Thursday, 15 July 2010

Communing with Rainbows

Written 14th July

Disclaimer: I would like to make it clear from the very start that the following are just my personal views and observations.  If anyone stumbles across this whilst looking for Rainbow, you should go with an open mind and form your own opinions.  As I have done.

And just when we were beginning to feel a little bit jaded and a bit 'been there, done that, not another UNESCO castle/church/old town, we ended up somewhere completely different -  four days communing with 'real' hippies, in a field in the middle of nowhere.  Tie-dye, dreadlocks yoga, circling, chanting, naked lake swimming, new moon fire opening ceremony, cooking bubble and squeak for 400 people sitting in a field, the full works. No pictures -it wasn't that sort of place - but you'll get the idea...

After a late start on saturday, we were merrily bimbling along the sunny highway when we saw two people hitching a lift by the side of the road.  They looked nice - proper backpackers - and for once we were in a tidy enough state for visitors, so we thought well why not?  and thus we met Michael and Magda, two polish MSc Philosophy students (or just ex-students or something, bit unclear), who were also heading north having hitched all the way from west poland in the last week.

So we got to chatting about life and work and travels  - they spent a summer working in the same part of ireland as we went to last year, and have family in Gdansk so we now have more polish coast recommendations - and how inexplicably hard it is to get a credit card when your occupation is 'unemployed philosopher'...  And the the miles wizzed by.

Eventually we asked them where they wanted dropping off and they pointed to a small village just south of our smoke sauna destination in Kuopio.

"why are you going there?" we asked, it being in the middle of nowhere.  "we are going to a Rainbow Gathering" they replied.  

A what???

From what I have since gathered, the Rainbow Family started in america - where else - in the 70's out of Woodstock.  It seems to be a loose organisation (if such a formal word could ever be applied, maybe a "coming together" would be more accurate) of disparate people from all over the world - many of them properly hairy and mostly naked - some of whom live in permanently established, self sustaining eco-villages, some of whom live by travelling from gathering to gathering and some of whom just come to sit in a field for a week or a weekend and smoke weed.  

Will has likened it to the collection of things you inherit from the garages, workshops and toolsheds of your granddad.  An odd assortment of weird and wonderful things, some of which are obviously useful, some of which turn out unexpectedly to be 'just the thing', some of which you know will never find a purpose for but can't bring yourself to throw away 'just in case'.   You know, the assorted collections in old tobacco tins, some more nuts than bolts, some more rounded than others, some still sharp, others blunted by age and circumstance or rusty from spending too much time out alone in the rain. Those things that had a perfect niche in the imperial world of the sixties but do not fit in the neat spaces of metric spanner set that is today's society and those other odds or ends which seem completely unfathomable on their own but which become totally obvious when fitted together with some other equally obscure part from the other corner of the shed.

To paint you a picture as there are no photos, over four days we have seen;

Your archetypal hippie elder, a genuine woodstock original, tanned and wiry complete with long grey hair and beard (actually a very interesting bloke to chat to)

Gandalf in the sort of sarong nappy thing that Ghandi wore

A few Amish grandmother types

Several Captain Jack Sparrows, complete with dark beard and moustaches, turbans, flashing eyes ringed with black eyeliner and hunting knives swinging from their belts

One or two elves as depicted in Lord of the Rings (the elven king guy, not orlando bloom), sombre, wise expression and long straight hair

Rasta Maouris (sorry, temporary spelling mental block on native kiwis) - an interesting combination of dreads, rasta turban, tattoos and carved bone and jade amulets

Santa on holiday - the fattest, jolliest guy there, in rainbow coloured glasses, patchwork dungarees, a rainbow knitted floppy woolly hat, his beard in plaits with daisies threaded through them

Your child of the rainbow hippy chick, straight from central casting - a waiflike girl in layers of floaty tie-dye and strappy suntops hugging everyone.

