Chapter 21: A Little Corner of Hell

A Little Corner of Hell

Volume 6 , Chapter 21

| N O V E M B E R   1 6 – D E C E M B E R   2 5 ,   2 0 0 5   |

After the Ratha-yatra in Buenos Aires and a week of preach- ing programs around the city, I was visited by a devotee with a message from Gunagrahi Maharaja: could I visit the ISKCON temples in Chile and Paraguay?

I hesitated for a moment, only because I was trying to figure out where Paraguay was. I finally gave up. I turned to the messenger to agree, but before I could say anything, he handed me an airline ticket. “You leave the day after tomorrow,” he said.

The exchange brought a smile to my face. It reminded me of a soldier receiving new orders from his superiors. In fact, Srila Prabhupada sometimes compared the expansion of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement with a military exercise.

Just as Arjuna and Krsna were victorious in the Battle of Kuruk- setra, this Krsna consciousness movement will surely emerge victorious if we remain sincere devotees of the Lord and serve the Lord according to the advice of the predecessors.

[Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 4.79, purport]

So with my new orders in hand, I happily boarded a flight to Santiago late in November. The prospect of visiting new preaching fields is always exciting for a traveling preacher, not because of a love of tourism but because of the opportunity to share Krsna conscious- ness with others.

The material world holds little interest for a devotee of the Lord. In fact, as my flight descended over the Andes near Santiago and circled the city, I didn’t even bother looking out the window, un- like many of the other passengers. I was certain the city would look much like many others I’d seen during the past 35 years. Globaliza- tion has brought the same stores, fashions, and advertising to prac- tically every country in the world. Indigenous cultures are quickly disappearing, giving way to a common world order. By the grace of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, only the places of the Lord’s pastimes, such as the town of Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna ap- peared, remain dear to my heart.

There are surely many cities throughout the world, each of them blessed by My presence in the form of a presiding Deity who can satisfy the minds of devotees like you. But, my dear friend, I swear to you again and again and with all sincerity, that none brings as much joy to My heart as this humble cow- herd village.

[Krsna speaking to Uddhava, Uddhava-sandesa, Text 8]

Several devotees picked me up at the airport and drove me to the temple in the center of the city. After a short reception I was taken upstairs to my room, where I asked about the schedule for my visit. I was surprised when the devotees told me they were having a Ratha-yatra festival the next day.

In the morning, all of us assembled outside the temple, where a group of devotees were putting the finishing touches on the huge Ratha cart. There were more than 300 devotees, including congrega- tion and friends. Most of them were teenagers.

“Many young people in Santiago are attracted to Krsna con- sciousness,” said Adi Keshava, the temple president. “Every year we make 10 to 15 new devotees. It’s like the early years of the move- ment in America, but here it’s been going on for decades.”

I was impressed. The mood was upbeat and exciting. Suddenly someone blew a conch, and 40 or 50 youngsters picked up the ropes and started running down the street. As the cart raced off I broke into a jog to keep pace.

“Just their youthful enthusiasm,” I thought to myself. “They’ll slow down in a minute.”

But the pace increased, and my jog turned into a run as the gigantic cart screeched around a corner, barely missing the parked cars.

Hundreds of young devotees were leaping and dancing all over the road. Muscular boys played fast, powerful beats on mrdangas as the kirtan leader chanted loudly, sweating profusely in the warm summer air and smiling broadly.

After thirty minutes and five city blocks, I realized the devotees had no intention of decreasing their speed, so I slowed down to a walk and fell behind.

An hour later the cart turned and raced around another corner, then turned again and headed down a street parallel to the one from which we’d come. I cut through a side street and suddenly found myself at the front of the parade.

“Maharaja,” said the kirtan leader, handing me the microphone, “you lead.”

“Okay,” I said smiling, “but I can’t sing and run at the same time.”

I slowed the parade and led for 20 minutes. Then I handed the kirtan back to the previous singer, who immediately broke into a fast tempo and raced off with the devotees and cart down the street.

