Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bhutan's Tiger's Nest Monastery built from LEGO!

Tiger's Nest Monastery 1.1 Paro Taktsang

Wow. Add another one to the list of non-Bhutanese people inspired by Bhutanese culture!

Lego is one of the most popular toys in the world but it may not be familiar to everyone: Lego is a type of construction toy that primarily consists of  interlocking plastic bricks. From Wikipedia: "Lego bricks can be assembled and connected in many ways, to construct such objects as vehicles, buildings, and even working robots. Anything constructed can then be taken apart again, and the pieces used to make other models."

For Anuradha Pehrson, Lego is more than just a hobby or a children's toy. Anuradha is originally from Pune, Maharashtra, India. She says that Lego wasn’t well known in India when she was growing up. She was lucky enough to have been given a small house building Lego set when she was around seven - she loved inventing different ways to assemble her small set of bricks. Over 20 years later,  Anuradha moved to Seattle, USA and rediscovered Lego. She also found a community of other creative people who share her interest in architecture and model building.

Last year, Anuradha built a very large and detailed Lego model of Bhutan’s iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery (also known as Paro Taktsang). She did not simply go to a toy store and buy a Lego set for the Tiger’s Nest. Anuradha spent eight months creating the model with approximately 150,000 Lego parts. She clearly has a lot of ingenuity to be able to construct a replica of this unique and scared place using only standardized parts.

BrickCon 2013
Above: photo BrickCon 2013 by michaelbradford1, shared with permission
Tiger's Nest Monastery 1.1 Paro Taktsang

Anuradha was kind enough to talk to GreenTea about her Bhutan-themed Lego masterpiece.

- How did you first learn about the Tiger's Nest?
Architecture from around the world is a subject that fascinates me. I'm not an architect but like to design and build interesting buildings and structures. For inspiration I look for pictures of buildings and structures from different parts of the world. I came across a picture of Tiger's Nest on one of these searches. As soon as I saw these pictures I was blown away. The buildings were so beautifully made in harmony with the surrounding nature. I was also impressed by the wood carving work. I read somewhere that in 1998 a fire destroyed some parts of the buildings and they were rebuilt as close to the original with the help of photographs. The thought that people put in so much effort to build something so high up in the mountains, without disturbing the beauty of the place left me speechless, I can't even imagine how they had originally managed this is 1692. I instantly wanted to build a replica in Lego.

- How were you able to build such a detailed replica without ever having visiting the place?
I had pictures from two different angles. I studied them for a long time. The difficult parts were the windows and the big rock section that 'juts' out. The monastery has beautifully carved windows. I built many different versions, until I thought I had achieved a similar design. The big rock was very difficult to see from the photos available. There is a tree right in front of it and from the side, it is covered by a window and roof. Finally I figured it out and built it. There were many iterations to each section and a lot of trial and error.

- Did you build this Tiger's Nest model for a particular occasion or competition?
Yes, I built this for BrickCon 2013. It is a Lego Convention/Exhibition held in October in Seattle. This model won two awards here. 'Best Architectural Style' and 'People's Choice Honorable Mention’. Al Pacino the popular American actor had come to see this show with his son. He liked this model very much. He talked to me about it and also took a picture with me. I also displayed this model at BricksCascde 2014, another Lego exhibition held in March in Portland, Oregon. This model won 'Best in Show' there.

- Do you have any plans to visit Bhutan and the Tiger's Nest yourself?
Yes, absolutely. I hope to do so in the next few years, but don't have any fixed plans.

- What are you working on now, Lego-wise?
Hmm, I think I will just reveal that when it's ready. :-)

- What else you would like people to know?
Two things. First, I am a spiritual person. I understand the concept of 'Guru' and disciple. I think it was always at the back of mind while building this monastery that this is a spiritual place. Gurus have done a lot of meditation and 'sadhana' here. I also know that I was able to build this successfully because of the Grace of my Guru and God.

Second, I think Bhutan is a beautiful country. I love the way that they have stayed true to their culture. I haven't met any people from there but I'm pretty sure they are very nice and friendly and I think their food looks delicious! I do hope to visit very soon.

