Burning Man – a personal experience. Part Two.

So where were we? – Edward and I.

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We’d turned off the two-lane blacktop and were heading down one of the six lanes constructed on the playa towards the entrance of Burning Man (BM).   The sight of our first Mutant Vehicle had had us laughing and we were on the way to the ticket pick up still smiling from our first encounter.

 I mentioned in Part One that we were arriving a few days after the start so all the arrival procedure went very smoothly including the visit of the guy into the back of our RV checking for stowaways and other stuff although his check was, at best, cursory which was nice. The next thing that happened was, however, an introduction to BM and some of what it stands for in a very uncompromising way.

 As we drove through the first gate after having the RV checked there were another few hundred meters to drive to the greeters – the people who officially welcome people to BM.  As we approached something immediately became quite obvious.  All the greeters were naked.  We had arrived during the naked greeting period. 

 There were several greeting points and I quickly scanned the options…  how many naked people were at each point? Were they all completely naked? And were they all men?  Almost as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind they were gone and the fact that we were suddenly heading for a group of 3 bollock-naked men (at least one of whom was clean shaven in the aforementioned area) didn’t seem to matter.  Indeed, it already seemed that it was exactly because of this kind of situation that we were here at all.  A couple of minutes later we were getting bear hugs from the naked dudes, doing ‘dust angels’ in the playa and then banging a large hanging bell and screaming to the world that we were no longer BM virgins.  It felt good.

 We drove in and quickly realized that the designated camping area was already quite full.  (This provides a nice view of the camping area and the rest of the BM site).  We drove around a bit and ended up parking up on the most outside road.  At the time this felt a bit like we were away from it all but with hindsight it wasn’t such a bad move for a first BM. 

 It was the middle of the afternoon and an hour or two later we were on our Wal-Mart bikes taking in some of the sights, the feelings and generally reveling in the all-encompassing vibe that is BM.  In Part One of this story I talked about my increasing cynicism towards alternative lifestyles and associated theories and I have a tendency (sometimes) to turn off when I hear about people talking about ‘energies’ in some contexts.  But over the next few days I was to realize that there are times when talking about the energy of a place and its people makes perfect sense and this was one of them.

 There is something wonderfully liberating about being able to talk with anybody passing by and being able to smile at someone without evoking some suspicious reaction.  There were many times when I ended up chatting with someone who was passing our camp simply because we both felt that here at BM that was ok. 

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Other significant memories include being on the vast open expanse of the Playa cycling between some beautiful art installations with our rides being punctuated by delightfully ridiculous art cars and mutant vehicles cruising by. Some of these vehicles were small with a delicate persona – a pink rabbit based on the chassis of a golf cart perhaps whilst others were huge, shouting their way across the playa with 20 or so people dancing on top to thumping tunes with flames shooting out of the mouth of the vehicle.  They never got boring, never failed to make me laugh and I miss them all. 

Evenings were when BM really came alive and our evenings quickly developed a kind of ritual.  This started with drinking with our neighbors outside our RV followed by the adorning of both ourselves and the bikes with glow sticks and other flashing things.  Bowler hats, fur jackets with el-wire, and even a full-face mask (worn for a whole evening) were some of our costume elements.  For our first BM we looked pretty good mostly due to Edward’s (my brother) reading up on how to dress and his infectious enthusiasm for both his iPhone Amazon application for supplies and more real trips to various shops in London for clothes.

 BM is full of huge dance clubs places replete with massive flamethrowers, trapezes, multi-layered dance platforms and hundreds of people all feeling just that extra bit liberated.  Of course there were some naked people and we even saw one couple getting down to it right there in front of everyone.  But, for me, it was the liberation of being able to step outside some of society’s norms – out of my own comfort zone – that will survive as a real legacy for me.

 Sure, in many ways it’s a huge party with some pretty amazing art pieces, lots of crazy vehicles, people blowing up hundreds of gallons of fuel (a bit of swearing – sorry) and a man who gets burned on the Saturday night. 

 But much bigger than all of this was my own personal experience – a gentle reminder of our own potential as human beings and the realization that our comfort boundaries need not always be where they usually are.

 It was also a time when I got very close to my Bro – thanks Bro for everything.