Your earth mother types walking round with a baby hanging from each breast

The Bill Oddie, beardie types in shorts  and socks with sandals

Your standard stoned nerdy type - you know the one in Buffy and the like who turns out to be the person who is making deals with the devil to in order to bring back from the dead the girl he has loved from afar but who wouldn't give him the time of day when she was alive, and in doing so unleashes the forces of hell on the unsuspecting world. 

And, most oddly, the Magic Clarinet pixie from That Mitchell and Webb Look, complete with felt domed hat, dreads and felt jacket but minus the trousers and pants.

You name it, we've seen it :)

There doesn't seem to be one single united belief system - many of the properly hairy have spent time in india and thailand as you would expect but nothing organised - so there is no cult indoctrination going on and instead it is a mish mash of hinduism, buddhism, paganism, a bit of christianity, and lots of chanting, drumming and generally communing in a spiritual manner.  None of them could really be pinned down to anything specific, and, by and large, they seem to believe in living communally, sharing what they have (or at least what other people have but I will come to that later), deciding everything in Circles with 'focalisers' taking charge (for whatever that means, I'll come to that later too) of various practical aspects of life - water, shopping for supplies, food and the various ad hoc projects - and the sacred energy of the fire. There are no bands, no shops or stalls, no merchandise - its not a festival - just communing together in the middle of a field.

we've never spent much time with real hippies before - Mr P you're about the closest I've got ;) - so we decided to pop our heads in to see what it was all about.   and didn't leave again for four days...

We arrived the day before New Moon - the official start of the Gathering, which lasts a month and peaks at Full Moon - and were welcomed home with a hug into the Welcome Centre - a tarpaulin strung between two trees on the side of the farm track between two lakes - by a slightly manic singsong italian man called Diego with a dreadlocked beard, who gave us chai from a pot on the fire and pointed us through the forest towards the main camp.

Still intending to leave imminently, we walked on up with Michael and Magda to help them find a spot for their tent,  through the forest, across the first field, past the cows, through the meadow, up the track and round the second field where we found the chai tent, the kitchen tent and the wooden walls of an old barn which had been designated to be the foodstore, where lots of axe-wielding people - many of them naked - were busily 
talking about constructing a roof.

And on, past where the Main Circle and fire were going to be, through the second wood and down the edge of the lake, where, rumour had it, a sauna was to be built.

Still talking about leaving, we somehow ended up in the kitchen on the way back, where I chopped vegetables and Will got himself appointed fire focaliser - shock! :)

And having cooked it, we stayed for the Food Circle - everyone gathers in a Circle and, eventually after some singing, some drumming, some ommm-ing and some handholding, the food is served around the group - and then Will responded to a call for helpers to manifest the Main Circle (dragging big rocks into place with the spiritual aid of lots of chanting and omm-ing and, thanks to Will, the more practical help of actual physics things like planks and levers), then there was chai and more drumming and singing round the fire, and we met Stu and Emma - who have just begun an open-ended amount of time travelling during which they plan to get jobs somewhere in europe  - and Janet - a floaty english lady now living in norway and working in a healing centre channelling norse gods (or some such thing) and then it was as dark as it was ever likely to get, and we decided we might as well stay, although as we don't have a tent, back in the carpark by the welcome tent.

And then it seemed a waste not to stay for the main fire opening ceremony - yes you guessed it, some circling, singing, drumming and omm-ing round the main fire within the newly erected stone circle only this time with a bit of spirit-inviting by means of a horn call and some shouting - and then chai and chat until we realised we had missed it getting dark and it was well on the way to being light again.