Paro Takshang

The Tiger's Nest

Above, some of my pics of the real Tiger's Nest and below, Anuradha's interpretation. Take a closer look: the cliff-face setting for the monastery is rendered so perfectly, and she even included the small details like prayer flags and vines.

Tiger's Nest Monastery
Above: photo Tiger's Nest Monastery by Sean Edmison, shared with permission

Congratulations, Anuradha, on your amazing project!

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Paro Taktsang

All photos are courtesy of Anuradha Pehrson unless otherwise noted. More photos of this model are here.
There's a short BBC video about the Tiger's Nest here.
Related post: An asthmatic's hike to the Tiger's Nest

Monday, May 19, 2014

Toronto-Dubai round trip on the Emirates A380

A380 landing at YYZ, attracting quite the crowd as usual

It was last November that I went to Doha, Qatar to visit my cousin and to check out the Persian Gulf for the first time. From Toronto, there were several flight route options for getting to Doha. I booked with Emirates through Dubai because a) the schedule suited me, b) the price was reasonable c) I wanted to do a stopover in Dubai on the way home d) I prefer long haul to multiple shorter flights e) I've been looking for a chance to travel on an A380 for years.

Leading up to the trip, I was overexcited about the Emirates A380 experience. My brother and I have been airplane geeks since we were small. I still get a thrill when I fly an airline for the first time so naturally, getting to fly on the big plane at last was a big deal for me. How big is the A380? Wikipedia says,

The Airbus A380 is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine jet airliner manufactured by Airbus. It is the world's largest passenger airliner, and many airports have upgraded their facilities to accommodate it because of its size.

The A380's upper deck extends along the entire length of the fuselage, with a width equivalent to a wide-body aircraft. This gives the A380-800's cabin 478 square metres (5,145.1 sq ft) of floor space, which is 40% more than the next-largest airliner, the Boeing 747-8, and provides seating for 525 people in a typical three-class configuration or up to 853 people in an all-economy class configuration. The A380-800 has a design range of 15,700 kilometres (8,500 nmi; 9,800 mi), sufficient to fly nonstop from Dubai to Los Angeles, and a cruising speed of Mach 0.85 (about 900 km/h, 560 mph or 490 kn at cruising altitude).

Emirates currently flies in and out of Toronto three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, always an A380.

My seat was in aisle 50 for both flights, which sounds like it should be well back in the plane, but it was in the first section of the lower level. So, although I was in Economy class, I got to turn left when boarding. Giant airplane, small pleasures.

In general, for both flights, I thought the service, meals and entertainment were well above average. The seats were more comfortable than the flights I've taken in recent years (hello, Icelandair!). The five washrooms at the front of the plane were large and very clean. The entertainment system included views from three cameras mounted on the plane (forward, downward and tail). It was intriguing to watch the live video during the daylight hours, and especially the take-off or landing.

Outbound flight YYZ-DXB EK242
-Even with separate gates for First and Business classes, boarding over 500 passengers took an age. Not needing to battle for overhead compartment space, I walked around the terminal until the gigantic gate line-up was nearly gone. With Dubai being such a major hub, it was interesting to try to guess where everyone was travelling.
-Once on board, I thought we were still taxiing when I glanced towards the window and realized that we'd already taken off. The launch was that smooth. I still can't believe that I didn't notice taking off in the world's largest passenger plane during a rain storm.
-The flight route took us right over Iraq - I didn't have a window set but I did get a good look at the Basrah area from the windows in the front services area.
-The flight was scheduled to be 12 hours, 55 minutes but we landed in Dubai 45 minutes early. No idea why.

-Although everything provided by Emirates was great, I didn't enjoy the flight so much and barely slept. There were a lot of disruptive passengers that night. There were people watching movies on iPads without earphones, the man beside me was belly laughing at an in flight comedy show and elbowing me constantly, there were multiple babies left to scream themselves out. I have never been on such a raucous overnight flight.
-At mealtime, at least ten people seated around me stirred up some major outrage because they wanted vegetarian meals despite not having ordered them in advance. The hostesses did their best to locate spare vegetarian meals in other sections of the plane. The Emirates A380 is like any normal flight in that you need to order your meals ahead if you have strict dietary requirements. When I booked my ticket, there were over 20 meal preferences available to choose from.

