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  • The dark-skinned man stands shirtless in a saffron wrap stained with mud and grease. He raises his thin arms and the crowd of seventy people, standing in a circle around the bonfire raging on the concrete, hush into silence. His dreadlocks fall long to the small of his back, his neck bent forward to bear the weight of a dozen beaded necklaces that droop low to his slim belly. Reaching down, he grabs the hands on either side and, after a deep in-breath, begins a long "oooooooooommmmmm".

    The rest of us follow along, interlocking our hands and joining in with the chorus. The sound ricochets across opposite sides of the circle for a long minute, droning like the brightly coloured longboats that bring local tourists to the mouth of this beach each evening where, from the safety of fifty yards offshore, they gawk and take photographs of the scantily clad Western backpackers. I feel the meditative buzz resonating in my rib cage as I watch the last light sink behind the rocky coastline into the Arabian Sea.

    Paradise Beach, it's called. Aptly named. "It's the Lost Kingdom of the Hippies!", exclaimed Kat, on the afternoon before the evening when she fell into the well.


    The sound slowly ebbs, replaced in our ears by the crashing of the waves. The shirtless man - "I have many names," he told me earlier in the evening, "but you can call me 'Swamiji'" - looks benevolently around the crowd. "It's Christmas Eve," he explains, "but more importantly, it's the start of a month long Rainbow Gathering. A Rainbow Gathering is a reunion of the Rainbow Family. We're a global community open to anyone who wants to contribute their effort to accepting and supporting others."

    Swamiji offers an overview on Rainbow. Similar gatherings occur annually in Europe and North America, sometimes attracting thousands of attendees to locations intentionally remote from the disconnected impact of civilization. The gatherings are run without formal structure in their natural, exquisite settings. The community prepares food, makes art, and revels in the conversation and camaraderie that comes along with sharing space with others.

    I cast a skeptical eye around the circle, assessing their faces against my preconceptions. While the crowd at these gatherings is said to comprise hippies and idealists, a genuine offer for help is often accepted by people truly in need, and the balance of the attendees tend to include addicts, runaways, maliciously minded anarchists, and martyrs. I ran into many of these hitchhiking, transient Rainbows while Walking to Mexico last year. In conversation, I often felt shivers of fear while noticing the pain so obviously on display behind clouded eyes.

    "Our goals are to build community, tell stories, and learn to open our hearts", Swamiji concludes. No explanation is offered for what's happened to our communities, our stories, or our hearts.


    The audience's reaction is warm: everyone's enthusiastic to find a stand-in family with whom to celebrate the important holiday. Most are twentysomethings in the middle of a long trip in Asia. The majority are Europeans, whose governments are wrestling with their own visions of restoration at the same instant we stand around our fire. Three Sudanese students are the lone Africans. The collective group is a mishmash of students, tour guides, carpenters, and street performers, the purposeful considering masters degrees and law school, the purposeless struggling to find their place in the midst of futures painted with pessimism.

    Swamiji, in his fifties, plays the role of community elder perfectly. His voice carries a deep, uplifting tone as he leads the group through several Rainbow songs, each alluding without irony to a pantheon of spiritual icons. The mantras pull from religious iconography from all over the world: Pachamama from Latin America, Shiva and Buddha from India, the Universe, from North American rationalist self-help books. It's an Internet-era anthropology lesson sweetly accompanied by a colourfully painted guitar that strums easy-to-sing G, D, and C chords, with time kept by the rhythmic beat of tablas tapped by fingers topped with dirt under their nails.


    For the first timers - and that's most of us - the sing song drags on too long. It's getting late and everyone is hungry. When the music finally stops, our impatient attention shifts to the youngish bearded man holding Swamiji's right hand, dressed conservatively in the garb of a rabbi. He's part of a group of Israelis that've recently completed a 350 kilometer Walk of Love along the coastline of the Arabian Sea from touristy Goa to Paradise Beach. He addresses the crowd with considered aplomb.

