Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Week 7: I return home

I got back late on Monday night. My lodger, Tom, was very excited about a joke he'd clearly been planning for some time.
"I don't want to make this into a big deal, because it really isn't, but I think I should just get it out of the way now. You know you went to BURNING MAN, right?" he said, breathlessly. "Well it was very nearly BURNING FLAT." Apparently I'd left a candle in a pot alight when I left, which makes me a dimwit, but really, it would have just gone out when it had done its stuff. Still, his pun gave him pleasure and who am I to deny him.

I'm afraid I haven't written a POTW this week. I am feeling bad about it, as it's only Week 7 of my new initiative and I'm already failing. I'm not feeling so bad about it, however, that I'm actually doing anything constructive to improve the situation. Instead I'm just fantasising about my lunch. Anyway. You've got five minutes spare that you wouldn't have had otherwise. I've basically given you the gift of time: please use it wisely. I will return in seven days with pithy insight and other good things.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Week 6: First Degree Burn

Everything I wrote last week was right. Buring Man is a place of immense privilege. But, just like they claimed, it is also the best party on earth, FACT, and it's impossible to attend without it changing you for the better.

Which is not to suggest that my experience was entirely positive. Quite the opposite: I found it an intense struggle at times. I cried more than once, I seriously considered leaving early, I felt desperate self-loathing and profound loneliness. And then, about halfway through, for no reason I can yet discern, things melted into place, and now I'm in Kentucky and I'm so sad it’s all over.

