I need to get this all down before I'm dragged back into the day-to-day. I just spent 17 days in Hawaii with my girlfriend. The first 8 days, we stayed on an Organic Farm on the Big Island, in Hilo. The other 9 days we spent bumming around the islands, keeping our eyes open and soaking up the madness of a place like Hawaii, more beautiful than you'd think, slightly less warm than expected, and oddly more brutal than imagined.
Lets try this in two parts. Part 1: The Farm. Part 2: The Adventure. First, my farm experience counts as one of the strangest and most enlightening to date. I will attempt to give you the same experience we had, as it happened.
After a bus from New York to Philly, we spent the night stuffing ourselves with cheesesteaks and hotel ease before jumping on an early flight to LA. There, on our short layover, we argued briefly, and in public about the benefits of a nine-to-five job. After some slightly bruised egos healed (quickly, as couples tend to do). We sat reading and charging our batteries for the flight into Hawaii.
Grueling flight, terrible things on the in flight TV (complete with advertising), we met a reggae/jazz guitarist who was on his way to Hawaii for a mini-tour. He had played with greats like LeRoy "Horsemouth" Wallace and John Medeski. Nice guy.
We landed, completely fried in Honolulu, where the air was sweeter, richer. Not as warm as I thought it would be, but still warm enough to knock some of the filthy cold from my bones. We did the New York walk off the plane, speeding up, passing, edging people out narrowly, muttering angry nothings under our breath... until we realized. The New York Walk was not necessary. The Hawaii walk was performed at a slower tempo, preferably in flip-flops (or "slippers" as they call them). Folks in Hawaii don't use their horns, they stop to talk to people on the street. They don't treat everyone as a beggar or a swindler. Unless you are white...
White people, or Haoles need to be a bit careful when visiting the islands. If you stick to your resort no one will hassle you, but there are still quite a few in the state who have a chip on their shoulder about being colonized. In Waikiki, a bum called me a "White Motherfucker" when I didn't buy him a sandwich at the ABC (Hawaii's version of a Bodega). I guess I can't really call it. They probably had a good thing going before white boots landed on their shores. But that wasn't me, and the bum was just drunk and sunstroked.
We then took a quick bus to Waikiki. Waikiki is a total tourist trap...South Florida mixed with the Mall of America mixed with and Indian Reservation with distressed looking natives lurking at the edges. We stayed in a hostel near the beach, but we were too jet lagged to enjoy it. We fell asleep at 9 o clock while a party of travelers and backpackers from Jersey raged around us.
Morning, airport. Got on a 45 minute flight to Hilo, on the Big Island where we were to meet our contact to take us to the farm. After a day in Hilo soaking up the clean air and relative warmth while our contact ran errands, we were picked up and and shuttled into the town of Puna, to The Farm.
The driveway to the farm:
After we got settled into our room, which was four million times nicer than we expected, we showered and headed out to "a party" at another, larger farm that our farm often worked with.
On the ride over in a packed van, I met a few of our housemates and spent most of the time talking to "the boys", two 19 year olds from Boston, straight out of High School. There was Ben, who sort of looked like Michael Cera, with a sly look in his eyes like he was always about to hatch some crazy scheme. There was Sam, who was slightly more wizened than Ben, but just as youthful. Both of them were intensely more mature than most of the 19 year olds I've met. They both had elected to take their time after high school, traveling and seeing the world before they even considered college. I commended them for it. They threw around words that I liked to throw around at 19, like "corporation". "Man, I just don't want to end up working for some corporation when I get older." I hope they stick to that. I hope they all do. I miss the days of dismissing entire institutions outright, the kind of ignorance that benefits a person.
We got to the "party", and this is exactly what we walked in to.
Sorry its dark, but I hope you get the idea. What they are chanting is the "maha mantra". There is a man with a guitar and a band who says the mantra once:
And then everyone, in unison chants it back. Nearly everyone dances.
