Saturday, September 8, 2007

Final Installment: Vancouver to Alachua

August 13, Monday, ISKCON Boise, Idaho.

Last night we left Vancouver later than expected. We crossed the US border by midnight and drove diagonally across the state of Washington, from northwest to the southeast, past the Mt. Rainier volcano, through forests, and across dry plateaus. It is on one such arid plateau that we find ourselvs right now, in the Yakima Indian Reservation. Irrigation ditches deliver water to fruit farms. Apple orchards line the highway on both sides. The sky above the eastern horizon is beginning to light up, getting ready for another day. Namamrita, the driver-keeper-upper, is talking to Sacinandana Prabhu, one of our bus drivers. What is a driver-keeper-upper? Well, as the name suggests, he or she keeps the driver awake. Each of us take turns on a rotation system based on our roll call number to serve a one-hour shift as driver-keeper-upper. We carry on a conversation with the bus driver, about our life story, the events of the previous day, college or career goals, devotional aspirations, the scenery, the cracks in the windshield (last night an owl hit our windshield.)

It's getting light outside. We look for a store that sells butter - the breakfast plan is pancakes. We stop at a gas station. They don't have any. We drive on. We stop at a K-mart. Sorry, nope. What kind of place is this? No butter? No food stores open this early in the morning? Okay, we settle for yogurt instead. We fall back on ye ole backup staple breakfast food, granola. At a rest area outside of town, we set up camp. Narayani carries the Gaura-Nitai deities on Their portable altar and sets them onto a picnic table. She also brings out her Jagannath deities, which she has been caring for since she was a child. We huddle around the deities for a spiritual morning program while the breakfast prep team gets everything ready for breakfast. Granola with yogurt and bananas taste great when you're in the middle of nowhere and hungry. Luckily we have a half a container of soy milk left for the three lactose intolerant people on our crew. We wash our bowls at a water spigot, bring the deities back onto the bus, and continue our journey.

Interstate 82 winds its way southeast, following the Yakima river to the historic Columbia River, where it merges with I-84. We cross into northeastern Oregon. We take I-84 east through the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Blue Mountains, the Columbia Plateau. I make an announcement over the megaphone. "If you look out of the bus over here, you'll see remnants of an old trail... you can see the deep ruts in the ground where wagons used to cross this part of the country. It's the historic Oregon Trail used by early settlers of this part of the country, as they moved with their families on horseback and covered wagons to settle the wild, wild West. Every now and then you can still see the remains of wagons that didn't make it, the old rusty wagon wheels and chassis lying by the side of the trail." Kumari and Kalindi look unimpressed. They poke their nose right back into the Harry Potter book they're reading. Oh well... Soon we will cross over the Snake River, and make our way into Boise, the capital city of Idaho. (Somewhere along there we stopped for lunch.)

ISKCON Boise Temple, Idaho

As we begin to meander through the streets of Boise, looking for the temple, someone pulls in front of our bus with his car and signals us to follow him. We get a call on our cell phone. It's Nathan Prabhu, who has been coordinating our Boise visit. He was driving home from work early and noticed the buses on the highway. He is calling to let us know that we should follow him to the temple, and that all is going as planned. We will be performing in the temple room after evening arati. The devotees have cooked prasadam for us, and they're excited about our visit and are ready to serve.

This is our first ever visit to the ISKCON Boise temple, so we're not sure what to expect. We know the temple is run by a devotee family, the Guptas, and we're thinking maybe it's in their living room... so as we pull into a residential neighborhood, through winding, narrow streets lined with apartments and brick houses, we're surprised to find a large brick building with a beautiful sign announcing the BOISE HARE KRISHNA TEMPLE AND VEDIC CULTURAL CENTER. See their website: Somehow they've connected what seems to have been two houses, put a superstructure of a dome on top, and created a spacious temple for Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha Bankebihari, Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, and Their Lordships Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra. Stained glass panels line the windows of the temple room, depicting Krishna and His ten principal incarnations. The deities reside atop an ornately carved teak wood altar. The temple was apparently designed by Boise architect Bruce Poe. It is located on 1615 Martha Street.

Our festival tour youth get ready to perform DEVOTION, the dance-drama they've staged at halls, auditoriums and at festivals across North America this summer. Originally, we were supposed to put on this show at Boise State University, but somehow promotion of the event didn't pan out in time and the venue was moved to the Boise Hare Krishna Temple. ... Our dancers are changing into their costumes in an apartment across the street. Our actors are getting ready in the back yard of the temple, next to the kitchen. I give them a pep talk about how every performance, big and small, matters. How once again, if we give it our best, next year the devotees will be more enthusiastic to book a theater at Boise State University for this show.

His Holiness Chandramauli Swami is in town. At 7:00 p.m., after evening arati kirtana, Chandramauli Swami gives a short lecture about the processes of devotional service. At 7:30 p.m., the show starts. The area in front of the altar has been set aside as a makeshift stage of sorts, and guests and resident devotees fill the remaining half of the temple room, facing the altar. DEVOTION begins with an energetic Bharata-natyam dance to introduce the nine processes of devotional service to Krishna, followed by the intro scene with Maharaja Pariksit and Shukadeva Goswami emphasizing the importance of hearing about the Lord.

A television crew arrives to shoot an interview with Ravi Gupta, son of the temple president, about Hinduism's non-violent stance on a local political issue. Ravi (whose initiated name is Radhika Raman Das) uses the opportunity to introduce our Krishna culture and asks the TV crew to film part of our performance in the temple room as a backdrop for their news story. The cameraman enters the temple in between scenes and sets his camera on the tripod. Enter stage left, Hiranyakashipu, a menacing demon with face painted black with demonic, evil looking strokes. The demon proceeds to interrogate and torture a little boy, his son, Prahlad, for refusing to abandon his faith in Krishna, and provokes the appearance of the Lord as Narasimhadeva. A fierce half-man, half-lion jumps onto the stage. The cameraman jumps up from behind his camera. A fight breaks out. The demon Hiranyakashipu and the Lord of the Universe battle in rehearsed, coordinated blows and punches. The live drums, flute and violin play frantic battle strokes. Children cry in the audience. Narasimhadeva throws the demon across His lap, and in a final blow, tears out his intestines with His divine nails. Jaya! Haribol! The devotees are chanting, "tava kara kamala vare nakham adbhuta shringam..." a traditional prayer to Lord Narasimhadeva, protector of His devotees. The female television reporter and her cameraman are speechless. They've come to film a piece for the nightly news about the non-violence of Hindus and walk into the most violent scene of our performance. The gentleman packs away his camera and gets ready to leave. Meanwhile, our Bharata-natyam dancers come on stage to perform scene three: Lord Narayana reclining on the serpent Ananta Shesha, with Goddess Lakshmi massaging His feet. The dancers are dressed in exquisite, sparkling outfits, and the choreography is charming. The female reporter motions enthusiastically to her cameraman. He quickly unpacks his gear, mounts it on the tripod, and films the dancers acting out this peaceful pastime.

After the performance, the actors and dancers mingle with the audience comprised of maybe 50 guests, and receive praise and over $1,150 in donations, the most they've ever received. Hanuman, the monkey soldier (played by Kalindi A.), is especially popular with the little children. They pose for a group photo with him. A sumptuous vegetarian feast is served. Several vegetable dishes, opulent rice, chutney, puris, soup, salad, fruit salad, strawberry drink, home-made pistachio and mango ice cream, sweet rice pudding... I am amazed. I sit and eat with Radhika Raman Prabhu and we talk about the television interview and about his teaching Comparative Religions at university. The affection displayed by the Boise devotees is overwhelming. Just goes to show the sweet, personal mood of loving exchanges that seems to come with living in a small community, where devotee association is a rare treasure.

At 10:00 p.m., there's a sudden commotion in the crowd. People rush out the door to an apartment across the street. I soon figure out it is to watch the late evening news. In response to a racist remark made by a local politician, the news anchor features a segment on Hinduism's belief in non-violence, a few words by Radhika Raman, and a clip of our dancers performing the Lakshmi Narayana dance.

The bus drivers are letting me know that it's time to leave. It's onward to our next destination. One by one, I herd everyone back onto the buses. As we get ready to drive away, two little children call out for Hanuman. They want to say goodbye to Hanuman. We send someone to get Kalindi, the actress, from the back of the girl's bus, and she delights the kids as she comes to the front to wave goodbye.

August 14, Tuesday, ISKCON Denver, Colorado.

The drive from Boise to Denver takes us across the top of the Rocky Mountains. We're covering lots of territory on this last week of the tour. Interstate 84 southeast takes us through arid regions at first, until we descend into a valley and follow the Snake River for some time. Then we turn south, into the state of Utah, and, sometime in the middle of the night, pass north of Salt Lake City. We continue on highway 80 east into Wyoming. By the time everyone wakes up this Tuesday morning, we're halfway through the state of Wyoming, on a high plateau in between mountain ridges. We're heading into the Snowy Range, in the Medicine Bow National Forest, passing north of Medicine Bow Peak. I notice arrays of fortified snow fences which are used to prevent snow drifts from blowing onto the highway in the winter. There's no snow at this time of year. Just dry, tan colored earth, small stubbles of brush, and yellow grasses awaiting rain. We're approaching a mountain ridge in the distance. I see hundreds of windmills, wind generators lining the ridge, one after another, like stoic giants all facing in the same direction. They're converting the energy of the high winds in this part of the country into electricity for the nearby city of Laramie.

We go through our usual routine of showering in the bus showers, stopping for a morning program, breakfast, and later lunch, at rest areas on the side of the highway. By mid afternoon, Premanjana is driving. We're about an hour away from Denver. Rain clouds are in the sky. As if it were a barometer responding to atmospheric pressure, a warning light flashes on the dashboard, "CHECK TRANSMISSION!" On the gear selector panel, there's another warning light, "DO NOT SHIFT!", flashing on and off, annoyingly. It's that old problem again, of the transmission acting up on us. The mysterious problem that the mechanics could not fix. "Sorry, we cannot replicate the problem you're having." Right... they'd have to ride with us for the entire summer tour and wait for those random moments when the warning lights come on, like right about now. We decide that we cannot afford a breakdown at this hour, and will just keep on driving until we get to the Denver temple. On and on we trudge, with the transmission warning lights flashing.

