Odessa, Ukraine — Thursday, June 23rd
Overnight to Odessa
The gentle swaying of the express train as it speeds through the night is conducive to sleep, and I soon oblige; I sleep most of the way on the ten-hour journey from Kiev to Odessa.
We ended the weekly public program at the Palace of Culture in Kiev a little early last night because we had to get to the train station before 9:34 (you can set your watch by the train schedule here).
The overnight train makes just five stops on the way to Odessa: four two-minute stops (that I sleep through) at way stations, and one twenty-two-minute stop at Zhmerinka, sometime after midnight, that does wake me up.
It is hot and stuffy in the compartment (the window does not open), so I get up to stretch my legs, and take in some of the brisk night air at the window in the corridor that does open, marginally.
At seven o' clock, ten minutes from our destination, as we begin to clatter through the increasing number of tracks that signal the approach to a major station, I am surprised to recognize some of the buildings (and the football field with the white goalposts) although this is my third visit to Odessa...
I am glad to see Bimala-Kanti Prabhu's smiling face bobbing through the crowd on the platform, and Surya-Kanti Prabhu (our host until Monday) drives us through the almost-empty city streets to his (very nice) apartment.
Odessa, Ukraine — Saturday, June 25th
Where do they go?
Every time I come to Odessa, I meet such nice new devotees. Every time. What happens to the "old" devotees, I wonder? Always, new devotees. Where do the old devotees go?
My mission, as I understand it, is not to make "new" devotees, but to enthuse and inspire the old, existing devotees — to remind and excite them about Srila Gurudeva's beautiful conception of divinity that they once found so attractive — so that they can go out and get new recruits. What's the use of recruiting new members if we can't maintain the old ones?
Without proper association, we will always have this problem. We don't have a center here in Odessa, so I urge everybody that I meet to try to form a nama-sangha so that they can continue to meet and enliven each other in between visits by Srila Gurudeva's senior disciples, by chanting and reading from the scriptures.
In the evening we drive to the city center, to the cozy little dance academy in the basement where Sunaina Devi Dasi teaches dancing, where I speak to about thirty devotees and guests about the glory of the Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math and its unique contribution to the Gaudiya Math sampradaya.
Odessa, Ukraine — Monday, June 27th
At 6:24 p.m. the overnight train pulls out of the Odessa station. We are on our way to the Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula that lies between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. We will reach Simferopol in twelve hours, almost to the minute, at 6:22 tomorrow morning.
It is evening, officially, but the sun, like a spoiled child, has no intention of going to bed just yet: as we travel northeast across the large flat landscape of unforested grassland known as the steppes, he takes out his paintbrushes and begins to splash the bright blue canvas outside my window with vivid streaks of orange, and extravagantly highlight the edges of the fluffy clouds with flourishes of gold and silver, but as it gets nearer to his bedtime he becomes more sullen, it seems, and he mixes more somber colors (to match his mood) into his palette, using progressively darker shades of reds and purples until, perhaps piqued by the lack of an appreciative audience or just petulant at having to retire, he abruptly draws the curtain of night across the canvas and flounces off to bed (rather late, I might add) at nine-thirty. How rude!
Just before eleven, we reach Mykolayiv (Nikolaev) on the Southern Bug River near the northern tip of the Black Sea, and at midnight we stop at the port of Kherson on the Dnieper estuary. Now the train will head due southeast for three hours and cross the isthmus between Armyansk and Krasnoperekopsk into the Crimea proper, and at five o' clock, head southwest for the final hour and a half of the journey, to Simferopol.
But it's time I, too, was off to bed...
Yalta, Crimea — Tuesday, June 28th
At six-thirty we arrive, rumpled and disheveled, at the train station in Simferopol, just eighty kilometers (fifty miles) northeast of the fortress city of Sebastopol that the Allies captured in 1855 after a lengthy siege, to hasten the end of the Crimean War.
You remember your history, right? Huh? Okay, here's a quick recap: the Crimean War was fought from 1853 (one hundred years before I was born) until 1856, between Russia and an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and Turkey. Russian aggression against Turkey led to war, and Turkey's European allies intervened to destroy Russian naval power in the Black Sea in 1854.
Sundarananda Prabhu meets us at the station, we wait forty-five minutes for Vladic to arrive from Kharkiv, then we drive down to the Black Sea coast, to Yalta — the famous city where the Allied leaders Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt held the Yalta Conference in February 1945, to plan the final stages of World War II (the Great Patriotic War) and divide the spoils of Europe.
In the early evening, we go on nagar-sankirtan along the beachfront: down Nabereznaja im Lenina (Lenin promenade) with its numerous hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars facing Yaltinsky Laliv (Yalta Bay), from Pushkin Street on the one end, past the Phoenician(?) longboat replica and the piers and jetties, the amusement park and the General Post Office, to the marine passenger terminal on the other end — and then back again.
The esplanade is crowded with tourists, kids on skates, buskers, artists, and guys (they're all guys) with all kinds of animals that tourists can pose with (presumably for a fee), including a barn owl (with its leg chained to a stick), a large gray squirrel (the biggest I've ever seen), two different monkeys (exotically colored), a large yellow boa constrictor (I wouldn't trust that thing around my neck), and one life-sized gorilla! Fooled you — this one's just a guy in a suit!
Add one Hare Krishna sankirtan party to the mix, and stir. Aaah! Just what you need to relax after a long day...
Yalta, Crimea — Thursday, June 30th
The simple life
This is my last day in the Crimea: this evening I return to Moscow. But before I leave, at four o' clock in the afternoon, I give a public lecture at Belaya Dacha, the A.P. Chekhov's Memorial Estate museum dedicated to the great Russian playwright and short-story writer.
Chekhov is perhaps my favorite Russian writer, and, in a large room filled with old photographs, books, writing implements and other relics of the famous storyteller, under the steady gaze of the white-haired curator sitting at a table in the corner, I begin by saying that, for me, Chekhov's charm is that he wrote about simple, ordinary people, in simple, ordinary situations.
I then segue into the simple (seemingly) ordinary human pastimes of Krishna, to show that the charm of the Krishna conception of Divinity is that God, in His original form, is not some awe-inspiring all-powerful deity, but a simple village cowherd boy who plays with his cowherd friends and the milkmaids of Vraja in a pastoral setting on the banks of the Yamuna River in the forests of Vrindavan.
Of course, Krishna has His royal position too, as the king of Dwarka, but the devotees do not want to interact with Him in such a political environment, to become involved in the intrigues of the royal court: they prefer to see and play with him in his original form, in the simple, rural village of Vrindavan (mano me kalindi-pulina-vipinaya sprihayat).
At seven o' clock I begin my long overland journey to Russia, first by car, and then by rail, to Kiev, and then to Moscow...
Layout by iMonk — June 30th, 2005.