Now, I want to make sure I don't come off here as judgemental. When it comes to religion, I would call myself more of an apathetic atheist, terminally bored/repulsed by religious ceremonies. Not for the spirituality they reflect, but for the shitty people they employ. People who damn others, tell others what to do, and force their square pegs into hardened round holes because they are tasked to do so by their God. I enjoy the concept of spirituality, and I will say here that for the first time, I was moved by such religious displays (they happened like that every morning, evening and night the entire time we were on the farm), more so than I ever have before. Strictly for the fact that the people involved were extremely. cool. people. People who had no interest in turning you into a believer, they were just happy you were checking it out, and if you were a nice person too, it wasn't as hard as you'd think to feel comfortable in the presence of such ecstatic religious displays.
I will relate their religion as it was taught to me by them. I never received a pamphlet (let alone one in the airport) from any of these people. I learned all of this by asking questions, which they easily answered. I'm not a "convert", nor am I going to evangelize, so turn off your lecture hall atheism (as I did), for a moment while I try and explain their thinking.
These people believe in "Krishna Consciousness". Krishna, for them, is 2 things:
1) A person who lived on earth for roughly 150 years. "Krishna" in Sanskrit, means "all-attractive". As a human being, he was said to possess all the attributes that are attractive for a human to possess. He was Thoreau mixed with Superman mixed with Jagger mixed with Gandhi.
2) He was all of these things because Krishna was also the living personification of God, the ruler and creator of all things in the universe. This God is eternal, and sets all the actions of the earth in motion simply by being, not by action. For these folks, God just is, and we are here because of it. Krishna = God.
He's the blue guy.
The Maha Mantra is their standard. The words in the mantra are the (Sanskrit) names of God in his different forms. They believe there are two ways to say this Mantra. One is in the form of Kirtan, which is the video above. You say the mantra out loud, usually with others, so everything around you can hear it. The video above came at about the one hour mark of their Kirtan. They would sing the mantra for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. For them, its like a great song that everyone knows the words to. Its like sitting down to hear/sing the chorus of "Unforgiven" over and over again for 2 hours. The repetition of something can either become grating and terrifying, or it can take on a transcendent, separate life of its own, as Van Morrison/Ian Curtis/Steve Reich will tell you.
For Michelle, the former was true. Her strict Christian upbringing turned on her. After a rocky and painful departure from the church, she has since abandoned specific faith for a more general, spiritual ideal, but the rigid form of the sound and the activity actually gave her a physical response, making her sick to her stomach. Not because she wasn't open minded, or because she was judging these people, but because of deeper sensibilities chained to painful memories that pricked up their ears at the sound of the chant and bolted for the door.
For me, being only apathetically linked to the Christian faith, I suppose I just kept my eyes open and took mental notes. I found the group chant to be transcendental in the watching of it, but I'm getting ahead of myself. On that first night, jet lagged, and culture shocked, there couldn't have been anything weirder on deck. Not in my wildest dreams.
Michelle and I made bug eyes at each other and attempted to sing along, stunned.
Their faith, continued. Through the kirtan and its quieter counterpart, japa (chanting to oneself, with the help of beads) these people believe they are communing with God or at least keeping him in their consciousness by saying his name. The repetition takes them to a place where they can at least for a moment, shed their earthly/physical concerns ("This is weird I'm dancing and singing like a fool in front of other people...what if people think I look stupid or I don't say the words right?") and the words themselves give them some time with the big guy himself where the concern shifts from the "gross physical" to that of their true "self", a being that only flows through the physical world and has an inseparable connection to God. The "Soul" or whatever you want to call it. Giving name to this connection, and thanking God for it is tonic to these people. Thus transcendin' and communicatin' is their chief ritual and they do it. Constantly.
