©September 2010 by Fabienne Lopez
Warning: This is a rather long post, so take your time reading it!
Explaining Burning Man
I feel wistful, restless: Burning Man is fast approaching and my mind and body are yearning to go back there. Explaining Burning Man to somebody who has never been there is much like explaining a specific color to a blind person. I could say that Burning Man is a free-form arts festival that congregates more than 48,000 people every year for a week in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada culminating with the torching of a flaming wooden human figure. But it would not convey the truth of the matter.
I can only share my experience, the vivid images, sounds and smells that still swirl and dance around my memories like a tornado hitting ground. Even after four years have passed.
To begin with Burning Man is mobile art. I have never seen such abundance of strange modes of transportation in my life! Yes, I am talking about all the bicycles and mutant vehicles!. Having a bicycle at Burning Man is crucial, if not essential, given the size of the city and the inherent difficulty to navigate it. It also a way to make Black Rock City beautiful: every Burner takes pride in decorating, adorning, bedecking his bike with Black rock City’s most prized-asset – his imagination. There is a point of honor in transforming each bicycle into an art object.
Another example of radical self-expression is the non-standard motorized vehicle. Whimsical, surreal art on wheels. I saw a truck built like Aladdin’s Palace; a giant three-story high tricycle in a rainbow of colors. One night a Rubber Ducky cruised by me. I even got to ride in a giant illuminated Whale. But my absolute, absolute favorite was this humongous kitty float that would follow you around the playa purring while trying to catch you with his paws. Suddenly it would come to a dead-stop, the driver would jump off and run around in circles, shouting “Hairball, hairball”.
I lost the number of my “Ooh!s,” “Ahh!s,” and “How did they make that happen?!?!?” that I uttered as a merry-go-round of boats, pirate ships, rockets, living rooms, fish, ponies, insects, cats, couches, lobsters, giant heads, and flying saucers, among others cruised the Esplanade.
Another thing I love about Burning Man is the dress code. Black Rock City is a visual feast of velvet corsets, short skimpy skirts, sequined sarongs, lacy garters, burgundy fishnets, and feathered shrugs. And that’s just some of the crazy things people wear. But the Playa also stands out as the Mecca of the funky faux fur coats in crazy day-glow colors and exotic textures.
For most people at Burning Man, playing dress-up is another use of the imagination at Black Rock City. Most of the rest of the year is taken by costume making bootcamps, swap exchanges parties, in addition to the regular treasure-hunting expeditions to the thrift and fabrics stores. There is also the occasional detour to the foxy-sexy lady clothing store for the newest supply of fishnets, bloomers, crinoline petticoats and harem pants. Most people wear a new costume every night. That’s practically an imperative.
Thanks to the communal wardrobe chests of my campmates, I was able to go native. I resembled a fuzzy painted butterfly in ocean blue, neon gold red and vermillion pink. To be totally honest, I did not do much in terms of non-conformist dressing. Part of me felt intimidated by the need to assume a persona that wasn’t me. Part of me was being stubborn. I wanted to be a non-conformist by wearing ordinary everyday clothes in the middle of an ocean of alter-egos.
In fact, the costume wearing crowd of burners is more related to the Mad-Hat character of Lewis Carroll as envisioned by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp than the “in your face” fake erotic sexy sexiness of a stripper.
For a week, the Playa becomes this open air stage for a plethora of flickering lights. Starting with the daily procession of the 150 Lamp Lighters who each night parade along the main pedestrian ways of Black Rock City hanging over a 1000 kerosene lanterns. The ever faithful flashlight for that late night trip to the porta-potties. The traditional Christmas lights for their nice warm, evenly distributed lighting to your camp and also decorate the place nicely. The glow toys, jewelry and other mood and accent lighting to add ambiance to the campsite. The EL-wire/Lightning wire , perfect for decorating moving objects, costumes and creating signs. Personally, my favorite lights were the ones coming from the Light Saber Battle on the playa where I was one of the 5000 participants channeling their inner Jedi warrior.
While my eyes feasted on the visual displays, my other senses got in on the fun too. Burning Man is Live Music. The music has such energy and I think that it reflects the energy of the people there. DJ’s sound systems pulsate in every direction carried and amplified by the Playa ‘s flat dry mesa. Sometimes the pulse is staccato, sometimes smooth! Black Rock City is the sound of a heart beating 45,000 times. Thump, thump, thump. The sound is everywhere. People bathe in it. This incessant bass thud, thud, thud permeates the environment affecting people, penetrating their bodies intimately. Falling asleep among that rhythmic sound was like falling asleep to a lullaby. Soothing, comforting, peaceful, warm and secure amidst amplified techno music. Gusts of warm wind carried the beat all night long. Even protected inside the tent, I felt the desert’s high and parched heat. One of the most interesting sounds you can hear occur during sand blackouts (sand storms combined with dense rain clouds) or whiteouts (sand storms). The music coming from different camps mixed in with the whistling and howling of the wind compose an exotic symphony, strange, beautiful and wild at the same time. During daylight, twirling columns of heat, dust and sound moved in syncopation across the playa to create the Burning Man symphony.
