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Devotee Thespians Thunder West to Winnipeg, "Devotion" Bus Tour, Part 4

by Seva das

Posted July 23, 2007

July 15 - Sunday - Toronto Festival of India on Centre Island

Today is the second of two days of the Festival of India on Centre Island in Toronto. Not a cloud in the sky this morning. The boys stayed on the island last night to guard the festival site, without incident. We woke up early and took our showers at a small shower stall on the other side of the little river that passes by the festival site.

This morning H.H. Bhaktimarga Swami is performing initiations in front of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. Shammy, the boy who works for and who had shared with me his ideas about marketing and promoting Festival of India, becomes Savya Sacin das. "Darshan" Doug from Winnipeg becomes Daruka das. Jagannatha Puri Dhama das from the Festival of India crew gets second (brahmin) initiation. A handful of other devotees got initiated, but I do not remember all of their names.

Bhaktimarga Swami lectures on the responsibilities of taking initiation into ISKCON. He quotes the first purpose of ISKCON as established by Srila Prabhupada: "to systematically propagate the Krishna consciousness movement." He encourages the new initiates to take this mission to heart and try to give Krishna to others in a way that is pleasing to the public.

I see Vishakha dasi sitting near the free feast tent. I take the opportunity to speak with her about our upcoming visit to the Sharanagati farm community, five hours northeast of Vancouver. We discuss the plans for various devotees to host the youth for meals, and activities to do during the day, including a "barn raising" -- helping a local devotee build his home.

Vishakha prabhu comments that about 95 percent of the Festival of India attendees are Indo-Canadians -- about 10,000 people on each of the festival days -- and that about 95 percent of the people walking past the festival site but not coming in to join the festivities are not of East Indian ancestry. Hmm... yes. We talk about that for a few minutes. Again the discussion turns to branding and marketing Festival of India in such a way as to make it attractive to a non-Hindu audience.

We perform again today, the entire 1.5-hour production of our dance drama, "Devotion." Festival of India crowds are fickle. After the first couple of scenes, the chairs are filled. The space in front of the chairs, between the stage and the first row of chairs, is filled with children and their parents eagerly looking up at the bus tour actors and dancers. The second scene portrays Hiranyakashipu arguing with his son Prahlad about the existence of God. Suddenly Nrsimhadeva appears. The kids shriek. It's confirmed. We've got a good play.

After the performance, two well-dressed Indian men come to see us behind the stage. One of them is introduced to us as a member of the Pakistani parliament. He hands us his business card; he seems legitimate. He invites us to tour Pakistan next year, all expenses paid. We talk about the challenges of preaching Krishna consciousness and "Hindu dharma" in Pakistan. Some time later, however, he proposes to marry one of our 17-year old dancers and take her back with him. We lose all respect for the man. There go our short-lived hopes of touring Pakistan. At about 5 p.m. we all help take down the festival. By 7:30 we're done.

July 16 - Monday - Serpent River, Ontario

We take a "pit stop" at a beautiful nature spot halfway between Toronto and Thunder Bay. It's a rest area on the side of Highway 17 called Serpent River. As the name suggests, a river runs around the back of the rest area, through the lush mixed forest of pines and deciduous trees that covers this part of Ontario. The river cascades over a natural rock slide, which the youth soon discover and utilize to its fullest extent.

First, though, we have a morning program by the side of the river with our bus tour Gaura Nitai deities and Jayadvaita Swami. It's an open question-and-answer session. The youth have a chance to ask about anything that's on their mind -- any doubt or question they may have about our philosophy. This morning's topic seems to revolve around kirtana standards. What should be the mood of a person leading kirtana? How did Srila Prabhupada lead kirtana? An interesting discussion ensues: "What's wrong with singing certain songs if we are having fun doing so?"

The day is spent by the river, relaxing. Again some of the youth break up into their reading / study groups to read through the various books by Srila Prabhupada that they have chosen to read during the bus tour. Some help prepare the meals. Others help clean up afterwards. That evening we depart for Thunder Bay, anticipating another hall performance coming up at Lakehead University.

