Saturday, October 05, 2013


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Friday, October 04, 2013

Burning Man - Part 4

Each day was different and each night was different. The sheer amount of input was tremendous and overwhelming. I can't hope to tell the story sequentially and the sequence truly doesn't matter all that much, so here are some experiences and observations. 

The first few days of Burning Man for me consisted of lots of physical work during the day. We put up these communal structures, lifting up the metal frames and staking them into the ground with steel rebar. We'd stake down fabric as flooring for our communal areas, we'd move these couches into position, we'd help to raise a huge shade structure, trenches were dug to conceal cables and wiring, coolers and food supplies were moved into constructed storage areas, bike racks were built and a lot more. By the end of the day, most were dusty and tired but elated as well. The first night as the sun was setting, we got everything situated as our camp was not yet well lit, and everyone ran to get their head lamps and perhaps a warmer layer or two as the temperature dropped, and then we headed out on our bikes to explore a bit. 

The city was still growing but many art projects were up and already in place and more were in progress. We cycled out towards a huge statue of a woman in an elegant pose, lit up against the dark desert sky. The crowd was sparse compared to what it would later become and we cycled out through the open playa (the Burners' name for the desert which I will henceforth possibly use often) in any direction we felt like on our rickety Burner bikes. Burning Man bikes tend to be old and falling apart cause the sand and weather destroy anything nice so bringing a fancy mountain bike is ill-advised or so I am told. Besides that, drunk or hallucinating or unsavory people who are inclined to walk off with a barely functioning bike with sketchy brakes and a missing pedal are damned sure going to walk off with something much nicer. Bikes disappeared from our camp on a pretty regular basis, though they were also left there pretty regularly by unknown parties as well. Bikes are everywhere and are probably the dominant mode of transportation, though walking is close behind at least for short distances. As we biked out towards different interesting-looking sets of lights, I started to learn that some of the sand was hard-packed and in other areas, the sand was more beach-like and therefore much harder on which to ride. It quickly becomes apparent that this is  something to which one must pay particular attention when biking around the desert at night using a head lamp for illumination and really anytime. Suddenly and unexpectedly biking onto thick beach-like sand can be an unwelcome surprise if you're trying hard not to spill the drink in your left hand or end up lounging involuntarily face-first on the beach-like surface of the playa. 

We rode beyond the woman (the actual name of this famous installation is Truth is Beauty by an artist named Marco Cochrane) and found ourselves in a forest of fifty or so ten-foot poles at the top of each which was a spiral galaxy of colored lights. We rode around and through the posts, the galaxies hovering in the dark over our heads. The artist was living in a trailer next to his installation putting a few finishing touches on his work. A few stopped to chat with him about how it all was put together. Others rode in and out of the maze of lights and soon we headed towards the temple.

The temple is a significant structure at Burning Man. Because the festival is named for the Man and is for many the moment to which the entire week climaxes, perhaps that structure could be said to be of greater importance, but I'm sure there are many who would argue the temple to be of equivalent or greater meaning to many of the attendees. The temple apparently takes different form each year and since this was my first time attending Burning Man, this is the first temple I have seen. The temple was an 87' square pyramid, 64' in height, built of interlocking wood pieces without the use of any nails, glue, or fasteners of any kind. It certainly was big enough to contain at least a few hundred people, though exactly how many I am not sure. There were always people there later in the week, but it never felt crowded. The first night we passed by, the temple was still under construction. It wouldn't be until later in the week that I would visit at greater length and come to understand its significance. 

For me like many others, visiting the temple and spending time there, and the burning of the temple on the last Sunday of the week had a greater impact on me than anything related to the Man. More so than the Man I think, the temple becomes the vessel for a flood of emotional and spiritual energy poured into it throughout the entire week. I don't say that in any pseudo-mystical sense. Once the temple is opened and the week progresses, people visit it on mini-pilgrimages, some for short visits and other for long meditations and contemplations. The atmosphere inside is quiet and respectful and perhaps a little hushed in awe. The structure itself is quite taking but it's clear inside there that it's a serious place for many. Quite often I saw people crying or having some other kind of significant emotional or spiritual experience. Occasionally someone quietly played sparse music (one time on a lute as they slowly and repeatedly walked the perimeter of the room) to encourage a comfortable atmosphere. People sat in the center of the temple for long periods around a large shrine made of large black basalt stones. From the time the temple opens, many or perhaps most slowly begin to decorate the insides most often with writing on the walls but also with letters, books, pictures, flags, trinkets, mementos, stuffed animals, and any other token of significance related to some personal transformation they are hoping to achieve. These are most often related to a loss of some kind, be it a family member or a relationship, but also there are many related to self-realization or self-actualization of some kind. People write notes, some for all to read, others private, and the temple fills up with these messages so that as you walk through or sit you are surrounded by the shrines others have made which at the end of the week with the temple itself will all burn. Each person intends through this act to help them let go of something or move or progress or transform. I saw messages for lost parents, siblings, husbands and wives and even pets. Some leave messages for a significant other who is gone, perhaps for good and perhaps just because the relationship has dissolved. The unifying thread is people fill the place up with things that weigh on them and the resulting gravity of the place is palpable. I will mention the temple and the temple burn more later.

