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ONE BIG FAMILY

Written by Susheel Balasu from the 2023 Human Force Camp at Amaranthe



It's a little hard to know where to begin when I write about my experiences as a participant in the Human Force camp at Amaranthe, there's so much I'd like to cover!


To give a little background about the Amaranthe project, the goal was to create an eco-village; a tight-knit community living in harmony with the goal of achieving greater socio-cultural and ecological sustainability. And everything was done keeping this in mind. The homes were designed to be more ecologically friendly and energy-efficient. There were green spaces throughout  the village, cultivated according to permaculture principles. The toilets were rainwater and compost sawdust toilets, and there was a dedicated area for composting. Even our shower water was treated and returned to the environment, and so we made use of eco-friendly products free from harmful chemicals. This sustainable lifestyle was what we'd immerse ourselves in for the fifteen-day camp.


This was a camping only program, and we camped in a grassy patch in the village. We'd typically start the day with breakfast together, separate into groups for the activities of the day, meeting back around noon for lunch. The food was always so good, I found myself wanting to learn to cook this way, so I'd leave activities a bit early to help with the preparation. I'm really not great in the kitchen, but they were always very nice and patient with me. The evenings were usually free-time that we'd spend relaxing, finishing chores or freshening up for dinner. After dinner we usually played a high paced card game we invented called "Mollusc". Some nights we'd just lay on the grass and gaze at the stars, feeling the cool air around us and waiting for a shooting star to fly by. I live in the city and I haven't seen more than a few stars at once, it was amazing to see what the night-sky really looked like.



We'd spend a little time gathering in a circle each day to explore ideas central to the camp's theme and share our personal experiences. On the first day for example, we explored the theme of living a beautiful life and what that meant to each of us. The idea was that as the camp progressed, we would try to connect these aspects with what we were experiencing in the camp, and how we could integrate this into our lives afterwards. These discussions were always incredibly engaging; there's something special when you're exploring topics meaningful to you around people who genuinely care and listen.


The Constructions: 

We spent a whole afternoon with the residents of Amaranthe learning how to build eco-friendly homes. We delved into many topics, from how to position your home, sustainable toilet options ,foundations(typically they used rock then a smaller lime-concrete layer that allows the floor to "breathe"), the types of framing (Typically they used wood) and the walls were made mostly of straw-bales (These were favored because of the minimal environmental impact, high insulation and the resulting energy efficiency) and much more. 

We were able to put what we learned into practice in our tasks: We spent an afternoon plastering the walls of one of the houses with mud, which included preparing the mud plaster mix, applying the mix on the straw walls, and carefully smoothing it to create a seamless finish. 

What ended up becoming our big project for the camp was the garden shed we built from the ground up. We began with leveling the ground and then laid a foundation of stone, sand, and concrete blocks. We then stacked the bales like bricks, and threaded adjacent bales together with twine using a "bamboo needle". Large bamboo sticks gave structure to our straw walls, and the sword-fights we had with them were of course an integral part of any bamboo construction. The roof was a wooden frame, with chicken wire and mesh, which we eventually lifted onto the shed with a crane at the end. Once this was done the entire shed had to be plastered with mud. We finished by the last day, and had a special ceremony to celebrate what we'd finished in the camp. We gathered by the shed, each of us holding thoughts of what we hoped our work would signify, and we poured our wishes into a bowl of water, and threw it on the shed. it felt like we were imparting it with our hopes and efforts, something that marked the end of our amazing journey together




The hike: 

The camp included a 3 day trek in the Pyrénées mountains led by our expert high mountain guide, Olivier. We spent some time a few days before the hike going through everything we'd need. The idea was to carry the bare essentials so we'd be moving with as little weight as possible. We left as early as we could manage to avoid hiking in the heat. This was my first hike, and I always thought a hike was just a nice long walk. What I realised as we walked along was that it's much more like climbing an infinite set of stairs. My legs started to cramp a few hours in, but I was lent an extra pair of hiking poles which helped enormously, it took a little load off my legs and put it in the arms so they didn't cramp as much. Olivier also slowed his pace and I walked right behind him, the idea was that he'd walk the path taking steps that had the least incline and distance and I'd follow.  

There was a lot we learnt about hiking as well; like how it was much better to keep a constant pace without stopping rather than shorter bursts of speed and rest. How important the breathing is to keeping moving. How it was important to follow the trail, as deviating from it could inadvertently create new paths, especially when it rained. How important it was to "leave no trace" to minimize our impact on the environment. 




