This is a lengthy goodbye letter that I hadn’t had time to write before I left the tour and a thank you note that has been brewing in my head for the last two months and now it has turned into an account of how I felt during and after the bike tour.
I didn’t get enough of Ecotopia goodness and the regret over the fact that I could have stayed longer and didn’t, still haunts me. I have no photos to accompany the text but following Charlie’s blog post I’ll attach a song too – one that’s way more cheesy than Dumpster Diva…Hope you bounce to it while remembering any form of communal living you have ever experienced. Just ignore the one verse that says “We could be married”. No, we couldn’t. Like myself, you most likely don’t believe in the institution of marriage.
I’ll be honest – the first 2 days with Ecotopia were difficult for me and seemed like ages. I know some people thought I was going to leave – so did I! The journey from Poland to Sweden took me 4 or 5 days of being alone with my thoughts, reading books and cooking for myself. Cycling at my own pace along the Oder river and through rural Germany put my mind into a contemplative state where I just wanted to replicate Henry David Thoureau’s life in the wilderness and solo. I have always been freaked out by the idea of being part of a group – just a character trait of mine. Call me an introvert if you like.
I couldn’t really imagine whether joining the bike tour would have meant having to immerse myself completely in the group or just cover the distance together with other people. Having heard about the bike tour before, I thought it was mainly about cycling together and visiting social projects and bike kitchens – I wanted to learn more about bikes and what is happening around Sweden. I was on the hunt for practical knowledge, I’d like to think. Instead, the greatest lesson came from being with fellow cyclists and making our lives merge for the time of the journey.
In the beginning I couldn’t figure out what it actually was all about. We were together, cooking, doing yoga on the beach, dumpster-diving, cycling. The first few days it was just cycling and satisfying our basic needs. I took the duty of scouting and felt lost without clear guidance as to which route to choose and being one of the people baring the responsibility of leading the group somewhere only using free tourist information maps felt overwhelming. Used to a pretty conventional everyday life finding yourself in the midst of chaos is like stopping an addiction, it’s like detox.
Two or three days had passed and we stopped in Goteborg, being hosted by an art collective who let us use their amazing front room and kitchen. Having the time off cycling and some space to sit comfortably changed things a lot – we started having regular meetings in the form of circles and I experienced for the first time what it is like to make decisions by consensus. We talked about our values and uncovered many differences, and we learned from one another, sometimes the hard way. We talked for hours each day. I felt frustrated that things didn’t work, that some people didn’t pull their weight. I wanted to work, work, work for the projects that hosted us. Knowing well wwoof and other volunteer schemes that are about exchanging labour for food and board, I felt a sense of duty. We were off all schedules but nobody seemed to mind. Time did not exist. And then suddenly something cracked in me.
I realised how valuable and needed those conversations were, how they were to change my perception of groups forever. Because it turned out, you can be a part of a group, yet your individuality can be respected and even cherished. It turned out despite the difficult conversations people still managed to be together, we still shared an aim, some space, food, everyday life. We didn’t have to love each other, but we still stuck for one another and built something special and intangible. The projects that hosted us did it also as a favour and because they enjoyed our company and food, not because we were to provide free labour. I felt empowered by the openness of the people in the group, the lack of hierarchy, the space I got to speak during circles. I felt a part of the group and I loved it.
I realised how much freedom and creative force I find in this chaos, how much space and strength it gives me. I learnt to name my needs and express them, rather than just decide it’s easier to be on my own with my own quirks and escape into solitude.
I have a vivid recollection of coming back in the dark night into a cosy room filled with some beautiful smell of Indian food (oh, extremely late dinners!) and finding a special side dish for myself as I have so many food restrictions. And the cooks took me through all the dishes to make sure I didn’t eat anything that could have poisoned me. I remember watching Belleville Triplets in that same room, sitting at the back, looking at the people in front of me and feeling only love towards them. I mean that blissful feeling that stems from acknowledging all differences and things hard to accept, putting them in front of you and realising how insignificant they are when confronted with the things that bind us. I remember being a scout with one more person, getting lost and everyone arriving before us. Despite my remorses coming from a deeply ingrained culture of blame and shame I live my everyday life in, my companion convinced me it didn’t matter. The surroundings were beautiful, we were both on our beloved bikes, no one was upset, they just found their own way, knowing we weren’t coping that day. When you’re with other people there’s someone who will be down and someone who will cheer them up, someone who’s feeling lazy and someone who will take over their duties. And when the latter feels lazy another time, someone else will fill in the gap in the rota.
I’m not saying that everything was rosy but the struggle to make it all work is what counts to me and what makes me feel strong and hopeful. This spirit of camaraderie is what I deeply long for and hardly ever encounter but maybe now, thanks to Ecotopia, I will be more open to seek it.
I think Italo Calvino’s words express why the bike tour is important and needed: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live everyday life, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not the inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
The most valuable time was about letting things go, accepting imperfections, discovering things as you go, letting the unplanned emerge and celebrating it. It was providing and receiving care, love and understanding and finding joy in just being together and sharing. Sharing is caring! Hope I can share more time with Ecotopia next year. Tack everyone!