Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Week 5: Money to burn(ing man)

When this appears on the internet, I will be far away from computers – or, at least, far away from ones I can access – so I’ve set this to post on a schedule, one of a million minutiae I’ve had to consider in advance of leaving for the States. For, all being well, it is there that I am as you read this, across the pond in the Big Country, on an elaborate bankrupting mission that will take me from San Francisco to Yosemite, Reno, the Nevada desert, Kentucky and Chicago. And, if we've managed to adhere to our itinerary, at the peak of this particular week I’ll be camped on the playa at the Burning Man festival and hopefully having the time of my little life.

When I went to my first festival in 2009, the whole experience left me as wide-eyed as I get, which is not really very much at all, actually, because I am battle-hardened and deep-down-insecure and don't want anyone to catch me exhibiting signs of weakness, of which enthusiasm definitely is one. You wouldn’t catch James Dean hooting with crazed excitement just because he was finally in a place where it’s not just acceptable but positively encouraged to regard a pint of Pimm’s as a healthy breakfast option. If Dean wouldn’t hoot, then I wouldn’t either.

But inside I was delighted. From the word go, I loved the seeming equality of festivals, the freedom and the acceptance, the yes-she's-eighteen-stone-and-wearing-a-tiny-bikini-and-a-tutu-and-that's-totally-cool-ness of it all. Inevitably there were a few grey areas, but basically, festivals appeared to be a brief stretch of time and space when everyone came together for the same reason under the same skies. I took to it like a lonely, fat millionaire takes to internet porn.

And then Andrew, eyes wide, tone wistful, told me about Burning Man: a festival in the Black Rock desert, the second largest flat region in the Northern Hemisphere. It's been going since the late eighties and now has about 50,000 participants, so it’s still a lot smaller than, for example, Glastonbury (which sold around 170,000 tickets this year). But the real difference isn’t size: Burning Man is an experiment in community and “radical self-reliance.” Held in the middle of a fearsome patch of prehistoric lakebed, the festival is off-grid. There’s no permanent infrastructure, there are no roads, no hospitals or shops, and there's no money. It's a city that exists for one week out of every 52, and then vanishes without trace. Any art vehicles have to adhere to the speed limit of 5mph. The one store sells only coffee and ice. Burners have to bring everything they need for the week, all food, drink and shelter, and if you don't have enough water when they check at the gate, they'll make you turn back. It’s too hot to do much during the day except cycle round and look at the plentiful community art, but at night the temperature drops from 40 to 5, people don their crazy costumes and the weird shit continues by the light of the moon and generator-powered neon. There are a lot of extraordinary outfits, naked people, strange sex acts, illegal drugs and dust storms.

From the moment I heard about it, I knew it was a world away from the corporate safety of Glastonbury. In January this year, I booked my ticket.

You can tell I’m a late adopter – 2011 is the first year that Burning Man has ever sold out. I’m following the curve and, since I committed to go, have read many articles discussing the fact that BM’s ideals can’t work quite so well in practice as they do on paper. Even before I left the UK, Burning Man taught me something significant: radical self-reliance doesn't come cheap. I’ve haemorrhaged money on a range of extraordinary items in order to participate fully: a gold catsuit, wigs, a fleece tiger costume, adhesive jewels, metres of glow-in-the-dark EL wire, walkie talkies (there's no phone reception in the desert), goggles for duststorms, neon facepaint, a fake fur coat for the cold nights, a book about palmistry and a billion pairs of earplugs. Then there's my flight to the States of course, and the cost of hiring the gas-guzzling 32 foot RV where my friends and I will sleep. Most people camp in tents but shifting that amount of gear across the Atlantic wasn't feasible so it had to be an RV. We'll no doubt spend hundreds of dollars on supplies and we've also had to rent bicycles so we can get around the vastness of the playa once we're parked up. Trying to argue that this festival is about radical self-reliance is about as silly as claiming that EastEnders is about being a Londoner. Yeah, you need to be pretty organised to get the most out of it but, way more than hot planning skills, you need cold hard cash.

We are three selfish, well-off chancers, leaving one luxurious existence and spending thousands between us to fund the most extravagant camping trip of our lives. I’m under no illusions - this is not reality, it’s not sustainable and, regardless of what the website claims, this week in the dust can't really be about equality. It isn't only us foreigners who are blowing huge chunks of cash on this crazy adventure - take a look here at the effort that's been ploughed into developing one of the numerous theme camps. How many man hours have been contributed by how many skilled, creative individuals? I’m fascinated: who are these people with so much time, talent and money and why are they choosing to spend them on this? Will I get to the playa and feel sick at the waste, the short-termness of it all, or will I be swept along with the extraordinary, rare, raw creativity of it all? Probably both. Of course it's a good thing: it's about love, it's entirely voluntary, it's participatory, inclusive, challenging, free from corporate sponsorship; it's real, it's sexy, it's extreme, it's a one-off. But surely it's also kidding itself if it thinks it's not about the money...? And then again - who the hell am I to say what people should do with their hard-earned dollars? What's wrong with spending hundreds of hours and bucks on an unforgettable life experience? Sure, that time and money could be invested in US healthcare policy or African AIDS prevention - but am I seriously so burdened with middle-class guilt that I think no one's allowed to be selfish and irresponsible once in a while?

Readers, as you scroll down this page, I'll be doing my level best to answer all those questions and more, through a pleasant haze of boxed white wine and playadust. I’m fairly sure I’ll be learning, which - apart from drinking white wine - is pretty much my favourite thing to do. And I’ll certainly have many opportunities to hone my ‘I’m not shocked’ face as some dusty dwarf threeway takes place a few feet from where I’m standing. (They’re big on dwarves at Burning Man, it seems). A while ago, I was chatting online to a guy who’s been to Burning Man seven times, and I asked him if he had any advice for a newbie. He told me to take good, warm fancy dress costumes, buy some EL wire to make sure my bicycle could be easily identified in a pile of a hundred at three in the morning, and to make sure I was unattached when I go. That was in June and I've been his devoted girlfriend since July so, despite his advice, I'll be firmly set to look-but-don't-touch mode. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy myself though: for all the killjoy moralising, I'm still FREAKING EXCITED. Burning Man is allegedly the best party in the world, and I've got a ticket. See you on the other side.

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