Monday, September 07, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - The Trip Home

I had no desire to stay around and get stuck in hours of traffic as 45,000 people tried to stream out onto the one lane highway for 120 miles so I left right after the temple burned. I had already packed up my car during the day and literally walked back from the temple burning, got into the car and drove. I still got stuck in about 10 minutes of traffic as the 6 lanes of cars squeezed down to the one lane road but it was pretty much free sailing from there. There were quite a few times there were stop signs or something that would become traffic snarls as the night became morning. It was funny I got out of there at 1 AM so I had spent exactly one week there. Until I got back to the Freeway I crossed through a couple of Indian reservations and I had been warned that they demand payment for speeding tickets on pulling people over so I made sure to follow the speed limit to the Freeway.
The lack of sleep over the week and trying to pull an another all night drive finally caught up with me and I had to sleep a few hours in a truck parking lot. They had dumpsters for the trucks to clean out their cabs so I was able to dispose of my bags of trash that had accumulated over the week easily.
Before arriving at my sister’s house I took one of the remaining gallons of water and dumped it over my head to try to clean out as much dust as possible. I then shaved and got dressed into clothes I had been saving so no dust got on them so I could look mostly presentable.
I hadn’t realized how much I needed it but I had used Burning Man as a way to decompress. At first I just tried filling up my schedule with different events but that failed (as so many other people I heard had the same trouble) since the sense of time did not seem as important out in the desert. (Though I was constantly telling people what time it was since I was like a god since I had remembered to wear a watch.) I tried seeing all art on the first day like it was some sort of check list type thing and of course it just kept showing up throughout the week so there was no way to see it all. Some of the art took 2-3 times of taking it in before it had an effect, other work required viewing at a time of day. Riding on art cars with someone else in control of the destination was also something to acclimate to.
The funny part is that as I told my stories to my friends and family a lot of them inevitably would say they should have gone with me and if I was planning to go back so they could go with me the next time. I hadn’t even thought about the next time. I was more worried about how to get all the dust out of everything.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - The Temple

Being at the temple at any point during the week had a very different feel than the rest of the locations there. The basic idea was that people would write messages to deceased friends and family or to people that they missed that were not at burning man. Then when they burnt the temple it was supposed to send the message to that person. This led to a lot of shrines of photos and personal effects being tied to the temple along with many messages. A lot of people would be overcome with grief and just be crying next to what they had wrote. Reading so many messages of people being missed had the same effect on me. It felt like I was at a wake for hundreds of people. It was also the first time I have been to a wake where someone would walk by in varying degrees of dress, however it fell right in line with people walking around offering strangers hugs. I was surprised by how many messages related to either suicide, drug overdose, or just referred to a bad decision. Other messages were funny, or political (there was a whole debate scrawled on one wall about not writing negative messages about George Bush on the temple.)
For some reason I woke up earlier than usual Sunday morning so I decided to go to the temple to watch the sun rise. Everyone was quiet and I am guessing most people had been up most of the night. It seemed like everyone was moving in slow motion.
That evening the ceremony was much different than burning the man. There was no laser pointers, no cheering, no fire dancers and jugglers, and no fireworks. a procession went around the temple then a fire was started in the middle. Everyone was silent as it burned except for a few people chanting far off. There was a kite shaped like the ghost of the man that flew over the temple, I guess to signify that he had been freed. This time instead of a party it was more of a 3 story camp fire to stare into.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - Events

I went to Burning Man thinking that the best part would be meeting and talking to people, and hearing their stories. In reality the thing that I had to most fun doing was going to classes or events. I had no idea that it was organized enough that they could hand out a list of things that would be happening. As their part to contribute people would offer to teach classes or hold events. This meant anything from learning Yoga, advice of different kinds, to cognitive science on how the brain perceives itself as being aware.
Events varied from pimping out your bike, giving out free costumes, sending postcards, and a lot of free alcohol for doing certain actions. Of course not everyone signed up in time for the schedule of events to list their way that they wanted to give back to the community so a lot of events were announced on the big board or I just come across things while riding around. It seems like a lot of people chose to give out alcohol and were very persistent in their desire to “give back to the community”. A few times I was stopped by people jumping out into the road holding stop signs trying their hardest to persuade me to visit their bar. Some of the impromptu events that I took part in was a renaming and free cookies ceremony (where I got the final name of “cream” and a tasty cookie) and another one with free ice cream that was mostly melted and vegan but still some of the best I’ve tasted and I wasn’t about to complain.
Any time there was a line of people, people in line would inevitably start swapping stories “So this one time at Burning Man”. Pretty much the standard way to open a conversation with anyone was to ask them how many burns they have been to, or what was the last burn they were at.
Since my art idea did not get finished the way that I gave back was through volunteering. I did the lamp lighting one night and trash pickup another.

