A Hip and Happenin’ Dinner with Hippies
Most of our time on this Earth is forgotten seconds after it passes. You don’t remember the feeling of the air five breaths ago, and you won’t remember this website’s layout after you close the browser. But, sometimes you find yourself in circumstances that you know will be remembered for a long time.
I was cooking dinner. Nothing extraordinary there. Except I was stir frying vegetable for 80 people. On a bamboo fueled mud stove. In a kitchen with an explicit “No Nudity” sign. In the middle of Taiwanese farmland. And I was interrupted three times.
Since technology wasn't allowed, I only took a few pictures. This is a view of some of the forest sights from a public road.
A local and I were discussing the weather and absentmindedly stirring vegetables in an industrial wok (the Taiwanese military loaned it to our group). Rain was coming down hard. We talked over the sound of the rain above and the crackling in the fire below. The sounds changed ever so slightly, and we started hearing crackling above us too. We realized the sound was coming from the cracking bamboo roof. The kitchen we occupied was a hastily built tarp-bamboo-and-twine contraption that was giving into the weight of the water above. Before we could react, the rotted bamboo ceiling gave out. Water poured onto us and the stir-fry.
After a mad scramble to repair the roof, we were back to talking and listening to the burning bamboo. A while later, however, we were interrupted again – this time by a human. A fellow hippie walked up to the kitchen and without a trace of worry in his voice asked: “Does anybody know anything about snake bites?”
That’s a question that’s only asked by inquisitive five-year-olds or by someone who needs to treat a snake bite. You can guess which scenario this was.
Just minutes before, a different community member was walking in the dark without a light. He walked into his campsite, but at the same time also intruded into a venomous snake’s territory. The snake was a good host, so its fangs gave him a warm welcome.
After we made sure adequate medical care was called for, we went back to cooking. It didn’t take long though before we were interrupted once again. This time we were asked another oddball question: “Is the dessert spicy?” The head cook brought over the pan of oat porridge spiced with cinnamon and brown sugar. He had a quizzical look on his face and asked us if we’d try the dessert. We each took a spoonful and instantly knew what was wrong. The dessert was indeed spicy. Someone had mislabeled the cinnamon jar, so instead of tasting like sweet goodness, the porridge tasted like soggy chili powder.
I was treated to these peculiar happenings because I decided to attend an international gathering of hippies.
The 2018 World Rainbow Family Gathering in Hualien, Taiwan.
I didn’t initially come to Taiwan to attend the gathering, but when I heard about it, I knew I had to go. I’m glad I did because it was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had. It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, but I’ve never experienced anything like it.
The Rainbow Gathering is a yearly event that started in the U.S. in the 70s. It’s a month-long gathering of open-minded people to live freely in nature. Anyone is welcome, but alcohol and technology are not. It’s a gathering, not a festival, since music is only used as a celebration for life, and drugs are only discreetly used. There are also very few rules. Clothing is optional, work is voluntary, payment isn’t necessary, anyone can give a workshop, and you can sleep anywhere.
My camping hammock. It really helped to be above the water and mud.
Continuing with the open mindset, most everything was shared. Excess food, dry sleeping surfaces, and knowledge were all communal. If you had something to give, you gave it. If you needed something, you asked for it. It was the friendliest environment I’ve ever been in. Hugs were standard greeting procedure, and everyone was always willing to talk.
However, sometimes the open and lawless circumstances led to undesirable outcomes. Along with shared food and lackluster sanitary services, sickness was also freely distributed. Although I didn’t get sick, many people had upset stomachs and diarrhea. Nature also over-shared its love. The snake shared its venom with one camper, sand mites frequently gave us itching bites, and rain turned our walking paths into de facto slip-n-slides. It certainly was an adventure.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the days were filled with high energy activity. Campers constantly announced new workshops. Calligraphy, tea making, fire dancing, deep tissue massage, tarot card reading, and swing dancing are just a few examples. We also sang and danced before every meal. After the food was prepared, we linked hands, formed a circle, and danced and sang together for half an hour. The songs often tied nature and humans together. Here are two simple songs:
I love my Family, I love my Life
And now I live in a coconut tree
It’s good. It’s good.
