December 26, 2007 – January 10, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
Our festival programs continued successfully in the Sydney area. After performing there for two weeks, we flew to Melbourne for a three-day program in the prestigious, centrally located town hall auditorium. When we arrived to begin setting up early one morning the devotees were awestruck by the ornate architecture, spacious rooms, high ceilings and crystal chandeliers.
“We’ve never performed in a place like this,” one devotee exclaimed.
“It was completed in 1870,” said a friendly custodian who had overheard the comment. “We hold 3,500 special events a year here, including conferences, weddings and corporate launches. What sort of event will you be holding?”
“It will portray India’s spiritual culture,” I said. “We’ll be presenting dance, music, theater, yoga, martial arts and philosophy.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “A lot of people have been phoning in to ask about your event.”
That night the hall’s 400 seats were filled long before the festival began. We had to turn people away at the door.
“I can’t think of anything more unfortunate than having to turn people away from a show like this,” I said sadly to Gaura Hari dasa. “It can take lifetimes to come in contact with Krsna consciousness.”
Inspired by the impressive surroundings and enthusiastic crowd the devotees performed exceptionally well, as evidenced by the loud applause they received after each performance. But from time to time we could hear a small group of people laughing and joking. It wasn’t enough to cause a major disturbance, but I could see some devotees were distracted during their performances. During my lecture I lost my train of thought twice when the group started laughing. Because the hall was large and dimly lit during the show, it was difficult to pinpoint from where the disruption was coming. After some time, however, the disruptions stopped.
When the stage show finished people got up and left slowly. Many bought books and a number stayed around to ask questions. After everyone had left, Bhakta dasa, who helped organize the event, came up and said to me:
“Did you hear that rowdy group of people during the show?”
“I sure did,” I replied.
Bhakta started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
“It was a group of people who brought one of their friends as a joke. It was her birthday and they didn’t tell her where they were taking her.
“During the first half of the show they all laughed and made fun of everything. But as the performance went on they became more and more interested. After a while they just fell in love with us and thoroughly enjoyed everything. The lady whose birthday it was told me it was the best birthday she ever had.”
After Melbourne we returned to Sydney for several days of harinama leading up to New Year’s Eve. But the weather was terrible. It rained every day. When it came time to leave for the east coast the devotees were relieved. They’d heard about the semi-tropical weather in Queensland and northern New South Wales.
“We’ll have some great festivals up there,” I told them. “It’s summertime and hundreds of thousands of people will be on vacation.”
On the way to the airport I asked the driver to turn on the radio so I could listen to the national weather report. I was shocked when I learned that a cyclone was passing near Queensland causing unprecedented rain and wind for the time of year.
Sure enough, as our flight from Sydney proceeded northeast we were soon greeted by ominous dark clouds. Strong winds shook the plane violently as we landed in Coolangatta. The rain poured as we drove from the airport to our new base, the New Govardhana community.
“How will we do harinama in this rain and advertise our festivals?” I asked the devotee who had come to pick us up.
“The rain isn’t the biggest worry,” he said. “The most serious problem is the risk of flooding. We’ve had a drought here for several years. With rain like this, there’s a good chance the rivers and streams will flood. If that happens, you won’t be going anywhere. ”
To get to New Govardhana, we had to cross a bridge over a small river. When we arrived I was shocked to see the fast-flowing river only a few centimeters below the bridge.
As our group of 17 devotees settled into their accommodation that evening, the rain continued incessantly. Because of the force of the storm I woke up three times during the night.
Despite the inconvenience caused by the weather, we were determined to push ahead with our first festival in Byron Bay. After breakfast we got into a hired bus and drove down to the river. The water was already flowing freely over the bridge.
“We can cross over now,” said the driver. “But I don’t know if we’ll be able to cross back again when we return.”
“Don’t worry,” said a local devotee. “Usually the bridge just floods for an hour or two.”
