[Extract from Part 3 Of Somewhere Under the Rainbow]
‘It got to the point where I just walked around the circle at a Gathering in Australia asking if anyone wanted to get it on with me!’ one particularly candid sister told me. She was self-confident, blonde, in her early 30’s and yet though there were hundreds of guys around, she just couldn’t get laid.
Free love and hippies might be a cliché but surprisingly, some people find that there’s almost too much love in the Rainbow for it to ever get sexual. Hugging a whole crowd of people every day, sharing the moments when you eat, when you wash, when you work – maybe even when you shit – there’s sometimes a lack of the privacy that helps romance to flourish.
Some people also fly so high in the Rainbow, soaring on new-found thermals of the heart, that sex is just too earthy a passion to be realised. The feelings of love they experience too universal to be channeled into a single encounter. All of which can prove torturous for some of those who are feeling horny. With nude bodies everywhere, hugs and kisses at every turn, it can be a case of water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.
Of course there is sex in the Rainbow, just not as much as you might think. Cold nights and rainy days, for instance, can send everyone retreating into their necessarily-celibate sleeping bags. The lack of personal hygiene some people exhibit can also dampen the mood. But, all in all, the Rainbow is such an intrinsically transient place that there is the chance for some romantic encounters with no strings attached.
It does require you to tune into a new wavelength and adapt to a new set of social protocols and courtship, however. I remember sitting with a pretty Czech sister at a Gathering in Switzerland as a French guy tried to hit on her in the most two-dimensional manner imaginable, using all the lines and tricks that one might learn from a book or the worst kind of movies.
He began by showing her his digital watch.
‘It’s got a satellite connection to tell me what the weather is!’
‘Why don’t you just look up at the sky?’ she asked in disbelief.
Not at all fazed, he then went on to tell a lengthy dirty joke involving bestiality, just to bring the conversation around to sex, apparently. Receiving only a yawn in response, he decided to pull out his trump card.
‘Do you know Monte Carlo?’ he asked.
‘Well, it just so happens…that I have a house in Monte Carlo! I’ll give you my card. We can meet for lunch!’
‘I don’t think so.’ she yawned.
‘I didn’t invite you to my house…yet!’
How that wannabe playboy ended up on top of a mountain in a Rainbow Gathering was beyond us. But we couldn’t help but feel sorry for him so far out of his element. He was lost among hundreds of hippies who couldn’t care less what kind of car he drove or how big his company was. If he came in search of some free love he was sorely disappointed.
I’ve heard many men of my generation express their regret at not having been earlier to enjoy the free love of the 60’s. Liberated by the Pill and a revolution of sexual attitudes and values, by most accounts it really was an easy time to get laid. That all changed with the arrival of AIDS, however, and suddenly sex was no longer a casual pleasure but a biological threat with potentially fatal consequences. Under a storm of public health warnings and media panic, the emphasis shifted to ‘safe sex’ – sex without risks, sex under controlled circumstances. In a short space of time the waves of government propaganda infiltrated the most intimate, vulnerable adventure two people could embark upon. No longer was sex fun, a fundamental expression of one’s identity – now it had become a risky enterprise, a game of chance where individuals played with their lives in the pursuit of pleasure.
In the Rainbow, however, there’s more just a natural tendency to forget about the outside world and enjoy the moment. Many people do use condoms but there’s nowhere to buy any and somehow after an evening of singing songs about God and Eternity by the fire, gazing up at the stars and tuning into each other’s aura…well, it hardly seems the moment to bring up the possibility of catching a contagious virus.
Moreover, as people explore all kinds of personal, social and spiritual frontiers, their attitudes towards sexuality sometimes become more flexible, too. Young women arriving to the Rainbow for the first time seem to be particularly vulnerable; overwhelmed by the love, the harmony and the colourful cast of Rainbow characters so clearly in their element, it’s often easy for them to bowled over by an older brother with dreadlocks, a guitar and a charismatic personality. All well and good until it comes to getting naked and she suggests using a condom, only to be patiently told:
‘Sister! A condom is not organic. It is an invention of Babylon. Where there is love, there is trust. This is the way of Tantra…’ And so on until she feels distinctly unspiritual to worry about catching a disease or getting pregnant.
While the propaganda surrounding HIV may have traumatised an entire generation’s sexuality and the rate of its spread in the West has been much slower than initially feared, it’s still a terrible disease to catch. Even though the odds of contracting it on a single encounter in the West are slim, the chances obviously increase the more you sleep around and it’s not as if HIV is the only health risk.
Talk about this kind of thing in the main circle, however, and many people will shake their heads and wonder why you don’t trust more in the Great Spirit? The negative connotations of words like ‘disease’ and ‘infection’ rebound around the speaker and, in short, bring everyone down.
It’s certainly easy to get swept away by the moment in the Rainbow as many single mothers around the fire can affirm. Riding the waves of love and celebration, people often get together who might not have much in common under other circumstances. All is well until the Gathering ends and the first argument begins about who has to cover the petrol costs.