As I looked around, I saw people enjoying the sight. “It’s a fast- track festival of mercy,” I thought. Then I took a shortcut to the festival grounds and waited for the parade to arrive.

An hour later the procession approached the park at a normal speed, with a good-sized crowd of young people following. A few minutes later I gave an introductory lecture about Krsna conscious- ness from the festival stage and noticed a number of teenagers listen- ing attentively, mesmerized by the philosophy. “All right,” I thought. “If racing with Lord Jagannath through the streets of Santiago is what it takes to bring those kids to the threshold of spiritual life, so be it.”

The only drawback was that the next morning I was so sore I could hardly get out of bed.

Some of the students came to the lectures I gave in the temple over the next few days, and I was happy to introduce them to Krsna consciousness. In fact, I was enjoying myself so much that I was taken by surprise one morning when a devotee reminded me that I had a flight that day to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay.

As I hurriedly packed my gear I found myself again wondering, “Where in the world is Paraguay?”

I arrived at the airport an hour early, and after passing through immigration, I sat at the boarding gate for the first leg of my trip: a flight to Asuncion. I relish such moments, as they are the only time I have to myself. I use them to catch up on correspondence, read, or chant extra rounds.

But this time, I opened my computer, linked it to a wireless connection, and did a quick Google search on Paraguay. I selected the U.S. Department of State’s consular information site. As I read the information, I started to feel uneasy: “Travelers outside the capital, Asuncion, should consider seeking travel agency assistance, as satisfactory or adequate tourist facilities are very limited in major cities and almost nonexistent in remote areas.”

“Why do tourists even bother going there?” I wondered. “Most urban streets consist of cobblestones over dirt,” the website continued. “Some roads in Asuncion and other large cities are paved. However, these roads frequently develop potholes that often remain in a state of disrepair. Nearly all rural roads are unpaved.”

“My gosh,” I thought, “it’s even worse than Russia during the communist era.”

“Crime has increased in recent years with criminals often tar- geting those thought to be wealthy. U.S. citizens have on occasion been the victims of assaults, kidnappings, robberies, and rapes. Un- der these circumstances, U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Paraguay should be aware of their surroundings and security at all times.”

“Wow!” I said out loud.

“U.S. citizens should avoid large gatherings or any other event where crowds have congregated to demonstrate or protest. Such ac- tivities have resulted in intermittent road closures, including major routes traveled by tourists and residents. U.S. citizens who encoun- ter roadblocks should not attempt to continue the planned travel or to confront those at the roadblock.”

I made a mental note: “Avoid roadblocks.”

As I continued to read, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision in going to Paraguay.

“Organizations providing financial support to extremist groups operate in Ciudad del Este and several high-profile kidnappings for ransom have occurred.”

“Avoid kidnappings,” I thought, half joking with myself. “Armed robberies, car thefts, and home invasions are common in both urban and rural areas. Street crime, including pick-pocket- ing and mugging, is prevalent in the cities, particularly during the evening hours in the vicinity of hotels and airports.”

“Better be careful when I land in Ciudad del Este,” I thought. “Americans living or traveling in Paraguay are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration website and to obtain updated information on travel and security within Paraguay.”

I immediately registered my travel plans on the website.

As the boarding announcement started, I quickly consulted an- other website. It confirmed what the U.S. State Department’s site had said: “An unruly region of convergence of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, Ciudad del Este is a place of money laundering, smug- gling, arms and illegal narcotics, trafficking for extremist organiza- tions and a major location of illicit production of cannabis.”

“Anyway, no reason to be discouraged,” I thought. “Experience has shown that such places often present the best opportunities for preaching.”

After a two-hour flight we landed in Asuncion, where I imme- diately transferred to a connecting flight to Ciudad del Este. After take-off, a stewardess made an announcement in Spanish. I could catch only a few sentences, something about three stops on the way to Buenos Aires.

“How will I know which stop is Ciudad del Este?” I thought.

I called the stewardess. “Habla ingles?” I said in my best Span- ish. “Do you speak English?”

“No, Señor,” she replied, rushing off to her duties.

