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Sunday, December 06, 2009

'Tis the season

The holiday season is upon us and with it comes the ritual celebrations. There was a double hitter this weekend. On Friday, it started first with my office staff Christmas party at The Mint Leaf, a local Indian restaurant. This was an excellent if somewhat unconventional holiday feast of pakoras, samosas, chicken tandoori, lamb vindaloo, butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, fragrant basmati rice, palak paneer, baigan bharta, ras malai, poached pear with pistachio ice cream..all washed down with several bottles of wine, Guinness, and martinis. Many stories of yesteryear and general good cheer was shared by all.

On Saturday, Mr. Hippo and I were off to his office staff Christmas party at La Felicita, an Italian restaurant in Oakville. This was a similar good time party at a lovely bakery and cafe which served up an sumptuous meal. Such gatherings usually create a few problems for me as I rarely meet Mr. Hippo's company folks but once a year. I did have some difficulty in remembering the names of the over 40 fellow employers and their spouses but generally speaking, I think everyone was in the same boat. The new restaurant, and special loot bag gift of Italian cookies were the most obvious and welcome signs of change in social committee at Mr. Hippo's company. The long promised summer BBQ may become a reality this coming year.

What awaits this week...the nurses Christmas dinner and the the hospital physicians holiday gathering.....'tis the season.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

How do you photograph a 500lb sea cow?

Actually, you don't really photograph them. Over weekend, my Honey and I spent a few days of R&R on Florida's nature coast. We did some kayaking and swimming (really floating) with the manatees. Very intriguing beasts. At birth, the pups weigh 30kg and can the females (who tend to be bigger) can reach up to 1 000kg.

There was a definite kinship or perhaps curiosity felt between Mr. Hippo and these animals. He was the manatee magnet. Perhaps they are drawn to his whiskers! One of the pups even took a gentle nibble of his toes (which is very common) and he rubbed the tummy of another. Another young male nearly kissed me as seen in this video. What the manatees get out of this human socialization is a mystery but for this human, it was a very magical.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Near perfect Stratford Experience.

Well, practice makes perfect. After three tries, I think this was the near perfect Stratford experience. Dinner started promptly at 5:15pm at Bijou. This is an excellent restaurant with fabulous service and sumptuous meals.

We were seated in our own private dining room with some low mood lighting (but not so dark you couldn't see what you were eating). The appetizers for arctic char and country vegetable soup and main courses of crispy duck, and quail (done four ways) were devoured with gusto and complemented delightfully with California Zinfandel, Niagara Pinot noir and the Bijou champagne cocktails.

The show was A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. To be fair, I was a bit skeptical about the material having see the 1966 movie which showcased such legendary comedians as Buster Keaton, Phil Silvers and Zero Mostel. I was a bit disappointed in the product as the jokes seem silly and comedy was flat.

To my very pleasant surprise, this was not so with the stage production. Perhaps the side gags perpetrated in this muscial comedy are indeed meant only to work before a live audience. The comedic timing was flawless. The lead role of Pseudolus was led by Sean Cullen as the original lead Bruce Dow had been injured. It was indeed fortuitous that he was available. All manner to comedy from word play, to slap stick to mistaken identity and even some bawdy bits worked perfectly as Cullen and the company danced, and sang their hearts out. The energy from this performance was infectious and by the end of the evening, the audience were humming Comedy Tonight as they made their way out of the theatre. Indeed many funny things happened in this forum.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Movies at TIFF

Prompted by a friend's recent email, I finally got around to a review of this year's TIFF selections. Overall, the movies were better this year but I think this has probably more to do with the fact I was able to select the movies I wished to see rather than opt for a "pass" to certain package where the films were pre-selected.

In no particular order,

1) Good Hair: loved this one and saw this with a friend of mine who happens to be Afro-Canadian. After the show, we met up with her sister and heard a few personal "hair" tales. Chris Rock's socio-political documentary on African hair was both stingily funny but thoughtful. Inspired by his daughter who shocked him with the declaration: Daddy, why don't I have good hair, Chris explores everything from the economics of hair weaves to the politics of "relaxing" one's hair was covered. He journeys from science labs to witness the effect of the chemicals in the hair products on aluminum cans, to the hair salon around the corner to the Battle Royal competition at the largest convention for black hair products in America

2) City of Life and Death: probably will be a candidate for this year's best foreign film. The movie deals with the Rape of Nanking which has been likened to the Chinese holocaust. After many years of avoiding any open discussion about the atrocities, the Chinese seem to have decided to embrace this director's vision to narrate a story of the Japanese occupation of the old proud capital. The mass executions, "comfort women", and violations of all sorts are covered in the scope of this film. Its greatest secret is the story is told from multiple view points including that of various Japanese soldiers, John Rabe (the works of this good german were largely unknown to me) and various Chinese men and women. There are many characters inspired by (and loosely based on ) Iris Chang's novel. The bold black and white cinematography confirms a gripping documentary vision to the film.

