make the world go round.

Anyway, credit where credit’s due – he woke us up just as we were about to drive into the sunrise and distributed breakfast lunchboxes to us all, with orange juices, chocolate croissants, and some strange but delicious packaged Egyptian sweet biscuits and breads. And he was right about the beautiful sun rise…

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We finally rolled up, after what felt like an eternity, yawning and rubbing our eyes… It wasn’t what we were expecting. But then again, none of us were really sure what we should have been expecting. Not this. Not an absolutely stunning lake in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

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Turns out we were standing on a plateau overlooking the beautiful Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world, spanning over 5000km². It was breathtaking. We all fell silent and eventually still; I looked around and realised we’d all stopped in our tracks, disregarding the winding path before us to see the temple itself, completely taken by the view over the lake. The photos do not do it justice – the water literally sparkled and glistened under the sun. No one ever speaks about this lake when Abu Simbel is mentioned, but they really should – it’s perfect.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We were eventually hurried up by Medo – as one of the first groups to arrive, he wanted us to get as much time without the huge crowds as possible. Legend. We couldn’t for the life of us work out where this temple was – we were coming from up high, walking down a dusty path winding it way around to the left (as you can see two pictures up). We looked out, and couldn’t see anything. All of a sudden, the first of the group let out a huge gasp. As we came around the bend to the left the enormous structure appeared underneath the plateau we had started on top of. Words can’t justify it, and neither can photos. But here’s a try.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

I’d spent a lot of time imagining what it’d be like to stand before this leviathan, but it was beyond anything I could have pictured. The main temple is the Temple of Ramesses, one of the handful of temples constructed in the reign of Ramesses II. Over the centuries, the temple was eventually abandoned and covered by the desert sands. It was rediscovered in the early 1800s, and eventually an enormous re-location project began in the mid 1960s; the temple was under threat of submersion from the rising waters of the Nile that would come from the upcoming build of the Aswan Dam. Over four years, the entire structure was cut into blocks of around 20 – 30 ton per piece, meticulously recorded, moved and put back together around 65m above it’s original location.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

One of the most phenomenal feats of the relocation was the fact that the original temple was aligned so that on 22nd of February and October each year, the sun would shine through the entry of the temple and directly onto the beautiful back wall – the relocation was so exact, that the sun shines now on the 21st of the months – pretty close to the original. Not only did the relocation get it right, but the original architects, all those centuries ago, managed to nail it without any technology.

Standing at the base of those statues was so surreal – enormous doesn’t even begin to describe it. I stand at a pretty average 170cm (or 5’7) and as you can see below, I was utterly and completely dwarfed…

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There is actually another spectacular temple at this complex which sadly doesn’t get quite as much attention – The Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. This beauty was built to honour Nefertati, the favourite consort of Ramesses II, and it marks the second time that a temple was dedicated to a queen. Nefertari is also depicted as the goddess Hathor, with the cow horns and solar disc on her head. This one was particularly special to me as I have that symbol tattooed on my wrist.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

After we’d been through both temples, taken our photos, stumbled around wide eyed and with our jaws to the ground, four of the five of us met up on a block overlooking the entire area. We just sat there in quiet reverence, and you could just tell that everyone really appreciated what they were experiencing. As we watched the other tourists running around with their cameras to their faces, listening intently to their guides, pouring over maps and guide books, we just sat there and watched it all. We stared at the temples and gazed at the lake, all in silent contemplation.

What the others were thinking about, I couldn’t tell you. What I was thinking about though was my life. How small and insignificant it is in the whole scheme of things. I’ll never be wonderful or grand, magnificent and well known. I’ll never be loved by the masses, nor will I be feared. People will probably never know my name, and there will certainly never be any temples or sculptures built in my honour. I’m just another girl leading another life. But on that day, I also thought about how happy I was and how proud I was of myself for having finally overcome some of my demons and for finally starting to live the life I’d so desperately wanted and coveted for so long. Yeah, I’ve had some luck along the way (I didn’t chose where or to whom I was born, for example, but I’ve been very lucky on both of those accounts), but it’s been a lot of hard work as well, actively seeking out opportunities, making the most of it all, planning, preparing… it was really beautiful to reflect on how far I’d taken myself, and how much further I could go.

And I was happy. We all were. That’s why I really love this photo.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014