In September I headed to a Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia. In my next few posts, I will tell the story of my time there and examine different aspects of what a Rainbow Gathering is and how it works. This first post introduces the concept and tells the story of my arrival there.
Arriving at a Rainbow Gathering is usually a little adventure in and of itself. Fifty-six years ago, when the first Gathering was held, hand-drawn invitations and word-of-mouth directions were the norms. Millennials like me, however, are used to well-publicised facebook events with GPS coordinates that can be plugged directly into a smartphone. But the Rainbow Family doesn’t advertise and is generally reluctant to keep up with the pace of technology. All I had was a general set of directions in Spanish, posted months ago in a barely read forum, concluded with the message:
‘Look carefully for the signs we have prepared for you.’
So, with only this, I set off, gradually leaving civilization behind. An overnight bus took me from the city of Santa Cruz to the town of Camiri and a friendly taxi-driver dropped me twenty kilometres further south of the town, where a dirt road turned off the highway. From there, I was to trek twelve more kilometres into the hills in full pack. I passed a farm, turned off the dirt road onto a smaller track, slipped through a closed metal gate and crossed a stream until I was twelve kilometres into the bushland with only a vague idea of where I was going.
Eventually, I spotted a dreamcatcher hanging from a tree. A sure-fire sign of hippy presence in the area. Emboldened, I soon came to a wooden sign. A rainbow was painted above an arrow pointing left. Below this, another arrow pointed right beneath the words ‘Welcome Centre.’
At the Welcome Centre – which is just a little fireplace surrounded by some logs, a crate of vegetables and a kettle, I was met by Fermin. A deeply-tanned, wildly-bearded young Argentine, he lounged in the crook of a tree by the fire, dressed only in a ripped loincloth, playing the guitar and sipping from a maté cup. He met me with his intense gaze, slid out of his seat and gave me a minute-long hug.
“Bienvenidos, hermano,” he said. It was his job to introduce new arrivals to the concept and principles of the Gathering.
The first thing he told me was that a Rainbow Gathering is not a festival. It is not simply a place to party in the wild, or even merely to relax and have fun. It is a temporary society based on principles of love and freedom, built by a global community hoping to realize a more natural, spiritual way of living; an alternative to the confusions of modern, urban life.
Save for the donations collected for communal meals, Rainbow Gatherings function entirely without money. There are no leaders, no centralized power structure, as few formalized rules as possible. Anybody is free to come and experience it for themselves and contribute as they choose to the experiment. There are only four expectations the community hopes new-comers will abide by:
- No drugs or alcohol
- No taking the personal possessions of others
- No spread rumours
- Take responsibility for your waste
After relaxing a little with Fermin, I set off with further directions towards the Gathering. It was still a little trek beyond the Welcome and I had to keep an eye out for the little dreamcatchers hung from branches marking the correct turns in the path.
But it was getting dark and I soon lost sight of the markers. Rainbow Gatherings last a month, from new moon to new moon – with a celebration midway through to mark the full moon. I was arriving promptly on the very first night – just when it would be darkest.
As night fell, I began to question my direction. There had been a split in the path a little while back. Perhaps I should have taken the other fork. I dumped my pack and pulled out my torch, resolving to scout a little further before trying the other way.
But then, just around the bend, two shining dots floated out of the darkness and transformed into the eyes of a little dog that wandered into mine torchlight and looked at me curiously. I followed it a little further until the tell-tale sound of singing reached my ear.
Around the very next bend were twenty or so people, standing around a fire, singing a Rainbow song.
“Welcome home!” they cried, as I stumbled into the light and dumped my packs unceremoniously next to a tree. People approached me from all sides, smiling and laughing. “Bienvenido, hermano,” they said, offering me hugs and water. “What’s your name? Where are you from? Did you find the place alright?”
My timing couldn’t have been better: dinner was just being served. Welcome home, indeed.
It takes a few days to settle into the Rainbow, to adjust to the rhythms of this alternative life. To begin with, there are obvious, superficial differences. If you are not used to nudity, it can be a shock to see people bathing together casually in the river – or doing anything else, actually, from cooking to relaxing – completely naked, seemingly without a self-conscious thought. The simple trenches which serve as communal toilets require some instruction to use correctly, with only a bottle of water and a cup of ash on hand. And ‘Rainbow Time,’ by which the days amble, is the antithesis of a city rhythm. When all you have to go on is the position of the sun and how hungry you are, hearing an actual minute-and-hour time can be a jarring experience. There is no technology beyond fire and stone to be found.
But there are more subtle, unexpected adjustments to make as well. That the Rainbow is a community based on love is not just talk. To be greeted by your Rainbow brothers and sisters on the little dirt tracks with surprisingly intimate embraces and genuinely interested, searching expressions can be a little bit overwhelming. And it can be almost intimidating to witness the whole group standing in a circle, holding hands, gifting each other little kisses and smiles while singing songs of love and nature. By the affection they show each other, you might assume these people have known each other for years.
The truth is that many will have met for the first time only that week. It is just that, in coming to a Gathering, they have made the conscious decision to open themselves up to their fellow human beings, in a way that is almost never done when living in the city. To make an effort to show love and compassion and acceptance to everybody, to treat everybody like family.
When you realize just how jarring it is, you can realize too something of the bizarre tragedy of modern, urban life. That we would go about our days avoiding as much as possible any form of contact with as many of the human beings around us as possible. Avoiding eye contact on public transport, navigating painfully through work-place small talk, fleeing the city for the comfort of our own private, predictable refuges at the end of the day.
An extreme characterization, perhaps, but one that is present to some extent, I think, in most of us that live in cities. At a Rainbow Gathering, they aspire to something more, and that can be difficult to adjust to. Initially, there seems like a lot to figure out, and all you might want to do is hide away in your tent and smuggle a few minutes poking away on your reception-less, contraband phone. But give it time and, after a little while, it will feel less like learning and more like remembering.
And then you’ll really start to feel like you’re coming home.