Just in case you’re not familiar with the country’s location: this is Slovenia on the Europe map
Last week my wife and I were guest speakers at a summer camp for Vaishnavas in Slovenia. Slovenia is north of Croatia and part of it borders Italy. It has a population of around two million and 60% of it is forest, which makes it rather scenic and gives the people there room to breathe and move around. As a result the people are very friendly. It was one of the first countries to declare independence from the former Yugoslavia.
My wife and I had been invited to come and spend a few days at the annual summer camp held on a devotee’s farm. Because there are many young families, we were to speak on marriage, family, raising children and building community. We spent two days in the city at the temple situated in an old school. The Pancha Tattva deities there are quite the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere. There is a very good Govinda’s restaurant that seemed to be popular with the locals, serving up healthy prasadam, and we stayed in an apartment above the restaurant.
The other guest for the camp was Hari Sauri prabhu who served Srila Prabhupada as a personal assistant for almost two years. He is an expert story-teller and writer and has a great memory for details. When you’re with him you feel as if you’re getting to know Srila Prabhupada personally, as he did.
The devotees arranged for us to see a bit of Slovenia while we were there and took us to a scenic place known as Bled, a popular spot with tourists. It was a large lake surrounded by imposing mountains and forest with an island in the middle that had a fairy-tale castle built on it. The water was crystal clear so we went for a swim and chanted Gayatri while half-submerged, just like we do in India.
We were also taken to a deep, mile-long ravine, where the icy mountain river water rushed down in swirls, pools and rapids. We were able to walk along a wooden platform edging the entire length of the cliffs above the thundering water. Again the water was the cleanest I’d ever seen and the air pure. It was a great spot for yogis.
The summer camp was some miles to the south of the country, just a short distance from the border with Croatia. Although there was another camp running simultaneously in that country, some of the Croatian devotees chose to drive up north and camp with the Slovenian devotees instead. The drive there was uncharacteristically stormy, and the car was lashed with heavy rain while thunder pounded the skies and lightning flashed every few seconds. As a result, the campsite was muddy but the devotees very warm and welcoming.
My job was to lead kirtans and to give classes, but to also encourage the families, some of whom are separated from other devotees by many miles of countryside. The landscape of Slovenia may be beautiful, but the geographical distances between families can sometimes serve to lessen their spirits, particularly amid all the challenges of raising children and pursuing a career. Spiritual life is made less arduous when we have the company of fellow travellers, and this camp was one way to inspire each other and to share useful knowledge. My hosts seemed almost apologetic as I began my first talk, sitting in a white plastic tent with the rain lashing down, but I explained that my first experience of Kirtan forty years ago was in a similar tent in the rain, in a muddy field, so I was actually happy to be with them in similar circumstances.
The sun shone the next day and after the morning talks we were served delicious hot meals cooked in the camp kitchen. I am always amazed at just how expert devotees are at preparing food under challenging kitchen conditions – and how they can cook for 100 or more at a time!
We stayed for two nights in a small bungalow in a vineyard, surrounded by more vineyards stretching out to the horizon where they met forested mountains. I didn’t see any of the bears and wolves this area is known for, but chanting japa out on the dirt road each morning was remarkable, possibly the quietest place I’ve ever been in. It was another superlative for Slovenia. On our last night we stayed at the campsite in a small, locally-made caravan.
Rising at 3.00 am on our last morning we got up ready to be driven to Venice to catch a flight for Belgium. Early as it was, the devotees still got up to see us off. I can’t remember ever being given so much affection. The temple president of the Ljubljana centre, Ananta Das, a long-term brahmacari monk, happily drove for three hours as we sped through Slovenia and crossed the border into Italy at Treviso then on to Venice. We talked the whole way about education for devotees.