Things that happen at Burning Man:
  • There really is no money. You go to a party at night, you BYOC (where C = cup), you take a contribution of beers or vodka, you drink whatever cocktail they’re serving, you marvel at the effort they've gone to in creating this detailed, fully-functioning bar in the desert, asking nothing in return, and you’re staggered. You recall that a camp realised they had too much booze and so set up an impromptu bar for a night, and the next morning awoke to find they had more alcohol than they’d started with, and now you understand how that’s possible. One hot afternoon, you cycle round the playa and stumble across Chez Andrez, a mobile champagne bar. You comply with their ‘No Tache, No Service’ policy, stick on the furry black mustache they proffer, hold out your cup, sip the ice-cold Californian champagne they pour, and you’re grateful.
  • You cycle out on to the playa late on your first night, and there’s no light except that from the art, the hundreds of structures both fixed and moving that adorn the vast open space at the centre of the city, and you forget not to hoot, you lose any sense of James Dean cool. Just like you’d heard, the amount of time, money, energy and talent that’s gone into creating it all is overwhelming, and yes, it could probably have been better spent on hospitals, but we can’t be do-gooding all the time, and this is indubitably the most unique, breathtaking sight you’ve ever witnessed, and in a week it will be gone – you’re experiencing a matchless and staggeringly brief spectacle, and you’re so, so grateful.
  • And it really will be gone. Unless the playa is left immaculate, the state of Nevada will not allow the festival to continue. Every patch of ground where someone spills a beer and stains the lake bed must be dug up and replaced. In the whole week, you see only a handful of items of litter. One cigarette butt. One feather. One dried-out wet wipe. You go out at night, you drink a can of beer, you put the empty can in your bag and you take it home. There are no bins. Toilets are provided, but they’re maintained by volunteers – volunteers – and they’re immaculate. Toilet paper is almost always plentiful, the floors are clean, the seats are dry. A hundred times, you think about Glastonbury and realise it’s an embarrassment in comparison. You're in a place where all participants respect the event, the surroundings, each other and – mostly – themselves. It’s a rare treat to witness fifty thousand people behaving so sensibly, even if a lot of them are wearing no clothes and taking ill-advised quantities of acid. There is so much love here, you are enjoying new versions of human potential, and you're grateful.
  • You meet your neighbours, a Canadian couple in their forties who give their playa names as Rita and Artichoke. She changes her outfit two or three times daily, wearing a superhero costume with a cape, an elaborate beaded Indian headdress, bunny ears and a dust mask or a padlocked slave collar. He's generally naked but sometimes dons black briefs and a pair of pink muppet fur chaps that, on closer inspection, have clearly been fashioned from a pair of khaki chinos. Like so many others, they seem like a ‘normal’ couple who come to the playa once a year to express their individuality. After two days, you reluctantly admit to Artichoke that you’re struggling, that you feel like you don’t belong, that you’re having to try too hard, that you don’t fit in like the others, that your Marks and Spencer bikini, Primark sunglasses and ubiquitous Havaiana flip-flops are no match for the extraordinary freedom of expression and uniqueness exhibited by so many others. You expect him to look at you with pity, and he says that he woke up the day before and cried like a baby for half an hour, feeling exactly the same thing. You are so surprised, once again, at people’s openness, candour and kindness, and you're grateful.
  • One afternoon, you cycle the mile or so out to the Temple, a massive, ornate, plywood structure, and you read the thousands of messages that Burners have written on its walls for loved ones and for themselves. The Temple is burned on Sunday, the final night of the festival and, in comparison to the heady, slightly frattish burn of the Man on Saturday, it’s a cathartic experience. By Wednesday afternoon, the Temple is already covered in photographs and mementos that people have brought, and it’s extremely moving. You want to say it's cheesy, you want to scoff, but only a bitter old hag would mock these feelings. You sit on a bench outside, sniffling, and a girl in a makeshift toga playing a homemade harp starts a conversation with you that may end up changing your life. She hugs you, her friend hugs you, you feel your desire to scoff eking away and you're grateful.
  • Early on in the week, you realise you’ve brought far too much food and so on several occasions you stand on the corner of 8 and Graduation handing out slices of melon or lollipops. At times like these, other people are grateful. Some stop and chat, and one guy gives you his bike padlock when you tell him your friend’s lost his. The combination of the lost padlock was 1631. The replacement is 1361. You try hard not to get all ‘significant’ about an obviously meaningless coincidence, but you fail. For these few days, you feel – in spite of your firmly-held belief in the rational – that things are happening for a reason. It’s a heady sensation, exciting and peaceful, and you know it won't last, but it's a change in perspective, and for that newness you’re grateful.
  • Just when morning yoga starts to feel a bit competitive, an art car drives by playing dirty, expletive-riddled hip-hop at ground-shaking volumes, drowning out the teacher entirely. And, as you lie in shivasana at the end of the class, it’s tricky to meditate as a guy cycles past, announcing through a loud hailer, “We urgently need more lube.” And the gorgeous bear on the mat next to yours starts giggling too, and you head to the juice bar after practice and he shares his cup with you and tells you about a great-sounding party that’s happening that night at 8pm on the corner of 9 and Anniversary, and you head over there at the appointed time, and there’s no sign of anything which is so often the case because nothing ever works out how you expect, so you cycle round having other adventures until the castle-sized Trojan horse gets set on fire at midnight, and you watch it in a crowd of strangers, all of you talking and laughing, and the fire in the darkness is moving and powerful, and you've never seen anything like any of this before and you're so grateful.