3) Baaria: From the director of the much beloved Cinema Paradiso. This movie was bloated with too many characters and was lost in a sea of meandering plot narratives which ultimately did not come to any conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise. Its style and characters were directive of Cinema Paradiso and by the film's conclusion, I was rather longing to see that film again.

4) Prince of Tears: this was the story of a family shattered by the terror of communism plots and conspiracies in Taiwan. The "White Terror" held Taiwan in the 1950s in a state of near martial law. Neighbours, friends and family members could be taken away at moment when the mere rumour of ties of association to Red China were whispered. The plot was somewhat convulated with a twist of a lesbian love affair, misunderstandings between half-siblings and a suspicious and slightly deformed uncle.

5) Anti-christ: I can't really talk about this one. Obscene, grotesque, vile, misogynist and I know why the audiences at Cannes walked out on this film. Lars Von Tier clearly was suffering from some form of mental illness. Later, I learned he wrote this film while recovering from a deep depression. I wonder if it was accompanied by any psychosis.

6) Invention of Lying: Love all things Ricky Gervais. Extras, Office UK, Ghost town, Stand up specialst. He again comes up with a film where characters say the most outrageous things. Brutally honest, cheeky, and yes, funny. Exploring a world where there are no lies (no actors, no forms of any ficition, no religion, no half truths), it does lose its narrative trail at times but nevertheless is entertaining.

7) My son, my son, what have ye done?: Another puzzler? Not sure if I was missing some gene which would give me insight into the film. The story is told in reverse order but did this cinematic technique add to the story telling. There was a dwarf and some other oddities which were reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Werner Herzog, the director, is associated with German New Cinema (and darling of the art house circuit) and a good friend of David Lynch. I wonder who influenced who on this film.

8) Partir: French film starting Yvan Attal, Kirsten Scott Thomas and Sergei Lopez. The plot is a simple: woman starts tense love affair with a construction worker (who is helping to renovate part of her home into an office). Devastating consequences ensue. Splendid acting.

9) Leaves of Grass: Ed Norton plays two roles in this film....twin brothers who have taken different paths in life. One is a cultivator of high grade marjiuana and the other is a much sought after academic of the classics. Both brillant in their own way and in their own worlds. Each has a different way of analyzing the world through their respect intellects. Touching in its portrayal of a wacky dysfunctional family, and well acted. The abrupt changes in tone once the body count starts to rise does jar the tone of the film and the lack of chemistry between Ed Norton and love interest Keri Russell is another failing.

10) Harry Brown: Michael Caine's last major/leading man role. The story runs along the same lines as Gran Torino/Death Wish and is set in Caines' native London. Vigilante justice is the central focus of this story. Formulaic in its unfolding, and stocked with sterotypical characters, it does deliver some good action and nice plot twist at the end.

11) Kamui: strange Japanese film. Ninja code prevents them from ever leaving the clan/family alive. The plight of these "runaway" ninjas is the premise of this story. The movie is obviously met to introduce us to the new adventures of Kamui (one such runaway ninja) and seems to setting us up for his future films (not sure they'll be made too soon after this one is released). The CGI was sloppy at times and the lead actor did a lot of brooding.

12) Karoke: Chris Chong's first feature film. I may be a little bias here as I know the guy. It was an abstract piece with long expansive shots which made for more thoughtful viewing than I expected. A simple story of the homecoming turns into a commentary of the modernization of Malaysia today. I took my parents to see this one and my father got more out of the film than my mother or I. I can see why the film was asked to be presented at Cannes and is winning awards at film festivals everywhere.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Agony and The Ectasy that is TIFF

Every year, it is the same old story. Running down town to pick up the Advance Sale Ticket Form to fill for TIFF, then submitting the forms and awaiting the lottery. This year, there were over 50 boxes of forms and lucky box 48 was randomly selected to be processed first. My forms were in box 44. More interestingly, I received 16 of my 20 selections (with 12 being my first choices). Not bad.

Ms. Noel tried to get onto the TIFF website unsuccessfully >5 times, tried to call the box office another >5 times and then called me at 7:40am to say, she was heading to the TIFF central box office to physically get the tickets. Luckily, she lives about 5 minutes from this location. I awoke by 8:30am (after doing a 2am C-section) and headed downtown. After a 45 minute ride into downtown, I entered Nathan Phillips square to see the General Public Ticket purchasing line wrapped around the square. I had to call Ms. Noel to locate her!