It’s good to be me.
Swinging in the trees,
And swimming in the sea
Put your roots down
Put your feet on the ground
You can hear the earth move
If you’re listening
Are you listening
It’s the sound of the river
As it moves across the stones
It’s the same sound as the blood in your body
As it moves across your bones
If you’re listening
Are you listening?
While we were singing, we also “passed around” kindness. One person would hug his neighbor or kiss her hand, and the action would spread around the circle. It initially seemed very strange, but soon I saw it as a great community building activity. Everyone there came to the gathering for exactly that sort of community.
My first night, we held an important ceremony. The cacao ceremony happens at every Family Gathering, so most of the campers knew what they were in for. I didn’t.
Our gathering site was just near this river up near the bend.
For a few reasons, I decided to fast for my first 24 hours there, so in addition to my lack of knowledge, I lacked energy. After dinner we gathered wood, sat around the bonfire, and waited. After a while, the ceremony leader brought down a pot filled with brown liquid. He told us that he added a kilogram of highly potent cacao (which I didn’t know could be potent) to the boiling water to make the ceremonial drink. We sat in silence after he explained the procedure. Then, when we each were ready, we made our way to the fire, picked a cup of cacao drink, placed an offering in the fire, and sat down for another 20 minutes of silent contemplation. Only then did we drink the cacao.
What followed was an interesting mix of music, dancing, and free expression.
It was just getting dark when we drank the cacao, but when the fire became the sole source of light, one person brought out a drum. He started with a simple beat, but soon others joined. Next came a few other drums, then a guitar or two followed by a jaw harp, and finally everyone was adding to the cacophony – even if it was just by smacking their belly.
A consistent beat managed to manifest itself, so the music naturally led to dancing. Everyone danced alone in his own little world. Soon the music gained intensity and the clothing optional aspect became increasingly apparent. At one point there was more clothing on the ground and in the trees than on people’s bodies. It was an environment without judgment or self-consciousness. Just music, dancing, and nearly 100 half-naked humans in a forest clearing.
Thinking back on it, it satisfied nearly every stereotype I held about “hippie gatherings.”
After a few hours of non-stop dancing, people started sitting on the ground. Some talked, others meditated, and a few even brought out their fire dancing equipment and put on a show. Later, a few dozen people created a massage circle. That’s when I decided to go for a walk.
I heard earlier in the day that the river bank contained glowing mushrooms, so that’s where I went. After walking a few hundred meters along the bank, I shut off my headlamp and just stared. It’s one thing to listen and read about bioluminescent fungus, but the sight of pale blue, glowing mushrooms is as awe-inspiring as a summer’s first firefly sighting.
When I came back to the fire, things had died down a bit, so I talked with a Parisian about French for an hour before heading to bed. Before I fell asleep, I saw the first rays of the next day’s sunlight.
There’s a unique smell I will remember from my time at the gathering. It’s the mixture of a few things: wet forest, drying mud, humans who bathe in a river and use clay as soap, and a slight vinegar scent.
Harsh chemicals weren’t allowed outside the kitchen, so most “hand-washing stations” consisted of a spray bottle with a water and vinegar mixture. One person though had a clever idea: to better clean the hands, he added baking soda to the mixture. That lasted one day. It’s a miracle more people didn’t get sick.
The bathroom was also stationed far from any public area. It was simply a few dirt trenches with simple bamboo rain protection. We affectionately called them the “shit pits.” The entire forest was open for pee though, and I was out of the loop when it came to common pee spots. I unknowingly hung my hammock near one of the most frequented locations.
It stopped raining as I was walking back to town, so I couldn't help but smile.
My few days at the International Rainbow Gathering clearly weren’t normal, but that’s why I loved it. Everyone was nice, the surroundings were beautiful, sanitary conditions made life interesting, and the food was delicious. If these stories seemed odd, that’s because they were. But if given the chance, I would’ve stayed for even longer.
Note: This story was originally posted on my old blog (theclimategap.com) but was edited slightly and moved here in 2022.