The problem with describing these things is the same problem as trying to take a picture of the grand canyon. It's impressive to some extent, but it's one piece of a much bigger puzzle and the medium is insufficient (or maybe in this case the camera) to capture the full sensory experience. We're in the middle of the desert two hours from Reno and normally there is nothing here but sand, wind and sky. But tonight, all around us there are lights and music slowly beginning to spread throughout this gigantic city a mile and a half in diameter which is being constructed from nothing. Roads have been built and street signs put up and there are people moving in everywhere in RVs and they are setting up tents and hexayurts and large geodesic domes. There is an old saloon and a piano bar and dozens of huge art cars ranging from yachts on wheels to giant sharks, and it's all happening all at once all around us. Music blares from each passing car and competes with the sound of flame jets periodically bursting ten feet in the air from a giant mechanical octopus or a giant pirate ship with mostly naked people dancing on it.

On my second night at Burning Man, we finished up our work and the camp was looking more and more finished. Colored lights were strung throughout our communal space and the bar was set up in preparation for the coming chaos, but all was relatively quiet as the sun set and I contemplated in which direction to head for the evening. I had made tentative plans to move in a direction with some people who were not to be found as I returned from my tent and I contemplated my options. I later found out they had a similar moment of indecision when they turned up and I had disappeared. At that moment, a girl from the neighboring camp to ours called Burners Without Borders came by to look for a friend of hers allegedly staying at the CouchBurners camp. He friend nowhere to be found and noting how neither of us had our own bikes, she said perhaps we should go look for bikes and agreeing and grabbing us each a beer from the cooler, we headed out into the desert quickly spotting a giant shopping cart carrying a dozen people across the desert to which we gave chase and climbed aboard.

We made friends and marveled at the scenery as the shopping cart carried us into the growing madness. Even at that early day, the city still looked to be lit up like the Las Vegas strip, but in a circle over a mile in diameter all around us. Lights of all colors, people juggling fire, and each person passing by on a bike lit up just like the art, covered in neon and glow sticks and pulsing colored lights. It was like a constantly shifting moving canvas and it never repeated. New music came from all sides as we rode. We saw a double-decker red bus covered in lights blasting Rock Me Like a Hurricane by the Scorpions not far off from our current ride, heading on a different course. I was enthusiastic as I had expected entirely electronic music and was happy for the alternative. Commenting that she liked to run, my new friend and I thanked the shopping cart driver for the ride and leaped off, running towards the slowly moving bus and hitching a new ride. Our new friends were volunteer firemen at Burning Man, though off duty at that moment. Like many of those who created and drove art cars, they were not new to Burning Man and told us stories that were hard to hear because of the music and the bottle of Fireball whiskey one insistent fellow kept putting into each of our hands repeatedly. One of them told me a story from years ago of a plane crash at Burning Man. (There is actually an airport with a landing strip that gets created at Burning Man each year and numerous people fly in and out.) We rode with the firefighters for a bit but they had to head home to their camp early for duty in the morning not long after we boarded, but do not worry.

Soon enough, we spotted a giant shark bigger than a school bus ominously lurking across the playa with its profile lit in red neon. We ran some more and chatted with the long-time attendees who told us how lawless it used to be and their shark would drive 50mph across the desert back in the days before a speed limit was instituted and how they'd run over and "eat" other art projects. People used to fire off guns and Burning Man was bereft of the rules since instituted which many old-timers resent as defying the intended spirit of the event. Once you've got 60k people showing up though, it is tough to let everyone do everything they want without people getting hurt. As it is, even with the rules in place like speed limits plenty of people still do get hurt every day at Burning Man. You aren't protected from your own stupidity. You climb on to and jump off of moving art cars. You can climb up a giant thunderdome and watch people inside smash each other with slightly softened bats. You can be strapped into the harness inside the thunderdome if you like and be one of the combatants. You can end up battered and bruised in the latter and you can fall off of your perch in the former and there is nothing really stopping you from doing either. Nobody is around to tell you not to climb or to be careful. There is fire everywhere at Burning Man. There was a large ring of fire on the ground at one point fueled by propane and people leaped over it freely to sit and meditate or dance and there was nothing stopping somebody from getting too close and burning themselves except their own common sense and sense of self-preservation. It's nice to be in a place where you it is expected for people to rely on those faculties without everyone constantly holding everyone's hand for fear of being sued. It's the opposite of the coffee-cup-labeling culture we live in now where people can't be held responsible for spilling their own hot coffee on themselves and being burned. At Burning Man there is self-reliance and self-expression and radical inclusion and many other things but importantly there is responsibility for one's self and one's actions which contributes to the overall sense of freedom without restraint that pervades the event.

Everybody says "Welcome home!" when they meet at Burning Man and they mean it. People hug each other and they mean it too. Guys, girls, young and old. The happiness and the enthusiasm and the community did not feel contrived to me, they felt very genuine. In the so-called real world where people are often conditioned to be suspicious of each other, especially in the US, people here trust and take care of each other. It's just so integral and understood that even newcomers quickly see that they are not only welcome but can truly express how they feel without judgement. I think this atmosphere of acceptance is part of what makes this event compelling for a lot of people and one I think perhaps I didn't fully understand until being there myself. Insecurities about behavior or appearance fall away quickly in a place where everybody just decides to not only be themselves but to accept everybody else for who they are and how they look and what they do without judgment. There are a lot of naked people at Burning Man, but after the initial adjustment, this becomes entirely desexualized in my view and more about people just being comfortable in their own skin. We live in a hyper-sexualized society here in the US where any woman walking down the street in New York or LA would draw immediate and unwanted attention but at Burning Man, it just becomes part of the tapestry and people are just treated as people. Guys and girls walk around naked freely throughout the event and everyone accepts this as just another personal expressive choice without judging it. One girl I knew was interested in being topless at the beginning of the event but initially intimidated as she adjusted like everyone to this new environment, and by the second half of the event she was topless the entire time and I don't think wanted to put her clothes back on.