She had very cleverly called Ms. Desi who did manage to get onto the TIFF site and to complete the ticket purchasing. In a complete "celebrity" treatment, she went to the Advance pick up line (there actually is no line) and got the tickets. The rub here was, Ms. Desi had to verbally give her VISA card number and confirmation number to the TIFF volunteer over the phone in order for the tickets to printed. This was a move of no small importance as Ms. Desi was leaving for Europe and wouldn't be back before the middle of TIFF week and Ms. Noel would be unable to pick up or use the tickets Ms. Desi had purchased for her.

By comparison, my transactions were quite unremarkable but also quite fortunate. I was able to pick up my tickets and then do my exchanges and even purchasing more tickets in the Advance pick up line without ever really needing to return to the General Public Ticket Purchase line. All told I had spent under 90 minutes at the Box Office and then it was off to Dim Sum with Mom. The Agony of the purchasing is over and the Ecstasy of the films can begin.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bhangra and West Side Story

The week flew by. A friend's 40th birth day party was celebrated, a play seen at Stratford and a last minute rush to prepare for TIFF (Toronto Film Festival). The party was a blast with homemade Sushi, lots of Cabernet Savingnon, and a rocking DJ mixing bhangra with 80s classics. I have given a lesson on cultural subtleties of north and south Indian culture by a slight intoxicate friend as well. Although, the element of surprise was lost (the birthday boy inadvertently caught a glimpse of the preparations in the basement), it was great chance to unwind with friends.

The meal before Stratford was a ho-hum affair. The Church Restaurant (constructed in 1873 as a Congregational church) provides a lovely ambience but the service as slow and the food was passable. Definitely not recommended. My duck three ways was ordinary which was head and shoulders above my friends' uncooked steak and bison.

However, the musical we saw at Stratford was dazzling. The energetic and athletic cast of West Side Story delivered great solos, and amazing dance numbers which would have made the perfectionist Jerome Robbins proud. I humming America, Office Kurpke and Somewhere all the way back home to Milton.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Aftermath of a Tornadao

It's official. There was an F1 Tornado which landed in Milton. It was one of five which hit southwestern ontario last night and certainly not the most devastating.

This was the damage to my dentist office on Ontario Street. They cancelled all appointments today obviously. My father was one of these was made by the secretary from her home as the staff couldn't even get into building. So lucky again, no fatalities.

If it wasn't a hurricane, it was a twister

It has been a summer of extremely unstable and frankly more violent weather. Rumours of a tornado touching down in Milton and a wild near-hurricane downpour which lasted a mere two hours. The sheets of rainwater fell downward and sometimes sideways. What crazy weather...and the aftermath is something to below. Part of a roof of my local dentist office was lifted off and carried to into Ontario street and into the parking lot of the adjacent Milton mall.

Tree branches and even whole trees themselves lay over the roads, yards and driveways, onto and into the roofs, and cars and boats. Then, there was the electrical fire. The broken branches of my neighbour's willow leaned heavily onto the hydro electric wires. There was a brief power outage at and when the power came back on at 6:45pm, this fire was ignited in the tree.

4The firemen came and realized the fire was electrical and contacted the Milton Hydro. The power to our section of the grid was cut and this extinguished the fire. Next, the chain saw came out to perform a bit of tree surgery leaving my neighbour with a new pile of smoking firewood. The charred wood was still warm.

Of course, Milton got off on the lucky side compared to the communities of Durham and Vaughn where the real damage to more than 600 houses was done. The really remarkable event was that there was only one fatality in this whole event. This was sadly, an 11- year old in Durham.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A rare double rainbow

After a sudden torrent of rain, there followed a blaze of sunshine. The result, a gorgeous burst of colour over the Milton skies.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

It was an incredible that that the construction of this new parking lot at Milton District hospital should occur right in front of the three labour and delivery rooms of Obstetrical unit. There are actually only three such L&D rooms. Cars pulling in would have front row view of the birthing units giving a whole new meaning to "drive in" features. In addition to the loss of privacy for expectant mothers, several moderate size fruit trees were destroyed in the construction of this parking lot (cue: Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi). There also use to be a warren of rabbits on the grounds too...likely chased away by the new housing developments.