The driver looked at me as we poised on the edge of the river. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. “Let’s take a chance and go to Byron Bay,” I said finally. “The festival is too important.”
The rain got still heavier as we headed towards the beach resort. “If this keeps up we won’t be able to give out a single invitation,” said Gaura Hari. “And no publicity means no guests.”
Suddenly, the driver’s cell phone rang. His eyes widened as he listened. He then hung up and turned to face us.
“That was my friend in Murwillumbah. He says the State Emergency Services (SES) has issued a typhoon warning. They’ve asked all hotels in the region to vacate in preparation for flood relief victims.”
“Flood relief victims,” I said incredulously, “in Australia?”
“My friend told them that you are planning to hold a festival in Byron Bay,” the bus driver continued, “and that you’re on the way to advertise it. The SES said you should turn around immediately and go back to your community. The advice is to pack up your stuff and get out of the area fast.”
The driver was about to turn around when I said, “Wait.”
He stopped turning and continued to drive slowly in the direction of Byron Bay, waiting for my decision. I thought about the consequences of cancelling the festival. “We’ve come all the way from Europe at great expense,” I thought. “It was hard enough turning people away at the Melbourne festival. How can we cancel an entire show? We’ll just have to make adjustments if the weather gets worse. And who knows? The weather forecasters are often mistaken.”
The driver said impatiently, “So shall I turn around?”
“No,” I replied. “Take us to Byron Bay. We’ll do a quick harinama and then drive back to the farm and reassess the situation.”
When we reached Byron Bay the rain had still not let up. I looked out the bus window and saw that despite the bad weather a few people were still shopping and taking shelter under the eaves protruding from the roofs of the shops whenever there was a downpour.
“OK everybody, out of the bus,” I yelled. “We’ll chant under the eaves and distribute invitations from there.”
Devotees quickly gathered the drums, karatalas, banners and invitations. Jumping out into the rain, they made their way to the protected areas on the sidewalk. The short journey from the bus to the covered area left them completely soaked.
“Bad move,” I said to myself.
We chanted for 20 minutes, but fearing that everyone would get sick I
ordered the devotees back in the bus.
“How many invitations did we do?” I asked Santi Parayana dasa.
“About 300,” he replied.
“Gosh, in Poland we distribute 10,000 a day before our festivals,” I said. “I’ll be surprised if anyone comes tomorrow.”
On the way back to New Govardhana, a devotee received a call from the SES that the bridge to our property was submerged under 2 meters of water.
“How will we get on to the property?” said Gaura Hari.
“The bridge has flooded many times,” replied a local devotee. “In the past, we would go to our neighbor, James, and ask him if we could cross through his property to our land. The problem is that he’s a bit temperamental. He has often refused us. Maybe our temple president, Ajita dasa, can convince him to let us cross over this one time.”
“Give Ajita a call,” I said.
Half and hour later Ajita called back.
“James said we can cross over his land, but not with the bus. He said only one car can cross; the rest of the devotees have to walk.”
We packed as many women as possible into one of the cars accompanying us, and the rest of us rolled up our dhotis and saris and sloshed through the mud and driving rain for more than an hour to get to the farm. By the time we arrived we were completely soaked and utterly exhausted.
“Well, we made it,” said Santi Parayana as he sneezed. “The problem is, how to get out tomorrow for the festival.”
“What festival?” another devotee quipped. “We gave out only a couple of invitations.”
“Maybe tomorrow will be better weather!” Santi Parayana shot back.
“OK you guys. Don’t argue,” I said. “You’re tired and hungry. Let’s have some prasadam and take rest. We’ll decide what to do tomorrow.”
The next morning I woke up early and immediately went down to the river. Although it was still dark I could see the waters were still rising.
“This looks serious,” I thought. “At this rate the river may even flood James’s land. We should get out of here as quickly as possible if there’s any hope of doing the festival.”
I called Ajita. “I have to get my people out of here immediately. Can you ask James if we can cross his land again?”
