Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Warning: Virulent Virus from Vijayawada
Some public computer I used on 24th or 25th, while in Vijayawada, was infected with a virus and is still sending out weird, huge picture files in my name, to every one of the thousand names in my Yahoo address book. Until that computer, which could be one of 5 or 6 in that city, is disinfected, this will continue for a while. Ignore these and don't open them. Delete them. You know I would never send something with a boring title like "DSC-1184" anyway!

Sorry, I don't know what else to do. Here is a message from someone receiving them in Bombay:

Dear Siren,
The subject line of this mails vary. It could be a digital image file name like DCP11122.jpg or re:Word or Re:Files or god knows what. So far I have received 4 e-mails with different subjects. I don't know when this will end. In all probability, one of those cyber cafe which you used, has this infection and got your mail id, keeps sending from your id since it has the id and password. Until that machine is disinfected, this will continue.

So, you have been warned. Too bad I could not use a computer condom to prevent this infection.

If you receive these files and open them, that's your fault for not reading this Blog like you are supposed to be doing. Nyah nyah nyah.

Gainful Employment
Good news! Dell is going to hire 5,000 more people in India. I might get a job yet. This will bring Dell's Indian workforce up to 15,000 which should make everyone back home very happy. Dell, which is based in Round Rock,Texas, will add a new call center in Gurgaon, a wealthy Haryana suburb near Delhi (India's capitol). They already have call centers in Bangalore (the technology center of India), Hyderabad (where I just passed through) and Mohali in the northern state of Punjab (remember Punjab of Little Orphan Annie? Many men wear turbans there, because it's the centre of the Sikh religion). So when you call Dell for help withyour computer (because you have a worm virus which you received from a computer I once used), you might get someone I have trained to say "uh MERR ih kuh," - or, at least, Daddy Warbucks' assistant.

I see that now that I have stopped for a glass of tea in Vijayawada, all the Google ads for my Blog site are for tea. Many different kinds of teas. Yesterday, one advertisement was for Earl Grey Tea and the other has 8 Numi Tea Flavors. Gone are all the Google advertisements for handcrafted Tibetan products.

Now, I would hate to think what will happen if I stop to use the toilet. Or even mention condoms. Ut oh! I just said it. Will Google notice? Check the ads at the top of this page. This could be interesting.

Why are there no photos?
Because, in my travels I often do not have access to computers that include 1-a working disk drive, 2-a USB port and 3-imaging software that will allow me to resize and upload photos. A laptop would go a long way toward changing this. One can dream.

Bapu Forgotten
Yesterday, January 30, was the anniversary of Gandhi's assassination. Usually this is observed as Martyr's Day and there is a mandatory two minutes of silence while a siren (hmmmm....) sounds.

Guntur did not observe this yesterday.

Bapu, ubi sunt? (Where have they gone?)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Take Diversion

The Indian version of the "Detour" road-sign is "Take Diversion." I should just tattoo it on my forehead since nothing seems to go as planned anyway.

Malgudi Days
This is the first chance at email I've had since Friday afternoon. The bus from Vijayawada to Amaravathi did not run on time, so I missed the ensuing bus to Guntur where I would have gotten my Chennai train. Fortunately, this train leaves every evening and seats are readily available. Having missed the train and thus wasted the ticket, there seemed to be little reason to leave the peaceful atmosphere of Amaravathi in a rush, so I didn't. There was no internet at all available in Amaravati this weekend. The next morning (Saturday) I got some great interviews with local people concerning their businesses.

RK Narayanan wrote a series of books about a fictitious south Indian town, Malgudi Junction. Amaravathi could very well be Malgudi. Every day - actually, every five minutes - I saw charming scenes of a way of life that is quickly vanishing. Without internet, all I could do was scribble them in my theme book and hope to transfer them later.

In this way, I discovered a gathering of some 200,000 Indian Christians in nearby Guntur, somewhat controversial as there are Indian groups who dislike conversions. My friends Madhusudana and his family have a house in Guntur and said I could stay there as long as I like "as it is your own home." They are pretty cool so I said, okay and tonight we will have homemade dinner at Vijay's auntie's house.

Last night I took the bus to Guntur. A tiny girl named Nagalaxmi came and sat next to me to practice her English. "Your name is what?" "Ca-ro-line." "Your village name is what?" "Chat-ta-noo-ga." I was proud that my "village" name was equally as long and musical as hers, Kondalurpet.

Healing Hands & Headaches
Upon arrival in Guntur, Vijay met me at the bus station. We went to the meeting site - just an open field with a temporary stage erected - and talked to the Christians of the Randy Walker Global Outreach (with varying results including their trying to "save" me. "Can we pray for you?"). I had a chance to follow the touring bus with the Christians and go to Rajahmundry with them, the next stop on their mission/crusade/tour. (Most of the team are westerners working with the locals.) I would have done it if a rumour hadn't started circulating that I was a spy from Sai Baba's (?!). I think that's why they were trying to "save" me. After a guy from Alabama tried to heal me by pressing his finger on my forehead and praying aloud, I got a headache that lasted all day today. Maybe it's God's way of telling me to stay away from this particular socioreligious phenomena. Or it may have just been the cognitive dissonance created by hearing an Alabama accent in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.

The volunteers were interesting; they all seem very sincere about helping people and as far as I know, are not preaching against Hinduism, just doing faith healing. You can freely promote any religion in India, you just can't speak negatively about any of them - that's where the trouble starts.

The Indian Christians were about as unfriendly as the Western ones were friendly. They must have had a very bad experience with the press because they were very suspicious about how they'd be portrayed. I just wanted to find out as much as possible about them, so that I can report what I find. If they don't let you ask questions, they make it difficult to do that.

The short of it seems to be - from what I saw sitting there and talking to people for about two hours - that Hindus are coming to Christianity not primarily because they like the belief system, or because they believe Jesus is Lord or anything like that, but because the Christians are, in local parlance, giving "best services." It appears to have more to do with the locals just wanting love and acceptance and help, than with their wanting to "be Christian," or with rejecting Hinduism.

That's very understandable, for poor people to want help wherever it is available. If the Hindus don't like it, they must get their act together and offer the same stuff. There are lots of NRIs with money now who could fund similar missions in a Hindu vein. This particular group focused on faith healing before preaching or conversion. There were laypersons laying on hands and praying for the recovery of locals from various ailments. In my case, though, it seems to have actually created an ailment (the headache). I regret that I didn't have the time and resources (time to translate from Telugu and talk to locals about it) to find out more.

Even the Dalai Lama said that Buddhists should follow the Christian example of charity and outreach, rather than sequestering themselves so much in the monasteries. In his autobiography the DL mentioned several examples of Indian charity and how he admired them - because, he said, his own compassion was just words and concepts, and these charity workers were really putting their compassion into action.

My Guntur hosts, Vijay and Phuni (sons of Madhusudana), are bright-eyed, athletic kids. Vijay is studying 3D animation and multimedia at the local university. I have seen his stuff and think he's pretty talented. He also studied karate for two months, mostly, I think, so he could take a series of photos in macho karate poses. I had to admit he looked pretty cool in these shots.

I was all set to get another ticket to Madras tonight, but now have been invited to the boys' best friend's wedding on February 2nd. This could be fun and a great photo op. I have a free place to stay here and in Adyar, Madras for a while.

Now I have, literally, about 100 emails waiting for me. . .

The Madras street kids are also waiting for me, viz. this letter from Prabhakaran, their adult "supervisor," to their sponsor, complete with misspellings:

Dear R,
I recieved your messages. Thank you.
Today i pay the invoice 181.13 for January. Thank you. Today i recieved 8784-115 and prabhu recieved 1889-115.
I think monday mumtaz and jeniffer will withdraw food money.
I wellcomes Dancing Lady Caroline. Thank you.
Here all are fine. Thank you,
Regards, V.Prabakaran.