This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Big Movie Weekend

It is hardly surprising to those who know me that I should post a blog about movies. These past two weekends had been quite amazing though for the depth of talent. First, there was Amal, the story of a very honest (if somewhat simple) rickshaw driver and his unlikely change in fortune. All set the bustling streets of New Delhi. Always delighted to see the very talented character actor Roshan Seth too. Then, The Hurt Locker which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. No political messages here but a straight forward character study of soldiers at war. Imaginative direction from Kathryn Bigelow, excellent performances by the main cast and a number of great cameos from Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce. I had never been much of a fan of war films but this film has changed my mind. The Red Cliff is a John Woo production with Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Based on a very famous chapter in the historical novel, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this is a 280 minute epic detailing battle of Red Cliff. There are a slew of heroes in this tale (much akin to Homer's Iliad) and to hear John Woo tell it...a more historically appropriate tale. Stunning battle scenes, and eye dropping CGI landscapes worthy of Lord of the Rings comparisons. Having known nothing of this part of ancient Chinese history, I now may intrigued to read more after watching this film.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Memories of Venice

Venice was a hectic place to finish our European vacation but just about the most fun. After taking many trips, I have come to realize that the places you go are secondary to the people you travel and share the experiences with. Noel and I did many things in Venice but most importantly, we did them together. We ate, shopped, did some sightseeing and got a little tipsy.

It started with the shopping experience. She is definitely a bad influence but what a great time we had being bad. Jewelery particularly the gorgeous Murano glass necklaces tops the list. The lace purchases in Burano were complemented by the telling of the long history of the lace makers themselves, viewing several pieces of their lace artwork on display and drinking espresso at the post-shopping respite in the garden at the back of the shop.

The meals of Venice were definitely the best of the trip. Dinners at little out of the way places like Enoteca al Volto and the three hour seafood lunch on Burano at Trattoria al Gatto Nero were the stand outs. The service at the later restaurant was fabulous. Our waiter whose family has owned the restaurant since the 1940s was particularly attentive and made many useful menu suggestions. The dessert of the Burano biscuits dipped in a fruity dessert wine was a highlight. He incidentally spoke English with an accent that he latter confessed he attained while studying at the University of Edinburgh.

Of course, we did the tour of the Grand Canal by boat, had a Bellini at Harry's Bar, saw the fabulous mosaics of San Marco as well as the Doge's apartments and other things Venetian too. Although we did not have the romantic experience in Venice in an overpriced gondola ride, we did finish our European vacation with the very James Bond experience. A speedy near dawn ride in an overpriced water taxi through the many rios (water streets of Venice) and across the open waters of the Lagoon to Marco Polo Airport.

Saturday, June 06, 2009





We departed the boat/cruise today and took a local bus to Salona which is the ancient Roman settlement. Today, the ruins are surrounded by the new city of Solin. The walk about the site took almost 3 hours and it was quite marvelous. This is a truly a hidden gem and well worth the price of admission...about $5 Canadian.

The highlights include an ancient amphitheatre which was sadly mostly dismantled by the Venetians, a theatre and adjoining Temple, necropolis, thermae (Roman baths). Salona was a Roman city reaching its height during the reign of Diocletian (and probably his birth place).

It is also the site of the first Christian colony in Dalmatian. The emperor Diocletian was famous for martyring the local Christians and the first martyr of Salona were Dominus. St. Dominus got his revenge though as the Cathedral of St. Dominus is built over Diocletian's mausoleum and his body is missing too. Hmmmmm?

The exercise work out we got from walking the grounds was quite a direct contrast to the lazying about on the boat over the past few days. Our last pilgrimage was up to the citadel overlooking Hvar town which was a somewhat steep vertical climb up many stairs and a winding incline. However, the reward was our splendid views as we surveyed the lay of the land. It reminded of the Stations of the Cross trek I made on Gozo. Our meal that evening was fish Gregada in the restaurant named Hannibal. This a soup-like dish consisting of fresh fish cooked in olive, white wine, herbs,garlic and potatoes. Just delicious!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dubrovnik and beyond

Walking the city walls of Dubrovnik

The Stradun from the city walls.

City walls from outside the city
Fountain in
Clock Tower in the old Renaissance square

The order for the good weather finally came in. We had two days of thunderstorms and heavy rains as we toured Dubrovnik. It was quite pretty despite the deluge. We walked the walls of this ancient city which is the best way to see the place. The main street known as the Stradun was a washed limestone finish from many years of pedestrian traffic.

The street was created to join the old Roman town of Ragusa with the newer settlement of the Croats...thus creating the city of Dubrovnik. Ragusa was hence originally an island with a different language and people. There is a mosque, a synagogue, and over a hundred churches and one cathedral. The old middle square has a Venetian palace called Sponza which houses the memorial to the defenders of the city during the aggression of the Bosnians and Montenegrins in 1991, In fact, several houses were destroyed by fire and the city walls were damaged too.

Our city guide was called Paulo, an Italian ex pat who was quite flamboyant and I suspect gay as well. He had dyed blond hair and orange trimmed sunglasses. He spoke animately and passionately about his adopted city with speedy and colorful descriptions and with theatrical gestures. Although he may not have always been factual, he was definitely entertaining.