Five miles to the Denver temple. Now it's raining. Time to get off the highway and into city traffic. We come to a complete stop at a traffic light. The light turns green. Premanjana presses the gas pedal. Nothing. The bus won't move. We're on a slight incline, and the bus begins to roll backwards into the cars behind us. He pops the parking break. We look at each other with a grin of helplessness. Try again. He floors the gas pedal, releases the parking break, and with the engine revving at 3000 RPM the bus inches forward, slowly, taking about a minute to make the turn ... meanwhile the light has turned red and we're blocking the intersection. Obviously there is something wrong with this transmission. The electronics are messed up or something. Whenever that "DO NOT SHIFT" light comes on, the computer that controls the transmission basically shuts down, or is in error mode, and the transmission is not responding to the normal shift patterns. And the worst is that there is nothing we can do about it. The mechanics can't help us. A new transmission costs $25,000 for this bus and we've just rebuilt this one, two years ago, for $15,000. The transmission specialits tested it twice on this tour already. We paid them a thousand dollars for their time to tell us that there is nothing wrong with the transmission. They think it could be an electronic problem. A wire somewhere on the bus shorting out, or not making enough connection, causing too much or too little voltage, triggering an error in the transmission computer. Great. Thanks for nothing.

We inch forward and eventually clear the intersection. The bus picks up speed. We try to drive slow enough to coast through several green lights in a row, or approach red ones slowly in the distance, waiting for them to turn green. Try as we do, we can't avoid all stops. Three more times we struggle through intersections. Finally we pull into a parking space alongside the ISKCON Denver Hare Krishna temple. The transmission won't shift into neutral, so we put on the parking brake and leave it in drive. I let the youth off the bus, sending them to the Govinda's Restaurant across the street, and change into my work pants. Premanjana and I walk around the back of the bus and check the transmission fluid. We pull the dip stick several times, wipe it clean, check it again and again. The fluid level is correct. So I ask Premanjana to turn the engine off. I crawl underneath the back of the bus to check the connections to the sensor that measures the transmission fluid level. I am lying on my back on the tarmac, under the back of the bus, immediately behind the rear wheel. My head is resting against the tire, and my body is squashed between the tarmac and the bottom of the bus. There's less than an inch of space to clear my chest. Bits of dirt are falling into my eyes from the encrusted muck on the bus undercarriage above my face. Every move I make triggers crumbling dirt mixed with oil to fall on me. It's just a little bit claustrophobic. I blow dirt out of my teeth. Next I attempt to hold a flashlight with my teeth, trying to point it at the bottom of the transmission. I adjust my position. Now I'm lying immediately below the transmission. I feel hot fluid dripping onto my hands and arms, running to my elbows. I check the connection to the transmission fluid sensor. It's solid. Nothing should be going wrong here. I tighten the wire nuts. I inch myself out from under the bus. Now I'm covered in grease and black dirt mixed with oil from the undercarriage of the bus, and that gushy transmission fluid all over my arms, elbows, and shirt. One of the youth points to a black spot of grease on my nose. "Thanks, buddy," I reply.

Premanjana switches the bus on again. The transmission warning lights go off. He can shift into gear and back to neutral. Seems like the computer has reset itself. Hopefully we'll make it home to Florida like this. Not good. Not good at all. Bad electronics. Baaaaad electronics. One bad wire, one loose connection somewhere is all it takes on a 15-year old bus. And there are three dozen wires going back and forth between the front and back of the bus, and between the electronics control boxes, fuse panels and the engine and transmission.

ISKCON Denver temple is a spiritual oasis in a working class, inner-city neighborhood. The presiding deities are Sri Sri Radha-Govinda. It's in East Denver, southeast of Denver City Park and Zoo. From Colorado Boulevard, go east on East Colfax Avenue for about four blocks and turn right onto Cherry Street. The temple is at the intersection of Cherry Street and East 14th Avenue, at 1400 Cherry Street. There's a nice Govinda's vegetarian restaurant, a gift shop, a spacious temple room... Several devotee homes line the street. We're here because Naikatma Prabhu, the temple president, has invited us to come. He saw our Krishna Culture Festival Tour performance, DEVOTION, at the Los Angeles temple Friday before Los Angeles Ratha-yatra, and was very enthusiastic to have us come to Denver and perform here. He wanted us to come for Janmashtami, but that would not have been possible this year. Most of our youth are college and university students, and have to be back in school before Janmashtami. So we've arranged to stop over on a Tuesday evening, canceling our plans for Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The youth perform DEVOTION. The dancers and actors and musicians put their hearts into it, amazingly, after so many, many performances. My heart goes out to each one of them. Halfway through the show, I counted 15 lucky people in the audience, which included several small children. Mother Anapayini, the show's director, says that one lady came up to her afterwards and thanked her for this performance. The lady had been having a hard time, struggling in her devotional life, and seeing so many young people put on such an excellent production had given her new hope in a bright future for ISKCON. Who can know the mind of the Lord? Sometimes we perform for 500 people, sometimes for 15. And you never know what effect it will have on people. It's a test of our faith, that this is an offering of love for Krishna and the devotees... and that it should not matter how many people come to see the performance. Sri Sri Radha-Govinda were there. Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai were there... -- Yeah right. Now go and explain that to the youth. They feel I've let them down. After all, it was I who insisted on the change of plans to perform at the Denver temple instead of visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Nothing like a good plate of prasadam to cheer everyone up. It's 8:00 p.m. Govinda's Restaurant has closed to the public. Naikatma Prabhu is giving the youth free reign of the restaurant, all-we-can eat savories and salad bar. He apologises for the low turnout and wishes we could have stopped by during Janmashtami when there would be thousands of people at this temple. I thank Naikatma Prabhu for his kind hospitality. We are all trying our best to serve the Vaishnavas.

It's that time of day again. Time to head out, back onto the long, long road, forever eastward bound. That sounds like one of those road trip songs. Now it's onto Interstate 70 east for a thousand straight miles across the great plains of Colorado and Kansas.

August 15, Wednesday, Wilson Lake State Park, Kansas.

Premanjana is driving when I wake up this morning. Priya is his keeper-upper. They're having an animated conversation about their plans for running ISKCON St. Louis as a youth temple. We're on a country road, green pastures all around, quite a change of scenery from the dry mountain regions we've come from. "There's the turn-off for Wilson Lake State Park," Priya points out. Yesterday we had looked at the map and tried to find a place halfway between Denver and St. Louis where the youth could relax for the day, to break up the long haul across the continent. We had found an off-the-beaten-path state park east of the city of Hays, Kansas, and are about to find out what it looks like. What kind of facility will it have? Bathrooms? Showers? Will the lake be clean enough for swimming?

Half an hour later we arrive at the swimming beach of Wilson Lake. It's a clean, man-made lake, created by damming the Saline River. There are bathrooms with hot showers, but they're a fifteen-minute walk back up the road, at the state park camp ground. We do have toilets on the bus which work fine... and the lake is definitely swimmable. There's a beach to our left. It's quiet and peaceful here. It looks like we have the place all to ourselves this morning.

Last night we had also decided that we were going to film certain scenes of our performance in the outdoors, at Wilson Lake, to make a DVD. We decide to film the intro scene where Shukadeva Goswami instructs Maharaja Pariksit, as well as the scene where Hanuman meets Rama and Lakshman by the sea shore. So our premier make-up artiste, Gundica, begins to manifest Hanuman on Kalindi's face, and she helps Basab, Govi, Balaram and Ganga with their make-up for Shukadeva, Pariksit, Rama and Lakshman. The actors change into costume. I get the camera equipment ready to film, near a bluff overlooking the lake.

"I'm going to film each scene three times. Once in wide-angle mode, showing all of the action from a distance. Then, close-ups of the individual actors. So if you can just run through the scene..." And so we film early in the morning with the lake in the background, before the sun casts shadows on the actor's faces. By the time we've finished those two scenes, most of the youth have woken up and are ready to go for a morning swim in the lake. Or not. "I don't think so," Nadia winces. "I'll walk to the hot showers." While some of us swim in this beautiful lake, others head up the road to the campsite for those irresistible "hot showers."

The youth have the day off to relax. Throughout the day, some participate in spontaneous bhajans under the trees. Some are reading their favorite books, some are playing games, some are swimming across the lake (yours truly couldn't resist), some are catching up on their japa. By 2:00 p.m., Satvata Prabhu and a crew of helpers have cooked lunch on the bus kitchen. Lots of wheat burritos (like chapatis), filled with fresh salad ingredients. There's watermelon to quench our thirst. I'm sitting in the shade under a tree and this hot wind is blowing at me--like having a blow-dryer on that you cannot turn off--quickly drying my wet swim shorts and dehydrating my skin. Soon I have a really bad sunburn. I had underestimated the strength of the sun out here on the plains in Kansas. I had reminded other people to put on sun screen and should have followed my own advice.

By 4:30 p.m. we've had enough of the hot wind and summer sun beating beating down on us from all sides. We prepare to leave. Promises of a WALMART and air-conditioning lure gullible young people back onto their buses. (I've never seen them board the buses so fast!) Dinner will be served at the WALMART in Salina, on our way to St. Louis.

August 16, Thursday, ISKCON St. Louis, Missouri.

I'm woken up by someone shaking my leg. "Manu, what's the exit for the St. Louis temple?" I mull over the question in my head for a second and reply, "I have no idea. I've never been there before." I'm still half asleep. I crawl out of my bunk bed and ask to see the map. I know from the address list at the back of one of our books that our temple is on Lindell Boulevard. I find Lindell on the close-up map of St. Louis. It's a street that's only ten blocks long, so the temple must be somewhere along there. I also know that the temple is supposedly next to St. Louis University, which is easy to spot on the map. "Take the Grand Avenue exit," I advise. "That should take us to Lindell. Make a left on Lindell and hopefully we'll see the temple somewhere along there."

We take the Grand Avenue exit. We see the well-kept historic buildings of St. Louis University. We turn left onto Lindell. We pass a "Mulah Temple" that looks like it manifested out of an Aladdin story, ornately decorated. It is apparently a Shriner temple. "Nope, that's not it. Keep on going." We see modern hotels and restaurants, serving the student community. We see a Domino's Pizza place and .... "Hold on, stop right here. Isn't that... what does that sign say?" Yup. Just before the pizza place there is an old brick building with a crumbling facade, paint peeling, and some 1970s plastic lettering announcing INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS, FOUNDER ACHARYA HIS DIVINE GRACE A.C. BHAKTIVEDANTA SWAMI PRABHUPADA. On the patio, an older man with a sikha is digging in a pile of earth.

"This is it," Dravinaksha Prabhu exclaims from the top driver bunk. He's looking sideways out of his window, at the temple building. "I remember this place from the old Radha-Damodar days."

This is it. We park the buses at the parking meters across the street. I run inside the temple, along with an advance troupe, to find Pancha Tattva Prabhu, the temple president. He gives us a quick tour of the bathroom and shower situation. We then go back to the buses to inform the youth, who gradually get up and head for the bathrooms. It turns out that the girls prefer to use the on-board bus bathrooms, two showers, two toilets, rather than the one shower upstairs in the guest quarters of the temple. So we leave that bus running, to provide hot water (the engine hot water heats the shower hot water system).