    "It's Christmas," he begins, "and a good time to remember that Jesus was a Jew." His high-minded intention is to tell a story about oneness among religions, but in this group the religiosity falls flat. Leo, an Englishman to my right in a Santa cap, abruptly drops the hands beside him.

    "All this talk about religion is bullshit. Didn't you learn about evolution in Uni?", he exclaims to no one in particular. "We're smarter than this."

    Leo and a half dozen friends turn away from the circle to sit on the concrete remains of a guesthouse that had been left in rubble this past summer by goons hired by the state's Forest Department in response to some unmentionable trouble that happened last season. They pass around bottles of the bitter local rum and talk loudly, trying to drown out the remainder of the sermon. The crowd rumbles nervously, eyeing the spread of communal food laid out on several dozen banana leaves sitting on the fractured concrete, trying to will for everyone to get along so dinner can begin. The one truth we've picked up already is that hunger is the paramount spiritual question.

    All along the small beach lie the remains of similarly destroyed guesthouses, a clear message from the government that the tourists are supposed to be kept out. The tourists have other ideas; they've constructed their own temporary camps in the concrete rubble with supplies they've purchased in town, setting up for the long run. The scene they've created - the beautiful beach, the hammocks strung between the palms, the widespread destruction, the hundreds of plastic bottles scattered along the beach, and the neotribalism - feels post-apocalyptic.

    For me, it raises an intriguing question: Why have these travellers come to India to spend their vacations building a tent city? There's a graffiti tag on the crumbling concrete foundation just beneath us that overlooks the beach, and it lends a name to the ideal these travellers are hoping to emulate.

    These are the Urban Bushmen.

    Swamiji and the young rabbi exchange disconcerting glances. The threat of mutiny is afoot on the very first day of the Gathering. As confusion spreads around the circle, I'm reminded of what Rudyard Kipling wrote about India at the turn of the 20th century:

    "All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end."

    -----

    After completing my walk from Canada to Mexico, I returned to Toronto in mid-September to spend a few weeks with family while making money for my next journey. In the sunshine, I played frisbee in parks and went hiking in the forest while watching the fall colours change. And then, on December 1st, I flew from Toronto to Mumbai and took a train 15 hours south to Gokarna, an ancient pilgrimage destination on the Arabian Sea that I had visited on a previous trip to India. I needed somewhere to go and felt called here, without being sure exactly why.

    I disembarked the train at the station and took an autorickshaw into the small town, which cowers beneath a broad grove of palm trees at the edge of a hilly, ear-shaped peninsula. "Gokarn" means cow's ear in the local language, and Hindu legend names the peninsula as the auspicious location where Lord Shiva emerged into the world from a hairy bovine aural canal. India is filled with places that by chance or intention act as metaphors for mythological stories. I see it as a way of suggesting the timelessness of the mystical realm, that the space where the Gods play is always right here. All year long, attentively dressed pilgrims from the inland villages come to pray in the temple and swim in the ocean, where on the sand they unexpectedly intermingle with Western holidaymakers who lie in bathers as they sip Kingfisher beers.

    I walked an hour and a half under the hot afternoon sun from Gokarna town over the rocky headlands past Kudle Beach and then Om Beach to reach Half Moon Beach, a tiny strip of sand surrounded on three sides by dense jungle. It's accessible only by boat and by foot. One family owns a small farm-cum-guesthouse that stretches the length of the football field-sized beach, and, on their land, a slowly shifting community of thirty or forty long term travellers live in cow dung huts around parched rice paddies thirsting for the distant rains of the summertime monsoon. There's a small beachside chai shop that serves basic meals: mostly South Indian dishes based around rice and curried vegetables, but also chow mein, veg burgers, fruit, muesli and curd in the morning. I liked the atmosphere and decided to stay some time. Within a few days, I began hearing rumours about the impending Rainbow Gathering at Paradise Beach, a 15 minute scramble along the rocky coastline to the south.