We wander through the old Franciscan monastery, the orthodox church of St. Nicolas and St. Blasie church who is the patron saint of the city. At the end, we finally exited through a hole in the wall facing the sea to small bar called Burz at land's end to gaze on the towering 25m walls from outside the city. We took an extended walk of the city walls the following day. The occasional downpour did not diminish the grandeur of Dubrovnik.

Today, the sun came up and Noel and I worked on our tans. It was hot enough that I braved a swim in the cool and fresh waters of the Adriatic in Lombarda beach. We are now in Korcula, the reputed home town of Marco Polo. Boy have the locals milked their association with this traveller for all its worth. There is a hotel, restaurant, tower, local house, a bar and several souvenir shops with the Polo adage! We are taking a break from our seafood diet today to try some local beef and lamb specialities.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Makarska, a local Rivieria style resort dating back to the time of the Romans.

Old Style Fiat!

Does this look like a politican rally to you?

Peristyle...Diocletian's Palace Courtyard.

Langostines for dinner! Yum!

Seaside front of Split, Croatia from our sailboat, Eos

The internet is truely a wonder of modern technology. I'm on a boat in the middle of Mljet National Park and surfacing the web on mylaptop on unsecured wireless network signal from adjacent hotel. Just crazy!

When we arrived in Split, the old city town was definitely in a party mood, there was free concert as well as free food consisting of a local beef sausage with bread (the Croatian hot dog) and free beer too. Later, we learned this event was sponsored by a local political candidate who was running for a seat in the regional government. Canadian politicians could learn a thing or two here on how to win/buy votes.

We have sailed from Split to a local resort town of Makarska and then this morning, we sailed onto the National park of Mljet which is just outside Dubrovnik. The weather has been quite varied. It was sunny in Split (and I got slightly burnt while sleeping in a deck chair). In Makarska, it was somewhat cool overnight on Saturday and this morning it was down right cold as set sail to Mljet. The weather was fine in Mljet until after dinner when we had surprised by a sudden rainstorm.

We are certainly spoiled for choice for seafood. Each night thus far,we have shared our meals: grilled calamari, octopus salad, squid ink risotto, and stewed langoustines. The local wines have been quite fruity and there is a local herb/grass flavored liquor called Travarica which tastes more like a cough syrup formulation than an alcohol. We have also tried a tripe stew and on the boat had a grilled mackerel with a local spinach-like vegetable. Both were suprisingly delicious.

In Mljet National Park, we took a small boat to an ancient Franciscan monastery which was built on local Roman ruins. The monastery is located on an island in the middle of two fresh water lakes which arethe star attraction of the national park. The waters were clear and coloured much like that of Lake Louise in Banff. Mljet is reputed to be where Odysseus was ensnared by Calypso for 7 years and also where St. Paul was shipwrecked to and bitten by a viper. If these stories sound familiar, you are right....we heard them on Malta as well. The name of the cafe at the St.Mary monastery in Mljet cafe is Melita (whichis the Latin name for Malta). Coincidence?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Split, Croatia

After a long three-legged flight, we have arrived safely in Split, Croatia. There was a bit of a mix up with the bags. We thought they needed to pick them up in Zagreb before boarding our flight to Split. We assumed we would have to do this as we were all changing airlines from Air France to Croatian Air.

When all of our bags did not show up in Zagreb, we went to the lost luggage office and discovered they had been checked through to Split by Air France. Mom thought this was so in the first place but nobody else seemed sure. Score one for her but I still maintained we were misinformed by our travel agent.

I had gnocchi in a truffle, proscuitto, and brandy sauce this afternoon in Zagreb. This I have learned is a popular dish in Croatia. The heavy carbo load at lunch and poor sleep for the past 18 hours contributed to a power nap on the flight to Split. After a shower in the hotel Jadran, in Split, which is the original swimming complex where the Croatian National Team use to train, I discovered the free internet set up in the hotel lobby....happiness.

It is true what Red said, everyone speaks some English here. This is all part of a national push to put Croatia on the tourist map. It's working on me thus far. Noel and I will probably take a walk into Diocletian's Palace which is the Old City of Split before crashing tonight.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Moon Yuet

Another lovely Chinese tradition was carried out last Saturday. Ms. Crowded House's baby boy had his month old party which is called Moon Yuet. The celebration is much akin to the presentation of the baby to the community particularly the elders (and other ancestors unseen).
I suspect the celebration stems back to the times when infant mortality was somewhat higher than it is today. For the superstitious Chinese, it seems more appropriate to have a post birth month dinner than and pre-birth shower.
For the majority of this 12 course meal, the baby boy was paraded around, cooed and cuddled and really pretty much getting the paparazzi treatment. Most befitting a baby, he slept through most of dinner. These hard boiled "symbolical" red eggs (more pink) were presented to the attendants. Red is the colour of good fortune and the eggs representing ?fertility.