There seem to be more people waiting for me than for any other unemployed writer in the universe. I guess that's a good thing.

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Bike Full of Buddhas

Financial Secrets Revealed!
International Adventuress Tells All
Chennai & Chai Guys
Sipping my morning chai at the Titanic Tea Palace, I saw a flatbed bike (cycle equivalent of a flatbed truck; used for transporting goods here) zip by, laden with plaster statues of fat, happy Chinese Buddhas, painted day-glo colours and wrapped in plastic. The Buddhas' arms stretched overhead as though they, too, were trying to shake off sleep. Lots of trinket salesmen had adjusted their usual wares for the Kalachakra, selling various Buddha figures in addition to their Hindu repertoire. Now, the Dalai Lama's photo peers out at me, not from current headlines, but from a sheet of newspaper under a pile of oily vada, where it's being used to line the snack trays. I'm a big believer in tea-stall divination. Dalai Lama's photo used as snack wrapper = time to move along.

The usual cluster of stony-eyed, mustachioed guys stood around nursing their glasses of tea, transfixed by the Telugu movie on the corner screen. (In these movies, a beautiful, fair-skinned woman wearing lots of gold jewelery cowers before a fat, greasy, hunkering dufus of a man. God knows why). I always seem to be the only woman at these "tea palaces." By now, I am used to the stares. Also, I have never seen an Indian woman read a newspaper, though the men read them studiously. Why? (or rather, why not?)

A New Adventure & The Secrets of MoneyGram
Tonight, I am off to Chennai by the night train. Yesterday I got my reservation (absolutely mandatory in India, unless you want to kick and scream your way into third class and stand for 10 hours) at Vijayawada's spiffy, efficient computerized office. I have a top berth so I hope to get a good night's rest, in addition to a bit more privacy than the lower seats. Just me, piled up on my luggage, on a 6 foot blue vinyl ledge next to a noisy set of fans and a slightly open window so I can breath in the smoke from the train. Facilities down the hall!

Train travel, still the main mode of transportation in India, is always an adventure. Indian trains all seem about 40 years old (though they're certainly much younger - like the people, they age quickly due to overwork and a hard life). The cars are divided up into at least five classes. First class travel can be extremely expensive so I prefer Sleeper Class (SL) which is the equivalent of third class but with two sets of three-high bunk beds per cell; door not included. In theory with Sleeper Class, you are guaranteed a place to sit during the day without too many people sharing your area. Then at night, the seats turn into a flat area that you can sleep on. The setup is quite ingenious really; they have really maximized a minimal space and seem to have thought of everything (including little metal rungs to help you climb like a monkey to the top berth, hanging straps, night lights, foldup tea tables and so on). All these folding and unfolding compartments - it's the Swiss Army Train!

Part of the adventure is that you never know where on the long, long platform your designated car will stop. The AC cars can't be in the front every time, or perhaps the middle - no, that would be too easy. You must get there in time to scry where your car will land. This is vital in order to get on right car before the train takes off, and to avoid running up and down the platform with all your luggage. Usually the guy running the tea stall knows, but not always. The real man with the plan is the Station Master. He loves to be coy about this vital information, pretending to attend to all manner of things before answering your question (remember, you are standing there laden with baggage in a hot station. Or at least I am - never having learned to travel light).

Chennai was known as Madras on maps older than 10 years old - until the Tamil Nationalist parties decided they had to change the name from lovely, expansive Maa-draaaas to stingy, narrow-sounding Chin-nye. This was meant to show how independent they were from the British - never mind that Madraspattinam was the original, Tamil name of the place. Or maybe they just didn't want the world to think they all walk around wearing Madras Plaid. (There really is Madras plaid - some traditional saris still feature it.)

Chennai/Madras is the fourth largest city in India, and the largest in the South (bigger than the more famous Bangalore). It is located on the southeast coast in the state of Tamil Nadu. It has the longest continuous beach in India, Marina Beach. You would think this would mean the city is caressed with cool, ocean breezes. It doesn't. Somehow, Chennai manages to provide an ocean with no breeze and no refreshing sea scent - just the sticky salt air and humidity. To make it less even enjoyable, you can imagine Dec. 26 of 2004, when this beach was hit by the tsunami and dozens died.

Chennai is relatively cool this time of year - why, the highs are only about 34 Degrees Centigrade (in the low 90s) - and because you're in India, you don't get to wear shorts and a tank top. This is South Indian Winter. At night, it gets a wonderfully cool 70 degrees, and it will stay this way till February. Whoops, that's only five days. Somehow, the weather knows exactly when Feb. 1st rolls around and then, like clockwork, it begins getting hotter by the day, till May when it is absolutely unbearable. Finally in June, the monsoon rains begin, but by then everyone who is able to has departed for cooler climes.

If you keep the fans on high, the mosquitos won't bite - but you will wake up with a sore throat. If you keep the windows open, the mosquitos will fly in, but if you close them all, you will suffocate. If you burn the mosquito coils, they won't bite, but you will breathe in poison all night long. The malaria mosquitos only bite after dark, but the dengue mosquitos bite all day long. It's pretty much a win-win scenario for the mosquitos. After the Amaravati malaria outbreak, even the Dalai Lama said it was okay to kill them (well not in those words, but he admitted that they "are unbearable").

India is a conglomeration of formerly independent kingdoms, so you can think of India as a group of countries like North America. You can imagine Kashmir as Canada (snowy mountains), northern India is the USA, with Calcutta as New York (unliveable, but with brilliant cultural and intellectual life), Delhi as Washington, DC (big dirty crime-ridden capitol, also a self-contained city-state), Mumbai (Bombay)as Los Angeles (tropical, liberal city where everyone is obsessed with their looks and making it in show business) and finally, Tamil Nadu as Mexico with Chennai as Mexico City. It's slow and relatively peaceful... except for the traffic jams. Or perhaps Chennai resembles Atlanta, Georgia - formerly a quaint capital of the traditional south, now expanding too quickly; struggling to maintain its customs and gentility while becoming the sprawling regional hub. Jasmine flowers, handloom saris and cows, wandering in and out of the construction sites for new modern tower blocks. Like Atlanta, many locals are still churchgoing folks (or in this case, temple-going).

I've never been to Goa, but I think Goa is San Francisco.

Street Kids of Madras
One of my goals in Chennai is to visit with
the street kids who live on Triplicane High Road - not far from the world famous Marina Beach which was hit by the Tsunami last year.

It has been a while since I have seen these street kids so I will bring you reports on what has happened to them in the last three years. The kids range from innocent and timid to completely corrupted, hopeless rascals. My two favourites are Nagamma and Prabhu. Nagamma is a classic heartbreaker, a sweet, shy, quiet girl who refuses all offers to leave her abusive, alcoholic family. Prabhu, I understand, has done the best of the bunch, earning enough money on his bookbinding job to pay for his own vacation recently. He went on the religious pilgrimage to the famous Swami Ayyappa temple, Sabarimala, Kerala. Vela used to be a cunning, if charming, young tomboy. Now she's probably a hardened criminal. Mumtaz, the beauty of the bunch, has now married her neighborhood sweetheart Haniffa and had a baby boy. You can see all their photos

Visiting the kids usually means a few days of navigating their competing stories and the stories of neighborhood onlookers ("no, she has not been going to school"; "yes madam, I am daily going to school"). I don't really know exactly how old any of the kids are, because they don't know themselves.

Money Talks
Some of you have asked how I survive in India. Fortunately in India, the food, lodging and transportation costs are extremely low by western standards. I can live for about $200 to $300 a month as long as I do not buy anything expensive such as a camera or the laptop computer - which I deperately need.

