Youth Festival Arrives in Toronto, "Devotion" Bus Tour, Part 3
Posted July 22, 2007
Today we're at Silver Lake, one of the many lakes in the province of
Ontario. It's about halfway between Montréal and Toronto, not
far off the main highway. We have a morning program and, after
breakfast, get into study groups to read various books of Srila
Prabhupada. Some are studying Teachings of Lord Chaitanya,
others Nectar of Instruction. Others join a Bhagavad-gita
study group facilitated by H.H. Jayadvaita Swami. After lunch, we rent
some canoes and most of the youth paddle out onto the lake. In the
evening we get together again for dinner and then head out on the road
again. It's an overnight drive to our first big hall performance of the
tour, in a Toronto suburb called Mississauga. The young men fall asleep
on their bunk beds on the men's bus after a long day of physical
We're nervous. This is an important hall program on the summer tour
this year. People are paying up to $62 per seat to come and see us
perform a show on bhakti / devotion to Krishna. We arrive at the
theatre in the middle of the afternoon and are soon greeted by the
technical supervisor and the lights operator, who give us the guided
tour. There are five dressing rooms, each with individual chairs,
dressers, mirrors and lights for each performer, and with showers and
toilets attached to each room. Wow. When our young performers enter the
changing rooms their faces light up with smiles. Nadia squals with
excitement. She is one of the Bharata-natyam dancers and has never had
this nice of a facility to get ready in. They cannot believe it. It
seems just like what you would expect to find in a Hollywood movie
The performers get ready for the show. The local devotees who have organized and promoted this program come to speak with us and make sure we have everything we need. They bring prasadam for the youth. Promptly at 7 p.m. the show begins.
A local devotee dance troupe from ISKCON Toronto opens with a ten-minute performance that they have been rehearsing for the upcoming Ratha-yatra festival. Then our troupe begins. The lights dim. The live music begins. Accompanied by the sounds of live flute, violin, dholak, kartals and harmonium, Anapayini prabhu announces the show: "Welcome to Devotion...." The dancers enter. The lights fade up. The show begins.
I'm videotaping the performance for posterity. Apart from a few glitches with the live sound (short bursts of feedback when a person gets too close to a speaker with his or her wireless headset microphone), the performance goes well. We've survived our first big show. The audience is mostly of East Indian ethnicity. About 300 people fill the auditorium.
After the performance, the guests exit the auditorioum into the foyer, where they are greeted by our performers and where local devotees begin to serve out plates of a vegetarian prasadam feast. Each guest receives a plate. Several tables filled with Srila Prabhupada's books are displayed prominently in the middle of the reception hall.
I overhear some of the feedback that the guests are giving the youth. Professor O'Connell was in the audience. He comments on the sincere devotion that he saw within these young actors. Several older Indian ladies hug the girls and compliment them on their beautiful costumes and dancing. After some time as the crowd disspates, we clean up and then go back to the buses to celebrate our first successful hall performance of the season with all-you-can-eat ice cream.
July 12 - Thursday - Niagara Falls
We visit nearby Niagara Falls, in the spot where Lake Erie drains into Lake Ontario. They're not the tallest falls -- there are 500 falls taller than Niagara -- but they are voluminous, magnificent. About 36 million gallons (140 million litres) of water per minute flow across this waterfall that streches for about 600 feet (200 m) on the Canadian side, then flows around an island, with another 200 feet (65 m) of a giant sheet of water on the American side (the falls are right on the border between the U.S. and Canada.)
We take the youth on the "Journey Behind the Falls" tour. We get complimentary rain coats and descend in an elevator to a tunnel behind the falls, which has openings that allow you to peek out at the falls from behind to see a blinding sheet of thick, white water falling like torrential rains, rumbling, pounding loudly past the opening in the tunnel wall. We continue along the tunnel to an outlook platform right beside the falls, where we realize the importance of the complimentary rain coats we received earlier. The spray from the falling water covers us from head to toe. There are gusts of wind billowing at us from the falling water, mixed with spray that covers any camera lens in seconds. Some of our youth attempt to take a picture of us standing in front and at the base of the falls.
We head back to the buses for a dinner cooked by Syamananda das from Ireland, our faithful cook for this part of our journey. On the way, we walk past an Indian food store and some of us enter. Soon the entire group of youth from the bus tour is crowding into the storefront. An Indian lady greets us with enthusiasm. We see Limca, Thumbs Up and Frootie juices in the refrigerated section. Mangoes are $7 per case. We buy miscellaneous items and strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper. She is a Jain, and her brother is a Krishna devotee. The family travels to the "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" (ISKCON) temple in Toronto every few months, where they have sponsored the Sunday Feast three times. She inquires about where we are all from and is amazed to see so many people from around the world, from different countries and different backgrounds taking up the Vaishnava culture. She and her husband have visited our ISKCON temple in New Vrindavan twice, and they are enamoured by that place. They look forward to going there again for a weekend, away from the hustle and bustle of their busy lives running an Asian food mart in the tourist town of Niagara Falls.