It's hard to describe how beautiful everything around was, I'll try to leave that to the pictures. On the first day we pitched our tents in a valley where friendly cows and horses grazed, who occasionally nibbled at our backpacks.  The food was surprisingly great, the whole hike we basically feasted on multiple courses each meal. We had pasta, rice, smoked salmon, cheese(so much cheese) and more, which we cooked with the portable stoves we carried. It's still hard to imagine we carried all that food up there. The second day we reached a reservoir not far from the peak, the view and the swims were truly beautiful.  On the third day we started early while it was still dark to reach the peak, so we didn't have to deal with the sun and additional hikers that might make it harder. It started to get much steeper as we headed up, but we reached the peak around mid morning. After celebratory hugs, pictures and snacks some of us meditated, I just tried to burn the view to my memory the best I could. We then headed to camp, packed and went for another swim in the reservoir, before heading back down


Nature connection sessions:

These sessions were meant to explore our inner connection to the wild with sensory practices and games. Our guide explained how it was possible to get very in tune to the nature present around us. For example how it was possible to interpret the sounds of the birds to know if there were animals nearby, how to be still and blend into nature enough to pet a wild deer.

We played games to practice, some games would deprive us of one of the senses(usually our sight) so you'd have to compensate with the others, and these were really fun. 

My personal favourite was a game where the focus was on blending in with our surroundings. One of us "the owl" would sit watchfully with everyone else spread around and hiding at least a minimum distance away. The goal was simple - touch the owl without being spotted. if the owl spots you and calls your name and where you're hiding, you're out.  The owl will periodically "fall asleep" and count down loudly from 10, and immediately everyone rushes towards him. Once the count is done, the owl is "awake" and anyone he spots is out.  We'd hide up on trees, crouch behind bushes and lay flat on the ground, and rush hard as soon as the count started. Things got intense! We learned from our guide the trick to this was that it was much more important to remain completely still, than be camouflaged well but moving around, because the eyes are much more drawn to movement. This game was more than just a test of stealth; it taught us the art of observation and the value of patience, revealing how even the slightest stir can ripple through the calm of nature.



There's so much more that I'd like to write about, but I'll have to be brief and settle for just a few sentences:

We explored caves that was a short drive away, then swam and played around in the gentle currents of a stream close by. Freezing cold at first, but incredible once I got used to it.  We spent an evening attending a jazz festival in Carla-Bayle, the "Art village of Ariège", a commune known for being a vibrant artistic hub.  We enjoyed pizza at the Sunday market, which had a very Bohemian/Hippie atmosphere to it.  We had supper with a giant traditional dish at the local Montbrun-Bocage festival of Saint Roch. There was a marching band that played as we ate, and whenever they played a song we liked (which was often) we'd all stand on the benches to clap and dance along.  There was a workshop on the art transferring dyes from flowers and leaves onto fabric by simply hammering them onto the surface, we even got to try it on our own piece of clothing and take our handcrafted souvenir home.  We had a bonfire night, where we toasted Bananas and Chocolate in aluminium foil and let them melt together into a delicious snack.  There was a drum circle, we gathered in a circle with buckets, pots and anything else that could be a drum. It was surprising how little it took to get a great beat going. We also offered to teach each other our passions and interests; from yoga to poi, juggling, wood carving, striking, brazilian jiu-jistu and even math was offered.


I grew up in a Subud family, and when I was younger I remember other Subud members used to stay at our home all the time, and I can easily see why; the people I met at the camp were easily some of the kindest and most friendly I've ever met. We did our activities together, ate together, handled chores together, and went out of our way take care of each other. It really felt like we were one big family, not just strangers in a camp. As camp ended, I offered everyone a standing invitation to visit if they ever found themselves in my area (And if I missed anyone, please know you're definitely invited!). 



I've never done a camp like this, so this really meant a lot to me. There was a moment where I was in a stream, with the chill of the cold water flowing over me, all I did was to try as hard I could to remember that moment exactly how it was. And this was something I found myself doing consistently throughout the camp. The real hard part for me was getting the camp to last. I'd be back to work behind a desk and a computer soon enough, and time seemed to fly by at triple the speed.  The camp's really made me reconsider what I might want my future to look like. A life like this, living this close to nature, with close friends and family right next to you, having meals together in a large open table, certainly seems like a beautiful one to me. I'm glad I had the chance to attend the camp and I've really enjoyed my time at Amaranthe with the Human Force Program!




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