I arrived on the day the koi were fed for the first time since they began their winter hibernation. It was radiantly sunny – a welcome change after colder days in Montana and Idaho – and small groups of people in both street clothes and traditional Indian dress strolled through the grounds, many taking photos posed on the temple stairs. Peacocks wandered about, resting on the low walls and stopping guests in their tracks, looking almost as if they were posing for photos, too.
Past the temple, parrots and macaws called from their cages and llamas peered over fences as a group of volunteers worked to install new fence panels in a paddock. I was directed through the main paddock to the ashram to find Vai, one of the owners. She was everything I wouldn’t have expected: an assertive woman with a strong voice and a dry sense of humor, a colorful sari, and an unshakeable British accent. She put me to work helping with the fences and welcomed me into the ashram, pointing me to my room and then towards the daily lunch buffet in the temple’s lower level. After months of talking about it, I’d arrived at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah.
It was easy to settle into life at the temple. The ashram, a spacious log cabin with Indian decor, cages for the macaws, vases of peacock feathers, and more rooms and beds than I ever managed to count, was comfortable and welcoming. After my first night, I had a bedroom to myself. My housemates and crew were each easily among the most interesting people I’ve met, and working and living with them was hugely rewarding.
Vai and Charu, her husband, had high – but fair – expectations for our work, but the hours passed quickly. In the morning, we’d receive our work assignments in the ashram’s living room, then work for four hours before breaking for lunch. Because Holi Festival had been held the weekend before my arrival, I spent most of my first week cleaning the temple’s exterior, power washing colored handprints from its walls and and sweeping the remaining color from the floors. When that was finally done, I planted seeds in the greenhouse, happily sharing skills I had learned while WWOOFing at Homeward Bounty in Northern California. Llamas don’t require a lot of care, but I learned to halter and lead them for children’s tours, and after a while they didn’t seem to mind me coming over to pet them as I walked through their paddock to the house.
My days were restful. I usually woke up to Madiri, one of the temple cats, snuggling in to my blankets, and would read a few pages with a cup of tea before meeting everyone in the living room for work. Breakfast was a free-for-all, with cereal and fruit and makings for pancakes stocked in the communal kitchen. Lunch and dinner, unless we left the grounds, were a buffet of Indian food, usually with a treat the devotees had prepared especially for the volunteers. The African gray parrots, Ramu and Jai, would wander around the crew table as we ate, taking what they wanted from our plates.
The afternoons were ours to spend however we wanted. During my first week at the temple, my entire crew packed a dinner and hiked through the woods along a river to a series of hot springs, were we stripped down (scaring off some less openminded bathers) and spent the evening soaking under the stars, singing Beatles tunes and sharing stories. On a hot day, I spread a blanket in the pasture with another volunteer and spent an afternoon reading and sketching as llamas came up to sniff my boots. When we needed a break from the temple’s rules (no meat nor eggs, no alcohol, no coffee), we would head into town and grab lunch, wander through Spanish Fork’s bookstores and antique shops, or play pool at Black Jacks, where we befriended the bartender and fed the jukebox crinkled dollar bills.
Yoga was offered in the temple almost every day, and there were nightly kirtans – a type of call-and-response chanting accompanied by instruments such as hand cymbals and drums – for those who wanted to grow spiritually. On Sunday evenings, we dressed up and went to the weekly service and feast, where visitors and residents came together to chant, dance, and make offerings to Krishna.
WWOOFing at the temple gave me everything I’d hoped it would and more. I have danced and chanted to a god that is not my own. I learned to interact with animals that I knew nothing about, and lived and worked with people who were simultaneously similar to me and exhilaratingly different. I was given opportunities to learn and play and also ample time to reflect on my own journey and direction. Although I am not part of the Hare Krishna movement (or ISKCON), my time among them taught me to be more openminded, willing to throw myself wholeheartedly into an experience and dedicated to both the work at hand and my intentions for the future.