Now I knew Black Rock City was a dry place, but the dust is something you have to experience to really understand. Dried, packed, ground up alkali dust. Let me tell you something about alkali dust. Have you ever spilled flour or baby powder before? You know what a pain that is to clean and how fine it is? Well, alkali dust is finer and more difficult to clean. The dust settles everywhere. It’s an unpopular souvenir from Burning Man. For years to come, you’ll be getting it out of whatever you bring. No means known yet to man is effective for completely removing this substance; all attempts to do so merely end in utter frustration.
Speaking of nose, the most notorious smell at Burning is the Wayback Funk. Are you familiar with the Wayback Funk? It’s when you’re driving home from the playa with a stinking bag of trash in your car, and you’re reeking all the way back to civilization. The number one strategy for combating the Wayback Funk is to perform this simple exercise when you are at the food store picking up your supplies: briefly imagine what it’s going to smell like when it’s been out in the sun too long. Fill your mind with that smell. If it makes you gag, put it back. It’s that simple. I must confess I learned to love, L.O.V.E, Chef Boyardee! Canned food is good food!
Burning Man is intense sounds, sights, smells and also heat. The heat is exhausting. Picture living 24/7 in a dry sauna, slowly, ever so slowly drying you out as a piece of living beef jerky. The strength and intensity of the heat makes you feel like the sun has come unhinged and is on a trajectory path headed straight towards you and in a moment you will simply spontaneously combust! I may be being a bit dramatic, but… it’s true!
Burning Man is more than a feast for the five senses. Burning Man is not a festival, not a party, not a show….It’s a community, where you can say or do or build or *be* anything you ever want to say or do or build or be (as long as it didn’t hurt anybody) and it is ok. Not just ok…someone is bound to come up to you and say, “That is the most awesome thing I have ever seen, thank you so much for doing that.”
Burning Man: The Best Investment
Burning Man was the best investment I ever made in myself. Burning Man was the best thing I’ve ever done. Burning Man changed me in ways that I still do not comprehend. But I know it was meant to be.
I first heard of Burning Man in the summer of 1996. As a newly arrived immigrant the event was described to me as a week-long party in the desert with drugs, sex and music. My instincts told me otherwise. As soon as I heard about Burning Man my heart made this very, very soft, barely perceptible “boing” as if someone was pulling a gossamer string deep inside it. Something I did not even know existed. A wisp of a voice said “one day”. I have since learned to pay attention to this particular sentence, as it always changes the course of my life, and always suddenly. However I promptly forgot about it.
Ten years later, I unexpectedly found myself heading toward Burning Man without even having planned it but taking advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself out of the blue. As the rented RV finished its 4000 feet climb to the desert bed, my heart started doing the boing again. Louder and louder after each curve, culminating in an explosion of joy as we approached the gate lights. An “Oh” of deep recognition tumbled out from my lips. And a sense of belonging, familiarity and ease lodged itself in my throat, never to leave during my entire stay.
Though, part of me was really surprised on how easily I took to Burning Man, like a duck to a pond.
There, for a week, I lived some of the principles of Burning Man such as radical inclusion. “Welcome Home,” they said at the entrance gates and indeed, I was welcomed. Me–the stranger was included. A sense of calm, peace and belonging permeated my entire stay….I was home…
The Art of Self-Reliance
There, for a week, I learned that I was self-reliant. I always thought of myself as strong, but not necessarily resourceful. I realized I was both the hard way: when my ride back to San Francisco left without me. Suddenly, I had no way to get back home and the exodus was in full swing. After a moment of sheer panic, feeling paralyzed, I got creative as far as asking for a ride and found myself traveling back to the Bay Area in a red school bus, eating watermelon and discussing the merits of astrology versus tarot.
There for a week, I was totally myself, the good, the bad, the ugly and the superb. I was my own unique gifts. I could discover, explore, develop and accept those gifts, having lost all references to my ordinary role in society and its expectations of me. This immense tabula rasa provided me with an unique kind of mental therapy. Without the wall of social expectations to push against, I realized that the limitations I might feel at any given moment were self-imposed. Whatever made me uncomfortable, it was my own doing. A harsh lesson to learn, and a rare chance to overcome the barriers that stood between me and the re-acquaintance of my inner self, an action that helped open my heart.
Creativity and Burning Man
I had been in a personal growth spurt for a number of years through therapy, astrology, life coaching, self-help books, and workshops. Going to Burning Man was an opportunity to hit the pause button and, for a week, self-reflect, self-transform and self-evaluate my journey. I had an opportunity to grieve. What I was grieving? . Loss and change, loss and change. Loss of the familiarity of my old self. The need to accept the changes I was going through. Trusting the process itself, one intuitive step at a time. Believing that the end result would be even better than anything I could have dreamed possible.
There, I understood that self-expression did not need to be this complicated thing only reserved for “creative, artsy” people. It could something as simple as being true to yourself by knowing and accepting who you are. Every year, during Burning Man, participants get a chance to “start all over again” and understand that they can be exactly who they are. A very powerful lesson that still took me quite a number of years to understand and practice.
Burning Man was my teacher. One of the best I ever had.
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Photos Credits: Burning Man Photos Galleries and respective photographers