Crossing the Street in Tibet

  1. Do not be daunted by the eight lanes of cars, buses, trucks, bicycles and pedibikes as they weave a snarled braid of traffic.

  2. Ignore traffic lights—the drivers do.
  3. Take a deep breath—not too deep. The scent of incense, greasy buns and donuts frying at the small stalls, yak butter tea, cannot overpower the raw sewage.
  4. Linger on the corner until a group of teenagers appear. They wear tight jeans and tee shirts with American rock stars smirking from their narrow chests. The girls wear New Balance sneakers and hold hands with each other. The boys wear baseball caps and do the same.
  5. Join them. Understand that the time required to cross the street will mysteriously lengthen like some Zen koan that asks when is three minutes the rest of your life?
  6. You will all cross the street in measured steps, pausing after each one. A river of vehicles will swirl around all of you and trail black oily soot that will sting your eyes and along with the dust from endless construction sites, leave a gritty deposit on your skin.
  7. Look straight ahead. See only the other side. Men in worn sandals sweep the sidewalks with branch brooms. Women wash their hair in basins before tiny stalls that contain the beds they sleep in each night, soapy water foaming down the gutters like surf. A monk in maroon robe and Nikes speaks on a cell phone. Children on their way to school are seated on the back of parent-bikes that fearlessly challenge cars for the road. Small groups of Chinese soldiers casually patrol the streets. Piles of debris rise from demolished shacks, deep trenches dug along the gutters, men with bags of concrete paste strapped to their backs. Children too young for school stare at your kinky blond hair and pale skin, wave with grimy hands, shout hello. Understand the implications. Wave back to the children. Shout hello over the mantra in your head repeating, “I am fortunate beyond measure,” as you observe the patient desperation of beggars. Take another step forward.
  8. Understand now that you are not the expert on poverty you believed yourself to be; that a ghetto in Brooklyn is not comparable to a street in Lhasa. Accept your humility with gratitude.
  9. Take another step forward.
  10. There is a row of pilgrims who have streamed in from the country. Some, with practiced motion, keep a prayer wheel circling, while prayer beads drip one by one like water through their fingers. Others raise hands gloved in wooden blocks above their heads, then to their foreheads, then their chests. They drop prostrating at body-length upon on the ground, rise and begin again. They have done this for hundreds of miles for days and months and sometimes years. They are all in black wool and scraped hide aprons. Their hair is braided. Their shoes are torn. They’re thin, powdery with the dust of the road. They carry bags of yak butter for the butter lamps of Potala palace finally within their sight. They rely on the charity of others as they travel the pilgrim’s path. You imagine you can hear their chants above the traffic. Their journey is an act of devotion, but they are corporeal incarnations of devotion. Their faces, sunburnt and deeply lined, glow. They have no doubt that God is everything and everywhere, that God is good and that simple acceptance is the way to enlightenment. Acknowledge your envy at this level of belief, of faith and of your desire for something you somehow cannot possess.
  11. Take another step cradled by the circle of chattering teenagers who watch you with acceptance. They are fearless knowing the wave of cars will part around them as though they are an island of trees. One pats you on the arm, says, “Hello, hello,” and a few others, offering wide smiles, pat you as well. You feel yourself then to be the actual child as these children in their unwavering belief and peacefulness parent you to the safety of the other side.
  12. You wish the three minutes it will take to get there could go on forever.