Most of us make it to the temple room in time for greeting of the deities (Sri Sri Krishna Balarama, and Sri Sri Gaura Nitai) and gurupuja at 7:15 a.m. Amala Purana Dasa leads an enthusiastic kirtana. I'm not sure who is giving the morning lecture. I am outside, trying to arrange the day's activities with the counselors and Pancha Tattva Prabhu. Right before breakfast is the best time to make scheduling announcements, when we're all assembled in one spot. So as organizers we have to figure out the day's schedule by that time. The plan for today is to have guided tours of the St. Louis temple after breakfast until 1 p.m., in shifts of ten people at a time. (This is the temple that Romapada Swami would like the youth to take on as a youth project.) After the tour, we'd like to have a discussion about "What would it take to get youth excited about getting more involved in ISKCON's missionary activities?" Lunch would be served at 2:30 p.m. in Govinda's restaurant, and then we would have the afternoon off until the evening program, when we would reconvene for evening arati in the temple room, and sharing of our memories and realizations of the festival tour so far.

As soon as the morning lecture ends, we gather everyone in the restaurant for breakfast. While they're waiting, I announce the schedule for the day. We then serve a bountiful breakfast prasadam of kitchri, granola, milk, and fruit salad, provided courtesy of the temple cooks.

We begin the guided tours of the temple building, temple services, and temple neighborhood. There's a heat wave going through St. Louis and the temperature outside is rising to a cozy 105 degrees fahrenheit. Some of the youth pass on the tour of the neighborhood and prefer to stay in the air-conditioned temple room to sing bhajans instead. Pancha Tattva Prabhu leads several tours, patiently taking groups of youth to the top of the three-story building, showing us room by room, the restaurant, kitchen, devotees cooking and preparing packed lunches. Pancha Tattva Prabhu explains that they cater vegetarian lunches to the employees of the AT&T building in downtown St. Louis. They have an email list of interested parties, and early in the morning send out a mass email with the menu for the day, along with a request to place lunch orders by 10:45 a.m. The devotee in charge of the catering checks the email orders, prepares the packed lunches, and drives them ten miles down the road to the AT&T building, where he parks the van during lunch hour and waits for the employees to pick up their prasadam meals. In addition to the catering, Govinda's restaurant is open from 11:00 a.m. through 2:30 p.m. weekdays, for lunch prasadam. They have a clientele of dedicated customers who have been eating lunch here for many years. Advertising is by word of mouth. Pancha Tattva Prabhu explains the endless possibilities for expansion if the youth were to take over this temple, with additional manpower, initiative and enthusiasm. The temple is two blocks from St. Louis University. There's a whole student population whose needs have not been served as of yet.

At 1:00 p.m. we gather in the temple room for our group discussion. The topic: "If money was not an issue, what would it take to get you excited about contributing to the preaching mission of ISKCON? To get more actively involved... To perhaps spend a year or two serving at an ISKCON temple?"

This topic was initiated by a request from His Holiness Romapada Swami, who, after his meetings with us about succession planning in Mexico, had shared the results with some of his godbrothers. Maharaja called me and said that several people he knows would like to fund programs that would encourage the youth to get more actively involved in ISKCON's missionary activities. He asked if I could ask the youth to identify what such projects, incentives, and programs would look like.

"My cousin and I are the only youth at the Miami temple. We need more youth to move there..." Lalita contributes. "Is that what would get you more excited to participate in the missionary activities of ISKCON? If you had more youth living at your temple?" I respond. "Yes. It's easy when there are many of us."

A hand goes up in the back of the room. "How about offering some incentives like the Mormons do? You know... you go to preach for two years and when you come back they pay for your college, set you up with a career, etc."

"The Mormons have been around for over a hundred years," I respond. "They have a strong tithing program. If you don't give ten percent of your income to the Mormon church, you're not considered a member. The Mormons are one of the fastest growing religions in the world. They actively recruit people. More people means more tithing means more facilities for their youth. ... We can learn a lot from the Mormons. But our generation will have to pioneer many of these things. We will have to implement tithing programs for our ISKCON members. We will have to go out there and preach to spread the movement, to come anywhere near the numbers of members that the Mormons have. So the question is, what will it take to get you more inspired to actively go out and preach Krishna consciousness to others?"

"I guess I don't feel qualified. I don't know enough about the philosophy to preach to others," says Sita. "We need more training programs that teach us how to present Krishna consciousness to the public, how to preach about Krishna," Priya adds. I share with the group a PBS documentary I had recently watched about the Mormon church, which showed a report from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, which is devoted to preparing young Mormons for their missionary work. They have classes in how to approach people on the street, how to interact with them, how to answer the basic questions people ask. "That's what we need, exactly," Priya concurs.

"It's going to take lots of money. We don't have that kind of money in our movement," Govi argues. "We need to implement tithing. Everyone should give ten percent, at least. We should do that in Alachua."

I couldn't agree more. I share my thoughts on Srila Rupa Goswami's advice that we should give 50% of our income to the temple. If not 50, at least we can give ten percent. Otherwise we cannot expect our movement to grow, offer educational facilities, colleges, universities, services for young people, old people, sick people, dying people... Our movement will not grow past small pockets of grass-roots efforts unless the members begin to take tithing seriously. And the beauty of tithing is that it directly benefits the community in which each member lives. You're giving to your local temple project, and reaping the immediate benefits.

Back on track with our discussion. "What will it take to inspire you to live in a temple and preach Krishna consciousness for a year or two?"

"If there was a college or university nearby, kind of like here at the St. Louis temple, and there were lots of other youth living here, and I could go to school during the day and do service in the morning and evening... I would move here," Lakshmi concedes. "Is that so? How do others feel about what Lakshmi just said?" I try to get a sense of the mood around the room. "Yes, it's all about association. If there are other youth, there's a place to stay, nice prasadam, and time set aside to do my homework if I'm going to college here, and we can have lots of bhajans... I would consider it," Ganga contributes. "Me too," says Nitai. "And me, count me in," Deva adds.

Alright. It seems we have a winner. A practical step that doesn't require a large donor-base of tithing, nor does it require the building of a university. If the powers that be could fund a nice temple that has many youth living in it (peer association was an important factor), that is close to a university and offers facility for the youth to stay, study during the day, desks and computer equipment to do homework, and has nice prasadam, nice temple program with lots of bhajans... several of our test audience would consider moving there to study, finish college, and serve at a youth-run ISKCON temple in the meantime.

"What about funding the bus tour?" Anapayini asks. "What about programs like this one that are struggling for money? We each have to pay $2000 to come on this tour, and we can barely make ends meet..." - "Yeah, this is the program that has inspired all of us to get more involved," Radhanatha adds. "They should help subsidize the bus tour fees so that more youth can afford to come on the tour." - "Buy us a new bus. The boys bus is not big enough... we have no room for luggage!" Amal insists.

It's time to end the discussion and break for lunch. (Many more good points were made and I've only been able to capture the spirit of it above. Priya and Premanjana both have notes on this discussion.) Several hands are still raised and we vote to continue another five minutes to hear everyone's contributions.

That afternoon, I accompany Pancha Tattva Prabhu, Premanjana, Priya and Haridas on a tour around the neighborhood, and around the city of Denver. (The latter are three youth who have decided to form a core team and try to seriously look at the possibility of taking on the ISKCON St. Louis temple as a youth preaching project.) Pancha Tattva Prabhu drives us to the famous St. Louis Arch, downtown. We pull up in front of the AT&T building where the devotees cater lunch. He shows us some of the more upscale, as well as some of the poorer neighborhoods. Some trendy locations with lots of restaurants, ideal for Harinama Sankirtana. He shows us a large park suitable for holding festivals such as Ratha-yatra. We discuss plans to rent an apartment building near the temple to house youth who would like to move here, serve at the temple, and go to university during the day. Pancha Tattva Prabhu shares his ideas of areas of potential the youth could tap into if they were inspired to get more involved. We talk about St. Louis University which is literally in the temple's back yard. (Walk out behind the temple and across the alley and you're at the entrance of the university.) We discuss ideas for reaching out to the student community, forming Bhakti-yoga and vegetarian cooking clubs, serving lunch to the students, etc.

By the time we get back to the temple, it's evening prasadam time and the evening arati kirtana is about to begin. After arati, we try to get people rounded up for a discussion of festival tour memories, but there's a general sense that we're all too tired and not up for another discussion. So we relax until it's time to leave. By 9:30 p.m. we board the buses and get ready for another overnight journey. The night-time routine kicks in. Brushing teeth, using bathrooms, making bunk beds, lying down, lights out by 10:00 p.m., quiet time by 10:30. There's definitely an austeritiy involved in traveling in a large group of people. We have to take rest at the same time to be able to get up at the same time and not be too tired for the next day. It sometimes feels like boot camp or gurukula ashrama. It's one of those austerities that you surrender to and get used to after a while, in order to achieve the higher purpose of traveling on this festival tour together, having amazing experiences in places you would never have visited on your own.

Vrindavana, the first driver-keeper-upper for the night, assumes position on the passenger seat at the front of the bus, next to the bus driver. Dravinaksha Prabhu usually drives the first shift. (He's our senior most bus driver and used to drive for Vishnujana Swami and the Radha-Damodara Traveling Sankirtana Party back in the 1970s.) We're now driving past the St. Louis Arch and across the Mississippi River into the dark night ahead. Nothing but headlights, white and yellow stripes on the highway, and the occasional road sign that reassures us we're heading in the right direction... towards Nashville and later Atlanta. I fall asleep shortly after I put my earplugs on.

August 17, Friday, ISKCON Atlanta, Georgia.

We arrive at the ISKCON Atlanta temple at 9:30 a.m., or thereabouts. Vedasara Prabhu, the gurukuli temple president, calls me on my cell phone to let me know he's shopping for groceries for our lunch, and will meet us shortly. The youth rush off to the bathrooms and showers. I proceed to empty the septic tanks on our two buses, recruiting a couple of helpers to lift them onto a toilet in the building. It takes three strong men to empty the noxious contents.

