Community Life – The Badulina experience

The idea of living in a community has been floating in my mind for a while. Unfortunately, the words “community life” do not evoke positivism in many, nor it did in me. I had a similar aversion towards it before someone brought it up, discussed it with me as a real lifestyle option, and eventually created an experience of my own.

When talking about “community life” many tend to imagine hippie camps crawling with half-naked free spirits or cult leaders creating their own “almost religious” movement, like “Osho”. That is not the kind of community I want to focus on here. Instead, I will discuss the movement towards self-sustainable and minimalistic life connected to nature which has gained in popularity over the past decade.

Why am I intrigued?

I was born and raised in the capital city of Slovakia. For most of my life, I lived in a small apartment with the objective to stay out of it as much as possible. For a family of four in 50 squared meters, it’s understandable. I loved it as a child and I love it now. Hiking, cycling, skiing was always part of our holidays. Outdoors, in any shape or form, have had an undying presence in my life.

Integrating wilderness in one’s life becomes substantially more difficult when living in a concrete jungle, like Berlin. I love the city and its abundance of greenery but I miss the mountains, the rivers, or the snowy peaks, and the fresh air. The northern part of Germany doesn’t have many mountain ranges, so higher altitude hiking or skiing is not really an option. Yet there is the possibility to run to the nearest forest when the mushroom picking season begins. (I wish I I knew how not to die of mushroom poisoning)

Living in a capital city with a full-time job brings high levels of stress. Burnouts and workaholism in the Berlin startup scene is a frequent occurrence. As I grow older, this lifestyle becomes less appealing to me. I also start noticing it in my community. Nowadays, more and more individuals begin to struggle with existential questions, with the meaning of life itself. With covid-19 on our hands, it almost becomes easier to focus on survival rather than life itself. Yet there is nothing wrong with taking one day at a time.

The year 2020 has shown us the aspects of our lives we may have been ignoring until now. Being bound indoors without the immediate ability to reach nature is haunting. Many decided to move outside of the cities, into rural areas where they get to enjoy more space. This is what I was thinking back in 2019. I wished to escape the economy we feed with every paycheck received and every purchase made. It was the origin of the thoughts on alternative life. I had the need to connect to nature, to wake up with the sun, to live off the land. At the end of the day, our needs as human beings are pretty simple. Don’t you think?

What does it mean, a community life?

Life in a community is not a novelty. The term “commune” has been around for hundreds of years and describes a gathering of people living together intentionally, sharing common values, beliefs, interests, and often income and property or assets.  Over the past few decades, communes sprung around the world, some with a specific purpose or focus. However, they all share some core principles. Those principles often revolve around flat hierarchy, communal economy, ecological lifestyle, and consensus decision-making.

In the ideal commune, there are no “leaders”. Its people are lead by common sense and a few established rules. Or let’s say, they follow the popular saying: “what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine“. I believe that this is what discourages many from considering such a lifestyle. In the present world led by consumerism coupled with the competitive human nature, a communal lifestyle is certainly not for everyone. In general, one shall be very introspective before joining a community of any kind. The reality of a communal lifestyle might look dramatically different compared to the image you create for yourself.

Nevertheless, communal life takes many forms. Some communes share the land, request deposits, and have a rigorous member approval process. (almost like the German Schufa check). Some are more spiritual, living in simple conditions without dedicated land or specific demands. But it goes without saying that almost any manual skills are celebrated in any community.

A week of community life in Orgiva, Spain

You probably laugh at me, after reading the subtitle above. A week, what could I possibly find out in a week, right? You’d be surprised, there are twists and turns to the story and the original plan was indeed to stay longer than one week. Let’s start at the beginning.

The perfect timing for a new life project

I lost my job at the end of 2018 and so did my partner. Instead of falling into anxiety over a loss of stable income, we looked at this newly gained free time as an opportunity to experience something new. Something we’ve been discussing for a while, a go at an alternative lifestyle.

En route to a community in Spain called Beneficio

At first, my ultimate dream was to set off on a “vanlife” adventure. But that can become very expensive very quickly and parking can be problematic. The life of a travelling nomad has its pros but also many cons. We didn’t even have a van to begin with, nor the money to get a decent one.

