Night Crawler

For students of theology, this is a fruitful season. In the Japan Center Peace Plaza, dozens of women and girls -- outfitted in picturesque silken kimonos -- dance in a circle beneath swiftly passing clouds. Paper lanterns swing in the light breeze. Paper fans tucked away in folds of whispering aquamarine, red, yellow, and pink cloth appear and flutter in deft white hands; slippered feet follow the traditional bon odori steps. This is the Festival of Souls, also known as the Buddhist Bon Festival, during which the spirits of the deceased are honored and celebrated. The elder dancers smile brilliantly at the assembled onlookers. Never mind that the pre-taped bon music is arriving via one scratchy, dilapidated PA system. Never mind that state-of-the-art tourist cameras outnumber the dancers 2-to-1, or that for some cultural imperialists, the festival is just an opportunity to practice speaking Japanese. For the women, the Bon Festival is still a physical, and very public, incarnation of tradition and faith.

Later, at Yerba Buena Gardens, the gods of Africa are brought forth by the fifth World Congress of Orisa, a weeklong celebration of African spirituality and culture. Nigeria's Bata Orisa Dance Ensemble pounds its way through sweaty, liberating incantations that leave onlookers winded. Ene Le Hagere, an ensemble from Ethiopia, fills the air with music that resonates even through the hard soles of Army-issue combat boots. People on their way downtown are drawn to the sound like rodents that have caught a whiff of something warm and edible. They are tentative at first; moving forward into the outdoor marketplace, examining the bold images presented in the African crafts, taking in the pungent odor of African spices. Unlike the onlookers at the Bon Festival, most of the crowd gathered here does not remain separate from the proceedings. Some people dance, and some merely sway, eyes closed, hands moving around their heads like tethered birds. Bright, patterned turbans adorn light and dark crowns alike; chunky jewelry complements colorful skirts and intricate braids. Hip-hop boys and Mission hipsters caress the henna-painted hands of girls with sweat glistening in their eyebrows. It is a participatory celebration -- with the sun soaking into your skin and the aroma of food clinging to your clothes, it can be little else.

Still, the San Francisco events can't match the Ratha Yatra, a celebration during which Hare Krishnas pull three 60-foot chariots throughout town so that they might attain spiritual advancement. In the Western Hemisphere, the largest Festival of Chariots -- as the Ratha Yatra is also known -- is held in Venice, Calif., with over 40,000 disciples dancing and singing their way from the Santa Monica Pier to the Venice Beach Pavilion, where they feed 30,000 people for free and answer any soul-searching questions visitors might have.

It is a popular misconception that Hare Krishnas only wear shades of red. The huge column of people gathered before the sparkling, blue sea encompasses the entire rainbow's spectrum. Many wear bluejeans and T-shirts with only a simple design painted in the center of their foreheads to designate their faith. Sarongs are in abundance, as are pierced eyebrows, tribal tattoos, and baby strollers being pushed by OP-wearing beachcombers. As the great red, green, and yellow chariots are readied, the Krishnas hug long-lost acquaintances and chat with bystanders. A sign attached to the center chariot reads simply: "Follow the Chariots to a free festival."

The procession begins. Under the blazing sun, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) dance along the boardwalk, showering onlookers with flowers and lotus-scented water. The chant -- "Hare Krishna" -- is carried along the cavalcade. Drummers circulate along the way, giving rise to rings of ecstatic jumping and joyful hand-waving.

"They steal children and brainwash them," says a spandex-clad spectator clutching her toddler's hand. A bright yellow carnation whirls through the air, nearly hitting her in the head. A 15-year-old girl with rave-style tattoos, a dark blue sari, platform tennis shoes, and Hello Kitty barrettes in her hair catches my attention.

"I was not abducted," she says with a huge grin. "I was searching. And I still see most of my old friends. I have to admit, though, some of them have begun to seem pretty shallow."

A passing Rollerblader decides to join the march, which has nearly doubled in size since the outset. He skates into the colorful fray, just missing an elegantly dressed East Indian family pushing three strollers. "I buy Frequent Flyer miles from a Krishna," the man says to me before joining in on the chant. "He's a lovely man."

At one point, a group of angry Christians waves huge placards at the passing multitude: "Repent or Perish." "Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell." One Christian, dressed as a milk cow and armed with a bullhorn, shouts, "Repent, you foolish, arrogant Krishnas!" over and over again. The Krishnas toss flowers and trail mix at him. "You will burn in hell for all eternity! Krishna is already burning!" shouts the cow. The Krishnas chant and move on. A 4- or 5-year-old Krishna creeps up behind the cow and punches him on the butt. The cow ignores him and shouts, "It's not holy cow, it's Holy Bible!" The Christians follow the procession, chanting, "Bible! Bible! Bible!" A yuppie Krishna with designer shades and too much hair spray finds a Valley-perfect retort, shouting, "Yeah, right!" before continuing with "Hare, Hare Hare."

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