And so time unfolded, staying up until it was getting light and waking up when the van was too unbearably hot, quickly becoming more tie dyed and less clothed - didn't fully embrace the nakedness other than the lake swimming but it is actually quite nice being somewhere where people genuinely don't care, there should be more nakedness in the world I say - but I have a tasselled indian sarong which happens to be perfect for this lifestyle and which has not yet had an airing on this trip.  So there was yoga in the forest, chai in the Circle, random chat with Stu and Emma, random chat with random people and generally sitting in the shade and trying to withstand the mosquito attacks.  Ever looking for a challenge and a project, Will set out to try and get various projects a bit further off the ground - store roof, which after 2 days and lots of talk looked no different to when we arrived, and sauna, which got as far as being a hole in the ground before the lack of any willingness on anyone's part to focalise (or even focus on) a coherent plan got to him.   Stu was a chef/cook in several of his various previous lives - one of which was a baker in a Judaeo-Christian commune in devon - so he appointed himself kitchen focaliser - mainly by dint of being hungry and no one else looking like they were about to do anything - with Emma as assistant focaliser and I formed a potato circle and, between us, and given what was available, we fed ratatouille and bubble and squeak to 400 hungry circling hippies - well that has to be a first for all concerned :)

All very lovely and very different, but by yesterday it was definitely  time to leave.

For a start, it was just too hot - sorry I just can't sit for ages in the midday sun during seemingly endless chanting waiting for the porridge to slowly make it's way round - and the mosquitoes were horrendous.   

And then there was the naked shouty man - who was, to be fair, pissing most people off, even the really hairy ones - who was on some totally other planet with his spaced out ranting, at, and about everyone and everything, including the mosquitoes.  although to be completely honest, if you choose to walk about naked in a forest, by a lake in mosquito season and they bite you bottom, I feel that is really your problem, not the wider circle's...

But mostly I have discovered that I am not of the hippy mentality.  In fact, I am a capitalist through and through.  I don't think that the society we have is in any way perfect - indeed there are many major flaws - but despite my recent ventures into freeloading - which are pretty much only water and wifi -  in general, I believe in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay.  Society should be equipped, funded and prepared to help those in genuine need - which is largely where is currently breaks down - but those who can help themselves should get off their arses and do it and not expect everyone else to provide for them.

Which, despite all their mystic twaddle to the contrary about community, family and sharing, is basically what I saw.

And for all their talk about how society is broken and we should all live in a world of rainbows where there is abundance of everything (where everything is either built by machines as one guy's theory went, or organic and natural and falls from trees, in line with many other theories), this particular gathering would not survive without the society they profess to want to live without.

Whilst a permanent, if moving, home to some, the Gatherings are effectively a travelling circus - freak show if you will - a disney theme park of hippies which is funded and largely run by the visitors and weekend hippies who come along for the experience, their unstated 'entrance fee' being the money they put into the Magic Hat which dances round the Circle after each meal, and the willingness with which they embrace the idea of communal living by cooking, putting roofs on buildings (or at least talking about it...) and digging shit pits etc etc.  I was chatting to one of the real 'old timers', who was bemoaning the fact that the focalisers of this gathering had borrowed money to get started - something he disapproved of - but was quite candid about how every gathering always ends up well in profit.  European gatherings are, apparently, particularly 'fat'.   He was less clear about where this money then goes... There was some mention of good causes...

And while the newcomers are doing things, the permanent Gathering members seem to spend a lot of time sitting around saying things like;

"does anyone have any tobacco or coffee for a brother"  a plea to which one girl who had just arrived responded by offering him some of hers, which turned into the 'lend' of tobacco, filter and paper for him (three times in the half hour I was there) and then four other people...

"if anyone has anything to smoke, now would be the time to bring it out" to which all the other old timers in whichever chai tent it is chant their whole hearted agreement.

"we need some water in the Welcome tent" which is where we happen to be "lets manifest some and it will surely appear"  ie, someone else should go up to the barn and find water.

"I've drawn all these signs for the shit pit, so really someone should go and dig one.  This bloke sitting next to me can show you where"  

After breakfast, shouted in the circle (by tobacco borrowing man, another naked dreadlocked man) "Please family, no more porridge for breakfast, some of us want something else" response from somewhere "well what do you suggest, there is nothing else in the store and no money"  "well someone needs to focalise something, of course I can cook man but I have better things to offer the family" ie drumming, chanting and bumming tobacco...