I soon fell asleep and woke up abruptly 45 minutes later as the flight was landing. Groggy from sleep, I grabbed my hand luggage and quickly got off the flight. I was the only passenger to alight. As I was walking towards the terminal I suddenly realized I wasn’t sure if the flight had actually landed in Ciudad del Este. I looked at the terminal building, but the sign on it didn’t mention anything about Ciudad del Este.

I presented my passport at immigration. “Is this Cuidad del Este?” I asked the officer. Either he couldn’t understand English or he thought I was mad, because he just shook his head and laughed, stamping my passport and waving me forward.

I had only hand luggage, so I quickly walked towards the exit to meet the devotees outside. Along the way I was surprised to see a sign in English, and I stopped to read it.

“Warning! Dengue fever prominent in this area. Transmitted by mosquitoes, it is found mainly in urban areas and around human dwellings. Take all necessary precautions.”

“One more thing to watch out for,” I thought as I walked out the door. But as the automatic doors closed behind me, I realized there was nobody there to meet me. I broke out in a cold sweat. “Maybe Cuidad del Este was the next stop,” I thought.

I pulled out my cell phone to make a call, but the there was no connection. I decided to wait, and I sat down on the curb. At that moment a group of 10 or 15 taxi drivers approached me. “Habla ingles?” I said. “Is this Ciudad del Este?”

They laughed. Some said “Si.” Some said “No.”

Immediately all of them moved in and surrounded me. I knew I was in trouble. When I tried to stand up, one of them shoved me back down. The next moment I saw my computer bag being picked up and I grabbed it tightly. Off to my left I saw my Deity box be- ing dragged away and I quickly caught it as well. As the men moved around me, I jostled to keep my bags by my side. Suddenly, a van pulled up and I saw devotees inside. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, the taxi drivers disappeared into the darkness.

“Everything okay?” said a devotee.

“Couldn’t be better,” I said. “You guys arrived just in time.” “How do you like Paraguay?” another devotee asked as I got

into the car.

“So far it’s everything I expected,” I replied.

I was a bit shaken by the incident at the airport, and I was silent as we drove through the night to a small temple on the outskirts of the city. As the van bounced along the cobblestone streets I tried to study the scene outside, but it was too dark. I imagined it would look much like what I’d read—poor, undeveloped, and rampant with crime.

When we arrived a small group of devotees received me, and I then retired to my room. I lay down on my bed, exhausted. It was hot and humid, so I didn’t cover myself until the mosquitoes discov- ered me. Then I wrapped myself up, preferring to swelter under the covers rather than risk Dengue fever.

“A little corner of hell,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.

That night I dreamed that the taxi drivers kidnapped me at the airport, threw me in the back of a taxi, and drove away. They sent a message to ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission that it had 24 hours to pay a ransom of two million dollars. The GBC wrote back that it couldn’t pay because too many temples were in debt. As the kidnappers prepared to kill me, a host of angels appeared in the sky and started singing, scaring away my kidnappers.

I woke up sweating.

“Was it a dream?” I thought, groggy from sleep.

“Of course it was,” I said out loud, sitting up in the darkness. Suddenly I heard the angels singing again. I quickly got out of bed and opened the door of my room. A flood of early morning light entered. I walked outside, and the singing became louder.

A devotee approached me. “Good morning, Maharaja,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Where is that singing coming from?” I asked.

“There’s a Christian school just behind the wall of your room,” he said. “All morning the children sing beautiful Christian hymns.”

“Bless those little angels,” I said as I went to take my shower.

Later I walked to the front of our property and was amazed to see a beautiful landscape of simple homes set in serene subtropical foliage.

“Everything OK, Maharaja?” asked a brahmacari.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m fine. “It’s just that I didn’t expect this. I mean it wasn’t in the reports I read. It’s all so beautiful.”

On the way back to my room, I was surprised to meet a God- brother of mine, Jagajivan dasa.

He’d told me he’d been preaching in Paraguay for many years and had established a temple in Asuncion. I could only admire his determination.

I asked him what programs had been arranged for my three-day visit.