Besides a van, a more “permanent” alternative life was also on the menu. I liked the idea of scouting for a piece of land in a warm country and build a yurt or a container, our own oasis of self-sustainable life somewhere with like-minded individuals. However, all this was very theoretical. I needed to find for myself whether we would enjoy such a life more permanently in the first place.

“Wwoof”-ing in Spain or Portugal

The gloomy Berlin winter of 2018 brought the desire for warmth. In November, we got cheap tickets to Malaga. It was settled, a 2-month long adventure was about to happen until I was to start my new job in March. This was not a holiday, it was a life mission. With a small budget of freshly unemployed individuals, our first thought was “wwoofing”. Wwoofing is a platform for volunteering on local organic farms in exchange for shelter and food. It seemed ideal. Only later we learnt that woofing was very popular among communities as well as farmers.

For several weeks before departure, we were reaching out to farms in the Aljapurra region of Spain without any success. The winter season is not ideal for wwoofing. Some farmers didn’t speak any English or had a sustainability issue with us flying into Spain from Berlin. The options were limited. One could say that “wwoofing” didn’t yet have a strong foothold in the European markets.

Then the wind turned. During our research we came across and got into a conversation with Badulina, a community of people from Benelux settled in Orgiva.

Badulina

The name “Badulina” originally comes from a book by Gabi Nitzan. It describes a tiny kingdom somewhere in Europe where people live equally, happy, and satisfied. It’s a story with a happy ending with an easy moral to live by the laws of nature and equality, without laws, wars, politics, or marriage (true hippies). Everyone is considered to be a king or a queen.

This story was the inspiration for the community name. There is even a Badulina song by Ninka & Omri who wrote a text as they wandered the terraces of Southern Spain and found this community. I never read the story.

I generally try to stay away from expectations (a good rule for life in general, which I often fail to follow), but I am a naturally skeptical person. It sounded too good to be true.

Some expectations vs. the reality

I couldn’t wait to set off on this adventure. Besides visiting Badulina, Orgiva is known for its first-ever hippie community in Europe. My family couldn’t understand where this desire to take off my bra and walk around bare-chested came from. And honestly neither did I.(joking, bare-chested adventures were never my secret desire, instead this is what a Google search on communities often suggests). Looking back, I guess I wanted to know if there is something else to life compared to the usual cycle of work, vacation, money-making, and buying junk.

Anyway, we visited Orgiva in winter so the opportunities for showing skin were not presenting themselves very often!

I admit I had some expectations about Badulina even though I tried to avoid reading about its premise beforehand.
I hoped to learn more about sustainable living, to understand the reasons for these people to live in the middle of the Aljapura mountains. At the same time, I wanted to feel that I don’t need a daily connection to the internet or the luxury of convenience stores around the corner. My inner desire was to prove to myself that a simple life with someone you love can be just as, or way more, fulfilling as the materialistic existence filled with kitsch and glitter we lead in the capital cities.

I literally couldn’t wait to experience manual labor, to harvest olives, plant avocado trees, sell the harvested crops on the market, and read by candlelight. I guess I indeed had some substantial expectations. Or better say, I had a goal in mind with all this.

Fairytales.

In short, none of that happened. At least not in the Badulina community.

The selection process

Prior to our departure to Spain, we received the Badulina “manifesto”. It was an 18-page document describing their vision, property, community, and more. Besides the manifesto, we received a questionnaire to fill in. It asked about our skills, health condition, our passions in life, and other personal topics. It felt odd. We clearly entered a pre-selection process before being able to visit the community in person, as paying guests.

At the same time, it forced you to evaluate yourself. Ultimately, for someone who wanted to be accepted as a visitor, I felt like I needed to show that I’m an outstanding human being. For someone coming from Berlin, filled with sex, drugs, smokes, and techno, that was a stretch! Something was already telling me that Badulina might not be as welcoming as it read on the internet. Another problem that would stand in my way of becoming a Badulina member in the future was my lack of technical/manual skills. The questionnaire made it quite apparent that it is an absolute need rather than “a nice to have” skill. We didn’t have much to offer as valuable community members besides our warm hearts and willingness to learn and contribute.

Imagine having all these emotions before speaking or meeting anyone from the community! Madness.

