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    Katrina Relief in New Orleans

    My New Orleans trips, yes plural, were mostly focused on Katrina relief. While many call New Orleans home, some close friends included, it’s not the place I would personally live. While a popular tourist area on Bourbon Street and during Mardi Gras, and yes, the beignets and the gumbo were fantastic, the rest of the city looked to still be in a state of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I’m sure that it’s improved since my last trip in 2008/2009, but I haven’t been back to see the differences for myself. I will say though that in between the two years I was there, there were a lot of changes, wonderful changes, particularly with one of the residence that we worked on.

    The first trip was during my junior year of college. A friend of mine had found a catholic charity to which some of us, about 15 or so, were able to sign up with for an all expense trip to NOLA specifically for Katrina relief. Finals were done and we boarded the plane in LAX to fly to New Orleans a couple weeks before Christmas in 2006. We were staying there a week, sleeping on air mattresses on an empty floor in a housing unit for older, lower income folks. The plan wasn’t to renovate houses. Our goal for the week was to assist in emptying out an apartment-like complex called Nazareth Inn, a senior housing unit. Located right next to the water, the buildings were evacuated a day before the hurricane hit. This was evident by the fact that some of the residents had  daily calendars in their rooms, untouched.

    new orleansResidents had eventually come back to take some of their belongings with them. We were left with removing the rest. Most of the furniture was damaged from mold and we would push them down the hallways and off the balcony into the large trash bins below. Side note: watching a sofa fall six stories was extremely satisfying. Refrigerators were sealed shut because the food had been sitting in them for nearly a year and a half. And the smell was just awful.

    Cleaning out these rooms felt a bit invasive. Looking into the private lives of these men and women, most of whom had taken the most personal and sentimental trinkets with them. Others had probably passed on in the time being, leaving everything they owned…their entire lives…in these rooms. Some of the rooms stuck out and were starkly different. There was the horny old man whose used red condoms were everywhere. He was an artist and had some very sexually graphic paintings. Another older resident, her room was a mess, and the smell was so bad we had to wear masks to clean everything out. We found some dentures in a satin pouch, which lightened the mood but it was emotional because as a whole it was all you saw. We didn’t know these people. We just saw what remained and had to remove their abandoned stuff.

    Anything of value, money, coins, good furniture, etc, were put aside to donate for charity. Especially the contents of a room that belonged to a nun. This room was so immaculate, it was as if the resident had left the day before. Everything still had it’s place. There was very little dust that had accumulated on the furniture and the room had absolutely no smell. Nothing at all like the rest of the building.

    Of the days we stayed in NOLA, the weather was decent. While a week before Christmas, it was still a bit warm. Our last full day required a change of plans due to a torrential downpour. The roads were flooded and the first floor of the housing unit we were staying in started to flood as well. Unable to drive to Nazareth Inn, we stayed back to help minimize the flooding damage as much as we could. Some of us had buckets to pour water down a tub and we created some barriers outside to direct the flow of water away from some of the entry points to the building. This was after just a few hours of rain. Imagine the flooding and damage during and after the hurricane itself.

    madonna manor I returned to New Orleans just before New Years in 2008. I drove down from Columbus, MS and met up with the same folks who made the trip two years prior. We stayed at the Madonna Manor, a home designed to shelter children with dysfunctional families. The place had a weird vibe to it (the third floor was abandoned and especially creepy), and some research showed that children staying at Madonna Manor, along with other similar shelters, were abused in the 1950s and 1960s. The scandal broke out a few years prior to our staying there, but a settlement wasn’t reached until October 2009.

    ladderpaintingThe week’s work was focused on renovation and building, as opposed to cleanup and tearing down. A visit to the lower ninth ward allowed those who hadn’t seen the damage take in the view of leveled houses, the levy and an art piece by Leandro Erlich entitled “Window and Ladder”. It’s still sad to see how quickly these families lost their homes and how devastating it must have been. Last I remember, there were plenty of buildings that still had the FEMA markings used during the during the search and rescue.

