Into the Abyss
It’s whatever o’clock. I’ve given up wearing a watch and abandoned the concept of time. I’m lying down on a rough patch of grass under some shade, with a distant beat of a djembe drum resonating somewhere in background. I think. I’m not too sure about anything these days. There’s dreamcatchers hanging delicately off a tree, and other handmade trinkets that I can’t quite recognize. An energetic dog brushes through my peripheral vision. Tents everywhere. I see a bunch of colourful hammocks erected on the trees around me, and a couple of Tipis too. I think I see someone in the full-lotus position—wait… no… yeah…. Definitely someone in the full-lotus position. Topless women are frolicking about with their children, giggling, and a bottomless man is playing the acoustic guitar.
Hold on, is this what the 60’s felt like? Why is everyone so happy? Why hasn’t the bottomless man been arrested yet?
Perhaps I got ran over an hour earlier at a pedestrian crossing in Portugal, and my brain is vividly dreaming up a fantasy land in a coma. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m living out another typical day at a Rainbow Gathering event.
No, silly, I didn’t celebrate Pride Week in Portugal. Nor did I spend a week in a drug-induced haze trying to collect tangible pieces of Portuguese rainbows in a satchel looped over my right shoulder. Though the latter sure sounds like a good time. Short of experiencing it yourself, it’s hard to summarize what the Rainbow Gatherings are and what the Rainbow Gatherings are about. I’ll try to do both concisely for now, but will gradually expand as I build up this narrative.
What they are: a loosely organized congregation of people in a secluded area in the woods, who share similar ideals, cultural beliefs. On the surface, the premise is the same like any other large-scale festival/camping event: x people at y location for the purpose of z activity. They attract 100’s of people (sometimes 1000’s for the larger ‘world gatherings’), usually last around month and peak during the full moon.
What they’re about: the people at said secluded forest all gravitate towards non-traditional societal ideals and values. Anti-consumerism, anti-commercialism, anti-capitalism, anti-electronics, anti anything that requires a hyphenated anti before it. Raw-diets, self-sustenance, alternative medicine, you’d find people practicing them all quite effortlessly, without even looking for them. The Rainbow Gatherings are more than a mere collection of people looking for a good time—it’s more so a profound stand against and re-interpretation of the way towards society is heading.
Feel the Rainbow. Touch the Rainbow. Taste the Rainbow.
The Rainbow Gatherings are essentially a hotspot for hippies. It’s a word loaded with a lot of negative historical baggage, but it’s still the one that fits most appropriately. Nature? Check. Good vibes? Check. Loose clothing, loose people, loose standards of hygiene? Check check check. Rainbow Gatherings are the perfect breeding grounds for the resurrection of hippie culture. So how do people spend their time?
You could find all the regular activities as a weekend camping getaway, in that sense it was no different. Sitting at a campfire, exchanging stories with friends, jamming out on a guitar, going for a dip in a nearby river, making food, eating food, relaxing, relaxing some more, etc… The non-traditional activities included tons of meditation, shamanism, poi and Reiki, to name a few. There were spontaneous daily workshops offered by those inclined to teach. Yoga was omnipresent and couldn’t have been any easier to find. Though one day I spotted something as obscure as Tuvan throat singing being taught in a group setting.
Demographically? I met people from all walks of life. You could hear a mix of 4-6 languages on any given day, easily. Yet if I had to generalize, based on the sample of people I talked to, I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split between ‘normal’ (mind the quotes) people and ‘nomadic people.’ Let me explain.
The normal people category included those, like me (my mom tells me otherwise), who either held some sort of job, were studying, or had some other semi-permanent commitment. This category of people had a home-base were and were vacationing, escaping, getting-away, rejuvenating, galavanting or wander-lusting.
The other category of people, the ‘nomads,’ included street-performers, buskers, vagabonds, van-campers, and, for a lack of a better word, homeless people. These tended to be the more creatively talented individuals, armed with a great finesse for anything ranging from juggling to fire twirling. These were the ones willing, sometimes out of necessity in order to make a living, to lug around their treasured acoustic or cumbersome drum. And they were damn good at playing them, too.
