The Fall 2018 edition of Communities, focused on “Networking Communities,” is now available by donation for digital download.
If you had asked me 15 years ago what an intentional community was, my seven-year-old answer would have been of a place where there’s always new people coming and going, where everybody eats together and has work parties in the garden, where there are potlucks and celebrations and check-in meetings all year ’round and skinny dipping in the summer. I grew up at Sandhill Farm in rural Missouri, home to so many people through the years and sister community to Red Earth Farms and Dancing Rabbit. Sandhill has been collectively farming, sharing resources, welcoming newcomers, evolving, and growing since 1974 and I’m proud to say that it’s where I was born.
I moved off the farm just before high school and I’ve since connected with many other groups: summer camps, internships, sports teams, etc. Those communities have given me so much through the years and recently I found myself comparing them to the commune where I grew up, wondering what my definition of intentional community would be now. Interested in networking more with the communities movement, I decided to explore how others define community.
With tremendous support from the Larson International Fellowship, funded by Carleton College graduates, I was able to pursue my curiosity. From the FIC Directory, I got in touch with several groups around South America who invited me to visit. As I was studying in Peru in the spring, the plan was to travel north from there, through Ecuador and Colombia, in the summer. My partner, Ben, would be doing his own Larson project along a similar route, so our paths would merge at some places and drift apart at others.
What I was not expecting when I planned the trip were the communities I met in between my three scheduled stops. Long before the summer had even started, when I was still at school in Lima, I happened across an amazing community at a public park. El Parque de Miraflores is a popular tourist stop in Lima, teeming with groups of ice cream vendors, paragliding instructors, and surfing guides. One day when I was walking there, another group caught my eye; in fact, they caught everyone’s eye.
The group was practicing a sport known as slacklining. Their lines, which are like tightropes, but with a flat strap instead of a cord, were set up in a festive web connecting the palm trees. Most of them were low—only two or three feet above the ground—but the one that caught everyone’s attention was high—maybe eight feet up—with a big pile of mattresses set up below. These guys were incredible, flipping and jumping and twisting on this one-inch strip of webbing. As I watched, a young man came over and asked if I wanted to try (the low ones, he assured). And did I ever!
The group welcomed me easily and shared tips as I gingerly tried out my first steps on the line. Over the next few months I became one of the regulars; I even bought my own, loving the challenge of jumping up and walking all the way across the line. The most incredible part, though, was the space we created. The regulars were comprised of a diverse assortment of men and women from all over the continent and we welcomed any and every one to try it out. I often had a whole line of kids waiting to take their turn, parents watching with cameras, nervous yet impressed at their kid’s bravery. Adults joined in too, tourists and locals alike. All were welcomed and encouraged, just as I had been.
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When the summer arrived, I was sad to say goodbye to the slackliners, but delighted to carry a piece of that space with me (my line took up a good quarter of my backpack’s weight for the next three months). I set out the day after my 21st birthday, traveling solo up the coast from Lima to Chancay, where my first intentional community was located. From the back of a mototaxi—a little buggy attached to a dirt bike—I spotted the recognizable forms of trulys, which looked like great, upside-down honeycomb towers made of mud, the sure sign of Eco Truly Park, where I would stay for the next week.
Eco Truly is a yoga retreat, spiritual center, and ecological farm on the western coastline of Peru, just a few yards from the seaside. I was welcomed in and led to a surprisingly spacious truly shared by two other farm volunteers—Camilla, from France, and Thaysa, from Brazil. Camilla and I, having just arrived, enjoyed a self-guided tour at dusk which revealed a spiral garden, a fat goat, a tall cow, a pregnant horse, and a sprinkling of murals that decorated the property.
That first evening, we were all invited to a spiritual ceremony honoring Hare Krishna. The ceremonial truly was very large and colorful, smelling of spices and incense. We spent the evening sitting barefoot before a large altar, surrounded by enthusiastic mantras and musical instruments, light-hearted laughter and conversation. I felt no pressure to participate and simply enjoyed the lively energy. It was like a big, family singalong. Although I do not self-identify as spiritual, these ceremonies were integral to the community and I was glad to have an open invitation.
Each morning at Eco Truly, volunteers were asked to work four hours in the kitchen or fields. These work parties were a great way to get to know one another, sometimes playing between different languages to get our messages across. When we weren’t landscaping around banana trees or building a bamboo shelter for the baby colt, the other volunteers and I enjoyed seaside walks and early morning yoga. After three months in the city, it felt so good to walk barefoot and feel the earth again.