    In a mud hut lit at night only by candlelight, I've spent the last few months contemplating the results of my year long walking trip. I have a story to share about the people I met and the experiences I had along the way, and I have been working diligently to craft a diverse collection of memories and data - photos, audio recordings, videos, and written text - into something beautiful. It's the next step in my storytelling journey, and it feels deliciously contradictory to be thinking about new media twenty minutes walk from electricity. From this tension, I am drawing inspiration.

    It feels like we're all considering this in one way or another, this problem of how to use technology to benefit our lives and our societies without losing our humanity or our connection to the broader world in the process. A banyan tree, home to a resident cobra, arches high over my mud hut, and a band of grey-faced monkeys chirp nosily from the branches each sunset, attracting the excited barks of the three aggressively protective farm dogs. At dawn, black, white, and red spotted butterflies drift by the window on the cool morning breeze, passing under the wrinkled claws of the noisy rooster whose loud cry from atop my thatched roof wakes me with the sun. As I lie listening to my feathered neighbours chirp a high-pitched tune through the morning fog in my head, I delight in the playful mystery about the interconnectedness of things that stretches far beyond the Internet. Here, I'm surrounded by creatures whose requests for friendship you won't receive on Facebook, no matter how popular you might be.

    -----

    A few days after Christmas, I sit with Swamiji on the concrete foundation of an old guesthouse that the Rainbows have converted into their kitchen. Loud cries for community help bring a few straggling tourists to the structure to chop tomatoes and dice onions that'll be tossed into a hearty stew cooking over a heaving fire. They're building towards the evening Food Circle, when the group will hold hands to sing the Rainbow songs before sharing a meal served in heaping piles onto banana leaves. After the meal is done, the Rainbows'll pass around the Magic Hat, hoping for fistfuls of tattered rupee notes in order to buy the next day's provisions. It's late in the day. The beach is humming with excited anticipation for another cloudless pink and purple sunset.

    "Everyone's searching for an experience, aren't they?" he says in a tilted Spanish accent; he's from Panama. We're talking about the financial crisis. "An experience of power, an experience of passion, an experience of love. But we're scared, so we prefer watching. Take sports as an example. We pay for our tickets and know that our adrenaline will charge at some point during the event. It makes us feel alive. But why is it that the athletes are on the field while we're in the stands watching? Wouldn't it be more fun if it was us on the field? Why do we prefer the fantasy of watching to the joy of playing?"

    I don't know the answer. He takes a deep breath and stares out at the sea.

    "We're afraid to ask for what we want. And the point of Rainbow is, by engaging, by doing our work, whatever it is, we can figure out what we have to offer. Get over the expectation that someone else will tell you what you should do and inhabit your own body!" He elongates the first syllable in inhabit.

    "That's what you can do for the collective. It's a spiritual experience to use your body for what it's meant for. Leadership, prayer, beauty, passion, dance, play. We don't do that much anymore. That's the thing we're craving in our sit-down and work, sit-down and drive cultures."

    What's that got to do with global finance?

    "This crisis is deceptive. We're watching the death of the story that technology would supply us with our experiences, that we would be better off as a culture of watchers instead of doers. Marketers had the gall to tell us that watching would not just satisfy but actually create desire. And what we're learning is that they are wrong.

    "Of course the economy is collapsing, but what's really dying is the expectations that corporations and government have about us being powerless watchers, powerless consumers. We won't, because we want to live. We want to be outside, in our bodies, breathing fresh air, playing with one another and the world around us. These might be things that barely register on economic reports, but they're a lot better for us than alcohol and television. If the result of an economic collapse is that more people spend more time outdoors talking to each other, than to me that sounds like a good thing."

    So why do you think everyone is so scared?

    "Because asking for what we want is really hard. Knowing what we want is hard. And believing we can get what we want means believing in ourselves, being vulnerable. We're barraged with messages that tell us that we're not good enough, that only our lower desires are good, only shopping, sex, and partying are good. It's not true.

