Can Masdeu

Can Masdeu is a squatted community and social centre on the outskirts of Barcelona. It’s home to around 25 people, including some children. I visited it on my way back from Ecodharma – a while ago now but I have been meaning to write about it.

A friend lives at Can Masdeu and it was he who said I could come. Unfortunately he neglected to tell anyone else I was coming. I arrived late one night and shouted both mine and his names up at the person in the window above to discover I had missed him by an hour. He was out for the night and nobody had heard of me. I felt a little… well, not unwelcome because people were very nice about it, but it was explained to me that there are alternative on and off months for visitors and I had inadvertantly picked an off month to appear on. Oops.

Places like Can Masdeu inspire me with hope. The building was once a lepper colony. It’s a listed building but had been left to fall down by the council. Since the squatters moved in they have been working hard to repair it. There is one workday a week on the house and one on the garden when everyone pitches in. I was there for the garden day. They have a huge community garden and people from all around Barcelona come to help out. The gardens provide most of the vegetables for the community. They buy organic grains and pulses from co-operatives and also get some ‘recycled food’ from skips and from donations from shops. It’s not just food that gets donated. A local bike shop regularly donates bike parts that people don’t want after they have upgraded. Apparently it’s quite a top quality bike shop so the donations are often really good stuff. The bike workshop space is huge and includes the old confessional booths in the lower part of the building. There is also a ‘quiet space’ for yoga and meditation, a social centre open to the public on Sundays, a free shop and internet room. The shower block is outside and uses spring water heated with solar panels and there’s a bike-powered washing machine. The toilets are composting ones outside and the classiest women’s pisser I have ever seen – a sort of bidet contraption that flushes with spring water!

Can Masdeu obviously has a lot of strong links with the local community and shops, the bike shop being one example. They also do environmental stuff with local kids and while I was there they got a van load of unsold televisions delivered from Ikea! Seven years ago, a few months after it was first squatted, the police came to evict them – but the community resisted. During the eviction attempt there was a huge amount of local support and hundreds of people came to show solidarity and to try to get food to the people resisting inside. The police were stopping supplies from going in and food and morale was low. Eventually the police left. They still haven’t been back, but the community is aware that there could still be an eviction attempt at any time.

Can Masdeu is not as vegan as most of the communities and social centres I have visited. The communal meals while I was there were all vegan but the community keeps chickens and bees and my friend hunts the local wild boar. Fortunately he managed not to kill anything while I was there – just. We found a sick blind rabbit with myxomatosis sitting on the road. It let us pick it up, which turned out not to be a good idea given that it was crawling with fleas. Fortunately the fleas much preferred soft rabbit fur to my hands. Martin suggested we kill it but I was sure there must be another way. I later found out the disease is treatable and the rabbit should have been taken to a vet. Now we’ll know for next time. We didn’t kill it but it was probably in a lot of pain. Maybe we should have?

I made oat milk with one of the guys who lives there. He has inspired me to refine my recipe: it now includes tahini, vanilla and a little sugar or honey. I have been debating about honey a lot lately. I had a few sips of mead one night which was made from the honey they collect at Can Masdeu. I asked a few questions and ascertained that they do not kill any of the bees on purpose, they do not feed them any substitutes and only take (what they consider to be) excess honey. I am starting to think that super local honey collected under these conditions is possibly slightly more ethical than sugar. The long-term aim is of course to un-develop my sweet tooth.

On the garden day I was delightfully surprised to bump into somebody familiar – a girl who knows me from Brighton and shares some of my friends. We got on really well, digging through the rotting compost, almost slicing a rat in half with my spade and discussing vegan dilemmas, Buddhism, paganism and the strange and wonderful places we have come across. It turns out she lives at Escanda, another radical community in Spain I have been meaning to visit – so now I have a contact there and renewed excitement about visiting.
Unfortunately I didn’t stay long enough to see the social centre while it was open, but I did have a look at it and donated one of my jumpers to the free shop. Can Masdeu is definitely on the itinerary for my next adventure: “The Big Trip”. I am starting to plan the trip now. It’s all very exciting. I am inviting suggestions of places for me to visit and I’m also looking for travel companions for parts of the trip. Where would you like to go? I basically want to go everywhere: the world by thumb!