Fortunately, my patient family and friends have provided some help, and other people have sent me money for selected projects. One American, who has been sponsoring street kids for over 5 years in Chennai, will be contributing a little money for me
to document what has happened to his kids now that they are growing up.

If you want to help me in any of my projects or adventures, you can
quickly and easily send me money via
MoneyGram. (MoneyGram is like
Western Union but without the huge expense.) Sending money to me in India costs only $10 - for any amount - and I can pick it up in just 24 hours.

To send money to me, go to any
MoneyGram agent (such as Albertson's
Supermarkets or Long's Drugs in the USA - see
a full list of worldwide agents here) and give them the following information:

Location: India
First Name: Carolyn Kay (Yes. That is my real
Last Name: Martin
Amount to be Sent: $200, etc.

When you are finished, they will give you an eight digit Reference numberwhich you must email to me along with the following information:

Location: India
First Name: Carolyn Kay
Last Name: Martin
Reference Number xxxxxxxx
(Also write the numbers out to prevent errors.)
Dollar Amount Sent: $xxx.xx US
Date Send: MM/DD/YYYY
Sender's Location: City, State, Country

By the way, my email is sirensongs@yahoo.com

Every bit helps! Especially here, where rent can be as low as $50 a month (outside of big cities, where it's more) and basic meals cost an average of $2 each. It is money via MoneyGrams which keeps me going.

For instance, tonight's train ticket was 540Rs (about $12.00). Breakfast was 65rs (less than $2). Every time I burn a CD of digital photos, it's about 50Rs ($1.25) and I do this several times a week. New CD carrying cases were 100Rs for two. I spent 500Rs at the supermarket getting Ayurvedic toothpaste, a toothbrush, hair conditioner, Spirulina vitamins, batteries, cashew nuts, and new cotton underwear (three pairs for 129Rs). One of my biggest expenses is the Internet - at minimum, $1.00 a day or $30 a month, more if I want to get creative and upload photos.

It is these donations or loans which make these adventures possible. Mystery solved!

So now you know the secret of glamourous, independent international travel and adventure - generous donations from friends, family, admirers and supporters. I live from month to month - sometimes week to week - on these dispatches. It's not for everyone, but it keeps me typing.

This message has been brought to you by the Committee to Keep Sirensongs Overseas, where she is both educational and entertaining - because back in America, she's just plain annoying, and a possible national security risk.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A moment of silence

It's official: I am burned out. Just getting all this information and all these photos was so much stress, I am now too tired to do anything with them. The suspense will just have to kill you for a few more days.

Thanks for understanding. After a few weeks of being a dedicated bodhisattva, it is time for a mental margarita.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Nomad's land

Now that the crowds are gone, I am spending a bit of time with the Tibetan newcomers. Many (a few hundred) of them are still here. Turns out, according to the Tibetan Prime Minister in Exile who gave a press briefing last week, 800 to 900 of them have taken refugee status in Nepal and will stay here. In about 10 days,
they will all go to Dharamsala where it will be nice and chilly for them. Right now, they are really suffering with the heat and mosquitos, neither of which they are accustomed to. Some of the younger ones speak English (also some of the monks) and they are my link.

The older ones are very brave to come here, as the adjustment will be the
most difficult for them. Completely unfamiliar languages, totally alien climate. Plus, unlike the younger ones who have some idealistic hopes of some future reunification in Tibet during their lifetimes, the older ones know they will never see their land again. I suspect that after a few months in the heat and crowding of India, life in their village will start to seem as though it wasn't so bad. Except, of course, there are no Chinese soldiers abusing them here, and they can practice their religion freely.

Now they are awaiting their refugee papers, which have to be filed with the Indian government, to be cleared in Delhi. This is why there are often so many Tibetans in Delhi - one, it is the halfway point between Kathmandu and Dharmsala; two, they are awaiting legal work. Then they will be official.

The director of Tibetan reception, Mr. Dorje, is a friendly, affable man with a baseball hat and an open face reminding me of my native American grandfather. But he is extremely busy right now with all the breaking-down of tents and infrastructure, returning things to the rental companies, and the enormous task of getting this show on the road north. The advantage for me is that this keeps them here a few more days. Mr. Dorje is largely too busy to talk with me himself but at least I am learning something of their situation.

Kathmandu has gone from bad to worse. The King has arrested 420 politicians and activists in the past 2 days and all cell phone communications are cut. The embassy warns that regular phones could go at any time. Worst of all there is a strict curfew with movement allowed only from 8am to 6pm (!) and shoot to kill orders issued for violators. I suspect these developments may persuade some of the Tibetans who had planned to remain refugees in Nepal to stay here in India instead.

I have to get going now because the heat is coming, between 11.30 and 4.30
pm I can't do anything but sit under a fan. Anything else is debilitating!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour....

Location: Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh
Photos still on hold

Excursion Diversion

Wow, the middle of the day is so hot here, all I can do is sit under the lone table fan at the lone internet terminal. The local folks walk around with bare heads in the mid-day sun. I stagger from house to net shop protected by sunscreen and my umbrella.

Thursday I took a bus trip with a bunch of Tibetan newcomers to a Buddhist pilgrimage site, Nagarjunakonda. It was a four-hour bus ride on the old shake-n-rattle wooden seats to the manmade lake, Nagarjuna Sagar, where we took a boat to the manmade island that houses archaeological remains of the region (from before they made the dam). They enjoyed it - for most of them it was their first time ever on a boat - but they suffer tremendously in the heat and many are covered in mosquito bites. There were 6 cases of malaria during the Kalachakra event and malaria clinics were set up all over the site. Five elder Tibetans died (not of malaria, but various other fevers)during Kalachakra. Most of the people on my bus were new arrivals from Tibet, which means they spent about 29 days crossing the mountains back in November. Then in December they took refugee status in Nepal and came down here for this event. Others came legally on Chinese passports with a normal visa and will go back to Tibet, so they didn't have such a hard time getting here - they came on trains and buses like normal travellers.

Museum musings
Nagarjunakonda itself is weird. It was previously a vast Buddhist civilization - with temples, monasteries, stupas, residences all in ruins, but yet to be fully explored. President Nehru decided to flood the valley to make a dam for local irrigation. I am glad that the surrounding land is now green and fertile, but sad to see the pathetic tiny clay "replicas" of the irreplaceable ruins in the museum.

The museum itself, like most Indian museums, was a joke: strictly No Photography (like photography would hurt a sculpture?), yet the sculptures themselves were completely unprotected so that everyone could, and did, run their hands all over them. Of course they cry poverty, but where is my "foreigner's ticket" price, which supposedly goes to maintain the monuments, actually being spent? A few panes of glass to protect the ancient sculptures would be very cheap indeed. One year in an Indian museum with all the finger traffic probably does more to destroy the artwork than a hundred years sitting in the desert. The local authorities claim they have a campaign to have more Andhra artwork returned from the British and Chennai museums. For the sake of the art itself, and Buddhist heritage everywhere, I hope they don't succeed!

And there are the completely information-free captions: no dates, no place of origin. Signs everywhere saying "Please do not donate anything" (what??). Again, what are we paying for? I could learn more in a book about the place. (And I did, on the bus ride home, thanks to an English-speaking monk who bought the guide book.)

Ragged clothes
The new arrival refugees look very bad, thin, sunburned and straggly hair with ragged clothes (and they have been here now a month or so). Traditionally they wear a lot of beautful silver, coral and turquoise ornaments but they must have sold or traded all of them for bribes in order to escape, because now they look like beggars. That word is not really appropriate, though, because they refuse to beg - their pride is very admirable. By contrast, there are Indian beggars lining the streets here - some were bussed in by their "bosses" specially for the occasion. These shameless local beggars are even hounding the monks (who take a vow of poverty)for money, and the Tibetans (who are political refugees). However you very, very rarely see a Tibetan beggar, it's not part of their culture. They are very tough and self-reliant.