 

Who wants to come next year?

 

 

Burning Man – a personal experience. Part One.

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My brother, Edward (who lives in London), mentioned going to Burning Man to me earlier this year quite out of the blue and, whilst not on top of my things to do list, there were enough images and thoughts in my mind collected over the years of this enigmatic event for his suggestion to resonate with me.  It would be a long trip from Singapore to Black Rock City, Nevada and not inexpensive so when he didn't mention it again, I decided to let that be that. 

 Weeks later I booked a trip to the UK punctuated at either end with visits to some old friends together with a trip to Devon for a surf week and a trip to Ireland to see my mother sandwiched in the middle.  There was a gap in my plans though during this planned time in the UK (completely coincidentally), and that gap was the 2 weeks when 50000 people gather in the middle of the desert in Nevada and burn a man.  The timing of that gap was not lost on Edward and it wasn't long before arrangements were beginning to fall into place.

 This is not the place to give you the history of Burning Man (BM) or go into much detail of what it supposed to be but rather an excuse for a brief indulgence and sharing of my own experience.  To help it all make a bit more sense, a bit of background is pertinent at this stage I think. 

 I suppose you could say that I had quite a liberal youth.  I had plenty of 'hippy' type friends and was exposed to most things (and indulged in quite a few) by the time I was in my mid teens.  I remember them as good times, quite bohemian and occasionally hedonistic, but have become increasingly skeptical and cynical towards anything 'new age', 'alternative' or radical in my advancing years. 

 It was with these feelings that my brother, my cynicism and I attended a BM 'newbie' event on my second evening after arriving in London.  This was run by some experienced 'burners' all with there own Playa names (names used only in connection with, and whilst at, BM) all of whom seemed kind of decent but, at the same time, the quite cliquey atmosphere and my jet lag combined to irk me and, towards the end of the evening, had me feeling less than optimistic about the whole thing.

 And when talk turned to the subject of the people who stand and wait for rides to BM from the nearest town, worries and thoughts about Edward and I sharing our RV with some random stranger who'd bummed a ride with us rose to the surface.  This led to a pretty raw discussion between my brother and I during the cab ride back to his place, but we were agreed that neither of us wanted that. We were both on board with the giving and contributing notions that form some of the underlying principles of the festival, but this was as much our time together as it was time at BM and giving up space to strangers wasn't part of the deal.

 A couple weeks later (those weeks being mostly filled with Brick Lane shopping trips for fur coats and Amazon orders for glow sticks, face masks and head torches) Edward and I were in our RV driving the last stretch of road before we reached Black Rock City (heavily policed by law enforcement officers basically having their Christmas and collective Birthdays in this part of Nevada for a couple of weeks in the middle of September).  We had arrived in Los Angeles 3 days before. It had been a good few days but this was it.  This is why we had come to the US. The road was the classic two-lane blacktop almost deserted for the majority of the year but today, despite our arriving at BM three days after it started, it was a steady stream of RVs, pickups and other assorted vehicles. 

 We passed through the last town, Gerlach, and purchased a couple of pairs of additional goggles to protect us against the dust storms.  (One pair was covered in fur and had dangly bits – very BM).  We then headed out for the last eight of our six hundred plus mile drive and as we rounded a couple of bends we could see a vast expanse ahead of us and the dust being kicked up over a large part of that expanse and some fireballs exploding in the air above it told us that the majority of the expected 50000 people were already there. 

 With various musical accompaniments from Faithless and The XX blaring out of the stereo we followed the signs and were directed off the road into one of 6 lanes arranged on the dusty playa.  Fairly empty now, these lanes would have been chock full of vehicles a few days earlier as huge numbers of burners arrive hours before the event starts.  Shortly after turning on to the Playa a car came towards us and as it sped past we could tell that it was a real BM car – no roof, all beat up and multi coloured it was driven by a guy with no shirt sporting a great BM beard.  Edward and I laughed and I enthusiastically banged down on the horn to say hi to him and we were both, if we hadn't been already, firmly heading towards a BM state of mind.  The laughter slowly subsided but would return many times but the smiles and grins remained and, for the next four days, they rarely left our faces.

 To be continued…