Archive for September, 2006

“Welcome to the Vacant Heart of the Wild West…

… a place as broad and blank as the future. Few people realise that the future is in fact here, it just has not been properly distributed yet.”

This is the beginning of a pretty and rather amusing chunk of prose which had been placed on a succession of signposts in huge letters on the way in to Burning Man. If anyone comes across a transcript of the rest I would love to have it, but can’t be bothered looking for it myself. The line above was the only thing I wrote down at Burning Man, hence my complete lack of ability to thus far write about any of the experience.

It was the best holiday of my life, without question. It was better than Sweden adventures, it was better than backpacking around eastern Europe, it was better than 2 months of lazy days at home with friends one summer. It was probably the best thing I have ever done, it vies for that title with moving to London, which I assure you is tough competition.

I will not be able to accurately or sufficiently describe BM. Partly because it defies explanation, partly because I saw but a fraction of what was there. It is impossible to see everything, but also impossible to be there without getting involved in a hundred different things, and getting caught up in the atmosphere. I am about as far from a hippy as you can get, but I found the whole thing intensely beautiful. This is what I learned…

Pre-requisites: Do you in fact know what the hell I am talking about?

Burning Man (www.burningman.com). is an art festival, started by a guy called Larry Harvey in the 1980s on a beach in SF, which has grown in size and reputation ever since. It is now held in the open desert in Nevada, and firmly promotes freedom of expression and radical self-reliance. Nothing is bought or sold at Burning Man, you bring what you need to survive the harsh conditions, you bring your art, or you build it, and then on the last day everything burns. There are no spectators, only participants. The back of the ticket reads “By attending this event you accept the risk of serious injury or death”. They are not exaggerating.

Lesson 1: Survival in the desert

You need food, you need water, you need enough to survive and more. You need to wash things, you need to cook, you need a stove. You need to be able to protect yourself in the day when its 50 degrees Celsius outside, and at night when its freezing cold. You need to drive 2 foot long rebar stakes into the ground to keep your tent from blowing away in the sandstorms, you need goggles to see in them, and a mask to breathe through unless you want your lungs full of dry dust.

You have no shower, the nearest toilet is a ten minute walk. You can leave no trace, so you cannot throw away dirty water, or garbage, everything must be kept and removed when you leave. Dust from the playa, an ancient lake bed completely devoid of life, will be in everything you own, eat and drink for a week. Your hair will matte with the dust on the first day. Your clothes will be dirty immediately you step outside. You will be dirty all the time, dust will stick to your skin, and when you clean yourself it will be with baby wipes.

You must constantly drink water in order to stay hydrated, you must eat enough nutrients to keep your body healthy. You cannot. Be. Sick. You must be able to walk where you need to go in a huge camp, you must learn to navigate said camp. You must be able to live in incredibly close quarters with whoever you are camping with, you must never fall asleep in a tent during the hottest part of the day or you will wake up horribly nauseous and drenched in sweat (I learned this one the hard way). You must only eat, walk, or be in the sun before noon and after 6, before your water supply gets hot, or after it cools again.

That isn’t even close to all of it. I didn’t think I could do it. Or rather, I knew I would, but I thought it might make me too miserable to enjoy anything. In fact it made everything ten times more amazing, because I knew I was doing it in the face of what I had previously considered the edge of bearable. When we drove out the gates of BM on the Monday after the burn, I felt like we had won, that I could do anything if I could do that and still be as incredibly, perfectly happy as I had been. I was sorry to go home.

Though I freely admit that the roast beef sandwich I had in Gerlach shortly afterwards was probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.

Lesson 2: Playa etiquette 

This boils down to two simple rules. Leave no trace. Don’t fuck with anyone else.

Granted the latter could be given a very broad variety of interpretations, but only once during the week did I witness anyone being what I would deem unreasonable, and that was when we were leaving. With the exception of those two stipulations, Burning Man is an environment of astonishing freedom. It was filled with a vast majority of smart and interesting people, and a minimum of annoying tree-hugging hippy crap.

You can walk around wearing anything, you can walk around wearing nothing. Regardless of gender or physical attributes no-one will so much as look at you funny, though if your outfit is good, people will certainly look. There is zero stigma attached to any degree of nudity. It is considered completely unacceptable to proffer sexual commentary or overtures to someone just because of how they are dressed or not dressed. In the entire time I was there I never heard or saw one person do this.

