By Indradyumna Swami
As my flight to Los Angeles took off, I looked through the window at the disappearing Australian landscape and thought about my three-month visit to the country. “Our festival tour was intense,” I thought, “but it went by in a flash. When you enjoy what you’re doing, time passes quickly.”
I was exhausted, but I forced myself to stay awake as a stewardess demonstrated the safety procedures. When she finished I drifted off to sleep, offering a prayer to my spiritual master: “Srila Prabhupada, please accept the results of our service. Our troupe of thirty devotees did forty-eight festivals, practically without a break. Twenty-seven thousand people came to the two-hour cultural programs. We sold thirty-five hundred books and twenty-one thousand plates of prasada.”
When I arrived in Los Angeles fifteen hours later, I gathered my hand baggage and walked towards passport control and customs. The different environment of America made the Australian tour fade into the distant past. I handed my passport to the immigration officer.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
I was groggy from the long flight, and I had to think for a moment. “Oh.. uh… Sydney,” I said.
He chuckled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Long-haul flights affect everyone.”
I slung my hand baggage over my shoulder and walked towards the luggage carousel. “This tour of the United States will not be easy,” I thought. “This year I’ll be doing it by myself without help. But not to complain: It’s the duty of a sannyasi to travel alone and learn to depend on Krsna.”
I remembered a purport of Srila Prabhupada that’s been close to my heart since I embraced the renounced order of life thirty-one years ago:
“It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God’s creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc, to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God. A sannyasi is duty-bound to take all these risks without fear, and the most typical sannyasi of the present age is Lord Caitanya, who traveled in the same manner through the central Indian jungles, enlightening even the tigers, bears, snakes, deer, elephants and many other jungle animals.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.6.13, purport]
Three days later in San Diego, barely recovered from jetlag, I prepared to board a flight for Vancouver with a transit in Seattle. I was going to attend the wedding of my disciple, Sudevi-sundari dasi, and her fiancé, Trikalajna dasa. Normally, sannyasis don’t go to weddings, but being Sudevi’s spiritual master, I wanted to encourage her in the grhastha asrama. She and her husband-to-be were good devotees, and I knew they would work well together spreading Krsna consciousness.
As I approached the check-in counter, my mind went blank and I had to think hard to remember where I was going. No doubt it was due to my being tired. As I handed my ticket to the woman behind the counter I asked her to check my bags only to Seattle, from where I’d be transiting to Vancouver.
“I have a two-hour layover,” I said. “I’ll give the bags to a friend. I’ll just be in Vancouver for the day, and I’ll get a ride back to Seattle in the evening. I won’t need the bags in Vancouver.”
Immediately I realized I’d made a mistake. Some time back it was a terrorist tactic to have a bag of explosives off-loaded from a flight through one city while continuing to another.
Her face darkened. “What’s that?” she said. “Only to Seattle?”
“Well, I was thinking to have my bags dropped off in Seattle, but now I realize…”
Before I could finish the sentence she picked up the phone and called a security officer. Seconds later he appeared and asked me to follow him. People stared at me as we walked away.
Soon I was seated in a room as he leafed through my passport. “You have a lot of visas for Muslim countries,” he said, “Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, and Oman, to name a few. What business do you have in those countries, sir?”
I was starting to feel nervous. “I’m a missionary, sir,” I said. “I travel around the world.”
“What sort of missionary are you?” he said.
“I’m from the Hare Krsna movement,” I replied.
“That’s Hindu, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Oh?” he said. “A Hindu missionary in Muslim countries?”
“I know it sounds odd… ” I started to say.
He looked me straight in the eye. “If you’re on an international flight,” he said, “why check your bags to a city you’re transiting through?”
“I’m only spending the day in Vancouver,” I said. “I won’t need the bags there.”
“That doesn’t sound quite right,” he said.
Then a call came through. They had checked my bags and found no explosives.
“You can go,” he said coldly.
I felt foolish and slightly shaken, as I walked back to the counter and finished checking in.
As the flight to Vancouver took off, I thought about the incident. “That was a stupid mistake,” I said to myself. “And being tired is no excuse.”
Because of the delay checking in, I’d been given a middle seat in a row of three. A few minutes into the flight the man on my left turned to me. “Isn’t it great how America is doing in the Olympic Games in Vancouver?” he said.
I knew the games were taking place in Vancouver, but I knew nothing of the results.
“Yeah,” I said, “just wonderful.”
“What did you think of the performance of Bode Miller?” asked the man on my right.
“Bode Miller?” I said.
They both stared at me in disbelief.