Winter at Ecodharma

The snow on the mountain ranged from ankle to knee-deep, and even the landrover got stuck in places. We parked near Cal Victor, the house/ruin we stayed by on the working retreat and where Guhyapati (‘G’) has his yurt. The snow and ice got even worse further along the track and access by any vehicle would be too dangerous to attempt. This time we would be in Cal Monsor on the other side of the valley. This house was rebuilt from ruins by hand with the help of friends and the local community and is a bit warmer than the little yurt I shared with Lucy in September.

By the time the retreat started a few days later the sun was blazing hot. I was walking around in a vest and people were talking about sun hats and lotion. Snow was still on the ground almost ten days since it last snowed. I had no idea snow could last so long in such heat!

The retreat stretched over three weeks from December 20th to Jan 10th. I have been looking for a way to escape xmas for years and finally found it. For those who wanted to celebrate we compromised with a puja.

I tried my first ever persimmon (and second, third and tenth!) – a strange tomato-looking fruit. I know a tomato is a fruit, but a persimmon is, well, fruitier. They arrived in our fruit and veg boxes each week and it was a race to eat them before they went rotten and fell apart, although stewing with porridge seems to work well and they are also nice with chocolate. The boxes included a range of local organic fruit and veg from a co-op. Tragically the squat we were getting bread from on the last retreat got evicted two weeks prior.

Communication, community and group dynamics made up a large part of the retreat structure. We had consensus-based meetings after dinner each day where we each shared in decision making about the retreat. We experimented with bringing mindfulness into this practice as well, sounding a bell after each agenda item. It had a very positive effect, bringing us back to awareness before moving on.

A contentious issue was the vegan question. Three of us were vegan and most others felt we should all eat a vegan diet (plus honey) during the retreat. There was only a small amount of resistance to this, but being an emotive issue it seemed to come up again and again. I learned a lot about communication, patience and compassion during this retreat and this issue and the way we dealt with it had a very large part to play in that. Several others mentioned they were thinking about going vegan by the end of the retreat and I think talking about the issues involved rather than shying away from them was one of the main factors.

G has an interesting method of teaching. He explains complex carbon cycles with a whiteboard and markers and the next day marches us up the mountain to see what he was talking about for ourselves. Yes, here are the lines in the landscape where the ocean floor split and ruptured – and here are the mountains that erupted when the continental plates collided. Here are the layers within the rock right at the top of the highest peak, which were once layers of sediment at the bottom of a primordial ocean. We spent seven hours climbing, sliding and occasionally walking up and down the individual precipices that make up the north ridge. We stopped occasionally – a sandwich here, a look at the view there – but not for long. I felt I had been hurrying the whole way. G said it would take five hours. Apparently he can do it in two – bouncing along from one rock to the next in trainers. I wasn’t sure how to look at him – in awe or with a scowl. I opted for sarcasm, with one eyebrow raised.

Each week we had a Solo Day: a chance to go out into the wildness alone and just be. I spent my first under the overhang of a rock in thick snow. On the second I went to hunt out the ruined houses up on the ledge near the coll. Lito was with me and was very exciteable. He continuously bounded off and then lolloped back again to check I was still coming. After we reached the far end of the ledge I sat down and he got bored and ran off. He came back looking for me after a while and when he eventually spotted me lying on my back on the grass he went
crazy with excitement and bounded over in his lovely clumsy doggy way. It was all I could do not to scream as he lunged towards my face, tongue flapping sideways in the wind. We both collapsed in a fit of giggles. Then he started chasing his tail round in manic cicles and I had to sit very still until he realised I wasn’t playing and bounced off again, pressumably to jump on one of the others who said they might
go up to the coll. I spent hours up there: lying, sitting, meditating or just gazing. The view was magnificent. I feel like I need almost unlimited amounts of space right now. I
almost feel like I could not possibly get enough of it. There was a moment up there on that ledge, having not spoken for a few days as we were in silence and with nothing to do for the day other than explore the wildness and just be. I could see only mountains, forests and fields for miles and miles. I thought: this is what space feels like.