Everyone ate meals together, which I savored because it reminded me of home. There were little things too—the industrial-sized sink where everyone washed their own dishes, the expansive gardens, and even a dinner bell—that were just like Sandhill. One key difference, though, was that Eco Truly is a retreat center, so visitors spend money to be there. I did too, though much of the fee was exchanged for my volunteer work. This business aspect seemed to separate visitors and members in a way that I was not expecting. However, I think much of the disconnect had to do with my short visit there, and one night in particular did a lot to dissolve that separation.
Several days into my visit, we were all invited to a women’s circle. As we sang, played music, and shared a bit of our stories with one another, I could feel the distance fading between the volunteers and the members. I was impressed how connected I had become to a place so different from my culture, based on a spirituality I had never even heard of, yet welcoming enough to make me feel at home. After my week of yoga and meditation at Eco Truly, Ben joined me and we headed north again on a noisy, crowded Peruvian bus.
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The next communal space I encountered was again not on the agenda, but came in the form of a groovy little hostel called Moksha in Huanchaco, Peru. Huanchaco was a classic, small beach town, the main strip by the coast packed with tank-top vendors, surf shops, and street food. In Moksha’s communal kitchen, time passed quickly with the other travelers from Australia, Germany, Italy, Argentina—everyone getting to know each other as we waited our turn on the one-burner stove.
In the evening, we walked to the neighboring Frog Hostel for some live reggae music, maracuya mojitos (a sweet mixed drink with passion fruit and mint), and ridiculous conversation with a cynical gringo. We also set up the slackline on the beach and soon had a swarm of local kids jumping all over it. It was a great scene: palm trees, pink clouds at sunset, silhouettes of surfers. It was easy to imagine staying there all summer.
Two days later, though, we said goodbye to our hostel friends and set out to cross the border into Ecuador. My next stop was something completely different. The community, Terra Frutis, was located near Gualaquiza, on the eastern, mountainous side of Ecuador where the climate was ideal for growing tropical fruit—a big part of their mission. I arrived at the smaller of the community’s two properties and that afternoon a man named Matthew showed me around.
Matthew was from the United States, as were most people living at Terra Frutis at the time, and he taught me a lot that first day. I later wrote in my journal, “I have to admit I feel pretty cool with my trekking shorts, tall muck boots, and freshly sharpened machete. I can now recognize many of the important plants such as katuk, pineapple, dragon fruit, rollinia, coconut, and sugar cane.”
Despite all that I was learning, though, the first few days were rather tough. It was difficult to know where I could be helpful, since the three guys often kept to themselves. Also, since everyone was responsible for their own food and had a unique diet—vegan, raw vegan, or fruitarian—we rarely ate at the same time or prepared food together, something I recognized as fundamental to my concept of community.
After a couple days, however, another young woman arrived, full of enthusiastic, feminine energy. Her name was Kimberly and the two of us bonded quickly. Kimberly shared how transformative a raw vegan diet had been for her health, allowing her the energy to explore the world for the first time. That night all of us stayed up late talking of food and people and art, reminding me why I love community.
The other members of Terra Frutis joined us the following day. They had been on the larger property, Mount Frutis, and had come down for the monthly meeting. It was there that I learned their purpose was to create a fruit farm abundant enough that their members could one day live completely off the land, exemplifying to the world a healthful way of life.
After the meeting, I was delighted to hear that there was a chance to travel up Mount Frutis, something I had been waiting excitedly for since my arrival. Kimberly and I went with Jason, one of the founding members, and it was a good thing we had a guide because the farm sat atop a small mountain and its ascent required first a taxi, then a riverboat, and then a steep uphill climb through deep, squelching mud. Once at the top, though, the views of the tropical countryside were magnificent and I soon forgot to be tired.
For the seven of us on the mountain, our days were filled with mulching plants, transplanting sugar cane stalks, and seeding naranjilla. Here there was plenty to do and many hands to do it. Even the field work felt creative, everyone piling together great nests of mulch and nutrients around young trees, almost like putting together a living mural. At night, we would often share long, meandering, silly, philosophical conversation, admiring the moon shadows, intensified by our proximity to the equator.