Without the shared context of being at Rainbow, on paper, both the ‘nomads’ and ‘normal’ people that I described above are inextricably different, and clash like oil and water. That is, of course, if we go by usual standards of categorizing people, like by occupation, appearance, or material wealth. Yet to my delight, regardless of the former differences unique to each category—differences that usually repel people away from each other—everyone got along beautifully. If anything, this mixture of lifestyles only brought extra diversity and richness to the Gathering. Everyone in attendance had some ‘hippie’ edge to them, true—some acute, others undeniably reliving in Woodstock—but regardless it’s so rare and incredible to attend a large scale event where everyone invited gets along.
Rainbow Culture: Sharing and Selflessness
I’ve noticed there’s a toxic culture embedded within big city life, where people treat strangers with a callous indifference. Anyone raised in the vicinity of a big Western metropolitan city, like Toronto, New York or Los Angeles can relate. There’s this mentality that goes something along the lines of ‘until this person proves their worth to me, they may as well not exist’. For whatever reason, it’s generally accepted to treat people you don’t know with suspicion and hostility.
That couldn’t be further from the truth at Rainbow; in fact, even within my first couple of hours there, I received unsolicited help a several times. For example, within minutes of hopping off the regional bus, a caravan full of supplies and singing passengers picked me and three others up and dropped us off at the entrance. After making the subsequent 30 minute or so trek by foot, I hit a ‘welcome area’ where coffee, ginger tea and fruits were served. As it was too late to set up my own tent, a random woman quickly escorted me to a large communal tent, with a vacant space for me close to the fire. These small acts of giving were rampant wherever you went, whatever you did.
Everything was shared at the Rainbow, never with an expectation of reciprocity or payment. It was discouraged to exchange any goods for money, or offer favours, for that matter. Everything was done selflessly, fuelled by kindness and generosity. People swapped food, people exchanged art pieces, indulged in face painting, offered rides, I could go on. People were even offering tobacco, something one sees drunk people desperately plead for in the patio of a bar. Seems idealistic right? So how did the living area manage to not collapse internally? Someone has to pick up the shit, literally.
Maintaining a family several hundred units large is no easy task. There a tremendous amount of basic upkeep required for human beings to live harmoniously together, including shelter, sanitation, water, cooking, firewood, etc. Volunteers ran everything. No, not people who signed up in advance, or those specially designated by a committee to do specific tasks. Anyone could volunteer to do anything, whenever they felt like it, on any given day, without any pressure. Yet somehow it worked: the fires kept burning, the poop kept being buried, the food cooked, the firewood gathered. It was an uplifting reminder that people don’t need to be coerced into performing important work, and will rise up to the occasion unprompted, as long as the purpose was clear and defined.
Norms and Beliefs
I’m especially well-versed in the unspoken norms that gently guide our interactions with strangers, like avoiding eye contact on the subway ride to work, or walking with a grave, intimidating expression on my face, because I’m gangster. Yo.
At the Rainbow? Not so. It was uncustomary NOT to give someone an affectionate hug the first time you meet them, many times breaking and greatly exceeding the normal 1-3 second hugs we’re used to giving in real life. I distinctly recall, on more than one occasion, women mentioning that it was the safest they’ve ever felt for a long period of time. Mean-mugging? More like happy-mugging. Teeth-revealing dimple-forming smiles everywhere, it was sometimes impossible not to return one back. And wasn’t joking in my introductory paragraphs at all, clothing really was optional and you better believe a ton of people took advantage of the opportunity to don their birthday suit.
Energy was the word of the day—hell, word of the month. There was an obsession to the word and its mysterious connotations, a word that doesn’t exactly surface often in daily office cubicle conversation, yet one that held profound meaning as one of life’s staples to every Rainbower. A word whose property I don’t quite understand myself, yet, it seemed, whose property the majority in attendance understood with complete certainty. From good energy to bad energy; energy healing to energy destruction; “your energy is peaking” to “your energy is leaking.” You name it, everyone had their own interesting interpretation on this building block of life.
Second to energy, ‘healing’ was probably the second most tossed around word, and I saw various manifestations of it in many forms. For example, there was a special mini circle during meal times for those who preferred raw food as a way of cleansing themselves; an assigned ‘healing tent’ for those willing to dip into natural forms of medicine; daily yoga and meditation as a conduit to clean the soul; and everywhere I went, escapees expressing their profound love for their newfound liberty away from the soul-sucking cogs of society. In fact, if I had to pick an adjective to unify the entirety of my experience, ‘healing’ definitely makes a good case as a top candidate.