It's a six-hour drive through the night, along the winding Highway 17, with nary a town along the way -- just long stretches of forest and a few hills as we make our way around the eastern perimeter of Lake Superior. We notice that at this time of year it never quite gets dark. There's always a shimmer of light in the north. It gets a little darker by about 10 p.m. and begins to get light at around 4 a.m. By the time the sun actually rises at 6:36 a.m. it has been daylight for a couple of hours, a strange phenomenon for those of us not used to the long days in the northern summer. For instance, you'll be driving down the highway in daylight, starting to feel really tired; you'll look at your watch, and it's 9:30 in the evening, but the intensity of the daylight makes you feel like it's in the middle of the day.

July 17 - Tuesday - Thunder Bay - Performance at Lakehead University

This morning we arrive at a campsite in Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, just outside the city of Thunder Bay, on the northwestern edge of Lake Superior in Ontario. The falls are billed as the "Niagara of the North." They are not as impresive as the real Niagara Falls, but still reflect a spark of Krishna's splendor. We are greeted by Prem Kishor, the devotee doctor who lives here and who has arranged and promoted our hall program at Lakehead University. He brings lots of bhoga for us to cook for the youth, as well as for the hall program tonight.

We have another morning program with H.H. Jayadvaita Swami, and some more enthusiastic discussions. This time the youth ask questions about eating chocolate, why certain foods like onions and garlic are in the mode of ignorance, etc. The bulk of the day is taken up with drama rehearsals, bus cleanup, and preparing the prasadam for the hall program this evening. We plan on distributing prasadam to all the guests who come to see our performance.

By about 4 p.m. we drive to Lakehead University. We're performing at Bora Laskin Auditorium, in the same location we've performed last year. It's an average auditorium, seating about 300 people. Prem Kishor prabhu has promoted the event as a charitable benefit to help raise funds for a cancer research foundation. Because of this tie to a charitable cause, the local newspaper has been sponsoring a quarter-page color advertisement for the show for the past five weeks. He's charging only $10 per seat, and hopes to fill the auditorium. Here's an example of how one man in a remote city can rent a hall and promote the event in his spare time without much effort.

Over 200 people show up for the event. The newspaper advertisements have generated enough interest to almost fill the hall to full capacity. To our surprise, they're not Hindus. The hall fills, mostly with descendants of the Scots who settled this area of Canada -- students, teachers, parents -- along with some aboriginal "First Nations" people, many of whom live in the Thunder Bay area (the Canadian counterpart to what we call Native Americans in the U.S.)

About five minutes before the show I meet with our volunteer sound engineer, Nitai Pran das, and go over the importance of making the live sound and microphones sound as good as possible, to avoid mistakes such as forgetting to switch on certain wireless mics with performers who have only one or two lines of dialogue. He reassures me he'll try his best. Lo and behold, the performance goes well, and the sound is almost perfect.

As the guests come out of the performance into the lobby, we greet them and hand them plates of delicious prasadam that we have cooked for them, with the help of Syamamanda das: pakoras with tomato chutney, roasted nut halavah and mango nectar drink. They're again presented with a book table filled with Srila Prabhupada's books, staffed by Bhaktimarga Swami's assistant, Yamuna Jivana das.

I'm especially eager to get feedback about our cultural performance about expressions of devotion to Krishna. I wait outside the main door with three others who help me ask people as they come out what they thought about our performance. We didn't get much out of the ordinary. It seems that most people genuinely liked it. "I loved the dance." "The dancing was fantastic." "The food... I really liked the food." "What do you call that drum that you were playing? I really enjoyed the drumming segment."

One First Nations lady remarked that she came because she was attracted by the title of our show, "Devotion." She was a practicing spiritual healer who supposedly travels on the astral plane. She says that, when she does so, the sound of our kirtana on stage is what she hears. She was instantly attracted by the devotion and natural spirituality that our youth carry with them. Another woman who teachers at a local Waldorf school inquired how she could join the festival tour next summer. She said that she just felt overwhelmed by the happiness that these youth expressed, and she could think of nothing better to do with her summer than to travel with us.

