the first 2 weeks of a social expieriment

throw a bunch of very different people together in a group, they are all supposed to be free and equal, add some spicing(=cycling, wildcamping,…) and see what they will make out of it…

This is the 3rd time I join ecotopia biketour. During the winter, the organizing team had not only worked on planning the practical aspects of this years tour but also a lot on the theoretical bases. We created a detailed procedure how we would deal with conflicts in future. We wanted to be better prepared than last year, where it took us months to act in a case of constant oppressive behavior.
One of the key-aspects was, that the group that would take care of conflicts and the social health of every individual and the group, that this awareness-group would already be active before there is some major issues. Nevertheless, no matter how much theoretical thoughts we have beforehand, all depends on the actual group of the biketour. What they want to do.

So I was exited to see the reality. I got my stuff together, cycled to town to catch public transport, missed a bus, got a train, ended up in the middle of the night in Pau. From there my plan was to cycle across the pyrenees to join the others in one of the occupied villages. I followed my self-drawn map until I found a even place to spend a rough night next to the road. Without the support of the group, I felt much more exposed to the fact that it is illegal to sleep just wherever you want.
I made my way anyways through the hills and little towns, living of the dry bread, that a bakery had given to me and a bunch of fruits from the supermarket bins. My siesta on the nice riverside was interrupted by somebody claiming the space as their private property and I should go before their clients arrive. And I was already happy about how nice people had arrayed the public space with a bunch of chairs and a table. Well, in the end it was only to get money from the tourists. I had another sleep-over in a little village in the market hall. The next day I passed St Jean du Port de Pied de whatever, officially one of the nicest villages in France. It was just filled up to the top with people who would buy plastic leather imitate handtaschen and honking cars. After that rather terrible “plus beaux village de France” I reached the last village before the big climb up the mountain pass. It would probably had taken me 1 extra day to cycle up there, so my plan was to hitchhike across. After 40 minutes waiting I started to prepare myself to start cycling, attach the hitchhiking signs visibly to the back of my bike when a big car stopped and took me even almost to the place where I would meet the others. I had just to roll down the hill in that beautiful valley.

And then, arriving in Urniza, the first project that the Biketour visits, I saw more familiar faces than I expected. Of course some people of the organisers-crew were there, but also friends who had passed by my house before and surprisingly I found myself in the arms of some who had joined last year to say hello. I got to know the other people of the group that I didn’t meet before. Actually the group already consisted of 21 people. Some group processes already had started, they have had their first circles and everybody started to adapt to the life on the road in the community.
We helped the project we stayed in to bring some wood down from the forest and to do some garden work, take out the weeds in the potato-field and pile up the soil around them. I took out the seed bank and our host, excitedly explored all the little bags of grains. It is such a nice thing to leave behind, just the little seed will grow into a plant and produce food and more seeds… They gave us the special regional red corn and some huge beans. We went swimming in the ice-cold river and had a campfire with the people of the project. Long conversations and musical jams made me come closer to the new biketour-family. I started to really appreciate some of us and having small doubts about others.
There was a certain subtile male dominance. It felt like the most of the men of the group were not very aware of gender dynamics. But, yeah, that’s alright, in normal society you are not supposed to learn or think about that stuff… And the Biketour instead is a place where people can do that and evolve from their experience. It might be tiring for some of us but we have to admit that most of us had to go through a process like that.
When a member of the group had proposed in a circle before I arrived, to create small groups that would gather every day to exchange about how we feel and to have a non-mixed circle for women. The people were unsure and finally decided not to do it. That made me sad because for me that was exactly this practical part of our awareness concept, we were missing. Maybe if we made the proposal more clear or modified it, the group would accept it?
Our stay in Urniza was over and we cycled a short but super hilly distance to the famous long established occupied village Lakabe. I took one of the communal trailers that day and was on the limit of my strength. After all I cycled the wrong way up a hill in the plain sun…