Gifting is a common occurrence, people frequently give away absolutely anything, from pee-funnels for girls so they can urinate standing up, to hats, to grilled cheese sandwiches. It is perfectly ok to accept these gifts and make no return, they are gifts. People give away only what they wish to, there are no debts entailed by such a gift and no obligation. Occasionally people offer trade if they need an item, no-one ever asks for anything for free. No-one begs, and if they cannot get what they want they live without it. Frequently people who offer to trade are simply given the item they seek regardless, but this is beside the point.

Things I was given while there include chocolate ice-cream, an apple, a kiwi-fruit, a red pepper (you have no idea how good that was after 5 days in the desert), a grilled cheese sandwich, Earl Grey tea in a china cup, a ginger biscuit, pancakes with maple syrup, skittles, beer, rum, vodka, more rum, several mysterious cocktails, more rum, lollipops,  condoms, graham crackers, peach juice, crackers with chorizo sausage and cheese, some really odd Portland version of Guinness (apparently), a pee funnel, pink hair, a small fuzzy green friend, Gatorade, more beer…. and so on, and so forth. Oh, and cheese in a can. But that was more an attack than a gift really.

It is considered normal and forgivable at BM to completely fail to turn up at an appointed time or location, since it is practically impossible to walk down any given street without becoming involved in a game, party, experiment, or on one notable occasion, tea and biscuits.

Leave no trace is the really hard part. That means don’t drop a piece of paper, don’t spill water, don’t stub out a cigarette, don’t piss outside, don’t throw up outside, don’t drop food. Its all considered MOOP – Matter Out Of Place, and irresponsibility for yourself and your posessions is very bad form.

It is considered the height of stupidity to ask someone for drugs at BM unless they are a reasonably well-known acquaintance. Black Rock City becomes the 3rd largest city in the state of Nevada for one week, and is most likely responsible for justifying half the budget of the Nevada State Police, largely due to the huge quantity of drug busts that occur there. Undercover cops are everywhere, and anyone who does not know this is very quickly informed.

Random observations:

This wouldn’t work anywhere other than where it is. Anyone who goes to BM must be extremely independant and self-reliant, or must find a group of people prepared to be that way on their behalf. We did things the hardest way we could have done them, and I don’t regret that in the least. We made some mistakes, but overall we did pretty well. Burning Man isn’t a gift economy, a gift economy is based on need. On the playa everyone assumes you have what you need, all that they could give you is something for pure enjoyment.

The feeling of complete freedom is like nothing else. I have felt free before, I generally feel in control of myself and my (for want of a better word) destiny. But this is something overwhelmingly strong. When you look outside your tent you see the desert stretch out in front of you, when you look up at night you see a clear desert sky, with no reminders of what the rest of the world is like. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely happy as I did in a dusty tent, covered in dirt and suncream, eating peaches from a tin. I would totally survive the apocalypse. Certainly if it has the occasional grilled cheese sandwich in it anyway.

It has always bothered me slightly that modern everyday life is so easy, not because of the lack of effort involved but because I might never know how I would manage if it were hard. I don’t want to be addicted to buying NineWest shoes or having my shopping delivered. No matter how accustomed I might become to things which could be considered luxuries I want to know that I can go back to the desert, live on tinned tuna and sweetcorn, and have the time of my life. Its ok to make life comfortable, its not ok to need things to be that way.

What we did at Burning Man:

So I finally get round to what actually happened, setting the scene being a key aspect. What did I do at Burning Man? Ok, here is a list, in vaguely chronological order. I have probably left out half of the stuff we did/saw, but you can get the idea at least.

