Creating community among RVers:

The people of Kaliai live in community, and under most circumstances they have no need to create it. They merely validate and reinforce ties that are already there. Full-time RVers, whose only home is their rig, must create almost all of their communities from the ground up. Consider: they are travelers who live on the road and spend only a short time in any one place. When they spend time off the road, chances are that those parked near them will be strangers, at least initially. These RVers are nomads, but they are not like traditional ones. Other nomads live and travel in pre-existing community groups composed of people of all ages who are kin and friends. They move together, and when they set up camp they arrange themselves in established residential patterns that express existing relations of kinship, affinity, and friendship. RVers, on the other hand, are almost never related to their neighbours, who are often strangers. While RVers sometimes travel with friends, most travel independently, and most are adults without children on board. Traditional nomads travel, not only because it is their way of life, but in order to find food, to meet with other groups to exchange goods, to arrange marriages, and for other instrumental reasons. In contrast most full-time RVers say that they travel in order to find freedom and because travel is an end in itself. Freedom means a number of things to them, but primarily they value freedom from rules and responsibilities imposed by others and freedom to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. The freedom cry for many RVers is some variation of, "If I don't like it (the weather, the neighbours, the scenery) here, all I have to do is to turn the key."

This attitude contrasts dramatically with that of the Kaliai who consider voluntary isolation to be evidence of either anti-social behaviour (adultery, sorcery) or a precursor to suicide. Villagers consider people who shun the company of others to be aberrant, potentially dangerous, and not entirely human. Before the Germans introduced prisons, the people of West New Britain used exile as a sanction against serious anti-social behaviour, second in extremity only to execution as a last resort. This contrast expresses a dramatic difference between Kaliai and RVers: one culture's privacy and freedom is the basis of punishment for the other.

This is not to say that RVers crave isolation and exile. In fact, they want community. Ironically, although most RVers say that they originally went on the road in order to travel or to find freedom, they also say that they stay on the road for years because they make friends with the people they meet there and become part of a community of travelers. If the statement "If I don't like it here, all I have to do is turn the key" is the phrase we heard most often, the second most common statement is either "I know them ( fellow RVers) better than I knew the neighbours I lived next door to for X years" or "They're my family now." Here are some of the things that RVers have told us:

Dorma, the owner-manager of a resort park, in response to David Counts' observation that people in the park are friendly and all seem to know each other, replied "That's what they come here for. They have it here and they don't have it back home. They get back home and they miss it. That's why they keep coming back. Almost all of our people come back here every year. When they come back here they're coming home."

Violet said of returning to the Slabs, "It's like coming home. They're your family." She feels that she "can trust the people in our area because they're like we are. They try to make their area look homey. They want it to look like home and smell like home. Everybody watches out for everybody else. Everybody's so eager to help. When you get situated in one group it's like a family, but we don't have a name yet."

Judy was widowed in 1988. She says, "Family was with me for a week after Ernie died, but it is the continuing support of my SKP family who write and drop by to visit that keeps me going. I don't think I'd have made it without SKPs! You'll never know now grateful I am." (SKP or Skips is derived from the pronounciation of the name of the RV club Escapees)

Dwayne, a part-time RV park manager commented that you could live in a Southern California subdivision for twenty years and not know the name of the people next door. Here -- and in RV parks generally - he says, you get a real sense of community and people becoming friends and helping each other. "It's as if people saw others living like themselves and felt they could trust them."

Joe and Kay Peterson agree, In their book, The New Revised Survival Of the Snowbirds. they say: "Sharing is the key to all phases of the Escapees Parks... Therefore, it isn't surprising to find the members also share rides to town for doing laundry, going shopping, and for social events. They are [a] tight-knit group who think of themselves as "family." Because of this, those who are in the park keep a watchful eye over a traveling member's property.... Even more important than the feeling of security for things is the knowledge that there is someone there to help you when you need it. There is, for example, special concern shown if someone fails to appear at an expected time. A neighbor will knock on the door to make sure everything is all right. Having neighbors who know and care about you, and who will be there to help you if you are sick, is reminiscent of the old village life that in most places has been replaced with a mind-your-own-business attitude." (Peterson and Peterson 1991:56-57).

These testimonials use the words "family", "home", "help", "friends","trust" ,"care". These are the qualities that are necessary for the existence of a community. Sociologist Thomas Bender says:

There are emotional layers to the word 'community' and as a result the concept is more than place and activity. "There is an expectation of a special quality of human relationship in a community, and it is this experiential dimension that is crucial to this definition. Community, then, can be defined better as an experience than a place. As simply as possible, community is where community happens.... Community ... is best defined as a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds....A community involves a limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space or network held together by shared understandings and a sense of obligation. Relationships are close, often intimate, and usually face to face. Individuals are bound together by affective or emotional ties rather than by a perception of individual self-interest. There is a "we-ness" in a community. One is a member (Bender 1978:6-7).

RVers must create this feeling of family -- of community - from scratch. How do they do this?

Sharing food:

One way people - RVers as surely as Kaliai villagers -- create and express community is by sharing food. Almost every gathering of RVers that we attended during our research included shared food at pot-luck dinners, pancake breakfasts, ice-cream socials, fund raising meals, etc. This was true at state parks, resort parks, Escapee parks, and at boondocking areas in the desert. In Escapee parks some sort of food-sharing happens almost every day.

