For two weeks in September, I attended a Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia. In this report, I describe the Food Mission I embarked on for the Gathering.
The food mission was an expedition into Camiri to source supplies at the local markets. It was an overnight affair. First, to reach Camiri and stay the night at the home of La Dueña. The next day, to return home full packs of groceries.
Donations for communal food were collected after every meal in the sombrero magico. For the most part, there had been abundancia – enough for seconds and even third servings. This had been due to those who went on the missions and hauled back as many kilos of ingredients as they could back to the gathering.
An oft-repeated mantra of the Rainbow is ‘if you see a job, it’s yours.’ Every individual has a role to play in building the community. I was eager to participate in this crucial undertaking and curious, too, to see what I would make of outside civilization – ‘Babylon,’ as it was nicknamed, after some time at the Rainbow.
It would be the first time in a week that I wore underpants.
I was ready promptly after breakfast. But Rainbow Time moves slower than in the outside world. Slowly, our group assembled: there was Washington, aka ‘Washi,’ the scurvy, forty-something Uruguayan with a habit of trying to balance things on his nose; Emile, the young father; Pablo the Argentinian photographer; Marioxis and Yeli, the two Venezuelanas; and young Drew and Nacho, Brazilian and Chilean, with guitar and ukulele in tow.
The hike back to the highway was longer than I remembered. On the road to the neighbouring farm, we passed locals waving from a taxi, and two rainbow brothers returning on bikes from their own Mission Verde.
Just as we reached the highway, the now empty taxi pulled up behind us. The driver, returning to Camiri, agreed to take us all for free. That he drove a hatchback and we were eight did not seem to be a problem. With one in the front and four in the back, it was left to me, Emile and Nacho to squeeze into the boot, knees pressed against the rear window, packs wedged on top. At least I had some back support: a large gas canister.
Trundling along the highway, I had a beautiful view of the sunset over the hills. At the police checkpoint, no-one batted an eye, and we arrived without incident in the main plaza of Camiri just after dark, unfolding from the tiny car like a troupe of clowns in front of bemused locals enjoying their Sunday evening.
I had assumed we would be heading immediately to the house of La Dueña for dinner and an early night, but the group had other ideas – they wanted to take the town by storm.
Food at the gathering was simple vegan fare – rice or pasta with vegetables for dinner, porridge with fruits and nuts for breakfast. While it was wholesome, cravings still built up. Now, as we set off towards the market, we became like kids in a candy store, buying tobacco and sugary snacks wherever we could along the way. Having no cash to hand, I was saved from temptation and left to marvel at the strangeness of the bustling street. Everything moved a little too fast. It was impossible to smile at everyone or even make out their faces under the unnatural street-light glare. The noise of radios, street-vendors and traffic was disorientating. It took me a little while to remember how to cross the road.
We strolled along the stalls of the market, rescuing damaged or ugly fruit otherwise destined for the bin. Pablo sold photos he had taken in his travels and Emile, coloured-string wristbands. By the end, we had two full bags of black but otherwise perfectly edible bananas, some old mandarins and carrots, bruised apples, two packets of oats, and, miraculously, two packets of slightly crushed biscuits, all gifted or traded by generous locals.
Continuing on towards the house of La Dueña, Drew and Nacho ducked into a restaurant and played songs for the diners, passing around Drew’s little bowler hat and picking at the scraps of abandoned tables as they did. They came out fifteen Bolivianos richer and promptly bought three cups of somó – a cold drink of sugar an maize – which we shared, singing the song of El Sombrero Magico down the street.
We arrived at La Dueña’s after 10, letting ourselves in through the side-gate and setting up in the unoccupied shack behind the main house. That day, we had walked more than eight hours with packs. But still, with our late night feast, we didn’t get to bed until after twelve.
The next morning, we woke slowly and took a long, leisurely breakfast. I had expected an early exit but, clearly, we were still running rainbow time. It wasn’t until midday that we were ready to go, heading back to the markets for round two.
We dumped our bags on the street corner and Washi, Pablo and Emile headed in to do business. Over the next two hours, we hauled kilos of pasta, rice, flour, corn, and more. Then, Drew and Nacho took a turn, wandering along the aisles, playing music and soliciting donations for their trouble of fruits and vegetables from every seller. Like this, we were gifted our lunch as well.
Everywhere we went, the locals were curious to know who we were and where we were from. Every conversation any of us had seemed to be some kind of exercise in public relations. We explained the concept of the gathering, emphasizing its focus on love, community, and never failing to mention its anti-drugs-and-alcohol policy.
Around five o’clock, Washi, Emile and Pablo went off in search of a ride to hitch back to the gathering. The rest of us leant against our little Casa de Mochillas and looked over our haul. Of the fruit and vegetables, we had paid for perhaps five per cent.
Micro-buses and taxis came and went, some with huge megaphones strapped to their roofs, broadcasting public service announcements. The hours passed. The boys played some music. We made snacks. I napped.
It was getting dark when the others returned. They had no success in the plaza and collapsed onto their bags a take a little maté and rest. The market had closed and, in the empty warehouse, a few families were practising a line-dance to tinny, amplified music.
Finally, a friend of La Dueña’s rang. He had a truck and could come and pick us up. He didn’t arrive until almost nine. We packed up our street-corner home of eight hours, piled into the back with the food, and got going, singing our way to the turn-off.
The truck took us all the way to the Welcome Centre, where we unloaded and sent Nacho ahead to summon help. The rest of us made it only a little further up the path, fully laden with cargo, before we decided to stop and wait for them to come.
Sitting in the middle of the track late at night was a fitting way to cap off what had, in truth, been a day of sporadic, frantic activity, book-ended by hours of hanging around, waiting. But we only had to wait a little longer until reinforcements from the rainbow arrived.
There was a dozen of them, ready to relieve and receive us with embraces fit for returnees from the wars. There had been no communal meal that night – the food had all run out.
It was almost midnight by the time we began the final leg of the journey, a rainbow convoy hauling by moonlight precious food back home. I traipsed behind Min, a newly arrived Korean, who kept apologizing for her slow pace but ambled all the same. It was such a beautiful walk, after all.
We arrived back to a sleeping camp and unloaded in the kitchen. I went away to wash my feet and rest a little. When I returned, Juan was making popcorn. All huddled around the fire, grateful for the successful – if late – return of our mission, and for the spirit of family which ran through all.
The next report will combine excerpts from the diary I kept at the gathering to showcase what happened during a regular day at the gathering.