We arrived in Lakabe just at the start of a big rainstorm. Hiding under different sorts of shelter we were facing an unexpected problem: Dogs are not allowed in the communal space. So our 3 dog-friends and their humans would be sort of excluded from the common activities. They showed us a big room where we could stay. Many of us were impressed by it’s size and cleaness. That is not what you expect from a occupied village.
For me our stay there was kind of weird. On the one hand, it was very interesting to see a project that has been existing for 30 years and to talk to some people that have a lot of experience. And to do gardening with them. On the other hand I felt very restricted. There were so many rules about times, and usage of spaces. You are not allowed to do this and that and also asking for stuff was often not very possible because they would first have to speak in a meeting about your issue. So finally you end up not doing anything on your personal initiative. Probably that comes from their experience of many years having people showing up and messing up the space. But as a consequence to treat everybody like a possible source of trouble is not the right way either in my opinion.
Alright if they receive a lot of wwoofers that need this kind of structure in their self-experience-holidays but if you have more independent people coming it would be nice to give them their freedom. To me it seemed to be rooted in their way of organizing. There is a super-strong hierarchy between people who have been living there for a long time and people who joined recently. The procedure to join the project seemed very complicated and blurry to me… Our contact-person told us about a water-dream(?) that only people know about that have been living there for ages. It seems to be their common goal or something. She said, she would get introduced to it soon and that it is part of her way into the community. I found that super weird!
All of that made me feel slightly bad all the time. In addition to that, I got sick I guess due to my exaggerated cycling-day and an evening outside in the cold wind in solidarity with the dogs and their humans. That surely didn’t improve my Lakabe experience.
We have had though, the time to go deeper in our social group processes. There was a meeting happening on our food-politics, one non-mixed circle for female socialized people and we created the small buddy groups. It was sort of difficult to find a way how all the group was happy to that. People were like: “What should I say in a circle like that? I don’t need a small group to share my feelings” So the ‘initiators’ sat together and worked out a little collection of questions and guidelines how to act in those small buddy-groups:
How are you?
– physically
– emotionally
How do you feel in the group?
– What inspires you?
– What annoys you?
– Do you feel like a part of the group?
– What else could we do in the group?
– Do you feel close to people?
What are your boundaries?
– Do you feel balanced between activity and rest?
– Do you have enough time for yourself?
– What could help you?
Do you want to communicate anything to the outside?
– If so, how?
– Nothing that is talked about in the buddy groups will be shared with someone else without the consent of the people
– If something comes up, that is to heavy for you/your group, don’t hesitate to to share your concerns and ask if you can get more support from outside
– If you ever don’t have the energy to participate in the buddy-group, that should be alright, just tell your buddies
– If you don’t feel good in your buddy group, either talk to them, maybe you can solve the issue or contact the awareness team
– If you want to change groups that is no problem, either you organize yourself to do so or you ask the awareness team. Anyways the groups will probably change constantly because people come and leave.
It turned out that all of us really liked to talk in these small groups. We largely surpassed the suggested 10 minutes. Some groups talked for 1,5 hours. Already after this first time, I felt much closer to my buddies. I didn’t really know them before I guess. The people who, at the beginning were hesitating, told a lot about themselves and their problems. And in the end they were really happy having done this. In “normal” society, we are not supposed to share what is going on inside of us. It’s like showing weakness. It all depends on the perspective. It can cost you a lot of overcoming to tell about your problems.
In our last circle in the project someone of the group kind of aggressively took all the attention to speak and was offended by others making the sign that we should move on (hands turning in a loop). The awareness-team was consulted and asked to speak to the person. The following talk was not very fruitful, the person was not at all accepting critique. Which kind of rang the alarm bells of many people because this was exactly what we didn’t want: People who are not open and not able to listen. Well, it was said, that there would be another conversation the next day in the evening.

We left Lakabe, cycled a day through the basque hills, had a nice stopover in a village where the river makes a waterfall and had a swim. With us there were all these people who come to the region for the bullfight party in Pamplona. We felt as if we were watching a theatre-piece when they climbed up the rock in the middle of the river, splashed each other with water, lost their flip-flop in the current, the bravest amongst them would stumble across the glitchy stones to fetch it. It seemed as if they wanted to point out all weird aspects of society: oppression, konkurenz, gender dynamics; so exaggerated they were acting. We enjoyed it.
Our first wildcamping-night was in the yard of a church. It turned out that many of us were worried about the fact that it is illegal. Because of the violent reputation of spanish police or whatever other reason. We cooked a quick dinner with our rocket stoves from the rich dumpster-finds of the day and went to sleep, no tents, in front of the church. Next day was a church again, this time sort of officially confirmed because a former participant of the biketour a few years ago who’s living in the town had arranged it for us. It was supposed to become the spot for our rest-day but for me (and some others) it didn’t feel like a place where we would particularly want to spend more time. It was only a few hundred meters away from the motorway. So after a semi-long discussion, we decided to split up the group: some of us would go for a hike up the big mountain next to the camp, others would stay there, and a small group goes to scout another place.