    Our efforts varied from painting to building, but they focused on a yellow house across the street from a chapel that had flooded during the hurricane. It was single story and elevated above the ground on concrete bricks. The plan was to paint the home: a fresh coat, the trim, everything. The owner and her young children were very happy with the changes and it did give the house a different feel to it.

    The exciting part of the trip had to be our return to Nazareth Inn on New Years Day. It was truly unforgettable.

    nazareth innThis housing unit smelled of mold, saw water damage, and was dirty when we went to help clean up a couple years prior. Just shy of the two year anniversary of our previous trip, Nazareth Inn opened its doors once again. The renovations in one of the two buildings were amazing while the second still had sustained significant problems. We had gotten a tour of the available rooms. Everything was brand new, spotless. It was as if there wasn’t a hurricane, as if the people’s rooms we had cleaned out never existed. For Nazareth Inn, it was a fresh slate, offering new homes to new people.

    Eventually I’d like to return to New Orleans, maybe during Mardi Gras since I never had the opportunity to go the years I lived in the South.

     

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    Arizona, Food

    Tucson Greek Festival

    calamariThe 38th annual Tucson Greek Festival kicked off on the 25th of this month and is lasting the entire weekend. As someone who has an Armenian background, which has many similarities to Greek culture, it was a must-go event because of the food, the culture…

    I went for the food. Let’s be honest here.

    The festival was held by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, a small and beautiful church that unfortunately was damaged by a fire last year. The members of the church worked hard to set-up this event, which was wildly popular with Tucson locals. When walking in, visitors are immediately greeted by Greek music and Tavernas selling food and beverages, to include greek beer, wine and ouzo. I opted for Mythos Greek beer, grilled calamari, and a simple Greek salad.

    church

    The church still had a lot of damage from the fire in May of 2013. An article about the fire can be read here, and the church is still under a lot of reconstruction. Several art pieces and religious material were held intact but the interior was badly burnt and a donation table was available to help with the reconstruction.

    The festival had scheduled lectures by professors from University of Arizona on Greek culture as well as traditional Greek dancing in the back patio. Children were given the opportunity to learn to dance and it reminded me of the many weddings and events I attended as a kid. There was even more food, to include dolma, rice and/or meat wrapped in grape leaves, and saganaki, a cheese dipped in batter and pan-fried with lemon juice and brandy coupled with pita bread, and of course gyros.

    I made a bee line to the pastries. My grandmother used to make baklava, i.e. the best dessert in the world, and kataifi and I have yet to have either as good as the ones she made. Regardless, I left with containers of both to include a container of freshly fried loukoumades, fried dough soaked in honey .

    Hopefully I’ll be in town next year for the festivities.

    evil eye

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    Alabama, Food

    Crawfish Festival in the South

    A few years back, I spent six weeks in Montgomery for work and a few colleagues of mine found out about a crawfish festival in the local area. It was pretty hick and in the middle of nowhere, but the beer was cheap and we got this bag full of crawfish for about 25 bucks.

    It was more than enough for the eight of us. Simple way to eating them? Break them apart, suck the head (so to speak) and eat the tail.

    And they were delicious.

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    California, Food

    Waffles on-the-go at Shaky Alibi

    I passed by  Shwaffle on the goaky Alibi a couple days ago when I went to Scent Bar on Beverly Blvd and went in to grab a quick coffee. In business since 2010, this coffee bar and wafflerie serves traditional liege waffles that were worth the second visit.

    Not your typical Belgium waffle, the waffles are made of yeast and coated with Belgium Pearl Sugar and dusted with powdered sugar and are sweet and crispy. They’re made to order and are piping hot when off the waffle maker. There was no need to add any syrup or embellishments and it was the perfect on-the-go snack along with a iced dirty almond chai.

     

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    Food, Louisiana

    Cafe du Monde

    Ah, nothing like a cafe au lait and powdered sugar covered beignets late at night.

    The Cafe Du Monde’s original coffee stand in the French Quarter is open 24 hours a day and is closed on Christmas. So visiting the famous coffee shop during my two trips to New Orleans, both for Katrina Relief efforts in 2006 and 2008, was easy. It is a must-visit for foodies and coffee lovers.

