Hot and sticky from wandering in burning sunlight, I carried my towel and small zippered bag to the ladies’ common bathroom. I had seen showers somewhere; hoping for a bit more privacy, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. The common shower area was already occupied by two older ladies who were washing their clothes and themselves. Stripped bare except for large, simple, boxer-like underwear, they glanced up when I hung my things on a couple of the hooks.
A quick check revealed that the underwear I had grabbed in the dark the night before was not my most modest.
I slowly undressed, accepting the looks from the two women, knowing my white skin and different body would be of interest. When I stepped towards the spouts, one of the women waved at my chest.
No bras allowed. My plan to discreetly slip by and splash around a bit failed. Slowly, awkwardly, I turned back and hung it on the hook.
Washing my hair in the cool water, I felt grateful I had learned how to do it properly from my Tibetan friends. The women and I communicated with laughter and waving hands. They posed questions through expressions and pointing, and I apologized for my mistakes – a typical interaction. My deodorant proved unusual, and my prayer beads demanded attention.
Still under their eyes, I dressed carefully and braided my hair. We had spoken no words, but understood each other.
Far from being a quaint story turned towards condescension, this simple experience is one of my most meaningful from Amritsar. These women were comfortable with their bodies and their cavalier demeanor was infectious. When they could have isolated me, they treated me as one of them. Our bodies follow the same template, and although my strangeness did set me apart, it did not prevent my inclusion.
Sitting on a borrowed cushion, I fiddled with the tuner on my radio, attempting to find the English translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
Thousands of people had gathered in the temple complex, a select few sitting in the room proper, the rest filling the balconies and courtyard. I had slept through the morning session and was late for the afternoon one — ate a muffin while charging through the streets, consistently rushing to class wherever I am in the world.
I had circumambulated the inner temple partly out of respect and partly to see what there was to see. As I mentioned before, walking clockwise around sacred objects (kora in Tibetan) is done to gain merit. As I made my way around the building, crowds of eyes pushed me along, but for a long moment I had been able to see H. H. the Dalai Lama through the main temple opening, his elevated seat draped in gold fabric, speaking into two microphones. Young monks in saffron robes took notes while the youngest played with tiny plastic airplanes. Turning another corner, an older group of monks filled the large southern balcony, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of my gender. Moving by individuals leaning into microphones offering the various translations, I made my way back to the main seating area.
Having settled into a good spot in the lower courtyard, I had pulled out my radio, only to discover that it refused to pick up the correct frequency for English. Or maybe the problem was that the language changed on the same setting if I pointed the antenna a different direction. And French was not one of them either.
As I was messing with it, a Tibetan toddler wandered up, curious. Considering that it was already broken, I showed him how to pull the antenna up and down, which was very exciting. He took it from me and waved it around; then with a “pew, pew!” he shot at me, antenna blazing, as I died dramatically. Arguably inappropriate for a Buddhist lecture. He reached up and gently pulled the headphones out of my ears and tried to put them in his own. His embarrassed mother arrived and swept him away before I could put on some foreign language that neither of us understood but might be fun to listen to.
Eventually I did get to hear a bit of the lecture, sharing an earbud with a friend. Sitting among a crowd of Tibetans, thumbing through my prayer beads, and contemplating H. H. the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, for everyone, even your enemies, was meaningful on its own.
But the experience of being a few feet away from him as he walked out of the hall has no words.