And the guy we sat next to in one Food Circle who, on the first time round with food asked for a double portion of the raw food option as it was all he was going to eat, and who then on second time round asked for doubtful helpings of the cooked food as he was twice the size of some people so needed twice the food - well that would be why you're twice the size!  And to also do it with the flower lemonade which has no calorific value and looks to be in danger of running out before it goes round once is just down right greedy.  IMHO... 

And all the time an underlying feeling of criticism - sometimes more vocalised than others - emanating those not doing anything, and spreading towards those who are, which indicates that however they are doing it,  it is just not the rainbow way but with no effort made to do anything but criticise.  And when you do ask them, to make sure you are doing the right thing in the right way, they complain that they don't get a moment's peace because people keep asking them things...

Don't get me wrong, in every society, someone has to say what needs doing and it shouldn't always be that same person who does it but sometimes some leading by example would go down well...

Someone we spoke to (with a fabulous ringmaster's twirled moustache) agreed whole heartedly that this is what hippies are like but stated that if they have a problem, unless they are going to help, it is exactly that, their problem.  All very well to say, in your tent away from the main circle where you appear to be choosing to cook for yourself and your family and not even joining the main circle, but on only day two of hippydom, it doesn't feel like that.  He also laughed when we said that we were very conscious of being outsiders and as such didn't want to inadvertently offend anyone.  Apparently a) no one is as easily offended as a hippy is (well I can't disagree with that, one chai maker got uppity when Will told her that her her pan of water was boiling "I do know how to make chai, please just let me do it and don't interfere" and spent the rest of the weekend throwing him dirty looks whenever she saw him) and b) there are no outsiders at rainbow, everyone is welcome.  Hmmm well that is nice in theory and generally true but in reality, pretty much everyone here is being 'unique and individual' in exactly the same way which makes those of us who are not unique and individual pretty obvious...

Two events brought matters to a head.

The first was a near altercation - in a surprisingly un-peace and love way - between Will and one of the real hairy old timers about a bit of old tractor trailer covered in red paint of unknown provenance (ie unknown lead content) which he wanted to clean up on the kitchen fire - or rather wanted Will to clean up on the kitchen fire - to use to cook chappatis.  It might have been fine but then again, it is just not worth the risk quite honestly - we want no part in lead poisoning 400 hippies thank you.  Although, some of them could hardly be any crazier... maybe they would all wake up totally sane, wonder why on earth they were sleeping on the floor in a mosquito ridden forest and immediately go out and get a job in a bank... ;)

And the arrival of the police to very nicely and politely advise the land owner that there is a national fire ban as everything is so dry so all fires must be extinguished and there would be a fire inspector coming round later.  Just a polite warning as they didn't want him to get a €5,000 fine.

Immediately, like the wildfire they were trying to prevent, word went round the camp about police persecution of hippy gatherings.  And how it was always the same.  And 'they' just don't understand that this is a peace and healing camp, not a festival so of course there won't be any trouble.

And many talking circles to discuss the matter were talked about being focalised (you get the idea) whilst in reality, lots of small groups formed.  Some very emotional about police persecution, some about practical things like gas supplies for cooking, others less practical about making solar ovens to cook rice in.  Shouty naked man was screaming that if there was no fire there was no rainbow as the fire was the sacred energy and focus of the whole family and that he was going to go out and scout for new land for the gathering (in two weeks for 1000 people in a country completely covered by a blanket fire ban?  I think not.  And anyway, as someone else said, he couldn't scout his way out of the carpark...)