Some people wanted a lot more silence. It was brought to the meeting and after some discussion it was agreed by everyone to have five days of silence in week two. I was initially hesitant, but after hearing from the others I began to see that it could add something to the experience. I have done a ten day silent retreat in the past, but had felt that for this retreat the communication was integral to what we were doing. I was reminded that speaking is only one form of communication. In the end I could happily have had another few days of silence, although it was a joy to speak with the others again and there followed a whole load of some of the most profound and interesting conversations I have ever had.

I am fascinated by the valley’s history. Some of the land Ecodharma is on used to belong to Tom, a local man. Tom’s father was shot by Franko’s men after hiding out in the valley. G has found obscure caves with tins of food in that date back to the civil war. There is also a giant cross on a distant hill that I would love to see sometime. I am told the Catholic Church erected it in support of fascism after the war, but there were loads of anarchists and communists hiding out in the area and they went and smashed it down. It’s still lying smashed on the ground somewhere.

On a long walk alone one day I came across two houses I hadn’t known existed – very exciting as I *love* ruins. The first was last lived in something like eighty years ago. It has plaster on the walls, a bed (complete with human-corpse-sized rolled up hay mattress), worn out straw hat on the back of an ancient kitchen chair and a cupboard with an assortment of old bottles and jars. A few small rooms are still intact and most door and window shutters are still in place, but the floor-boards are caving in and some of the furniture is dissappearing down the hole. I didn’t manage to get down to the bottom floor as I couldn’t see a safe way to do it and it seems as though the top floor may crash down into it at
any given moment.

I was surprised and delighted to see the furthest house as I came over the top of a mountain and saw it in the valley below me. This is the one Tom’s dad was killed in and it is still owned by him. It doesn’t have much in it but is mostly intact with a front and back doorway, ladder going up to small attic space and steps leading downstairs. I found a big dead tree near it and took some of the peeling bark for the altar in the shrine yurt. Later I lit a candle for Tom’s dad and all of the others who lost their lives in this valley.

After the retreat those of us who were left went to Tremp, the capital of the area. It was strange going back to the place G collected me from one month before. I felt different in some indefinable way. Tremp was like a huge city after the valley. We did some shopping and went to Carol’s house in Eroles for lunch and hot showers. It is SO BEAUTIFUL. Really vibrant, artistic, eccentric, creative, rustic, quirky, circusy and delightful. I desperately want to live there and start a community and put a trapeze up in the attic space. It was here we had a meeting one week later, with me talking and G translating into Catalan for a small group of people who want to start a Transition Initiative in their area. I am inspired to hear about how much is going on already in Catalunya.

There is so much more I could write about: contact dance with Ben and Alex, making marmelade with Yashobodhi, wood chopping lessons and discussions about gender with Rob, Jeanette’s yoga classes, Maitrisara’s rising song that woke us more gently than any alarm clock, Penny’s book, singing and poetry round the fire and so many more unique moments that made this my most beautiful winter ever. Thank you to all who took part in it.

La Sorga

My female driver – the first of my etire journey – takes me out of her way, up the mountain and into the driveway marked `La Sorga’. It is gone 8pm, cold and dark. She wouldn’t hear of me walking the rest of the way. I walk towards the faint voices and even fainter light behind some tree-shaped silhouettes. The light and voices are coming from what appears to be a wooden cabin, but turns out to be part caravan, part wooden construction. I knock lightly on the glass door, thoroughly surprising the inhabitants whom I discover have never heard of me and were not expecting anyone at all. The `owner’ of the place is away. It must have been him I was emailing and he hadn’t mentioned I was coming to the others. But it’s ok – the more the merrier!

I am introduced to everyone: Caroline is French and has been here only two weeks herself. Antoine and Laura are a couple who met here for the first time two months ago. Antoine is a sunny-faced guy from Belgium and Laura is German and almost always laughing. Then there is Ash, a New Zealander who has been here the longest. He is currently on crutches having slipped in the woods about a week ago and badly twisted his ankle. Ash is freegan. He spent a bit of time squatting in London and also used to work at Pogo Cafe. We probably know some of the same people – small world! Christoph is the only one who doesn’t speak a great deal of English. He is a bit of a clown and always up for some fun and games. I think I will definitely get on with everyone here. We are all around the same age and I cannot help but think that La Sorga feels more like a youth hostel than a community. There are no permanent residents here at present and it all feels rather transitory. This is great for me as a passer-through but I’m not sure how I would feel about it if I wanted to stay for longer.