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    California, Lifestyle

    Sampling perfumes at Scent Bar

    scent bar storefrontScent Bar is a tiny boutique for unique, high-end, hard to find perfumes. The store had originally opened near the Beverly Center and I remember driving past it multiple times in college on my way home. Currently located on Beverly Blvd near a corner coffee shop, Scent Bar’s storefront is simple with glass windows allowing you to peek inside at the hundreds of bottles lining the inside of the store. The shop itself is very small, a single room with two of its walls displaying the many perfume bottles, organized by fragrance notes, and a third wall displaying body and skincare products. A long table, covered in candles, additional scents, and small bowls of coffee beans, allows clients to sit and sample the perfumes with the help of two experts. I had browsed the the website (www.luckyscent.com) multiple times and had ordered a couple samples in the past but it’s a much different experience having experts recommend specific perfumes based on your preference. I personally prefer floral and citrusy notes and sampled about ten scents. Because I’m on a budget and didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars, I was able to take home four samples and rose scented hand lotion.

    Annick Goutal Petite Cherie – a light fruity and citrusy scent with pear and peach note

    Annick Goutal Ce Soir ou Jamais – a floral scent with rose as the main note

    Keiko Mecheri Les Nuits d’Izu – a slightly unisex scent with citrus notes

    Kilian Liaisons Dangereuses – a more unisex scent with coconut and rose notes

    Scent Bar is worth visiting if you enjoy unique perfumes and want the experience of sampling scents for both men and women without feeling pressured to purchase anything. It is so much different than going to a department store.

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    Arizona

    Hiking Mt. Lemmon – Meadow Loop Trail

    Mt Lemmon is a common hiking spot in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson, Arizona. This past weekend’s scenic drive up the Catalina Highway was populated with enthusiastic cyclists and it led to the small town of Summerhaven along with the many trail heads. In the hot Tucson summers, the 45 minute drive and subsequent hike at nearly 9,000 feet was refreshing. It’s an average 20 degrees cooler at the top than the rest of Tucson. Because of the different climate, the plant life is lush and there was a fantastic view of the city.

    The Meadow Loop Trail is one of the shorter hiking trails at 1.6 miles, but if one is not used to the higher altitude and occasionally prone to mild altitude sickness, it’s a good trail to start with.

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    Arizona, Food

    Salsa and Tequila Challenge

    For the past few years, the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance has held a culinary event that brings hundreds of Southern Arizona residents together to enjoy good food, drinks, music and dancing. Upon entry, patrons were each given a bag of tortilla chips. Chefs and mixologists lined up along the walkways of the first and second floors of the La Encantada shopping center, allowing patrons to enjoy samples of different types of salsa and alcoholic drinks.

    There were many varieties of salsa, some mild, some hot, and while there are plenty with traditional tomato and chili salsas, the fruity salsa stuck out for me, especially those with ingredients I hadn’t normally seen in salsa such as prickly pear, nopales, apples, and even blueberries.

    Now the drinks were spectacular. I was careful in choosing which alcoholic beverages I wanted to sample and particularly enjoyed the more unique and carefully concocted drinks the mixologists put together. I’m not much of a tequila fan. I prefer vodka or rum since we’re on the subject, but these drinks were smooth and delicious.

    One of my favorites was “A Fistful of Rupees” from the Tequila Factory (pictured above), which not only contained spices, but coconut milk. It reminded me of a spiked eggnog since it tasted like a dessert without being overly sweet. There was also the “Gila Monster” from the Gringo Grill and Cantina Restaurant, which was a prickly pear margarita with a hint of cilantro (pictured below). Another favorite was the Patron Cafe and 1921 Tequila Creme Liqueur Salted Caramel Milkshake, coupled with a Cinnamon Sugar Cronut, from the Tucson Country Club.

    Looks like I focused more on the tequila than the salsa. But that’s okay because now I’ve got a list of restaurants to go to.

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