This is the second installment of a two-part article on my experience at the Burning Man Festival. You can click here for part one.
It wasn’t until my first night out on the playa, the open commons area where art and structures are built and displayed, that I was completely awed by the greatest show and party on earth. Many times I attempted to describe what I was seeing, likening it to movies or places I had visited. Images of Alice In Wonderland (imagination gone wild, creativity at it’s best), Looney Toons (the creative custom-made art cars, also called mutant cars, resembling looney characters), and Disney World (its grandeur and scale) popped into my head as I traversed the playa.
The outrageous costumes and festive party atmosphere reminded me of New Orleans. The omnipresent music and dance-on mutant cars, in theme camps, on the streets at all times of the day-echoed the dance clubs of New York and LA. The what-happens-at-Burning-Man-stays-at-Burning Man ethic, the sense of timelessness, the non-stop party and the stunning light show brought Las Vegas to mind.
The cacophony of dazzling sights and reverberating sounds; the never-ending motion and activity of people, bicycles, and art vehicles; the visual feast of moving lights, lasers, luminaries, stunning outfits, and bursts of fire from spectacular pieces of art-overwhelmed me. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my life.
The Community and It’s Principles
Burning Man is an experiment in community, where art, radical self-expression, and total self-reliance are core values.
The principle of radical self-expression, the communication of the unique gifts of each individual, was readily apparent. Each persons individuality is offered as a gift of the creative self to the community. Imagination is the only limiting factor.
At Burning Man, express yourself away; you are guaranteed not to be the weirdest kid on the block. I was astonished and amused to see six-foot-four macho men wearing pink tutus and combat boots with pink knee-high socks. I saw a sadomasochistic arrangement of a subservient man dressed in knee high leather boots, a leather bodice with face mask, and leather bunny ears harnessed to a two-wheel carriage. He traipsed on his toes across the playa with his female master in tow, her whip in hand.
Another time I saw a gagged man, arms and feet tied, dangling overhead on the corner of a street intersection next to the porta-potties. People passing by on foot or on bicycles didn’t seem to take note of the spectacle. There isn’t anything too weird or too abnormal at Burning Man that stops people in their tracks.
Everyone is encouraged to respect the rights and liberties of others, and not judge or critique, for if you do, that is speaking more to a personal problem of yours rather than the physical or emotional uncomfortable scene in front of you. Being a somewhat reserved individual, it took me a number of days before I really felt inclined to soften my personal reservations regarding dress, nudity, and self-expression.
Burning Man is also devoted to the act of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional and does not require a return or an exchange for something of equal value. A camping neighbor bestowed upon me a jar of honey he harvested from his bees, and another graced me with a handmade necklace, complete with a pendant etched with the Burning Man emblem, while others shared meals, alcoholic drinks and water. One theme camp offered the gift of a total “makeover” of dress and physical body, guaranteed to exceed your wildest expectations.
Sometimes the gift was something as simple as a hug. Other times it might be a library of books where the only requirement was that you not return the books. This generosity took me a few days to fully comprehend and understand. It is so far removed from day-to-day life back home that suspicion sometimes crept into my mind: You really mean that all of this is a gift, and you’re not asking for anything in return?
Amid all of this expression, new lovers met and old relationships dissolved. At one camp, couples could obtain a seven-day consensual divorce pass. I witnessed a wedding on the playa, performed by a minister clad in underwear, delivering the sermon through a hand-held loudspeaker.
Anything and everything was possible at Burning Man. It pushed and pulled at your imagination, challenged tradition and cultural norms, while opening new windows and doors of unconventional thinking that one could never have imagined. It confronted and dared the soul. It unleashed inhibitions and freed the spirit. It was Burning Man.
So, you might rightfully ask, why did I chose to go to Burning Man? Why would someone willfully subject himself to extreme living conditions and a culture that borders on the insane?
- For me, this was a journey into the unfamiliar. Burning Man served up the opportunity to experience an extraordinary and unique destination and encounter people whose culture and living conditions differed greatly from my own. It challenged me to engage in and observe activities that are out of my comfort zone.
- It helped me recognize that it is only getting out of your routine and risking new experiences that fully opens you up to understanding alternative perspectives. People may do things differently. They may see things differently. They each have a unique point of view, and that point of view is absolutely correct to them, just as yours is to you.
- Burning Man challenged me to engage in and observe activities that are normally out of my comfort zone. It was a new experience, a new opportunity to grow and see something new and different.
- Burning Man opened my soul, helping me recognize that we all are drops in an infinite ocean of energy; each drop having its unique spark of intelligent, loving, creative energy. Each drop is unique, but each drop has that same Source energy … the same gorgeous, magnificent potentiality that forms the ocean of creation.
So would I do this again? I think of a woman who has given birth; ask her if she’d do it again immediately after her experience and the answer will be an adamant no. Given time however, the gift and rewards received from the experience begin to outweigh the pain and challenges experienced.
Maybe Burning Man is something like that. Right now, I have no intention of going back. It is an experience that I will always cherish and be grateful that I had the courage to risk undertaking. However, time will tell. Perhaps the lure of photography, the love of art and self-expression, and the challenge to make my next camping experience more enjoyable may entice me to try it again.
If I go again, I will be sure to surrender earlier, bring only those items that I deem sacrificial to nature’s elements, and participate sooner and more substantially in the culture.
I would also go with a friend or partner. On my own, I was an observer and a photographer. In the company of another, I would be more of a participant. That in itself would create a whole new experience, complete with new challenges and adventures. I would release my social inhibitions sooner, risk expressing myself in dress and behavior with fewer reservations, and make a point to visit more theme camps and their teachings.
Who knows; next time I may be the one in the pink tutu, knee-high pink socks, and combat boots!