“At two o’clock this afternoon you’re on national television,” he said smiling.

As we drove to the temple’s vegetarian restaurant downtown, where the interview was to take place, we passed a crowded area near the River Padana. I noticed a large bridge crossing the river. There was a high fence along both sides of the bridge.

“Why is there such a large fence on the bridge?” I asked Jaga- jivan.

“So smugglers don’t throw goods off the bridge and float them downstream to Brazil,” he replied.

“I read about that smuggling,” I said.

“Let’s take a quick drive over the bridge,” Jagajivan said. “It’s a good vantage point for seeing the city.”

As we neared the bridge we were suddenly caught in heavy traf- fic. After a few minutes, we weren’t moving.

“Is this normal?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He rolled down the window to ask some nearby vendors what was happening.

“They said the bridge is blocked by a demonstration,” he said. “We’ll wait it out.”

I immediately remembered the advice of the U.S. Department of State about roadblocks.

“No,” I said. “Let’s turn around and go to the restaurant. We don’t want to be late for the interview.”

Along with national television, there was national radio and several prominent newspapers waiting for us when we arrived. It turned out to be more like a press conference. “This would be very difficult to arrange in Europe,” I thought. “It’s one of the advantages of preaching in a place like this.”

The next day devotees told me they had arranged two lectures at a local university. I was thrilled by the prospect.

As it turned out, however, the university was a combined grade school and high school. The first class consisted of 200 children, 8 to 10 years old. As they sat staring at me, I tried to explain the basic philosophy of Krsna consciousness in the simplest terms. But their attention span lasted only a few minutes, and soon most of them were talking among themselves, so I started discussing something they might better understand: kindness to animals.

I was trying to tell them that animals have souls when I noticed a little girl about 9 years old in the front row listening intently. When I said that we should not be cruel to animals, I saw a tear glide down her face. I decided to direct my talk to her alone. When I said that all creatures are part of one spiritual family, her face lit up.

When the recess bell rang, all the other children jumped up and rushed outside, but the girl sat still for a moment, reflecting on what she’d heard. Then she slowly got up and left.

After the break, a group of 300 high-school students entered. I asked Jagajivan prabhu to speak to them. A different scenario un- folded as the students listened intently to his talk.

Suddenly, I saw the little girl from the previous group enter the classroom and walk quietly along the back of the hall and down one side to take her previous seat in front. She immediately became absorbed in the lecture.

After half an hour, Jagajivan prabhu ended his talk and asked me to lead kirtan. I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted the little girl to experience the bliss of Krsna consciousness. As I taught the students the mantra, I saw her repeating it carefully, word for word.

As I started singing, many of the students stood up and started to dance. Perhaps intimidated by the older children, the little girl remained her in chair, but chanted with a concentrated look on her face.

The kirtan became more ecstatic, and other students joined the dancing. At one point they all formed a single line weaving through the classroom. After a while I looked at my watch and realized we’d gone way over our time limit, but when I stopped the kirtan all the students started screaming for more.

I had no choice to but to start again. The campus was small, and I imagined the whole student body hearing the kirtan. I looked through the window across the yard into other classrooms, and I saw students swaying in their seats as they concentrated on their studies. About an hour later I brought the kirtan to a close and glanced at the little girl. She was still in her seat, smiling and radiant, relishing the nectar of the holy names. “She’s Yours now my Lord,” I thought. “Please guide her to Your lotus feet.”

After a few moments she glanced at her watch, jumped up, and quickly ran towards the exit. When she reached the door she stopped, turned around, and smiled at me, a look of deep apprecia- tion in her eyes. Then she was gone.

When all the children had left I sat down and quietly reflected on how I’d been apprehensive about coming to Paraguay. Shaking my head, I looked upward and laughed. “Good Lord,” I said, “You can send me to hell anytime you wish, as long as I can hear the an- gels sing and there are souls like that little girl eager to chant Your holy names.”

narayana para sarve na

kutascana bibhyati


api tulyartha-darsinah

Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.

[Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.17.28]