On the bus a little grandmother in front of me was scratching her hands to bits, the mosquito bites were really bothering her. She was holding her hands out the window just to get some cool relief from the bites. I happened to have some ItchGuard in my bag and showed her how to rub it in. Someone had to tell her in Tibetan not to put it into her eyes. Finally I just gave her the whole tube, I figured she needed it worse than I do. Before we got off the bus she gestured that her hands felt better and said something in Tibetan. Almost every exchange with the new Tibetans begins and ends with an ear-splitting grin (on their part), and this was no exception.

Food fight!!

Location: Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh
Photos on the way, please stand by...it might require a day trip into Vijayawada.

Moshing Monks
Even with my blue media badge of omnipotent power, I had to elbow and fight my way into the tent's inner chamber to video the dissolution of the Mandala. The Dalai Lama's sister, an austere and elegant grey-haired lady in traditional dress, asked me and all press people to leave. When I saw that no one else was paying heed I stayed put. This was really beautiful and sad at the same time, to watch the destruction of these designs in coloured sand. It took a week for the monks to make it, and is a work of exquisite religious art, but in keeping with their teachings that all things are impermanent it has to be destroyed and the sands are then immersed in the river. I did manage a clear shot of the whole thing, complete with chanting, though a Japanese photographer's head got in the way sometimes. It was oddly thrilling and bittersweet to watch this perfect sand painting, each discrete section glowing like a gem, become a muck of greyish dirt when all the colours are mixed together. Then it was a feeding frenzy (the monks were the biggest offenders!) to scoop up pieces of the sand in little plastic cups, scraps of newspaper, anything (wait a minute, what about impermanence??) Even stalwarts like me were elbowed out of the way as it turned into a monks' mosh-pit. It really felt dangerous for a minute, the competition to get this sacred sand.

As if on cue, the Tibetans started rushing the stage and the throne taking everything that wasn't nailed down, and possibly a few things that were (flowers, pieces of cloth, even scraping the dirt beneath the Dalai Lama's throne for any possibility of earth that his feet might have trodden). The monks began dismantling the altar according to tradition. There are big baskets of cookies and crackers, which have been on the altar all week receiving blessings, and they began tossing them out to the crowd, which fell on them in a frenzy. Indian police and Tibetan security were fighting off those trying to rush the stage, sometimes using bamboo sticks and kicking the Tibetans to ward them off. No one was truly hurt (at least not that I saw) and the Tibetans seemed to look on it as all one big food fight. When a policeman would shove them they grinned like it was all a pillow fight at a slumber party. Such a contrast to the easily-offended Indians who are constantly afraid of losing "face" if they give even an inch or have their foot trod upon.

Then the the torma(giant decorative cakes of compressed barley flour) were brought down from the altar and everyone rushed madly to dig their fingers in. Since these are something like sand sculptures the torma "exploded" and powder flew everywhere, into our hair and all over our clothes. We dug our fingers in an carved out chunks that were then wadded into balls of barley flour, to take back to others and share. The torma have decorations made of congealed butter and at this point all my photos are blurry because butter got on the camera lens.

I realized these were the Tibetans who were returning to Tibet - what else do they have? They can't have a photo of the Dalai Lama, they can't have his name written down, they cannot even utter his name, so they desperately wanted some piece of him to take back with them. Something to reassure them that it had not all been a wonderful dream. For the younger ones, this man had been a legend or myth all their lives - they had grown up with nothing but rumours of his existence. For the elders, those over 50, they had not seen him since their youth, in 1959, when he escaped to India under cover of night on a donkey train.

Secret Sand Society
While everyone was rushing the stage fighting over the sacred Scooby snacks, the monks, including the "big Rinpoche" who had fielded the antagonistic questions at the press meets, quietly and solemnly processed out the side door of the stage carrying the sand in a vase, along with the Dakini crown (photos to come). The monks were all wearing the famous yellow hats that always remind me of Toucan Sam. They climbed into a jeep at the head of a vehicle convoy. People were asking "where is the immersion?" but it had been kept intentionally secret, even the other convoy vehicles didn't know - "lead jeep knows! Only lead jeep knows!" Right about then the lead jeep took off and a few hardcore journos ran and jumped onto the back (!), hanging on as the jeep moved toward the undisclosed location. The secrecy was probably meant to prevent a mob of Tibetans, also to prevent a rush of Hindus from "dipping" in the water. Tibetans are notoriously afraid of water, Indians have this tradition of sacred bathing, fully clothed, on such occasions. Several people drown in the rush at every Kumbha Mela.

Thanks to one of these hardy photogs I got a couple immersion photos I will upload when I return to civilization.

Amaravati Aftermath
The town of Amaravati is slowly returning back to a normal, sleepy South Indian hamlet after 2 weeks of being transformed into an international IndoTibetoEuroInternational peace and fellowship village. Unfortunately, such sleepy hamlets don't normally have multimedia access! In fact, now there's only one terminal in town and three monks are waiting for it, so I had better run. I feel bad hogging the only media resource from people who spent 29 days crossing the wintertime Himalayas on foot, dodging Chinese soldiers in the ice and snow.

I may have found my angle for the Indian Financial Express. I am talking to lots of shopkeepers and local people who set up impromptu businesses here about their profits. A guy who rented a corner shop specially for the event, and leased fridges, coolers etc. to sell cold water and ice cream, did 8000rs (nearly 200 dollars) worth of business a day. Local homeowners leased their front yards to enterprising Tibetans and Indians who set up tents and ran lucrative stalls. On the other hand, the Norbulingka Foundation (one of the sponsors; in fact the major sponsor) is now saying they are in the hole. Sounds like the big guys lost while the little guys are happy. I think the Buddha would approve.

Letters from Home

One of the most gratifying things in my life is getting fan mail from my own parents. My favorite emails often come from Mom and Dad in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After my enthusiastic blabbering about the Kalachakra initiation two weeks ago, Dad sent a characteristic one-liner:

"So, what's a chakra?"

I wrote a very simplified explanation of chakras as energy systems within the body and the universe. A few days later I mentioned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived here in a helicopter.

Now Mom writes: "So how about a photo of you and HH before he hits the helo?"

Dear Mom and Dad:
Wow, I wish I could have gotten that close to HH. The closest thing to a pic of us together is one of him in the chair at the press conference, with me in a nearby corner with my camera in my face (I videoed the whole thing). I guess at least it proves I was in the same room with him only about 18 feet away. I did get about 8 feet from him as he was leaving the press conference and people were cheering "Long Live the Dalai Lama!"

There were no personal meetings or photo ops for us. Next time I will be smarter and stand behind him at the press conference. Those latecomin' fools inadvertently got their photos made with him!

There are a couple photos of me in various places, with messy hair and sweaty face, but mostly I was behind the cam all the time. I had all these cute ideas of photo ops with myself, wearing my Tibetan chupa, with all the old Tibetan ladies in their traditional dress, but every time I turned around I was out of camera memory or battery juice. Yesterday the media center (complete with working disk drives and DSL conection) was shut down (I was in a frenetic race to get all my CDs burned before they cut us off - I may have lost a few pictures in the process, but I have no personal workspace - what to do? a nomad's life) so I will have to hunt down another photo-transferring place.

