Campra is a tiny place, evidently no more than a few houses and a restaurant and guesthouse, along with the building we stayed in, in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton, Ticino. We took a couple of trains and a couple of buses to get there from Basel, passing some stunning rock formations and a huge dam along the way. We arrived on a Saturday, the day before the official start of the work camp – and the only duty required on Sunday was to attend the meeting in the evening – so it was a relaxed start to our time there.
My girlfriend – my <i>ex</i>-girlfriend; I still haven’t quite got used to that (we basically split up in Basel, but there wasn’t any question on my part of us not going to the camp together) – took on a partial managerial rôle in the kitchen. Cooking was done on a voluntary basis; some people didn’t cook at all, some – like me – cooked two or three times a my ex-girlfriend helped prepare one meal a day (apart from weekends). Also, she was tasked with keeping an eye on the food in the pantry, what was going off and should be used, what needed ordering and so on. Some brave souls volunteered to do breakfasts – which involved getting up at the crack of dawn and also preparing the morning and afternoon tea breaks; the quid pro quo for this service was having half a day off.
The work was to set up the structures for the forthcoming four-week camp, the Zenith Institute (a name that sounds like something out of <i>Lost</i>). These included about a dozen large platforms, on which pavilion-like tents were erected. Actually, as we left after two and a half weeks, this was all we saw, and it wasn’t finished at that. There were also a greater number of a smaller platforms holding accommodation tents to be put up later.
(Our original plan had been to spend three months there participating in the build, the camp itself and the take-down stages. When my now ex-girlfriend was planning her flight home, I did some research into the Schengen Area and found that doing so would have gone well beyond the 90-days-per-180-days limit for non-EU/EEA citizens (most of the places we’d been to on the trip had been within Schengen). Technically, we also both needed visas to do voluntary work in Switzerland, but we had neither time nor inclination to apply for them.)
Weekdays began with breakfast being announced at 7:30 am. (This announcement took the form of a single toll of a bell – made from the top part of a heavy gas cylinder; the clapper was a big mallet; they hung just outside the front door. The announcement itself was announced by two gongs five minutes beforehand, and those were prefigured by three bells ten minutes earlier still. So it went fifteen minutes before the meal or activity, three rings of the bell; five minutes before, two rings; one ring at the start. If you were standing near to it, the bell could be extremely loud – there were a pair of protective headphones hanging with the mallet for the bell ringers. On the one occasion when I rang the bell, the first peal surprised me with its volume and I overcompensated with the second toll, making it much too quiet; my third ring was nearly the same volume as the first. I wasn’t the only person who experienced this.)
Work officially began at 8:30, although not with work. Everyone gathered in a circle outside the building, held hands and sang a song. Then, continuing to hold hands, the details of the coming period were announced by Nirtan, one of the three staff members organising things. The twenty to thirty people present were divided into groups – those working in the house making lunch, dinner or preparing the tea break drinks and snacks; and those working on various tasks relating to the camp: constructing platforms, loading beams, boards and equipment from the garages and into the small, flat bed lorry and so on. The morning circle ended with the Sufi invocation.
We worked until 10:30 then had a tea break. This consisted of lots of urns and flasks of teas and coffee, along with bread and sandwich fillings, fruit, vegetables and often biscuits and chocolate. The we worked from 11:00 to 12:30, I think, with lunch at 12:45. Lunch was usually salad and soup and maybe another dish. Meals were laid out on a long table inside the house, buffet-style. They were usually eaten at the tables and benches outside.
Afternoon work started at 2:30 with another ring o’ hippies meeting. We worked till 4:00, had tea break till 4:30, worked till 6:30 (usually more like 6:15) and had dinner at 7:15. Then there was sometimes an activity in the evening, starting at 8:30.
All of these began with the circle meeting, which began with a song. I didn’t like – or even agree with – these songs and I didn’t join in. They were acts of worship – and there’s not a real or imaginary thing in the universe that deserves to be worshipped. Some of them were in Arabic, the tunes of which had an undoubted exotic beauty, the words generally revolved around ‘Allah’ – which makes you realise how close the Arab word for God is to the singsong syllable ‘la’ (surely not an etymological coincidence). ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’ has a much better ring to it than ‘God, God, God’.
Others were in English and basically went, ‘Happy, happy, nice, nice, la, la, la.’ One had the words, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Praise the name of the Lord.’ I wanted to reword it, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eye/Marvel at the thermonuclear reactions that make the sun a luminous ball of plasma around which our pale blue dot, the Earth, orbits at an ideal distance for life to evolve and thrive.’ Or maybe just, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Someone draw the fucking curtains!’
As you can see, I thought these songs were pretty lame – and a fulfilment of the stereotype of hippies as people who stand in a circle holding hands, singing bland, platitudinous songs. One that I kind of did like was what may have been a Native American chant and simple dance about the four elements – I can imagine teaching it to little kids in Korea.
I could easily have avoided them altogether – they weren’t mandatory and I did, in fact, do that a few times – but they weren’t that unpleasant, really. As a way of instilling group identity, I suppose you could do worse. There are not many groups that I identify with.
One of the evening activities was zikr, a kind of meditation. I took part in the session in the second week. It involved singing in a circle again, this time seated in the ‘carpet room’ (a big room above the office and some of the storage space; it had a carpet). It was more in-depth than that at the regular meetings. An Arabic phrase, something to do with God, is repeated over and over – the number of repetitions counted off on beads.
Although it’s essentially a continuous repetition of one of those haunting Middle Eastern melodies, it’s given depth by improvised changes of harmony. The fifteen or twenty people taking part might all start off in unison, then someone might sing thirds, someone might sing a slightly different tune and so on. The result is pretty amazing.