Income Tax Return

I was pleasantly suprised this year after filing my taxes at the end of April. Why? Because:

1) I received a return.
2) I received the cheque for the return amount today.
3) The amount of the return more than sufficiently pays for my upcoming European vacation.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A weekend in Toronto

After several weeks of busy call and office duties, I was in Toronto for a conference being held by the Canadian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. What a delightful surprise to see a fresh set of faces. Some were mentors from MUMC. Others were former residents and even a patient's husband who had delivered about 18 months ago. It took me a while to remember who he was but after a little jogging of the old memory, it all came flooding back (much to my surprise).

Dinner at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar on Saturday was a composition of tapas dishes: warm flat bread with three dips, braised rabbit, wild leek and mushroom ragout, steak and spinach salad, beets with spring greens and feta salad, grilled pickerel with wild rice, chorizo with buttered noodles, poutine and 4 desserts. The wine complement was excellent as was the company.

Now, it's back to the old grindstone.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour 2009

After a week spent running around doing little personal errands from car servicing, to a long overdue vet check up (the creature has lost a miraculous 1.7lbs), I spent this Saturday cooking a Earth Hour dinner for a few friends. Ms. Crowded House is just about due and in fact, this may be the last time I see her in her full maternity glory.

I have to thank my sister for providing a few meal items: the goose foie gras (which I seared) and the duck con fit (which I grilled). This combined with a veggie pot stickers, apple curry chicken breast, green beans and beets completed our candlelight dinner for Earth Hour. Everything was well received including the mulled wine and there were scarcely any leftovers either. As we consumed the special "spring awakening" dessert prepared by Noelly, we talked and talked as old friends often do after a long absence (nearly two months) into the night long after the Earth Hour was done.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I would have to thank A. Spauling for recommending Watchmen, the graphic novel, to me. It was wonderful discovery. The artwork of D. Gibbons and the narrative of A. Moore are simply genius. The chapter titled Fearful Symmetry (a node to Blake) was quite clever in its creation: the comic panel are aligned in symmetry.

The graphic novel is deserving of its title as the greatest ever written though. Its multi-layered non-linear narratives, rich character development/history, novel comic book panel layout and themes of deconstructing superheroes, policies of power and concept of "superman" in today's world were innovative in the early 1980s. It is a definitive literary reaction to the Regans and Thatchers of the Watchmen World of 1980s.

"Who Watches the Watchmen" is another theme resonating in the novel (and a quote from the Roman satirist Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). Alan Moore's (who is a bit of a kook) concept of demonstrating the reality of superheroes is pro tray them warts and all. This of course is very commonplace today in our movies and TV shows particularly (e.g Dark Knight, Heroes) which diminish the power of this graphic novel in this day and age.

Moore decided to create ambiguity in his world of heroes. Except for one exception, they do not really have any superpowers and there is no super-villians either in this story. Instead, these superheroes have to face moral and social concerns. The question of whether superheroes are even necessary was introduced. It is the basis of every postmodern superhero character thereafter from The Incredibles to Hancock. Moore is quite a genius too with his cultural references in the story and which is most evident in the names of our heroes: Ms. Jupiter, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach. He cites poets from Edward Blake to P. B. Shelly.

Although the plot is slightly complex (and slight convoluted), the graphic novel of the Watchmen triumphs in the depth of its characters (motivations, shortcomings, past history) and in its vivid description of the the bleak world of the Watchmen. Nearly every panel of each of the twelve issues of the Watchmen is stuffed with these references and symbolism. Most obvious is the smiley face with the blood stain. The Armageddon theme is quite prominent too e.g. the movie poster "The day the earth stood still" appears in a number of panels. Within the graphic novel too are little "faux" newspaper articles and advertisements related to the world of the Watchmen.

It all makes for a very clever read and speaks to the devotion to detail of Dave Gibbons the artist. The references and symbolism are so dense that with each re-reading, you could pick up another nuance of the Watchmen.

After reading the Watchmen graphic novel, watching the Warner Brothers' Watchmen Motion Comic series of all 12 comics, and watching the Zack Synder's DVD of "Tales of the Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood", Mr. Hippo and I went to see Zack Synder's film adaptation of "The Watchmen" last evening. We were an audience of four in the theatre which is hardly surprising for a three hour R-rated film is in its third week of release.

The long and the short of this film review: Mr. Hippo and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was faithful to the film without being too loyal. I have heard the criticism and conclude that these reviews have not read the graphic novel or would not have loved the original source of this film.