Later, while we are sitting around our buses eating dinner, an Indian gentleman pulls up in his jeep. He had seen the writing on the side of our bus, "Hare Krishna Youth Ministry", and was offering his services. He asks if we need anything and is willing to make runs to the local supermarket to help us improve our dinner.
July 13 - Friday - Toronto
Today is laundry day, and it is also a very busy day at the ISKCON Toronto temple, as local devotees run about the place making last-minute preparations for the Ratha-yatra festival. The coordinators for the temple services are local youth who have grown up in the Toronto community, headed by Keshava and Vrindavan Vinodini prabhus.
We're asked to help with Ratha-yatra preparations. In rotating shifts of 15 young people, we help peel and cut about 20 large bags of potatoes. Each sack is 100 pounds (45 kg) and is almost as tall as a person. Then we mince ginger, chop fresh coriander, and load the trucks that will transport food and dry goods to Centre Island, where the two-day weekend Ratha-yatra festival will be held.
While some are peeling potatoes, some are loading trucks and others go to do their laundy at the nearby laundromat. At around 8 p.m. we board our big yellow bus for Harinama in downtown Toronto. We're joined by Bhakti-bhringa Govinda Swami, Bhaktivaibhava Swami and Bhaktimarga Swami. I end up driving the yellow bus back and forth twice to transport more devotees. The Harinama was warmly received. There were certainly lots of people in the streets on a Friday night in downtown Toronto, on the square of Yonge Street and Dundas. One devotee commented that the people of Toronto are even more friendly and receptive than those we had encountered in New York City.
July 14 - Saturday - Toronto Ratha-yatra
At 7 a.m. I help Dravinaksa prabhu get our big bus onto the ferry to Centre Island. We usually park the big bus at the festival site on the island during the two-day event. It holds all of our performance gear and serves as changing room and repose for the youth. Around 10 a.m. I take the passenger ferry back across the water to Toronto, and am joined by Shammy, a local youth who grew up in the ISKCON Toronto community and is now a manager at www.monster.ca, the job placement website. We talk about preaching on the Internet. I share my experiences of working at www.krishna.com. He tells me about his work in sales, marketing and advertising on Monster.ca. We talk about branding the Ratha-yatra festival / Festival of India / Festival of Chariots. One of the names we came up with on the ferry ride was "K-Fest," with the subtitle "Krishna Culture Festival," as a catchy title to market the festival to a non-Hindu audience. We envision large posters advertising the festival all over Toronto.
Soon we re-enter the bustling world of bayside Toronto and catch a taxicab back to the temple. The taxi driver, an older Canadian gentleman in his 50s, shares his woes about driving a taxi, saying that he is retiring soon. He says he used to live next door to Hare Krishnas in the 70s and that he has seen a few of our Ratha-yatra festivals on Yonge street.
Back at the temple on Avenue Road, the devotees are getting ready to walk to the start of the Ratha-yatra parade at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor streets. We all head over there on foot, about a two-round japa walk.
Toronto's Ratha-yatra parade is one of the largest in North America. It is promoted in the major Toronto newspapers weeks in advance. We are joined by several hundred guests in pulling the three chariots of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Baladeva and Lady Subhadra. The youth lead the kirtana in front of Lord Jagannatha's chariot throughout the two-hour parade, which ends at the ferry docks on the bayside. I take lots of video footage of the youth dancing and leading the parade kirtana, as well as the crowd reactions along the sidewalk, who watch the parade intently.
The bus tour organizers carry walkie-talkies, synchronized on channel 11 (family radio band frequency). We pick up the conversation of some local tourists on the same channel, who are apparently watching the parade. They radio each other. "Hey, did you see that?" - "Yeah!' - "It's better than the Gay Pride parade." - "Yeah!"
After the parade, all the youth gather quickly to lign up at the ferry ticket counters to be ahead of the flood of people rushing to Centre Island for the rest of the festival. We buy group tickets and catch the next available ferry. We arrive on the island about 20 minutes later, and rush over to the Festival of India site to get ready for our performance. Actually, most of us rush to the free feast tent first to get something to eat before getting ready for the peformance.
We're supposed to perform on the open stage at 2:45 p.m. By 2 p.m. it starts to rain. The rain turns into showers. The sky is grey with rain clouds in all directions. We ask Keshava about the weather forecast. He checks his BlackBerry PDA. Bad news -- rain for the rest of the day. We head over to the covered stage under a large tent to see if we can rearrange the stage performance schedule to fit the youth in on the covered stage. Keshava das works his magic. Somehow or other he squeezes time and cuts short some of the other acts to squeeze us in. We perform at around 5:30 p.m. to a packed tent (a captive audience trying to get out of the rain.)
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7. Poster for Mississauga drama, dance and music program.
8. Night harinama-sankirtana.
9. Watermelon seva at the Festival of India site.