I was cynical about this atmosphere of freedom before I attended Burning Man myself. I was judgmental thinking that people went for a week to live freely but then went back to a life where they hide from what they really want. Maybe there is some truth to that for some people, but any individual's motives do not detract from the genuineness of the event. In fact, the atmosphere which encompasses everyone trying to figure out what it all means to each of them with the understanding that the answer for one is not for another, that's a big part of what I think it all means. Whatever people who go there make of Burning Man, whether it's a passing distraction or an escape or a party or a spiritual or personal transformation or perhaps a year-round lifestyle as I see it is now for some, the event itself is accepting of all of these things and every person who goes is able to figure out what it means for him or her individually. Everyone probably comes to their own conclusions and perhaps that is what I didn't fully grasp til I was there. I have heard many people write off Burning Man who haven't been. It's easy to dismiss it and paint the attendees in broad strokes as hippies or ravers or druggies or any other generalizing term. A lot of people who don't want to attend see Burning Man as fake or contrived or perhaps simply as a giant party. I guess the thing I really understand better having gone is that it is not just any one thing, it's many things to many people and it can be more than one thing to a person perhaps each day as they experience different parts of the city and go through the experience themselves. I told myself before I went to suspend my prejudice of what I thought the event would be, knowing it was unlikely that my understanding from stories would be sufficient to truly know what this thing was, and now of course I know that inclination was correct and I think did me a great service as I experienced it firsthand and formed my own opinion.

We wandered on and on that first night. There was so much to see and the gate wasn't even open yet...

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Burning Man - Part 3

daily routine

I camped in a two-person "ultralight" tent underneath a shade structure which covered the tent and prevented direct sunlight from hitting it, though that didn't really stop my tent from getting pretty warm at something like 8 or 9am, or perhaps earlier. It's hard to say because one of the defining differences of each day at Burning Man from a day in the so-called real world was to generally not know what time it is. There were some exceptions, but on those first four or five days at least, entire days would pass without my once knowing the time. I would wake up with the sun and the heat. I shut off my phone on the first day and did not turn it on until later in the week to try in vain to send a text message to my parents to let them know I was alive. It didn't feel necessary or appropriate to turn on electronics really. I ate when I was hungry, slept when tired, and if somebody asked what time it was, usually a shrug resulted with an occasional shared look at the sun to try and estimate based on its position in the sky or the length of the shadows. There were talks and workshops and other gatherings listed in the guide book given to us at the gate, and actually an incredible number of them, all of which necessitated knowing the time so as the week progressed, people asked this question more and more and as the population of the city grew, the feeling changed a bit but in the early days of camp building and just as the gate opened, it was pretty easy to remain timeless. 

I got out of my tent quickly in the mornings when the heat became such that I could no longer sleep. I would emerge from my tent and fill up my water bottle from my cooler adjacent to my tent and underneath my shade structure. Due to strategically purchased blocks of ice and probably owing somewhat to my shade structure as well, I had cold water for pretty much all of Burning Man. After the first day, I borrowed a discarded gallon water bottle from a friend and used my Leatherman (which came in handy a lot) to cut it in half giving her one half and myself the other. These bottle-halves were our basins for tooth-brushing and gray water. I couldn't clean myself very well at Burning Man, just the best I could do with cloths and handy-wipes and spray bottles, but I could brush my teeth and I'm not sure it ever felt better to do so. I would spit the small amount of water I used to rinse into my little basin and within a day or less in the sun it would evaporate and be gone. One time I washed my hands like this, but I gave up on that idea pretty quick cause no matter how clean you get them, they were dirty a minute later. I stuck to handy-wipes at the end of the evening in my tent though I met people with access to showers in RVs or solar showers of various construction. 

In the early morning I'd head to the bathroom. Honestly the bathrooms were much better than I expected. Feel free to skip this paragraph. The portable toilets were spread out throughout the city and there were large banks of maybe 30ish toilets in several spots near our camp. Our camp was at 3:30 and Esplanade, the innermost ring, and the nearest toilets were at 3:30 and C, so a few minutes walk or less than 30 seconds on a bike. It was common for people to grab a bike from the racks for a trip to the toilet. I did not have my own bike most of the time, but many people would share bikes for that purpose at least, or just take an unoccupied one for a few minutes. It was only a few minutes to walk anyway. In the mornings I would head to the next bank of toilets at 3:30 and G, a bit farther out from the busiest part of the city, and often find toilets that were in better shape than the closer bank. Sewage trucks seemed to come pretty regularly and empty out the toilets although that does not mean it was not possible to find one in conditions less than desirable. Thankfully I was spared that and for the most part found the toilets to be pretty usable. Certainly the first day I was a bit squeamish but that passed quickly. The extremely dry air, heat and dust somehow made things feel a bit more sanitary, at least that very few things every stayed wet very long. All the toilets had urinals in them for the guys (and for the girls with pee funnels, a much-discussed item at Burning Man) which means that the toilet seats (when they existed) were not covered with urine and in fact stayed pretty clean. It is true that if you made the ill-advised decision to look into a toilet you might see more than you bargained for, but often this was not quite as horrible as one just-arrived from the civilized world might expect and all told, this concern of mine largely faded after the first day or two. At night during party time things could be a bit more chaotic and so I reserved my longer sojourns for the morning, but there was never really a time where things were beyond any reasonable level of horror. The first morning I pulled my bandanna over my nose and tried to hover. I realized quickly this wasn't going to last and really by the second day I became pretty good at finding a quiet and cleanish toilet where I could sit in peace as necessary. I guess we adapt to circumstances as necessary. 