Romantic encounters in the Rainbow may not usually have much future but there’s no denying their magic. Maybe you meet someone dancing around the fire one night, flames lighting up their face. Or perhaps your hands meet shyly while singing bhajans in a cosy tipi with the rain pattering on the canvas outside. Then you walk off to make love in a forest glade with a stream playing the background music. Or perhaps you grab your sheepskin and go to make your bedroom on top of a moonlight hill, king and queen of the Earth.
On the other hand you might just settle for your plastic made-in-China tent, attempting to create a boudoir among the flecks of mud, biscuit crumbs and dirty socks. Should passion survive under these circumstances then the entire tent swiftly becomes a sauna, droplets of sweat forming on the roof, drowning insects falling onto your back, the entire structure shaking rhythmically to your gymnastics, providing a fun show for anyone camped nearby.
Sometimes it’s surely the conditions themselves that prevent the Gatherings from being an all-out Love Fest. I remember my first Rainbow romance in the Israeli desert back in 2000. We spent several evenings in a row in each other’s arms, swaying gently to the all-night ragas played by an Austrian duo who had just come back from studying music in Varanasi. The desert was luminous blue in the moonlight and she, like me, was struggling to make sense of her life after several years in India. We had grown steadily closer and closer and were both anxious to make love but as we were in the desert water was in short supply. It had been so long since either of us had had a decent wash that the conditions didn’t exactly lend themselves to intimacy. After a few awkward attempts, we eventually decided to wait until we got back to Babylon where there were hot showers and washing machines.
Thus the Rainbow Gatherings demonstrate that nature isn’t necessarily an aphrodisiac. Sometimes bodies are too badly-sunburned to be touched. Maybe there’s a really cute sister you have your eye on but she seems to scratch her head a lot and might have head lice? Or perhaps it’s been raining for days and the sheer effort of trying to stay warm, dry and fed leaves everyone in such a state of physical exhaustion that sex is the last thing on anyone’s minds.
Then there’s the fact that there are different sexual protocols in the Rainbow. People touch each other so much that first-timers can be left quite confused – was that just a hug or something more? There are some in the Rainbow who will hold you close for half an hour, run their fingers through your hair, kiss you on the neck…and then when the hug is over there’s such a look of pure friendship in her eyes that you’re embarrassed to have felt anything sexual at all.
A few sisters have told me that they sometimes have trouble setting borders with guys in the Rainbow. How to share universal affection without giving someone the wrong impression? Hugging and cuddling up to stay warm on cold nights, it’s easy for the message to get confused. Especially when everyone calls you ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ all the time so that you end up feeling vaguely guilty of having incestuous thoughts.
There are some in the Gatherings who are quite confident of their sexuality though. Rainbow Butterflies fly from flower to flower, making love under the stars and breaking hearts by dawn. It’s hard to justify feeling jealous when someone you’ve just spent the night is seen rolling around with someone else the next day – didn’t they meet you with the same ease? When were any promises made?
But there can be few experiences quite as painful as tracking down the tent of a sister or brother you’ve spent the night with only to hear the voice of their new lover through the plastic walls of their tent as you approach.
Overall, the Rainbow probably does more for international relations than any other movement or organisation out there. And it’s not bad for international relationships either, even when couples don’t speak the same language. I know of a brother and sister who didn’t have any words in common and had to communicate only with sign language and affection until she slowly learned English. Now they have a child together.
Even if the only words you manage to pick up in the local language are ‘let’s go to my tent?’ there’s still a wealth of nonverbal interaction to leave you with pleasant memories of Gatherings abroad. Words are only a small part of our communication, after all.
‘What is it with hippies and massage?’ an Indian girlfriend once asked me when she first came across the Rainbow. ‘It’s just a way to get laid, right?’
Well, not just. But, yes, offering massage is a good way to get close to someone and gives them a chance to see what you can do with those hands of yours; it is, let us admit it, a rare and beautiful sight in the Rainbow to see a guy giving massage to another guy.
For those looking for some free love in the Rainbow, it helps to have some kind of way to stand out; musicians and dancers attract their fair share of attention, so do those who run the kitchen, hold workshops and make announcements; playing for Magic Hat is a good way to get noticed, as is dressing up in feathers, bones and sporting tribal tattoos; shamans, healers, teachers and general Rainbow warriors powered with the charisma that comes from a deep faith in the Great Spirit also do better than the average hippie.
Other strategies include reading palms, doing someone’s Mayan horoscope (might prove less effective after 2012) and offering a private reiki healing session. It also doesn’t hurt to have a good supply of chocolate back in your tent for guests.
It helps, too, to have a tent that’s larger than your own personal needs – a good one when it starts to rain – but not having one is no barrier to your amorous exploits: At an Italian Gathering I walked up the hill where I had camped to get a sweater and noticed that the door to my tent was open. Approaching curiously I was met with the unusual and unexpected visage of a vagina, legs sprawled lazily open. Less appealing was the pair of hairy testicles lying beside her belonging to the camp lunatic – he had somehow managed to convince an impressionable girl to accompany him for an afternoon love-making session in a nearby tent. Mine.