The time has come for these posts to get autobiographical. I do have a few stories worth telling, and now’s the time to tell them.
Let us start at the relative beginning. By the beginning, I mean the beginning of my expat life. Not that it wasn’t interesting before that, but let’s have some continuity.
It’s like this: Whenever you go to a party and meet someone, after the obligatory questions of “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” are over with, one common question is to be asked is “How did you get to China?” It’s a fair query and I’ve asked it myself. My story is a bit complicated and concerns a desert rave festival. So here it is…
It was the summer of 2008 and I was a tad anxious. I’d lived in Long Beach in Southern California for three years, a cool city part of greater Los Angeles County, and I’d just finished a run at a lame office job. Before that, the proverbial server gig and college credits. Somehow my goals of becoming a famous screenwriter hadn’t come to much fruition. I was a bit in between things and trying to figure out my next step. Meanwhile, I was all set to go to Burning Man!
I had already been to Burning Man for the first time in 2007. If you don’t know it, google pictures of it immediately. There are already plenty of writings out there about this extreme music and arts festival, and now it is my turn to have a go at my own “this one time at Burning Man” story.
Firstly, one needs to know the basics. Burning Man is a week-long festival held in Black Rock desert 90 miles out from Reno, Nevada. For that week in the summer it is the third-largest city in the state. About 70,000 people show up. (I personally have a theory that it’s more and they lie about the numbers because of regulations, comparing it to San Diego’s Comic Con which has over 100,000 attendees yet Burning Man seems bigger to me. At Comic Con you can bump into people you know, at Burning Man you can have friends also there and never find them. This may be a phone reception thing however.)
It’s a real camping experience, off the grid. After parking you must ride decorated bicycles to get around. Bring your own water as well as foodstuffs. Hyper-D.I.Y. The stiff price tag is basically for the port-o-potties they provide which is well worth admission.
Still, it’s tricky to sum up. One way I like to describe is that it’s a hippie thing in the daytime, with yoga classes and Hare Krishnas and all that. And at night it’s a huge rave, with endless dance parties and free bars and all the appropriate drugs. You enjoy the art structures in the day, chill, meet cool people. At night it’s a city made of glowsticks.
There are the mutant cars, those golf carts and busses dressed up into robotic fire-breathing dragons and rubber ducks and pirate ships. An explosion of temporary art for art’s sake, giant wooden temples full of welcoming graffiti which are burned down on the last day. Mockups of “Mad Max” scenarios. They say it’s a barter economy culture, but really it’s a give free stuff away culture hence the infinite free bars. Various massage workshops and infinite parties and private orgy tents and all else you can imagine. Lots of drugs, of course. Don’t forget to wear goggles and bandanas, what with the blinding sandstorms. See what show is up at Center Camp. Clothing optional, which by the way you get used to the topless girls (it’s so natural, really) and ignore the shirtcockers, but oi I must admit about those fully nude girls…
It’s lawless, it’s almost anarchy. There are kind-of rangers, kind-of rules, but not really. Yet everybody is cool and it somehow works. I suppose naysayers will explain that it’s sold out compared to the good old days, and it probably has but I wouldn’t know from my own experience. All I can say is that I’ve been all over the world and to me Black Rock City is the greatest-ever culture shock.
It’s such a huge event that you can make of it whatever you want. All kinds of subcultures to choose from. Some people consider it a spiritual retreat, some people go all out hedonistic, many are simply casual partiers, and others just like to dress up in costumes and express themselves. From Silicon Valley types in RVs to hardcore hitchhikers. I think I’m the sort that likes to observe, participate as well, but a part of me always wants to keep my distance so I can have perspective to perhaps later write about it. So, I didn’t get in on any orgies but I did publicly bathe as much as I could. And I did get high, psychedelically-so, more on that later.
2008 was a better year for me, for various reasons. Better group of people, better preparation. Like sex, sometimes the second time with a partner is better than the first, because you have a better idea what to expect and it’s more about embracing what you know than being excited by sheer novelty.
I made friends. We registered with a camp. I packed and hoarded food, then drove out for hours and hours in the Uhual, the greatest of anticipation, and then we were there and I fucking enjoyed that week.
It’s something of a cliché to say “Burning Man changed my life,” but oh it sure did.
To be continued in Part 2: Doing LSD at Burning Man
Note the fine print, non-potable water avoid contact. Crazy kids.