After showers, we hold a late morning program kirtana in the temple room, for the pleasure of Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha Madan-Mohan, Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, and Sri Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. It's a little 'deja vu'-ish. We started the festival tour at this temple at the end of June, and now we're back, a couple of days before the end of the tour. I take a look at the landscaped gardens, the new paint on the outside and inside of the building, the renovated basement which is ready to be converted into a restaurant... testament to the "Extreme Temple Makeover" our youth did here two years ago. (You can watch the video of the Atlanta temple makeover at I'm reminded of the story in Krishna Book where Garuda, Lord Vishnu's eagle carrier, sees a little mother bird trying to empty the ocean, because the ocean had swept away her eggs. Seeing the sincerity of the little bird, Garuda orders the ocean to return the eggs lest he himself would empty the ocean. Similarly, when our youth organized an "extreme temple make-over" here two years ago, fifty of them volunteered for three days to renovate this temple, scraped, caulked, painted, weeded, landscaped, and did the best they could with limited funds and resources. Seeing the sincere efforts of the youth, senior members of the congregation were touched and came forward to help out and do some of the heavy lifting, donating $30,000 to fix the leaking roof and renovate the drive-ways and structural damage to the building.

Madhavendra, the Atlanta temple cook, is from Mexico. He bakes authentic Mexican enchiladas for breakfast, rolled corn tortillas filled with beans and topped with salsa, cheese, and fresh herbs. Delicious! Vedasara Prabhu surprises us with batches of hot, crunchy french fries. Scrumptious! Breakfast is a hit. I don't think I've ever seen the youth so enthusiastic about breakfast on this tour. It's also Ganga's 18th birthday. We sing Happy Birthday and give the man a group hug. Ganga has been playing the role of Lakshman and of Shukracharya in our performance. Coming of age on the bus tour... what can be more exciting?

We hang out and relax for a couple of hours and leave by 1 p.m. The ice cream Vedasara bought for Ganga's birthday, which we were going to serve for lunch, is now being served on the buses. We divide 11 half-gallon containers of Breyers ice cream among the two buses. Just as the buses pull away from the curb, Amal radios the girls' bus over the walkie-talkie: "Yo! Can you trade us a Mint Chocolate Chip for a Caramel Praline Crunch?" Before he gets a reply, caught up in the urgency of the situation, he runs over to the other bus with a container of ice cream to negotiate the switch. Moments later he returns, out of breath and empty-handed. "What happened, Amal?" - "The girls took the Caramel Praline Crunch and said thank you very much and drove off!"

Driving takes up the better portion of the rest of the day and on through the night, with people engaged in reading, chanting, playing games, and carrying on sundry conversations about life, relationships, careers, travel, and all the things that matter to people who are about to enter the responsible world of adulthood. We stop for dinner at a rest area near Alachua to pick up Jaya Radhe, Kana, Shanti, and Malati, who will join us for the last two days of the tour.

We decide to take the Florida Turnpike toll road to Miami, which is 35 miles shorter than taking the free Interstate 75 along "Alligator Alley", across Everglades National Park. We calculate that it would cost us more in gasoline for both buses to drive 35 miles than to pay the tolls, and that the toll road will be a slightly better road. It begins to rain. Rain means moisture and for Garuda 2, the large yellow bus, transmission problems. The electronics refuse to cooperate. The "DO NOT SHIFT" light flashes stubbornly, letting us know that we're once again in a situation where we cannot shift gears, but just pray and cruise along the highway, hoping for very few stops until our destination. We soon realize that, had we known, we should have taken the free road. Toll roads come with toll booths every sixty miles or so, where you're expected to come to a full stop, wait in a queue of cars, and pay the $2 toll. Plagued by red flashing DO NOT SHIFT lights, Premanjana cruises into toll booth after toll booth, perfecting the "shut off the engine while sweet-talking the toll booth operator" technique. After waiting a few seconds, and restarting the engine, most of the time the transmission computer resets itself and lets us pull out of the toll booth and accellerate to highway speeds before the annoying DO NOT SHIFT blinking red light demon comes on again. It's the second-to-last day of the tour. I am praying we make it to Key Largo in one piece. Most of this trauma is spared the youth, who are sound asleep on their bunk beds behind the driver cabin.

August 18, Saturday, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo, and ISKCON Miami, Florida.

The rain has stopped. The clouds are clearing, revealing a bright, blue sky as the sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean. We're on a gravel parking lot across the street from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, in Key Largo, Florida. It's 7:30 a.m. and the park gates don't open until 8:30. As I chant my morning japa, I gaze at the fuel gauge. It's almost on empty. Rats! How did the last driver not notice? (We have three drivers take turns driving through the night.) And, we need to buy milk for breakfast. Dravinaksa Prabhu volunteers to go on a quest to ask the locals where the nearest diesel fuel gas station might be. He returns ten minutes later to report that someone with a thick Spanish accent indicated that she thought there might be diesel fuel at a Shell station ten miles south of here, along the Florida Keys highway one. Might be? What did she mean by might be? We can't afford to run out of fuel while looking for fuel... We ask another person, who confirms that there is diesel a few miles south. So we decide to risk it. We radio the other bus to let them know that if we don't return within a half hour, they should come looking for us. We begin to cruise down highway one at the mandatory 35 miles per hour speed limit here in the Keys. We expect to drive for a while. After driving for less than two minutes, we find a Shell station that sells diesel fuel. Jai! Haribol! And milk as well. Double Jai!

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. we drive into the entrance of the Coral Reef State Park. We pay the entrance fee for both buses. I read the information displayed on the park's literature. "Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first undersea park created in the United States. The park, combined with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, encompasses 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. These areas were established to protect and preserve the only living coral reef in the continental United States." Exciting. Today we're taking the youth snorkeling in the waters above the coral reef.

After completing paperwork, we head over to the outfitter's gear booth, where each youth is issued a pair of fins, a mask, and a snorkel. Then we head over to the boat that will take us out to the coral reef. The captain and his mate brief us on safety measures, life jackets, and basic snorkeling techniques. Soon we're on our way, crusing first through mangrove swamps, and then on the open ocean. I watch the gentle ocean breeze blow through my wife's hair. She has her eyes closed, enjoying the moment.

The kids are excited. We've never been snorkeling with the festival tour youth before. Not with fifty people on the summer tour anyhow. (On the Mexico winter tour 2005/06 we went snorkeling off Cozumel Island.) It's a special treat for these teenagers, who have just spent a long summer volunteering to set up and take down Ratha-yatra Festivals of India in ten cities, and who have performed the dance-drama DEVOTION at numerous auditoriums and theaters. We've traveled 16,000 miles across the USA, Canada, and Baja California (Mexico), and now it's time to relax and float amidst tropical fish, sponges and wondrous wild formations of coral on a reef five miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

The instructor shows us how to wear our masks so as not to get water in them. Nervously, most of our first-time snorkelers don their mask, fins and snorkel and jump into the water above the reef. I see patches of sandy areas about ten feet beneath the water all around the boat. The coral reef is immediately in front of us. I press my snorkel mask against my face and jump. Hmmm... Not so bad. The water is pleasantly warm, not as cold as I had anticipated. The wind is mild, the waves are not too choppy. I swim away from the boat, face down in the water, snorkel in the air, the reef in sight.

I float across large protrusions of coral that look like the inside of a brain. Brain coral. Sea fans, sponges, and over there... lots of little multi-colored fish. Some big ones, I think they're called parrot fish. Someone shouts from behind and I turn around... straight into a school of fist-sized midnight blue fish with bright spots that look like stars in the night sky. They are all around me. Cool! I paddle my fins and swim to the outer edge of the reef. I see Dories (from the film, Finding Nemo). I see a pencil fish that looks like a long stick. I stare out into the darkness of the abyss beyond the reef, hoping to see nothing. That's right, nothing. And I'm glad. Sometimes sharks patrol the outer edges of the reef, looking for an easy meal. No sharks today. No barracudas either. Some of the youth swim to the far edge of the reef, where there's a sunken statue of Jesus. I end up in a shallow part of the reef and as the waves bob up and down, I see the blankets of coral below me getting ever closer to my arms and legs. I see a triangular shaped cream colored fish with brown spots all over... he creeps me out. I move along. I can't help but feel like I'm swimming in a tropical aquarium. This is what life as a fish must be like. There's a whole other universe down here in the coral reef that is so unlike our experiences on land.

After about an hour in the water, the captain of our boat blows his whistle to let us know it's time to come back in. I swim over to the boat and climb up the ladder, to find that most of the youth are already relaxing on deck... some sea-sick, some exhausted, some filled with stories about what they saw underwater. Since this is my third time snorkeling, I'm feeling fine. It tends to get better the more practice you have at it, I guess. Two of our senior youth counselors are missing. Krishna Priya and Sarasvati. The captain is getting worried. He and his mate grab binoculars and start searching the waters. The youth join them in scanning the horizon. Minutes pass. The anxiety builds. Did we lose them? Were they rescued by another boat? (There are several snorkeling outfitters anchored here.) ... There! At two 'o clock position, arms flailing in the waters about 500 feet from the boat... two lonesome swimmers bobbing in the waves realize they've drifted far away and that it's time to head back. They are slowly getting closer to our boat. "We couldn't hear the whistle," KP explains. "You were too far out, it's dangerous out there," the captain scolds.

Back on land, showered and changed into dry clothes, we serve a hearty lunch prasadam of open-face sandwiches. Home-baked slices of organic bread with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and various condiments. And lemonade. Lots of lemonade. A few of us stop by the visitor's center aquarium to look up the names of the fish we saw out on the reef. Blue tang, parrotfish, angelfish, damselfish, wrasses, snappers, grunts... we get to re-visit them inside the aquarium's fish tanks.

We have a performance scheduled at the ISKCON Miami temple this evening. It's time to leave.

ISKCON Miami Temple

Two hours later, at around 4:30 p.m., we arrive at the Miami temple. The property is located in the southern Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove, five blocks from the ocean. The presiding deities are Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha Braja-Bihari, Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, and Sri Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. There's a large temple building, with nicely landscaped grounds, flower gardens, palm trees, and a Govinda's restaurant. We park the buses in the temple parking lot and are greeted by the local devotees who have arranged this Saturday evening program. They've invited their entire congregation, guests, and devotees. Miami was originally scheduled to be a theater program, but for reasons beyond our control, funding for the theater rental and promotions fell through at the last minute and plans changed.

While the dancers and actors get ready, a group of us prepare the temple room for the performance. We set aside a stage area in front of the altar, and set up cushions, benches and chairs for the audience. Radhanatha sets up the spotlight. Haridas and Nitai replace batteries in the wireless microphones and hook up the sound system. Saraswati and Vrindavan position the props. Soon, about 150 people fill the temple room.