I had considered one toilet alternative which I'd read about before arriving. One person wrote an article online which said that if you're really squeamish you can bring a five gallon bucket and a bag of potting soil. So I did, just in case. I figured it was about $5 worth of supplies for a little peace of mind just in case things were more awful than I thought. I'm glad I had that little security blanket, not that I was so excited about using it, but it was nice to think that if things were as awful as I once saw at Ozzfest, I'd have an alternative. In the end, it's all just part of being people and the squeamishness about bathroom-stuff is definitely elevated in the western world. I think those two weeks in the desert made me care a little less and feel a little more like wherever I am, it's all going to work out just fine. As it was, by the second day I was bringing a book with me. 

I would usually eat something soon upon waking up. I kept my food in a plastic storage bin in my tent. I might have a Clif bar in the morning, some nuts or trail mix, a fruit bar or dried fruit, maybe some cheerios, and I had a few small single-serving containers of almond milk that didn't require refrigeration. The sun would be out already and only getting stronger, so I'd grab my sun hat which I wore each day and which started black but ended up white and layered with dust more and more as each day passed, and my sunglasses which I never wore so much in my life as during my time at Burning Man, and I would head to the communal shaded lounge area to sit with a few other recently-awake people and share stories of activities of days past and present. There would always be people milling about at all hours. Sometimes in the morning there would be people at the bar drinking or doing shots or people who were still tripping or drunk from the night before. Sometimes as the early-risers would sit and eat breakfast, people would roll into the camp in various states of disrepair or elation. To try and describe the costumes people would wear wouldn't do them justice, simpler to just ask Google Images and survey the cross-section of humanity bedecked in more or often less clothing, neon, flashing lights, crazy hats, neon, spandex or perhaps giant animal suits. As our camp was along the Esplanade, the main road around the inner ring of the city, we had an expansive view before of us of the man and all that passed back and forth be it a couple of people rolling by and smiling on bikes, a giant octopus shooting flames, or a few naked people chasing behind the water-spraying trucks that wet down the dusty streets as they scrambled for the closest thing for many people there that amounted to a shower.

Each day I'd sit and trade stories with people of what they'd done the night before and it is a testament to the scale of the city that quite often they'd seen and done things I'd not heard of yet and vice versa. Each day it seemed like there was an endless array of activities and experiences which never seemed to run dry. By the end of the week, a few of the largest installations were known to the people who'd been there the entire time, but more often than not each story elicited wonder and interest and a request for an address or some kind of direction as to how to find the thing described. Sometimes people would be leafing through the guidebook and talking about a class or workshop they intended to attend that day. Some people preferred to wander and see where the day took them. I felt overwhelmed and often opted for the second of those two but simply for being overwhelmed by the options presented to me and not wanting to do anything other than fill my days with rich experience and explore and also for the sake of not forcing myself to know the time when it didn't seem necessary. Once in a while I might set out towards something I'd heard about with a friend or two but that trip would result in hours of exploration in new and unintentional directions without ever necessarily reaching the original objective. 

The days began with waking up, eating, sitting and talking a bit perhaps, and then heading out into the city or the desert in some direction perhaps with a goal in mind and perhaps just to take a walk or a bike ride and see what resulted, and periodically to return and refill a water bottle or eat or connect with a friend who wasn't yet awake when I left. Some people slept during the day so as to maximize energy for the night. Some people tried not to sleep at all except when absolutely necessary. Napping during the day was impossible in my tent for the heat, though the hammocks and shaded areas presented the possibility of a breeze and comfortable spot to close one's eyes during the day perhaps. I had a few days up late and one day til the dawn, but in the face of a pretty challenging environment already, I was glad to get a not unreasonable amount of sleep each night and generally keep myself feeling healthy and functional throughout the two weeks I spent there. 

So with what activities and experiences were the days and night filled?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Burning Man - Part 2


I flew to Portland to continue turning what could be a simple flight in and out of Reno into an epic road trip around the western US. I rented a car and began visiting stores, doing more shopping than I have probably done ever in my life. I went to REI and several Walmarts. I was in Target and a giant store called Fred Meyers. I was in an army and navy store called Andy and Bax. The week I was in Portland just before I headed to Burning Man, there was apparently some kind of epic rain storm in the desert where the event would be so I added rain gear to my list. I bought big rubber boots at Andy and Bax. I looked at the crazy mattress-like pads REI sells for camping and ultimately decided a cheap air mattress from Target was a better bet, plus might keep me out of the pool of water sure to form in my tent if it did indeed rain. Thankfullly than ended up not happening but I was ready if it did. I got a plastic bin for my food supplies and a water cooler. I bought a food cooler which I ended up returning as I reassessed the best way to manage my food. I went to Whole Foods and Food Fight (a vegan grocery store in Portland) and stocked up on everything non-perishable I could find. I got lots of trail mix, nuts and dried fruit. I got lots of different kinds of bars like Clif Bars and other kinds of seed and nut and fruit bars. I bought some vegan seitan jerky. I grabbed up some crackers and peanut butter and various bags of chips like Tings and Zaatar Chips, having heard that salty snacks are a common craving in Black Rock City. Ultimately this would all work out better than I could've thought, especially given my uncertainty about dishwashing and cooking and how much of a pain it might be to deal with. Remember, you can't easily dispose of dirty water, you have to take it with you, so my goal was to create none. The one cookable item I bought on a whim was spotted at Food Fight. I bought several of those boil-in-the-bag Indian meals, figuring that boiling water couldn't possibly be that hard to come across and perhaps after a week in the desert, a respite from Clif Bars and saltines might be welcome. That ended up being a good idea like many of these things. 