Bewarned, this is a film MADE for the fanboys/fangirls of the graphic novel. The non-linear plot and the length of the film are insufficient for the any newcomer to develop any sympathy for these characters or comprehend the plot. I can therefore understand if the newbie suffers from plot confusion or succumbs of the superficiality of criticizing the violence of the movie, full frontal nudity of Dr. Manhattan or erratic pacing.

The violence of the the film matches the graphic novel. This should not be a criticism of the film as it accurately represents the sombre tone of the graphic novel and the umbrella threat of global annihilation. Ironically and with uncharacteristically restraint by the director, the apocalyptic ending in the graphic novel was much more gruesome that what was in the film in fact.

The pacing of the film is erratic. I attribute this to the director's efforts to remain true to the novel. The story line of the graphic novel does bounce through the past and present which may work better for the novel where one can flip back and forth rather than in a film. Almost 70-80% of the dialogue is lifted from the novel although some lines are delivered by another character rather than in original character of the graphic novel.

The costume and art directions are in a word splendid. Many scenes virtually lifted from the comic panel themselves. The "smiley face" motive was well preserved in many frames: on the Comedian's badge, the landscape of Mars, the Comedian's belt buckle, the doomsday clock. The slow-motion and near freeze frame scenes are a tribute to the "frozen" comic book panels of the graphic novels.

The actor of the film who deserves recognition in this film is Jackie Earle Haley who plays the role of the much beloved uncompromising right wing lunatic Watchmen. Creepiness and socially awkwardness is taken to a new height. He chimes out Rorschach lines in a fittingly monotone banter.

The music choices accurately evoke the 1980s and most inspired choice here is Bob Dylan's The times they are a changing for the opening credits. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for the sex scene is used more for a comic effect and the "Flight of the Valkyrie's" in Dr. Manhattan's and The Comedian's war efforts in Vietnam is a nature homage to Apocalypse Now.

The ending was been changed (warning: spoiler coming) from the graphic novel but I would argue for the better. Instead of Veidt's clone faux "alien" being with psychic powers that is transported into NYC, the origin of the Armageddon destruction is a force with the signature of power of Dr. Manhattan. The film ending saves the audience from trying to figure out what this faux "alien" being is (which fans of the graphic novel are still unclear about) and is internally consistent. We now understand why the earth does not need to see or hear from Dr. Manhattan again.

I can't think of how this graphic novel could be better served by a film except for a more extensive development of the narrative. In fact, after the three hours of the film, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps a 12 part TV series of the graphic novel with each chapter of the novel compressed in a 30 minute episode who be the next step for Mr. Synder. But then again, I think the movie has succeed in doing what I hope all films do, to capture the emotions that the reader could get from the novel and to leave you yearning for more. In fact, I think I'll just go start another re-read of the Watchmen just now.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Nasca Lines

After leaving Paracas, we sent off on another short bus ride to Nazca. The town is renown internationally for the enigmatic geoglyps. Dating back to 500 BC, this collection of over 8000 linear drawings, 300 geometric figures and 70 biomorphs (plant and animal drawings) are remarkable for their size and their preservation. Concentrated in a 500 square km plain with an annual rainfall of virtually nil and scarcely any wind, these "lines" are barely identifiable from the ground. I took a six seater plane to gaze that this marvelous network of figures and channels.

The whale was the first to be discovered in 1927. Maria Reiche, a German astronomer and mathematician, devoted her life to studying the lines and concluded the collection represented a calendar. Other theories proposed include an alien landing strip, a ceremonial centre, a cult worship to water/fertility and a giant running track.

The creation of the lines was done by removing the dark sun baked rocks on either side of the lines to expose the lighter gypsum soil beneath. The Nazca Lines were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.

The spider is identified a symbol of fertility and rain. It is also identified with soothsayers who used the creatures to predict future.

The hummingbird is the best know geoglyp and appears on many ceramics of the Nazca culture (as well as many souvenir items today). It measures 96 x 66m. The hummingbird were thought to be messengers between the heavens and this world.

The tree and druid with extended hands are one of a few figures visible from a viewing platform (middle bottom of the picture) off the Panamerican Highway (not the truck on the road for idea of the scale of these drawings). The Nazca are believed to have made the lines in their worship of Kon, a flying god of water. This would explain why the collection of lines were designed to be seen from above.
I did not puke on the flight which was a most pleasant surprise. As our pilot banked left and right to allow passengers on both sides of the planes to view the lines, there was only one casualty at the end of the 35 minute flight. We were returned safely to the earth and left to ponder the meaning of the Nazca lines, one of the world's great archaeological mysteries.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Little Galapagos

The end of our lovely day in the Paracas and Ballestas islands was capped off with lunch by the beach of fresh fried sole and chips/rice meal washed down with the beloved Peruvian fermented corn drink called chicha morada. Just delicious on a hot afternoon!
The red sand beaches of Paracas are a product of wind storms which carry iron oxide from the distance cliffs into the ocean which in turn washes the iron granules onto the seashore.