I arrived in time for a dinner of spaghetti bolognese. Laura is vegan too, so all evening meals will be fine for me to eat. It is decided that I will share a cabin with Christoph. This turns out to be my own double mattress on a mezzanine above where he is sleeping, with my own lamp, a window and bookshelves. Hurrah!

Day 1 – Friday
Porridge for breakfast. Already I can tell this is my kind of place! The morning is spent moving an enormous pile of wood from the front entrance. It has been given to us by a neighbour apparently. It is the last thing I feel like doing after a full day of hitchhiking, but I dutifully take wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of wood behind the caravan for stacking.

I am expecting more work after lunch, but find that everyone goes off to do their own thing. I end up `sunbathing’ in my polo-neck jumper and two pairs of trousers on my rollmat near to the front drive. A peculiar place to lie but with a lovely big patch of sun. A big white tom cat – clearly the bravest of the five feline residents and one of only two who are not blind – comes to sit beside me – then on my book – then on my back, where he gives me a lovely massage. We remain firm friends after this.

I have discovered that La sorga has some strange contrasts: a compost toilet, wood burners and permacutlure principles – but also running water, a boiler, internet and – bizzarely – a washing-machine!

Day 2 – Saturday
There is a market in Le Bugue, the nearest town, on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The market shuts at midday, so that is when we need to get there – to ask the market people for any unsold food they are throwing away – kind of a cross between skipping and begging. Four of us walk down to the main road with the intention of hitching in pairs. Two cars pull over at once – success!

I’m told there is usually a lot more and people seem dissapointed, but we manage to fill a few carrier bags. Antoine has a tip-off about a field where a lot of corn has bee cut and is being left to rot. He and Laura head off to pick some while Caroline and I return home. They arrive hours later with sacks of the stuff. In the field was enough sweetcorn to feed the chickens for a year. We will go again another day and get more.

Since I arrived people have been talking about the party we will go to on Saturday night. The time has arrived and I am almost reluctant to go. I have not enjoyed the last few parties I have been to and not drinking means always being on a different wavelength to people at parties. I have not drunk alcohol for six weeks and have been attempting to abstain for three months. I even spent my birthday sober. Something about the surroundings and the people weakens my resolve and the minute I get in the door and see tables covered in bottles of free booze I pour myself a large glass of champagne and have done with it.

The party is wonderful. It is in a shop which has just opened. It is not-for-profit and runs solely on donations – everything from clothes to toys to computers to furniture – which they fix up and sell on at an affordable price. It is huge and bright and clean and beautifully decorated with a large Mongolian yurt frame (no canvas) at one end, filled with cushions, paintings and information about various projets, of which La sorga is one. A stage has been set up and the bands play some excellent folky stuff that we can’t help but dance to. I am properly warm for the first time in a week and go right down to one layer of clothing. Antoine takes to the stage at regular intervals – a bit of drumming here, a little singing there. He adopts strange squeaky voices and somehow manages to fit in with the rest of the band – at least mostly! We can’t help but dance – all except poor Ash who spends the eveing on one of the sofas with his twisted ankle. There are plenty of children and people of all ages. I am very glad to have come and also very glad for my champagne. Bad girl.

Day 3 – Sunday
I am informed early on that this is our day of rest. Suits me fine. My first hangover in six weeks and I am feeling guilty about drinking last night. I console myself by reasoning that it is still the longest I have ever gone without drinking (since age 15 anyway). I turn down a glass of walnut wine in the evening, to the shock and dismay of Christoph, who claims it is a traditional French drink and I must at least try it. I feel a little better with myself for refusing and feel certain that I can now go on to abstain for another six weeks.

Day 4 – Monday
I was originally planning on leaving today, but I was going to Barcelona and heard by email that the squatted community I wanted to visit there is at capacity until February. I will stay here for two days extra and try to visit Barcelona on the way back.