One couple expressed hesitation to comment on any of the acting, but diplomatically commented that "the dancing was good," giving me the sense that the play portion of the performance was a little too "preachy" for this family, since every scene revolved around devotion to Krishna. It may have been that they were a little surprised by our heavy focus on devotion to Krishna.

Overall, all the people we asked gave encouraging, positive comments. Next time maybe it would be good to have someone who seems neutral and not connected to our performance to ask the same questions, to elicit some more detailed feedback.

July 18 - Wednesday - Winnipeg

Today we're in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the longitudinal center of Canada, and possibly the windiest city in North America. We shower at the downtown YMCA, and head to Vrinda prabhu's house for breakfast and planning the day's activities. Vrinda dasi has been hosting a temple in her home in this part of Canada for many years. She cultivates a small congregation whom she has invited for a kirtana / dance party in her back yard this evening, to mingle with all of us. After breakfast, the big yellow bus goes for service at a local bus repair place. We're attempting to fix an issue with the low air pressure warning buzzer signal not coming on when it is supposed to.

At noon we go on a Harinama through the busy section of downtown Winnipeg. We encounter many office workers sitting outside the office buildings eating their lunches. They look at us incredulously. I see a lot of blank stares. I often wonder what people must think about us when we go out on Harinamas in places that are not used to seeing devotees, and how we can make a positive impression on them.

Towards the end of the lunch hour we sit down on a grassy area in a park in front of the provincial Legislature building. We sing maha-mantra melodies in themes. One of our bus tour young women, Gaura Nitai, is feeling homesick. She's from Poland, and we pick Polish Festival Tour melodies and sing several tunes that Sri Prahlad prabhu has made famous. Parijata prabhu sings some melodies from her Hillsborough, North Carolina devotee community. Then Bhaktimarga Swami teaches us a typical Toronto tune. Finally, Maharaja leads us on another Harinama across town as we walk back to Vrinda's house for lunch prasadam. As Maharaja meets people standing in their shop doors, looking out at us, he greets them amd says hello, even while he is in the middle of leading the kirtana. Often, if he's close enough, he walks up to the people and shakes their hands: "Hello. How are you?" I like that -- very personal, a way to connect with people on Harinama and to break down the barrier of blank stares versus seemingly happy, dancing, chanting youth.

Later that afternoon the bus tour girls meet with Malati prabhu, who is following behind the tour in her own van. She spends about an hour and a half with the young women, discussing how to deal with issues they might typically encounter in ISKCON. At the same time, the young men spend time with Jayadvaita Swami, who will be leaving the tour tomorrow. They talk about guy topics, such as the importance of brahmacari training in order to be a good householder, what's wrong with just having several girlfriends to check out who you're compatible with instead of marrying someone right away, and the importance of the Vanaprastha ashram to guide the younger generation -- important topics.

At 6:30 p.m. we perform a shortened version of our program for the assembled guests that Vrinda prabhu has invited. She has built a small stage for us to perform on, in her back yard. The yard soon fills up with guests. The youth shine once again. They are real troupers. Almost every other day they're performing, doing service, etc. The program goes late into the evening, as guests mingle with the youth, ask questions and take prasadam together.

By about midnight, everyone has gone home, our teams have cleaned as much as they could, and the youth finally tuck into bed on their respective buses. Tomorrow we'll have a relaxed day in Winnipeg, before heading further west across Canada.

If you are interested to correspond with us about this tour, or have any questions or comments, please email us:

Preview: Next, we're heading to Regina, Saskatchewan, for a hall program at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Then we go to Calgary, Alberta, for Ratha-yatra. Then hiking in Banff National Park, whitewater rafting in Golden, and onto Sharanagati Farm near Ashcroft, British Columbia. Stay tuned for more adventures from the 2007 festival bus tour.

10. Book table devotees stand ready to answer questions and distribute Krishna-conscious books.

11. High drama and laughter aboard the women's bus.