For years I have heard friends gush about how Burning Man “changed their lives”. I normally take any extensive use of clichés with a pinch of salt. But, I admit, I was curious.
And then one day, I got a call — “Do you want to go and help set up an art camp at Burning Man?”, my friend, the artist Lekha Washington, asked. In retrospect, I would have deeply regretted saying anything other than “Hell, yeah!”
Being a part of Burning Man is one thing; but going there as part of a 21-member art camp, where you help the artist create something beautiful and stunning as your contribution to the community is something else altogether.
I flew halfway across the globe, spending a fair bit of my savings, to rough it out in extreme conditions for 10 days in the Black Rock desert of Nevada and it turned out to be amongst the best experiences of my life. (The festival ran from August 25 to September 3, this year.)
My friends and I (a group of 21, all connected by one or two degrees of separation) flew to San Francisco from various parts of the world. We made a quick stop in Reno to stock up on supplies — food, water, shelter (in the form of huge RVs and tents for the more adventurous), bicycles (for transport around the 18-kilometre Burning Man stretch) and clothing (to suit temperature fluctuations that range from 37 degrees C during the day, to 7 degrees C at night). And off we went to the Black Rock desert.
The only things that the Burning Man project provides are porta-potties (public toilets). Apart from that, you’re on your own. Radical self-reliance is one of the 10 principles on which this festival functions, and possibly their most famous one. (Visit their website burningman.org if you are curious about what the 10 principles are.)
How to get there
- From India one can fly to San Francisco or to Reno in Nevada. From SF, Burning Man is a seven-hour drive, and from Reno, a three-hour drive. I liked taking the Burner bus, which is a shuttle that runs from San Francisco and Reno. It’s fast, cost-effective and you get to skip the long lines of cars trying to get into BM, as the shuttle has its own special line.
- Other things to do: There are no exciting places anywhere around. Burning Man is all-consuming. You don’t need anything else.
- You ideally need to spend two days decompressing post-BM before flying home. San Francisco is a great place to do that.
- For all do and dont’s of Burning Man, look up, https://survival.burningman.org/rules-regulations/dos-and-donts
A motley crew of seven went to Burning Man three days before the actual fun began and we set up camp together. In our case, this involved helping Lekha, who was a featured artist at this year’s Burning Man, set up her brilliant art piece, and building our living quarters — ie setting up shade structures, massive enclosed places to protect the art from harsh dust storms, tents, shower tents, cooking spaces, creating a plan for frugal water usage etc. Needless to say, it was an insane amount of hard work in fairly harsh environmental conditions, but it brought us together as a unit. We also got to see the whole city that was Burning Man being built from scratch, which was fascinating.
Bring on the crowds
Burning Man is not a festival. It is a community. A temporary city that crops up annually in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. The phenomenon that is Burning Man is a movement, and it draws 70,000 people to a desolate, dusty seven-square-mile patch of Nevada’s Black Rock desert.
Black Rock City (BRC) has massive art installations, art cars cruising around the desert, a temple, giant teddy bears strewn across for some cuddle time, massive trampolines to bounce around on, roads, clubs, concerts, hospitals, communal baths — basically anything you can possibly want or imagine.
And, none of these services accept money. The only currency that is exchanged is that of warm extended hugs, kisses and heart-to-heart conversations. The only use of money in Burning Man is to buy ice or coffee.
Imagine an entire city being built for the sake of joy and creation. It exists just for the period of the festival. Then this default world is dismantled and burnt (yes, literally burnt) right after. And BRC goes back to being what it is for the rest of the year — the desert.
What kind of a ‘festival’ is Burning Man, a lot of people asked me on my return. A music festival, an arts festival, a festival of people, a commune of hippies quite unlike who you meet in the real world? But it is none of that and all of it. I read a blog that compared Burning Man to a kaleidoscope: you can attempt to describe what it’s like to look through one, but you can’t really understand it without seeing it for yourself. The photos and videos you see online do no justice to its emotion.
Living it up
There was something truly child-like and spontaneous in the way people interacted in Burning Man; it’s the way my three-year- old interacts with the world. It makes you wish the real world could be a little more like that.
The highlights of the experience for me was that I helped in creating a piece of art which people loved, I danced for at least eight hours every day to booming music from outrageously decorated art cars, I cycled through the desert every day being stunned by the sheer beauty and creativity of the human mind, every installation I saw blew me away, had deep soulful conversations and connections with complete strangers, felt safe and at home in the desert with 70,000 people, wore outrageous clothes and felt completely joyful and comfortable in my own skin, actually started enjoying and seeing the beauty of dust storms in the desert.
Black Rock City (BRC) is an alternate universe, the kind I now wish we could inhabit on a daily basis. I came back leaving a bit of myself in the playa.