When not attending a Kirtan, you could find them, beads in hand, muttering the mantra to themselves (Japa meditation). This was a jarring experience the first time I heard/saw someone doing it. I thought it was a reverent experience, I thought that certainly interrupting someone in a moment like that would result in flaming skyward arrows or at least some whitebread-style bible thumpin' condemnation for interrupting such a ritual. But I was wrong, the only reason anyone chants like that is because they have nothing better to do. Instead of sitting and letting their minds wander like lost couriers, they focus on the names of God, by way of the mantra, in lieu of any negative thoughts. So if interrupted it was no big deal. The people we stayed with on the farm could drop their beads at the drop of a hat and jump normally into any conversation, complete with the modern language of movie and pop culture references, before dropping right back into their chant.
That was the thing. These people were 100 percent normal, and extremely nice. They understood the oddity of their chosen path, and had no problem addressing it. It made me and Michelle feel ultimately comfortable, no matter the reservations we had.
When they weren't chanting the mantra, it was playing on a stereo. Everywhere. In the main house, it was on repeat in the living room. In the greenhouse it was on repeat, hanging from a wire under the Parrot's cage (who would hilariously scream "TOM! SHUT UP!" without warning). In the car, the CD booklet was chockabock full of Mantra recordings. The only "non-mantra" disc was a George Harrison one, because you can hear the mantra in the background of "My Sweet Lord". 2:56 mark:
Even their ipods, full of nothing but chanting. Nothing else. It was really amazing, for them, the chant had replaced even music. Was it because of music's ability to make you feel all kinds of terrible/beautiful things? For its ability to dredge up some terrible memory that distracts you from your true self? I asked George, a 32 year old Brit who was staying on the farm with his wonderful Mum, Elise about this phenomenon. And he said something along the lines of "Yup, its everywhere, even when you don't realize it, you're getting a bit of a soul shower". A constant soul shower is hard to argue with because even if I did want to argue, no one would argue back. And with that English accent, I'd probably lose anyway. No one ever told me that having Black Sabbath on my ipod was "Darksided" or that Parliament was "The Devil Music", they just preferred to listen to the Mantra. If you didn't, no big deal.
I actually had great conversations about music with people on the farm. The odd thing was that these conversations had a cut-off date. I was talking with one of the girls from our "sister" farm about Keller Williams, Disco Biscuits, jam band shit, and she knew a lot but her knowledge ended at a specific date. After that date, she had no frame of reference. That date was the date she ended up on the farm. After that date, her musical diet was Krishna's musical diet. For her, Keller Williams was still just a great guitar player who dabbled in looping, Disco Biscuits were still playing shows in dirty clubs, not planning weekend long festivals. As she put it, she ended up on the farm because "Man, I just couldn't eat any more mushrooms and go to any more shows."
Another theme: escape. Many of the people there were seeking asylum from what George called the "Age of Chaos Quarrel and Confusion" that had gotten the better of them. A girl there suffered through a joint heroin addiction with her ex boyfriend who was somehow able to get shitloads of Peyote (!). Her journey took her to Hawaii for a "Rainbow Gathering" (hippie rave), which set her on a path that ended with the farm and cleaning up her act. Another guy on the farm fled home after his father beat his mother, got married on a whim, and ended up divorced and on the farm 2 weeks before I got there.
Maha (given name: Celine), the founder of the farm created it as just such a refuge. No stranger to hard times, she and her husband Raganuga (given name: Ralph) wanted to open their home to anyone who wanted to come and help out, and learn about Krishna consciousness. These two really believed in their faith, and they just hung out and let the people come to them. For them, it was just a "truth". Not a "cause" or a "movement". They were just an ex hippie and an ex Louisiana redneck who ran a farm and a successful business (he did contracting, and they both ran rental properties) who could afford to take people in. Those who came lived for free, and weren't charged a dime for their stay. Unlike the "Hare Krishnas" (WAAAYYY different, probably shouldn't be mentioned here) who insist on renouncing possessions, stupid haircuts, money, etc. Those who came, all they had to do was pot some palms, haul some gravel, or chop down a banana stalk or two. And those who came, I can safely say, they got a lot out of the experience.
