Postcards from Nowhere: sun, storms and stories in the badlands of Spain

„If that pole goes, we’re gonna have to evacuate,“ bellows Rolf. Gale-force winds buffet our camp as the storm rolls in. I’m hanging onto a support with my full body weight we wrestle to hammer rebar stakes into the ground. Gradually, the wind gives way to rain and thunder and sky-splitting lightning.

This is probably not what my colleagues were picturing when I said I was going to a festival in Spain – but then, Nowhere is no ordinary festival.

Tucked away in the dusty Spanish badlands, the event is 12 kilometres from the nearest settlement. The surrounding mountains are parched and ruddy, with just a few stunted shrubs, and the earth is a fine, brown dust that clings to your skin and gets in your shoes, your tent, even your food. There is no running water or mains power, let alone buildings and streets – and yet every July, a remarkable temporary community springs up as if from nothing, only to disappear without a trace a few weeks later.

Baffling to the uninitiated is the question of what exactly Nowhere is. There’s no lineup of bands and no market stalls; in fact, many even take issue with the term “festival”. Many plump with “an arts event”. Or, to quote the Survival Guide sent to all participants (also known as Nobodies) before the event, Nowhere is “an experiment in creative freedom, participation and cash-free community”.

The event – for want of a better word – is set up, run and returned to nothing entirely by volunteers. A diverse international community head to site more than a week before the event starts and work tirelessly to transform four bare fields in the cradle of the arid Los Monegros region into a weird and wonderful collection of shade structures, composting toilets, art installations, geodesic domes, pirate ships, art cars, and anything else the community’s extensive imagination can conjure up.

Like its older sibling, Burning Man, Nowhere is based around ten core principles. These are: participation, self-reliance, leave no trace, self-expression, inclusion, no commerce, gifting, community, co-operation, and immediacy. Cerebral as this may sound, these principles interlink to form the very fabric of the event.

Self-reliance, for instance, means everyone who goes must ensure they will have – literally – everything they need to survive for a week, and that they remain responsible for themselves while they are there. Given that the temperature hits 45°C and the winds get strong enough to lift a tent, not to mention the lack of running water, this is a non-trivial task. Moreover, the No Commerce principle means you can’t buy any forgotten bits and pieces on site. That includes burgers, booze, camping chairs, and anything else that many festivals in the UK, conversely, nigh-on prevent you from bringing.

For this reason, many participants organise themselves into Barrios, or theme camps. Between them, the members of each barrio carefully ensure that their communal needs will be catered for: it is agreed in advance where the drinking water will come from, how the group will be sheltered from the sun, who can kit out the kitchen, and how the power will be generated.

The first camp to go up is Werkhaus, the hub of the very first volunteers to arrive on site and begin the mammoth task of turning nothing into really quite something. Werkhaus is a sprawling construction of red and black shade cloth hung across tall wooden poles and anchored around the perimeter.

Describing it as a tent would imply a ready-made affair – or, for that matter, something that had waterproof walls and a floor. For this reason, the community tends to use the term ‘shade structure’, meaning that whether it’s a Mad Max-style geodesic dome, a den made of shade cloth or a giant Bedouin tent, it provides shade and shelter. This is especially important given that you have to be out of your tent by 10am or be cooked like a poached egg.

Werkhaus is where I go when I arrive, four days before Nowhere officially begins. At this stage, it is emphatically not a party, but a building site. Down by the bright pink shipping containers, it is a hive of activity. Five or six people are industriously marking out, jigsawing, slotting together and painting some large wooden boxes: our toilets. My task over the coming days will be putting them in place.

On the team is a guy I initially take for Scottish but who turns out to be Norwegian, a Polish man living in London, and a shaggy-haired Belgian in yellow trousers who tells me that he is on wildlife patrol. I wonder if he’s been tasked with rounding up revellers who have started the party early, but his meaning becomes clear when we get to a deep toilet pit at the top of the hill: there’s a black thing at the bottom, and he climbs down to take a look. When he resurfaces, he has a large black beetle. “We found a snake down there the other day,” he says.

As we have driven around site, things have got busier: plastic flowers, a giant Rubik’s cube and a two-metre-high giant LED mushroom appear to have, well, sprouted out of the ground. After two days on the task, everything is in place and the atmosphere has become perceptibly more… festive. Time to head to my camp and get my clown dress out, then.