    "We need to find other ways of spreading positive messages. Everyone's desires are different, we're all uniquely creative and it's beautiful when we find ways to work together. It should be written on billboards! People are scared because the fear story is so loud and coming at us from so many angles. The world won't die. Just the story that life needs to be about competition and struggle. Something new will emerge." He cracks a toothy smile. "Maybe it'll even be something like this."

    There's a warm feeling surrounding me in the kitchen that's more complex than the heat emanating from the glowing embers. It flows out through brightly coloured eyes and gleaming smiles. The cumin-tinged smell from the bubbling pot is received by up my nostrils and registers into a sensory nerve, where it travels as electrical impulse to the appropriate receptors in my brain and merges in my imagination with the similar journeys of the sound of sizzling and the feeling of the sandy concrete on my bare feet. I feel deeply hungry. I smile into Swamiji's deep eyes. He smiles back for a moment and rises, his beaded necklaces jingling, and I watch as he walks along the beach silhouetted by the sun.

    -------

    On a Sunday, a dozen middle aged Indian men disembark into the shallow water from a boat that pulls up to the sand at Half Moon. They're all wearing matching tank tops and short sets, seeming to differ from one another only in the colours of the stripes along their sides, underneath bright orange life jackets. Two of them wear matching dark sunglasses and devious snarls on their lips under enormous cowboy hats, like comic villains out of a Bollywood film. They sidle down the beach on the hunt for a duel; their wives are tucked back in their village, safely away from their boy's day out. As they approach the chai shop, one of them pulls out his mobile to surreptitiously snap a photo of a Westerner in a bikini, inciting chortling satisfaction from the rest of the group. When our paths cross, I notice they smell of beer.

    Inside the chai shop, the energy shifts as the domestic tourists assess the foreigners, West Side Story style. A metal plate falls to the floor with a loud clang and rolls, like tumbleweed, out into the suddenly silent common area. Our collective eye contact becomes sharper. One man tips his sunglasses cinematically. You are feeling lucky, punk?

    A foreigner opens the battle with a derisive question about the life jackets. A man in a cowboy hat answers curtly that none of them know how to swim, as he cleans at his teeth with a toothpick. The local men leer down a Polish girl's tank top, sniffing disapprovingly as a Frenchman lights up a joint. The stride confidently down the central aisle to get to the pay counter near the kitchen door to inquire about the room rate from the young man at the counter: Kumara, the twenty year old farm grandson dressed in a yellow t-shirt where a crudely drawn cartoon head declares, in a thought bubble, "I'm Not Normal". He tells them it's about 100 rupees or $2 per day. The men in the lifejackets look down their noses disapprovingly. "There's no electricity? Just candles? No music?" The plastic tables are covered with chessboards, supplies for macrame, guitars, saxophones. The photographer raises his mobile at a young German making a bracelet. "One snap possible?", he asks. "No", she says firmly. He drops the camera dejectedly and looks around for another filly to lasso.

    Most traditionally minded Indians work their whole lives to ensure that every hotel they patron, every product they own, has the maximum available, offers maximum prestige. These Indians are as confused as anyone about the lack of luxury. The boys in the kitchen, all cousins, the grandchildren of the couple who own the farm, shuffle from one foot to the other impatiently. They want the gang of drunk locals to leave quickly so they can get back to playing pranks on the tourists, who treat them mostly like equals, not subordinates.

    The situation rests delicately for a few moments. Then, Clint Eastwoodji gives a hearty sniff, and the men in the lifejackets return to the beach, where their boat will take them to a location close enough to snap photographs of the topless women on Paradise that they'll text message to their friends and use as a tool for a furtive masturbation session at nearest opportunity before filing it into a photo folder on their mobiles alongside other porn clips of white women that've been downloaded from the Internet. The foreigners sigh audibly, proud of their ability to defend their homestead, and return to the busy effort of using sandpaper to polish coconut shells into bowls they'll use for mixing hash and tobacco in the process of rolling their spliffs.


