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.

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.

The Great Hitchhiking Adventure – Part 2: Toulouse to Ecodharma

Toulouse is a beautiful city. There are some places I go that I know immediately that I need more time in and this is one of them. It’s great to be travelling alone and without time restrictions and I decide to stay in Toulouse for a couple of days. Through some synchronicity I find a couch-surfing host quite quickly and am walking to his house when a man stops me and asks if I would like to join him for a drink. I immediately refuse.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, seeing I don’t speak much French.
‘I have been to England a few times,’ he says, still walking beside me, ‘London, Swindon…’
‘Wait a minute…’ I stop walking, ‘did you just say you’ve been to Swindon?’
‘I grew up in Swindon!’
‘Come on, let’s get a drink.’

Joel thinks I’m crazy. Crazy for hitchhiking, crazy for travelling alone, crazy for staying with strangers. He is not the sleaze I originally took him for, but is actually very polite, respectful and intelligent. He says he prefers to meet people on the street rather than in a bar where they will just be drunk. Sex is of course nice, but he is interested in meeting people for conversations also. It’s nice to have a drink with somebody friendly and we have a good chat.

The velos are bikes you can rent for a euro a day plus a sliding scale depending on how long you use them for. It takes me a couple of days to work out the system as there is nothing written in English about them, even at the Tourist Info Office, which is otherwise very useful. There are velo stations all over Toulouse and I constantly see people riding them around, so eventually I get somebody to show me. Once on one myself I realise they are not quite as romantic as they look when one is wobbling down a cobbled street vibrating fiercely. The bike is largely made out of plastic and has a large advertisement for HSBC bank on the side, but still, I miss the bike back home and this is a poor substitute but quite fun nonetheless.

I spent my first night in Toulouse with Franek, the couch-surfing ambassador for the city. Franek shares a one-bedroom flat with his sister Iris but loves having CS guests and would rather share a room with his sister than turn anyone away. There is another guest staying the second night, a German man called Matthias who I instantly take to. To avoid overcrowding I spend the second night with Franek’s neighbour, who we discover by accident is also a CS host.

I am in a campsite about as different from the one at Castelsarrasin as you could possibly get. Dodgy pop-dance music blasts out of the cafe-bar behind me. I’m sitting at a blue plastic table eating chips and drinking beer. My blue plastic chair has ‘Nestle’ emblazoned across the back. This ‘Camping Village’ charges €10 a night, €20 if I leave after 10am! They have taken my passport to ensure I pay before leaving. It’s such a shame because this is a really beautiful town, nestled right in the heart of the Pyrenees. I was expecting to arrive at Ecodharma today. I at least thought I would get out of France but no, I’m still here. I am wishing I hadn’t taken the advice of the man smoking outside the bar back in the town and had carried on to Andorre rather than stay here tonight. He’s probably an undercover tout for this campsite. I am intrigued to see Andorre, a tiny little independent country I had never heard of before, right on the French-Spanish border.

I had some good lifts today. Not long ones, but nice ones. One was a man whose name I have sadly forgotten. He’s a meditator too and we had a really interesting conversation while listening to the most beautiful music as we drove through the winding mountain paths and remote crumbling sand-coloured villages in the French Pyrenees. ‘It’s music from the desert’, he said. Really enchanting. My driver was the second who waited for me today, rather than the other way around. ‘You didn’t have your thumb out, but I guessed you were hitchhiking’, he said. He and his wife, both aged 50, have recently moved to this area from further north. He said he feels 22 again. His love of the area is infectious, especially as he tells me local legends and points out hidden landmarks.

The first lift that waited for me today was not so great. No, that’s mean of me, he was nice enough. He had his lorry pulled over and waited for me to catch up to him at the toll booth I was heading for on the autoroute out of Toulouse. Hitching on the autoroute is illegal, just like on British motorways, but you can walk along behind the barrier and it’s ok to hitch at the tolls where a lot of people also stop to use the public toilets. This driver seemed quite keen for me to take off one of the tops I was wearing and to let down my hair. He emphasised strongly how hot it was. He didn’t speak English, but made it clear in French that he was a man and that I was in fact a woman. I was convinced by him to take a very roundabout route through Perpignon. I changed my mind halfway and got out at Carcassone and headed south on the smaller D roads – hence still being in France.

I stop for a sandwich in the most beautiful place I have been to so far: a remote picnic spot outside a tiny village up in the mountains. It’s a crappy place for hitchhiking and I wait an hour – my longest wait by far since leaving the Uk, which I blame on the amount of ex-pats living locally – but I don’t really mind because the area is so outstandingly beautiful.

My first lift of a new day speeds through the mountain roads with dance music blaring – ‘you’re so sexy – sexy, sexy, sexy’ sings the woman on the stereo. My driver is heading to the first town in Andorre, which it appears serves as an off-licence to the whole of southern France. Andorre is not in the EU and alcohol is a quarter the price, a packet of cigarettes is around €2. My driver warned me earlier that there may be a ‘traffic marmalade’ and I see what he means as the queue gets longer and longer. It’s not only alcohol and cigarettes that are cheap, but also clothes, food and oil. We cross the border without any hassle. Au revoir France!

After a forty minute wait I finally get a lift out of Pas de la Casa, the first town in Andorre. It’s small but still very built up and has cows grazing on almost vertical patches of grass. I feel certain they will fall and crush the cars parked along the side of the road directly beneath them. Now my new driver and I take the wiggliest mountain path ever to this tiny country’s capital, Andorra la Vella.

I arrive in Isona after a semi-dodgy hour and a half long trip with a man in a tiny white van. I’m waiting for Guhyapati (‘G’ to his friends) in Bar Miami. I think I am the only English person and the only female apart from the barmaid. I seem to be an unusual sight. I drink my last half pint while waiting – it may be a while before I consume alcohol again. G arrives and greets me like an old friend, although we only met once before for a brief ten minute chat at the Buddhafield Festival. He has exactly the white landrover I imagined he would. I get in and we wind our way up an ever remoter road that turns into a track at steeper and steeper angles. G tells me a little about the centre and points out landscape features as we pass. He also tells me who else is on the retreat and it turns out I know one of them – he will be surprised to see me! There are only 8 of us, but another 3 will arrive over the next few days. My sense of exitement is growing…