“Welcome to the Jungle!”
That’s the refrain when a new person arrives at the Buddha’s Hideaway in Coconut Grove, Darwin. I found the place on Airbnb, but from the description I knew it was no ordinary hostel. “We are a commune”, says Suzy, the owner, in the advert. “Nudity is accepted, even encouraged”.
Intrigued, I book. I’m always keen to check out a new version of community.
I arrive on a humid, airless evening, just as the ochre sky has given up its colour. This is the tropics, and daylight does not linger. It is pitch dark as I make my way down the long, winding driveway by the light of my phone.
A tall Queenslander-style house stands on stilts, but in the space underneath, people mingle in an open kitchen area and beyond. Around us, tall palm trees rustle, enclosing the exotic scene. Two long tables are pushed together and laid with knives and forks. If that’s for dinner, I’m in.
As bowls of pasta, garlic bread and stuffed capsicum are laid out, people gather and sit, passing the plates of food around and sharing news from their day. It’s relaxed and convivial and I feel an immediate welcome. After, we sit up late, talking about life. Suzy, who serves as “Mother” of the household, is full of stories, which she loves to share…
My bed is on the balcony. Above me, a woven matted ceiling hides the sky, but the walls are open to the sounds of the night. I hear a possum growl, closer than I’d like and in a shiver of fear, I wonder if he’ll jump right in beside me! He doesn’t, and I drift into an easy sleep, lulled by the distant muted conversation from below and the chirrup of rainforest insects.
“I think basically it really hooks into people’s need to be part of a tribe. To have a sense of belonging, to have a sense that somebody cares”, says Suzy the next morning over a cup of tea. She’s sitting on the sofa, dressed only in a t-shirt and knickers, a sarong thrown around her shoulders. It’s nine in the morning and already it’s hot, my hair sticking in damp clumps around my neck.
Suzy continues. “I think it’s very alienating to live in a nuclear family or to live in a flat somewhere. Where you’re anonymous, where you come home to an empty house. You’ve got no-one to interact with, no-one to cook with, no-one to share your day with. And now with tv, people are interacting even less than they did, and with social media even more so….. Nobody here is into watching tv. They spend the whole evening interacting with one another.”
One of the residents, Tiff, agrees.
“I’d been a bit depressed and was all the way up here (in Darwin) on my own. I’m a really social person and this (the commune) just suited me. They’ve become my new family. We’re all here for each other. We all support each other. We socialise together. We all look after each other. We have our little space to go off to if we want to be on our own, but mostly when you’re tired and you go and lie down, then you hear someone laugh and you think ‘Am i missing out on too much fun?’. Then you’ve got to get up and join in! We cook together, we eat together, it’s the most functional family I’ve ever lived in.”
I ask Suzy about how the commune started. “This particular commune has been running since 1992, and its gone through a lot of phases. Times when people don’t even speak to each other; times when they’re very cliquey; times when they all cook together and times when nobody cooks. Sometimes I got into despair that nobody “got it” and then one person would rock up and change all the dynamics.”
It’s not the first commune Suzy has created. With a PhD in anthropology and a colourful past, including early abandonment by her parents, care of eight younger siblings and a career as a call girl, she was drawn to communes from the age of seventeen. After a brief flirtation with the idea in Canada, she returned to Australia determined to escape the nuclear family, which she did by borrowing money from the bank and extending a three-bedroom home to accommodate more people. She eventually gave that commune up in order to concentrate on her PhD, but soon found herself doing the same thing again – extending the property and inviting others to join her.
“In the interim I started up various other communes around Darwin. One of them is for older people, which is very challenging to manage, because they don’t co-habit easily because they’re not used to it… and they can be very selfish.”
When she details some of the problems she encounters dealing with people, I wonder aloud why she bothers.
“I think it’s a social experiment, really. And I’ve already committed myself to it. I owe four million dollars to the bank. It’s an obsession. I started doing it because I like renovating. I like the creative act of renovating. And setting up a community. That’s what I love doing. Twice I’ve tried to escape and set up a flat somewhere else but then I come back. It’s too boring and it’s too lonely.”
We sit around the fire, a circle of faces lit by the gentle flames. Estelle, a beautiful young French woman who was introduced to the ‘Jungle” by a friend, speaks with emotion.
“The first time we came, we didn’t want to leave. It’s like paradise. It’s the best house I ever had in my whole life. It’s so peaceful. You have a lot of people so you can learn a lot of things from everyone. Now we can’t leave because it’s our new family.”
Listening to her speak. Suzy is teary-eyed.
“It’s beyond my expectations. I’m so glad you get it. I hope you guys go and set up communes wherever you are….and you can do it!”
If you want to stay at Buddha’s Hideaway, lookup Airbnb in Darwin on +61(0)409483129 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
A book on Suzy’s life called Edge of Dreaming is available on Amazon.