Rainbow Kids

Image courtesy of Benoit Paillé

[This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!

What kind of Rainbow Family would we be without children? Singing, laughing, joking, playing, living in the moment, the kids embody the spirit that we all aspire to. They’re literally the products of love.

And yet there often aren’t as many children in the Gatherings as might be expected. When freewheeling nomads have kids it’s something of a game-changer. No longer can they hitchhike hundreds of miles without waterproof clothing, sleep behind hedges and wait for the Great Spirit to lead them to their next meal. Suddenly they have to make plans, be prepared and always but always have enough food.

‘Children are God’s joke on humans!’ an old Belgian hippie once told me. From glorious nights of love beneath a full moon, poetry and music in the air comes…nine months of morning sickness, relentless mood swings, and agonising labour. All to produce a crying, laughing, shitting, pissing, vomiting ball of love and joy.

New parents in the Rainbow are of course just as enchanted with the miracle of life they hold in their arms as anyone. But the social challenges begin at once.

‘Would you believe people were looking at us in the street with pity?’ one Italian brother told me. He and his wife had chosen not to use a pram but instead to carry their baby in a shawl wrapped around their shoulders, just like mothers do across much of the world, keeping the baby close to their warmth and heartbeat. ‘That’s why we chose to spend the first three months after the birth on top of a mountain in an abandoned village.’

All Rainbow parents know that, in Babylon, babies are business. There are clothes and outfits for all occasions, baby carriers, prams, cots, disposable diapers, creams, shampoos, milk supplements and any number of squeaking, squeezy, fluffy toys of every description with flashing lights and noises, buttons to press, electronic sensors to trigger, eerie recorded voices of branded cartoon characters. And all of this for 2 year olds.

‘His favourite toy is the power adapter,’ one brother in a van told me, pulling his crawling infant away from the plug for the tenth time that day. ‘Why would he need toys – does he look bored to you?’

And of course the baby in question looked quite content. A variety of stimuli and his loving parents’ attention was all he needed to be happy. But that’s something a lot less marketable than cuddly toys based on American TV shows, produced in China.

Childbirth is where those with their heads in the clouds find themselves dragged down to earth with a bump. Few people in the Rainbow would want to have their baby in a hospital, fearing a sterile atmosphere with blinding lights and arrogant doctors. Will loved ones be allowed to attend? Will the obstetrician even look the mother in the eye? Will the baby be given to the mother after birth to suckle or will she be too out of it having been pressured into taking an epidermal anesthetic?

While these kinds of nightmare scenarios are changing as perspectives broaden in Western medicine, still most pregnant women in the Rainbow are likely to opt for the natural approach; essential oils and Bach Rescue Remedies, Hopi chants and Tibetan incense, reflexology and a safe, comfortable environment to bring new life into the world.

Unfortunately a desire to do things in a cozy, supportive environment is sometimes coupled with what can only be called a dangerous ignorance. While it might seem a magical experience to give birth in your tipi up on the mountain, any experienced midwife knows the importance of being able to get to a hospital quickly in case of complications. It might sound obvious but when a baby is being strangled by its own umbilical cord you need an obstetrician, not a shaman. I doubt there are any studies available on infant mortality within the Rainbow Family but I’ve heard enough awful anecdotes to convince me that it’s not good.

It’s when the children grow that things get more complicated as the authorities back home want to know when your kid will go to school. I’ve seen numerous cases where die-hard nomads had to hang up their  shoes when their kids reached the age of 4 or 5. There are still the holidays, of course, but the whole process of schooling and just making a living to provide for the kids mean that few families can stay that long on the Rainbow circuit. There are some single mothers on the road with their kids but, aside from a few hardcore adventurers, most of them tend to have a generous social security system back home supporting them.

Bringing kids to the Gatherings can be expensive (hitchhiking long distances isn’t really an option any more) and it can require a lot more preparation than just tossing a sleeping bag into your guitar case and a bag of peanuts in your pocket. Parents can go to the kitchen and take food for their kids but sometimes a raw carrot and a few sprouted beans aren’t what it takes to get a child to stop crying.

