What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”
First, a preface:
1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.
The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).
Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.
2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.
Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.
Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”
Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya
I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.
I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.
We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.
“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.
According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."
I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.
As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.
P on a boda boda
Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.
As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”
The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”
P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.
Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime
The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.
The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”
I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”
“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.
“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!
The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.
On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!
The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.
The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.
A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.
The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.
Blowing the conch shell...
Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.
Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.
An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues
Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.
Had I been to India before this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.
The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.
At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.
How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!
Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship
Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.
I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???
The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.
Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.
The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”
“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.
“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.
“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!
The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.
Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.
“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.
“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.
“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.
“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.
Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.
It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.
We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”
The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…
“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”
“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”
Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”
P: “I don’t think so.”
Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”
P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”
Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.
P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”
So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.
Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.
And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.