Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Onward Toward Amritsar and Agra:
Home of the Golden Temple and Taj Mahal

After three unforgettable weeks in McLeod Ganj visiting our mate Bobby and immersing ourselves in the community, it was time for us to move on. With much of India still to explore, and only a week before our flight to the United Arab Emirates, we had to be selective in which sites to visit.

A trip to India would not be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal. Built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his fourteenth wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal has become the world's most famous shrine to eternal love. It is a long haul from McLeod Ganj, so we decided to break the journey spending a night close to the Indian-Pakistan border in the city of Amritsar. The Sikh holy city and home to the gorgeous Golden Temple, Amritsar was an unexpected highlight on our travels through India.

The Sikh faith is omnipresent in Amritsar, with the wearing of turbans and long flowing beards a distinct cultural characteristic.

The Indian-Pakistan border is an attraction in itself, with a nightly border closing ceremony with as much patriotism and excitement as a World Cup football match.

The border crossing between India and Pakistan is located at the village of Wagha, a pleasant rural area of flat green fields. The only visible sign of the tension between the two nations is the barbed wire, high voltage electric fences separating them.

Two military officers at the border keeping the peace "at hand".

These three Sikh gentlemen observe a colorful display of enthusiastic marching and cheering from the raucous crowd below them during the border closing ceremony.

After our evening witnessing the traditions of the Wagha border crossing, we woke up the next morning to explore the Golden Temple, the spiritual center of the Sikh faith. Sikhism is India's youngest religion and two of its main tenets are earning by honest means and giving to charity. With modern India still practicing the tradition of classifying individuals by caste, the Sikh faith looks beyond differences and welcomes visitors of all faiths, backgrounds and castes.

The Golden Temple is a gigantic marble and gold complex, with the lustrous Harmandir the primary focal point at the center of this large, man made lake.

One of the rules before entering the temple complex is to remove shoes, wash feet and cover the head. The streets surrounding the temple are full of touts selling bandanas, scarves and other head covering accessories.

The grounds are carefully patrolled by colorfully dressed guards equipped with stern looks and a long sword.

The holy waters of the Golden Temple complex are open to pilgrims wishing to take a dip.

A must for every visitor to the Golden Temple is a meal in the Guru-ka-Langar, the giant communal dining hall. The communal dining room reinforces the Sikh belief of equality, and welcomes everyone, regardless of creed, gender, class or color. Sharing a meal with strangers is a powerful expression of the Sikh commitment to equality.

The volunteers at the Guru-ka-Langar serve over 10,000 meals a day and thousands of pilgrims line up around the clock to get their fill. We were the only Westerners during our seating and enjoyed the basic meal of rice, lentils and chapati (a flat Indian bread).

A visit to the gigantic kitchen is an impressive sight. This woman is pictured flipping chapatis at one of the many grills.

We couldn't help noticing the lack of Western visitors at the Golden Temple. Although we didn't find the absence of large tour groups problematic, we were unable to escape the uninhibited staring, pointing and camera lenses directed our way by local pilgrims. At times we felt like the main attraction of the complex, as large families and groups would stop in their tracks to stare at the solitary Western couple sitting against the beautiful marble structures. Many people approached us with their cameras, taking close up portraits without even muttering a word. We graciously waved and greeted our newly found fans, and even joined in the fun for some photos of our own.

This group of young men surrounded us as we took photos of the gilded Harmandir in the center of the lake. When we asked one of the men to take a photo of us, it was interpreted as all the men gather around Jason and get in the shot. Rachel happily snapped a photo of me and the dozen strangers-cum-mates.

Our visit to Amritsar and the Golden Temple was a short one, but extremely memorable. We felt inspired by the Sikh tradition of welcoming visitors from all walks of life.

The Golden Temple complex shimmering at nightfall.

From Amritsar, we journeyed on to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We had anticipated a 17 hour train through the night from Amritsar, although our journey ended up taking 25 hours. With our patience at an all time high after 13 months on the road, we accepted the various delays in stride and were glad to finally arrive to the unmistakable landmark of eternal love.

Our first sight of the Taj Mahal was certainly a familiar one, but awe inspiring all the same.

We knew it would be impossible to avoid crowds at the Taj, but were pleasantly surprised that the grand scale of the building and grounds seemed to dilute any sense of overcrowding.

Sikhs in Agra seemed just as curious about us as Sikhs in Amritsar, and these lovely gentlemen asked to be photographed with Jason the smiley Westerner.

Requests for photographs seemed to be a theme during our final few days in India, and these military officers were keen to get in on the photo frenzy. One soldier asked me to hold his rifle during the shot, but I carefully declined.

Two eternal lovers in front of "the tear on the face of eternity".

This procession of local women is particularly colorful against the white marble of the Taj Mahal.

A glimpse from the impressive mosque located to the west of the Taj Mahal.

The ornate detail of semi-precious stones inlaid in the marble is present on many buildings in the area.

Our quick 24 hour visit to Agra provided us with a great visit to the Taj Mahal and readied us for our imminent journey to New Delhi, the final stop on our travels through India. In addition to some final souvenir shopping, we found time for plenty of excellent curries, a Bollywood film and a visit to the National Museum of Modern Art during our time in Delhi.

A quick pose with Gandhi in the courtyard of the National Gallery.

Our time in India quickly came to an end and we couldn't have asked for a better experience. From trekking across the Indian Himalaya, being in the presence of the Dalai Lama, visiting a dear friend and seeing sacred sites such as the Golden Temple and Taj Mahal, we left the country fulfilled.