DEVOTION begins after an enthusiastic evening arati kirtana. Anapayini and her sister Kumari sing the live vocals for the dance scenes, accompanied by our musicians. (We use live music throughout.) The dancers enthrall the audience. Local Miami youth Lalita and Narayani receive enthusiastic applause after their performances. (Lalita plays Lakshmi in scene three, and Narayani plays Sita in scene six.) The altar curtains remain closed for most of the dance-drama, providing the backdrop for the stage. Then, during eight 'o clock arati, they open for the last scene. We perform the mridanga drum presentation and final dialog and kirtana with Lord Chaitanya, Lord Nityananda and the sankirtana party in front of Their Lordships.

After the show, guests and performers gather in the restaurant area. The Miami devotees serve us a delicious prasadam feast. Lalita's mother has prepared samosas for us. I help serve the juice, thanking people for coming. One well-dressed gentleman responds: "No, thank YOU for coming. This is so wonderful. I'm very impressed."

We're scouting for locations to film scenes from our performance for the DVD. We decide to film two of the scenes here, once the crowd clears and things quiet down. 8:30 turns to 9:30 turns to 10:30... and finally most of the guests have gone home. So by 10:30 p.m. we begin to film the Appearance of Lord Jagannatha scene, the Bali and Vamana scene, as well as the part where Hanuman finds Sita in the Ashoka grove of Ravana's palace. We leave Miami by 1:30 in the morning, tired, but with a sense of accomplishment. We're on the home stretch now. It's like all of us know it's only a matter of hours before we're home.

The youth take their time to say goodbye to Lalita and Narayani, who live here and are getting off the tour.

August 19, Sunday, ISKCON Alachua, Florida.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let us be the first to welcome you to Alachua, Florida. We thank you for flying ISKCON Garuda airlines..." is the announcement I make over the megaphone this Sunday morning at 9:15 a.m., as the buses roll into the New Raman Reti temple parking lot. Last night we drove seven hours from Miami to Alachua, and are here earlier than expected. Two months and many adventures later, from mountains to prairies to oceans to volcanoes to coral reefs, the buses have made it back to Alachua safe and sound.

People are borrowing each other's cell (mobile) phones. "Mom, we're at the temple. Come pick me up!" - "Can I get a ride home with you?" some friends ask. Participants visiting from overseas and out of town have figured out friends they'll be staying with. We agree to meet again for the Sunday Feast performance this evening.

Gradually, the parents show up. There's happy hugs all around. Gear is hauled out of the bus, piled up outside. People are sorting through their belongings. Shoes, bead bags, suchi kits, lost-and-found... Soon everyone's off to their respective homes.

The buses are empty, quiet, and filled with unclaimed sundries. After a good cleaning, here they will rest until the next Krishna Culture Festival Tour. (There will be a Mexico tour this winter. Would you like to come? Contact us:

Tonight we meet again for a final performance of DEVOTION for 250+ guests, family and friends at the New Raman Reti, Alachua temple. The show goes over well. The parents give their kids a standing ovation. Even those devotees not directly related to these youth feel they are their children. They've watched them grow up in this community. People are emotional. Tears are flowing. The flowers of Alachua have returned home, after a long summer of volunteering to broadcast the glories of Sri Krishna all over North America.

August 20, Monday, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, and Goodbye Party, Alachua, Florida.

We spend the day floating with tubes ("tubing") down the crystal clear, spring-fed Ichetucknee River. In the evening, we gather for a final festival tour goodbye party at Gundica's house, where we share memories of the tour, watch some of the video footage that was filmed, and say our final goodbyes. The tour is over. Our goal was to inspire, engage, train and empower youth in Krishna consciousness. Did we achieve our goal? I think so. Much of the result remains to be seen. It takes time for experiences like this summer festival tour to really sink in. You never know where a young person will end up in five, ten, fifteen years from now, based on memories, realizations, friendships and experiences they've had on this tour.



We've since met with the bus tour counselors and itemized what went well, what didn't go so well, and suggestions for improvements for next year.

After meeting with our accountant, we came up with the following.


$5,500 for repairing Garuda 2, the big yellow bus (she has cracks in the wheel well that hold the rear wheel assembly to the chassis of the bus, as well as the tag axle steering mechanism.)

$???? for repairing the electrical problem with Garuda 2's transmission. (Anyone want to donate a new transmission or new bus?)

$4,060 for wireless microphones and stage spot light already purchased with borrowed money that needs to be repaid. (Essential tour gear needed for our stage performances.)

$11,000 in sponsorship monies for four (4) youth and two (2) swamis and their two (2) assistants who were essential to make the festival tour a success but could not afford to pay the per-person cost to cover basic tour expenses. I am still looking for sponsors for the above, retroactively at this point. (Thank you to Mothers Kanti and Varshana for sponsoring one of our youth.) I will gladly send you a list of the people who need sponsors if you are interested.


We will need help with editing the 30+ hours of video that we filmed during the tour.

In a couple of weeks, planning and promotions for the Mexico winter tour will start. We need help with that.

Already, we're scheduling the performance dates for next summer's Krishna Culture Festival Tour. We need people who would like to be part of a team to help promote the tour and help us book venues across North America.

Organize bake sales at your temple to help fundraise to sponsor a youth from your community to attend the next tour.

Encourage people you know to contribue financially to make this festival tour possible. Every dollar counts.

Contact us at:

Your servant,
Manu dasa

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Los Angeles to Vancouver

Over 600 photos of the festival tour are now on Click on this link to go there...

August 4, Saturday, Los Angeles. Gurukula Reunion and Harinama in Santa Monica.

The annual Gurukula Reunion at Culver City Park starts at 11:00 a.m. "It's not really a reunion for me," says Jahnavi. "I don't know anyone here. It's more like a gathering of youth who have grown up around the Hare Krishna movement." Gradually more and more people trickle into the park and begin to cluster around their friends. A frisbee takes flight over here. A football is tossed over there. I search for gurukulis from my generation. There's Chaits, Bahu, Sri Shyam, Dayanidhi, Shivajvara, Ramachandra, Kirtan Rasa, Giri, Vibhu... The "reunion" seems to attract mostly younger people these days. Several teenage skateboarders from Watseka Avenue and their siblings. I feel like a dying breed. At 35, I'm twice as old as the average attendee, old enough to be their father.

I strike up a conversation with Dayanidhi, whom I haven't seen in years. He is living with his wife and two children in Badger, California, growing a garden, living in nature, the simple life. Chaits is researching the history of the L.A. reunions. We spend a few minutes remembering those involved in organizing the early reunions. Bahu says he wants to revive AS IT IS magazine. I give him my thumbs up and share my interest in recording audio and video interviews with the older generation of gurukulis, to tell their stories, and to rekindle communication.

Here are some photos taken by Chaits. Click on this link to view them.

The reunion feast arrives, late, but worth the wait. Krsna Gauranga Prabhu has prepared lasagna, salad, nectar drink and mango cheese cake. We reminisce that Krsna Gauranga has been cooking the reunion feasts ever since we can remember. After everyone has had their fill, there's leftover cheesecake. I grab a tray and walk around the park, serving extra cheesecake to anyone who will eat it. "Have seconds! Have thirds! A cheesecake eating competition!"

By 4:40 p.m. it's time to head back to the temple to get ready for harinama.

3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica. Harinama Sankirtana.

Harinama literally means the holy name of Hari, or Krishna. Sankirtana means to glorify or chant with lots of people in congregation. What we have come to refer to as "harinama sankirtana", or harinama for short, means going out in public and chanting the holy names of Krishna loudly, in procession, accompanied by mridanga drums, kartal cymbals, and enthusiastic dancing. This has been a part of our Krishna culture going back to the time of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who held harinama sankirtana with thousands of people in the streets of West Bengal, India, 500 years ago.

3rd Street Promenade is a pedestrian shopping street in Santa Monica, a trendy ocean-front suburb of Los Angeles. Brand name stores line the streets here, from fashion to jewelry to cosmetics to Apple computers. Once a year, Hare Krishna devotees engulf this place in an ecstatic wave of Krishna kirtana, joyfully chanting the holy names of Krishna, blissfully dancing in the streets. Some 200 to 300 devotees who have come for the Ratha-yatra festival participate. And the locals have come to expect it.

I follow behind the harinama party with a video camera, filming audience reactions. I study the faces of the onlookers, of those curiously gazing at the devotees chanting and dancing in apparent abandon. I ask a couple of gentlemen, "What do you think of all of this?" They respond, "It's beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you so much for coming out here."

This was not the reply I had expected. I had expected people to be annoyed with us. For three hours I continue to follow the harinama party, filming audience reactions. Some people stay for half an hour at a time, watching us, soaking in the exotic visuals and music. I see smiles on faces. Some shake their head from side to side, as if to notion, "I don't understand... what is this?" But they can't stop looking. A Korean father trails behind us, his young son on his shoulders. They follow the harinama party intently, as if to figure out its meaning.

The bus tour girls are now dancing in choreographed unison at the front of the procession. Jahnavi from England is leading the Maha-mantra kirtana. We've taken over the center of the shopping street. A curious couple stops to look. The man is watching our girls dance, saris swirling. I note some discomfort in the facial expression of his girlfriend. Soon she begins to tug at her man, urging him to move along.

It's now half past nine in the evening. The pedestrian zone is illuminated by multicolored signs above shop windows. Most of the shops are closed but people are still gathered in the streets, watching the harinama commotion. Acyuta from New York begins to lead. Normally you'd be completely exhausted by now. Instead, the youth and older devotees swell up with a new burst of enthusiasm and dance like they haven't danced before, sing like they haven't sung before, and the kirtana soars to another level of transcendence. You finally abandon all thought of material comfort--you're hot, thirsty, sweating. You stop worrying about what other people think of you--your tilak and kajal is running all over your face, your dhoti and sari are no longer neatly pleated. You just close your eyes and get caught up in the waves of kirtana... Hare Krishna... Hare Krishna... Krishna Krishna... Hare Hare... Hare Rama... Hare Rama... Rama Rama... Hare Hare! There's nothing but you and the holy names in the three worlds. Everything else loses significance.

August 5, Sunday, Los Angeles Ratha-yatra Festival of Chariots.

Early this morning a team including Premanjana, Haridas, Priya, Krsnapriya, Datta, and Jaya Radhe meet with senior North American leaders about the feasibility of the youth taking over ISKCON St. Louis as a youth temple project. The youth express concern about whether or not they will be given actual responsibility to manage. The senior devotees express concern about the spiritual strength of the youth. Will they be able to maintain Srila Prabhupada's spiritual standards? Both sides are hopeful and positively enthused by the end of the meeting.