Christoph left this morning, so now there are only five of us. It seems there are even fewer as Antoine and Laura spend most of the day in their little house and Ash is ill in bed. The skipped paella is suspected but unconfirmed as the culprit and is consequently fed to the cats, much to their delight.

Another lazy day. I spend most of it reading `Frech Phrases For Dummies’. I must sound very odd to the others, sitting in the corner muttering phrases like `What a lovely dress!’ and `peaches are my favouite fruit’.

By evening I am feeling a bit rested out. I have done little but sit for two days. I go for a stroll and nose around some of the other structures for the first time. I also finally make frinds with one of the blind cats and end up with a trail of cats following me around the grounds pied-piper style.

Day 5 – Tuesday
I woke up late – almost 10am. Last night we had a projet meeting and chastised ourselves for doing so little work this week. We resolved to go into town early for the market. On entering the caravan I discover that I am first up. Hmm, strange. I entertain myself while waiting by washing-up and watching the chickens outside.

The cockrel and one of the chickens have escaped again. They are strutting and waddling around on the wooden platform outside the caravan. I witness my first ever chicken-rape scenario when the cock forces himself on top of the squarking, flapping hen and holds the wobbly red bit on her head in his beak to keep her down. I am shocked. After he’s finished she shuffles her feathers violently and he struts about crowing loudly. What a cock. He struts over to a nearby plastic bucket and stretches his head to peer over the brim. On finding it is filled with pieces of sweetcorn he pecks one out onto the deck and gobbles it aggressvely.

Eventually the others emerge. Caroline and I hitch into Le Bugue while Laura and Antoine finish breakfast. There is something good in the air today. The first car we see pulls over before we have even made it to the main road. A man at the market breaks open an orange and gives me half as I pass his stall and another sticks his tongue out. Perhaps it is my pigtails. Caroline says I look like a little girl.

We fill all three backpacks and three large shopper-bags with food. Lots of it skipped from the supermarchè and market and some more we actually paid for, like the indispensible yeast extract and some apples and broccoli. Some of us have been feeling a little lacking in vitamins. I buy almost €5 worth of olives as a treat for us all to go on the pizzas we are making tonight. Today is also Bread Day, and that means pizza also. Yum.

Tomorrow I will leave here early in the morning and hitch down to Ecodharma. It’s strange leaving here – in a way it was just one stop on my way to Spain, but I have stayed longer and settled in more than I expected. I wonder if I will return?

La Sorga’s page on Intentional Communities Website (how I first found them)
La Sorga Wiki

A Working Retreat at Ecodharma

G threw the land-rover up the mountain, pointing out the sights to me… “This is the start of the land we have been using.” I am immediately struck by his choice of language, careful not to claim ownership of the land. He may have paid money for it, but how can land be owned? It’s indicative of the mixture of radical politics, ecology and Buddhist ideas that brought me to this place.

Guyhyapati, (or ‘G’), has been here eight years. He saw the south-facing slope of the valley from afar while out climbing and knew it was the place. He found the man who owned it in the village, persuaded him to sell it, raised the money and now here he is: recounting the story to us eight years later. G flicks his long grey hair to the other side of his head, exposing the shaved part underneath. He speaks gently, confidently. We sit around the kitchen in that house that G first bought. The ‘land we are using’ has now extended to cover a much larger area, including six houses, though most are little more than ancient dry-stone-wall structures with rotting tree-trunk beams attached. This kitchen is currently the only part of this house that has been done up, although there is another beautifully renovated house some friends are staying in further down the track. G mostly lives in the yurt just behind the kitchen. It seems obvious that although eight years have passed, this is a community in its infancy. G wants it to grow slowly and sustainably.

A typical day at Ecodharma:

My alarm goes off at 5:30am. Groggy and cold I pull myself from my sleeping-bag and grab a pile of jumpers. We meditate at 6am in the small dome just down-slope of the yurt I am sharing with Lucy, a girl from Manchester I became friends with instantly. I do the first forty-five minutes of meditation and then return to the yurt to practice yoga looking out over the mountains as the sun rises. On a warm day I can remove a couple of jumpers at this point.

