For two weeks in September, I attended a Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia. Read about how I got there here. In this post, I look at how a Gathering is actually organized.
The heart of a Rainbow Gathering is the Sacred Fire – El Fuego Sagrado. The flame is maintained for the duration and is where the family comes together for two communal meals each day. Following meals is the ideal time for discussions and it is most common that, after breakfast, a formal Circulo de la Palabra is adjourned.
Yet, in the first week, this tradition was neglected, leaving individuals to stand and call for the attention of the group when they had something that needed to be heard. It took Florian, a German veteran of many gatherings, to call for the reinstitution of the Circulo de la Palabra. He was concerned that, without the formal process, not everyone was being empowered to communicate equally. Instead, it was being left to those who were most confident, most passionate, or simply most eloquent to make decisions that affected everyone. I had witnessed this myself, when more assertive (and, it must be said, usually older, male) members of the group interrupted others at meetings to have their own say. Listening is an art not well-taught, it seems.
And so, a new talking stick was consecrated and El Circulo de la Palabra reintroduced. It follows a simple and ancient procedure: the talking stick is passed around the circle so that each may have their say. Another can only speak if the holder of the stick lays it down to open the discussion. The circle continues until the stick makes an entire revolution in silence – when there is consensus among all that everything has been said.
Following Florian’s intervention, Circulos de la Palabra were held as often as the weather permitted. Sometimes, it was simply too hot to sit for hours in the sun. On the day of the full moon, however, it was storm clouds over the hills that threatened the meeting. Still, it was an important day, and with many new arrivals coming the night before, there was much in the way of introduction that needed to be made.
So, even as the thunder rumbled, el circulo was convened with a unified AUM. It was opened by Juan, a 28-year-old Canary Islander who had been living a nomadic life in South America the past five years. To begin, he told the story of the founding of the Bolivian Gathering – how he and a few others had set out from another gathering in Paraguay months before in an epic bicycle caravan, riding to Bolivia to plant the seeds. They had scouted for locations, made contact with the landowner, and began the process of preparing the site.
The stick moved slowly around the circle beneath a grey sky. Most newcomers simply introduced themselves, thanked the gathering for welcoming them, and directed love to all. Others, who had been there for longer, wanted to report something of their experiences, of the personal transformations they were experiencing, the process of opening that was occurring inside them.
Alberto delivered a long, solemn tribute to the spirit of nature all around, then held up a cigarette butt and implored us all to be more conscious of our waste. For the first few minutes Vicente held the stick, he did not speak at all. We waited as he bowed his head, then murmured too softly for most to hear. By the time the stick reached me, the rain had started, and I wondered how heavy it would get before the circle fell apart. For my part, I had a list of reminders for the family, to ensure good hygiene was maintained when serving food for others and going to the toilet.
As the stick began its second turn, the rain fell heavier. There were a few more practical announcements: the planned variety show would be postponed due to the weather, there were more toilet trenches to be dug, and the mud brick oven project for the kitchen needed more helpers. All who wished had their turn to speak, but all fell silent when the thunder overruled. Lightning flashed the circle with split-seconds of rainbow light. With their final words, many welcomed the rain. The valley had been hot and dry and, as Florian said, you can’t have a Rainbow without it.
We concluded the circle with another invocation of the sacred AUM. We were far fewer than we had been in the beginning. The patience of most begins to wear out as the stick makes its second or third turn. Some simply do not care to participate. Florian was right, El Circulo de la Palabra is a fantastic system for ensuring the voices of all can be heard. But, in the end, it relies on the investment and participation of the individuals within it to remain healthy, just like any organization. Apathy and disinterest are just as much a risk to the Rainbow as they are to any other society.
On another, much hotter, occasion, our circulo was joined by the owner of the land on which we camped. La Dueña’s property was vast, though largely unused, and some of it had already been acquired by the government for the oil it contained. They had a mind to take more, and it was in part due to this that the Rainbow Family had determined to make their camp there. Though she was rich in land, still La Dueña had little money. She lived and worked in town, though she would have preferred to have joined us at the gathering. She was an elegant old lady, with long, thinning grey curls, tanned, European features, and a faded ‘Beatles’ t-shirt.
She came that day to advise us of the rumours circulating in Camiri. First, she described the corruption rampant in the country, how the government was a chief sponsor of drug production, and how major construction projects were used to launder the proceeds. Of course, the passing of so many foreigners through the small town had not gone unnoticed. There had been speculation that the police might pay a visit to the camp. Though she knew them to be unconcerned, there was public opinion to be appeased and, she warned us, bribes to be collected.
She reminded us that the Camiri locals were conservative, traditional people, and to be mindful of our behaviour in town – particularly with regards to smoking or trying to purchase marijuana. To the locals, it was ‘just another drug,’ as dangerous and immoral as any other.
This had been discussed before at circulos. There were some who thought smoking had no place at Rainbow Gatherings, just as other drugs were discouraged. But to others, Santa Maria was a sacred medicinal plant, the ceremonial use of which could have powerful healing effects. Most, I think, just liked to get high every now and then.
Regardless, the police never came and La Dueña’s concerns went unrealized. In fact, by the end of the gathering, the attitude of the locals had shifted from suspicious to welcoming, in large part due to the regular missions we launched into town, for food supplies among other things. I couldn’t resist joining one such mission, the story of which I will tell in the next report.