  • And you’re cycling along the Esplanade in mid-afternoon, tanned except your feet and calves which are covered in a thick coating of white playa dust, and a girl hands you a pot of bubbles, and another guy mists you with water. And you pedal past the rollerdisco and the Thunderdome (where the couple got married the day before, their guests hanging off the metal structure above them), past a man playing a flaming tuba, and another guy on a bike is dragging a speaker behind him on a cart, and he starts to play the Star Wars theme tune and you KNOW it’s cheesy, but you can’t help what you love, and you reach into your bike basket and pull out a cold can of beer and hold it out behind you, and he smiles and accelerates to catch up, and he takes it from you like a relay baton. And yes, you’re grateful that he took your beer, because he accepted something that you offered freely, and it feels freaking fantastic.
  • And one afternoon you try to get involved by volunteering at the Lamplighters’ camp. You report for duty at 5pm, first washing and checking the hundreds of metal kerosene lamps with dozens of other volunteers, and then you're robed and your roles are explained. And there are Carriers, who hold a wooden beam across their shoulders, with six lamps hanging from six hooks on each side, weighing sixty pounds in total. And you are a Lifter so, working as a pair, you each use a long metal pole to take a lamp off the carrier, one removing from the left and one from the right so that the remaining weight is distributed evenly, and you walk solemnly over to the wooden lamppost, lift the lantern on the end of your pole high up to the wooden hook at the top of the lamppost, some fifteen feet above you. And there are about sixty lamps along all the four main avenues, and more around the Esplanade, so the whole process for your team (who cover the 3 to Plaza route) takes until 8:30pm, but eventually you’re done and all the other teams are too, and the city is lit, and of course the light from the lamps hardly carries any distance and is far overpowered by the neon brazenness of the art cars and sound stages, but the act of lighting the lamps each night, the theatre of it all, is a crucial part of the civic infrastructure, and although at times it smacks of AmDram lunacy, when so many burners shout, “Thank you lamplighters, we love you!” as you’re walking along in your white robe, you decide – yet again – to park that British cynicism and allow yourself to be swept along. And it's freeing, to allow yourself to just enjoy it even though it's a split infinitive, and for that liberation, you're grateful.
  • And of course, whatever spectacle is occurring directly in front of you, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day (and, without exception, everyone you speak to has had both), there is the desert – the staggering beauty of that extraordinary lunar whiteness, the heat, the wind, the dust, the flatness, the total lack of any vegetation, no trees, no birds, no water. It’s an unforgettable, peaceful, crazy, inspiring place, and anyone who witnesses it is surely grateful.
  • And on your penultimate morning you're doing yoga in a pair of leopard print leggings and a bikini top, and the girl two rows away is wearing skimpy black knickers, red and white striped stockings, black geek glasses and nothing else. You’re trying to feel zen while vaguely wondering how you’re going to get to Reno the next morning to catch the Greyhound back to San Francisco. After class, the guy next to you invites you and your friend back to his camp, introduces you to his daughter and their friends, makes you a delicious fruit smoothie and Vegemite on toast with mashed avocado, the first green vegetable you’ve seen in days. Eventually a plan forms and one of his campmates drives you back to your RV in his truck to pick up your luggage, a 45 minute round trip, for no reason other than to be nice. And maybe because he fancies you, who knows, who cares, you're grateful.
  • And on your last night, after the Man has burned and the fireworks have shattered your already broken mind, you’re wearing a fur coat and an EL wire headdress, handing out cookies by a flaming metal structure, and a girl asks, “Is there any LSD in them?” and you say, “No.” And she says, “Oh well then, no thanks.”
  • And too soon it's the next morning, and you have bruises all over your back from having to break into your RV at 2am to get the last of your possessions, and two men in their seventies drive you the four hours back to Reno and won't accept any money towards gas, but tip the bellboy at their casino hotel $20 to look after you. And the casino is a terrible shock after days without financial transactions, but the swimming pool contains water, and you haven’t been wet for six days, and by god, you’re grateful yet again.

So yes, it’s self-indulgent and it’s absurd and everything I described above is true, but really I've told you none of it. It's not really possible to articulate what it's like and only a real dimwit would try to describe it in a blog. It is by no means a vacation, it’s prohibitively expensive for many, and it is categorically not for everyone. If sex, drugs or deafening dubstep at 7am upset you then it will be a challenge. But in this modern world of overpowering media, fear, uniformity and corporate greed, a week in the desert with no dollars, no advertising, no mobile phones, no labels, no nothing – it’s a life-changing shift in perspective that I can only hope I cherish forever. I apologise wholeheartedly to my two RV campmates who witnessed me at my worst on far too many occasions, but if they looked at the right time, they also saw me at my best and – no surprises here – for the experience I had, the highest of highs and the darkest of lows, I am profoundly grateful.