Living with the Hare Krishna

by Ahairytoe on August 30, 2011

I first arrived in South America two and a half years ago. I did a TEFL course in Cusco, Peru, and then inched my way up to Ecuador, where I fell in love and stayed for two years. For various reasons which I’m not going to go into now (amor, sweet amor), I needed to move on from Ecuador and found myself traveling Bolivia. What I really wanted was some time to think, to get some clarity about my life--the last time I spoke to my mother, she said “Well, you’re not getting any younger, dear, tick tock goes the biological clock."--and not resort to my normal self-destructive habits (poor me, poor me, pour me another drink). I typed into Google “yoga ashram Bolivia” and a place in Coroico came up. It said they offered classes in yoga and meditation, and three vegetarian meals a day for $7 and a few hours voluntary work in the garden or kitchen. No booze, cigarettes, meat, or caffeine.  It sounded just the ticket.

I got to La Paz and spent the morning running around collecting the items stated on the web page--sleeping bag, torch, book, notebook, and some herbal tea. I normally would have brought a bottle of vino tinto, but under the circumstances, tea seemed a more appropriate contribution. I jumped on a bus to Villa Fatima, and when I say “jumped," I really mean more like “crawled.” Having lived in Ecuador I was now carrying all the possessions one acquires in two years on my back. I rather resembled a snail that had yet to grow into its gigantic shell. It was a 40-minute bus ride out of town, and from there it’s a two and a half hour kombi van along The World’s Most Dangerous Road, named as such for the number of fatalities there are there every year, to get to Coroico.

Although the road has obviously improved in recent years, I did feel slightly on edge as it was chucking down in the rain, which did nothing to hamper our driver’s speed, nor his attention to his light snacks. He consumed four large packets of crisps and two packets of biscuits on the journey. The most nail-biting moment was when he lifted up his Oreo packet to tip the crumbs into his mouth, tilting his head back and completely closing his eyes while we skidded all over a road which annually sees over 100 fatalities. As it happens, we did, somehow, safely arrive in Coroico, and from there it’s another short but quite spectacular mini-bus ride to the ashram. The huge mountains covered in crops, mainly coca in this area, and trees proudly tower over you on both sides of the road and give you the sensation of being ever so small, like a tiny mosquito in this epic and ancient land.

Everything was silent when I arrived at the ashram. It was late afternoon. The sun was still hanging in the cloudless sky, and there were a few birds flying from tree to tree conversing with high-pitched tweets every now and then. One building was situated in the middle of the land, and to the right of it was a large vegetable patch, where I could just make out the first sprouting of some lettuce. I peered in through the open door of the building and saw mats on the floor; and several hangings on the walls of Buddha, Krishna, and some other men dressed in tunics. Against the farthest wall there appeared to be some kind of altar, but it was covered with a curtain. I walked round the back of the building and straight into La Madre. This is how we referred to her at the ashram, so I will continue to use this name here. La Madre and her husband, Prabu, were running the ashram at that time. They are Hare Krishnas from Colombia. La Madre has a childlike, friendly face with beautiful light, clear eyes. She showed me to my room and told me she would show me around once I had unpacked. I heaved off my enormous shell and began to unpack. The room was basic, just a small cushion on the floor, but the walls were painted a cheery yellow, and it had a large window which let in plenty of light. 

Later Maria showed me around the site which didn’t take too long as it’s quite small. She began the tour with the eco-toilet, a pit in the ground, covered with wooden planks with a hole where you do your business. She instructed me to put sawdust down the hole after each “deposit” and always cover the hole when finished, (to save any poor little animal falling in and spending its final hours in a poo pit). One thing that struck me about the hole was that it had a bit of tarp around it and a little roof but no door or sign saying "occupied." So anyone could come waltzing in or out as he or she pleased. I discovered over the next few weeks that the best tactic to ensure there would be no embarrassing mid-depository moments, was to make it obvious where you were going by waving toilet paper around or simply declaring your needs to all present.

My first day at the ashram was suitably calm and wonderful. I woke at 6:00am to the sound of La Madre and Prabu softly chanting and playing the bongos for Krishna. I drifted in and out of sleep along with their voices and the beat of the drum until 7:00am, when I got up to practice yoga with Prabu. I love practicing yoga and have practiced on and off for years. But if I’m completely honest, it was much more off than on. Prabu, on the other hand, has obviously been much more on. I huffed and puffed and creaked and cracked from one position to the other while he bended and stretched and slipped and flipped effortlessly through the routine.

After a hearty and healthy breakfast of homemade granola, fruits, and bean soup, we got to work in the garden. I was set the task of clearing the rocks and weeds from a patch of earth, where we would later plant some seeds. I got stuck in under the sweltering sun. The sand flies nibbled every naked inch of flesh, and by midday, I had yanked up a considerable pile of weeds. I sat outside the temple with Prabu while we peeled oranges that La Madre had given us, and he told me a little about some of the philosophy of Krishna. He explained that Krishna teaches not to kill anything. Not even a tiny ant? Not even a tiny ant. Krishna teaches that whatever you kill, you will come back as in your next life. It’s all karma. “You shouldn’t even kill a plant,” he told me, eyeing my giant pile of weeds lying forlorn and browning in the sun. “However there are mantras you can chant while you are working so that karma won’t be so harsh on you.” Well, he could have told me that before I single-handedly massacred a whole community of weeds. I’m definitely coming back as a weed. And in this way the days rolled by, with yoga and various chores in the garden in the mornings, lots of delicious vegetarian food and free time to read, or think or meditate or write in the afternoons.

The food at the ashram was delicious and incredibly healthy. Fruit, salad, beans, nuts, granola, and teas made from plants that grew in the garden such as hierba luisa. I felt really well physically while I stayed there with a healthy diet, exercise, and no smoking or drinking. But seriously, I’m not sure if it’s the change in diet or if vegetarians just accept this as the way things are, but I just could not stop going to the bathroom. I was getting through a roll of toilet paper a day which, in my view, ain’t very eco-friendly. There was no hot water at the ashram, so it was cold showers all round. Occasionally, I would wuss out and heat up a pan of water and wash with that, but most of the time, it was cold mountain water first thing in the morning. And even though I know it’s better just to jump in and not think about it, I’d always spend a good 10 minute standing there naked and shivering, dipping my toe in every now and again, imagining how cold that water was going to feel on my body.

One night during dinner, we got into a conversation about souls. “Souls are everywhere,” declared Prabu. “There is hundreds in this very room." I looked around the temple as if expecting to see a gang of glowing, flying faces bustling around each other. I felt a little shiver roll down my spine. “But what are they doing?” I asked in hushed tones. “They are looking for a body to climb into,” he said casually. Oh, is that all, just looking for dead bodies. He explained that when you sleep the souls can get into your head and your thoughts and this is partly where dreams come from. “That’s why it is important to always wash in the morning, to shake off all the souls that have clung to you in the night.” He informed me that when you dribble in the night, it means that a soul has taken over your mind. I pictured my soggy pillow from the morning and wondered what kind of soul had been toying with my dreams the night before.

I spent over two weeks at the ashram and would have stayed longer had I not run out of cash. There is no cash point in Coroico. I learned about all kinds of things there, from spirituality to what plants from the garden make a good tea, from how to make vegetarian snacks to Krishna’s likes and dislikes, including his favorite color, yellow. It gave me the time, space, perspective, and the peace I needed to continue my journey with a renewed strength in my body and mind. Hare Krishna!

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by Nicole
About 7 years ago

Hi - what was the name of the place you stayed? I'm looking for a similar experience in Bolivia!

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