    Later that day, a supply boat arrives from Gokarna filled with boxes of bottled water, cases of beer, and racks of glass soda bottles. The contents of the boat are left in a pile on the sand and the grandchildren leave their cooking duties to move the drinks one hundred meters from the beach to the cooler outside the kitchen. The foreigners, still energized by their duty to the farm, rise from the sandpaper to lend their labour towards accomplishing the menial task. The river of white and brown backs flows out to the beach like the filthy shit and corpse-strewn Ganges River near Varanasi, each back returning tense under the weight of the load. The European onlookers, over the headland from Om Beach for the day, glance oddly at the collective conversion from holidaymakers to coolies from behind their sunglasses.

    I walk down to the beach with skinny seventeen year old Nagesh, the youngest of the boys, whose recently pierced eyebrow, frequent voice cracks, and sexual interest in each new tourist offer mostly endearing reminders of his adolescence. He's dropped out of school to work full time in the restaurant, a precursor to a life most likely as a farm labourer.

    "Do you drink bottle water too?", I ask him as we survey the eighty or so cases still piled on the sand.

    "No!", he laughs loudly. "We well drinking. This big well. Water no problem. Many tourist people also drinking. Why paying twenty rupees for water? Well water cheap and best. Tourist people crazy." His eyes shine as he flutters his right hand back and forth in a way that suggests the collective insanity, and he chuckles mockingly at me as he hands over two heavy boxes.

    A retort bubbles up to my larynx before I swallow it down again. People are just being cautious, I want to tell him, but then these tourists are mostly city people who, even in their own countries, expect that water be served in plastic bottles sold by the world's largest companies. Why we assume that what works for them won't suit us as well is a long and complex conversation for which we don't share enough common language to engage in. I turn to the kitchen.

    After dropping the boxes, I wander over to the rock-lined well under a palm grove near to the shower. I peer over the edge. It drops a dozen feet before the waterline. There's a croaking frog sitting on an outstretched rock just above the surface. The shadow of a lone dark fish rises from the depths before descending once again. It's omnious looking, a portal to another world - or maybe just to an upset stomach. I drop the fluorescent green bucket attached to a rope made from coconut fibers into the well, fill it, and raise it back to ground level. Surreptitiously, I tip a handful into my right hand and slurp it down my throat.

    I sleep well that night, and, in the morning, amble tentatively to the shared squat toilet by the cashew tree. I hunch down on my haunches in fear, but the flow is good. I'm properly satisfied that Nagesh's biohydrologic assessment has consistency with my own experiments.

    ------

    Up on the dried out rice paddies behind the Half Moon chai shop, the family's relatives have congregated on the farm to hull rice. The exhausting work, - slamming golden yellow bundles of the harvested plant stalk against a hard surface in order to extract the edible grain - occurs in a central setting surrounded by travellers hanging lightly in multicoloured hammocks, reading their books in front of their rooms.

    I watch the work through my mud window, which protects the hut from trespassing critters by gerrymandering the heating grill of a refrigerator into a type of window shade. It feels like watching a grainy old movie come to life: in at least my mind, manual labour seems to exist only in the distant past, replaced instead by combine harvesting, office work, and the accompanying mind-bending glow of hundreds of millions of screens. It reminds me that this fantasy of living in shacks under a starry sky lasts only as long as a traveller's flagging attention, after which we'll move on to another backpacker destination or another country, supported implicitly by the safety of socialized health care and the state-mandated retirement being debated in our legislatures back home. This scene of the labourers hulling the rice is an uncomfortable reminder of reality, and with it our tenuous grasp on what we've collectively been calling home.

