THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO COMMUNITY
Hitch-hiking: It’s all about mentality. You’re on the road with your thumb out, if you’re prepared you’ve made a sign. Zoom … zoom … zoom, the cars go by. The vans go by. The trucks go by. You force a wider smile. You sweat and gulp some water, you scrutinize your cardboard sign. Maybe the ‘L’ in Bilbao isn’t clear enough. You go over it in your biro; the Lidl in St Jean de Luz didn’t have any thick markers. You write a new sign: St Sebastien (it’s a little nearer). Hmmmm, the ‘IEN’ is a little squashed. Oh well. You hold it out, force a fresh smile and dance a kooky ‘I’m-not-a-rapist-I’m-a-nice-man’ jig. Zoom. Your mind starts to wander and then … hang on … hang on is that an indicator … ? Yes they’re stopping! They wind down the window with an awkward grimace. ‘Bonjour .. en faites je vais aller juste a la village prochaine, dix kilometres peut-être’. I’ve stopped listening; my backpack is nestled up against the magazines and empty bottles of the back seat and I’m bouncing into the front. Your car smells beautiful. 10km is 10km … I’m on the road.
I’m halfway through my year of visiting intentional communities and I’ve just had a lesson in this classic hippie mantra: life is a journey, not a destination. I recently hitchhiked from an arts community near Montpellier in the south of France to my cousin’s eco-homestead near Sertã in central Portugal. The trip took three days. The experience reminded me of the inherent link between having a positive mentality and sustaining high motivation. I have always been fascinated with motivation, with the way in which people maintain focus and passion for the lifestyle they have chosen, or the life that has been thrust upon them. One of my hopes upon visiting intentional communities was that the people there would be more enthused with their day-to-day lives than the average ‘mainstream’ citizen. I guessed that because they’d expressly chosen to live in an alternative way, they would have more commitment and excitement about living it.
Hitch-hiking is a daunting exercise in self-motivation. It is unlike all other travel in that your journey is both totally out of your control, and totally within your power to alter. You’re not waiting for a scheduled train, you’re not rushing for a chartered flight, you’re a toy sitting on a shelf. You make yourself look pretty (friendly), you advertise your attributes (you hold a sign of your destination) and then you do your best to get sold (pick a good spot on the road, wave your arms, do dances, give smiles, compliment people). The more energy you put in, the more rides you get.
Motivation is easiest to understand at its most primal. When you’re hungry, you’re motivated to find food. When you’re horny, you’re motivated to find a sexual partner. When you’re out on the road with no way forward besides a seat in a stranger’s car, you’re motivated to search for a lift. By making yourself vulnerable, you inspire action in others. The best way to hitch is to ask for lifts directly, usually at service stations on the highway where it’s clear to all drivers that you’re stuck until someone helps you. This method also takes the most courage and self-motivation, no one is going to approach you so you have to sell yourself. And when you do you get a lift, a whole new gauntlet begins.
When you don’t share a language with your driver and you’re in their debt (a.k.a their car), you have to summon energy and friendliness. Your payment for the ride is providing entertainment to the driver. You offer your company and they offer you travel. This risk ignites the mind. It makes you more inventive, more courageous and more open. Suddenly you have to use the song on the radio to ask how many children the driver has, or mime smoking and drinking to confirm that cigarettes and alcohol are cheaper in Spain than in France. Such theatre can be exhausting, but the thrill of being in a car after hours in the baking sun is enough of a stimulant to see you through.
The fact that risk creates motivation sheds light on how intentional communities function. There are two ways to end up living in an intentional community: you either start one or you join one. Both tactics involve high risk. Either you invest your own time and money into a new project that may fail to be workable and habitable, or you throw yourself in amidst a group of closely bonded strangers and hope to be accepted and find a role for yourself. If risk creates motivation then the first few weeks, months or years in a new community will surely be garnished with motivation. You’re not normally late for your first day at a new job. However, once something becomes comfortable the risk begins to melt. Routine sets in. Day-to-day life becomes expected and understood, and perhaps your motivation stagnates.
Whether the average citizen of an intentional community is more motivated than the average ‘mainstream’ citizen will be explored further in coming blogposts, but before we leave hitch-hiking, there’s one final lesson to be learned. It’s a classic symptom of hitch-hiker ‘I’m-cooler-than-thou’ arrogance. You peer into the distance … is that a VW campervan? Yes it is … is the guy driving it sporting a scraggy beard and a faded T-shirt? Yes he is … ok, am I looking hippie enough? Ok perfect, here we go, this is going to be a ride for su- ZOOM! He passes you. You can’t believe it. Another car approaches: a brand new black Audi saloon. You begin to lower your sign, you begin withdraw your smile … and then it slithers to a halt. ‘Hey, hop in. I’m just coming back from a business meeting selling Captain Morgan rum for Diageo’. You are humbled. The guy speaks perfect English, he has air-conditioning, he offers you some water. He then casually informs you about the local area and explains that he’s going to Bilbao but that he knows a trucker route to Portugal – it’s only about 30 minutes out of his way so he drops you there. And so ends the lesson in judging a book by its cover.
When you live in an intentional community, you’re used to be people sharing your views. They might disagree about whether amplified music should be banned after 10pm, but they sure as hell hate Tescos as much as you do. When you’re on the road, a lift is a lift. You meet nationalists, communists, stoners and market fundamentalists – and they’re all doing you a favour. You don’t choose who you sit next to, and normally you don’t really choose what to talk about. This exercise in humility and flexibility is a perfect workshop for anyone who has to live in close quarters with others, and who has to make joint decisions about how they live together. Even if you disagree with everything the driver says, you have to sit and listen, and unless you want to be left out on the road, you’re going to listen with patience. This is of course a lesson for everyone in all walks of life, but for those in intentional communities who state openness and inclusivity as one of their guiding principles, its absolutely essential learning.