Twenty-five young girls aged eleven to sixteen embarked on the Kishori Yatra bus tour from June 6th to 29th this summer, taking a life-changing road trip in America that was a major positive influence at an extremely formative period in their lives.
With them were a group of positive role models and experienced youth leaders, dubbed “counselors,” all of them second generation ISKCON devotees themselves.
These included Jaya Sri Radhe Dasi and Shanti Day, teachers at the Bhaktivedanta Academy primary and middle school in Alachua, Florida; Alachua Learning Center teacher Yamuna Zaldivar; traveling kirtaniya Nadiya Mani Darling; and Jahnava Rico Khurana, who is currently running the Bhakti Boutique at the Bhakti Center in New York City.
Now in its seventh year, Kishori Yatra followed on naturally from the Summer Trip for boys, run by Ritadvija Swami in the mid 1990s and now continued by graduates from that program.
“He would take the boys around America to help with ISKCON festivals, do service at different temples, and just get a good Krishna conscious summer break,” says Shanti Day, who has volunteered with Kishori Yatra since 2011. “But there was never a program for the girls. So some of the mothers in the Alachua community started bringing up the idea; and in 2008, Jaya Sri Radhe and [Bhakti Kalalayam Dance Academy Director] Anapayini started it.”
This year, as usual, was an exciting and enriching trip for the girls. Starting in Atlanta with the Panihati festival and Rathayatra, they stopped next at Chintamani Dham in Kentucky, a new spiritual rural community started by Srila Prabhupada disciples Adhikarta Das and Ruchira Dasi.
“From there, we went to New Vrindaban, West Virginia, where we got to know all the girls with a lot of games and group activities,” Shanti says. “We also visited Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, because the theme of this year’s tour was Srila Prabhupada and his fearlessness.”
The group next visited the Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania, where devotees grow vegetables and run their own successful dairy. The girls also got the chance to visit with an Amish family living nearby for an interesting intercultural exchange.
After that it was on to Philadelphia to visit Sarasvati, a friend, who cooked dinner for everyone; followed by a weekend in New York City.
“We spent some time at the Brooklyn temple, attended Rathayatra on Fifth Avenue, which was a lot of fun, and saw some sights like Canal St. and the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Shanti. “We also visited the Bhakti Center in Manhattan, and Tompkins Square Park [were Srila Prabhupada first chanted Hare Krishna publicly in 1966].”
The tour also stopped by the Donut Plant, a devotee-friendly egg-free gourmet donut shop. “That’s a very important pilgrimage site in New York for us too!” Shanti jokes.
After New York came a major change in scenery, as the girls camped in New Hampshire for several days, and challenged themselves by climbing nearly all the way to the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. For many of the Floridians on the tour, it was the first time they had ever seen snow.
One of the biggest highlights of the trip came next – visiting Commonwealth Pier in Boston, where Srila Prabhupada first arrived in the United States on September 17th, 1965 on the steamship Jaladuta.
“There we sang “Oh Atlantic” by Yamini Dasi, a song about Srila Prabhupada’s coming to America from a performance that the girls were doing throughout the tour,” says Shanti. “That moment was really, really powerful and impactful for the girls, and for us counselors too.”
The group then visited the ISKCON temple in Potomac, Maryland, went sightseeing in Washington D.C., and experienced some good old rollercoaster thrills at the Six Flags Theme Park.
Finally, after camping on the beach in South Carolina, the girls came to their last stop, the ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida. There, they presented their performance of “Abhay Charanaravinda: Our Fearless Leader.”
The show tells the history of Srila Prabhupada’s coming to America through narration, songs like Yamini’s “Oh Atlantic,” poetry recitation, live music, and dances choreographed to the traditional Nrsimhadeva prayers and the bhajan Bhaja Hu Re Mana.
Many of the girls are already making their plans to take the tour again next year, while the effects of this year’s tour are clear: Shanti recalls some of the participants commenting on how Srila Prabhupada is so important in their lives. Others discussed moving to the Bhakti Center in New York City to do service when they’re old enough.
“I feel like this is such a formative age for girls -- they’re really forming their identities at this point,” Shanti says. “They have this chance to really push the boundaries and grow their amazing potential. So we help them grow, in both the areas where they are already strong, and the areas where they feel challenged.”
Kishori Yatra also gives participants a break from middle school or high school, which are tough years for many, and puts them in a safe environment around other devotee girls.
“Friendships are so important for adolescents,” says Shanti. “And they build amazingly close bonds with each other over the three weeks of the tour. The counselors also build relationships with them over that time. And those relationships can last them a lifetime and keep them strong whatever they’re going through.”
Meanwhile, the adventure continues this summer, with the boys’ Summer Trip for 12 to 16-year-olds leaving on June 30th for a month-long journey across Canada. Check back at ISKCON News for an update on that trip in August.[ vaishnavi ]