    But what is home anyway? My hut overlooks the palm shelter of Mankali, the farm grandmother, who dresses in a transparent wrap that barely contains her flopping breasts when she wanders the beach balancing a bucket of pineapples and bananas to sell to the visitors over the headland from Om Beach at extortionate prices. She is sitting by an enormous stone mortar and pestle and enthusiastically crushing red chilies into a paste that she'll use for her sambar. We make eye contact, and she lets out a guttural laugh that jangles easily through her toothless mouth. Behind her is her husband, Guydo, who each day wears the same white tank top and small square of material wrapped between his legs as he sweeps the rooms, carries the water, climbs the palms to shake down the coconuts. He looks at me and lets loose a giddy giggle, like I'm the punchline for a joke he feels no need to share.

    In the evening, Mankali knocks on my plywood door. She's got a metal plate of rice and curried vegetables that she shoves into my hands, along with a slice of papaya, clearly expressing universally comprehensible matriarchal concern. There's no way I can say no. She clucks away, yelling in the local language at the farm dogs, bending over at the hips to energetically sweep the common area before moving on swiftly to some other task. Her laughter is infectious and cleansing. I watch her with a smile as I shovel the food into my mouth with my right hand. Somehow I've become a family member, if only for a few months.

    Whose beach is it after all?

    -----

    There's trouble in Paradise. Swamiji's magic begins to wane after the first few days. His ideal that the participants abstain from drugs and alcohol proves difficult to uphold within a community of experimenting, freedom-seeking backpackers so far from home. The evening calls to contribute in the kitchen are met by most with an annoyed shrug. The expectation and sense of responsibility are ruining the buzz, and attention slowly shifts back to more escapist pursuits. Rainbow is unfolding differently than expected.

    Around the arrival of the new year, an Irish girl drops too much acid and never comes back. She goes clinically psychotic, and the travelling crowd struggles unsuccessfully to help her act in a way that resembles normality. One day, she runs around the beach exhibiting herself lewdly for the camera-toting domestic tourists. An Indian woman in a sari slaps her across the face for ignorantly dismissing whatever semblance of conservative custom still applies to this slice of Paradise.

    After a week, her condition hasn't changed and someone contacts her embassy. Her mother arrives a few days later after what must have been several days of traumatically anxious journey by plane, train, and boat from Dublin. The appearance of someone from a mind space so distant from the idyll of the beach shocks the collective crowd for at least a few moments. Soon, respite is found in hash and rum, and the moment is forgotten. The timelessness of Paradise continues as if it had never been interrupted.


    The contrast between the utopian values and the practical realities is shcoking. There's toilet paper scattered in the branches of the brush - these Urban Bushmen are reticent to adopt the native custom of cleaning oneself with water and a hand. And then there's hundreds of plastic bottles scattered carelessly around the beach. Paradise is filthy. What'll happen to all this over the next couple months?, I wonder out loud.

    "It'll be flushed by the monsoon into the ocean and end up in that floating garbage soup the size of Texas in the North Pacific between Japan and Hawaii," explains a British man who's been coming to the beach for eight consecutive winters, as he leans back into a comfortable-looking hammock. I protest, trying to lead the conversation towards a potential short-term solution to deal with the garbage, but he sniffs dismissively.

    "Yes, we could do something. But who is going to pay for it? What will we do? Do we burn the bottles? That's terrible for the atmosphere. And, even if we move it, where will the garbage go? Anyway, it's a microcosm of the macrocosm. This problem with garbage and plastic is happening everywhere in the world. What happens here at Paradise Beach won't make a difference one way or another in the grander scheme."

    He sparks up a long spliff. What to do? There seems to be no eluding the bigger thing, no way to be truly free, from the vantage point of this hammock. The Tragedy of the Commons. That their Paradise is only temporary doesn't seem to bother anyone lying splayed out on sun blankets at the foot of the crashing waves.

