Writings

I swam in it, and almost froze completely

Dear devotees and friends,

Please accept my blessings. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

I last wrote from Irkutsk, near the southern end of Lake Baikal (look at the map I have provided to see where it is), on May 11th. We stayed there for a few days, doing morning and evening programmes in the nice temple the devotees built there (you can also see a photo of the temple in the photos section), under the shelter of their beautiful Deities, Sri Sri Nitai Gauranga.

One of the days I went for the annual rest pilrimage to Baikal itself. Every year I go there for some hours to sit by the peaceful, pure waters, and chant. Baikal is one of the wonders of the world, about 750 kms long and about 50 kms wide. In its deepest parts it’s 1500 metres deep, and it contains 20% of the world’s unsalted water – more than 5 times the water in all the Great Lakes of USA/Canada put together.

The only problem is that it’s freezing cold. We flew over it on the way to Irkutsk from Ulan Ude, and on the eastern side I could see that there was still a lot of unmelted ice along the shores, and that was in May, coming close to mid-summer. Once, in July, mid-summer, I swam in it, and almost froze completely. It was amazingly cold. One good thing though is that this keeps it from becoming a big holiday resort place and being overrun with people.

It was a fairly nice day. The weather is warming up a little now. Some days before in Krasnoyarsk there had been a little snow, and when we landed in Irkutsk it was minus 4 degrees, but this day it was maybe plus 20, which is fine.

When you fly around here and there, they staff on the plane usually announce the temperature on the ground where you’re going to land. Usually they don’t say whether it’s minus or plus, but in Russia they always say whether it’s minus or plus, as it’s minus most of the time. There’s a saying in Siberia: “In Siberia the weather is cold 9 months of the year. The other 3 months it’s very cold.”

Every year different groups of devotees go to Baikal to rest for a few days, and Krishna Smaranam prabhu, the leader in Irkutsk, asked me to come with him and about 100 devotees next year from July 5th to 10th, so I agreed. We’ll have seminars there and chant japa and so on. If any of you want to come, please do! But please note it’s 2010, and not this year.

On the 15th morning we drove to Bratsk, an 8 hour plus drive to the north. I just sat in the car and chanted the whole way, sometimes watching the Russian countryside go by. You can also see where Bratsk is on one of the maps I’ve provided. In the Communist days sometimes the villages would get unusual names, connected with the Revolution and the hoped-for prosperity after it through industrial and agricultural development. We drove through one such little village on the way. Traktovaya. It means “The Place of Tractors”. Unfortunately it seemed that all the tractors had moved on to greener fields, and all we saw around the village were the usual black izbars (old Russian village houses), some of which had rusty satellite
dishes attached to  them.

Bratsk was nice, and we did programmes in the temple and in a hall. In the small hall programme there were maybe 20 new people, and everyone seemed to enjoy the programme.

We drove back to Irkutsk on the 16th, and then on Sunday the 17th we had a 3 hour mahakirtana programme in a rented hall in the town. About 200 devotees came and we had nice kirtana. The devotees in Russian, particularly in East Siberia, are very conservative when it comes to wearing devotee clothes, and this was no exception, with most of the men particularly wearing karmi clothes.

Last year, for the first time in many years, or maybe the first time ever, they started doing some harinamas in the streets during the summer, although many devotees would not go, out of fear of being persecuted by the police, but when they went out they found there was no persecution, but rather generally people like it, so now they’re going to develop the programme further. I urged them to take shelter of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda and take the chanting to the people more, and many agreed that this would be a good idea.

Subala and I then flew on Monday the 18th to Krasnoyarsk again. That evening Dharmananda prabhu took my passport to the Post Office to register me there, but when the people saw that I had been registering in Post Offices around the country they became angry and told him “it’s illegal! You can’t do this”.

Administratively Russia is an extremely inconsistent country, and no government authorities seem to know what the laws are, or rather they have different ideas what they are. Normally you’re meant to register in a place if you’ve been there three days, but some devotees have been arrested on the second day they’ve been in a place and fined with no explanations.

Usually the police are looking for bribes for themselves, as they’re not well paid, the same as in South Africa. When I was being driven from Johannesburg to Newcastle in South Africa a few weeks ago we were stopped by one African policeman, who told the driver, my disciple Namacarya prabhu, that for speeding he was going to be fined a of money. Namacarya got the feeling the man was looking for a bribe, so he took a chance and asked him “I don’t think I can pay a big fine, but do you accept donations?”

The man said “well, it’s all right with you.” Namacarya gave him 100 Rands ($10), and the man was happy.

So we didn’t know what to think. The Post Office people told Dharmananda he would have to go to the Immigration Services office the next morning, and made a big fuss about how it’s illegal to keep registering in Post Offices, and I was afraid I was going to be arrested and then thrown out of the country.

Fortunately when Dharmananda went to the Immigration office the next day they immediately registered me, and everything was ok for the time being.

Then on the 19th we drove south from Krasnoyarsk to Abakan, which is also shown on one of our maps, and that is where we are right now. Tonight there’s a public programme in a fancy hotel, so let us see how things go there.

Hoping this meets you well.

Your ever well wisher,

Bhakti Caitanya Swami

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