Inbound flight DXB-YYZ EK241 
-I think we left a little late. Once again, the boarding took a long, long time. It was remarkable to see so many other A380s lined up at this dedicated "Emirates A380 Hub".
-Everything  available on board was the same as the outbound, but this time I had an empty seat beside me and the other passengers were peaceful so I was able to notice how quiet the A380 engines were.
-The return flight was 13 hours and 50 minutes but it seemed shorter because I could sleep.

-Things turned unpleasant when it was time to collect luggage in Toronto. I waited not quite one hour at the baggage carousel for my suitcase to appear, and this was after going through the customs line. The flight had too much luggage for one carousel. It was so full that there were dangerous suitcase landslides happening. They switched off the carousel and stopped adding cases while we continued to stand there for a good 20 minutes. YYZ is not yet equipped to deal with a 500+ passenger flight (as for A380 service to Toronto, there are only the three weekly Emirates flights and one weekly Korean Air flight at present). I don't know why they couldn't use two baggage carousels for EK241. Even if it was one for First and Business classes and one for Economy, that would have helped. Nobody wants to spend that long on a flight and then another hour jostling for position around the baggage wheel, dodging falling suitcases.

Overall, I liked the trip on the A380 and thought the Emirates Economy class service was above average. Until Pearson International Airport upgrades the way A380 arrivals are dealt with,  I would think twice about putting myself through that awful baggage claim experience.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sakura Fever, Sakura Dreams

This post has been in my 'drafts' folder for over a month. I don't really know why I didn't hit 'publish' before now. I was feeling nostalgic about the cherry blossom season in Japan when I wrote it. By now, the cherry blossom front has already passed across all of Japan except for Hokkaido, the northern region. 

There was an article in today's Toronto Star about our own cherry blossoms being greatly delayed by the long, hard winter. The article focused on High Park, which is a crazy mob scene during peak bloom, but I quite like to admire the blossoms in a quieter setting at Osgoode Hall, also here in Toronto. It's close to my office and the Neoclassical heritage building makes an appealing backdrop. I am looking forward to seeing that soon. Soon-ish...

Cherry blossom season in Japan is so special, it really can't be exaggerated. One of the things I appreciate most about Japanese culture is the way the changes of season are really celebrated with very specific traditions. The short, spectacular sakura bloom represents the impermanence of life, which in turn is a Buddhist notion.

My mother and I went to the Kansai region of Japan last spring with the goal of being there for the peak cherry blossom bloom. We had to book our flights several months before the sakura forecast had been narrowed down so as the trip was approaching, I was making myself miserable checking the daily reports for Kyoto. Somehow we arrived in Kansai right at the crest, a day or two before the week-long peak bloom (calculated to be when 90% of a tree's buds have opened). We were very lucky as last year's timing was well off the average bloom date for many other parts of Japan.

Even though my mum is a garden and flower fanatic and very knowledgeable about all things botanical, she was astonished to see these giant clouds of pink froth all over the landscape. She absolutely did not expect this cherry blossom thing to be so momentous.


Kyoto Botanical Gardens along Kamogawa
Different ways to enjoy sakura season:
-Take a stroll along a riverbank or canal.

Students Hanami Picnic, Kamogawa
-Have a picnic with friends (an annual tradition for many clubs and social circles).

Maruyama Koen Sakura Time
-Enjoy a beer and food stall grub at specially set-up tables.

There are plenty of special displays, events and seasonal products to mark the brief sakura moment, too.

Hanshin Department Store Cherry Blossoms
We spotted this at Hanshin Department Store in Umeda: they've turned an information kiosk into a blooming tree! The red lettering reads 'Spring Hanshin Festival'.

