A Big Grin and a Tennessee Drawl
Volume 1, Chapter 31
S a t u r d a y J u n e 1 7
Before we left Almaty, Sri Guru Carana Padma dasi, a disciple of mine who had just arrived back from India, told me an interesting story. While in Vrndavana she had met one of the devotee women who had traveled in my group up the Amazon River seven years ago. At that time we had encouraged many of the Amazon Indians in the villages to chant Hare Krsna.
The woman told Sri Guru Carana Padma that devotees had gone back to those villages recently in another boat and she’d had the opportunity to go with them. In one remote village they found a young man, perhaps 16 years of age, who ran forward with tears in his eyes when he saw the devotees entering his village. He embraced them and said he had been faithfully chanting Hare Krsna on beads every day for seven years. He began looking around anxiously for “that tall fair-skinned man in saffron robes” who had given him the beads seven years ago.
Hearing this story, I suddenly remembered the boy. We stayed in his village for two days. At that time he must have been nine years old. He was particularly attracted to us and had been asking me how he could join us. I told him it was impossible, but I gave him an extra set of beads that I had and taught him how to chant. I told him to try to chant sixteen rounds a day. He promised me he would and would wait for the day we returned. Krsna arranged for the devotees to return to that village. The woman said the boy was devastated that I wasn’t there. When I heard this story my heart pained, and I longed to go back there immediately.
This afternoon we traveled three hours by plane to Novosibirsk in Siberia. As we descended from the plane, we were met by the cool winds of the tundra, a big change from the hot deserts of central Asia.
We were nervous as we approached Russian customs and immigration. Govinda Maharaja, Sri Prahlada, and I had our multiple entry, one-year visas ready, but Krsna Prasada’s visa was not actually valid. He had initially come into Russia on a single entry visa, and that had terminated when we left Russia to go into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Having no alternative, Govinda Maharaja decided to try to get him back in on the same visa. It seemed like an impossible dream to me.
As we approached immigration we all put our passports and visas together, with Krsna Prasada’s Nepalese passport and his expired Russian visa on the bottom. When the immigration offiicials saw us they were shocked, presumably because foreigners rarely enter Russia through Novosibirsk. But suddenly here we were—two Americans, a New Zealander, a Nepalese, and our Russian helpers—all in dhotis with shaved heads. It created a big stir.
A number of offiicials came over and made a show of demanding our passports and asking us all sorts of questions. It was a tense moment, and it didn’t look as though they were going to let even those of us with valid visas in. But then Govinda Maharaja, undaunted as usual in such situations and not the least intimidated by the aggressive offiicials, started joking with them. He has demonstrated again and again a unique ability to make friends with anyone and everyone. As soon as he puts his big grin on his face and starts joking with offiicials in his Tennessee drawl, their defense breaks down and they are drawn to him. It’s like magic and always works. When his humor makes them smile, he slaps them on the back, and suddenly the offiicials are like old friends that will do anything for him.
This time it also worked. The offiicials systematically went through our papers, starting with Sri Prahlada and me. Maharaja started up, and by the time the offiicials got to Krsna Prasada’s papers they hardly looked at them. They just smiled, stamped his passport,t and let him through. All due to the magical charm of Govinda Maharaja.
We exited immigration and customs to a reception by a hundred blissful devotees. Among them were many children, eyes and hearts fiixed on me. It always amazes me that wherever I go there are often children waiting to see me. I have never seen them before, but they seem to know me. As we approached the assembly of devotees, an eight-year-old child approached me and stood next to me as we accepted garlands and flowers from the devotees. At one point he looked up at me. “You like kids, right?” he said.
Their spontaneous devotion reminded me of an incident with Srila Prabhupada in 1975 at the New Mayapur farm community in France. Srila Prabhupada was staying in the main building, an old chateau. One afternoon I was carrying my son, Gaura Sakti, who was only two or three years old at the time, around the chateau on my shoulders. Suddenly Srila Prabhupada appeared at the window of his room on the second floor.
“Srila Prabhupada!” Gaura Sakti called out. “Srila Prabhupada! Srila Prabhupada!”
Prabhupada smiled at him and waved. That evening at darsana, Srila Prabhupada mentioned the incident and remarked how the children of the community have so much affection for him, although they had never met him.
The Novosibirsk temple is an old kindergarten building with ample facilities for the devotees. They worked hard to secure the building, but it appears they may soon lose it. President Yeltsin recently signed a decree that buildings erected by the communist government as kindergartens must be used solely for that purpose. The devotees are considering opening a Hare Krsna kindergarten in part of the building.
There are about a hundred devotees in the Yatra actively preaching throughout Siberia with book distribution and Food for Life centers. This evening we had a three-hour kirtana in the temple room, leaving no time for class. While preparing to take rest I encountered the Siberian summer mosquitoes, as big as houses. I practically fainted when I saw them. But God’s grace was upon me. A a devotee who had just returned from India gave me a tube of the Indian Odomos insect repellent. To me it was worth its weight in gold.