Never heard of 'Burning Man' ?
Neither had I until a few months ago. But having just returned from the Burning Man festival in the US after spending 7 days playing in the grey sandy dust of the Nevada desert with 49,000 other people from all over the world, I can now say that Burning Man is THE MOST INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCE of a lifetime and one not to be missed if ever the opportunity presents itself to you! Burning Man is an arts festival that has been running in the US for the last 20 years. Every year thousands of people gather in a mountainous basin in the desert at a place called Black Rock to form a virtual city celebrating art, life and the generosity of human spirit. The entire festival is fancy dress (or no dress if you prefer), filled with colour and stunning costumes and hundreds of the most wonderful and creative art installations you will ever see. With 49,000 people attending this year, camping in anything from basic tents to huge RVs, the festival covered almost 9 miles of desert land and at night was lit up bigger and better than the best of Las Vegas and Mardi Gras put together.
I was lucky enough to be part of what I think was THE BEST camp at the festival - The Rhythm Wave Camp. There are hundreds of different camp groups that come together at Burning Man to offer their gifts to the festival. The Rhythm Wave camp offers the gift of dance, or specifically 5 Rhythm Dance. This is a free form of dance that combines both ecstatic dance and contact dance, transported through the most beautiful array of music that moves you through five different waves of energy, leaving you feeling elated yet grounded and totally at peace within the core of your being. Every morning at 10am and then at 7.30 & 10pm each evening our camp would hold a two hour dance sessions for anyone who wished to attend. At times there would be more than 200 people bumping, moving and weaving through the play of dance together on the bamboo dance floor, grooving to the most awesome music in the middle of the desert. It was the most divine experience and the main reason I went to Burning Man. It did not disappoint.
Then during the breaks we would all share meals together and go exploring the rest of the festival, which is so huge you need push bikes to get around. Nothing like a good thigh workout as you peddle your way through sand drifts, trying to stay upright but not always succeeding. Not to mention riding at night time, lit up with strobing disco lights so as to ensure that you don't crash into anyone! There are so many different activities offered at the festival, the handbook is overwhelming. Hundreds of different workshops and delights to choose from. It would take a whole month just to explore it all. And there were over 100 art installations to peruse, a few of which I've included below, just so you can get a feel for it. Not to mention the incredible art cars which resemble the best of disco mardi gras floats on wheels.
And if all the fancy dress costumes, the endless music and dancing, the fireworks and light shows at night, the incredible mountainous terrains and the wonderful spirit of the people aren't quite enough for you, then layer on top of that the occasional 70 mph wind storm that can last for several hours, whipping up the dust so that you look like a walking mummy ... and perhaps you'll get a taste of things. Nobody goes anywhere at Burning Man without goggles and dust mask at hand!
And the desert sand is no ordinary sand. It's an alkaline dust that's so fine it gets into everything and dries the skin on your hands and feet that they crack and bleed and you end up wearing boots so as to save your feet. It leaves your nostrils so caked and dry that they continuously shed layers to the point that nose bleeds are quite common.
But somehow you get used to that and it becomes part of the energy of the festival, for the positives far outweight any negatives. The entire festival is based on generosity of spirit and helping each other out. There is no selling or promoting of anything at the festival (other than coffee for the caffeine addicts). Everything is given away by the camps from people's own pockets and heartfelt generosity of spirit and fun.
Our camp gave the gift of dance. The camp next to us was the Hair Wash camp where you could go and lie down and someone would happily wash the dust out of your hair for you with tender loving care. The camp opposite us was the Martini Camp where you could go for free martinis and lollipops every night, not to mention a lot of fun swapping tales from the day's adventures. And a few doors up was the French Fries Camp where men cooked for hours on end, pumping out fresh hot french fries from a kitchen set up in a 2 storey high oversized Heinz Ketchup bottle!
And then there's the people themselves. Everyone is so incredibly generous and giving of themselves, their time and their energy. You need help with anything and someone will always offer to assist. And nobody cares about who you are either. As part of the Burning Man initiation someone usually offers newcomers or 'virgins' a playa name, which is a name that is offered with much contemplation and heartfelt intention. It is the name you are known by when on the playa (the grey desert that is Burning Man). I was given the name 'Spirit' which was so simple yet profound for me that I may well choose to adopt it in the 'real world' as well.
But beyond your playa name, nobody really cares who you are or what you do. All the 'stuff' of the ego is kept to the outside world and parked at the gate when you arrive at Burning Man. It has no place or significance on the playground of the playa. You could walk around naked the entire festival and it wouldn't matter. No one would think any less of you and all would be respectful of the person you are inside. The energy there is just so beautifully accepting of everyone, exactly as they are.
Before I went to Burning Man I read all the material, studied the Burning Man Survival Guide and spent hours looking through all the pictures on the web site just to find out about the festival. I drilled my friend who had been before with questions as to what I needed to bring and spent weeks preparing my costumes and equipment. But in reality, nothing could have prepared me for what is the Burning Man experience. To be honest, I didn't really understand why people would want to go year after year, returning to the harshness of the desert terrain to be subjected to dust storms and the rigours of port-a-loos (or port-a-pottee's as they are called over there), to sleep in tents and live for eight days straight without any running water or so much as a creek to dip your toes in.
But having been to Burning Man and survived to tell the tale, I now understand why. I was warned about it before I went. As someone said to me on the dancefloor, Burning Man is the one week of the year where life is normal ... the rest of the year is the insane illusion. At Burning Man the Black Rock desert gets into your skin and burrows its way through to your heart until it penetrates the depths of your Soul. Having a week in the desert where the mountains watch over you and the sands penetrate deep into your pores ... not a cell is left untouched by the experience. Being in a community where everybody is so generous and kind and makes you feel welcome without caring about who you are, where you're from, what you look like or what you do for a living, is the most natural experience in the world, even if you're wearing fishnet stockings or angel wings or standing stark naked in the process.
And now that I've returned home I can feel the pull of the playa desert calling me back. At night I dream of the fine grey dust with a longing that belies logic and I wake to find my Soul aching for the windstorms of surrender that travel defiantly like an echo through time and space. I can hear the playa calling me and my Soul is returning its haunting song in answer. Burning Man ... only 340 something days to go .... can't wait ... I yearn for you already as my Soul hungers for the sun, sand and sky of the Black Rock desert ...
Until next time Burning Man…
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