    ------

    By the middle of January, the Gathering has reached a pivotal decision point. Their advertisements online had insinuated that several hundred people would arrive and participate, but in the end the number of true Rainbows barely totalled twenty. The rest of the beach, a slowly shifting crowd that averaged about sixty, elected mostly to stay away, save for the odd appearance at a Food Circle on a night they didn't feel like cooking. Cliques began to develop. People who'd stayed on Paradise in years past began resuming the activities that had had them expelled in the first place. Some of the Rainbows elected to stay until the end, but Swamiji and a group of the core Rainbows left abruptly. Their departure left a power gap that something had to fill.

    The day that Kat fell down the well was my first visit to Paradise after he left. The dragons soared overhead and the thorny plants reached out to snatch at uncertain feet. There was a wildness in the air that even the ocean seemed to perceive, and she responded by thrusting the biggest waves of the season onto the rocky coastline along the edge of the cow's ear. At Paradise Beach, a carnival-like scene began developing along the shore, and all the Urban Bushmen turned out from their hovels to watch the carnage. A woman with magenta hair sat opposite us, on the facing rocks, gleaming like a lighthouse beacon.

    Several dozen people at the south end of the beach were running headlong into the approaching waves and diving over the water as it crashed heavily into the sand. The scene was a perfect piece of comic theatre: one man in flower patterned swim trunks runs, arms waving,towards the sea and as he jumps his legs lift elegantly above the lip of an approaching wave like a practiced ballerina, holding an arcing arabesque for several seconds before entering gracefully into the surf. Another man, with a scruffy beard and short brown hair, is pounded by the sea and lies prone on the beach for several moments before shaking the cobwebs cartoon-style out of his head and tenderly regaining his footing. A beautifully shaped blond fights to keep her barely there pink bikini from being consumed by the hungry waves. A crowd of pony-tailed men playing drums on the beach cheer fervently with unbridled sexual abandon to stir the ocean's appetite. Each enormous crash spits a dozen bodies akimbo onto the small beach. Laughing, they all rise up and run full-steam into the next approaching wave.

    In a lull between sets, the performers in the sea growl in mock anxiety, flashing adrenaline-choked smiles at one another. Mack D, a traveller from Sudan, directs a deep, guttural howl into the ocean. The rest of the crowd echoes the cry. There is a desperate wildness in their voices, a momentary sense of superiority over the elements, that suggests that they haven't forgotten what life was like before Facebook. The pounding waves and pulsing adrenaline have conspired to achieve that most fleeting of goals: feeling alive.

    I watched the crowd cautiously for a few moments, nearly overcome by the spiteful voice in my head that advised me derisively against being bold. And then I thought "fuck it", and as I accelerated towards what seemed like certain injury, my mind went blank from the endorphins. I dove over the wave's leading edge and landed safely into the warm sea, and rode the receding surge of energy as the ocean prepared for its next crash. I let out an enormous, satisfied roar upon surfacing that distracted the flock of birds that circled above me, casually tossing bits of fish between each other with careless certainty of some bountiful abundance. A hundred meters off shore, a pod of dolphins crested the water elegantly as they swam slowly to the north. The late day sun made the surrounding jungle glow with healthfulness, and everyone and everything under the sky seemed to share the same secret sagacity that life is all about play. The magenta beacon scanned over me, smiled, and turned her lifeguarding duties to other pairs of floundering limbs.


    And then we walked back along the coast to Half Moon Beach in the fading light. After dinner, Kat went to bathe under cold water in the roofless palm frond shower beneath a impossibly starry sky. I returned to my hut, lighting some sandalwood incense, as is my nighttime ritual. Suddenly, I heard a horrific scream - a real scream, with real terror.

    I ran down from my hut without taking enough time to process what to do with the two sticks of incense. I found Kat miling in shock as she shivered nearly naked in a wet blue overshirt, surrounded by the kitchen boys. She'd forgotten the soap and, while making a beeline back to her hut, slipped and fell directly into the gaping well. Her scream had attracted the whole guesthouse, and everyone stood around, looking at each other, looking at Kat. It'd been a death defying stunt in the moonless night. She'd been lucky to escape with only a moderately scraped thigh.