By mid morning, Lord Jagannatha, Lady Subhadra, and Lord Baladeva are taken via luxury limousines to the Ratha-yatra parade start, where their four-story tall chariots await them. Jagannatha Ratha-yatra, or the Lord of the Universe's Chariot Festival, is, according to our tradition, the world's oldest continuously observed festival. It has been held annually in the holy city of Puri on the eastern coast of India for the past 5000 years. Puranic histories ascribe the beginning of this festival to the time of King Indradyumna, who purportedly lived in a previous age, tens of thousands of years ago. He desired to see the Lord face to face, which led to the manifestation of the Lord in the deity forms of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. During the Ratha-yatra chariot festival, the Lord of the Universe comes out of the temple to bestow His blessings upon the people of the world. On the request of our founder Acharya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, members of the Hare Krishna movement have been holding Lord Jagannatha's Ratha-yatra festival in major cities around the world for the past 40 years. Los Angeles Ratha-yatra is one of the largest, and has been observed annually in this city for 32 years.

The parade begins to move. The Lord's three large chariots are being pulled with long yellow ropes by hundreds of participants along Main Street in downtown Santa Monica. Three kirtana parties glorify the Lord's holy names, one in front of each chariot. The festival tour youth lead one of the kirtanas. The parade passes the bustling farmer's market. We turn right, then left, onto Ocean Front Walk. We're now entering the city of Venice, and Lord Jagannatha is strolling along Venice Beach. This is tourist mecca. Hundreds of curious visitors walk past the chariot procession and kirtana parties. We pass roadside vendors selling incense, temporary tattoos, air-brushed t-shirts, sunglasses... A handful of fundamentalist Christian preachers have come out to protest in front of our procession. They yell derogatory statements over their megaphones. They inform us that we're all going to hell. They march in front of our parade, as if they're a part of it, with their banners raised high proclaiming Jesus as the only way. I wish they would utilize their energies to hold similar processions glorifying the Lord's holy names, rather than fight over designations.

"Krishna surya sama," the Sanskrit saying goes. Krishna is like the sun. As the sun is known by many names around the world, similarly, God is known by many names. God is one. He cannot be two. He has many names according to time, place, culture. In our millennia-old tradition, God, the Creator, the Lord of Lords, is known as Krishna, or Vishnu (another name for Krishna.) By meditating on Him and His names we come to realize that we are all children of the same Father, and thus develop goodwill and peace towards our brothers and sisters of different creed and color.

Eventually, the Ratha-yatra procession reaches the festival site on Venice Beach. Our tent village is filled with people from all walks of life. Old people, young people, Asian, Caucasian, African American, Latino... a melting pot of designations absorbed in the dazzling cultural display that is Lord Jagannatha's Ratha-yatra Festival. Coming to think of it, Lord Jagannatha is black, His brother Baladeva is white, and Their sister Subhadra is yellow. If that isn't a sign to unify as brothers and sisters regardless of our external designations and skin color, I don't know what is.

Some of our youth take turns serving the free feast. Hibiscus iced tea, pasta salad, peanut butter sweets, potato fritters, peanuts and raisins. More than 10,000 plates of free vegetarian food will be distributed to festival goers today.

The "Changing Bodies" diorama exhibit about reincarnation is popular as ever. Absorbed, people sit on the grass in front of the main stage where Viji Prakash and her dance academy are performing intricately choreographed Bharata-natyam dances. The music stage is well attended. Nirantara and Titiksava Karunika Prabhus entertain with devotional rock music.

At 3:15 p.m. our festival tour youth go on stage to perform DEVOTION. I notice the audience has a hard time sitting attentively in the hot sun. I wish there was a way to provide shade for them. Madhuha Prabhu and I discuss options for a large canopy or parachute hanging over the area in front of the main stage to throw some shade... Maybe next year, if we get a donation for this.

After our performance, Karnamrita leads a kirtana that evolves from blissful to nectarean to ecstatic, as more and more devotees join her, inspiring the audience to get up and dance. Soon the entire crowd of people in front of the main stage is dancing. People are plucking flowers off Lord Jagannatha's chariot, tearing them apart and throwing petals over each other's heads.

Sunset signals time for take-down. For us festival tour youth this means changing into work pants and getting ready to take down the tents, exhibits, and stages. We begin by handing out trash bags and encouraging people to pick up the flower petals that have been strewn all over the lawn in front of the chariots and main stage. Teams begin untying the ropes that secure the tents to concrete blocks. Others carry exhibit panels back to the festival trailer. Soon the tents are empty and ready to be disassembled. It takes four people to carry the smaller ten-foot by ten-foot tents. One person per pole. We lift the tent and start walking towards the trailer where all the festival gear is stored. There, we pull out the poles that serve as legs for the tent, lower the canopy to the ground, unstrap it, fold it and roll it up, and then take apart the poles that form the frame that supports the canopy. The poles are stored in color-coded slots in the trailer. Just as it is described in the scriptures that, at the end of the cosmic cycle all universes enter into the body of Maha-vishnu, so at the end of the festival, all tents, exhibits, and stage pieces disappear into the Festival of India trailer.

It's dark. The wind is blowing chilly spells from the ocean. I put on an extra sweatshirt, flip the hoodie over my head and secure it with a scarf. Using flashlights we search the festival site for remaining Festival of India gear. Once all of our stuff is put away, it's time to start helping the L.A. crew put away their festival gear. It's basically like helping with two take-downs in a row. Ratnabhusana Prabhu has his own set of tents, exhibits, poles, canopies, and stage pieces which we don't want to mix up with our gear. So we take down Madhuha Prabhu's Festival of India equipment first, and Ratnabhusana Prabhu's L.A. festival gear second. After a five-hour marathon, we're finally done. Refreshments await. Leftovers from the various food booths. Strawberry milkshake. Mango milkshake. Curd steaks in tomato sauce. Oatmeal and raisin cookies. Nothing like a midnight snack after a long festival day and extra long take-down. We are just hallucinating about warm Caribbean beaches, palm trees, pinacoladas, when the call comes to use the bathrooms, brush our teeth, and head to bed. The buses will be leaving shortly. Time to get back on the road again. If Jack Kerouac reincarnated as a Hare Krishna, he's probably on the festival bus tour right now.

August 6, Monday, Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park.

His Holiness Radhanatha Swami accompanies us to Kings Canyon this morning. He's riding in the back of the men's bus, on the deck area. About 15 of our young men are gathered around him, on all sides. Maharaja is leading Guruvastakam prayers. The deck is a raised platform at the back of the bus, surrounded on three sides by bunk beds. Some are lying down on bunk beds and others are sitting on the deck... wherever they can fit into this tight space. Radhanatha Swami recalls the time he lived in a cave in the Himalayas, before he joined the Hare Krishna movement. He says this situation reminds him of that time. A modern cave on wheels. He tells stories of the sages he met, and how later, some years ago, he went back to find those same ascetics, to see what had happened to them. He tells the story of one particular yogi, Tatwalla Baba, who wore only burlap loin cloth and would sit in meditation for twenty hours at a time. He was his cave mate.

We arrive at Kings Canyon Sequioa National Park late morning. I notice a signpost for Grant Grove, an area of giant sequioa trees, and ask the bus driver to pull over. Radhanatha Swami mentions that he has never been to this part of the country before, never seen such large trees. We get off the bus and stroll down the circular path that leads to some of the named and more famous trees. The Tennesee Tree. The Robert E. Lee Tree. The General Grant Tree, apparently the third largest tree in the world by volume. Maharaja stares incredulously at these giant trees that have stood here for 2000-plus years. He asks us to consider what these trees would say to us if they could speak. What would their message be, having witnessed hundreds of generations come and go, entire civilizations rise and fall? Maharaja reminds us that Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu requested us to be more tolerant than a tree. He asks us to consider the kind of tolerance the Lord is speaking about. These giant sequoia trees have withstood long cold winters, rain storms, forest fires, strong winds, people and animals picking away at their limbs and bark... For hundreds, even thousands of years. How tolerant the Lord wants us to be.

Breakfast calls. We board our bus and catch up with the ladies' bus that has already arrived at our Dorst Creek group campsite. Breakfast is granola, milk and fruit. One of our older youth and bus tour counselors, Dattatreya Prabhu's grandfather passed away yesterday. Datta found out this morning and has been quite sober and teary eyed. Radhanatha Swami tries to console him and suggests that we hold a kirtana in honor of Dattatreya's grandfather. We spread out a large green tarp under a canopy of red pine trees and place the bus tour Gaura Nitai deities on a table at one end. Maharaja begins the kirtana. Gradually the tarp fills with youth. Observing the deities, we respond to the Maha-mantra kirtana.

Later, we take the ladies to Sherman Grove, another patch of giant trees. Maharaja and I accompany them. We approach the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume, touted as "the largest living thing." Again Maharaja pauses and asks the ladies to ponder the message this tree would impart to us, could he speak. He asks the ladies to share their thoughts on what this tree might tell us. "Stop fighting with one another," says one girl. "Go back to Godhead," says another. "Don't become a tree like me," Varshana says jokingly. We take group photos against the trunk of the world's largest tree, who is estimated to be between 2300 - 2700 years old. On the way out of the grove we see twin sequoia trees, merged at their base. "They must have liked each other in a previous life," someone whispers. "I wonder what kind of karma they've had to spend thousands of years together as trees," another adds.

Radhanatha Swami has an appointment in San Diego and Balarama Chandra Prabhu is here to give him a ride. Sadly, we part. It is always a blessing to have the association of sadhus on the bus tour. To my surprise, Radhanatha Swami gets behind the wheel of the SUV, smiles and waves goodbye as he drives off. Apparently he doesn't often get to drive--people are always chauffeuring him--so he enjoys this opportunity away from formalities where he can drive a car through the rugged countryside of Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park.

Satvata Prabhu, our cook, has prepared a dinner of rice and beans. We spend the evening around the campfire, holding evening arati for the Gaura Nitai deities, telling stories, and playing Krishna conscious charades.

August 7, Tuesday, Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park.

Amal slept next to the campfire last night. He points to where flying embers hit and burnt holes into his sleeping bag. One by one, people wake up and gather around the fire. We've thrown more wood on it early this morning to ward off the chill that happens just as the sun rises and evaporates the dew, cooling the surface of the earth. Some of us get out our bead bags and begin our japa for the day.

I notice leftover beans and rice in the pots from yesterday. I glance at the cozy campfire and wonder if we didn't bring with us an iron skillet and some butter. Jaya Radhe, my wife, rummages through the kitchen at the back of the bus, and a skillet manifests. And it so happens there's some butter left in one of the coolers. With choice ingredients in hand, I simmer butter, beans and rice in a skillet over the glowing embers. "Hot campfire baked beans and rice, anyone?"

"Mmmmh!," the first of the taste testers mumbles. Govi and Jaggi agree. "Mmmh! - Mmmmh!" they echo. Soon, the entire stash of leftover beans and rice has been devoured by the early risers. "Anyone ready for this morning's actual breakfast?" Apparently Jaya Radhe and Mohini have made pancakes in the kitchen at the back of the bus. Aunt Jemima's table syrup and all.