There were no strict rules or regulations that had to be followed. Common sense and respect for your neighbour sufficed. The experience was entirely secular and free from any unnecessary pressures to do anything you didn’t want to. There were, however, two notable activities that were followed dogmatically. The largest main camp fire was held sacred. Garbage was never to be thrown in it, and every effort was taken to keep it going late into the morning hours. The only other ritualistic part of the experience was the ‘food circle.’ Before eating either of the daily communal meals, everyone would hold hands, sing timeless Rainbow songs passed down through generations, and end off with a reverberating ‘ohm’ chant. If you didn’t want to participate, it was cool. Remember, no rules! I’ll admit, I was a little averse to the ceremony at first, but was glad to be quickly proved wrong. It was nothing short of precious.
If your brain is wired anything like mine, then you have an insatiable appetite for wanting to figure out how and why communities, organizations, systems and especially, people work the way they do. So for those curious, as I was, about how dropping an odd-hundred number of hippies in a deserted forest didn’t turn the land into an anarchistic clusterfuck, I have you covered.
If not, that’s cool, feel free to skip this part, it’s why I saved it for last.
How long was I there and why Portugal? My current job endowed me with a generous 12 day Easter break, and to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, I decided to go travelling. I procrastinated looking into destinations, and with a limited budget, it was either fly into Portugal or fly into Portugal. So I flew into Portugal. I spent my first 3 days exploring Lisbon, the last 9 in a city called Troviscais, where the Rainbow was held.
Pre-Gathering Information: There would be a group of ‘scouts,’ likely permanent nomads, who would search for an ideal place to set up camp within a country. Once found, they would notify others through word of mouth, and eventually word would spread unto the internet. ‘rainbow-forum’ ‘Facebook’ were two reliable source to figure out when and where. The better organized Gatherings have clear-cut instructions on how to arrive, the others not so much. Click on the pics if you want to see a bigger version.
Water: Every event takes place near a natural spring water source that doesn’t require filtration
Food:Bring your own bowl, mug and cutlery. A caravan regularly makes runs to a nearby grocery store to pick up essentials. Two meals a day, one in mid-afternoon, one at around sunset (remember, my concept of time was warped so I can’t say for sure)
Packing: Largely the same as a normal camping trip: tent, sleeping bag, toiletries, clothes, and whatever else one needed to be comfortable
Sanitation: Usually 1 or 2 designated ‘shit pits,’ that get covered up after use
Land: The area is usually graciously offered by a local farmer or host. There were clear marked boundaries where attendees could and couldn’t camp
Cleanup: There were organic composting areas, designated bins for recycling, everything else went in plastic bag and made its way to a dumpster
Supplies: Cooking supplies (large pots for example) and other main provisions travelled from one gathering to the next.
Money: Ah the dreaded M-word. somebody has to pay for all that food, right? There was a ‘Magic Hat’ (with an accompanied magic hat song and dance, of course), that went around after each meal. Think of that container being passed around church during a sermon for donations. If you were not in a position to donate anything, a simple smile sufficed.
Communication: People needed to be informed sometimes when a workshop was available or food was being served. This was done through loud chanting. For example: *softly* “one, two three” *loudly* “FOOD CIRCLE!!! NOW!!!”
So that’s my take on the Rainbow Gatherings. If any of this sounds even remotely appealing, hit me up and I’ll be glad to help you navigate your way there or give you extra tips on maximizing your experience. Or, likewise, if you think I’m a lazy, good-for-nothing, capitalism-hater, tree-hugging nutjob, let me know, too, I’d love to confirm your suspicions.
If I could leave you with one final takeaway it’s this: try something new. What do you have to lose? Novel experiences like this expand your breadth of consciousness, and allow you to better understand and relate to the human race. Human beings are curious creatures, and the further you stray away from what you’re used to and the more you begin to climb over the fence you’ve inadvertently built up around you, the more you realize how much the common web of human experience transcends race, gender, sexuality and other hallmarks that ordinarily separate us.
If you bubble yourself up in the same with the same people for the majority of your life, how do you expect to grow? Personally, I learned about community, friendship, non-judgement, freedom and happiness. You’d probably come out with a totally different array of knowledge than I did. Is there any merit to the alternative ways of thinking scattered throughout such events? Who knows. Maybe living the perma-nomad eco-village Rainbow lifestyle is the one for you. Like a fine glass of aged whisky, you’ll never know unless you try.