More later, I have to meet my friends who are returning to Madras. I will follow them in a couple of days but I think I will stay today here in Amaravati a day or so and talk to some more people about their experience. The local shopkeepers, new arrivals and settled Tibetans still in the camps, and the Norbulingka Foundation. The NF is claiming "unforeseeable expenses" that put them in the hole, and I know from personal experience that doing business in India is fraught with these contingencies. The hidden cost of doing business in India.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sands of Time

Kalachakra Initiations, Day 47 or so (lost track about a week ago)
Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh

My shoulders are aching from holding my camera up over my head all day long, it's 12.50 AM, I still haven't been able to download all my photos (don't ask) and we have to get up at 6.30 in the morning to get a good place for witnessing the dissolution of the Kalachakra Sand Mandala and its dispersion in the river. I think I have enough stuff now to write about the rest of the season.

I was all set to be a demure, novice, girl cub-reporter at the press conference and not ask any questions, and ended up wishing that I had. The questions were so unbelievably stupid (even after the Dalai Lama stated he didn't want to answer political questions, they persisted). The Communist party is strong in Andhra Pradesh state and there is a local gang of pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-secular skeptics whose idea of showing how modern and sophisticated they are is to try to make the Dalai Lama, or any religious figure, look like a hypocrite. There is one guy from a local Telugu-language paper (which shall remain nameless) who's always - I mean, every day at the 5pm press briefing - asking questions calculated to make the Rinpoche look stupid. (Rinpoche always kicked his butt verbally, but the guy never learned.) Someone must have warned HH about him, because the Dalai Lama got irritated at this guy, who'd been asking obviously-Commie-slanted questions all week. HH nearly rose out of his chair, pointing his finger at the irritating guy and saying "I think you are supporting the Chinese cause!" We all laughted because we'd been thinking the same thing all week. It takes a lot to provoke a living Avalokiteshvara (embodiment of compassion) but this guy deserved it.

After the official initiation (which comes after the semi- hemi - demi- initiations, and the 4 quasi-low impowerments, 4.5 the slightly higher impowerments and the 12 or so somewhat-slightly-higher-than that impowerments) we actually did feel initiated. You're bound to feel something after sitting there for four hours a day ten days in a row...even though you might not be feeling anything in your legs. Nobody seems to know what the actual practice is we're meant to be doing, but everyone feels like they got zapped. It has lots of technicolour deities and Sanskrit mantras draped all over it to attract the interest of Orientalist dilettantes like me, but basically it comes down to: be nice to people, don't be selfish, and anything good you do, do it for the good of all. I think this whole thing is a Dalai Lama trick to get lots of people in one place so he can instill bodhicitta (loving kindness and compassion) into them, bless them, force them to sit in one place for hours at a time to get the vibrations of all those chants reverberating through them, and draw their attention to the Tibetan cause -- all in one go. I love it. Good one, HH!

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Kalachakra Intiation, Day 8
Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh

It's a DalaiLama-Rama!

Too bad there are only three days left of this amazing event. There is so much going on you would need to bi-locate (the way the Lord Buddha evidently did to deliver the original Kalachakra sermon) in order to cover half of it.

The Tibetan equivalent of Woodstock has been taking place every night for the past 3 nights here, with about 30,000 in attendance so far - the largest Tibetan music event ever. All Tibetan artists, traditional and pop, from 7 to 11pm every night. The young Tibetan generation impress me with their simultaneous fascination for hip-hop, rock and Hindi movies, yet total reverence for the Dalai Lama and their traditions. Usually what happens in such situations is that the kids want to run away from the past completely and dis the religion as well. The Tibetan kids, at least the ones who are here, seem keenly aware of their responsibility to maintain their culture. Some, like my new friend Sangye (whose favourite band is the Black Eyed Peas), express a desire to succeed here in India (the regional land of opportunity) and then return, they hope, to an autonomous Tibet some day in order to help their people.

The Amaravati museum, containing sculptural friezes of the 200 AD MahaStupa, is chock full of Tibetans praying to the Buddhist relics as well as local Telugu folks who are just now learning about the Buddhist heritage of their homeland. Many Indian families took the opportunity to combine the historical event with a family outing. It was great to see the locals mingling with westerners and Tibetans, everyone appreciating the beautiful sculpture depicting scenes from the life of Buddha (first sermon at Sarnath, escape from the palace, and so on). Though the signs forbid it, Tibetans run their fingers lovingly over the ancient stones - carved into lotus flowers, dharma wheels, and various depictions of the Buddha - sometimes bowing reverently to place their head at the base of the pedestal. Everyone, Tibetan, Hindu and western, bowed to the sculpture representing the Buddha's feet. Telugu ladies expressed curiosity at the Tibetan ladies' intricate braided hair designs - often interwoven with colourful ribbons and elaborate silver ornaments.

Everywhere I go, I am confronted by local Indians keen to know about the event, the Dalai Lama and the significance of this juggernaut that has hit their hometown. They are full of questions: Who is the Dalai Lama? When can we see him speak? Where is the preaching place anyway? Does it cost money to meet the Dalai Lama? Why doesn't the Chinese government like him? Who is the Panchen Lama? Does Tibet have modern facilities like engineering and medical colleges? What is the meaning of the deep-voiced chants the monks are constantly singing? When can we view the mandala? Why are you carrying this piece of kusha grass? Does he speak only in Tibetan? Can we meet him and consult with him? What is the meaning of this puja and the meaning of Buddhism? These were all literate, educated people with vigorous curiosity about the goings-on. It seems the local Telugu papers' information had been scanty and sometimes inaccurate.

Other locals expressed appreciation for what little they knew of His Holiness - that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, and that "everything he is doing is only for world peace."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hello Dalai

Looks like we are getting a press conference in the next couple days. Write to me and tell me: What should I ask the Dalai Lama?

Kalachakra Initiation Day 6
Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh


We thought the Dalai Lama was taking a day off. He had told us on Tuesday "there will be no special teaching tomorrow morning," and some friends were even considering sleeping in. The days here are packed - morning call for a good seat at teachings, hustling to get lunch without heatstroke, if you're lucky a short nap till tea time, then a one-time-only, living Buddhist-Hindu-Tibeto-Indo-Euro city waiting to be explored, then photos to download from 10 till midnight. Maybe today we'd sleep till noon!

Destiny, the Bodhisattvas, and good karma intervened. We ran into a French couple at the idly place (never seen them before, but no intros necessary here - this part of India is like Richard Pryor's joke about white folks in Africa waving at each other) who asked, "have you heard about a private audience for foreigners today?" We choked down our chai and ran to the Media Center to verify the rumour. Amazingly, it was true - be at the gate at 1pm, we were told, "and bring your passports."

Every face was glowing with anticipation in the hot, dirty, crowded tent, a sort of annex behind the main Temple tent. All foreign visitors were allowed to enter in national groups (Australia first, then US, and so on) after showing passports and several security pat-downs. We squashed together seated on the jute matted floor, gladly knocking knees and elbows. Most of us folded katas (the traditional white blessings scarf) in hopes we'd each get a personal blessing.

At last we caught a glimpse of the famous maroon umbrella (the first thing you always see of His Holiness - it shields him from the scorching Indian sun and is a sign of respect) bobbing above the heads of the crowd. A reverent hush fell over the crowd, every single one of whom was beaming like a kid getting every Christmas morning all at once.

"Please remain seated! Remain seated when His Holiness enters!" I was glad for this announcement, since the custom of doing three short prostrations upon seeing a holy person, in this crowd, would have been unmanageable - and a waste of time. "And remain seated the whole time!"

You could have heard a pin drop as the beloved bespectacled face appeared, beaming as always, hands pressed together in greeting. His Holiness walks with a slight stoop, possibly from age, but more likely from a lifetime of constantly saluting people with the customary semi-bow. We all raised our praying-hands likewise. I noticed that for footwear, he wears only something like flip-flops. Since he won't wear leather, I am sure these are just plastic. An avatar in flip-flops.