driving in and arriving

I left Portland and drove to Klamath Falls, the last big city on my route to Burning Man which is held in the Black Rock Desert a few hours northeast of Reno, NV. In Klamath Falls I made really just one more stop to sort out my water situation. Burning Man attendees are advised to bring 1.5-2 gallons of water per person per day. I had volunteered to show up early and leave late to help in the building up and tearing down of the Couchburners camp of which I'd decided to be a part, meaning I'd be there for about 12 days if I survived, which translated to 24 gallons of water. This would end up to be way too much, but I figured better safe than sorry. Knowing what I know now, there are things I'd do differently and this is one of them, but that's a subject for later on. For now, I bought three five-gallon water jugs like the kind you see on top of water coolers, and using a machine in the foyer of Fred Meyers in Klamath Falls, filled them up with drinking water for a few bucks each. Then I bought a block of ice and a bag of ice cubes, and dumped them into my five-gallon cooler. Then I topped that off with a few gallons of water and with a few extra 1.5 gallon containers in my back seat, that problem was solved and I was on my way. 

Incidentally when I walked into Fred Meyers the woman behind the counter had read it all over me. "Burning Man?" she asked. We chatted for a while and she said many people roll through and they even had a special section set up with coolers and flashlights and other commonly needed items ready to go. She was in her 50s and hadn't been yet but was interested and had a friend her age who went with her daughter the previous year. It was a nice conversation to have just before heading south.

Maybe 4-5 hours later I rolled into Gerlach, NV. This was it, the final town before entering Burning Man for the next almost two weeks. I arrived on Friday the 23rd of August, two days before the gate opened to the public which allowed me to bypass the huge lines in which many others would have to queue for hours and hours before finding their way to their campsites. That said, from my arrival in Gerlach til I made it to the CS camp took about three hours total, much shorter than the 6 or 8 or 12 hour waits I'd come to hear about later. 

As I came into Gerlach, things took a turn for the Burning Man. There were signs saying "Burners Welcome" in front of local businesses, something I'd seen in the few small towns I passed on the way as well. I began to see supplies being offered, a local shop selling bikes suitable for Burning Man as well as chai and other snacks and drinks. I got out briefly to look around and decided there was nothing for me but to head to the real thing. I was anxious to get in and see the lay of the land. I followed the signs to the entrance a few miles out of town and entered an elaborate series of lanes through which me and the other early arrivals proceeded at the posted limit of 5mph, having been warned that the police were ticketing aggressively as well as looking for excuses to search vehicles. I wasn't concerned as I was carrying no contraband, but I did not want to be delayed and so I slowly drove into the desert between ropes and cones alongside RVs and trailers and vehicles often decorated with some kind of "hey we're going to Burning Man" message or logo. I turned on the Burning Man gate radio station containing an audio loop of things I already knew, like to not speed and to stay in the lanes and to not get out of your car and go wandering aimlessly through the desert. Traffic trickled forward until eventually I reached "will call" where I pulled off the road into a parking lot to park and go pick up my ticket. 

I had bought my ticket somewhat last minute. I decided I was interested in Burning Man before the ticket sales began, but I had not yet committed to the idea yet when the sale began and as it turns out, Burning Man tickets sell out really quickly. So they sold out in the first day but seeing as how there were 60,000+ tickets, I figured getting a hold of one wouldn't be that difficult. There were future ticket releases and people reselling tickets as the event got closer. I knew I'd get one somehow. What I ended up doing was signing up for an official ticket resale program called STEP which stands for Secure Ticket Exchange Program. I put my name on the list and as people decided they didn't want their tickets after all or that they had extras, they returned them to Burning Man who just emailed the next person in the queue and offered them the tickets at face value. Sure enough as the event approaches, I got my email, bought my ticket, and I was good to go. I just needed to stop and pick up the ticket on the way in.

I don't think I have mentioned it elsewhere but tickets are $380 for those who are curious. There are a lot of people who are unhappy about this price and feel that it is inflated or excessive. Considering the scale of the event and what it takes to maintain sanitation and safety for 60k+ people for several weeks, plus the months of planning beforehand and cleaning afterwards, and considering that once you're in there is nothing else to buy, it seemed reasonable to me. Defending Burning Man against those who claim it has become gentrified or solely for rich people is not within the scope of what I am trying to write here, nor do I even consider myself qualified to make such a defense. I only intend to describe my personal experiences and point of view. There are plenty of people arguing on the internet about how it used to be better, how it's only for the rich now, how it's gone mainstream, or whatever other criticisms you can think of, and all of those are easily Googled if you are interested. 

I was handed the ticket and a little book of goings-on for the week which I stuck to the side as I anxiously drove towards the gate. Traffic was staggered by people working the gate so we sat still, moved a bit, then sat still for a while longer. I played the guitar in the driver's seat for 10-15 minutes with the engine off, then turned it on, moved 20 feet forwards, and shut it off again. As I approached the gate I saw the greeters. The first greeter I saw was a 50-year-old man completely naked except for shoes and a cowboy hat, plus sunglasses and a bandanna for the sun I suppose, though if you're completely naked I'm not sure the bandanna is going to protect much. He came to the car and welcomed me. I wished I was standing instead of sitting in my car. He asked how I was and if I'd been before. I have not been before. Ah, a virgin. Yes, a virgin. Well, the two girls up there will de-virginize you. Ah, so they will. As I rolled up to the female greeters in question, they conferred enthusiastically as to what to do with me. Get out of the car they said and so I did and they directed me to a large bell which I was made to ring as loud as possible after which I was told to shout "I am no longer a virgin!" as loud as possible. In other lanes, others shouted or were on their way to shouting. I later found out that many virgins are meant to roll in the dust and make dust angels, an indignity I was spared at the gate but by the end of the 12 days I'd ultimately spend there, I was more than acquainted with the dust even without participating in that particular ritual. I got in my car and drove past the greeters into the city.

