Wednesday, January 12, 2005



I recently got back from four days in the Chapada Diamantina. This is a mountainous wooded region about 7 hours inland from Salvador, with soaring bluffs and mesas, waterfalls galore, and a lot of tourists into natural foods and spiritual energy and healing and aliens and smoking maconha. It's a bit like Sedona.

My trip started with me waking up at exactly the time my bus was supposed to leave the station. Awesome, thought I. I was traveling with my friends Michelle and Mariel, and was just making peace with the fact I was going to have to find another bus and travel alone, when Márcia suggested a solution that definitely wouldn't work in the US. Take a taxi to a nearby point on the highway that she knew the bus would pass, and call Michelle and have her get the bus driver to stop and pick me up. So before I knew it I was in a cab racing down the highway. We raced and raced, but in the end we missed the bus by a minute! I was again reconciling myself with the fact I'd missed my bus when the taxi driver, who dreams of days like this, says he thinks he can catch the bus. I politely decline, of course. (Parents please skip to paragraph below.) But then again, I've already gone this far. What the hell. I call Michelle again and she somehow convinces the now unamused driver to pull over. We speed like crazy and get there a minute later. I climb on the bus, to the glares of all.

The upshot of all this is that I forgot to bring several key items, among them my camera. So no pictures. You would have seen a lot of waterfalls and jutting rocks, and a cavern or two. I jumped off a lot of rocks into deep swimming holes, went snorkeling in a grotto filled with bats, and even went on a zip line. It was fun. This dude took some pictures, so you can look at them. I climbed one of the big mesas, named Morro do Pai Inácio after a slave who, the story goes, slept with the wife of the French consul and then fled here. The authorities came to get him but, nearly surrounded, he delivered a stirring speech about how he'd prefer death to captivity and with that tossed himself over the edge. Here the storyteller's friend, who had been acting the part of Inácio, ran to the edge and tossed himself off. Everyone gave a little gasp. Turns out there's a hidden ledge just below, and Inácio, thought dead, thereby escaped capture. Except that the story is apocrophal. Too bad.

But the real thing I want to write about is the hippie commune I visited, Campina. I find it somewhat remarkable that they have a website and an email address -- they don't even have a phone. About a month ago I met a woman named Nadine who has lived in Campina for the 14 years of its existence and was in Salvador on business. She told me a little about the place, and I filed it in the back of my mind. I remembered it was in the Chapada, but not where. I also didn't remember its name. But with Michelle and Mariel returning home to Salvador I decided to stay and find it, and began asking around. After eliminating other nearby communes from the running (Roda and Lothlorien) I zeroed in on Campina, near the town of Capão. I spent a night in Capão, where I had a brief and fairly chaste romance with a young mother, and set out the next morning for Campina. Campina proved elusive. (Parents please skip to another post.) After some hitchhiking I ended up being left along a stretch of deserted dirt road, with a rough trail leading off it. I walked for a couple miles, careful to take good account of where I had been, and finally found a man working near a group of houses. This wasn't Campina, but it was a ways over there, he said. You have to cross a river, and some barbed wire, and another river, and some other stuff, and it was really hard to tell because this guy had quite the regional accent. Feeling I'd already come all this way I kept going, and crossed a whole bunch of things, and then reached an area with a network of trails. It was not at all clear where to go. Here's where my behavior gets sketchy. I started kind of wandering up and down these trails looking for signs of life. (In my defense, the brush was low here and I kept the houses I had come from in view most of the time. I was careful, sort of.) I started despairing. What the hell was I going here, wandering alone through these mountain in the hot sun, my water running low, in search of a bunch of hippies? I never did quite answer that question, but I did think of the novel I recently read, O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, which is essentially a self-help book about following your dreams, but because it was in Portguese held my attention. Anyway, one of the trite lessons that book teaches is that people are tested right before they achieve their goals. So with that in mind I took like twenty more steps and saw... corn. And hand-painted signs explaining that it was corn. I was in Campina!

Serendipidously the first person I ran into was Nadine, who greated me like an old friend and led me around by the hand introducing me to people. There was Tassa, another founder, and Brunão, and herbal healing specialist from Portugal, and her four children, and so on. I never did see the whole place or meet all the people -- it just went on. More houses and tents, more gardens. According to Nadine there are 15 permanent residents, 10 children, and a variable number of long-term visitors from Brazil and abroad. Campina is centered around the eating lodge, which is the only building with electricity (car-battery supplied). I wish I had pictures for you, but I don't. Gotta actually write this time. All the food is cooked on the wood stove or in the clay oven, which is about the size and shape of an small igloo. The food itself is mostly things from the gardens. There are fruit trees everywhere, and Nadine soon sat me down to a plate of 3 papayas, which I devoured. Unlike most of Brazil you can drink the tap water at Campina, which comes from a nearby stream. At mealtime, comunity members are called in from the fields with a large conch-shell horn. There are dogs and chickens and kids all over, and a monkey named Mica who lives in a tree near the lodge. Nadine invited me to stay a week, and, having commitments in Salvador, I agreed at least to stay the night.

