Questions like 'Why is my breakfast porridge brown?' and 'What is this mushy stuff in the meat-free patties?' arose in my mind. The answers, I would later learn, are: carob, a vegan substitute for chocolate; and weeks-old pasta, sliced and fried.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
Driven by a mix of high hopes, boredom, and curiosity, I visited a Hare Krishna temple in Laguna Beach, California during high school. Every Sunday night, my friends and I would feast on curries of epic proportions, learn about mantras and meditation beads, and engage in an inevitably spirited conversation with the temple's spiritual leader, a recovered drug addict named Touka.
Recently, primed with a rudimentary sense of their beliefs and rituals—namely reincarnation, nirvana, and veganism—I visited a Hare Krishna commune in Argentina. This decision was only mildly intentional, as I was on the search for a yoga retreat near Buenos Aires and did not realize until I arrived that Eco Yoga Park is, in fact, a hosting site for Hare Krishnas.
Greeted by a pack of stray dogs and crew of Hare Krishna practitioners on my first day, I entered the experience with wide-eyed—one could said blind—optimism. An egg-shaped temple emblazoned with scripted "om" letters contained stacks of books with names like The Nature of Existence. Women wore monk-like garb, and men featured mostly shaved, except for a small ponytail, looks. My inner Hare Krishna radar buzzed with recognition.
On Eco Yoga Park's website, the words Hare and Krishna are conspicuously absent. If not for a robust internet presence—one that includes a YouTube channel and Twitter account—I might assume this to be an unintentional error, but regularly posted events and uploaded photos suggest otherwise. I was soon traveling to their compound—outside a small, working class town called General Rodriguez.
A cursory glance at their website reveals bucolic landscape photographs and the general sense that this might be the kind of environment where one finds oneself. But a more dedicated examination reveals suspiciously vague, hyperbolic phrasing: this is an experience that "will surely fill you with full joy and enthusiasm," where the food is "very healthy, with tasteful preparations,"and my favorite,—copyeditors, prepare to cringe—the word "rage" appears in place of "range." In hindsight, this latter mistake seems foreshadowing of my experience.
What I found was, in essence, a religious community committed to living off produce from an organic farm that is dependent on foreign volunteers—who complete arduous tasks in four- to five-hour rotations during the day. I was soon one of these volunteers, shoveling dirt, ripping grass weeds from the earth, and separating compost into ditches. All common farm work fare—except that unlike WOOFing, this one comes with a price tag.
An eclectic cast of characters inhabit the place: Maria, the Bolivian farmhand and gardening boss, who taught me that "all men are liars" and that there are always more seeds to pick from dead basil plants; Alon, an Iranian-Israeli expat, who lives in a treehouse and goes by Alonso whilst in South America; Nimai and Hari, whose Colombian and Brazilian roots made their Indian names less than convincing; Mattias and Cielo, a punk, Argentinian couple who sold all their possessions to travel to ecological villages around the world; the resident Swami, or spiritual master, who harbored cool hand tattoos and shared a remarkable likeness to Fred Armisen; and us twentysomethings, a crew of travelers on the quest to find that elusive something one might strive for during a three month-long backpacking trip.
This adventure proved back-breaking rather than soul-satisfying, and more work-focused than necessarily yoga-centric. What I defined as an adventure soon narrowed to include a five-minute walk to the neighboring dairy farm. (The irony of a dairy farm situated in such close proximity to an all-vegan community was not lost on me.) We milk-starved volunteers broke our vow of veganism and traveled next door, smuggling contraband goods back into the compound. Each time we wanted more dairy products, we simply went to the cattle field and clacked our glass bottles together—Patricia, our lactose savior, would then appear. What did we want today, she wanted to know: fresh yogurt? Milk? Cheese? Dulce de leche? We always said yes to all, and ran back to our manure-clad cabins, giddy with excitement and eager to devour the stuff.
It took me an embarrassing amount of time—three days, to be precise—to realize that the swiftest escape from strenuous yard work is to offer assistance in the kitchen. Though this mostly meant washing bathtubs full of dishes and swatting an absurd amount of flies whilst preparing lunch, I mostly enjoyed it.
In the Hare Krishna kitchen, questions like Why is my breakfast porridge brown? and What is this mushy stuff in the meat-free patties? arose in my mind. The answers, I would later learn, are: carob, a vegan substitute for chocolate; and weeks-old pasta, sliced and fried.
The meals at Eco Yoga Park were creative, and displayed innovative use of our garden-grown ingredients—kale, spinach, cauliflower, eggplant, and basil, among others. We picked squash and blended it into pureed sauce; we pulled herbs and steeped them in a witches brew, or tea.
While cooking, we grooved to reggae or hip-hop songs peppered with religious lyrics: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna / Krishna Hare, Krishna Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama / Rama Hare, Rama Hare. We chanted prayers, purified ourselves by washing our mouths and hands, and asked the day's meal preparators for kitchen entrance permission. We chopped bales of lettuce until our fingers went numb, and cut moldy sections from bread loaves with impressive dexterity. In the fields, we found frogs burrowed under dead pumpkin patches, but in the kitchen we found caterpillars squirming betwixt bales of spinach. There was always something new to discover, but with each discovery came another unwanted, apparent truth: most often, that bugs come with organic produce, and our meals contained a lot.
I was not a convinced convert—after all, this was not my first experience with Hare Krishna—but I learned some valuable culinary lessons along the way. The following is a list of my findings: Cake is best served with breakfast. Stale bread can be baked into soup croutons. Overripe bananas and near-rotten apples can be saved by adding flax or chia seeds to their skins, and frying them so that they become crispy. Cauliflower is grossly underrated. Algarroba means carob, and if combined with semolina in the right proportions, can make a delicious sweet pudding. Vegan alfajores exist—and taste awesome. Lastly, anything can be eaten with a spoon, if you are hungry enough.
According to Bhakti beliefs, a component of this Hare Krishna community's practice, every action one does is an expression of love and in service of the divine. While this sounds poetic, I had a hard time believing that there was a greater spiritual purpose to each unpleasant task we completed. I found there to be a sharp contrast between the Hare Krishna's monastic lifestyle and the capitalist values their farm exemplified—by not paying people for labor, and actually charging them money for their work, it created an exploitative system.
By the end of my stay, I felt like a real sucker—I paid, and a lot, to do hard labor for a community that was restrictive and (understandably) exclusive. But had I not visited Eco Yoga Park, I might never have learned what Sanskrit sounds like when spoken by a Colombian name Hari, or that if sweetened enough, mashed butternut squash will taste like marmalade, or that, when running from a pack of stray dogs, the best way to prevent an attack is not to pray to a deity, but to stop running and hide in a bush.