“Yes, Bode Miller,” the man on my left said, “the skier Bode Miller.”
“Are you American?” said the man on my right.
“Well, yes I am,” I replied.
“And you don’t know Bode Miller?” he said.
I was silent.
“What about Shaun White?” he continued, “America’s best bet for a gold in the half pipe.”
“The half pipe?” I said.
Again they stared at me.
“How about Lindsey Vonn?” said the man on my left. “She injured her shin recently, but she’s still going to ski. You know her, right?”
“Uh… Can’t say that I do,” I replied.
“Man, what planet are you from?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“If you’re American you’d better get your act together,” he continued. “America’s gonna kick butt up there in Vancouver. We’ll cream those commies from Russia.”
“What?” I said. “Commies? Russia’s been a democracy for years. Why do you call them communists?”
“Whatever they are, they ain’t Americans, and we’ll pulverize them,” he said.
“Yeah,” said the other man, “along with those Chinese wimps.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s not the spirit of the Olympics.”
I thought for a moment. “Tell me,” I said, “do you guys travel much? I mean, have you ever been out of the United States?”
“Nope,” said the man on my left. “This is my first trip.”
“Me too,” said the other man. “I’m going to the Olympics.”
“Well,” I said, “if you’d traveled more widely you’d see that people are pretty much the same everywhere. We’re all spirit souls struggling in this material world.”
They looked at me blankly and fell silent.
I settled back in my seat. “As difficult as it is to be a traveling monk,” I thought, “it has its advantages, one of which is seeing the true equality of all living beings.”
As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered the words of the writer Mark Twain:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
In Seattle I caught my connecting flight. Upon landing in Vancouver, I grabbed my hand baggage and raced to immigration. The wedding was scheduled to start in just ninety minutes. I came to the immigration counter and handed my passport to an officer. He typed my name and passport information into his computer, paused, and then looked up.
“Please step to the side for a moment,” he said.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. After a minute another immigration officer arrived. “Follow me,” he said. As we walked away people were staring at me as they’d done in San Diego.
Two minutes later I was sitting in an office, this time in front of three immigration officers. I sensed the officers in San Diego had contacted them.
“Why have you come to Canada?” the first officer said.
“I’m here to attend a wedding,” I said. “I’ll be leaving for Seattle soon afterwards.”
“What are the names of the betrothed?” he asked.
I froze. I didn’t know their legal names. “I’m sorry officer,” I said. “I don’t know. I only know their baptized names.”
He shook his head. “What is the address where the wedding will take place?” he asked.
Again I hesitated. I had no idea of the address. “I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’ll look it up on my IPhone.”
He leafed through my passport. “I see you spend a lot of time in Russia,” he said.
“Yes, officer,” I replied.
“I’m a traveling monk in the Hare Krsna movement,” I said. “I was in Russia before the fall of communism, and I’ve been helping to take care of our congregation ever since.”
“Have you ever worked for the U. S. Government?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Have you ever served in the armed forces?” he asked.
“The armed forces?” I said. “Well, yes I did. I was in the Marine Corps. But what does that have to do with anything? I have come here for a wedding, and I’m leaving tonight.”
“A wedding!” he shot back. “And you don’t know the names of the couple or the address of the ceremony!”
“Usually I just get picked up and driven…” I started to say.
“Send him back,” the officer said to another officer.
“What?” I said. “You’re going to send me back to San Diego?”
A third officer took my arm firmly and started leading me to the door.
Suddenly I had an idea. I turned around. “Wait a minute, officer,” I said. “Let me give you a number you can call. It’s my secretary. She can vouch for me. She’s at the wedding. ”
My disciple, Rasika-siromani dasi, who arranges my tours in the United States, had driven to Vancouver with several other devotees from Seattle.
He called Rasika and grilled her for fifteen minutes.
“All right,” he said after hanging up. “Looks like you are going to officiate at that wedding.”
He picked up his pen to sign a report, but first he looked at me. “Is there anything else you’re planning to do while you’re here?” he said.
Another idea came to me. “If there’s time,” I said, “I might catch some of the Olympics. I mean, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, and Shaun White are all favorites for gold medals.”
A few minutes later I walked out of the terminal. A devotee came running up to greet me. “What happened Maharaja?” he asked. “Did you lose your luggage?”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t lose my luggage. I just made a stupid mistake. It happens sometimes. But I learned a lesson, a good lesson from the road.”
That evening, I remembered some words from the Prophet Mohammed: “Don’t tell me how educated you are. Tell me how much you’ve traveled.”