The Love of all things BIG and small

This is the story of a 60 year old electrician Jesus Hernandez and his best friend, Chacho. Twice a week, Hernandez drives to Hollenbeck Park in West Los Angeles with a loaf of bread, Chacho's favorite cereal, to visit the goose he raised since he was a gosling. Upon sighting Hernandez, the big beautiful white bird with its bright orange beak will swim hastily across the park's lake and climb into Hernandez's arms and will gently give him a peck. Hernandez will then playfully toss Chacho back into the water. Gleefully shaking off the drops of water, Chacho will eagerly paddle back for another toss. Eventually, Hernandez and Chacho make their way together, walking side by side to a grassy clearing. Hernandez will lay out on the grass enjoying the warmth of the Southern Californian sun while Chacho rests near by keeping a watchful eye over any strangers that may pass by a little too close. When Chacho is ready to go back into the water, Chacho will gently poke Hernandez with his beak to signal that he wants Hernandez to follow him back to the lake. This has been a regular occurrence for the past two years to the amazement of other park visitors.

This odd friendship started four years ago, when Hernandez went to the pet store, to purchase what he thought was a duckling for $5. The bird was only 15 days old and was very small. But to Hernandez's surprise the bird grew very fast and by the time he was two, Chacho had outgrown his owner's small backyard. Neighbors also started to complain of the loud honking. And so Hernandez embarked on the most difficult task of finding a new home for his feathered friend. That is when Hernandez discovered Hollenbeck Park. It seemed a perfect home with a meandering lake and shady trees and plenty of other ducks and geese for Chacho to befriend.

But leaving Chacho there the first time was heart wrenching. The goose refused to be left behind and followed him back to the car, running as fast as his webbed feet would take him, honking. "It was very hard to leave him. When I left, I was crying," says Hernandez.

Now two years later, Hernandez's visits to the park have become routine. Park visitors frequently witness the big white goose waddle with single minded determination towards Hernandez the moment he steps into the park, and thence commences their stroll together through the park - man and goose. However, to allay the jealousy of other geese and ducks, Hernandez now brings tortillas to feed the rest of them. When it is time to leave once again, after collecting his belongings, Hernandez will lovingly put the goose back in the water beneath the shoreline wall, so that he can make a quiet escape - until the next time.

Assuredly, Hernandez comments, "He's my best friend. I love him and he loves me."

(I wanted to add a couple sentences to this story about happiness and the love and appreciation of all creatures...but I think this story alone says it best).

Click here for an audio slide show of Chacho and Jesus Hernandez.

*The material for this post was taken from a LA Times article titled "Almost a brother goose." It is written by Bob Pool and was printed in the California section February 21, 2009.


The Curious World of Gastronomic Rankings

I love restaurant/dining guides. I am actually a little fanatical about them. When I am thinking of trying a new restaurant either in my own neighborhood or in a new city I am visiting - I cross check reviews - Zagat, Michelin, citysearch, Wallpaper, Concierge, various newspapers and so on.... Depending which city I am in, the array of guides I consult undoubtedly vary some. It is a little anal I suppose, but it has saved me from some horrid establishments and helped me find some gems that I return to every chance I get. Generally, they work for me - and up until recently that is where my thinking about these guides stopped - until I read an article in the Financial Times on the coveted Michelin 3 star rating and Chinese food.

The article by Fuchsia Dunlop was about how the Michelin guide awarded its highest honor, 3 stars to the first Chinese restaurant ever. The recipient was Lung King Heen in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. The restaurant's chef Chan Yan Tak (see image on the left) is a specialist in Cantonese cuisine. And from every article and review I have read about this restaurant, the food is spectacular. But given the long history and diversity of Chinese cooking, it is curious perhaps even controversial that this is the first and only Chinese restaurant to win this rating. According to this article, Michelin acknowledged that only 2 out of the 12 inspectors working on the Hong Kong/Macau guide were Chinese. Hong Kong foodies and some critics argue that foreigners lack the cultural knowledge to fully appreciate and judge Chinese food. Chinese cuisine has significant differences from European traditions such as "the relative unimportance of sweet dishes; the lack of anything corresponding to the European practice of wine matching foods; and perhaps most of all, the Chinese love foods that have no taste but are eaten largely for their slithery, squelchy or rubbery mouthfeels."

All this then raises the question - whether it is truly possible to judge cuisine from vastly different cultures using the same criteria?