So we lived their life. Every morning around 630, a short drive to a naturally heated freshwater pond for a swim. Then, amazing smoothies at the house, a chant, and a stimulating conversation about things like: vegetarianism, parables involving Krishna's earthly exploits. Breakfast (my favorite: Cream of wheat with shitloads of toppings), chores, and then work. One day I transplanted palms, one day, I showed them how to burn DVDs on their new computer. One day, I re did a gravel walkway. One day, I harvested bananas and weeded the property line. Lunch: sammiches, crazy salads, whatever was lying around. More work, then a shower, a quick chant, dinner (HUGE dinners...with food that you harvested yourself) at the "sister" farm, then a big long chant and a talk from Goruda (spelling), the guy who ran the "sister" farm. Looked like my old Social Studies teacher, talked about George Bush pooping in one of his talks.
One of the "Hot Ponds"
Then home, bed by 8:45 or 9:00. No drinking, no drugs, no meat, no cell phones, no laptop, no blackberry. Sex was weird because there were pictures of Krishna everywhere, and nothing about our experience was sexually arousing. Spiritually arousing, yes, but sexually, no. This was troubling to us only because living in New York you are inundated with sexual imagery constantly, and being a couple, sex was a way to validate our feelings for each other.
So we were thusly disarmed from most of our crutches. Wavering with nothing but our simple cores to hold us up. This was not my observation, this was Michelle's. She noted in one of our long nightly discussions that the lifestyle we were taking part in had us at our simple cores, and we both agreed that that was a good thing. Its easy to puff yourself up, hide your soft spots with smoke, mirrors, and various degrees of fakery, or "Jiggery Pokery" (love that term) as Ant calls it. But the question we were forced to ask, was, "Who are you really, under all that madness?". And it was a good question to ask.
My answer may or may not have involved Krishna. The religious aspects of our time on the farm for me actually, were less profound than the day-to-day effects of the routine. The healthy lifestyle, the physical activity, the time outdoors, the amount of rest and exercise. The spiritual aspects were more of an intense curiosity for me. I enjoyed observing them and I felt lucky to be allowed to participate, and no one called me a heretic for not knowing the words. But the teachings of Krishna consciousness didn't become embedded in me as some of the other things I learned. Or perhaps they did, but on a more subliminal level, somewhere in my subconscious, where it coupled with the more overt aspects of our life there to create some of the most positive and contented days of my life in years.
Whew, I think that covers it. All of this needed mention because it was inextricably connected to everything we did on the farm. I don't mean "everything" as a euphemism, I mean it as a truth. The concept of Krishna consciousness was subtly involved in every aspect of farm life.
There's a lot of little details I'm leaving out...like their ridiculously amazing on-site yoga instructor/massage therapist/reflexologist/all around cool girl, Cheryl who taught me ways to handle my excruciating headaches. Or the tree right outside the house that was consistently laden with fresh Clementines. Pick, eat, take a deep breath. Or the centipedes whose bite could vary from a harsh bee sting to a gunshot wound.
At the end of our relatively short stay there (a typical stay is anything from 3 weeks to 3 years) Maha met with me and genuinely thanked me (and Michelle by proxy) for coming and knowing them. It was nice and humbling to just be recognized as a nice person, someone that another person was happy to know. We don't tell each other that enough.
On our last day, we were each given a package with some reflexology charts, some Japa beads, some pictures of Krishna (they asked which one we wanted, and I REALLY wanted THIS PICTURE of Krishna jacking up a demon, but they didn't have it around. Most brutal thing ever.), some chocolate covered macadamia nuts, some music, some high fives and big hugs before jumping in the van with The Boys and heading to pick up our rental car at the airport and head for the beach.
That ended part one. The rest of our journey to come.