His Holiness never sat in the comfy cushioned wicker chair provided for him. Instead, he stood on a small platform with a microphone in hand, and did a national roll-call.

"Is anyone here from Australia?" The Ozzies made a rousing response.





"What about Scotland?" Some hardy cheers ensued. "I must make this distinction between England and Scotland...otherwise, you may scold me!" We roared with laughter.

What followed was a brief combo of comedy routine, grandfatherly advice and Buddhist history lecture. We didn't get a personal blessing, but couldn't have felt more fortunate if we had.

It's past midnight now and I am 2 days behind on this blog. I have to be up at 6.30 to get a good seat in the teachings. Apologies for not transcribing everything yet. Here are a few photos from the day. I had wanted to swamp you with photos but they are uploading very very slowly - one at a time.

Monastic Fantastic

Kalachakra Intiation, Day 5
Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh

Having a media pass makes a big difference. It's much easier to contemplate being kind to all sentient beings when there are fewer of them to deal with. For one thing, I don't have to go to the 7am cattle call with the mere mortals; I can use the VIP entrance. Compared to the public seating I'm in Nirvana already. Here are just a few photo highlights of the day. I'm way behind on the Blog updates but hope to catch up now that I have (wait for it...drum roll)....Free 24-Hour Internet Access!

The 100,000 or so people are divided into very visible categories. Glancing around the vast tent, it sort of reminded me of the Indian caste system. Foreigners, here! Local Indians, here! Tibetan nuns, here; VIPs, here! Then Himalayan Region devotees, Japanese, Disabled, Senior Monks, General Monks, Nuns, Government, Chinese Nuns, and Press. Just like traditional Indian society, everyone has a very clearly defined niche and is expected to stay put.

Yesterday I finally laid eyes on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from a distance of about 50 feet. I had seen him before, at a much smaller audience speaking at a college in Calcutta. His voice is truly mesmerizing, soothing and enchanting, even if (or perhaps especially if) you don't understand a word of Tibetan. Today we took Bodhisattva vows, a sort of lifetime vow to do everything for the sake of others rather than yourself, and began the initiation process. The monks completed the Kalachakra sand mandala today, though it will be publicly unveiled only next week; it's a sort of blueprint for the celestial mansion we will visualize ourselves abiding in - all part of the meditational practice. Tomorrow is the masked Chaam dance in which the dancers officially invite the 722 wisdom deities and the god Kalachakra Himself to inhabit the site. It's a good thing all those deities are occupying some other dimension; the tent is pretty crowded already.

Maybe they will have their own seating section..."Wisdom Deities Here."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Amid the celebration, farewell to a friend

Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet.
I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes
and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the
clear cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may
create some understanding for a people whose will to live
in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy form an
indifferent world.
- from Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

Just one day into the ritual Kalachakra proceedings, an old and dear friend of the Dalai Lama died on January 7 at the age of 93. Heinrich Harrer, explorer, mountaineer and author of Seven Years in Tibet passed away. Despite tales of a Nazi past that marred his later years, this man led an amazing, charmed, adventurous life that truly "rivalled that of Indiana Jones" (New York Times). He was privileged to see some of the very last years of free, unspoiled Tibet as it will never be again. And how many people can say they were the Dalai Lama's English teacher, in addition to having been portrayed in a major motion picture by Brad Pitt?

:Read the official condolence statement from His Holiness here.

:Austrian mountaineer Harrer dies at 93

:Dharmsala mourns death of Heinrich Harrer

"We feel we have lost a loyal friend from the West, who had the unique opportunity to experience life in Tibet for seven long years before tibet lost its freedom. We Tibetans will always remember Heinrich Harrer and will miss him greatly."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Designs in dirt

My stalwart friend Kaushik arrived last night on the 9pm train from Madras. Trouble was, the 9pm train didn't arrive till 2AM. Seems the Madras-Vijayawada line was flooded, and every single train (five of them) coming southward had to be allowed to pass first, before the northbound train could go. They didn't let one southbound train go, or two, and then the northbound one; they made all the southbound trains go first with the result that 100s of Kalachakra-bound pilgrims arrived in a strange town at 2AM. Fortunately, the state transport bus was still there waiting for us. I had gone into Vijayawada to meet Kaushik (it's been 2 years since I've seen him) so we finally arrived back in Amaravati at 3.30AM.

Earlier in the day, I rented a room from a Telugu Brahmin family, the Suryanarayanas, right down the block from the Dalai Lama's temple. It is lovely; the ladies come out before dawn to draw tradiional kollam designs with chalk in front of their doorways. At the same time the monks in the Temple are working round the clock to construct the Kalachakra Mandala, which will take about 7 days. On January 16th we will all be allowed to view and "enter" it, then the monks will destroy it and disperse the sacred sands into the Krishna River.

In more bizarre ritual news: Every evening at 6pm promptly, the "fogger man" comes round with a giant machine, sort of a reverse lawn-blower, puffing fumes of DDT into the air (I mean great, white visible gale-clouds of DDT). This is to get rid of the mosquitos, a distinctly unBuddhistic activity. What no one seems to have told the municipal authorities is that it will get rid of the humans as well (or worse, cause birth defects). Yesterday the man actually disrupted a press conferece at Media Centre by coming directly into the building itself. Foreign press correspondents covered their faces and ran for the exits.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Broadband in the sand

The internet and long-distance phone tent here ("CyberZone")is quite a sight. The tangle of cords, plastic chairs, sandy soil and monk's long robes ensures that you're tripping over something every time you move an inch. The net speed itself is amazingly fast; alternating with long periods of completely lost connection (so I guess it evens out). There's nothing like a simultaneously lost connection reinforce international and intercultural solidarity. Everyone rolls their eyes and throws up their hands in the same language. But it's a good way to spend the otherwise unbearable hours from 11am to 4pm.

Korea's Oh My News!
has agreed to help me get a press pass, and India's esteemed Financial Express has agreed to run a story if I can scrape one together. I'm so excited I could just pee!

Today is the first Earth Ritual Dance by the monks of Namgyal Monastery. Stay tuned for more news as it happens.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Earth Day

I awoke to the sounds of Tibetan chant reverberating through the ground beneath me. This must be the "Earth prayers" done by senior monks to please the local spirits of the land, a requirement for all Tibetan pujas, especially one this big. The bass tones sounded like a human didgeridoo, the voice of the earth itself. Since the chants aren't open to the public and are half a mile from my tent anyway, I stayed put. Lying on my thin straw mat with a sheet of cotton wrapped around me, I closed my eyes and absorbed the vibrations, feeling blessed to be enveloped in the sounds. The air had cooled again, there was dew on the dusty ground, and roosters crowed in the distance.

I think the prayers worked.

Kalachakra Checklist:

Current exchange rate: 45Rs = $1.00 US.

*A straw or woven plastic mat for the floor of your tent. - 35 Rs for straw, more for plastic, also varies with size. The 35Rs one is just big enough for me to sleep on

*A hand-held fan (plastic ones are sold here), as you will be seated amongst hundreds of people for many hours from 1pm-4.30 pm - 20Rs

*Umbrella for the hot mid-day. Absolutely essential unless you want heatsroke. -I paid about $3.00 for mine in Sri Lanka, have to check local prices

*Plastic sandals you can wear in the "shower" (bath cubicle)- 70Rs for good ones, cheapo ones much less

*Mosquito coils - 22Rs for 12 coils that burn all night. I personally find that mosquito nets don't work.

*Flashlight - varies with quality. Include batteries in your budget

*Sunblock - the one I like includes Parsol, which blocks both UVA and UVB equally. It's costly - about 200Rs.