I often look at parents in the Rainbow and wonder how they do it. When the sun’s out and the kids can go and explore the forest then the entire Gathering is like one big playground. There are no cars to worry about and everyone around will keep an eye on the children and come to help if they’re in need. There are fires to make, animals to watch and playful adults to fool around with.

But when the rain comes and one of your kids has fever in the tent while the other has diarrhea and needs to be escorted to the shit pit, and you’re trying to dry at least some of their clothes by the fire in the nearby tipi, and the biscuits have all run out – then parenting would seem to take the patience of a saint.

In the absence of a sink, central heating and a washing machine, looking after babies in particular can be a real challenge in the Rainbow. Recent parents often stick close to their vans where they have some of the bare necessities on hand. As the kids get older though, coming to the Rainbow can actually be a relief for the parents as they run off to play with their friends and just come back to check in at food circle. There’s still the worry that they’ll get lost in the woods without a jacket and torch, necessitating frantic search parties late at night but, generally speaking, parents can take a break, play some guitar and have a holiday.

Not that they’re entirely free though.

‘I was just talking to a pretty young sister from Austria when my daughters stuck their heads out of the tent and called ”Hey dad!“ and the moment was somehow lost…’ a single father of two complained to me one afternoon about the limitations on his sex life.

When kids first arrive at the Rainbow it might take them a few days to get used to things. The resourceful parent will have bags of goodies for low moments but otherwise the children have to get used to mushy bowls of porridge for breakfast instead of fried eggs on toast; a plastic camping mat and sleeping bag instead of a comfy mattress and duvet at night; there are bees flying too close, spiders that climb up your back when you’re not looking and slugs that crawl in your tent if you leave it open. But as long as there are other kids to play with, they’re soon having the time of their lives, enjoying a freedom unthinkable back home.

Once Rainbow kids hit the teenage years things become difficult again. Too old to find endless entertainment in fighting with sticks and making daisy chains, but too young to fit in with the circles of adults talking and flirting in the sun, not many adolescents voluntarily come to the Rainbow. Just the prospect of their parents bathing naked in the stream might be enough to put them off – it’s hard for them to forget that however acceptable such behaviour might be in the Gatherings, it would be social suicide elsewhere.

But despite the challenges that come up, the Rainbow Gatherings offer children the adventure of a lifetime. The Finnish European Gathering of 2010 was surrounded by lakes dotted with uninhabited islands, save for the occasional bear taking shelter for the winter. The waters mirrored the endless twilight of the summer skies and borrowing a boat was the only way to get a brief respite from the mosquitoes.

A gang of girls aged from 7 to 13 got permission from their parents to go and camp for a few days on one of the islands, a perfect castaway spot in the middle of the lake about 200 hundred meters in length and 100 metres at its widest. There were rocks to sit on by the water and enough trees to give shade and a little firewood. They were rowed out to the island with their sleeping bags and bags full of bread and cheese, fruit and chocolate and then left there to begin one of the greatest adventures of their lives.

I paddled out the next day with one of the mothers to check on them and though they appreciated the visit, it was equally clear they were anxious for us to go again so they could get back to their fun. That evening, however, a storm blew in from nowhere with howling winds that tore down tarps across the camp and pelting rain that soaked us to the skin in moments. We shuddered to think of the girls on the island with the winds crashing on the shore, the branches of the trees shaking overhead and not so much as a tent to keep them warm and dry.

While they were happy enough to come back to the Gathering the next day, they had, in fact, survived the night remarkably well; it happened that they’d been working all day on making a shelter out of branches and leaves that they’d managed to gather. When the storm began they all huddled inside and told each other stories, staying mostly dry and warm.

In some parts of Babylon allowing children to go and camp by themselves might be considered reckless endangerment of minors. A case for social workers to get involved and assess the competence of the parents to take care of their children.

But what a time they’d had! How independent and proud of themselves they’d felt! Who could ever deny them such an experience?

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book about rainbow gatherings

Photo by Joth Shakerley

[This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!