According to the director of the Michelin guides worldwide, "Good cuisine is good cuisine where ever you are," and one doesn't have to be an insider to appreciate it. In support of his argument, 6 Japanese restaurants in Tokyo received the prized 3 star rating. In addition, Tokyo has the most Michelin stars of any city with 227. (I wonder how many of the judges were Japanese?) However, the question remains valid - can we judge all cuisine with one universal standard. I really don't have an answer to this question. But every so often when I go out to eat with my Chinese side of my family, I do wonder if I would be slurping up every morsel with extra zeal if I was more Chinese, less foreign. Instead, more often then not, I am staring at the dishes quizzically, wondering which mushy jello like substance is more flavorful. But this experience of mine is not unique to Chinese food. Mate is the national drink of so many countries in Latin America and while in Argentina I ordered it at the conclusion of one of my many extraordinarily delicious meals, but I simply could not get past the second sip. Having grown up in Japan, Japanese food more often than not is my go to comfort food, even so there is an entire smorgasbord of Japanese cuisine that I will not go near. All this makes me wonder, how much of this is cultural variances and how much is merely personal preference? Or are your personal food preferences determined by your own cultural influences?

I suppose it does make sense that when judging a culture's food to have critics or foodies who can fully appreciate and explain the unique characteristics and flavors of a specific food. People who can gently push us a little outside our comfort zone and open our eyes and palette to new experiences and tastes. Ultimately, isn't that the whole point of sampling different types of cuisine - to enrich ourselves and to learn about another?


Hip Hop Rising from the Rubble of Palestine

I wonder if when Tupac Shakur wrote the words to Holla if Ya Hear Me or when Public Enemy recorded Fear of a Black Planet did they ever imagine that their music and lyrics would resonate so powerfully with people on the other side of the world in the heart of the Middle East. Could they have imagined that their music would inspire the birth of Palestinian hip hop? But that I suppose is the incredible ability of music to transcend geography, nationality, culture and other boundaries to connect and inspire. This is the story of Slingshot HipHop, a documentary by New York based artist Jackie Reem Salloum about the rise of Hip Hop as a new form of expression and resistance amongst young Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Their music is no doubt political and full of angst and frustration after all they are trying to survive under the extreme violence of the world's longest occupation. Many of them have lost friends and family and endure daily the inhumanity of check points that tightly control their movements. These young Palestinians channel their anger and frustration into rap; using music to protest, to provide release, to educate, to share and cross boundaries whether they be political, cultural, sexual, religious or national. Their goal is to have some control over their own story and to share it with the world at large.
Salloum, the director, who is herself of Syrian/Palestinian descent turned to film-making to challenge the stereotypes of Arabs in the media. This documentary took her five years to complete, on a non-existant budget, heavily dependant on the kindness and generosity of friends and family. Her perserverence ultimately paid off, when the movie was shown in Sundance last year. While this documentary is rough around the edges, it is also enlightening, poignant, humorous and entertaining. And I just really liked the music.

This movie is slowly making its way around the world, often playing at smaller venues. The DVD is expected to be released in April 2009.

One of the groups she profiles, the originator of Palestinian Hip Hop - DAM (Da Arabian MC) said when they first started rapping, there was no such thing as Arabic Hip Hop and they had initially assumed that if they were to perform this type of music, they too would have to write and preform in English. Now DAM raps in both Hebrew and Arabic which has given them not only a strong Arab following but also an Israeli one.

Below are a few of their more popular songs:


Life of an Expat: Dubai Part III

Adventures and discoveries in Dubai and its environs continue for our friend and her family. Here is another update on driving, sight seeing and celebrating the Eid, Christmas and the New Year in an Arab country:

Emiriti Kids on National Day (ITP images)

After a month filled with statutory and religious holidays and of course, sheer gluttony, January started off with some lethargy for us. December began with National Day (on December 2nd) commemorating 37 years since the creation of the United Arab Emirates. Many patriotic Emiritis decorated their cars with flags and massive paint jobs depicting Emiriti culture. We skipped the parades and festivities in favour of lounging at the beach and jumping the massive waves.

The following week we had 3 days off for Eid al Fitr. During the Eid break, we headed to another emirate named Fujairah on the east coast, passing first through Sharjah, the religious emirate where alcohol is completely forbidden. Sharjah is the emirate from which a lot of people commute to Dubai, as housing is much more affordable. Although is only about a 10 minute drive from the Dubai border, during rush hour it can take over an hour and a half or so. We also drove past the Hajar Mountains which is a large mountain range that runs along the UAE and Oman. It was nice to be outside the flat and big bustling Dubai city and see mountains again.

