Three months after the category 4 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20th, the U.S. territory’s infrastructure is still far from recovered. Only 20 per cent of traffic lights are powered; forty per cent of Puerto Ricans, especially in the countryside, are still without electricity, and many have barely any running water.
This includes the U.S. territory’s only ISKCON temple, which had its roof, veranda and porch ripped off in the storm. Devotees are still struggling to clean up and rebuild.
So from December 16th to 30th, nineteen ISKCON youth and young adults, aged 17 to 29, gave up their Christmas vacation to help clean up and repair ISKCON Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane.
Youth from all across the United States and Canada also paid for their own airplane tickets there, and contributed a further $300 each towards local transport and rebuilding supplies. The effort was organized by Manorama Das and Jaya Sri Radhe Dasi of ISKCON Youth Ministry, with local logistics arranged by Jaya Sita Dasi.
Moving fallen branches
“As we drove from the San Juan airport up into the hilly countryside where the temple is, we saw that most of the traffic lights were out, and power lines were down everywhere,” says Manorama. “People’s tin roof tops were completely crumpled up by the hurricane force winds, and there was debris lining both sides of the road. It looked like a war zone.”
Arriving at the temple, the ISKCON youth group found it in a dilapidated and unsightly state, with piles of debris lying everywhere. With the assistance of local ISKCON Puerto Rico youth, they cleaned up broken branches and tree limbs; cleared the debris from the destroyed roof and porches; and separated resuable wood and sheet metal to be repurposed. They also rid the terraced Tulasi garden of branches, debris and weeds.
The group then spent three days at the nearby Plenitud Eco-Farm in Las Marias, which is run by friends of devotees, and was also damaged by the hurricane. Youth helped the staff replant vegetables and clear overgrown areas. In the evenings, they held kirtan with farm residents and guests – Plenitud regularly recives groups of college students to teach them about sustainable agriculture and permaculture.
Tilling the earth at Plenitud eco farm
Returning back to the Puerto Rico temple, the youth had a Sunday Feast and Christmas Eve kirtan party. They then spent all Christmas Day clearing pathways of fallen trees and branches, and prepping the deteriorated exterior of the ashram building for painting. They also cleaned up the temple’s flooded BBT book room, and built bookshelves out of reclaimed wood from the broken roof.
Throughout the rest of their stay, they gave the ashram buildings a fresh, attractive new coat of paint, finished clearing and beautifying the Tulasi garden, and burned all the debris in a massive bonfire.
Towards the end of the trip the youth also helped put on, and participate in a Ratha Yatra festival in Old San Juan. The day included a parade, and a festival at the cruise ship docks with kirtan and book and prasadam distribution. Although a little less packed with tourists than usual because of the hurricane, the response was friendly, with people waving and smiling, and policemen happy to tuck into the maha-prasad sugar-roasted almonds devotees were passing out.
“Because there’s no money in Puerto Rico right now, I think we were the only ones putting any events on there,” says Manorama. “And I think the people appreciated us for holding a free festival in downtown San Juan.”
During their trip, youth also ziplined in the rainforested mountains near Utuado, visited a tropical beach, and swam at the magical Bioluminescent Bay, where tiny organisms make one’s body glow upon contact.
What was the most magical, however, was seeing how determined and resilient the Puerto Rican devotees are.
Painting the ashram
“There are only three main families that maintain the temple, and maybe twenty more that come on Sundays,” says Manorama. “In the hurricane they lost most of the external roof of their temple, and the rain was coming in everywhere — on the altar, and onto the Deities of Gaura Nitai, Krishna Balarama and Radha Shyamasundara. While they’ve patched it up as best they can since, rain is still coming in and they’re catching it in buckets. But still they will not give up. They will not abandon this temple.”
The devotees of ISKCON Puerto Rico, headed by temple president Arisudana Das and his wife Krishnanandini Dasi, were very grateful for the youths’ visit. Gathering the group together, Arisudana explained in broken English how moved he was that they had decided to spend their Christmas holidays in a hurricane disaster zone, taking freezing cold showers, sleeping on mats on the concrete floor, eating very simple prasadam, doing physically demanding service all day, and paying for their own travel expenses.
For the youth, some of whom came from well-to-do families, the experience was very transformational.
New bookshelves youth built for the BBT book room
“I think that helping others in need made me realize that my problems at home are so trivial,” says Mikhail Beg, age 24, from Towaco, New Jersey. “As cliche as it sounds, it was extremely rewarding to just do something for others with no expectation of return. Living in austere conditions was also very eye-opening, and almost like a culture shock. I really wish more people take trips like this because it helped me think outside my little bubble and give me perspective I would never have gotten otherwise.”
Akshay Gupta, age 21, from Asheville, South Carolina added: “This trip made me realize how artificial our life in the US is. We’re surrounded by so much excess materialism and consumerism and it just doesn’t fulfill me on a deeper level. Even though Puerto Rico was austere, it was incredibly fulfilling. Engaging in devotional service with fellow devotees and assisting with the relief efforts was so simple yet so rewarding at the same time. I would encourage others to go on similar trips because they allow you to see how much we take for granted in the States and how a simple lifestyle in Krishna consciousness is all we really need to be happy.”
While the youth helped a lot with cleaning and cosmetic work, ISKCON Puerto Rico must still rebuild their temple. So far, through two Gofundme campaigns, they have only collected around half of the $150,000 needed to reconstruct their temple in concrete to make it fully hurricane proof – an absolute necessity before hurricane season comes around again.
Rathayatra in Old San Juan
Puerto Rico devotees also hope for more visits and involvement from the U.S. and international community, as they are often ignored for being out of the way. Manorama encourages everyone to take them up on this offer: The ISKCON Puerto Rico property, he says, has huge potential as a place to put on spiritual retreats and other programs, with a twenty-room guesthouse, terraced gardens, gorgeous Deities, and breathtaking views of the rainforest.
So let’s all consider taking our next break in Puerto Rico, and chipping in our hard-earned cash to help some extremely deserving devotees rebuild.
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Contribute to the campaign here: https://www.gofundme.com/help-to-iskcon-puerto-rico-temple