Life in an Alternative Community. What Is It Like?
The idea of living in a community has been floating in my mind for a while. Unfortunately, the word “community” does 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 creating an experience of my own. When someone says “community life” we tend to imagine hippie camps crawling with half-naked free spirits or cult leaders creating their own movement or religion, like “Osho”. That is not the kind of community life I want to talk about, yet it’s quite an interesting topic too 😉 Instead, I would like to dive into this growing movement towards self-sustainable and minimalistic life connected to nature which has gained in popularity over the past few years.
Where do the thoughts on community life come from?
I was born and raised in the capital city of Slovakia. For most of my life, I lived in a small apartment and therefore the objective for my family was to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I loved it as a child and I love it now. Hiking, cycling, skiing, anything but camping was always part of our holidays (camping is simply not that common in Slovakia). Outdoors, in any form, have always had an undying presence in my life.
To integrate wilderness in one’s life becomes substantially more difficult when living in a concrete jungle, like Berlin. Don’t get me wrong, 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 a whole lot of 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. (not that I know what mushroom to pick and cook)
Living in a capital city brings a certain amount 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 was not the only one thinking this back in 2018. My partner struggled with existential questions, the meaning of life. It cornered with nihilism as the consequence of living in the “Perpetuum mobile” of the consumeristic economy whirling around us. The economy we feed with every paycheck received and every purchase made. It was the origin for the thoughts on alternative life, connected to nature, living off the land that feeds us (he got way closer to accomplishing that, working in a garden center now ;)). 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. Nowadays, many communes sprung around the world, having their own purpose or focus. Nevertheless, 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”. The people are lead by common sense and few established rules. Or let’s say, in the sense of the saying: “what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine“. I strongly believe that exactly this discourages many.
In the present world led by consumerism, concern with material possessions, and the human nature of competitiveness, 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 yourself.
Trust me, I speak from my own experience.
Nevertheless, communal life takes many forms. Some communes share land, request deposits, expects you to go through a process of approval and to have certain helpful skills that would benefit the existing members of the community. Often, the community only shares a few common spaces, but otherwise you live on your own piece of the shared land, built your own private shelter or even your own kitchen (sometimes advisable 😉 )
A week with a community 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 we certainly planned to stay longer. But let me start at the beginning of our community life experience of 2019!
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.
At first, my ultimate dream was to set off on a “vanlife” adventure. But we quickly learned that it can be quite expensive and parking become problematic – a true gypsy life which has pros but also many cons. Also, we didn’t have a van nor the money to buy a decent one last minute. (We did almost buy an old boat that year..how spontaneous and stupid, hahaha)
Besides a van or a boat, we also considered a more “permanent” alternative life. Buying a piece of land with a yurt or a container was on the table – to create our own oasis of self-sustainable life somewhere with like-minded individuals. However, all this was very theoretical. We needed to find out if 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 and so we bought a cheap ticket to Malaga. It was settled, we were going on an adventure until my new job began in March. We didn’t have a large budget nor we really thought about this as a holiday, more of a “lifestyle experiment”. We both heard of wwoofing – volunteering on local organic farms in exchange for shelter and food, and it seemed ideal for our low budget 2-month experiment. Little did we know about the fact that southern Spain was crawling with communities.
For a couple of weeks, we were reaching out to many farmers. Sadly, we didn’t pick the best season for wwoofing so the options were limited. On top of that, some organic farmers didn’t speak English or had a sustainability issue with us flying into Spain from Berlin. One could say that “wwoofing” didn’t yet have a strong foothold in the European markets.
Luckily, and thanks to some real perseverance, we got into a conversation with Badulina, a community of people from Benelux, who settled in Orgiva.
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 (hm, true hippies). Everyone is supposed to be a king or a queen.
You could tell that this Origiva based community wanted to follow this example. They claim that a music duo Ninka & Omri wrote a text for a Badulian song and as they wandered on the terraces of Southern Spain they came across this community and it reminded them of the Badulina story. So here we are, talking to a community of kind people that live in harmony in the heart of Spain, living off the earth. It sounded great on paper, less so in reality.
Expectations vs. Reality
I couldn’t wait to set off on this adventure. Besides this community, 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 than work, vacation, money-making buying junk.
Anyway, we visited Orgiva in winter so the opportunities for showing skin were not presenting themselves so often! 😉
What did I expect?