*Plastic bucket and dipper for bathing in the "shower" (you have to fill up the bucket and pour water over yourself - you also have to cart your shower stuff to and from the shower stalls) - 55 Rs with plastic mug

*FM Radio and headphones to receive the English translation broadcast of the Dalai Lama's Tibetan language teachings - they're selling them here for 400Rs with headphones but that is a tourist price at the "official" souvenir stand for foreigners, run by Norbulingka Institute. Again, figure batteries into your cost

*Mug for tea (Tibetan teachings are always accompanied by endless cups of tea)- Stainless steel mug with plastic handle, absolutely indestructible, should cost about 30Rs

*Seat cushion (you must mark your place; also you must sit crosslegged for many hours at a time and a cushion can help)- Prices vary; have to check. Norbulingka souvenirs wanted an amazing 400Rs but this is outrageous and not necessary

*Plastic bag to wrap your shoes in (for carrying through the seated crowd; it is rude to hold your shoes at someone's face level) - free with any purchase

*Water bottle - 15Rs for one litre

*Sunglasses would help but are not essential.

--All of these things except possibly the sunblock can be purchased here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh

I made it! - just arrived this morning on the bus from Guntur. A local Hindu man who was also travelling to Amaravati took it upon himself to guide me from Hyderabad's Central Bus Stand to the correct bus, then the change in Guntur, and even carried my backpack to the bus(those of you who haven't been to India may not appreciate this - only "coolies" carry stuff here).

My striped circus tent (sleeps 10) needs floor matting and has no electricity, and we use the latrine/public bath, which is a concrete cubicle with just a spigot, no actual showerhead.

I'm Tent #407 - but the tent city is enormous, fields of canvas among yucca plants and palm trees. In case that sounds lovely and sylvan, I should mention the latrines and dust. In fact, it's mostly dust. I have to find my way among the endless rows of "meals hotels," village houses and clothes vendors, all of which are erected for the occasion from bamboo poles, canvas sheeting and tarps. It's fun to watch the Buddhist nuns shop for jeans (where will they wear them? I can't help wondering). My tent is located back behind a row of local houses made of thatch roofs with concrete floors and water buffalo grazing in the sideyards. Locals are so amused that I would want to snap a photo of a baby water buffalo; sort of like someone coming to Tennessee and wanting to photograph a pickup truck - it's nothing special here.

As the tents were pitched in the middle of an ordinary field they have the added bonus of cow manure on the "floor." Knowing as I do of the sacred and healing properties of cow dung, I considered this auspicious.

Lots of locals are renting out rooms in their houses, even their whole houses while they sleep on the porch. It's possible to rent a clean room in a village house, with running water and private Indian village style bath (that means cold water bucket bath from a pump and squat toilet) and electric, for $100 for the entire 16 days. (This is good for this special event, but a fortune for India! Such a room would rent for about $20 a month normally). Two people or more can sleep in such a room.

Buddhist compassion takes interesting forms; for the residents this could be a chance to make more money in 2 weeks than they normally make in 6 months. Andhra is a poor state with one of the lowest literacy rates. Suicides among hopelessly indentured farmers, made desperate from the droughts, soared into the 1000s here in the past few years.

After stumbling down from the bus lopsided with my backpack, I had breakfast on the side of the dirt road with a bunch of monks who had come straight from Kham district, Tibet. They spoke "little little English" but were a good-natured, thigh-slapping bunch who readily made a place for me and my junk on the roadside charpoy (a sort of Indian cot). They were fulfilling the dream of a lifetime - to see the Dalai Lama, whose name and photo are forbidden now back in Tibet. Breakfast was 2 idlis (steamed rice cakes) with coconut chutney made in the fiery Andhra style (inedible to me - Andhra chilis are weapons of mass destruction) and tiny plastic thimbles full of chai. All the public announcements and most of the signs are in Tibetan so I guess I will be learning a little Tibetan as well as Telugu in the next 2 weeks. It was satisfying to have my few words of Tamil and Malayalam return magically to my brain and be understood by the local people, who at least appreciated my attempts to speak a Southern language. Since many visitors are here from Tibet, Japan, Thailand, China, Singapore and elsewhere photos of the Buddha were helpfully taped onto the local buses headed this way (normally all the signs are in Telugu). The Enlightenment Express!

This has been declared a Vegetarian Kalachakra which must be a challenge for the meat-loving Tibetans. There are signs everywhere in Tibetan, Telugu, Hindi, English and Chinese
saying "stop meat, save animals!" and "animal rights, human wrongs!"

More later, I need to go get registered and get a map of this enormous site. There is so much dust here in dry Andhra that this computer keyboard has to be encased in a plastic bag, and about fifty percent of the attendees are walking around in surgical masks.

Wow, I am knackered after a few hours spent in the midday sun. Amazing how quickly you dehydrate even just strolling around in such weather. I was a good alien and went to the Foreigner's Registration Cell, just a tent with a sandy floor and the usual molded plastic furniture. Turns out I needed 2 passport photos (note to self: never travel without these, you never know when you'll need them. Really) and photocopies of my passport and visa. Felicity (a delightful South African woman who used to teach English in post-independence 1960's Zambia) and I accomplished this with a stroll "downtown." Suresh the photocopy man had icons of Shirdi Sai Baba and Amma & Bhagawan ("very powerful darshan") on his walls. He highly recommended I pay Amma & Bhagavan a visit at their Golden Temple in Chennai. Across the street, the passport photo man took his job extremely seriously. Using an ancient hand-held Polaroid, he produced 4 copies of the Polaroid photos for 50Rs (about $1.10). We then returned to the "cell" just in time for the "in-charge," who had been examining every single application as though it were written in Farsi and studiously refusing to allow anyone to use his ink pen, decided he was taking lunch (at 3pm).

That was my cue to shuffle back through the dust to take my second "shower" of the day (really just splashing water from the knee-level tap over my body). At about 5.30 pm I saw a wave of Tibetans coming from the KalaRanga (Arts Stage). His Holiness had given an inaugural speech, and it was never even announced! Judging from the crowd moving my way, the only people who heard this at all were the Tibetans. I felt cheated and disappointed as waves of devotees came toward me. The Tibetans in their heavy dress were interwoven with Andhra people of all sorts, Muslims in white kufis and kurtas, Hindus with various tilak-marks on their foreheads, Om Shakti pilgrims (who dress all in red), Sabarimala pilgrims (dressed all in black), all drifting toward me as evening sandhya music played over a loudspeaker. Sandhya (dusk) devotional music is full of yearning, longing and wistfulness. To hear it as the brutal sun vanishes, the day's dust settles and purple twilight takes its place is always a magical moment for me.

I decided to forget my disappointment in missing the speech and enjoy the impromptu parade of traditional costumes, twirling prayer wheels, high cheekbones and almondeyes from across the Asian plateau. The Ladakhis wear completely different dress from the Tibetans - a heavy black skirt - and many women sported the traditional silver finery in their long braids and around their waists. Their ability to wear such weighty clothing, heavy skirts and chunky shoes in any kind of weather truly amazes me.

The sight of all these Tibetans mingling with Indians reminded me of India's amazing ability to absorb various influences, and of the episode in the Dalai Lama's autobiography, describing his entry into India after his escape in 1959. When he got to Delhi, he was shocked and moved to tears to find the streets lined with Hindus and other Indians shouting "Dalai Lama Ki Jai! Dalai Lama Zindabad!" ("long live the Dalai Lama"). At this point, Buddhism had almost obsolete in India for 1000 years. Despite all its own problems, including those of population and land distribution, the newly independent India managed to incorporate these people and find a home for them. It was partly out of mutual alliance against the Chinese, but also out of respect for Buddhism, a faith that originated in India, moved elsewhere and was now returning "home." Indians of all beliefs seem to harbor an almost automatic respect for any holy person, whether it be the Pope, Mother Theresa, or this century's incarnation of the Living Buddha.