It was so good to get my hands dirty again and even better once I discovered the bathing hole. Laying back into the sandy bottom of a mountain stream, I felt vibrantly connected to the forest. On my last night on the mountain, after my bath, I was delighted to find the others sitting around a festive bonfire. We sang and played drums and made up frivolous songs about fruit and it was the most lovely sendoff.
I left the big farm and said my goodbyes to Terra Frutis after two weeks. My next bus took me to meet Ben in Cuenca, Ecuador, where he had made his own connections. The next two nights we stayed with his friend, Carlos, who owned an AirBnB, its common space adorned with hammocks, guitars, and a whole wall of elaborate drawings created by visitors. You could just feel the energy of the house and all the people who had passed through, each one remembered by their little drawing on the wall. I drew Ben with his film camera, standing atop a small planet like the boy from The Little Prince.
Our next stop was also a connection that Ben had found, this time in Manglaralto. Our bus brought us down from the high mountains, descending into a sea of clouds, and the road turned misty and enchanting. By the end of the day, we had traveled all the way to the western coast, stopping at a little house marked by a bright purple gate. This was the home of Upi and Loida, whom Ben had met the previous week. I was a bit uncertain about disturbing them so late in the evening, but the young couple soon dispelled any such concerns and we ended up playing cards for hours on their kitchen floor.
Upi and Loida built their own home and made a living selling homemade jewelry to passing travelers. We had seen jewelry vendors everywhere we went; but being in their home, experiencing the joy they both had for the craft, gave the work a new light. The next morning, we each picked out several beautiful pieces from their many boxes and bags. Then, after sharing a delicious meal of fresh fish with our new friends, we headed north again. The openness the couple shared with us was inspiring and I’m reminded of this every time I put on Loida’s necklace.
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The last intentional community on my itinerary was also in Ecuador. Ben and I decided to visit this one together and after a confusing two days of bus hopping, we eventually arrived at Dos Tortugas, on the coast near Jama. Peter and Liesel are the founders and namesake of Dos Tortugas, the only other member at the time being Alberto the architect (not to mention Luna, Felix, and Benny, their three lovable dogs).
Liesel welcomed us cheerfully and showed us the sweet casita where we would stay. Our balcony overlooked the sea and each night we watched little fishing boats come in from the bay. The fishermen would go full speed straight for the beach and lift up their motors just before they hit sand, the boats skating to a stop on the sandy shore to unload. Then the seagulls would circle, eagerly awaiting fish scraps to be thrown back to the ocean. We could see everything from that little mountain cabin.
Peter and Liesel had bought the property nearly a decade ago, moving from the United States and artfully constructing two beautiful buildings there with the help of many neighbors. At last they had been ready to open their doors to new visitors and members. Then, just a year and a half before our visit, the whole area had suffered a severe, 7.8 earthquake, ruining many homes, costing lives, and traumatizing the community. The catastrophe destroyed one of their new cabins, forcing them to rebuild and put all plans on hold until very recently. Ben and I were among the first visitors since.
The community was not quite set up for visitors like us, eager to jump into projects, always asking what else we could help with. Nevertheless, they accommodated our enthusiasm and we had a blast putting together a cinder-block rocket stove, fixing broken chairs, and planting seeds that sprouted unbelievably fast in the tropical heat. Peter taught us how to harvest coconuts, and when Ben and I fried fish for everyone on the new rocket stove, Liesel rounded out our meal with a stir-fry and white wine. Ben and I also helped them design a website so that more people could learn about Dos Tortugas and share that beautiful space with them.
After two weeks at Dos Tortugas, Ben and I traveled north again, meandering our way up through Colombia to Bogotá, appreciating our newfound awareness of spontaneous community spaces. Throughout the trip, whether visiting communities or finding them by chance, I discovered that my definition of intentional community just kept expanding. Little moments like preparing food, planting trees, making music together around a campfire—intentionally creating a place to share with one another—that was when I felt most connected. My hope was to rediscover the vibrant community network of my childhood and what I found is that I never truly left. Organic community spaces are possible everywhere and that is something I will take with me.
Renay Friendshuh is a senior psychology student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She grew up at Sandhill Farm in Missouri and has been seeking out communal spaces ever since. When she is not studying, you can find her playing water polo, slacklining, or researching her next travel plans. She would like to become a counselor with a specialty in expressive arts therapy. Renay loves connecting with new people and can be reached at friendshuhr [AT] gmail.com.
Excerpted from the Fall 2018 edition of Communities, “Networking Communities”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.