It just wouldn't be right leaving Peru without seen a maternity ward. In this case, the maternity beach of the sea lions which was both bustling with activity (several males were duking it out) and sang with the choir of mother sea lions and their cubs.

Mr. Hippo and I did not rest long in Lima after our tour of the Machu Picchu and Cuzco. We set off to see the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve which are located on the South Coast of Peru. This area has been called the Poor Man's Galapagos. It is not difficult to see why either. There are lots of birds which blanket the islands. In fact, the guano from these islands is mined every eight years and sold overseas as a farm fertilizer. Pelicans, comorants, the peruvian boobys and most surprisingly the Humbolt penguins co-exist on these tiny rock dwellings.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Machu Picchu

Testing the waters of the Room of the Mortars.
View of the three temples, quarry and agricultural terraces.

The trouble with trying to travel in the rainy season in Cuzco and Machu Picchu is that sometimes the weather stymies you. However, we were lucky. Our first day in Cuzco, we walked in the main square of the city (local cathedral), toured the local ruins (Temple of the Sun, several local wari/raised ceremonial platforms) and only encountered one rainfall. It was brief but heavy. Sasaywuman was the most intriguing with its irregular symmetrical stone construction. Our guide was a local Quecha Indian who put an environment spin on his tour as do many aboriginal groups i.e. the whole return to Mother Earth what is owned to her and try not to poison the world.

Field separating the royal/sacred quarters from the common residencies.
It is recommended to spend at least one day in Cuzco to acclimatize. Mr. Hippo and I had some symptoms: decrease appetite and a mild headache. However, after a good night sleep, we felt better.The next day, we started early for Machu Picchu. In fact, we have been up almost every day around 5-6am (quite early for me) during this vacation. There is only one railway line (Orient Express) into Agus Caliente, the town from which all buses then leave for the summit. After a 3.5 hour train ride and 20 minute bus ride, we were there. Heavens, what a grand site! We were met by our guide and took a 3.5 hour tour. Paul must have snapped a picture a minute and in fact filled a 4Gig.
View of all of ruins from the guardhouse.
Only 35% of Machu Picchu has been revealed and more surprisingly, it was only recently (1911) properly re-discovered and properly excavated by a Yale scientist called Hiram Bingham. Questions about its origin and final abandonment still remain a mystery. However, the citadel was thought to be designed as a self-sufficient city. There are agricultural and resident terraces. An open field separates the common residencies from the royal and the sacred realm. A series of sixteen ceremonial baths/fountains also subdivide the agricultural from the urban sites.

Machu Picchu appears to have been abandoned before it reached its completion as its quarry appears to be still in working state. I had arranged to spend an extra night at the only hotel near the ruins: The Machu Picchu sanctuary lodge. The reason is simple: to take in the ruins without the troughs of the 2500 daily guests who flood the site. The lack of crowds adds immensely to the ambience. Our guide states that in the dry (and high season), the citadel is literally packed wall to wall with tourists. In fact, UNESCO has been lobbying to limit the number of guests as scientists and archaeologists have stated that the deterioration has accelerated particularly with climate change. One of the local trials to another terrace citadel called Waywu Picchu has already had a limit of 400 guests per day.
Our late afternoon tour was considerable more pleasurable and we scoured every nook of the residential quarters leaving the royal and sacred sites for our second day. A word about our guide, he is local archaeologist who was able to illuminate many new details about the site i.e. the room of the mortars. What looks to be the mortar portion of “mortar and pestle” has been revised to an astronomical observatory. After the discovery that this room had a thatch room, the theory was revised again. Today, what was thought to be mortars are likely to be the base of two statues (which are in fact located in Yale University). Of course, the local archaeologists, geologists and art historians are keen to have these statues as well as other artefacts of Machu Picchu returned...if nothing else to facilitate study of the site.

All our meals and drinks including alcohol were included in our stay at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. The building was formerly the home base for the local scientists who excavated and restored the ruins. There is a lovely letter from the grandson of Hiram Bingam in the lobby. The food at the lodge was spectacular as befitting a five star hotel. For lunch: Sea bass ceviche followed by a succulent pork tenderloin. Mr. Hippo had new potatoes (there are over 400 potato species in Peru) with baked salmon with proscuitto. We even had some lovely Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. For our evening meal, we had dined on grilled alpaca, scalloped potatoes with sea bass (with baby veggies) and smoked trout with lemon chilli pepper and olive oil. This was accompanied by a bottle of 2005 Argentinean Norton Malbec Reversa simply yummy. The end to a perfect day!