building the camp

As mentioned earlier, after deciding to join the CS camp I had been following and participating in the Facebook page for that group, asking a question here or there and getting a sense of the people who planned to attend. At one point there was a problem with the Couchburners website so I volunteered my nerdness to fix it and did. Subsequently the call was put out for volunteers to arrive early and help build the camp. I figured what the hell. Getting in early sounded good as I would get to skip the lines. Staying late sounded good cause I already knew I wasn't going right back to New York. I figured I was already committed to a significant experience, why not commit to even more of it? Why not start participating from the beginning instead of simply observing. This decision was probably made in the span of a few minutes a month or so before Burning Man, just because I happened to spot that post and respond immediately on more or less a whim. It turned out to be possibly the most important and probably the most rewarding decision I made about Burning Man and the reason I was driving into the city the Friday before the gate opened on my way to help build the Couchburners camp, whatever that meant.

Upon arrival I met Klaire and Robert who ran the camp and the dozen or so people who had elected to participate early. Maybe fewer than a dozen there were, now it all seems a bit hazy, but the core group of people who had arrived who I met that day plus a few others who arrived over the next few days would be the group with which I would share the labor of bringing the camp up from the ground as well as the people with whom I would spend the largest share of the subsequent few weeks together. We raised steel structures to serve as communal areas into which we placed simple flooring and hammocks and chairs and lights. We secured our supplies and some of the more artistically inclined created beautiful signs directing people around the camp. I helped dig trenches into which wires were placed running lights in and around our trampoline which someone (thanks Liz) had graciously donated to the camp. We placed couches and large inflatable globes out in front alongside our lighted "CouchBurners" sign. A short distance away we set up the "Darth Shader," a previously constructed art project which was a huge shade structure underneath which lay maybe 6-8 couches on which people would lounge and seek refuge from the sun over the ensuing days. Some of us built bike racks on which wayward travelers and those of our member with bikes could stash their transportation while visiting or lounging in our camp. The camp began to take shape as the hour of the gate opening approached.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Burning Man - Part 1


It's really hard to encapsulate the experience I've just had in an ordered way. I was at Burning Man for about twelve days. I went early and left late. I camped with a group of over a hundred Couchsurfers and helped to both build and tear down the camp. In between, many, many things happened. I will try to describe some of them.

Since returning, I've told a lot of people that I went to Burning Man. Some have known what it is and others have not. It's been challenging to explain it meaningfully to either group.

I had certain preconceptions of what Burning Man would be. I tried my best to shed them and experience it with an open mind, which turned out to be pretty unnecessary. The whole experience is so huge, so overwhelming, and so many different things to so many different people, that there is no preconceived notion of what it is which could possibly hold true, whether it came from reading websites and articles or from the stories of friends who have been there. 

I was wrong about Burning Man if I ever thought I understood it before I'd been. I did my research. I read the whole website as first-timers are instructed to do. I read online forums and asked questions of my friends who'd attended or knew people who'd attended in the past. I gathered as much information as I could about the practicalities of survival. I read about tents and shade structures and more elaborate accommodation including things like "monkey huts" and "hexayurts". I looked through shopping lists of camping supplies and made my own lists of non-perishable vegan foods. I read various accounts of experiences both good and bad from burners young and old. 

Before I had been, when people asked me what Burning Man is, I would often begin by describing it as an arts and music festival. That's the easy out. I couldn't really stop there though and then would usually call it a temporary city, a more apt description but one substantially wanting in detail. I'd mention that once you buy a ticket and go in there is no money and people don't sell things there. The organization does sell ice and coffee, but there are no other places to spend money within the city. Among the core principles defining the event, the two most important I would mention are radical self-expression which is very defining of what people do at this place, and radical self-reliance in the face of a challenging environment. The temporary city constructed is called Black Rock City and it's in the desert of Nevada, a few hours northeast of Reno. Everything in the city is put there by the burners. Roads are built, signs and intersections demarcated, and then the city is filled with people and their creativity in too many shapes and forms to possibly be seen let alone listed here in any meaningful way. So much of it is scarcely to be believed when looking on it with your own eyes. You must figure out how to survive in the heat of day and the cold of night amidst the wind and the dust and the beating sun. You must shelter yourself and provide your own food and water and when all is said and done you must bring all of your garbage including even your dirty water out with you again so that the desert remains entirely unblemished by this massive gathering and nobody would ever know we were there. 

This basic explanation I used to offer and perhaps still do feels woefully inadequate. I will try to fill in the gaps a bit, though I'm not sure how long that will take or how successful I will be.

the idea, what burning man is

I have known for a long time what Burning Man is, or rather I thought I knew. I decided it was time for me to go see it for myself. I knew it would be more than I thought it was, but I didn't know how much more. 

making the decision

I was squeamish about certain aspects of attending. I had read an article recently about the notion of discomfort and how we avoid discomfort sometimes at our own expense. I didn't want and I would never want fear of some minor (or even major) discomfort to keep me from what I knew to be an amazing experience. Although things like the heat, the dust, the camping, the food and water planning and the portable bathrooms were all concerns, I was also enthusiastic about tackling one of the Burning Man core principles of "radical self-reliance" and both confronting and destroying what I considered my irrational desire to avoid depriving myself of what for much of the world are luxuries. I was confident that the art and music and self-expressive aspects of the event would be more than interesting and I did have at least a vague notion that there was probably more to it than I understood, but I accepted that all I could really do was enter with an open mind and suspend judgement entirely, which was one of my goals anyway. 


