Like Dr. Seuss says, Oh the places you’ll go! Life in a hippy village.
I trekked up the stony path beside the tumbling river and the almond trees in flower accompanied me to either side. I reached the carpark where there were stationed trucks of mainly English and German origin to judge by the number plates. Some were covered in paintings of esoteric Indian symbols and were clearly in good shape as mobile homes. Others looked as though they’d come to their final resting place.
I walked on through a forest of eucalyptus trees and passed the occasional teepee with the sounds of a guitar being plucked inside. Nobody of whom i asked directions understood Spanish and it seemed strange to hear so much English being spoken here in Andalucia, deep in Southern Spain.
This was Beneficio, an alternative community living on public land in teepees, tents and treehouses. There are no leaders and anyone may come and go as they choose. There’s a central meeting place where meals are cooked twice a day by whoever feels like doing it. A collection is made every market day to pay for the food.
There’s no rules as such but alcohol is not tolerated and a general hippy ethos prevails. This means that people try to work things out peacefully and people share and share alike. The only violence comes in the psychic barrage of the bhajans (India holy songs) sung around the fire each night. It’s a tolerant space and many people walk around naked without thinking the least about it.
Before every meal everyone joins hands and chants Om for a minute before crying ‘Thanks for the food!’ and sitting down to eat. This ceremony made me wince at first but now it’s hard to start eating without saying something first in gratitude.
As much as Beneficio represents a return to a spiritual life for many, living close to ‘Mother Earth’, it’s also a return to a life of DIY. Do-It-Yourself culture. Most people who live long-term in the valley have constructed their homes for themselves and tend gardens that supply most of their ganja supply.
The latter have to be carefully obscured as around harvest time in September the police come prowling by day in the hope of busting a hippy. At night gypsies sneak into the valley in the hope of robbing a profitable patch. Everywhere you walk in Beneficio there are networks of buried pipes that feed a beloved ganja garden in some shady grove.
Some of the wealthier hippies have solar panels but most are happy enough with candlelight. A friend of mine once told me the reaction of her mother who came to visit her in her teepee.
“She kept looking around for a TV or electric socket! She almost cried when she discovered that what I called the refrigerator was just a plastic box keeping cool in the river. And after she helped me carry drinking water back from the spring, she asked me: ‘How can you live such a hard life?’
And she was about to fly back to Germany to work 40 hours a week, commute to work every day and fight her way through traffic every where she went. “
Beneficio seemed like the kind of place that travelers go when they’re tired of the road. Here it was possible for me to hang out in the dome of my friend, live cheaply with like-minded people and listen to the voices of the river and the wind in the tree tops. It was never hard to find musicians ready to jam and we passed away many days jamming and baking pizza in a stone oven.
It’s also an incredibly fertile place. Most of Andalucia is short of water but Beneficio possesses a river that gives life to trees of almonds and figs, lemons and mulberries, grape vines and cherries. And perhaps it’s the influence of abundance that accounts for the 52 births that have taken place since the foundation of the community 15 years ago.
The idea of delivering a baby in the hands of strangers in a gleaming white hospital ward is an anathema to most people here. Instead they choose a familiar and comfortable environment, aided by a trusted midwife, herbs and massage in the miracle of child birth. In the case of complications, the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away on a windy mountain road.
Consequently, there are many families living in Beneficio and their kids run al around the valley. Whilst most children of five years are still learning to tie their shoelaces, these kids can already build a fire, knead dough for chapattis and tend a garden. And it’s these kids who actually keep the school in a nearby village going; Spanish villages have experienced such a population drain that the children of Beneficio comprise half the students.
But whilst this has bettered relations with this particular village, the general estimation of Beneficio in the area could not be lower. This area of Spain is already awash with English and Germans come to the sun to live cheaply and drink beer. And in some way the people of Beneficio are associated with them. Perhaps they also inherit some of the traditional hostility held again the Gypsies. Traditionally a persecuted minority here. It doesn’t help that most of the hippies go into town barefoot and wear colorful clothes. The locals call them ‘Los Sucios’ (‘the dirty people’).
There’s also a long-standing dispute about the water. The farmers from the village below come up every year to chop down the water-greedy eucalyptus trees and also to pull out people’s water pipes form the river. Of course although everyone draws their drinking water from the spring, they still need running water to wash dishes and clothes. So they just plug the pipes back in again.
The problem is the Beneficio is still not an officially settlement. Technically, everyone is living there without permission. They are in fact in the process of trying to buy the land but whilst people struggle to buy their groceries and supplies each week, it seems an unlikely prospect. And yet magic happens. This is the philosophy/attitude of Beneficio and no has any doubt that their money will materialize from somewhere if they simply ask the universe to provide what they need.
And they may be right. I heard a few days ago that an anonymous visitor contributed several thousand dollars to secure the deposit and negotiations are now proceeding.
The founders of Beneficio, an English couple in their fifties, have already left their birth child to its fate. But I doubt even they could have imagined such a success for the settlement they initiated on their own, wandering into the valley in the late 80’s.
And if there’s anything I learnt at Beneficio it’s the value of a dream. And making it real.