The latest tour by ISKCON Youth Ministry saw youth help put on four Rathayatras in the Caribbean, and some become inspired to take on active roles in the Hare Krishna Movement.
A total of about twenty-five youth participated throughout the tour, with fourteen from around the US being joined by about five local youth in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Ages ranged from seventeen to twenty-four, with the tour running from December 14th to January 5th.
Three Rathayatras, organized by Bhadra Das from ISKCON Alachua, Florida, were held in the Dominican Republic – one in Puerto Plata, one in Santiago, and one in the capital city Santo Domingo; while a fourth was held in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.
“In Santiago, the indigenous people were really receptive and sweet,” says ISKCON Youth Minister Manorama Das. “Many joined in the Rathayatra and danced with us.”
In Santo Domingo, the parade route took devotees through the barrio, where thousands of people got to see Lord Jagannath and hear the kirtan, before ending with a festival in Parque Colon, the central square of the city’s historic district. And in San Juan, tourists thronged around the festival site, set up amidst the cruise ship terminals.
At all the Rathayatras, local devotees distributed prasadam and Prabhupada’s books; while the youth performed a Bhagavad-gita drama to a Spanish language audio track, Bharatanatyam dance, and a big kirtan onstage (which, in Santo Domingo, included local musicians on traditional Latin instruments like congas).
“There are only very few devotees on both Caribbean islands, so the local devotees really appreciated us,” says Manorama. “Which made us feel valued, like they really needed us.”
Manorama explains that the Rathayatra festivals were the highlight of the year for local devotees. “The Caribbean is a much under-utilized resource at the moment – we need more devotees to go there and spread Krishna consciousness,” he says.
Tour youth also performed several Harinamas on the streets of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. A highlight was the Harinama in old San Juan with Gaura Vani, which took place during a holiday music festival sponsored by a local brewery.
“The entrance to the festival was a giant fake Christmas tree, hollowed out at the base,” says Manorama. “We did Harinama inside the entranceway, and everyone who went in or out danced their way through the Harinama. It was quite something!”
During their stay in Puerto Rico youth also visited Plenitud Eco Farm, where husband and wife Vaishnava and Draupadi are trying to revitalize islanders’ interest in organic farming, and are teaching local college students and schoolchildren how to grow their own food.
While at Plenitud, ISKCON youth mingled and connected with a group of twelve visiting college students from South Dakota, most of whom had never heard of Hare Krishnas before, and who were very curious.
“We worked in the fields and did gardening together, and our group cooked prasadam for everyone, using locally grown vegetables such as taro root,” says Manorama. “We also did a cultural performance just for the college kids, where Ranganayaki danced Bharatanatyam, and then we had a kirtan with them. In the last twenty minutes, we were all dancing together, doing the train, and the tunnel, where everybody goes under eachother’s arms. The college kids really got into it, and had a fun evening with us.”
Of course, no visit to the Caribbean would be complete without some recreation. Between Harinamas and Rathayatras, youth visited a different beautiful beach nearly every other day, hiked through tropical rainforests, and discovered waterfalls with swimming holes such as Juan Diego waterfall in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque national rainforest.
“We also came across some interesting flora and fauna, like stick insects and katydids, who mimic leaves,” Manorama says. “We even fed prasadam to them!”
Other highlights of the tour included a six-hour New Year’s Eve kirtan at Puerto Rico’s only ISKCON temple in hilly Gurabo.
Deeply moved by the youth’s contribution to San Juan Rathayatra and more, longtime temple president Arisudana Das gave each one of them an appreciation present and said, “You young people could have gone anywhere on your winter holidays, but you chose to come to a poor country like Puerto Rico, with a very poor temple, and help us in our preaching.”
On the final evening of the tour, the group sat in a circle to share appreciations with each other. One experience commonly shared was how much U.S. and local youth enjoyed getting to know each other, and building strong friendships.
Also appreciated was the new emphasis on systematic daily study of the Srimad-Bhagavatam during the tour.
“They really appreciated those serious philosophical discussions we had,” Manorama says. “About focusing on becoming Krishna conscious in this lifetime, and living an extraordinary life. We really tried to make the point that these young people are so fortunate that they’re growing up in the Hare Krishna Movement, and that Prabhupada wanted them to be the future hope of ISKCON – not just ordinary congregation members who go about their business and come to the temple once a week on Sundays. But to take Krishna consciousness seriously, and think about how they can get involved and help in a missionary way, to take the movement to the next level.”
Many youth were deeply inspired by this discussion, as well as the experience of connecting with each other through service and preaching. In particular, Hari, the twenty-year-old son of Puerto Rico temple president Arisudana Das, committed in his heart to being a devotee of Krishna and active member of ISKCON.
“He decided, ‘That’s what I want to do – I want to be a devotee,’” Manorama says. “He wants to recommit, help his father, who has kept the temple alive for sixteen years, and get more serious. So the tour has really had an impact on the local youth.”
This year, tour organizers covered the expenses of local devotee youth in Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico from their own pockets, so that they could participate in the tour. Please help ISKCON Youth Ministry continue to change lives by donating at https://youthbustour.com/donate/