I asked friends who had been to tell me about Burning Man and I read the Burning Man website and online accounts of the event, mostly for the purposes of figuring out what I needed to bring with me. I still wasn't sure how I'd deal with the practicalities of the event. One major dividing line was the decision to stay with a theme camp or not. I knew the Couchsurfers (a community of which I have been a part for years) had a camp, but I didn't want to sacrifice my experiment in radical self-reliance or hand over planning to somebody else on my behalf. A few people I knew had participated in theme camps that prepared food and provided water, obviating the need to do that planning for oneself. I wasn't sure how universal that practice was though research revealed the CS camp did not do that, so I could still organize my own food, water and accommodation but have some social support from people more experienced than I. The alternative was to camp alone or with a friend or two, but I found nobody interested in doing that and for my first time at this event, doing it entirely alone felt potentially isolating and unappealing. In retrospect, going with the CS camp (actually called Couchburners) was the right decision and gave me just the right amount of support I needed plus introduced me to dozens of awesome people many of whom I ended up spending time with and subsequently calling new friends.

going early

Having made the decision to join the Couchsurfing camp, I had been following the group on Facebook and keeping an eye on interesting bits of information and advice that floated past from experienced Burners and newcomers alike. Burning Man has been going on for 27 years I believe so there is quite a bit of advice to be had, though judging what is useful and what is not is not without challenges. Of greatest significance was the post from the organizers of the CS theme camp asking if anyone would like to come early to help build the camp. Those interested would receive early-entry passes thus bypassing the huge influx of attendees arriving just as the gate opens to the public as well as being able to participate very actively in the creation of the camp in the days before everyone else arrives. I did not weigh that decision at all. Almost immediately it sounded to me like a fantastic idea. Going early, extending the experience, participating instead of just being a spectator, all of these things sounded like things that would enhance my experience dramatically and in retrospect I was completely right though I think I did not realize how important it would be. I will talk more about my arrival and participating later, but I volunteered and figured I would show up on Thursday or Friday before the gate actually opened on Sunday, depending on my drive from Portland.

making lists and more research

I did briefly look into the prices of RVs for the sake of completeness of research, but the RV approach felt all wrong for me. Despite my reservations about the toilets being disgusting, I just wanted to not care. I wanted to be exposed to the dirt and dust and heat and not safely ensconced in a little hotel room I brought with me. I don't begrudge others who chose this approach, I certainly understand why they'd want to do so especially having now been there, but I wanted to be connected to the experience entirely and not provide myself an escape hatch that extreme. 

I had a two-person tent and a sleeping bag already. I was made to believe that a secondary shade structure above my tent was necessary to prevent my tent from becoming excessively oven-like, so that went on the list. I needed some sort of extreme staking capability to keep my tent from blowing away in the face of potentially 75mph winds. I needed tarps to keep rain water and dust at bay. I needed bandannas and goggles and a hat to keep myself sheltered from the sun while walking around. I perhaps needed a bicycle. I made lists of vegan food that would survive in the desert. I considered my options for cooking vs not cooking at all and eating only non-perishable items for the week. My lists grew but not so much that they became unwieldy. I felt increasingly confident as I split my lists into things I could acquire on the east coast and things for which I'd shop upon arriving somewhere in the west. 


I'm accustomed to traveling with just a backpack. The backpack with which I normally travel cannot accommodate a tent and sleeping bag, so I had to modify my approach and switch to a large duffel bag and a smaller backpack which worked fine. I packed my usual week or so of clothing without a lot of extra items. Most of the extra camping and survival gear I needed I would acquire on the west coast. There was no reason to buy it and lug it across the country on a plane.

heading to the west coast

I had done more or less as much planning as I could do at this point. I knew that I did not want to fly in and out of Reno as many people do. Portland is a city I have grown to enjoy and wanting to spend more time there and knowing that car rental prices for a month could be had at reasonable prices I made arrangements accordingly planning to pick up my car and spend several days shopping and acquiring supplies before driving south towards the Black Rock Desert. The plan had been made as well as it could be on paper and now it was time to put things into practice and see what kind of craziness I'd gotten myself into. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

From behind the Great Firewall

The censorship of the internet is one of the most frustrating things about spending time in China. Every time I am here I experience it, and each time I forget the scope and persistence of it. It is actually a moving target since each time, the list of things that work changes and is different depending on what internet connection you are using. This time for the first time, I have been forced to employ a VPN to try and access various sites I use outside of China and even that has been only marginally effective. Without the VPN, I can't reach Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, many news sites, and my RSS reader full of news and blogs also doesn't work. Google's myriad of sites including the search engine, Maps and Gmail are unpredictable. Sometimes they work,  other times they do not. Even with the VPN, I can still not reach any site hosted on Blogger including my own which means for my friends in China, being able to read this in any easy way is doubtful.

Without mentioning anything else about the Chinese government, the restriction of access to the open internet is deplorable. Here in a place where people could benefit so much from access to information and education, access to the greatest body of it in the history of mankind is restricted for the ostensible purposes of preserving the social order. I'm pretty sure the idea is that if people had access to the internet, they would then have access to sites critical of the government and the ability to express those ideas themselves, which would then lead to the downfall of Chinese society and social disorder on a mass scale. So to avert that disaster, the censors play this cat and mouse game of figuring out how to block each site in turn and prevent people from being corrupted by subversive Western thinking or god forbid, a critical statement about the government from one of its own people. Preventing people from accessing information, from teaching themselves new things, and therefore from improving their circumstances is offensive and though it's arguable whether or not it's the worst offense of the government here as I sit surrounded by pollution that is normal here but would be considered an ecological disaster in other countries, it's certainly something about which the government should be ashamed and embarrassed.