My camp is Chuchichaschtli. Being able to pronounce it is not an entry requirement – “Cooky sloshy” or “Who’s Rick Astley?” will do. The Nobodies who founded it chose Swiss German’s most unpronounceable word as an epithet; it means something akin to “little kitchen cupboard”. We used to be referred to as the Swiss camp, but like most barrios, we are now a merry mixture. This year there were not only Swiss, but Germans, Czech, French, Canadians, Dutch, Americans, Brits and more besides.

“But what do you do at Nowhere?” is something people often ask, with a slight air of suspicion. It’s as if they expect that it will turn out to be some kind of religious cult, like one of those moments where you’ve finished the free biscuit and the nice lady asks if you’ve ever heard of L Ron Hubbard.

At any given point, of course, a fair chunk of the community will be volunteering. Between them, welfare, toilets, power, tickets, the information tent, and countless other tasks need plenty of attention. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to help out by doing a shift: remember, no-one is being paid to work here, and participation, self-reliance and community form the backbone of Nowhere.

For me personally, some of the most meaningful and intense moments in three years have stemmed from volunteering. Part of it is that bonds formed in the driving rain, while you’re shouting above the thunder and fighting to dig trenches around vital infrastructure before it floods, are not the same as the bonds formed over a few drinks and a dance. Another part of it is that, having discovered this place where you can be yourself like never before, you can give back something really valuable.

Saying it isn’t always easy would be like saying it gets a bit warm out there. It is often stressful and always chaotic. Sometimes , when you have worked for hours in the sun only to find that you’ve been doing it wrong all day, it’s tempting to scream. But the gradual realisation that all these new faces are becoming real, bona fide friends who will support and encourage you through the hardest parts is something I have never experienced anywhere else. There is a reason people – myself included – will travel across the continent to see friends from the dust.

Sounding serious so far? Fear not: we play as hard as we work. Some like a civilised start to the day, with Coffee and Classics at Camp Babycham. Behind the bar, kind Nobodies brew some remarkably good coffee in mocha pots while Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos play in the background. If you fancy a little something in that coffee, the Bailey’s is on the bar. Not hippy enough for you? Then why not head up the mountain and do yoga or laughter meditation?

Last year, I felt like I hadn’t been cantilevered off my friend’s thighs enough, which the acrobalance workshop soon sorted. Maybe you don’t feel like that – it did leave me with fairly bruised thighs – and would prefer to learn to make your tie into a bra, or your bra into a handbag, which have both been done. This year saw Nowhere’s first Barrio dedicated to live music.

Much of the day is spent with your barrio, chatting and chilling. Some catnap on mattresses, while others paint, sew or play guitar. One guy visits my camp, greets me with a big hug and a thank you, and pushes some freshly-brewed chai tea into my hand: I helped his companion who was perhaps best described as “overly refreshed” to a quiet spot to lie down during my shift the previous night. After the tea, I investigate the trapeze which has appeared overnight behind my barrio. One thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.

After dinner, the wind changes. The Nobodies who have been languidly stretched out in the shade during the day come alive at sundown. One by one, the sound systems switch on. People disappear into their tents and emerge transformed. Lights, body paint, fur, frills, leather: here, there is no such thing as too outlandish. This is a different ball game from the onesies and beer crate robot outfits you see at most festivals. A giant, bright red fish mask that covered the wearer’s entire head was just lying around in my camp.

Thus clad, you wend your way between day-glo pyramids, giant LED mushrooms and a puzzle cube so big you can climb it. Some of the sound systems are very impressive indeed, but there’s more to it than that: with the sand between your toes and the stars above your head, exhilaration trumps exhaustion. The part of you that works in an office and pays the bills is telling you it would be sensible to sleep, but it shuts up and goes away when you start another amazing conversation or find another mind-blowing art project and before you know it, you are watching a spectacular sunrise in the valley.

The final night starts with a communal meal in the central shade structure known as “the middle of Nowhere”. Each camp pitches something in, and people dance with new-found friends and old faces from the dust for the last time before making the trip back home.

In the morning, we strike. Strike is the name for takedown: everything has to go. Anyone attempting to abandon their tent caved in under a pile of beer cans and noodle packets would be tarred and feathered. When we talk about “leave no trace”, we mean it. In one big line, we scour the entire site for MOOP (matter out of place, or rubbish). Absolutely everything is picked up, from cigarette butts to sequins and shreds of paper.

The hardcore crew are on site until Friday this year, leaving nothing behind but four barren fields. The only trace of all that has been is some tyre tracks in the dust, which fade and disappear as the wind blows.

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