Hankyu Railway Sakura Progress Poster
This poster at a train station shows the best blossom viewing spots accessible from the Hankyu Railway network. Someone had been adding flower stickers to show the progress of the blooms.

Nikko Nara Hotel local sakura guide
At Hotel Nikko Nara, the staff put up a city map highlighting their recommended blossom viewing spots.

Sakura sweets, Nishiki Market
Here is a selection of sakura candies at a traditional sweets store in Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

The fast food companies get in on the seasonal fare, too. To my taste, "sakura" is an extra-sweetened artificial cherry flavour. Sometimes, it is enough to simply make something pink, though.

Here are some of the 2014 sakura season items, left to right:
Krispy Kreme - Sakura Tea Latte, Sakura Milk Chiller and Sakura Cream Donut
Haagen Daaz - Sakura Ice Cream
Starbucks - Sakura Chocolate Latte, Sakura Chocolate Frappuccino and Cherry Chiffon Cake, plus sakura themed mugs, tumblers, cups and other merchandise
McDonalds - Sakura Cherry Float and Sakura Cherry Fizz
McDonalds - Sakura Teritama Burger: pork teriyaki patty with an egg and pink radish mayo served on a cherry-flavoured pink bun

Food images via Everything Hapa, Japan-Australia and Akihabara News

picnic under the blossoms

Related post: Nara's Cherry Blossom Highlights

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is it over yet?

Pond Hockey - December 2013
Pond Hockey - December 2013

Is winter over yet? It's been a bad one. Over 100 days of snow and 35 extreme cold alert days. For a while, it seemed like something might have gone awry with Earth's yearly revolution. Were we 'stuck' on winter?

Now it's April and change is starting. Nothing is growing yet but there are other signs. At the bus stops, the dry old husks of ice are melting to reveal hundreds of cigarette butts, plastic coffee lids and all the other urban detritus. Seasonal headaches have arrived for those of us who are susceptible. The 14 day forecast shows only two more days with the potential for snow and two more days below freezing. Surely we are safe to say it now: spring is here.

Winter wrap-up:
-My photo walk during the great ice storm that trashed Southern Ontario.
-The horrible truth about Toronto winter "fashion"
-I'm usually an 'eat lunch at my desk while I continue to work' person but this winter, I kept my ice skates at the office and made an effort to enjoy skating at the city hall rink a few times a week
-Knitting eye-catching cozy things, including the epic pompom hat below

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to Dress for a Toronto Winter: Reality

Maybe I've been reading too many style blogs recently but I am sick to death of 'polar vortex fashion looks' consisting of high heeled ankle boots, no socks, skinny jeans, flimsy coats and meticulously arranged scarves. This is complete nonsense and it makes me furious.

When I am about to leave my apartment for work or some unavoidable errand and my weather app shows me this report, you can bet I'm not going to dress to impress. I'm going to dress to survive my 15 minute walk to the subway. I'm going to dress to trudge through unploughed snowy sidewalks and side streets. I'm going to dress to prevent frostbite.

I present to you the awful truth about dressing for winter in Toronto and other similarly cold/even colder places. Maybe if you commute door-to-door by car or you live in a condo connected directly by tunnel to your workplace, you could manage to look elegant. Otherwise, function absolutely trumps fashion around here.

Perhaps I look ridiculous in the photo below if you don't live where the winters are severe. I promise you, I never get any strange looks in this outfit. I blend right in with everyone else who is smushed into crammed subway seats wearing giant coats, clomping along the street in massive salt-stained boots, revealing frizzy, static-y hair the moment our touques come off.

Welcome to Toronto where this is a completely normal look.

How to Dress for WInter in Toronto

UPDATE: It is now February 27th and I have lost the will to layer thermals under my jeans. I now prefer to get cold hives on my legs than make the extra effort for warmth.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Endless Knot Mittens: Russian Style, Inspired by Bhutan

It's been years since I posted anything here about knitting but I am still an avid knitter. Please allow me to show off my most recent major project.