I was part of that small group. We cycled further on in the valley. I had some difficulties, was not feeling very good, still a bit sick and my two mates didn’t really seem to know what they were doing. We also didn’t have a proper map, nor a super-phone. It felt to me, as if I had to take the decision where we are going, although I actually don’t feel very comfortable in this leader-role. In the end, we found a very nice spot in the middle of a forest with huge oak-trees. A bit further inside, there was a extremely tall red scaffolding that we climbed to enjoy the view over some treetops and to hide from the mosquitos that came to drink all our blood. Later on we made a campfire, heated up yesterdays dinner and cooked some lentils we had soaked during the day in our water bottles. In the routine of the past days, we started to share our feelings, experiences of our past lives and our opinion on the different group-dynamics on the biketour. I was talking about my frustrations earlier in the day and found out, that the different levels of “ecotopia-experience” play a big role. They are very insecure about the task of looking for a campsite and navigating without a map. Whereas for me it’s a thing, I have done many times. We spoke about how we behave in our sexual relationships, how we act towards people that we are attracted to or that are attracted to us. I had that super-cozy and safe feeling. The 3 of us, sitting around our smoky fire under those big old trees in the middle of nowhere like a small hub in the big wide world.

The next day, the others joined us and we had a really nice day in the forest. We had a non mixed circle for men. It was not great. I think our best achievement was to find a another name for the circle: The non-mixed saltamontes. Because in the past few days, there was a lot of confusion, people were using terms like CIS-men or male socialized without really knowing in the believe it would be politically more correct but without actually knowing what they mean or who supposed to take part in the circle. There was no agreement whether it is for CIS-men, for all people who identify as men or for male socialized people… Well, the actual circle started with a go-round of a few questions of which the first one was “What is your role as a man in Ecotopia Biketour” I said that I really don’t like the question and that my role as a man is to destroy the role of the man. The rest of the circle was collecting privileges and gender roles and discussing about them. We didn’t at all get through our topic-list. In a small feedback round people said that they didn’t at all feel comfortable to speak because the whole thing was build up on accusations and blame. We all had the feeling, that the circle didn’t give us any new input. Later, when talking about it in my small buddy group, we found out that we should just talk about stuff that we find interesting or that we would like to share and in that way we will probably also come across gender problematics but in a more natural way.

The day after we cycled the last part of the valley towards Gasteiz, chilled small roads, cloudy sunny perfect cycling day. We reached Errekaleor, a squatted neighborhood on the edge of the city. Next to the about 20 apartment houses, they have a huge garden. After the cops shut down their electricity they did a big crowd funding campaign to finance loads of solar panels. We occupied the grassy area in between that garden and the houses with our tent village, our kitchen-chaos and the obligatory bicycle-swarm. As I was leaving in this project, I asked around to find out if somebody wants to carry the seed bank when I am gone, and the very first person was the full success. He is involved in urban gardening in Madrid. We donated loads of stuff to the new garden crew in the squat.
The next morning, a critical mass was on the agenda, to accompany the departure of people who went for a refugee-support action in southern Italy. I profited from that, as they were going to a spot where hitchhiking seemed to be good. So I packed all my stuff, left the bike in the basement of the squat where it would wait for me to be cycled again later on. We put the big trailer on one of the bikes, I had a seat and we cycled to the bus stop where the activists took their coach. Big goodbye and I walked to the motorway entry.

However, hitchhiking was dead, 3 lanes, cars went pretty fast and well, nobody took me. After a while I decided to check trains and made my way through the town, to realize that I had missed a train by 20 minutes. The next one would go in 3 hours and arrive way to late half the way. So I went to the central bus station and found out about buses directly to toulouse for 26 euros. Well, I had given all my money to the biketour before I left. Defeated, I returned to the squat, the people happily welcomed me back. I spent a restless day and a nice evening playing games and the next day took a train at 8:57 in the morning. (that I almost missed, I was brought on the rack of a biketourbuddy) I got kicked of without a ticket and not enough money to buy one, got back on another train and finally made it until the french border where I switched to hitchhiking again. In the evening, after about 10 lifts I finally arrived back home.
It became very clear for me in the days when I traveled alone from one community (home) to another (biketour=home2), how much I need a group around me. For social interaction, for my basic needs, we cook together, food, a place to sleep, safety. When I thought about my way of life and my interests, I realized that anything I like to do is either illegal or doesn’t bring money to the system (and therefore is not valuable). So when being alone with that, it feels like you are fighting against the rest of the world. Friends are necessary.
My bike was taken by somebody else and is currently cycling with the biketour. I hope I can catch up with it soon.

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