I must say I was impressed by the place. As most readers of this blog probably know, being as they are exclusively close personal friends of mine, I lived in a co-operative for three years and on an organic farm for 6 months. I have a large soft spot for places like this. I've never been much for anything smacking of spiritualism or mysticism (which this had in spades; the night I was there Nadine was busy in a ceremony with a local shaman) but natural food and community and beautiful wilderness really hit me where it counts. I perused this album they had of photos from the annual "Encontro" of Brazilian Alternative Communities, which appears to be a yearly meeting where all the people from places like this get together and have a big party: baking bread, dancing in circles, bathing naked in streams, and conducting strange healing rituals. On the whole the picture was of a healthy, lively, vibrant community of communities. They really seemed to be living the dream.

But of course, not all was well in Campina. It never is. Nadine told me about how she and one of the other community members, Luis Miguel, could never get along. They'd lived together 14 years and learned to tolerate each other, but there was always tension. For instance, there was a large group of visitors coming in a few days and Luis had decreed that they weren't taking any other visitors until after the group had passed. He had already turned away a couple of hikers, but Nadine wanted me to stay and so declared me a "personal guest", thus bypassing Luis' decree. I didn't see much of Luis, but something was definitely up. Also, where was the father of Nadine's children? Turns out he's in Capão, running a pizza shop. He left the community, for reasons unspecified. And it was clear that much of the work was falling to a few people: from what I could see Nadine, who was a flurry of farming and sewing and cooking the whole time I was there, and Tassa, who is one of those quiet guys who, while you aren't looking, goes and constructs a whole new irrigation system.

Communes and co-operatives are interesting because they are designed exploit one economic dynamic, increasing returns to scale (i.e. cooking dinner for 40 is much less than 40 times as hard as cooking for one), while leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to another, the tragedy of the commons (i.e. freeloading). (Note that the original Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, had a strange Mathusian population-control element that I think is quite misguided. But I believe the basic idea is correct that people who engage in a commons--in this case Campina--get all the benefits of shirking but only suffer a fraction of the costs, and this, predictably, leads to shirking.) Anyway, a commune's best defense against shirking is the close personal bonds that come from small size and shared experience. Yet the smaller the commune is, the less the returns to scale and less self-sufficient it can be. Campina buys many things from outside: grain, candles, soap, matches, and so on, and they sometimes make crafts to sell for money outside the community. This risks bringing the community even farther from its ideal of the self-sufficient island, turning it into a psuedo-firm.

The larger a community is the higher the quality of life it can achieve self-sufficiently. Theoretically a single person can be self-sufficient, but at the level of a hermit: living in a shack or cave, eating berries, hunting, and subsistence farming. A place like Campina provides a higher quality of life: greater variety of foods, textiles, better housing, but still they cannot reach their desired level qulity of life (which includes things like candles and soap) without trade. A community that could achieve this self-sufficiently, say a small town, would be hopelessly too large for the type of social bonds that permit communal living without large-scale shirking. So people within the town revert to specialization and trade--in a word, capitalism--in order to avoid a tragedy of the commons. And this of course brings with it a loss of communal feeling, the possibility of polarization into rich and poor, and all the familiar problems. Theoretically, I see no reason why a network of Campina-sized communities, each providing most of their own needs but also acting as pseudo-firms by producing specialized commodities for trade, couldn't persist successfully. Yet we don't tend to see that. Nothing about capitalism forbids it, but people don't tend to do it. I don't know why.

That night I slept in a small house without light, in a room where one wall was a hung quilt, a room in which Nadine said she and her family had lived for 4 years. On my way from the lodge to the house the path was very dark, and I suddenly realized that I couldn't see a light anywhere on any of the surrounding hills. I waited a while for my eyes to adjust, then I looked up into the moonless sky and saw the black silouette of a great tree, the Milky Way like a glowing gash behind it, and the stars thick and teeming, tumbling over one another into view. Then I turned slowly, and went into the house.

Well. Well. Well. I'm so glad you told your parents to skip some parts of this. I think they would do well to heed your advice.

The last paragraph reminds me of a certain spectacular starry night over twenty years ago (!!!) on a finca in Argentina that had extremely scratchy grass. Recuerdas?
Beautiful description, great thinking, and a wonderful adventure, Alex. How can you top that?

It reminds me of a similar experience I had a couple decades ago, when I ran into a lvillage of Baptists hidden in the Northern Ontario wilderness The village was made out of two-storey log houses, with a great dining hall in the middle. They were there to purify themselves as they thought that THEY were Christ's second coming! It wass very interesting, but I'm still an agnostic. You've got me inspired to do a post on it for my blog. By the way, your question as to why communes like that which produce a tradeable good can't exist is answered by the Catholic Church. They have many versions of it, in the form of monesteries. The difference is that there is less freedom because everyone who goes there wants to do the same as everyone else. Because of that, I think, they can organize the work duties so there are no shirkers. I may be wrong, but that's my impression.

Thanks for the great read. Keep it up. I have you linked and it looks like people are coming here. I told one guy, a gay witch in London England about your post on Queer Brazil and he liked it and your pictures of those kids with the masks as well. And who wouldn't enjoy your personality.
I get the impression you would like more readers, and you certainly deserve it. I'll give you a couple of hints. One, go to other sites you can relate to and make comments. They will feel like they owe you and return the favour. Once they come once, I guarantee they will return. Second, sign up for BlogExplosion.
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