This is the most fiddly pattern I've taken on so far in my crafting career. It was not the kind of knitting that can be done with one eye on the TV. It required my full attention so it took me several months to complete. I'm happy with the results.

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

The Buddhist symbol of the Endless Knot appeals to me very much. I wanted to knit something with this motif. The Endless Knot is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and it has various meanings, for example, that "all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together as a closed cycle of cause and effect".

I thought I was going to have to attempt to design something myself until I found a pattern that could become what I wanted with only minimal modification. I used a cross-hatched colourwork mitten pattern by Charlene Schurch from an earlier version of her book Mostly Mittens: Ethnic Knitting Designs from Russia ( link). 

Certainly, I am very much aware that slapping a Buddhist symbol on an item for daily use can be extremely offensive. Images of the Buddha should really not be used in the casual way they can be seen here in North America (on t-shirts, homewares, greeting cards and much more). However, I believe it was acceptable to have created a garment bearing the Endless Knot. In Bhutan, I saw this symbol used on clothing, bags, upholstery and even on carpets. I hope that it was correct to have surmised that the symbol could be used on humble, non-sacred objects.

My colour choice, rust and deep blue, was inspired partly by the exquisite coral and turquoise necklaces Bhutanese ladies are known to pile on with their traditional fashions and partly by the rich colours that embellish the many historic fortresses.

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

More of my mittens: birds, trees and Totoro.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

my fave pic from 2013

It is a point of shame that I have posted so little about my trip to Japan in March/April. I am in a dilemma as to whether I should write about my more recent trip to the Arabian Gulf first, as it is fresher in my memories. The Japanese cherry blossom photos and the Qatar desert photos both seem incongruous to me when life here and now is all about fur-hooded parkas, shoveling snow and surviving tomorrow's -23˚C forecast.

This is my favourite photo of the ones I took in 2013. I took it on a sidestreet of Higashiyama, Kyoto on April 5th. These ladies are not geisha. They are domestic tourists who went to a geisha costume service and then hired a rickshaw to go sightseeing around the traditional geisha area. It is common to see in western Kyoto. Fake geisha though they are, this pair posed demurely and stayed in character. Only the digicam held by the rickshaw driver reveals the true context.

Faka Geisha in Higashiyama, Kyoto

I like this photo because Kyoto is my favourite city and I love that is totally acceptable for us tourists to lose ourselves in the culture and tradition of the place. I think the photo represents that.

And a moment later, before the driver had the ladies on the move again.

Faka Geisha in Higashiyama, Kyoto

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Toronto Ice Storm

This morning, after two days of non-stop freezing rain, Toronto awoke fettered in ice. Even before sunrise, it was being reported as the worst ice storm in decades for this city.

From The Globe and Mail:

Ice storms can arise whenever warm air forms a wedge between two layers of cold air – one high up in the atmosphere and one at the surface. Precipitation that begins as snow quickly turns to rain as it falls through the warm air. Then, as the raindrops re-enter the cold, they become supercooled, dipping below the freezing point even though they remain liquid. In such a state, droplets of water freeze on contact when they touch a surface, forming an icy glaze on roads, sidewalks and everything else.

This morning, all exposed surfaces were glazed over in solid ice up to 3 cm thick. The trees that could not bear the weight of all this ice drooped over or snapped, sometimes ripping down power lines. Roads and sidewalks were completely slick: no traction whatsoever. Dangerous driving and walking.

Danger aside, I woke up early and dressed myself in the same gear I wore to climb glaciers in Iceland last year. I'm a weather watcher: if this was the biggest ice storm in decades, I wanted to take a look and get some photos, too. I was lucky not to slip over or to get hit by any huge ice-laden branches which continued to crash down throughout the day.

The wide angle view of the storm: the city is a wreck today. Branches everywhere. Sidewalks and roads impassable. The macro view: the ice is beautiful.

(Branches shatter when they hit the ground, as they have taken on the properties of ice instead of wood.)

(Broken branches on power lines at Spadina House)

(St. Clair West looking worse for wear.)

(Streetcar services were suspended for all of Toronto due to ice on the overhead cables.)