I make my way up to the kitchen and am greeted by warm smiles and nods from those already pottering around the small kitchen making breakfast. I have become quite fond of porridge mixed with crunchy cereal and runny mulberry jam. There is always a kettle boiling or pot of tea stewing. Olive oil sits in a little metal oiling can – for lubriacating the pan-fried toast along with the homemade jams. There is fruit too. Apart from the clinks and clatters there is silence until all are present and have eaten. I watch the army of cute but wild kittens playing with whatever bit of food they have managed to snatch from still sleepy humans. G rings a bell to signal the end of silence. We take it in turns to speak whatever is on our minds, how we are.

After check-in we work out jobs for the day. The people who arrived before me had already levelled off some new terraces and begun making a fence to keep any wild pigs off whatever veggies might get planted there. I learn how to use a pickaxe, a backhoe and some other tool with a funny name. I learn a bit of plumbing stuff too and install a new shower (tap resting on wall in private area). All water comes from the spring that runs through the valley, other than the foul, stinking washing-up water which comes from the roof – rainwater mixed with rotting fruit.

After a few days G realises heavy work is not my strong point and I am moved onto painting and kitting out the beautiful new Mongolian yurt for a woman who will soon be beginning a six month solitary retreat. I learn that sanding before painting is a good idea, what a ‘key’ is and how to wire up a solar panel.

We finish work at 2pm, although two finish early to cook lunch. We have a rota for cooking and cleaning and I sign up for a mixture. We take turns to cobble together experimental feasts for the others. The food here is a locavore heaven, all fruit and vegetables are grown locally and even the bread comes from a squatted social centre 17km away who grow their own organic wheat. Peaches come from a workers co-op nearby. The valley itself produces a huge array of herbs as well as plums, mulberries, blackberries, apples, figs, mushrooms, rosehips, various nuts, honey and more.

There is free time until 5:30pm. I alternate sleeping and reading with the odd walk or chat.

In the evening we have study – more like a fervent debate. What is Ecodharma? What are the five precepts? How do radical ecology and Buddhist ideas fit together?
Sometimes we sit in the meditation dome, sometimes the kitchen, often G’s yurt. I suspect I’m not the only one who likes that option best – sitting around in the warm, teapot in centre, grandma cat on somebody’s lap.

We eat supper around 7:30pm. Usually soup, sometimes toast. If we’re lucky, G will make his special chocolatey-almond dessert. After supper there is often a puja or meditation period before bedtime.

I read by candlelight every night before sleeping, listening to the sounds of the crickets, birds and other inhabitants of the valley. There is a small candelabra hanging from the ceiling of the yurt. If I get back after Lucy I can see the yurt lit up like a beacon to help guide me home.

100 Trees

I spent the weekend at Gleneirw, a small community in Wales with a big plot of land, complete with ancient spooky farmhouse with a thousand rooms and corridors, very little electricity and an outdoor compost toilet.

Seven people and a dog, we drove over from Brighton in a rattly van for a tree-planting weekend and to check out the community. I have decided to visit a few such communities this summer as well as doing my usual festival circuit, so I jumped at the chance when I heard there was a place for me in the van.

Saturday morning at 10am we trudged through the rain into the field adjacent the farmhouse in our raincoats and wellies. By lunchtime I was just about getting the hang of it. Slice the earth open with my tree-plating doodah (long handle, flat, slightly pointed blade pointing straight downward) and wiggle it from side-to-side in both directions to create a hole. Repeat two or three times to make hole deeper. Stick tree in hole along with cane. Place mat around base of tree and peg slit together with corn-starch peg thing, then peg each corner. Twizzle boingy tube around base of tree and then let it ping into position so it swizzles all the way up.

Repeat over and over and over again.

Not sure how many we planted over-all but being pedantic I decided to count mine. I counted exactly 100 trees. I feel all proud. I think a lot of those trees will be used for coppicing so it’s not as fantastic as it could be and we did drive all the way there to do it, but still!

I pledge to plant many more trees in future. I think one thousand would be a good number. Imagine that! 🙂