Today's activity is supposed to be a hike to Mist Falls, at the bottom of Kings Canyon. I start the yellow bus (Garuda 2) and am surprised when, a minute later, the engine dies on me. I take a look... there's no fuel in the fuel filter. The fuel gauge reads the tank is just under half full. The bus is parked at an angle. Maybe the gauge is jammed or broken? I try again... no fuel. The bus won't start.

"We have to try and siphon some diesel fuel out of the tank and fill the fuel filter, so the engine will start," I suggest to the gathering of blank stares. Right. Siphon. Yup. People disperse. Not me. Not me either. Nobody wants to get diesel fuel in their mouth. And besides, what hose are we going to sacrifice for this adventure? The only hose we have? The one used to fill water into the bus water tanks? Yup.

I cut the hose and stuff it deep into fuel tank. I suck on the open end but get diesel fumes in my head and have second thoughts. I pause. I look around. Lots of incredulous stares from the peanut gallery. Then a flash of genius hits me. I dip the hose deep into the fuel tank, stick my index finger into the open end of the hose to plug it, and pull it out halfway and try to drain the fuel, to create a siphon. It works! Only one little problem. There doesn't seem to be much fuel in the tank. We are getting droplets and dribbles. Not the gallon of fuel I had hoped for to refill the fuel filter. Maybe the hose is too short. I cut another length of hose, longer this time. Again I feed one end of the hose deep into the fuel tank and apply the stuff-your-finger-in-open-end-of-hose siphon technique. Droplets. Dirty diesel fuel. Maybe the tank is really empty. The fuel gauge must be broken. How else would the fuel filter have run completely dry?

Onto plan B. Forget the drive to Mist Falls. Ain't happening. We look at the Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park map to find an alternative day-trip location. There seems to be a stream with swimming holes a few miles south of our campsite. We could take the boys' school bus and shuttle people there in two trips. Or squeeze all 50 of us into that smaller bus for a short 20-minute drive to this alternate location. Sounds like a plan.

We all mount the 35-foot short boys' school bus, which is outfitted with permanent bunk beds and doesn't comfortably fit more than 20 people. "Girls on the deck in the back, boys on the bunk beds in the middle and front of the bus!" People squeeze in as best they can. We drive to the creek, let everyone off, and then turn the bus around and drive about 30 miles to the only gas station that sells diesel fuel, just outside the park. It's $3.59 per gallon. I don't care. We're filling buckets, coolers, empty 5-gallon water containers, anything we can get our hands on, with diesel fuel to bring back to the big yellow bus stranded at our campsite.

Back at the site, Sacinandana, Dravinaksa and I have rigged a funnel into a hose into the fuel tank, and are transferring half-buckets at a time from coolers into the funnel, straining the diesel fuel as we go. It's a slow process. The sun is high in the sky by now, burning down on us. Beads of sweat run down my forehead. We're covered in fuel. We laugh at our predicament, trying to keep our sanity. The diesel fuel is bright neon yellow. We joke about it being Gatorade. "Anyone thirsty?" Dravinaksa sets aside a few gallons to refill the fuel filter at the back of the engine. We're now 4 hours into this project of trying to resuscitate the big yellow bus. Drav doesn't have the right tools he needs to undo the fuel filter. He tries with several wrenches. Getting it off is one thing. Getting it back on is another. Somehow or other, by Krishna's mercy, 5 hours later, in the mid-afternoon heat, we are ready to try to start that bus again.

I switch on the main power switches inside the battery compartment. I turn the red battery conditioning switches. I walk to the front of the bus and hit the ignition switch. A rumble. The whining of belts and the engine turning over. Then silence. The engine is dry and not burning fuel. We're hesitant to play this game too often, because the batteries can get drained quickly and we're miles away from civilization. Dravinaksa is confident. He says the fuel filter is looking good. He can see the fuel level through it's transparent looking glass, and it's only a matter of time before the engine will suck it up and start. I press the ignition switch again.... the engine turns over and runs dry for about a minute. I can hear it slowing down as the battery drains and drains. There's air in the fuel lines, for sure, that has to be eliminated. I hear a stutter. And another. I pray at this point that the battery will last to keep cranking the engine until the fuel arrives. Another stutter. Now two in a row. Sounds promising. There! A cloud of black smoke from the exhaust! More frequent stutters. More smoke. At last... the engine turns over on its own. "Jaya! -- Haribol!" Sacinandana exclaims, visibly exhausted but happy to see the end result... Dravinaksa smiles. We look at each other contently and begin to clean up the mess. With the engine running on high idle in the background, we wipe diesel fuel off our arms using paper towels, carry the funnel, coolers and buckets over to the campsite water spigot, douse them with laundry soap and scrub away.

We drive the big yellow bus to the gas station, fill the tank to the top with diesel fuel, and pick up the youth by 5:15 p.m. at the swimming hole. We're running 15 minutes late (we told them to be ready for us at 5:00). One of the boys complains that he had to wait for 15 minutes. I swallow a humble pill and choose not to react. I smile and wave him in. "All aboard!"

That evening the day's stresses melt away as my mind gets a chance to bathe in the sounds of sweet bhajans. The occasional crackling of moist wood in the campfire blends with melodious beats from Amal's mridanga, Nani's kartalas, and Kumari's singing Maha-mantra melodies. We're surrounded by old-growth red pine forest, and it's as if these grandfather trees are standing there, participating, in their own quiet way. Unpretentious bhajans like these inspire me on the tour. Nobody is trying to show off. We're just winding down the day, meditating on the holy names, focusing on Krishna.

August 8, Wednesday, Hume Lake. Ekadasi.

It's early morning. Several guys roam out into the surrounding pine forest to collect firewood. Others are busy tucking potatoes into aluminum foil. Dasa and Premanjana build a large campfire to create mounds of glowing red embers. When the fire dies down, Dasa whacks away at the embers to break them up and spread them evenly across the pit. We toss foil-wrapped potatoes onto the embers, followed by dry twigs and branches. The potatoes are being cooked from two sides, by the embers below, and by the resuming fire above. 45 minutes later, we try to retrieve them with chapati tongs and sticks. Mohini inspects one. She unravels the tin foil and breaks apart the potato inside. Soft, thoroughly cooked. She prepares it with butter, salt and sour cream, and offers it to the murti of Srila Prabhupada. Now we're ready for a nice Ekadasi prasadam breakfast.

Time to clean up and load the buses. Nani (Ananda Gopal from Hawaii) is inspired to do service this morning and washes pots for about an hour at the water spigot. After that we're off to man-made Hume Lake in the Sequoia National Forest.

Our goal for today is to fit drama rehearsals into the schedule, to train new actors who are replacing Sundari and Rasikananda. Between them they played Hanuman / Lord Nityananda and Sukadeva Goswami / Yudhisthira / Ananta the carpenter. It will take four less experienced volunteers to replace these two gifted prabhus. Sundari is going back to school, which starts early in Hawaii. Rasikananda needs to make money and has been offered a design job in Los Angeles.

At our pre-trip inspection of the buses, Sacinandana Prabhu notices that the water pump belt on the school bus is cracked and looks like it needs replacement. Upon closer inspection, some of the other belts look worn and are starting to fray. We decide to send the boys' school bus to Fresno, to a truck repair place, to have the belts replaced. We split the youth into two groups, one who prefers to spend the day shopping in Fresno, the other swimming and rehearsing the drama at Hume Lake.

I stay with the group that spends the day at Hume Lake. I help Satvata Prabhu prepare lunch. At the swimming beach, Jaya Radhe, Deva, Jaya, Ani, Dasa, Laksmi, Krsnapriya, and Basab have an involved discussion about the merits of astrology. Is it that if you believe in astrology you don't really have faith in Krishna, that Krishna will take care of you? The arguments go back and forth.

In the evening we drive to Fresno, where we shop for groceries and serve a dinner of mashed potato and vegetable subji in the parking lot of a Target supermarket. By 10:00 p.m. the lights go out in the parking lot. We take it as a sign to board the buses and hit the road again, hauling north along Route 99, then I-5, towards Oregon state.

August 9, Thursday, Crater Lake National Park.

The Klamath River Rest and Recreation Area on the state line between California and Oregon serves as our breakfast stop. We have a bit of a drive ahead of us so it's a short stop. We continue on Interstate 5 northbound. The ladies' bus is blissed out on bhajans... they radio the men's bus over the walkie-talkie, showing off the bhajans they're having, including singing the Brahma Samhita Prayers, Siksastakam Prayers, and Anapayini's rendition of Markine Bhagavata Dharma. The landscape changes gradually from arid scrub to forested to lush and green. There's more rainfall in Oregon than in California. After several hours we arrive at Crater Lake National Park.

This is the only park that gave us an educational fee waiver, which we put in a request for at all the parks we had planned to visit this summer. "To educate our students about the beauty of God's creation." So we present the fee waiver at the park entrance, and are waived through by the rangers.

The winding road climbs up and over the rim of an extinct volcano's crater. As we cross over the top of the rim to the other side, we can see why the rangers gave us the fee waiver. The cobalt blue, almost fluorescent deep blue waters of crater lake are a mysterious beauty of God's creation that have little comparison anywhere else on the planet. 1,900 feet deep, the water has a clarity of 100 feet visibility, and contains almost no dissolved solids due to the absence of any incoming water source like a river. The lake is fed by rain and snow melt, which equals the rate of evaporation. The hard volcanic rim around the crater seeps little sediment into the cold water, preserving its clear, deep blue, mesmerizing color.

I ponder another aspect of the majesty of Krishna's creation, as I try to imagine the peak of this volcano before it blew off and created this huge 6-miles-in-diameter caldera which is now filled with water. I try to imagine the eruption, the sheer force of it, which must have been visible from hundreds of miles away. There's something uneasy about standing inside the caldera of a volcano, even if the geologists say it is extinct. From this vantage point, I can see other, active volcanoes in the distance, to the north and south. We're in the midst of the Cascade Range, a long string of volcanoes, some active, some dormant, some extinct.

There's a path that leads down to the waterline inside the caldera. Most of the youth don their swim suits and climb on down. I stay back, along with a core team of people, to prepare lunch. From the photos they bring back on their digital cameras, it seems like it was definitely worth the hike down the caldera. It seems that some brave people actually jumped into the cold water and swam for a few seconds.

After everyone returns, by about 4:30 p.m., and we do a head count to make sure we're not missing anyone, we serve a late lunch and take group photos with Crater Lake in the background. Then it's time to get back on the buses. We're expected in Seattle tomorrow.