A week-long adventure

You are right. One week feels like a very short time to properly experience the lifestyle or make any conclusions. It depends. First, second and third impressions also count.

Before making our way from Malaga to Badulina in Orgiva, we stayed a few nights in a hotel. There aren’t many hotels in Orgiva and I swear we were the only guests in Hotel Mirasol in January 2019. It was our backup plan. The community was not very responsive to our emails or FB messages and we started to panic a little. Staying long-term in a tiny hotel room without a kitchen while most restaurants were closed for the winter season was not ideal nor cheap. Until the evening before our arrival to Badulima, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to visit at all. Luckily, we got a positive answer and we set off on a small hike to the Badulina valley.

The community is hidden away from the main road, following a beaten path eroded by heavy spring rains. The area is, without a doubt, beautiful. Olive tree terraces framing the path, a hum of the olive mill in distance, a beautiful valley down the horizon. I was beyond myself.

View from the Badulina community

There were only a few constructions sitting on the Badulina land: the main stone-walled building providing the primary source of heat during the cold winter nights, the communal yurt, and a couple of member houses. One was a beautiful dome house and the other one a wooden yurt.

In 2019 Badulina had about 10 to 15 official members that lived there on and off. During our one-week stay, we sparingly met some of them. The Dutch founder with his wife and a kid, a Belgium couple with two lovely children (no longer part of Badulina), and a true hippie – a 30-something fella who called himself River. It was River who shared the most about the founding and the future plans for the Badulina community yet he himself was not truly considered a member by the rest.

Wwoofer versus a guest

As the community guests, we had different requirements compared to the wwoofers. We paid for our accommodation and food and contributed 15 hours of community work per week compared to the wwoofer’s 30 hours. The woofers were the real heart and muscle of the community, in our eyes. While they didn’t have to pay for food or accommodation, they cooked, cleaned, trimmed the olive trees, made homemade oat milk or peanut butter, and went shopping to the weekly market. The guests, in this case ourselves, provided the financial means to keep the life of the community running.

While the wwoofing might seem convenient at a glance, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Only the guests were offered accommodation with heating: an old caravan with isolation and a connection to the main electric grid. The wwoofers were sleeping in campers with cracked walls, no heating, electricity, or a light source. It is somewhat romantic, but not for weeks filled with hard labor and night temperatures below zero. Maybe a long weekend?

The wwoofer's caravans in Badulina, the community life

Even though our camper was fitted with electric heating, we decided to be respectful towards the community and their electricity bills. Instead of heating up with electricity, we spent many evenings with the wwoofers squatting next to the wood burner in the main building, listening to the sound of an acoustic guitar or just hanging. Once we organized a movie night in the communal yurt. That was fun! The actual community members usually didn’t join and a couple of evenings we decided to lay low in our tiny caravan home.

Reasons for leaving

The accommodation was not the fact that bothered me the most nor it was the reason to leave Badulina a week early. After all, the original reason to experience a community life was to understand how they function, how they create income, organize themselves, plant food, irrigate, or lead a sustainable life. I expected simple living and accommodation. Unfortunately, the Badulina community was the wrong place to look for answers to my questions about sustainable living.

Due to a lack of construction skills or financial resources to hire a muscle, all the community members still lived in their camper vans. To put it in perspective, the community was over 5 years when we visited. The plan to build housing for the wwoofers and individual homes for the community members collapsed. The community had no gardening experience nor real aspirations and instead bought all their groceries at the local market every Thursday – the best day of the week for the whole town of Orgiva! It was the day to make your weekly groceries and sit down for coffee and a brownie at Baraka, the one truly famous vegan teteria in town.

Besides housing difficulties, the community was at a crossroad organizationally. Shortly before our arrival, the founder stepped down as the leader and instead concentrated on his private life and financial stability. Without him, the growth of the community was stalling. It created a strange, politically charged, ambiance. Badulina was missing a vision, and the members had trouble finding their communal purpose. In an environment where everyone is supposed to contribute to the well-being of the community life, one can suddenly find him/herself depressed, without a clear life’s purpose or a mission.