Two things really got to me.  The first was someone going to ask the farm owner to provide gas cooking equipment on the grounds that once rainbow moved on, he would get to keep that equipment.  Now the guy may be one of the properly hairy - the gandalf lookalike - but he is a retired farmer, who has no livestock anymore and is eaking a living by selling timber - the same stuff that is being burnt to cook with and make sacred fire with - and I think he has done more than enough already in allowing his land to be taken over by the hippies - for free as far as I could gather -  in the first place, especially as he is liable for the fine.  I mean, hat is he going to do with gas cooking equipment for a thousand people??  And secondly, the same guy's insistence that people continue to collect firewood to bring to the welcome centre fire to make chai - that's just what you want at the site entrance the fire inspector may arrive at at any moment - and that people would have to keep the kitchen fire going as until there is gas, how do 'they' expect us to cook.  Umm, I think that it is not 'their' problem that we have all chosen to live in a field during a fire ban.  Oh and the shouty naked guy was going on that as an international gathering we are above petty constraints like national laws...

You get the idea.

I appreciate that I am probably too constrained by the rules and norms of a flawed and broken society and as such should break free and embrace the true future for humanity by transcending to a higher plane of spiritual awareness and becoming at one with nature, the family and the sacred fire through which course of action I could then stop worrying about such trivial matters like fire risks and lead poisoning,  by which I am probably being a divisive source of bad vibes within the family, and instead smoke lots of weed and it will all be cool....

Or I could just leave as it is too hot, too bitey, to angsty and looks set to get worse...

Which is what we did.  I am sure they will all be fine and will have a great Gathering and a great Full Moon celebration and all will be great man.  But that's their life.  Mine is quite stress free and daisy filled in my little van and i'd like to keep it that way...

We got back on track with our smoke sauna experience - apparently the largest smoke sauna in the world - which is somehow different from normal saunas but we don't quite know how or why, something to do with the construction of the building.

At first it seemed a bit crazy, after having spent four days in a roasting field or sauna-like van to actually spend money to sit somewhere hot, but once we got out of the temperate comfort zone of the bottom shelf of the sauna and the luke warm showers and embraced the extremes of the top shelf of the sauna just after more water has been put on the coals (a lovely tingly wave of pure hot) and the proper cold of the lake (a lovely tingly wave of pure cold) it was marvellous.

And somewhat unexpectedly, my only complaint would be the soggy towel I had to keep wrapped round me as it was a mixed sauna, which got in the way of the lovely tingly hot feeling - who would have thought I would be complaining about not enough nakedness!!

We also met two rainbow-ers in the sauna - coincidentally the same ones whom we had met the day before and who had helped us cook bubble and squeak -  who had also decided to take a break from communing too.   as far as I could tell, they had come to pretty much the same conclusions we had, indeed she had been to rainbow before and then stopped going for six years for pretty much exactly these reasons - although they were heading back after, must have more staying power than us!   So we had a nice chat with them and then back to meet Stu and Emma who had also decided it was getting a bit angsty so hitched a lift to town with us.

And so we had our own little food circle in a carpark in Kuopio cooked by our very own Naked Chef - well, he has Jamie's hair, he was cooking in a campervan and we have been near him whilst he was naked in a lake, we figures Kuopio wasn't ready to embrace the nakedness just yet.

So we have manifested some new friends from the Gathering, and a new recipe for our van cookbook - cheap petrol station risotto.  Onion, sundried tomatoes, rice, a chicken stock cube, the cheapest petrol station ham you can buy, the cheapest petrol station smoked cheese you can buy, and some left over garlic and herb philadelphia which will go off if not eaten, stirred in at the end.  Pukka!

We left them in Kuopio with a plan to hitch south to Helsinki and then a boat to Tallinn - and we wish them very well on their trip, just starting out, so many more adventures to come! - and have pointed ourselves northwards once more along the endless roads, flanked by green forests and blue lakes as far as the eye can see in both directions.

Watch out Santa - here we come!


  1. Being the nearest thing to a hippy is the sweetest thing that anybody has ever said to me - lol - L&H - Mr Prowse

  2. We have people like that in work.........yes you guessed it they're called Managers.

  3. Mr P - you are, in fact, the nicest hippy I know!

  4. Today's re-enactment, in our own 'sacred office circle' was the most fun I've had at work in a long time. Sounds like an experience.