I made my way into "town" (downtown Guntur, a row of ragtag shops) to buy mosquito coils and a straw floor mat for my tent (total cost: 60Rs, about $1.50). A power outage transformed the main street into a candlelit row, which is probably how it looked all the time 30 years ago. The shop I chose to buy from was run by three women with not a man in sight - very unusual. Most women are married here by age 23 or so and once they're married, they usually do not work outside the home. "Ladies' shop!" I exclaimed. They nodded proudly. "Sisters? Munna sisters?" (three sisters?) I asked. Yes, they laughed and smiled. "I also am having three sisters! Oru akkaiah, oru thamudi" (one elder, one younger). If you can't talk about cricket, you can always connect with Indians by discussing family.

Back in the circus tent I collapsed onto my new straw mat and continued reading the Kalachakra book ("An engaged practitioner is more interested in helping others than in satisfying selfish desires"). A voice from the "door" scared the hell out of me. It was a Tibetan teenage boy who wanted to know how much I had paid for my tent. Problem was he couldn't understand my answer. Then he started talking about mosquitoes being a problem (deciphered through hand gestures and the word "mozzkito") so I gave him a coil and showed him how to use it. I tried to return to reading my book, but he then pulled out wrinkled photocopy of English homework and asked me to correct it.

"They had a good time. They enjoyed __________." "Themselves," I wrote in the blank. Most of his answers were perfect, though. Rinchen Tsangpo turned out to be in a neighboring tent, #387, with four other Tibetan boys. He didn't take repeated hints that I was ready to fall asleep. I began to wonder if he was coming onto me, or just wanted help with his homework. Possibly both?

High Alert in Hyderabad

The public bus from McLeod Ganj got to Delhi 2 hours early, but my plane arrived in Hyderabad an hour late - possibly delayed because of the terror threat in "Cyberabad." The 12-hour bus ride found me in the "cabin" - the bus's equivalent of a cockpit, a last-minute seat sold out of desperation. I shared the front driving compartment with the beedi-puffing driver, his sidekick, an accountant from Delhi and three members of a Tibetan family who slept piled up on one another like puppies. During the tedious hairpin descent from McLeod, the bus slammed to a near full-stop (and when an Indian driver actually employs the brakes, you know it's serious).

It was a female deer who'd wandered out of the woods into the headlights. Unanimously, my fellow passengers and I emitted "ooooooh!" - not out of fear, but combined admiration for the animal, the driver's skill, and relief that she was unharmed. "Beauty-full! Beauty-full!" enthused the accountant beside me, nodding with reverence. Several people congratulated the driver on avoiding the deer ("Shah baaz!" - "well done"). This is the kind of thing I love about India - I was trained in the States to never, ever risk my life for that of an animal ("what if you swerve and go off the road?") and that it was better to hit a stray dog or cat than swerve. (Remember, we were in an enormous, lumbering bus so that any collision with a slow-moving deer would definitely have come out in the bus's favour.)

We arrived so early in Majnu Ka Tilla, nothing was open and there was not a room to be had. So I piled up my luggage on an empty wooden fruit cart and slept there till 8am when the restaurant opened. You can feel safe doing that in Tibet Colony; you are surrounded by 85% monks and nuns in maroon robes, some of whom are doing the same thing (sitting on the wooden cart, sipping an early tea and trying to wake up).

I got to Hyderabad just in time to find the city on high alert following Muslim fundamentalist bomb threats to the National Science Convention. The plot was successfully foiled just yesterday afternoon. The airport was full of white official Ambassadors with Indian flags and flashing lights ("Dept. of Protocol") awaiting arrival of both the Prime Minister and President who will be attending the Science Convention. Officials suspect the threatening group may have ties to those who shot up Bangalore's Indian Inst. of Science last week and threatened another New Year's attack there.

Andhra security forces really have their hands full between the anti-progress, anti-technology bomb threats and the Naxalite Communist threats on the life of the Dalai Lama. And I have my hands full trying to get to the Amaravati site before His Holiness arrives. Conventional Tib wisdom seems to be that this is the last Kalachakra event ever, at least from the current incarnation. Don't want to wait another lifetime for this experience.

I am still facinated by the story of what happens to the newcomers and their personal meeting here with his Holiness. Unfortunately, as soon as I
got well, it was time to leave McLeod Ganj for Amaravati. My plan is to return there
in March for the Dalai Lama's annual teachings. This is the biggest
ho-down all year there except maybe his birthday, July 6. Then the weather
will be better, and there will be loads of people (Tibetan, newcomers, foreign volunteers).

The Economist was here 2 weeks ago and did a report. Evidently all the newcomers phone home if possible after the reception, and the first thing they say (before even enquiring about family) is "His Holiness looks only 40!" and they break into tears because they got to see Him.

Beauty-full! Beauty-full!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Slam-Dancing with the Sikhs

House of the Rising Monks

The net was down all day long all over McLeod on New Year's Eve, and phone lines were so jammed it was a miracle that I got my reservation to Hyderabad. My saviour came in the form of an AirDeccan employee who promised he would "do the needful." Once an Indian says that, they really mean it, and you know your troubles are over.

Later attempts to phone people for New Year's greetings were all stymied. I couldn't get a hot bath until 2pm. Nor could I get through to the Andhra number for the Norbulingka Institute (the people running Kalachakra) to upgrade my accomodations. So, those are my excuses for not sending out timely New Year's greetings.

Getting practically nothing done took most of the day. How is it that, no matter what other amenities are down (phone, net, hot water), the damned TV showing Hindi movies always works? The TV did provide a diversion while hitting redial to the airline all afternoon and gave me a friendly way to pass the time with the little fellow who runs the net-phone-travel shop ("Who's that - Madhuri Dixit? Which film is this?"). (Here, public phones are usually on a desk in a small shop, which often is home to an internet service, among other things. Since there are frequently delays and interruptions in service, when the phone doesn't go through, you can always try the net, and when the net isn't working, you can watch TV. When nothing's working you go out and get chai for everyone, bring it back and talk about what you're going to do when the power comes back on.)

This ensured that just a couple phone calls turned into an entire day's stress. So after tea at McLlo's, we all went to see Monty Python's the Life of Brian. By the time it had finished McLeod Square was chock-full of drunken Punjabis slam-dancing to bhangra music. It was quite colourful to watch all the bright turbans bouncing (pink, orange, red, baby blue) bouncing round in a mini mosh-pit. McLlo's had actually pulled the gate shut to keep the rowdies from flooding the place, but as we're regulars they recognized us. We shared the upstairs with a fair number of bewildered-looking Indian families on holiday, the girls and ladies very cute with their knit toboggan caps matching their salwar suits.

Tom, Toto, the Swedish Guy, the Finnish Guy, two beautiful Australian girls whose names I didn't get, Tim and Tam (yes, there was a Tom, Tim, Toto, and Tam) and I watched the amateur fireworks at the bus stand from the relative safety of our upstairs aerie. We drowned out the crappy boy-band music the restaurant was playing by screaming along to Dylan songs Tim played on his guitar. No one could remember how many verses "House of the Rising Sun" really has.

At midnight all the Punjabi Sikh boys (some of whom had infiltrated the upstairs) went wild jumping up and down chanting "East or West, Punjab is the Best." (Where are all the Sikh women, I wondered?) Rather than big romantic kisses at midnight, the fashion here seems to be to shake the hand of every single person in the room. The Australian girls made our table the most popular handshaking target by far.

Happy New Year! and to all those friends and well-wishers who sent their kind thoughts and wishes for 2005...it didn't do a damn bit of good, please send cash for 2006.