  • Drove to the desert through the night, set up camp at 5am, or rather 2.30 and beyond Hope.
  • Met our neighbour, Cowboy Karl, who was a real cowboy
  • Put up the tent, an education in hammers, rebar, broken poles and the Nevada dawn
  • Changed and went exploring, walked straight into white-out
  • Survived dust storm, continued journey through centre camp, got soaked by water truck, saw several dragons, the Thunderdome, Death Guild, Spike’s Vampire Bar, Arctica
  • Stopped at Camp Campington, who gave us gatorade and fuzzy things
  • Went to Quixote’s cabaret, where my friend Dave (who I met on a bus) was camped ·        
  • Met random people, got misted with water several times, were given ice-pops·        
  • Swung on swings at High Strung, met Thaddeus P. Thordenfelt the third·        
  • Made it back to tents, fell asleep for 5 hours, woke up at 5pm drenched in sweat, sick as a dog.·        
  • Drank vast amounts of water, recovered, Roni threw up and decided not to go out. I went to the cabaret, which rocked, and then stayed on and drank ridiculous quantities of rum in order to be like Captain Jack Sparrow. Logic may have been flawed at this juncture
  • Ran after shiny art car, got a bit lost, kept forgetting who I was talking to.·        
  • Rule for happiness (new addition) – never accept fungi from a man in a dog suit.·        
  • Got a lift back to the tent on some crazy bike-like contraption driven by a guy called Firefly·        
  • Ate crisps, forgot about crisps, ate more crisps. Got laughed at by Roni for forgetting about previous crisps. Slept.

This is really not going to work, this entry is already impossibly long and I have gotten through exactly one day, even with bullet point form. So here is a selection of some of my favourite things from the remainder of the week…

  • High Strung, a really fantastic camp from Portland, Oregan. Big wooden structure made by an incredibly cool dude called Thaddeus, holding up about 10 hammocks and some funky swings. Incredibly sweet, funny, clever americans who took us in during the hottest part of the day.
  • Quixotes Cabaret, crazy gits from London and all over Europe who made a stage tent out of a tank parachute and some scaffolding, and brought copious amounts of rum.
  • Spike’s Vampire Bar, which held pole-dancing classes during the day and welcomed amateur performances every evening.
  • Kuub, a swedish game which basically involved throwing sticks at rocks, during which I accidentally cheated and Roni nearly amputated one of my legs.
  • Awesome contact jugglers, poi spinners and staff spinners.
  • The Rainforest and the Pants Cannon
  • The giant Cactus which helped us navigate home each day
  • The speakers shaped like massive avocados at the Tool Camp, which played Tool all the time
  • Dance Dance Immolation. Like Dance Dance Revolution, but you wear an asbestos suit and helmet, and if you miss a step, they flamethrower you in the face.
  • The Serpent Mother, a metal sculpture with a jet of fire in every scale.
  • The massive swing near 3.30 and Chance which was incredible fun, especially if you were pushed around it by some english maniacs
  • The Waffle, a huge thing made of 92 miles worth of lumber, that looked like an upside down woven basket and held hundreds of people and a huge sound system.
  • Damn Fucking Texans, a bar with an insane chick who traded drinks for spankings with a table tennis bat.
  • Desert vodka!
  • The Burn – saturday night and the burning of the Man, followed by possibly the best night out I have ever had.
  • Watching the Waffle burn in a huge bonfire on sunday night from the top of an RV.
  • Suddenly looking up on Thursday night and seeing more stars than I thought visible from earth
  • Meeting some of the most interesting, fun, and entertaining people I have ever come across.
  • The biggest fire-dance I have ever seen, surpassed by nothing in either skill or scale.
  • Being there with Roni, best person I could have gone with, who laughed at the same thing I did every time, never acted like an asshole, and put up with my constant whining about not having any cheese.

That is about all I can say without going on for a further 10 pages. So I’ve done exactly what I thought I’d do, and completely failed to describe BM in any meaningful way. I don’t think such would have been possible anyway. All I can say is, try it. Survive the desert, burn the man, and have the time of your life. I’ll definitely be going back, and next time I’ll be better at it.

Its amazing what you can clean with a wet sock

This post is to say that I’m alive, and have returned to civilisation. Or at least to america, which is an approximation of civilisation, but has better food. Some of which I feel strongly compelled to eat right now, having just spent a week on a diet of things that come in tins, and an appalling lack of both meat and cheese. Posts about what I have just experienced will follow when I am back in London, and no longer starving, dirty, spaced out, boiling hot, freezing cold, or drunk. I have been at least one of these at any given moment for the last week, and it has been the best fucking holiday of my life.

Later kids, I’m off to Haight-Ashbury for pancakes…