To learn more about a sustainable life, really. To make myself believe that I don’t need a connection to the internet on daily basis. That 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 wanted to harvest olives, plant avocadoes, sell the harvested crops on the market, and read by candlelight.
In short, none of that happened. At least not in the Badulina community.
Prior to our departure to Spain, we received the “manifesto” of Badulina. 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 as we clearly had to go through a pre-selection process before being able to visit as guests. Something was already telling me that Badulina might not be as welcoming as it read on the internet. By not being a ‘handy” person, doubts already arose in me. We didn’t have much to offer as valuable community members besides our warm hearts and willingness to learn and contribute. Already all these emotiones before we spoke or met anyone from Badulina!
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 arriving to Badulina in Orgiva, we stayed a few nights in a hotel. The community was not very responsive to our emails or FB messages. Until the evening before our arrival to Badulima, we didn’t know if we were to visit and stay with the community. Luckily, we got a possitive answer at last and 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, a distant sound of olive mill, a beautiful valley down the horizon. I was thrilled to be there.
There were only a few constructions sitting on the grounds of the community: the main building, providing the primary source of heat for all community members during cold winter nights, the communal yurt, and a couple of member housing structures. One was a beautiful dome house and the other a wooden yurt.
At the time we visited Badulina, about 10 to 15 people were officially living there. During our stay, we sparingly met some of the community members: The Dutch founder and his Polish wife, a Belgium couple with their two kids, and a true hippie all-timer, a 30-something fella who called himself River. He became the one person that shared the most about the founding and plans for Badulina. Strangely, the rest of the community didn’t consider him a real member as he didn’t comply with the manifesto yet was one of the main contributors to the communal wellbeing.
Wwoofer versus a guest
As the community guests, we had different requirements compared to the wwoofers. We paid for accommodation and food and contributed 15 hours of community work per week compared to the wwoofer’s 30. 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 them with the financial means to keep 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 grid. The wwoofers stayed in campers with cracked walls, no heating, electricity, or any light source. It is somewhat romantic indeed, but not for weeks filled with hard labor and night temperatures below zero. Maybe a long weekend? We spent most of the evenings squatting next to the wood burner in the main building, keeping ourselves warm, listening to the sound of an acoustic guitar.
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, live a sustainable life. We expected simple living and accommodation.
Very unfortunately, Badulina was the wrong place to look for answers to our questions to a sustainable life.
Due to lack of construction skills or financial resources to hire a muscle, all the community members lived in the camper vans they arrived to Spain with. The plan to build housing for wwoofers and individual homes for the community members collapsed. The community had no gardening aspirations and instead bought all their groceries at the local market every Thursday – the best day of the week when everyone met in Orgiva, did their weekly groceries and sat down for coffee and a brownie at Baraka, the one truly famous vegan teteria in town.
The community was also at a crossroad organizationally. Shortly before our arrival, the founder decided to step down as the leader and focus on his private life and financial stability instead. Without him, the growth of the community and its premises 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 purpose or a mission. On top of all that, the community didn’t have a stable source of income to support its members, and without that, anxiety is on the daily menu. If you don’t produce crops, make art or second-hand clothing to be sold on the flea market you work at an olive mill or go on dumpster diving adventures. Many Orgiva inhabitants rent their alternative homes but that is a very seasonal income. You can tell that the people roaming the Orgiva street are either well off, owning their winter homes there, or simply surviving.
Final thoughts on life in a community
It’s not all bad. I certainly wasn’t impressed by what I found in Badulina but that doesn’t mean every community faces the same challenges. 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 to the main mission focused on 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.
Ant and I 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 15 degrees 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 to recharge. I 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 often felt like I was hiding in the cold caravan we were renting out. I didn’t feel the need to share every single meal with the whole community or make sure that I follow every dietary requirement each of the 15 people had when trying to contribute by preparing a meal. (It was a disaster) The presence of so many people felt exhausting to me, mainly since they were all complete strangers. I guess I’m too selfish to be part of a community. You tell me.
One really needs to consider ones’ comfort zone when starting a community life. It’s a laborious and self-less life. While you need very little finances to survive, it provides few luxuries. Healthcare, finances, hygiene, water supply tend to become a struggle at any point in time, in places like Orgiva. Community politics surfaces at the least expected moments and can seriously damage relationships. The romanticism of life 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 stinks after a couple of hours of wear in summer. One can, of course, get used to this, after all, many people in tropical countries live in these conditions their whole lives. But are you willing to make that trade for life?