For two weeks in September, I attended a Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia. In this, my final report, I describe my departure from the gathering and return to civilization.
My last night at the gathering found me in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I had hoped to trek across to the Welcome Centre and help in some small way to build the house we had promised La Dueña in exchange for the use of her land. But the massage Paulina gave me ended up lasting all afternoon and, by the time it was finished, we were beginning to lose the light. It meant I couldn’t read another sister’s tarot cards, either, something I had been doing as much as I felt natural that past week. I did manage, at least, to hike up to the Templo de la Luna to catch the last of the sunset. Only for a little while; the mosquitoes were out, as usual. At least this time I had remembered to wear shoes and bring a torch. Next to the temple, there was a cactus that rose taller than the trees and razor-sharp thorn gird the branches and leaves of the shrubs all around.
By the time I arrived back at the kitchen, it was dark. Hernando was there with a recently arrived brother from Brazil. The food mission was due in that night and supplies for the family were low. But as I began cutting the few onions we had left, something beautiful happened. An announcement had been made that day about the food and so, one-by-one, brothers and sisters arrived in the kitchen to donate their own personal food to the communal dinner. Bags of rice, pasta, beans, lentils and more all came to be added to the pot, and, in the end, the dinner was a feast of abundance.
Perhaps surprising was how normal all this seemed by then. I had to remind myself I was witnessing personal sacrifices for the good of the family.
Just as well, as, by the time it was ready, I had a bad case of the munchies. After the vegetables had all been chopped and put on to boil, I decided to make a farewell visit to the Baker’s Igloo. There, I found Florian rolling an exquisite joint – German engineering at its finest. I had to laugh: of course, I would inadvertently end up high as a kite on my last night there. I went to bed soon after dinner and had little trouble getting to sleep.
The next morning, I packed up my tent and organized my bag. Rummaging deep inside, my hand came across unfamiliar objects. Slowly, I pulled out my wallet and my phone. It felt like ages since I had caught sight of them and now they seemed like strange artefacts of a foreign civilization.
Lydia, a German sister, was also leaving that day. I had breakfast at her camp a little up-river. Then, after saying our farewells to the few up early enough, we headed off up the track out of the Rainbow and back to Babylon. The flowers were just starting to bloom with the coming of spring.
After a 12 kilometre trek, we arrived at the highway and hitched a ride to Camiri. There, I withdrew cash from an atm, holding money in my hand for the first time in two and a half weeks. Suddenly, everything cost something: food, water, transport. Even to use the public bathrooms.
We took a bus to Santa Cruz, arriving just after dark at the main terminal. It was anarchy. Swarms of people flooded the concourse, hauling bags and searching desperately for their platforms. Announcements came thick and fast over the loudspeakers, barely intelligible over the noise of the crowd. Vendors hustled their way through, cheerily hawking empañadas and salteñas.
We caught a cab to a quiet alojamiento in the north-east of the city, just inside the inner ring-road. The driver charged us extra for the u-turn he had to make after missing it the first time round.
There were so many people everywhere. So much traffic and noise. I could feel the energy wiring through me, even after we returned from a late dinner at the only place we could find that was prepared to serve us a plate of rice without the fried chicken.
The next morning, I farewelled Lydia, who was heading back to Germany, and set about some chores in the city. I extended my visa, topped up my bank card, and tracked down the only good quality notebook I had yet seen in Bolivia or Peru – I had exhausted my own soon after I arrived at the gathering, and had been taking my notes on scraps of spare paper. Then I purchased I violin. It was off-white, with dark butterflies fluttering up from the base.
I walked out of the store wondering if I would ever be able to waltz into a restaurant like Drew and come out a richer man or serenade a talking circle like Venecia, or whether I would break or lose my dream before then.
By the mid-afternoon, I could feel the frantic energy of the city starting to seep into my nerves. It took a mini-bus the wrong way round the outer ring-road, and stormed back to the hostel. Thankfully, it was a relatively painless affair to find a bus heading to Samaipata, a small town in the mountains three hours west of Santa Cruz. It had been recommended to me as a good place to stay for a while by a few different brothers and sisters at the gathering, who had even told me of a hostel – El Jardin – where a few of them had volunteered in exchange for lodgings.
After two and a half weeks camping by a quiet stream, one night in the big smoke was more than enough. I was amazed at how the change in environment – the sounds, the sights, the smells, the energy and attitude of the people – had such a noticeable, physical effect. In less than twenty-four hours, I felt a little more on edge, a little more stressed, a little more closed. It was a good reminder of the importance of managing such influences appropriately. I can’t imagine living in a city with regular, easy access to places of peace and tranquillity, be they parks, libraries, or churches.
Reviewing this post for publication over a month later, I can add a small addendum to my rainbow experience. I ended up running into and spending time with brothers and sisters again and again, in Samaipata and further afield. They plan to attend further gatherings – In Argentina in the summer and Columbia in the autumn. Perhaps my own path will take me there, or perhaps I will go my own way. But regardless, I know that, wherever I am in South America (or the world), I have a second family of gypsies, nomads, pilgrims and vagabonds living a life of adventure and music. And if I’m lucky, then, not too far away, there will be a second home as well, where they have gathered to continue their experiment in another way of living.
And that is the Rainbow.