The singing was led by Nirtan with directions such as, ‘Just the men’, ‘Just the women,’ ‘Quietly’, ‘Rock back and forth’. At the beginning he directed people to imagine the ghost of prophets in the room. At the end he asked us to hold hands and imagine positive energy flowing into us from the person on the left and out of us to the person on the right. I tried to do this for a moment then gave it up as pointless and rather ridiculous.
So I think this is what spirituality is – a combination of beauty, imagination and emotion. The zikr was enjoyable enough, but I wasn’t passionate about it. With practice, I’m sure I could call to my senses the feeling of some sort of energy moving through my body, the same way evangelical Christians train themselves to have conversations with ‘God’. But that’s not a goal I’m interested in directing my imagination towards. I have no reason to think that ‘spirituality’ is anything other than a specious concept, used only to put certain experiences on a pedestal beyond the reach of critical examination. The zikr was beautiful, but it was also nothing more than a bunch of voices making a bunch of noises – in the same way that the <i>Mona Lisa</i> is just a bunch of dabs of paint and <i>Moby Dick</i> is just a bunch of words.
Another evening programme was something called sharing. I took part in this in the first week. Everyone sat in a circle in the carpet room and, one by one, volunteered anything they wanted to share with the group. The first few people talked about how happy they were to be there. I said something similar: everyone was very nice, I was happy to be there, the landscape was great – the way it rose up in a steep slope on the other side of the valley reminded me of <i>Inception</i> where the city folds up in front of the characters (I’m not sure anyone was impressed with this last point). My ex-girlfriend had some heartfelt things to say about our relationship. The difference between us being, I suppose, that I was sharing with a bunch of strangers and she was sharing with a group of friends.
Still, the exercise seemed like potentially a very helpful one. It reminded me a lot of workshops I’d been in in writers’ groups and seminars at university.
Other things going on in the evening included a sauna once a week and a campfire on Saturday evenings. At weekends, there were also opportunities to go hiking in the region. One weekend, we were driven round the back of the mountain ridge that looked over the camp and we walked to a little hut right on the edge – we were able to look down on the camp a kilometre or more below. It was like playing <i>Populus</i>. Then we walked along the ridge. We headed off by ourselves to return to Campra; the trail – marked by red and white stripes painted on rocks – seemed to go too far the wrong way, so we went cross-country along animal trails, climbing through tree branches and over muddy slopes; we saw a couple of very large deer. Eventually, after a long and moderately arduous trek, we got on a track that led to the road that led to the camp. The following weekend, we went swimming to a stretch of river – well, I kept my clothes on and read my book on the river bank.
The work itself was quite enjoyable, although tought at first. The tough bit involved carrying lots up wood up hills. The camp was a short distance from the house at Campra. When we walked up there together we were confused, as there was no apparent area for tents and suchlike. Instead, there was a handful of cottages (if your hands were big enough to hold entire houses) and an uneven slope leading up to a wooded area. There were cows.
On the first Monday, the cows were taken to greener pastures by their owners, and we started work. Most of the platforms were to be built among the knolls and hillocks of the uneven slope, with a few others in clearings further off in the trees. While others were loading the truck down near the house, I was part of the large team sorting and carrying wood from the pile they were left in front of one of the cottages to the locations of the various platforms. It was exhausting. If you get the balance of a beam, joist or board right, it’s not difficult to carry, but it’s hard work walking up hill with all that extra weight.
After all or most of the timber was put in the right place, construction started. Short, vertical beams formed the legs and long ones, the basis of the floor. Parallel floor beams were carefully aligned with measuring boards, kept in place temporary boards and hammered level with big mallets. Then joists were put into place while the temporary connecting boards were removed and attached diagonally between the legs. Floor boards or wider, shorter floor plates were then screwed into place on top, and a ten erected on top of that. Everyone was armed with a ‘green machine’ – a green, battery-powered power drill – and handfuls of screws of various lengths.
The one tent I helped erect was the tea tent. We put together the roof structure first – lots of metal poles. Then the roof fabric was placed on top. Then, starting at one end with everyone helping, we lifted it up and put in the legs. Then the tent walls were attached. One other task I took part in was a day of clearing saplings and small trees from areas that were supposed to be open. In one area, we carried them along a track to the side of the little road leading to the camp; in another location, we simply tossed them over a cliff.
The people, as I indicated, were all very nice. There were lots of German-speakers – lots of Germans and Swiss and one or two Austrians – a handful of Spaniards (a couple of whom I disliked at first – they were loud and overly happy, annoyingly full of beans – but I grew to like them), a couple of Poles, and the odd Frenchwoman, Dutchwoman and Israeli. The aforementioned Nirtan was Belgian (and probably still is). There were plenty of young (or at least youngish; I suppose I might just fit into that category) people and a moderate spread of people of middle-aged and older. The person I liked most was a German woman in her fifties – she was very friendly, sweet and easy to talk to.
Being who I am, with all my prejudices and fears, I’m not surprised that I didn’t make any geniune friends there. I’m pretty picky about people I befriend and spending a brief time with someone, or a group of someones, who I’ll likely never see again doesn’t inspire me to make much effort to socialise.
But, on the whole, it was a good experience. I tried some stuff I’d never done before – construction work, the zikr meditation – and the environment was pretty spectacular. The cooking was generally great, too – despite there being problems with food going off in the un-refrigerated larders. I began the camp with the biggest beard that I’d ever grown and, halfway through, shaved it off in stages, taking daily pictures of the different styles. In terms of our relationship, it was a complex time and one that I may talk about in the future, but, for now, it’s too soon.