Thanksgiving at Rainbow's End

We ate Thanksgiving dinner with Escapees at Rainbow's End park in 1993. When we asked our table-mates if they did not miss sharing Thanksgiving dinner with their families, they replied "No. These SKIPs are our family." One man observed that while Escapees is not "communal" it was important that it be a community, and that eating together is an important part of community life. To paraphrase Marshal Sahlins, the least important thing that an RVer do with food is to eat it alone.Why is food sharing so important in creating and expressing social relationships? First, it is necessary for life. A gift of food is a gift of life -- or a gift of death. In Kaliai, the primary way that sorcerers kill others is by giving them food that has been poisoned, either with a physical or chemical poison or by being be-spelled. Recall Sahlins's observation that food is both a sustaining and a destroying mechanism of society (1972:215-127-18 Thus, just as giving food is sharing one's substance with another, accepting it from another person in Kandoka is an act of trust while refusing it is a statement of suspicion and distrust. Although sorcery is not in the minds of RVers, for them, too, eating food prepared by someone else is an expression of trust and offering it is an expression of sharing and generosity of self.

Second, the food you eat becomes part of you. You are what you eat! This is recognized by both Kaliai, for whom food creates kinship, and by RVers. As Karen explained, when we asked why people offered food to newcomers to the park, "Because it becomes a part of you. It becomes a part of yourself." Ann Marie agreed, explaining that sharing food is important because "Eating together is a sacrament, like the Last Supper."

Finally, people must work to obtain food. One's energy, effort and - in Kandoka at least - ones very substance goes into food production. Thus, when a Kandokan child eats the food prepared by his parents he is eating their sweat - incorporating their substance - and reinforcing his kinship with them. While RVers may settle for simply eating together in a restaurant from time to time, it seems to us that for them, too, the work that goes into obtaining and preparing food has greater significance than merely sitting together to eat. This is why the pot-luck dinner - where everyone eats a bit of food prepared and donated by many others -- is the characteristic food sharing ritual for travelers.

Sharing labour

In Kaliai work is seldom a solitary enterprise. Whether they are clearing and planting gardens, building fences to protect gardens from marauding pigs, making shell currency, preparing thatch, building houses, planning a ceremonial, sweeping the village free of trash or preparing food, people work together.

Women sweep the village

Village residents cooperate in the community work of building fences, building and repairing public buildings such as the village church, school, or the house where visiting government officials stay, or making copra to raise cash to support the local school. Kin cooperate in garden work, building and maintaining copra drying sheds, building and repairing the men's house where unmarried boys and visiting men sleep. One of the obligations of kinship is to assist your relatives in their work, with the understanding that they will also assist you. Sharing labour - sharing sweat - expresses kinship relations. Young men and women work for their elders in reciprocity for the work - the sweat - expended by the parental generation in creating and sustaining their lives.

Whereas Kaliai express community by working together, RVers create community by sharing labour.  For example, at the Hot Spring LTVA in southern California, in the early 1980s RVers who wintered there approached business people in the nearest town, Holtville, for contributions of supplies to develop the spring. Volunteers from the LTVA used this assistance to build two spring-fed hot tubs, put in a cement pad, and install two hot showers for use of the residents.Each Monday morning, all LTVA residents were invited to bring bleach and other cleaning supplies to the spring. There they drained the hot tubs and then disinfected and cleaned the concrete slab, tubs, and shower area. The hot spring area has become a free spa and a social centre where residents can relax and talk with fellow volunteers and enjoy companionship and community.

The hot springs area has become a spa and social centre

The Escapees RV club self-consciously encourages all members to participate in regular cleaning and maintenance chores, partly to keep costs down but, more importantly, in order to develop a community spirit. Cathie Carr, the CEO of the club wrote the following about inclusion in community (Carr 1993:5): "I believe if you want to enter a circle, you can just erase the lines. It is up to you to make the first move. It is up to you to become a part of the community."

The term "community" is loosely defined as a group of people living in the same locality. It can be a town, an RV park, or a rally location. In every case, the best way to break the ice is to volunteer to help. Inclusion is a guaranteed result. There are a number of ways that Escapees volunteer: they serve food at community meals, they help cook or clean up after the meals, the clean the clubhouse, police the grounds, work as everything from organizers to parking staff at rallies.

Rainbow builder at work

They also become Rainbow Builders. These are Escapees members who give their labour to help build parks in exchange for their sites during the labouring period. Many of them do this work because they plan to have a lot in the park, but others - like the elderly gentleman driving the heavy equipment in the photograph - volunteer in order to contribute to the SKP community and because they assume reciprocity. Sometime in the future, they believe, somebody else will help to create the park where they will want a home base. Mutual help also helps to create community among RVers. Almost all new RVers are astonished when strangers offer to help with problems ranging from the trivial to the serious. It is a standing joke - but one based on fact - that if you want to meet people in an RV park all you have to do is raise your hood. Anyone in trouble is assured several helping hands. Fellow RVers offer everything from the use of a tool, or an extra hose to enable you to use a water tap that's just out of reach, to the use of a car for transportation if your spouse is hospitalized with a sudden, acute illness. The importance of sharing and help in creating community among RVers is well expressed by full-time RVers and Escapees members Karen and Scott Bonis: "A most important part of my reality is the sense of community I feel whenever we are with other Escapees. For us there is the clear feeling of being with family. There is no question in my mind that, if some problem should befall us, there would be many, many people who would be willing to go way out of their way in order to help. And we would be happy to do the same for the others in the group. It is a very special bond that is one of the cornerstones of my reality" (Bonis and Bonis 1993:22).

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