The familiar rumble of the bus engine feels like home away from home. The only constant in a constantly changing landscape.

August 10, Friday, Seattle.

The buses are parked at a rest area south of Tacoma early this Friday morning. We decide to stay until people get up, so they have sufficient sinks and rest rooms to attend to their morning routines. We serve breakfast here. My wife, Jaya Radhe, is getting off the tour today. She's a teacher and needs to fly home to begin teacher's meetings a week before school starts. As it turns out, we have family in Seattle. Jaya Radhe's grandma, aunt, uncle and several cousins.

We drop Jaya Radhe off at the Wild Waves water park exit, where her aunt is waiting to pick her up. Jaya Radhe will spend the day with relatives and fly out late this evening. It's a teary eyed goodbye. Both I and the rest of the crew will miss her. She adds so much life to the bus tour with her good natured, personable approach to the daily challenges. I'm generally introverted. Jaya Radhe is the opposite. She thrives on socializing with people on the tour, being everyone's friend and well-wisher. It's sad to see her leave. After several rounds of hugs and goodbyes, we part.

Today is laundry day. Time to wash a week's worth of dirty clothes that have been piling up on and under our bunk beds, and in our bags. Finding a laundromat is sometimes easier said than done. I finally call 411 directory information, and ask for the Chamber of Commerce for Bellevue, the suburb we're driving through on the way to the temple in Redmond.

"Yeah, hi. I'm with a church youth group from Florida, traveling through Seattle today. We're looking for a laundromat in the Bellevue area where we can have our youth wash their laundry? Would you have any ideas or suggestions for us?"

"Uh, hmmm... let me see. Laundromat? You mean a self-service coin laundry, not one of those dry cleaners, right?"

"Yes, coin laundry."

"Okay, I'm googling "coin laundry" in the Bellevue area right now and... Google is showing me a Kwik 'n Cleaner Laundry and Dry Cleaning on 156th Avenue Northeast."

"Great! How do we get there from the 520 freeway?"

"Let me see. Google says to take the Redmond way exit, then right on 24th Avenue North..."

I am amazed that the Chamber of Commerce help desk person is so helpful, and even more amazed that he's using Google to find all of his information. Makes me think twice about bringing along one of those Internet data cards the cell phone companies are offering... we did it last year but didn't use it that much... it ended up costing us more than $650. The call to 411 directory assistance and to the chamber of commerce is costing me only a $1.

By 5:00 p.m. we've washed and dried our laundry, more or less (some items are still a bit wet), and Satvata Prabhu has cooked a late pasta lunch slash early dinner for us. We eat linner (lunch/dinner) in the parking lot next to the laundromat. Then we head out to find the temporary Seattle temple. They've relocated the deities to an office building in Redmond while they're building the new temple in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish.

Arriving at an office park in Redmond we see a hand-painted sign, "Vedic Cultural Center", pointing towards the back of one of the buildings. We follow the sign. Next we see a giant hand-painted "108" glued to one of the office building windows. There's an open garage door with some devotees cooking on an outdoor burner, camped out in this unusual location. This must be it. I approach them. They show me to the entrance around the corner. ... Lo and behold, a temple room temporarily manifests in the middle of a warehouse building. The deity curtain is open for darshan. I see four sets of large deities, Gaura Nitai, Radha-Krishna, Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, and Sita-Ram Lakshman Hanuman, on altars raised above the warehouse floor, humbly awaiting their new Vedic Cultural Center to be built. I pay my respects, offering prostrated dandavats.

The devotees and congregation are expecting us to perform here tonight. It was supposed to be a hall program but somehow the promotions didn't work out in time. (The devotees were busy with another festival that happened the week before our arrival.) So Anapayini and I scope out the available space in the temple room and decide on what corner of the room to use as the "stage." Then we put down mats on the floor where the audience will sit, and find an empty room for the performers to change and get ready.

By evening arati, I notice that there are only about 20 guests in the temple room. I search for the performers and give them a little pep talk. "This is going to be a small, intimate performance. There are just a handful of people in the audience tonight. But these few people are the most important people in the Seattle congregation. They are the committed ones. They are building a 4 million dollar Vedic Cultural Center. If you give them your best performance tonight, hopefully they will be so impressed that next year they'll rent a hall for us." The performers agree to give it their best, despite the low turnout.

I sit up against the wall of the temporary temple room to watch the performance. I must have seen it two dozen times by now, but every time there's a new nuance I can appreciate. As I watch each scene, I can see that the performers are really trying their best to stay focused. (Thank you!) It's not easy to tour the country and perform with volunteers, amateur actors, some of whom have never acted before coming on this tour. It's entirely up to their inspiration and devotion if the performance will be good or not.

During the Karna and Kunti scene, I can't hold back my tears. They're just streaming down my cheek. I don't bother to wipe them away. I decide that I am not going to care about people looking at me. If they are watching the play, they're probably crying too.

Within five minutes after the performance is over I'm approached by Harivilas Prabhu and two of the local festival organizers about renting a hall next year. They insist that they will rent a really nice theater they've used in the past, with a capacity of 450 people, and that we should let them know four months in advance so they have enough time to prepare and promote.

The Seattle devotees serve a nice prasadam dinner for the guests and performers. At around 10:30 p.m., we're packing up and loading the buses again, heading ever further north to the Canadian border.

August 11, Saturday, Vancouver Ratha-yatra, Day One.

I wake up due to people getting on and off the bus, making the bus bounce slightly as they step on or off it. We're at the Vancouver temple parking lot once again. Don't ask me why we drove from Vancouver all the way to Mexico and back again. It's a long story. Let's just say that it would save Festival of India and the bus tour tens of thousands of dollars if certain Ratha-yatra festival coordinators could agree to coordinate their dates with one another so we didn't have to drive up and down the Pacific coast twice in one festival season. Grrr. Arrgh.

By Krishna's arrangement, we are at Vancouver temple parking lot once again. The men are helping to set up the festival, on location at Stanley Park, near the ocean. The ladies are helping to pick marigolds in the field behind the Vancouver temple and string garlands to decorate the Ratha-yatra chariots. They're also helping to shuck (de-husk) corn on the cob for one of the festival food booths. Today is the first of a two-day weekend Ratha-yatra festival.

Around 1:30 p.m. we all meet at the festival site. The tent village is set up in historic Stanley Park, on English Bay, right on the shore front, facing the Pacific Ocean. We've set up a children's tent, several food booths, a free feast tent in the center, the main stage with large tents above where the audience sits (for shade), a music stage for bands to perform, questions and answers, mantra meditation, vegetarianism, reincarnation, a deity tent for Lord Jagannatha... now we just need people to show up.

It's 3:00 p.m. We've been scheduled to perform. There are seven people in the audience. Two of whom are devotees. The festival site is empty. It's an overcast day, a little on the cold side out here in the park next to ocean. The logic is that if we perform, then the non-moving living entities will applaud and gradually the moving living entities will find their way into the tent because they see something is going on at the festival site.

Hmmm. Aha. Right. Hmmmm again. Okay. We will perform. Come on, it will be fun. After all, this is our devotional service. Nobody is paying us to do this. Think of it as a dress rehearsal run-through. Performance number 21. We need the practice. So we do it. We get ready (it takes about 45 minutes if we rush it). We perform for one hour and 15 minutes.

Anapayini's father has come to see the performance. He drove up all the way from Seattle to see us perform this afternoon. Overall, the site remains rather empty. The youth are somewhat disappointed. I don't blame them. This is supposed to be Vancouver Ratha-yatra? We could have spent this Saturday in a more productive way, from an outreach perspective. Saturday evenings are a great time for hall performances.

I ask some of the local devotees about the reason for the low turnout. It turns out they did not promote Saturday as being part of the festival. In the press releases, newspaper advertisements, and posters they focused on tomorrow, Sunday, the actual day of the Ratha-yatra chariot procession. They didn't promote Saturday because they thought fewer people would come, and if the press came today, they'd be disappointed.

August 12, Sunday, Vancouver Ratha-yatra. Chariot Parade.

All good things come to those who wait. Lots of people have come out today for the Sunday chariot procession down Beach Street. Devotees and congregation members are getting ready to pull the ropes of the chariots. The television cameras are here. Just as the three chariots begin to move, it begins to rain. People rush to take shelter under the overhangs in front of store windows. It pours for a good fifteen minutes. Then the rain stops, the sun emerges from behind the clouds, and Lord Jagannatha's smiling face blesses all who look upon Him as he rides into Stanley Park.

I dance the entire parade route, in front of Lord Jagannatha's chariot. Several youth dance in front of and behind me, and I try to keep up. Jahnavi, Lalita, Narayani, Prtha, Saci, Govinda, Vrajesh and others. I must say I now have a newfound appreciation for those people who can dance like this all of the time. It really requires some stamina of the leg muscles.

Here are some photos that one of the passers-by took, and posted on

At the festival site, I play mridanga with the kirtana party that accompanies Lord Jagannatha, Lady Subhadra, and Lord Baladeva. Gradually Their Lordships descend from Their chariots and are carried to Their festival tent, where They will spend the afternoon accepting visitors who offer fruits, and who get some maha prasadam fruit in return.

I look around and observe the crowds. The free feast tent is busy. People on bicycles who have been riding through the park have pulled into the feast line and are waiting patiently to get a plate. The Questions and Answers tent is well attended.

Once again it's time for our festival tour youth to get on stage and perform DEVOTION. This time the tent is packed with people. I'm glad that so many have shown up and are now watching the performance intently. DEVOTION is a dance drama with live music that features many of the devotional talents these youth have acquired while growing up in the Hare Krishna movement. Musical skills on traditional instruments, singing kirtana, acting, and dancing. The performance gives them a sense of pride in their upbringing, seeing so many people appreciate their skills, talents and abilities. After the performance, the youth mingle with the audience and get to hear their positive feedback.

Sunset signals time for take-down. For the last time this season, we change into our work clothes, put on yellow Festival of India gloves and aprons, and begin to disassemble the exhibits, tents, and stages. Three hours later, the whole place is restored back to its pre-festival ocean-front park-like state. The festival equipment is once again tucked into the belly of the large yellow Festival of India trailer. And we're headed to the temple for a delicious prasadam feast! Set-up, chanting, dancing, feasting, and take-down. Ten times at ten Ratha-yatra festivals across the continent. Plus a dozen hall programs, adventures at national parks... What more can you hope to do with your summer? Join the festival tour.

Stay tuned for details of the final week of adventures. We've yet to perform in Boise, Idaho, Denver, Colorado, and Miami, Florida. And we're snorkeling on the coral reef in Key Largo, Florida.