    We all smiled at one another at the suddenly holy moment that had interrupted our innocuous paradise. The drop in intensity reminded me of the incense. Instinctively, I raised my hand and waved the two sticks over her head in wide circles, watching the aromatic smoke climb to the palms. It felt appropriate to offer a blessing. The kitchen boys rolled over themselves in laughter. The next day, they asked me mockingly: "where were you, Baldy, when your friend fell down the well? And why when you came were you making puja?"

    How could I explain, in broken English, that in the instant of that scream, something had suddenly become clear, and that I needed a way to express my gratitude for it?


    I retold the emotional story the next morning to the motley crew of travellers in the tea shop: the girl with razor scars lining the insides of her wrists, the mother travelling with her six year old daughter who only makes drawings of princesses, the girl who was raped in December by three men on a motorbike, the alcoholic who peppers the hot day with loud heartbroken French ballads. They laughed warmly at the story's relatively happy ending.

    Later, I sat with an Austrian girl over a chai at the shop down the beach. "I'm still confused about this Paradise thing. Is it about the freedom to experiment with drugs without judgement? The escape of transitory relationships? Of being able to reinvent yourself with each new conversation? Of never having anyone hold you to account for your actions?"

    "No!", she exclaims. She's been in Paradise since December, and every time I see her she's either smoking or rolling a joint. "We're like family here. Out there, you're always surrounded by strangers, people who don't know you or think about you, people who don't care to stop and say hi. At Paradise Beach, everyone always has the time to listen and help you through your issues. Of course, we all have our dragons, and it's beautiful to support them and watch as they grow into something new."

    "Even if it's while using LSD?"

    "Yes, why not? We're not the only people in the world experimenting with intoxication and addiction."

    She smiles. Her feet and legs are pockmarked with scabs from mosquito bites and cuts from the jagged rocks that have grown infected over time. But her eyes are bright, her attitude is relaxed, and she seems to be having fun. And I think, who am I to judge?

    The truth that it's fun for me to be around these people - these seekers of Paradise - to listen to their jam sessions, to play joyful frisbee with them along the shoreline, and to talk intensely through their myriad problems. I'm constantly reminded that all of us have pleasures and pains that are usually unintelligible to others, and that some of us get breaks that others don't. Together, we help each other to remember: To be OK with who you are. To get up and fill each day creating with joy. To live honestly and share your truth. To ask for help when you need it. To give love to those who need love and space to those who need space. To do your best. And to laugh heartily at the wonder and contradiction of the whole godforsaken thing.

    Maybe by acting poor we remind ourselves what really makes us wealthy.

    -----

    The Rainbow Gathering wrapped up on the night of the January new moon. By the next day, their communal kitchen had disappeared, and with it the easygoing offer of hospitality. New travellers arrived just as quickly. Paradise expelled one group of seekers and immediately accepted another. Life goes on.

    The local tourists still arrive on the boats each weekend, hooting and cattle calling with boyish abandon. The sun still sets each evening with appropriate pomp and circumstance, cheered by the group of travellers sitting in a circle on the black rock painted with rainbows, stars, and planets. The Swede with the guitar who stays at the second camp past the banyan tree welcomes all new visitors by singing the beach's theme song, "Welcome to Paradise".

    Amazing how many different ways there are to build communities, tell stories, and open hearts.

    Overhead, the white headed kites swoop low to take small snakes from the brush. The palms sway delicately in the evening breeze. The monkeys cackle from the cashew trees, the way they must have been doing ever since Shiva was birthed from the ear of the cow.

    That's the way of things, isn't it? Out with the old, on to the new, and back again. Endless lessons and perpetual enlightenment, one unfolding adventure after another after another, extending infinitely into the distant future and the forgotten past.

    Dreamers, babblers, visionaries, and lovewallahs. As it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end.
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