Of them, I had a vague memory from ten years ago. It was the summer of 2007, and I had moved to London for a couple of months, hoping to find some temporary job before starting my Erasmus in Barcelona.
During my fruitless searches in the touristy streets of the center, one day I saw a bunch of people dressed in white and orange, singing and dancing in some sort of parade. Curious, I got closer, and one invited me to follow them to their temple, where we all shared a delicious vegetarian lunch. After that, I joined them in the worship of their divinity, and I observed stupefied how they threw flowers, danced and sung as if under the effect of some drugs – or at least, that’s how they looked to me back then.
Ten years had to pass before our paths would cross again. Manuela, a German traveler I hiked the Colca Canyon with, told me about the Eco Truly villages and the possibility of staying as a volunteer.
The first temple in Chile is the Gour Mandal organic farm just outside Arica, at the border with Peru. I then decided to stop there for a couple of days on my way to San Pedro de Atacama, and find out more about this community.
I left one month later.
I arrived on a Saturday, the first of a two day retreat for women only. Madre Sriji welcomed me, and I happily joined the 5 women in the art room, where after a little introduction game, we started to create mandalas, a sort of personal amulet.
After the best vegetarian meal I had had in ages, we moved to the barroterapia– mudtherapy. Two more madres (this is how they call female devotees) joined us as we started to apply cold mud all over our faces and bodies. The seven of us then entered the temazcal, a sort of sauna built with mud. Madre Sriji purified our bodies with roses, and gave us some tobacco to throw in the fire after making our wishes.
One by one, we entered the temazcal and sat down. From outside, a prabhu (male devotee) would bring us big stones, the abuelitas (grannies, as they have the ancestral memory) that we would name according to qualities such as friendship, happiness, chastity, religion, forgiveness, compassion, etc.
After five stones, the door of the temazcal closed and Sriji started to pour scented water on them. At the end of the ceremony, we had to “pass four doors”. Every time the door opened, more stones were added, for a total of thirty stones. Every time we would name the abuelitas, and every time Sriji would pour water on them. Every time, the temperature would rise.
What happened in the temazcal is hard to describe. The increasing high temperature was causing something to rise. During the ceremony, we were asked to speak, pray or sing if we wished to, and it was as if my burning body and the absence of air was urging me to speak.
I could feel the energy of all those women sitting next to me, their pain being different from mine but at the same time all the same. Each of us confessed something, shared something, sang something. Someone prayed. A few cried. Each of us was so grateful for being there.
With the third door, the heat became unbearable, and I was tempted to leave. Two women left and the only ones left were the devotees and me. I could barely breathe, and when the door opened for the first time to let the last abuelitas in, I was desperately urging for some air. Madre Shaki Gan held my hand while I was trying to recover my breath.
We left the temazcal pronouncing the words “Pido permiso para nacer, por mí y todas mis relaciones”, as in a rebirth. The cold air hit my body like ice, but it was a welcome feeling, and I fell on the sandy floor looking at the incredibly starry sky, mesmerized.
Three hours had passed inside the temazcal without us even realizing. When I managed to catch my breath, I showered under the stars to remove the mud from my sweaty and shivering body.
The organic farm
This little community of only seven devotees lies just outside the city of Arica, in the Chilean desert. Their adobe buildings are bell-shaped in order to get closer to God. Glass bottles are recycled and used as a decorative item to bring more light to the environment.
The kitchen is a sacred place. You must wash your mouth before entering and it is strictly forbidden to try the food while cooking, or to eat or drink inside the kitchen. Before the food is served, it is offered to Krishna by repeating a mantra and usually playing a small bell. At the cry of “Prasada!” (the offered meal), the devotees gather around the dining table.
The Hare Krishna eat no meat, fish nor eggs, as the latter are considered “waste” from the chicken and therefore dirty. Also, they drink no alcohol, don’t smoke, bet nor have illicit sex.
At sunrise and sunset, they go to their temple and worship their deity. One of them is in charge of this action that, like all the other duties, is shared among the Hare Krishna.
The sound of a shell echoes all over the farm: it’s puja time. The deities have to wake up, too. It’s time to change their pajamas into shiny clothes and glittering crowns. It’s just like playing dolls: the devotees change their clothes, put on their wigs and feed them.