“I’ll take him some hot prasadam,” said Ajita. “And I’ll offer to put some gravel down on his road after the storm. That should work. How many people do we need to move out?”
“Seventeen,” I replied. “The bus will be waiting for us on the other side of the river.”
An hour later Ajita showed up in a four-wheel drive jeep.
“I told James about your program and he gave in,” he said. “He’s agreed for us to take four jeeps across his property this morning. And we can drive them back through tonight when the festival is finished.”
Although we’d found a solution to one difficulty, we still faced the problem of how to advertise the festival. It was raining even harder than the previous day. We drove through James’s property in the jeeps, boarded the bus and headed for Byron Bay, driving at a snails pace through the storm.
After all we’d been through a couple of devotees became despondent.
“What kind of summer is this?” one of them said exasperated. “The winter weather back in Ukraine is better than this! ”
When we arrived in Byron Bay, we let out the devotees who were going to set up the hall. The rest of us waited in the bus for the rain to ease. We waited and waited.
After an hour, I had fallen asleep. One devotee nudged me, “Maharaja! Maharaja! The rain has stopped.”
Taking a cloth, I wiped the bus window and looked outside. No rain.
“OK troopers,” I yelled. “Move out!”
“Sounds like the army,” laughed one devotee.
“It is,” I said. “It’s Lord Caitanya’s army.”
Within moments, we were moving down the street chanting and dancing with abandon, taking advantage of every dry moment. We all knew it was only a short respite in the storm, so we gave it all we had. The people of the town also took advantage of the break in the weather and came out in huge numbers. The deserted streets were suddenly full of people.
I don’t think any sankirtan party in the history of ISKCON distributed so many invitations in such a short time. In exactly 60 minutes we covered the entire downtown area twice. And just as we gave out the last invitation, as if on cue the thunder clapped and the lightening streaked across the sky. As the rain came pouring down, everyone – shoppers and devotees alike – ran for cover. A few minutes later we were back in our bus soaking wet, but ecstatic.
“Well done prabhus!” I said.
When we arrived at the festival hall, I held a short meeting.
“I know you’re tired and wet,” I said to the devotees. “But I want you to tolerate the discomfort and fix your mind on the program tonight. We may get five people or 50 people. It doesn’t matter. Whatever fortunate souls come through those doors, we want to give them the best presentation of Krsna consciousness we can.”
In retrospect, I think the Lord wanted to reciprocate with the austerities those devotees underwent. That night 460 guests flooded into the hall when we opened the doors as the festival began.
“Good Lord,” I said as they rushed for the best seats. “So many people have come!”
It was one of our best shows ever. Afterwards, people thanked us profusely as they stepped back into the pouring rain.
But the happiest of all were the devotees.
“It was worth every minute in the rain,” said Santi Parayana with a smile.
On the way home, I asked a devotee to call the SES. “Ask them what the situation is around our farm,” I said. “We need to know where we can meet the vehicles that are supposed to take us back on to our property.”
The devotee made the call, and then grimly announced, “Bad news Maharaja. The river has risen even further. Emergency services are evacuating people from their homes. Roads have been turned into lakes and some bridges have been washed away. It’s impossible to get within 5 kilometers of the farm.”
“It sounds serious,” I said. “But let’s try to get as close to the farm as we can.”
We were able to drive to Murwillumbah, the town closest to the farm, but no further.
“Where are we going to stay tonight?” asked Santi Parayana. “We can’t all sleep in the bus.”
“Tirtharaj dasa has gone to inquire from one of the motels if there are any rooms free,” I said.
“But all the hotels and motels have been vacated for flood relief victims,” said Santi Parayana.
I paused for a moment. “Correct,” I said. “That means you and me. We’re now officially flood relief victims.”
Santi Parayana fell silent.
Ten minutes later Tirtharaj came back with good news.
“The motel can take all of us, but we’ll have to cram in eight people per room. There are a lot of other people who’ve taken shelter in this motel.”
