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!

Advertisements

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.
‘England,’
‘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?’
‘Yes..?’
‘I grew up in Swindon!’
‘No!’
‘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…