Sitting on a rock looking into distance to find meaning of life and thoughts on the life in a community

The last but very difficult problem to solve was finances. The community didn’t have a stable source of income to support its members, and without that, anxiety is on the daily menu. I had the impression that all the members put their life savings into this project without further thoughts on how to sustain their life. The general money-making activities in Orgiva are agriculture, making art or second-hand clothing for sale on the flea market or you work at an olive mill. Besides that, there are holiday home rentals or dumpster diving adventures. Many Orgiva inhabitants and communities choose to rent their alternative homes but that income is tied to tourism seasonality. Finances are a tough nut to crack. Just like any other alternative way of living you experience similar existential blockers and Badulina was experiencing many of them at the same time.

Final thoughts on life in a community

It’s not all bad. I didn’t find what I was hoping for at Badulina but that doesn’t mean every community faces the same challenges. One way or the other, even a community runs as a small business and I saw some success stories in Orgiva. During our 4 week stay in Orgiva, we found beautiful places and met extraordinary people inside and outside of Badulina. Our rambles in the Sierra Nevada mountains around Orgiva brought us to many other communities like Beneficio (the ultimate hippie community in a deep Alpujarra forest), Amoraleza or Food Coops like Andasol – a Hamburg-Orgiva’s food association.

Many of these communities are organized around special interests such as food growing and harvesting or holistic healing and yoga retreats. We didn’t visit them all but they seem to have found a purpose for themselves and are therefore of specific significance to their visitors. Something we dearly missed in Badulina.

Aside from the main mission which was community life discovery, we met many Germans, Dutchies, and Britons that found their winter peace in Andalusia. Some of these people have settled down in Spain years ago and built their own little oasis available for rent on websites like nature.house.

Mosaic house kitchen Orgiva Spain
Image of the mosaic house built by a community member

I particularly fell in love with the Mosaic house – a self-built nature home right next to Badulina owned by a Dutch-English couple. They spent a decade building their lovely home in Orgiva and now primarily live off the travelers coming to stay with them. While they own their separate plot of land, they are very much part of the Orgiva community. The Thursday market and the Sunday flea market “el Rastro” became the events to attend for locals and visitors alike. It was initiated years ago by the very owner of the mosaic house, Ann.

What’s the conclusion to this all?

Orgiva is a beautiful place and spending winter in sunny 15-degree weather is very appealing. The area of the Sierra Nevada National Park and its famous white villages are stunning. I would consider owning a plot of land or a winter home there. Many are on sale in this region. I believe that is the reason so many communities settled around Orgiva. It’s very affordable and the weather is good most of the year.


However, I learned that I’m not a community material. In general, I love sharing and cooking meals for friends and family. At the same time, I’m an emotional introvert. I love my “me” time, hidden away from people and recharge. I now understand my need to have access to my own space and time without feeling like I’m letting anyone down or missing any of my community obligations. During the week in Badulina, I sometimes felt like I was hiding in the cold caravan. I didn’t feel the need to share every single meal with the whole community. I had anxiety attacks following the dietary restrictions of the 15 people at Badulina when preparing a communal meal. (It was a disaster) The presence of so many people, complete strangers, felt exhausting. I might be too selfish for a community lifestyle.

If you are seriously considering a community lifestyle, let me leave you with a few pieces of advice.

Consider your comfort zone before throwing yourself into community life. It’s a laborious and selfless life. While you need very little finances to survive, it provides few luxuries. Healthcare, finances, hygiene, and water supply tend to become a struggle at any point in time, in places like Orgiva. You live with the extremes connected to both nature and its brutally rainy or hot seasons as well as the mood swings and personal desires of the community members.

Community politics surfaces at the least expected moments and can seriously damage relationships. As much as we might like the idea of equality, there usually is a leader of a pack who steers the wheel for the rest of the community. It is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as everyone is happy with the setup and feels they have a place in the community.

The romanticism of life in a community, in connection with nature, dissolves after a few weeks of freezing nights, spring floods, or incredible summer heat. Your clothes stay damp during the humid winters and stink after a couple of hours of wear in summer. There is rarely such thing as running drinking or hot water. Of course, you can get used to all this and to be honest part of me loved the whole one-month-long adventure in the Alpujarra mountains. Many people in tropical countries live in these conditions their whole lives.

But are YOU willing to make that trade for life? I am unsure about myself.

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