I bump around the tent with my hands trying to find my phone when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. I shut it off, remove my sleep mask and earplugs, and unzip the tent flap to find two monks crouched outside beside our motorcycles eating breakfast.
At the makeshift tent restaurant we’re camped a few feet away from, a dozen or so Ladakhis are quietly eating fried bread and chickpeas. Behind them, along the gravel road beyond a stone wall, a crowd of tens of thousands is making their way towards the field where the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra initiation is about to begin. The field is almost a mile way, but I can still hear the guttural prayers of thousands of monks over its loudspeakers.
M- is still asleep.
I crawl out of the tent, look at the people on the wood and brick stools of the restaurant, then put on a shirt and sandals and go looking for a place to use the toilet.
Over the past few days of camping, toilet-related searches have been constant. The closest facility requires me to walk almost a mile, wait twenty minutes in line to pass through security at the Kalachakra grounds, walk fifteen minutes through the crowd, wait in line at the toilets, then come all the way back. So I, like everyone else in this tent village, go to the fields.
But there’s a problem: we’ve been camping here for days and the fields have begun to fill up. The one nearest our tent has a constant flow of people ducking in and out. It’s usually empty this time of the morning though, so this is when I make my move.
I hop the fence and sneak carefully through the grass, avoiding the fresh dollops and wind-blown squares of used toilet paper, then climb another fence and tiptoe along the trees towards the tall grass, where I squat to do my business.
As I squat, a man rises from behind some nearby bushes, pulls up his pants and hurries off. Another man creeps along the stone wall and lowers out of sight. A woman’s head appears above the wall. She begins to climb over, but then sees me and backs away.
When I get back to the tent, M- is still sleeping. Eager to get to the Kalachakra grounds, I wolf down breakfast and return to the tent. She tells me to go along, that she might come later.
I get my radio, water and snacks together, then smoke a joint and plunge into the river of pilgrims. At the entrance to the Kalachakra grounds, the river lets off a tributary of foreigners towards our own special entrance. From there, a roped-off walkway leads us through the Ladakhi upper class VIPs, then through thousands of monks and nuns before reaching the foreigner section.
In contrast to the chaos of the Ladaki areas, the foreigner section is almost utterly sedate. Nobody is talking. No children are being chased. There are no picnics. The space between those seated on the ground or in foldable chairs (only present in the foreign section) is about two feet, in contrast to the claustrophobic two inches of space permitted to the masses outside the roped off, heavily guarded foreigner zone. This doesn’t apply to the Koreans, however, who are all squeezed together on tiny stools at the back of the crowd, some wearing surgical masks, some holding sun umbrellas, together forming little school-like units trying their best to be not too much in anyone’s way.
Tour companies with names like Bodhi Tours and Nirvana Holidays sent scouts before dawn to lay tarps down for their clients, reserving some 20-30 square feet of unoccupied space for wealthy tourists who will never even show up. I walk up and sit on one of these tarps near the front, not far from the raised stage where dozens of geshes and reincarnate Lamas wrapped in golden robes are seated on the floor around the central throne reserved for the Dalai Lama.
As I sit and wait, I look around.
Beside me, a large group of Brazilians (they have a flag above them) are meditating. Not far away, three Africans are prostrating towards the throne. A group of Chinese wearing white gloves are sipping from little teacups. A half-dozen dreadlocked Spaniards saunter up and sit cross-legged in the nearby grass.
I close my eyes and hear English, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and French. When the Italians talk about the Buddha and the Sangha, it sounds like they are talking about the Gouda and lasagna. Behind me, an obese American women dressed in Tibetan clothes is telling uninterested strangers about her son, Tenzin.
In the background, the mass of monks continue their guttural chant. A wave suddenly sweeps through the crowd – people begin looking around, standing up; some rush towards the back fence with their cameras. The whine of pungi-like flutes, drums and gong clangs fills the air, and I stand to see at the far back of the crowd a golden-curtained umbrella held aloft on a pole above a heavily secured entourage moving through the people. It can only mean one thing: the Dalai Lama is approaching.
All around me people begin prostrating while others hold their cameras high in the air. The curtained umbrella hovers over the Dalai Lama like a ghost as he waves and blesses his way through the mass of over 150,000. He moves almost in slow motion, parting the crowd until he reaches the stage and, after ambling to each corner to wave, climbs onto his giant, raised, jeweled throne.
Moments later, a scream pierces the air – a female scream, half pained, half orgasmic – and on the giant stage television screens, a women appears, rushing towards the Dalai Lama’s throne. When the police stop her, she throws herself to the ground and begins prostrating. Over the radio, an interpreter explains: “We have a trance… The trance appears to be Palden Lhamo, ancient protector deity of Tibet, who has seized this woman to pay her respects to His Holiness at the beginning of the Kalachakra empowerment.” She prostrates until she passes out and is carried away.
Minutes later a man goes into trance and shouts his way towards the stage to begin prostrating. The interpreter explains, “This man has also gone into a trance. He says he is Nyenchen Tanglha – another protector deity of Tibet – who has come to pay his respects.”
Speakers follow: first, an emissary from the Ladakhi community, then a Kasmiri Muslim leader, then Richard Gere (?), who speaks on behalf of “all foreigners.” After that, the teachings begin.
Hours later I walk through the dusty tent city back to our camp to find M- sprawled out in the grass, listening to the teachings over the radio. After lunch, we gather our dirty clothes in a bag, strap it to the motorcycle and ride off towards the nearby river to bathe and wash our clothes.