For two weeks in September, I attended a Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia. In this report, I compile excerpts from the diary I was keeping while I was there to give a snapshot of daily life.
‘I woke, as usual, to the sound of Venecia, the young mother from Venezuela camping just across the path, singing rainbow songs to her 2-year-old son, Neuén. As I lay in my sleeping bag, inspecting the pattern of leaves and puddles left on the roof of my tent by the night’s rain, she began to play the violin. I didn’t rise for some time.
‘When I finally did, it was to go to the deep trench dug a little way up the hill to do my morning’s business, then to the river to wash. Afterwards, I returned to the Fuego Sagrado to remove the thorn tips buried in my feet. I knew it was sensible to wear shoes, but I wanted to feel the earth between my toes. Removing splinters had become a daily ritual.
‘Having washed my feet, I sterilized a sewing needle in the fire. Then I got to work, breaking the skin and unearthing the little points. Always they came with a little clump of pus, but it was nowhere near as painful as I feared.’
A Day’s Work
‘There were twelve of us, in varying levels of pyjama-wear, traipsing kilometres along a narrow track, the red earth suffocated by vines on either side. I was wearing sandals and a rain-jacket atop my bed thermals.
‘I love those sandals. Best pre-purchase trip I made.
‘We had organized to mount a mission back past the Welcome Centre to gather materials with which to build an oven. Having already meditated, helped in the kitchen, and written a little, I was glad for the walk.
‘The expedition took us through a little ravine. You could see the roots of the trees that clinging to the ridge above, tunnelling as deeply into the orange clay walls as the branches were tall. Treading along the sandy creek-bed track, we marvelled at their asymmetry.
‘On the way, we met three Venezuelan women on their way to the gathering, and, when we reached the Welcome Centre, two more Brazilians arrived as well.
‘Past the Welcome Centre, there was a ruined house on the height. There, the bricks of an old oven and some scrap metal could be salvaged. We loaded up with materials and lit up celebratory joints. Smoking made the journey back seem twice as long, and with packs full of bricks, that wasn’t ideal. On the other hand, my Spanish temporarily reached near fluent levels.’
‘In the afternoon, I wandered over to the igloo. It had been built in the first week of the gathering, from dried mud packed on a thatched-vine frame. I had slowly been ingratiating myself with its focalisers – a Rainbow term for someone who takes the initiative to organize something – ever since I had stumbled across Florian there one morning making fresh bread and coffee. Andre, the fast-talking scholar-minstrel from Valparaíso, had suggested I might come early and prepare the fire, and it was my hope to graduate to baker, myself.
‘At the igloo, I discovered Min in the centre of a little crowd, making Korean pancakes. So that was the end of all plans for the afternoon.
‘A former artist and animator, Min loved to dance and laugh. I had been introduced to her one night at dinner. It had been raining, so we crowded under the tarps in the kitchen to eat. She sat next to the cook-fire and teased the servers, badgering them to give her more food. She played the wood-pipes and the hang drum and smoked like a chimney.
‘I stayed at the igloo for hours writing, eating pancakes and listening to Andre read excerpts from a book on the history of the Mapuché and play the guitar – the songs were South American classics I had listened to when I only dreamt of coming to the continent. Visitors came and went, seeking refuge in the light of the little oven while the rain pattered gently in the canopy outside.’
‘The hills around Camiri were rugged and dry, but close to the river, there were still hints of jungle. When you stopped, you noticed it humming at you, buzzing at you. When you looked around, you realised it was writhing at you, the branches and the vines coiled, dancing, frozen orgasmic. Buzzing and humming at you.
‘The hills monolithed the sky like ziggurats behind a canopy of blades.
‘I wandered back from the stream, having filled my bottle, past the singing at the maté fire and the kitchen, to the Fuego Sagrado. I put another log in the flames and moved aside a stone of its circle, hoping for more light with which to write by.
‘It was stifling hot two hours after dark. The fires lit easily and the wood was burning fast.
‘I lay down with eyes closed to wait for dinner. When I opened them, I found Carolina, a sister from Brazil, wafting a stick of incense over my body. When she was done, she wandered away into the darkness without a word.
‘That night, a caravan of musicians had arrived from the Rainbow Gathering in Peru that had just finished, doubling at the last minute the amount of food that needed to be cooked. A German woman told us of the seven consecutive nights they had spent sleeping in bus terminals or in the cabins of trucks. They were exhausted and starving, and the food circle was a late, raucous affair.
‘Dinner was a pasta with a sauce so rich and thick I wondered how it could possibly be vegan. It turned out it was not a sauce; the pasta had been forgotten by the fire, and some of it had melted to a paste.’
‘After dinner, we held the variety show. Many of us had fire toys and someone had brought a canister of gasoline, so we were able to spin and twirl to our heart’s content. Min played a musical accompaniment on her pipes, though when I stepped forward to perform with a borrowed staff, she had to be roused from a nap to keep on playing. Others told stories and performed comedy routines – half of which was lost on me, but which the crowd found hilarious as they munched on popcorn supplied from the kitchen.
‘There was drumming and dancing by the fire. Those without the energy simply stared into the flames. It had been a long day and I was ready for bed, so I wandered off passed the small groups chatting further from the fire, back to my tent.
‘I had started out using a full bag of clothes as a pillow, but as it got colder I had been taking out layer after layer. Gradually, my pillow thinned, until I was sleeping on only a hard-cover book, and then, finally, head-to-earth.
‘That week, I dreamt vividly almost every night. Strange dreams, piecing together distant parts of my life into poignant patchworks that seemed to lay all and more at my feet.’
Stay tuned for the forthcoming and final report, in which I leave the gathering and return to civilization.
Photo Credit: Florian Schmale