(Evergreen trees fared better in the conditions than deciduous ones.)

The weather forecast doesn't show us going above freezing for the next two weeks - there may not be much chance for the ice layer to melt off the trees for quite some time.

As of Sunday night, about 350,000 people in Toronto are without electricity, plus tens of thousands more across southern Ontario and Quebec. There have been several power outages in the almost three years that I've lived at this apartment but I have never lost power even when houses directly behind me did. I don't know why this is but I'm glad to be able to share my photos on the day of the experience.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Vintage Hallowe'en Greetings

Thanks to Kate Beaton of Hark, a vagrant! for sharing this fulsome gallery of vintage Hallowe'en cards. 1,550 cards and counting!

Here is a selection of favourites. Click images for source. So many expressive pumpkin faces!

"Because I was not good you see This fierce old witch is after me. Be good." - copyrighted 1907

"Hallowe'en" - What kind of vegetables are those legs?
"Hallowe'en Greeting - Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief" - Pick a pumpkinhead!

"At the witching hour hang a bell of Gold Round a cat's neck and he'll do what he's told" - Someone try this please?

"A Hallowe'en Wish - On Hallowe'en your slightest wish is likely to come true, so be careful, or the gobelins will spoil your wish for you" - GREAT star print dress, lady, but your compost heap date looks leery.

"I will get raven mad - if I do not hear from you soon" - This raven looks indifferent, though.

"The highest expectations for HALLOWE'EN" - How I wish to drift away in this vacant-eyed dirigible.
"The Magic Hallowe'en - All Hallowe'en, the magic night... when folly reigns supreme, the pumpkin heads are all alight, the stars are all agleam"

"Hallowe'en Greetings - May you much fun on Hallowe'en find, and entertainment of all kind." - The jack'o'lantern gazes tenderly at its creator.
"On Hallowe'en your ball of yarn from out the window fling, and he who is to be your fate will come to wind the string!" - I'm a knitter so I can confirm that this one is legit.

"All Hallowe'en - On Hallowe'en strange sights are seen" - such as a pumpkin rocking a fine silk robe.

"The Hallowe'en Lantern - At twelve o'clock you must be ready and hold your pumpkin good and steady for by its rays of candle light on Hallowe'en all things are bright!" - Oh, that moon!
"With Best Wishes for Hallowe'en" - Another pumpkin comes a-courting.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Next Adventure: The Arabian Gulf!

'Know your Thobe' created by

I thought a lot about how to spend the remaining half of my vacation days for 2013. I had a detailed list of destinations under consideration.

In the end, I decided to make the best use of well-placed relatives: my cousin and her family have been living in Qatar for over three years. I have never been to the Middle East - this seemed like a perfect chance to visit a corner of the world I'm completely unfamiliar with. I am very excited to be going - new experiences are the best form of holidays for me.

So, I'll be in Qatar for seven days and then there will be a girls' weekend in Dubai on the way home. November is supposed to be the time of year when the weather starts cooling down but the forecast is still showing 35˚C daily!

I am busy planning out things to do in Qatar (a desert trip! museums! a beach day! the corniche! checking out the architecture!) and in Dubai (souqs! a food tour! fancy buildings! high tea above the ocean!).

The current challenge for me is finding appropriate clothes to bring. I need to dress modestly (no cleavage, shoulders, knees) for alternating high heat/humidity and strong air conditioning, plus my impression is that people generally dress well in the Gulf. I have three maxi skirts ready to go and a few light blouses.

One disappointing thing is that I have not been able to learn any basic phrases in Gulf dialect Arabic. I have made an effort to learn travel basics for every country I have been to so far from Vietnam to Iceland (except for Germany - I am incapable of enunciating any German beyond "Ein bier, bitte"). YouTube is usually handy for this sort of thing but my search for a Gulf Arabic video lesson has come up empty. I Tweeted around for a connection and I contacted some local Arabic language tutors but I could only find "classical" Arabic speakers. My six year old niece is already learning Arabic at school, though, so maybe she'll be my tutor.
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