“We could try the next town over,” I said.
“No chance,” said Tirtharaj. “The river has overflowed its banks and there’s no way in or out of this town, at least not for now.”
That night the rain pounded down so hard I couldn’t sleep again. Wanting to see if the severe weather conditions were in the news, I plugged in my computer to the broadband connection next to my bed. I was shocked by what I read on the BBC website:
“Thousands of people have been stranded by some of the worst flooding eastern Australia has seen in 20 years. Entire towns in Queensland and northern New South Wales have been cut off, while rising flood waters have forced hundreds to leave their homes.
“In some areas, food and other essential supplies have been brought in by helicopter for trapped residents. People in isolated areas could remain cut off for up to a week.”
A map showed that the hardest hit area was around Murwillumbah.
Early the next morning, the radio news report told us that the Federal Government had declared the entire region a natural disaster area. And more bad weather was on the way.
Despite their grim predicament, the devotees were in a light mood. We had beaten all odds and had a successful festival. Although we were in a disaster zone, it felt more like an adventure to write home about.
Then we got a call from Ajita, who sounded grave.
“Maharaja,” he said, “New Govardhana was hit hard by the flooding last night. Twelve of our cows were swept away by flash floods and we lost four acres of crops and much of our fencing. It’s a real disaster.”
When I told the devotees about the cows, everyone became silent. One of the ladies started to cry.
Gaura Hari attempted to get everyone back on track. “We’ve got another festival two hours from here the day after tomorrow,” he said. “Somehow we have to get our things from the farm and move on.”
The devotees looked at him in disbelief.
“That’s impossible” said one devotee. “All roads into the town are flooded.”
“We should use our brains,” he said. “There’s a solution to every problem.”
“I just heard an update on the local news,” said another devotee. “They say the flood will recede for a couple of hours at low tide around 5pm. The local river flows into the nearby ocean and is affected by the tide. It may be possible to drive out of town at that time via the northern exit.
“If we can somehow get our things brought here from the farm by 5pm, we might be able to drive north to Brisbane, where the weather is OK. From there we could go and do the next festival.”
I called Ajit and asked if he could pack up our things, put them in the jeeps and drive through the floodwaters to our hotel.
“If the water’s not too high,” he replied.
By that time it was 9am and everyone was hungry. One of the men offered to go to the nearby convenience store and buy some fruit and nuts.
Suddenly Tirtharaj’s cell phone rang. It was a local Indian family who lived not far from the motel. They were inviting us for lunch. A big cheer came up from the devotees.
While we were taking prasadam hours later, Ajita arrived at the house with the jeeps.
“I’ve got bad news,” he said. “All the belongings of the men, including their computers, ipods, cameras and money were found under water. The house where they were staying on the farm flooded.”
The men sat there in silence, contemplating their loss.
“Finish prasadam quickly,” I said to break the mood “and get back in the bus. We’ve got about 45 minutes to get out of town while the flood waters recede a bit.”
There was no need to say more. Within 10 minutes everyone was in the bus, ready to go.
All of them slept the three hours to Brisbane. I didn’t bother waking them, knowing they needed the rest. The next day they’d be back on the street for four hours of harinama, and the day after that there would be another festival.
“They really are troopers,” I thought, looking at them proudly as they slept. “They’re as good as any soldiers I’ve ever met. And one day they’ll be rewarded for all the sacrifices they’re making to spread the sankirtan movement of Lord Caitanya. They’ll be blessed with love of God. Of that there is no doubt.”
“So try to spread this Krsna consciousness movement. This is your sadhana, execution of austerity, penance. You have to meet so many opposing elements. That is tapasya. You are tolerating so much botheration and so much inconvenience, personal discomfort; everything sacrificed. But it will not go in vain. Rest assured. It will not go in vain. Krsna will, I mean to say, reward you sufficiently. You go on executing this Krsna consciousness.”
[ Srila Prabhupada lecture, Los Angeles, November 15, 1968 ]