I was in the kitchen with Druva, a young and well-travelled Colombian monk. We were preparing lunch – a feast of vegetarian food – for the other community inhabitants and volunteers. I had been prepped on proper kitchen conduct, which included never tasting the food (the first mouthful is for Krishna himself) and washing my mouth thoroughly with water before re-entering the kitchen if I had left the room to have a drink.
This was Finca Vrindavan, a little ashram based near Rio Negro, Ecuador (along the route from Baños to Tena) set in an isolated, lush, tropical setting. With focus on vedic philosophy, bhakti yoga and ecological principles, this place sounded like a perfect stop off from the backpacker trail.
‘You do know it’s a Hare Krishna place’, said the hostel owner before I left from Baños. I had guessed it would be. Whenever I had researched yoga ashrams in South America, they seemed to be run by Hare Krishna devotees. An older Canadian woman was concerned that I was going to be brainwashed by a forceful cult. ‘Aren’t you worried?’ she asked me. I wasn’t. I was curious and happy to go and do yoga in the jungle with some interesting people.
Arriving in Rio Negro, I was approached by Druva (Peruvian Druva, not Colombian monk Druva… I know, it’s confusing!), a gentle and welcoming character who shared a taxi ride up to the finca along with Rachel, an American resident of the community. Also going by the name Vrindavan Jardin Ecologico, this place has a few simple, pretty, wooden houses and a temple dotted around what feels like a bit of a spiritual, eco village.
Inside one of the huts up some stairs was my room. It was basic: a bunk bed, a wooden shelf, a window with a missing pane. Things felt a bit tired and unkempt. I learned that this estate was under a state of regeneration and repair; the dust in the buildings and vast blankets of weeds on the ground were confirmation of this.
The first evening I decided to go along to the 6:00pm ceremony which started with kirtan, a call-and-response chanting led by Colombian Druva, the rest of the attendees clapping and playing various instruments. We sat on a floor of woven reed mats in front of a decorative shrine with an ornately crafted wooden frame whilst Druva sang from a homemade pulpit style set-up.
Following on from this, he rang a bell and chanted in front of the altar, addressing the Krishna deity directly, before drawing the heavy red curtains and retreating to the side and deciding on the night time clothing for the statue. Whilst the rest of us sang along with an accordion style pull and push instrument, Colombian Druva disappeared behind the curtain to change the clothes and then gently placed the idol of Krishna into a crib. I found the attention and care given to this process, if I’m honest, quite bizarre, but then my own agnosticism and ignorance to this religious strand won’t have helped.
The final part of the ceremony involved Peruvian Druva reading from the Bhagavad-gita, an extended activity due to the constant translations from Sanscrit into Spanish and English. It was interesting, focusing primarily on the beliefs associated with karma. The analogy of carrying a ‘backpack’ of suffering through life was used to highlight how we each can truly feel the immediate effects of karma, but that by behaving with love and consideration for others (and not the self) we can lighten this heavy load. I also liked the concept that full renunciation of the modern world and materialism was not a prescription of the teachings, but rather that working with and using what you do have as a way to reach out to others is hugely effective.
So, back to the cooking. I had opted to help out in the kitchen whilst some others laboured away in the garden, clearing weeds and revealing streams and creating pathways. The change in that little section of the garden was incredible. It proved that with more help and perseverance, this place could be restored to its former glory. There were, however, a few grumbles from a few volunteers about the usefulness of some of the activities and who felt that more purposeful and structured work was needed.
Finca Vrindavan definitely isn’t a place that will suit everyone. The Hare Krishna element is not compulsory and there is no push to make you into a believer, so hopefully the religious part shouldn’t put people off of coming along to visit or volunteer. The 7:00am yoga session was a great way to start the day and re-inspired my own practice, but for some it was just too early. The communal dining was social but difficult unless your level of Spanish was proficient. The accommodation was pretty primitive and let in all manner of bugs (including funky fireflies that flash around on the walls and ceiling at night) and mini midgelike insects with the itchiest of bites.
And cost is likely to be a sticking point for some. Paying $12 per day (food and lodging included) to volunteer your time and effort is something that can seem strange, but then most volunteering in South America carries with it a cost. Weigh it up and make your choice.