“So, where are you staying?”
I’m in a small village tea house in Oxfordshire, England, chatting with the woman behind the counter who’s brewing me a cup of English Breakfast. Should I tell her the truth?
“I’m staying at a community down the road,” I say, hoping she won’t inquire further.
“Oh? Where’s that then, Ipsden village? Who do you know there?”
“No…” Deep breath. “It’s called Braziers Park, it’s an intentional community. There’s a manor house and a group of people live and work there, we farm and – “
“Intentional community…” she repeats suspiciously. Then the familiar accusatory tone: “You mean a COMMUNE!? Are you a nudist?”
Permutations of this conversation occurred countless times in my six months in England.
Who can blame people? At best, the word commune evokes images of flower children, peace signs and free love. At worst, it’s taken as code for cult.
So you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “commune” these days.
But while the label has fallen away, the original idea is still around. Groups of people worldwide – re-branded as Communities, Intentional Communities, Co-ops, Eco-villages – are living together, working towards common goals, and sharing the simple aspects of everyday life with each other.
And the curious traveler can go and join them.
Feeling as skeptical as my terrified British barista? Keep reading as I try to reassure her, and you, that communities are positive projects that also happen to be an amazing travel secret.
Let’s pick up where we left off:
“Are you a nudist?”
No. In fact, nobody at the house routinely takes their clothes off.
It’s not really about hippie-dom, either, or following a strict philosophy. You might find a common religion in a kibbutz in Israel or in monastic communities, but lots of these collectives are just interested in harnessing the energy of a group to create positive, healthy, sustainable living.
“How does that work exactly?”
I wish I could give you an exact definition. But the spectrum of communal living projects is very broad.
On one end, there are urban co-housing projects where people purposefully share meals, chores and a bit of camaraderie.
On the other, there are isolated collectives deep in the countryside, full of folks aiming to kiss modern society goodbye and work the land with the goal of being completely self-sufficient.
My volunteering experience falls somewhere in the middle.
“Volunteering? But you’re an American, a backpacker. How do you fit in to the picture of an English community?”
The whole idea of a community is to bring people together. The idea of hosting travelers fits with the core attitude of creating an open, welcoming space.
Some communities draw income by providing guest accommodation, like a bed & breakfast. Paying guests get a glimpse of how life works at the community they’re visiting.
International volunteer programs like the one I’m doing are very common at communities, where an extra pair of hands is always welcome.
“So there are people from all over the world doing this?”
The UK has a burgeoning subculture of sustainably-minded communities – it must be something about the rich green landscapes, agricultural heritage and abundance of abandoned castles needing a new purpose. You can check out the website Diggers & Dreamers to learn more.
“So what do they have you doing up there?”
As part of my stay, I work in the garden, cook meals and help clean the house, especially the rooms that are used as guest rooms for paying visitors and organized groups.
I’ve also painted a two-story high ceiling, chopped wood to stoke the boiler and learned how to create an authentic English hedge.
Work varies from place to place, of course, it just depends what the community is set up to do.
As a volunteer, I also contribute to community decision-making processes at weekly meetings discussing projects happening on the estate.
“That sounds like a lot of work. Why would you pick to stay at a community when you’re a carefree solo traveler?”
Because when you stay at a community, you immediately become a part of it.
Instead of struggling to make connections in a new place, opting to stay in a community puts you smack in the middle of a network of friends of all ages and backgrounds. It’s like joining a huge extended family.
Staying in a community is also a fantastic educational exchange.
You’ve got to figure: if people have chosen to begin a community, there must be a reason, goal or project. Volunteers learn loads about the core values and work of the place they stay, whether it’s organic gardening, peace studies, Zen Buddhism, creating performance art or just a commitment to shared living.
“But you could socialize in any group or project. I’m still not seeing what make communities so special.”
I’d say it’s something about the unique vibe of these places, if you’ll pardon the hippie-talk.
It’s impossible to know who you’ll meet in a community, but rest assured they’ll be interesting, original and free-spirited. They’re quirky projects and they attract quirky people.
The idea of a community is that everyone learns from everyone else, and that everyone has something unique to teach.
This attitude cuts across normal life’s usual divisions of young and old, men and women, people of different occupations, nationalities, religions – instead everyone mixes together. Last night I played Scrabble with an 80 year old auto mechanic and a Bulgarian belly dancer.
“Sounds like quite a different travel experience.”
Traveling is always full of new experiences and eye-opening encounters. Staying at a community has been one of the best for me. Never a dull moment, a hive of fascinating people from all different walks of life, and I’m being inspired to keep traveling by all the international volunteers I’ve met during my stay.
I’ve also felt really supported as an international volunteer, with a group of people around me to share the ups and downs of travel with. It’s like a home away from home.
“A group to share work and play with, meeting people from all over the world, lifelong learning – this … this actually sounds pretty good. Could I stop by sometime?”
Absolutely. Lots of communities, ours included, are happy to have you stop by for a day, chat with residents, and learn a bit more about what’s going on. We’ve always got tea on the go, stop in for a cup sometime and I’ll give you a garden tour.
In the end I won over the tea room hostess, but what about you? Curious to make community living a part of your next travel experience?
Before you answer, let me confess: remember when I said there were no nudists? Well, I started off with a white lie. That 80 year old auto mechanic I played Scrabble with also dabbled in nudism.
In a community, it takes all kinds.
Have you ever stumbled into a community while on the road? Would you ever consider living with loads of other people as you travel, or you more of a solo Go! Girl? Tell us your thoughts on the community life!