Every morning, a mini breakfast is prepared and brought to the deities in the temple: it’s the maha prasada, and it will then be shared among the devotees.
The Hare Krishna live in a community where all responsibility is shared. They take turns in cooking, cleaning, leading the ceremony etc. They earn money by selling vegetarian food or Vedic literature, organizing guided tours of the organic farm and providing accommodation and meals to tourists. The volunteering program is also a way to cooperate.
They lead a basic life aimed at elevating their souls. Their motto is: Vida simple, pensamiento elevado. They live according to the principles of love and non-violence.
Only five devotees were living at Gour Mandal when I arrived: Prabhu Hari Bakti, who is in charge of the farm, Madre Sriji and Prabhu Abinesh, Prabhu Jagad and Prabhu Nirupati. Madre Asraya joined a couple of weeks later with her son Kavirash.
From the very first moment, I felt a sudden need of being part of this peculiar community, and I was unconsciously trying to find an excuse to overlook the fact that I was far from sharing even their basic beliefs. My whole life, I have never felt as if I belonged to a group. I always got along with everyone, and could easily adapt to any group of people, but I never really belonged to any.
Seeing this small community working together for the same goal, supporting and motivating each other, was a great inspiration to me. I love the way they live, as a big family, in harmony with the environment, being selfless. I realized that traveling on my own has made me become quite selfish, and that I am no longer used to thinking about other people first. These weeks with the Hare Krishna, I learnt the importance of it.
Despite my different religious beliefs and hundreds of questions that someone may classify as highly inappropriate, they were always eager to answer my doubts. In the month I spent at Gour Mandal, I hardly left the temple. I easily got used to the monastic life, but once I left, I embraced the noises of the city as a welcomed return to “real life”.
The annual visit of Gurudeva, their spiritual master, ended my stay with the Hare Krishna community. His arrival is the reason why I stayed such a long time, and I was certainly extremely curious about meeting the person that every Hare Krishna worship more than their own fathers.
I had heard so much about him, that I came to worry about actually wanting to take initiation just by seeing him smile. Nothing like this happened, and I was actually quite disappointed. I do have to say, he had some incredible charisma when it came to singing in the temple. Devotees from Arica and the neighboring cities had come to Gour Mandal with the occasion of his visit, and the farm was as full as ever.
During Gurudeva’s visit, the temple turned into a concert hall. Dozens of shaved heads and colorful saris were moving at the sound of his voice, dancing the night off as if in a rock concert. No alcohol nor drugs were moving them: it was just the power of spirituality. I danced and sang with them, captivated by the words sang in an ancient language that they don’t want to be forgotten.
Five weeks later, I left the temple, and a family. I found in Madre Sriji, one of the most delightful human beings I have ever met, a friend and a confident. We used to spend hours and hours together every day, cooking, knitting and especially talking. Her husband Abinesh and her taught me most of the things I know about the Hare Krishna and their spirituality, but they also showed me that they’re “normal” people, who like to go to the beach and listen to reggae music.
I still can’t bring myself into believing in a blue God that has reincarnated into a half man-half lion being and who’s currently living in a different planet. But you know what? This has been one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.
Eco Yoga Villages website: www.ecoyogavillages.org
- Volunteers: The volunteers receive a therapy according to availability, and they help and learn by working in the bakery and in the vegetarian kitchen. Daily tasks may also include land maintenance, restoration or reconstruction of buildings, gardening, and art workshops. Volunteers are asked to contribute with a daily fee (around 10 USD) aimed at covering basic food and lodging expenses.
- Resident volunteers: People who live in the community and take on the responsibility of a more defined service for a longer period of time than a typical volunteer. This group of people assumes similar responsibilities to the permanent residents of the eco-village and also follows the rules imposed by the lifestyle of the residents. No contribution is asked.
How to get to Eco Truly in Arica:
From Arica, micros to Lluta pass in front of the Coca-Cola ball next to the Bus Terminal. A one-way ticket costs $1,000 – ask the driver to be let off at the Trulys.
Estimated travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
You have three options to cross the border from Tacna (Peru) to Arica (Chile): by bus, by train, or by colectivo.
- By bus: 12 S + 2 S departure tax. They leave very often from the bus terminal.
- By train: 15 S. The train leaves twice a day (6.30 AM and 4 PM) and has a capacity of 48 people.
- By colectivo: 20 S.