My impression is that at least some people I know are aware of this and in some cases express it, but my idealistic view is that without the door being open except to those with the wherewithall and computer knowledge to bypass the restrictions (to the extent it is even possible) then it's going to substantially slow down the rate at which things here improve for a lot of people. If not directly as a result of this censorship of information, then because of the underlying attitude that keeping people from information and education is good for society which seems to pervade the government who implement these policies. I'm not sure if it's better or worse than the countries who keep their peoples from learning because it contravenes some religious edict. Those people are at least operating without the benefit of reason which explains if not excuses their lack of reasoning, but in this case you have a government who has rationally decided to dumb down its society for the ostensible sake of preserving social order or at least keep themselves in power.

Maybe nobody cares that much and maybe if the door were open it would just mean more Facebook and more Twitter, but ideas and thinking change slowly and although we may mock lack of substance on Youtube in the US and elsewhere, we still have the choice and opportunity to access anything of interest we want in an instant while here I am trying to drink from a slowly dripping faucet instead of a firehose.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

First few days back in Beijing

I always forget the details of travels, even though I always think I am going to remember them.

I have been in Beijing for just about 72 hours. It's my second visit here. I came mostly to spend time with Meiying and also to see friends in the city and get to know it better. I've only spent a week in Beijing and it seems like such an important city and one that deserves more time and attention than I have given it. I'm even giving the Beijing accent a fair shake after years of negative reinforcement from Taiwanese-accented friends.

I'm staying in Dongcheng, the eastern half of the city. I did remember how big the city was, but the reality of it is always different from the memory. The walk from the nearest subway station is about 20 minutes, which is close by Beijing standards. This city feels so big to me that it's easy to believe that many corners could remain unvisited even after years of living here. The streets alternate between giant traffic and bike filled avenues and narrow winding hutongs, the old streets of Beijing which show their age, even the pieces that have been replaced recently. Even the nicer cars parked in the alleys and almost blocking passing traffic begin to somehow fit in with the falling-apart look of each alley.

As I sit in my small, courtyard hotel in Xigongjie Hutong, I can hear the creaks and groans of random machinery trying to keep people warm in the grip of what is apparently a winter to which most here are accustomed, give or take a few degrees. It's a new experience for me having typically traveled only to warm destinations, or at least not wintery ones. My room has four heaters in it and they are all hanging on for dear life. Every visible pipe or patchworked apparatus sticking out of the walls of these old buildings seems to be held together with duct tape or some inexplicable but mostly functional solution someone has pieced together from materials lying around to keep things running just smoothly enough. The same could be said for every decrepit and rusty unlocked bicycle or motor rickshaw that looks as if given a nudge from the right angle might crumble into a pile of spare parts good for nothing.

The big streets admittedly are noisy and just as full of things to gaze at slack-jawed, but I always prefer the hutongs except for maybe very late at night when even though it is probably completely safe especially for a foreigner, it feels too empty and ancient for comfort. Ancient not in the sense that there aren't modern contrivances visible everywhere, but more in the sense that people have been living in alleys like this in some form or another, in many cases in these exact alleys, for way longer than is imaginable in my limited scope of thinking in terms of a lifetime or a generation or two. Even with the newer cars or power lines, it feels as if those things have just been crudely pasted on top of something that runs much deeper and as much as newspapers or pundits in the west like to report about China's changes and what it means for money, money, money, and while that may be true in other neighborhoods of Beijing or Guangzhou or Shanghai where skyscrapers go up at an impossible rate, in these alleys and on the side lanes of the big streets packed with bikes and pedestrians, it just doesn't seem to matter very much to so many people. I proclaim myself not as an expert, just a reporter of what my eyes have seen so far.

People ask me often why I study Chinese or why I love China and I still haven't come up with an answer. I guess my answer remains a work in progress. I intensely dislike the modern materialism, consumerism, and the mimicing of western culture that both goes with and drives those values. That's hardly unique to China of course. I want to believe those things are not as pervasive as one might believe when only looking at the wealthiest people in China and their sports cars and other luxury items. A friend tells me of her uncle who goes into a watch shop and asks to see the most expensive watch they have. Then he buys it and shows it to people so they know he has the most expensive one. That said, I don't feel like I see that sort of behavior regularly. I'm sure it exists, and maybe the people riding all these bikes and cooking dumplings all want those things too, but maybe what I like is the way people accept what they do have rather than pine for what they don't. Maybe I'm just guessing what is in their heads without knowing, but at the very least it seems to me that people are by and large reasonably happy with what they have. To be sure there are a lot of people who need more. I'm not saying nobody needs anything more than what they have here. There are clearly people who do. I'm just saying that people seem more content just living than they do in the US or in other so-called developed countries. In an entirely selfish way, I like my experience in China for allowing me to be endlessly fascinated by every single thing I see to the point where each moment becomes at the very least interesting or stimulating. Maybe that is simply my desire to see and do new things and to increase my understanding through experience. But that said, I think it is largely something in people I meet here that I like, some kind of world view that I can't qualify yet, but that is at least part of the drive I have to continue bringing myself here and part of the answer people seem to be looking for when they ask me this question, though I suppose once again it's a bit of a non-answer, or at least an incomplete one.

Also the food is great.