On the Road

Italy Rainbow Gathering – Hippy Refugee Camp

Peace, love and crystals. Headlice, bhajans and brown rice – god bless the hippies.

By the time we arrived in Italy none of us in the van were on speaking terms. Six days on the road from Southern Spain had stretched our nerves to such a high-pitched tension that even a quick conference over a road map quickly disintegrated into a snarling row.

But as soon as we arrived in the car park of the Welcome Centre of the Rainbow Gathering our collective insanity just melted away. Baling out of the stuffy van to drink tea by a camp fire, the sight of smiling faces restored our spirits and we suddenly felt foolish to have been so uptight a few minutes before.

This year the ‘Italian family’ had offered to host the European Rainbow Gathering and, contrary to our hopes of a beach somewhere in the South, they’d chosen a site on top of a mountain at a height of 1300 metres. This was fine for those who’d some along with plenty of warm clothes and a tent but thinking ahead is not exactly a quality that hippies are renowned for. Many had to shiver through the nights by a dying camp fire with just whatever spare blankets they could muster from the generosity of others.

The Rainbow is never advertised and news of each gathering is spread only by word of mouth. When we arrived there were just 100 people but that was to grow over the weeks approaching the full moon until our temporary camp reached a population of 4000. Already there were people constructing a rain-proof kitchen and everywhere there was work to do; toilets to be dug, water springs to be tapped and protected, and a mountain of signs to put up around the site.

There are no organisers in the Rainbow, only volunteers. The motto is that ‘if you see a job that needs doing, then it’s up to you to do it’. The philosophy of Do-It-Yourself culture is very strong here and sometimes it’s hard to communicate that to people so used to living in a consumer society. Money can’t buy you anything in the Rainbow and the Gathering only functions if everyone makes it happen.

I found myself taking up the role of Magic Hat focaliser, sorting out the finances of the Gathering. My main duty was to organise the collection of money after the morning and evening meal’ we’d find one or two musicians to make a procession around the circle, singing one of the Rainbow songs and two children followed with hats to collect the donations. My partners and I would then count the money and stash it in our pockets until the supply focalisers approached us to go shopping. They had to buy thousands of kilos of pasta, rice and vegetables to feed the camp.

At every meal time we formed one or two circles and joined hands to sing and chant Om in gratitude for the food. Four thousand people at one time. As we ate a wild array of hippies and extroverts walked between the two circles announcing their forthcoming workshops. You could study anything from the Mayan calendar, capoeira, African dance or juggling. With the variety of teachers and instructors yelling their announcements it felt like some kind of Biblical bazaar where all the would-be Messiahs competed for attention.

Some of the drawbacks of staging the Rainbow in the mountains were more subtle than others. One evening there was an emergency announcement for medical help – someone had gone picking magic mushrooms in the forest and came back to make tea for everyone. It turned out they were highly poisonous and the cavalry had to be called. A mobile phone was located and military helicopters arrived within twenty minutes.

Strangely enough the sound of their approach in the distance sounded like a resonant Om and many thought that perhaps it was mealtime. But then the entire ambience of the Rainbow was shattered as three huge metal birds landed in the middle of the camp. Teepees trembled in the gust of the spinning blades and spread waves of fear and chaos in all directions. All of the casualties recovered thanks to the immediate medical attention but it was a hard lesson for all of us.

The incident gained national attention and the name of the Rainbow became famous in the media. Waves of journalists arrived , saw how everyone was living and then went back to their offices to write the opposite. The significant effect of the press exposure was that another thousand Italians decided to join the ‘free festival of love and nudity’ that they’d read about.

Just after that it began to rain. For the following three days the camp was attacked by thunderstorms that reduced all the paths to swampy trails and muddied the water source closest to the kitchen. The bad weather caused everyone to retreat within their tents and teepees and the communications between focalisers broken down completely. No one had any idea when the tractor would next bring up the food, the toilets were overflowing and the kitchen was being run by whoever turned up. One day breakfast wasn’t served until 5pm.

A cold, wet queue of hundreds waited to be served a sticky porridge of millet grain that I found impossible to swallow. A desperate, almost riotous atmosphere prevailed and nobody felt like giving anything to the Magic hat. Without funding it looked like the Rainbow was on the verge of collapse.

I ran around all day searching for people with energy to take some responsibility and we met the next day in the kitchen to sort things out. A Native American talking circle was held where a stick is passed around and only the person holding the stick may speak. Happily, lots of grounded, enthusiastic people had come to help and within a day or two the food crew was not only feeding the entire camp but had also constructed two earth ovens to bake bread, pizza and cakes. All done with just wood for fuel and no electricity.

All the running around in the rain had completely wrecked my health. I suffered from ten minute coughing fits and was convinced that I was dying of tuberculosis. All kinds of negative emotions accompanied the lung infection and I couldn’t see what i was doing here any more. The entire Rainbow seemed to me like a hippy refugee camp. Dogs ran around loose everywhere, biting children and shitting around the springs. Thousands lay around talking about mysticism whilst a few people did all the work.

The worst thing about being ill in the Rainbow is listening to all the suggested remedies. I was told variously to fast, eat fruit, take raw onion with sugar, inhale fuming Juniper branches, drink my own urine and pray to Lord Krishna. Finally I was lucky enough to be introduced to a German acupuncturist with twenty years experience. After just two treatments in his teepee of amber canvas, a light came back to my eyes for the first time in a week. My outlook on the Rainbow also changed – it was better just to treat the event as a kind of 24 hour comedy show.

Walking through the camp I heard every language from Russian to Portuguese to Slovenian. All kinds of acoustic music came from the teepees and children ran around in as safe an environment as they could find anywhere, surrounded by adults who never quite grew up themselves.

Still, for me it was time to drift North and take a change of scene. But the last thing I saw before catching the bus out of the nearby Italian village was something that touched me more than anything I saw in the whole month I was there. A very old man with his head tilted shyly down to the ground was being led step by faltering step across the street by the village policeman.

Peace and love were not only to be found in the Rainbow.