Tibetans waiting for the Dalai Lama at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Manhattan (photo by Luis Bastardo)
My favorite place by far in New York City is Central Park. It's an amazing place every day and in every season, an oasis of calm and sanity in a sometimes chaotic and overwhelming city. Sunday is the best day to visit, especially for your first time, when the 843 acre park is full of life: locals and tourists walking, sunbathing, playing baseball, soccer and Frisbee, picnicking, bird watching, horse riding and people watching. Performers and vendors are in every part of the park, selling hot dogs and watercolor paintings, performing hip hop and roller-blading routines, singing, miming and making giant soap bubbles and balloon animals for the kids. We woke to a beautiful, warm and sunny Sunday in October so off we went to the park.
The Dalai Lama arriving at the Waldorf (photo by Luis Bastardo)
On the way, we got sidetracked by couple of interesting looking street fairs and found ourselves in front of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Luis was interested in seeing the interior, so we decided to take a detour and pop inside. In the lobby, there were dozens of people dressed in Tibetan clothing, apparently waiting for something or someone. I asked one of the women next to me what was happening and she told me that they were awaiting for the arrival of the Dalai Lama in half an hour. "The Dalai Lama?", I sputtered, flabbergasted, and ran off to tell Luis. "Do you want to wait?" I asked him. He looked at me as if I'd gone temporarily insane. "Seriously? Um...hmmm, let's see...YES!" You just never know what awaits you around the next corner in New York City.
Luis receiving his blessing from a Buddhist monk (photo by Simone Cannon)
So we stood on the sidewalk in our conspicuous, non-Tibetan Nike and Adidas clothes with the Tibetans, waiting. About an hour later, several sun-glassed, dark-suited security agents arrived, quickly scanning the area and talking into headsets (the Dalai Lama is constantly receiving death threats) followed by three long black limousines. Out of the middle car, jumped the Dalai Lama himself, as always happily smiling and energetic, blessing and greeting the crowd. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist world, and is believed by his followers to be the reincarnation of a long line of Tulkus or high priests, beginning in 1391 with the birth of the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has been in power since 1950, but is in exile due to threats by the Chinese government. It is a great honor to meet the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan Buddhists wait their entire lives for the touch of the Dalai Lama on their head as the ultimate blessing. Although we didn't get blessed by him, later, Buddhist monks poured liquid into our cupped hands and onto our heads as a blessing for safe travel.
A fellow New Yorker off to enjoy a day in the park (photo by Luis Bastardo)
After the excitement of seeing the Dalai Lama, we resumed our trip to the park, first stopping by The Plaza Hotel to get a look at another luxurious lobby. The park was full of people, skateboarding, strolling and taking wedding photos. Near Bethesda Terrace, we watched a group of hip-hop performers demonstrate amazing aerial and balance feats, then wandered over to the rollerbladers and skateboarders to watch their tricks. Luis was in his glory, photographically speaking, and ran around the park, snapping hundreds of pictures. Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux first opened in 1857, originally encompassing 770 acres, but was later expanded to 843. The terrain was rocky, hilly and swampy and had to be extensively landscaped. The land was also home to 1,600 working poor, who were evicted under the laws of eminent domain to make way for park construction. Although the park went into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, it was revived when maintenance responsibility was assumed by the privately funded Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980 by Elizabeth (Betsy) Barlow Rogers. The Conservancy estimates that the the park currently receives 35 million local and international visitors a year, up from 13 million people in 1973.
Hip-hop performers show their stuff in Central Park (photo by Luis Bastardo)