Furjairah city itself is not that exciting. It is quite old, small and run-down especially after glitzy Dubai. Our purpose there however, was not to have a beach holiday (what it is known for), but to see the mountains and find some wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds). With all the rain we had in Dubai, we were certain we'd see some flowing rivers and pools, but to our dismay we found only dry, empty wadis. We stopped by Wadi Al Hilo, an archaeological site and Wadi Warayah, but were disappointed to see them both completely dry. Since driving in the UAE (even with maps) is difficult given the poor signage, we got lost a few times on our drive and did not catch as many wadis as we had intended.

We enjoyed some desert-like scenery on our trip and stopped by Kohr Kalba, the 2000 year old mangrove swamp (oldest in Arabia) inhabited by a range of birds. We watched a flock of flamingos fly past us. We also saw people digging for crabs and setting up camp tents.

Christmas Season in Dubai
Since we had first arrived in Dubai during May's scorching summer heat, we had left a lot of the sightseeing activities for when we had company - so we promptly got busy playing tour guide and tourist around the city with the arrival of my family. Our first stop was the 7-star Burj al Arab (the hotel shaped like a ship's sail) - which was grossly overpriced and tacky in its decoration. (The dining room had some weird computer chip motif a garish color scheme). We had heard as much from everyone, but we had to see it for ourselves. The brunch buffet we had was good, but not necessarily better than other buffets we've had. The panoramic views of the sea and city on the 27th floor however, were spectacular.

On Christmas Eve, we took the day off work and went on a day tour to the town of Hatta, a popular weekend getaway for Dubai residents, located about an hour and a half away. En route, we had about 15 minutes of dune bashing in the desert (driving around sand dunes in a SUV) which was loads of fun, much like a roller coaster, but much more nausea-inducing. The desert was just breathtaking and had such super soft reddish sand. It felt like we were miles away from civilization, although truly, we were just a few minutes away from some nearby shops. The Hajar Mountains also formed the backdrop along our journey as we made another stop at the Hatta Pools. These are naturally forming mini-waterways (perhaps from underground springs). It was very pretty, but we decided not to dip in when we say garbage floating in the water. We had lunch at the Hatta Fort Hotel and then checked out the Hatta Heritage Village which had preserved ancient homes. Upon our return to Dubai, we made another stop at the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary at the foot of the Dubai Creek. We spent a bit of time just sitting and watching flamingos and other birds from a distance.

New Year's Eve
We woke up New Year's Eve morning to hear on the radio that Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, had declared that all events were to be cancelled that night to show solidarity with the suffering of the Palestinians. Ultimately, only the fireworks and live bands were cancelled. Most of the events still went on pretty much as scheduled, but with softer music and no over top new year's eve paraphernalia.

Dubai Shopping Festival
January 15th marked the start of the annual Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) which meant a lot of scurrying around to the different malls to find the best deals possible. We had been holding off on a few purchases in anticipation of this event and there were some awesome sales, some up to 70% off. This year however, DSF was a bit more subdued as the usual festivities (fireworks and live performances) were cancelled out of respect for the war on Gaza. Dubai is also not as filled with tourists as it has been in past years during the festival. The retail sector here, next to the over inflated real estate market, has also been hit hard.

Lastly, update on driving in Dubai
Some of you have asked about my driving progress. I haven't driven in a few weeks and the longer we live here, the less inclined I am to drive given that Dubai has one of the worst traffic accident stats in the world (196 deaths in the first 9 months of 2008, an improvement from last year, but this does not include the thousands of non-fatal accidents). This is actually quite high considering that in a population of 1.5 million people, a huge chunk of the population don't drive. We actually witness the manifestation of this stat all the time with reckless, dangerous and aggressive drivers - particularly amongst Emiratis who are above the law. One such crazy driver ran over an expat woman killing her out of road rage directed at her cab driver. His trial has been postponed due to the non-attendance of witnesses - hmmm...coincidence, Sherlock?! Currently, I am still mulling over the need to drive over the risk of a heart attack and an accident. Some people we know are consistently getting into minor fender benders, even in parking lots. Hearing these stories, aren't a huge incentive for me either to get behind the wheel.
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