Next stop: The United Arab Emirates and a quick visit to our old friends Ida and Emilio.

Monday, October 08, 2007

At Home with His Holiness
After being on the move for a year, spending three weeks anywhere feels like settling down. Jason and I got quite absorbed in our volunteer projects, made friends with several locals and made our simple studio apartment into home during our time in McLeod Ganj.

Making Contact

While Jason taught with Lozang Zopa (aka Bobby the Buddhist monk) at Chime Gatsal Ling monastery, I worked for Contact, McLeod's local community magazine. My first assignment was a story on Tibet's fledgling democracy. I began by interviewing the President of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, which proved a fun and informative way to kick off my research. I really enjoyed working with Lobsang Rabsel (Contact's Editor in Chief) on the editing, proofing and layout of the October issue. The magazine made it to press the day we left town, and is now available around McLeod. Contact readers may even spot a photo of Jason stuffing samosas, which accompanied a review of our Indian cooking class.

Lobsang and I, taking a break from editing

It was a true privilege to work with Lobsang. He was supportive, appreciative and fun in spite of the plethora of resource limitations and challenges he had to manage. Lobsang told me about his escape from Tibet 15 years ago, which involved trekking for 26 days across the Himalayas in harsh, dangerous conditions. His is a disturbing yet inspiring survival story. I suspect his experiences have shaped his positive attitude and determination to prevail in the face of challenge. I believe I got more out of volunteering than I put in, and am grateful to Lobsang for an immensely rewarding experience.

His Holiness' Homecoming
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled to teach at his temple in McLeod Ganj the first week of October, an exciting prospect for us. In anticipation of this special event, we registered with His Holiness' Security Office, paying 5 rupees (10 cents) for an entry ticket with photo ID. We went to the temple two days before, taping cardboard signs to the floor to reserve our spots, and purchased mini radios, so we could tune into the English translation of the teachings.

The crowd waiting patiently for His Holiness to arrive

Tea, anyone? Tibetan butter tea being brewed at the temple in enormous quantities

The arrival of His Holiness

With seating limited in the main temple, these monks watched His Holiness on a flat screen TV in the adjacent temple

Bread and tea was passed around to everyone, and special offering prayers were said

This is the view from where Jason, Lozang Zopa (aka Bobby) & I were seated. We were very fortunate to be able to see His Holiness, seated in front of the Buddha statue

These teachings were on a particular text, Nagarjuna's 'Commentary on Boddhicitta', requested by a large group of Korean Buddhists who had travelled to India for the event. Not surprisingly, the teachings were tailored to both the audience and the text, which made them quite difficult to follow for us. However, attending the teachings was unforgettable, and being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama alone was truly a special experience.

Incense burning where His Holiness walked after the morning's teachings

The 'holy wave,' accompanied by a glowing smile, showing the wonderful warmth & compassion His Holiness generates

Cameras are actually not allowed at His Holiness' teachings. Being able to take these photos at the teachings was an unexpected privilege, courtesy of Contact. Lobsang managed to get me a press pass, so in addition to listening to the teachings, I also got to be photojournalist for a day. As a result of this mutually beneficial arrangement, Lobsang has pictures for his November magazine, and we have 'limited edition' photos.

Jason & the Monks

Jason's experiences at Chime Gatsal Ling monastery became richer by the day. He particularly enjoyed meeting a very special nine year old, Tulku Urgyen Rigdzin. Tulku was recognized by the Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Pema Namgyal of Nyagrong, an important lama (teacher). Tulku does not study with the other young monks of Chime Gatsal Ling. Instead, he has his own tutor, Palchen Lhundrub, and follows a special program of training, preparing him to become a lama.

Left to right: Tulku, Lozang Zopa (aka Bobby) and Palchen, during an informal English lesson

Jason was given a touching send-off by his students at the monastery. The monks had clearly enjoyed learning English with Jason during his short time there, and they certainly made a lasting impression on him. The monks showed their appreciation with cards, gifts and some great farewell photos.

Students in various shades of saffron say farewell

Jason was handed this kata (white scarf) by this young monk. Following the Buddhist custom, he then placed the scarf over the monk's shoulders. This is a common ritual between teachers and students, and shows the student's respect and appreciation

Monks on the monastery roof with Jason & Lozang Zopa

See you next time!

When we weren't volunteering or attending His Holiness' teachings, we spent time with Lozang Zopa visiting his temple, attending a lecture he gave to Western Buddhists and of course eating meals together.

Lozang Zopa seated in the temple at Chime Gatsal Ling monastery

The rest of our time was spent enjoying the peaceful, positive atmosphere of McLeod Ganj, walking in the surrounding hills, cooking and even playing 'Yahtzee'. We spent a lovely hour walking the pretty path around His Holiness' temple. Passing a plethora of prayer flags and mani (prayer) walls, we fell into step with the elderly Tibetans circumambulating, counting prayer beads as they walked.

A colorful mani wall near His Holiness' temple

Jason works his culinary magic in our single burner kitchen. Curried potatoes, anyone?

Yahtzee on the balcony. Does it get any better than this?

The view from our balcony. OK, maybe this is better than Yahtzee

Perhaps we left a tiny mark on McLeod Ganj. The place undoubtedly left its mark on us. We hope to be back one day to visit friends old and new.

Next on Donkey Crossing

Join us as we travel to Amritsar in Punjab, home of the famous Golden Temple, then on to Agra for an encounter with the spectacular Taj Mahal.