Burning Man 2009 - The Man

There were not as many messages written on the structure around the man as were on the temple but the ones that were related much more a message of hope and happiness that was meant to go out to everyone instead of just one single person. Everyone I asked about the symbolism had a different answer. The only thing they agreed on was to come up with your own symbolism. I see it as temporary art that must be enjoyed by those participating while it is present. (Trust me, pictures are not the same.)
The actual ceremony of burning the man was right on schedule. It was kind of funny to see the statue raise its arms since it was so large. I have heard they have had to delay for hours due to dust storms. There was a large procession of people, then fire jugglers came out. Some on stilts and others had what looked like whole candelabras being twirled. After about 30 minutes of fire swishing around they sat down and a firework show started around the man that was capped off by huge fireballs. People kept cheering as it burned and they had to tackle one lady that came running forward before the firemen had given the all clear. I couldn’t help but think of the saying “At Burning Man there are no spectators” and add my own ending of “except when the firemen haven’t given the all clear.”
Once the last of the structure fell the firemen gave the clear signal and people rushed forward and started moving counter-clockwise around the fire. The heat was intense but it was interesting how fast the curve dropped off. So the difference between completely unbearable to needing to rotate the exposed side about every minute was about 5 feet. There were people dressed up as boy scouts with long poles that were roasting marshmallows and feeding them to the crowd. Others were just sitting with their backs to the fire with the firemen in full protection asking then every few minutes if they were still okay.
There were a lot of people dancing to the scattered music from the different art cars and people were wishing each other a “Happy New Year” as that was the event their lives revolved around. Everyone was happy and laughing. It was defiantly the peak of the week long party.
Coming back from the man I had a hard time finding my camp because a lot of people had already broken down their camps so the surroundings looked different, plus all the street signs were missing as people took them as souvenirs so I had to count streets to find my way back to my tent.
The next morning after checking out the temple at sunrise I walked over to the pile of ash to see what it was like. There were still people there, a few in sleeping bags that had obviously spent the night there. People were still going through the ashes looking for souvenirs. Some people were pointing out to other people what was left of the different joints as the man had fallen like it was some kind of crime scene. Still other people were having what seemed like a religious (or drug induced) experience with lots of time just looking off into the distance.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - Traditions

I wish that there was an easier way of saying “that person’s non-verbal communication cues are non-threatening and engender trust.” If that doesn’t make sense then you might better understand what I heard a lot of: “that person had a good aura.” Or if a more organized religion is your forté then you might hear it as “they have a kind heart and a sweet spirit.”
There was the concept of faith. The belief that if you needed something bad enough then “the playa will provide.” As it turns out I had an experience where this came true. I guess one of the times I got in my car I hit the headlight switch, but the car has light sensors so it didn’t turn on. It also wouldn’t turn on at night because the RFID in the key fob wasn’t close enough. But when I was sleeping in my tent with my keys in my pocket that must have been close enough for the headlights to turn on and kill the battery. While I knew all I needed to do was turn the car on so the hybrid battery could recharge the car battery I flirted with the idea of lining up enough AA batteries to get the 12V but decided I didn’t want to blow a fuse so I asked around for jumper cables. I didn’t have to ask to many people before someone had a backup battery with jumper cables attached. What happened was just like other heavily religious groups they feel like a cohesive group and will go further to help strangers within the group so that things get accomplished that otherwise would seem impossible.
Burning Man has been around for enough years so that traditions have created and changed. Being always inquisitive I asked a lot of questions about why. A lot of traditions started because someone did it one year as a contribution and then everyone just kept doing it. Others no one was sure why but I was just told to get my own symbolism out of it. Some others lost me when words like “cosmic” or “universe” were used. I don’t see the altered state that these traditions created is any different then the the altered state that other religious traditions started. (hunger, sleep, primitive drugs).
I had started out thinking that all the groups were so cliquey, groups of friends would start tribes and would minimally interact with others outside of that (Like the circle of RV’s that set up next next to me that had no problem blowing generator exhaust on all the tents outside the circle.) I figured the more this happened the less there would be first time burners. But I learned other groups where much more open. I was adopted into the bouncy bouncy tribe (So named because they had a bouncy castle and one of the people in the group had a rabbit art car) just because I camped near them. I had a great time talking with all them so there is hope yet.

Burning Man 2009 - Politics

I would say about half the people I talked to were from San Francisco. Another quarter or so were from Oregon, and the rest were pretty evenly split from across the world. As is no surprise San Francisco and Portland are probably the two most liberal places in the United States. A lot of the stickers I saw on cars backed this up. (Including one that was seriously telling anarchists to unite.) As a weird corollary I was also surprised by how many people had earned their living at some point in their life by working in the circus. I only see it as a matter of time before conservative talk show hosts start saying that circuses have a secret liberal agenda.
It’s funny, when I was researching Burning Man on what to bring I kept coming across the idea that previous years were better. If it were to be believed every year Burning Man gets progressively worse. While I understand that there is probably a change over the decades that they have been doing this I think it has more to do with desire to be part of something special. For the same reason that people have elevated Woodstock to a concert that there will never be an equal of; each year that passes the nostalgia builds further and further for older Burning Man events too. I think this is also evidenced by the fact that I heard a lot of people say that this was one of the best Burns they have been to.
There were signs taped up in all the porta-potties advertising camps or stating political opinions. One that stuck with me is “Certain people will rebel unless the reason for the rules are explained to them, and most people at Burning Man are in a state of rebellion wouldn’t you say?” I think it sums up rather well why anarchy and organization can so easily co-exist together here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - Dust

Think of the playa as a giant flat piece of baked earth with a small dunes of dust that drift around from pile to pile in dust storms with their final destination being your face. The dust gets everywhere. It seems to become a main pivotal player in the story that gets played out each year.
The thing is that the dust had the consistency of chalk powder. It had the same feel and smell of the dust under my house. (Which I also associated with the itch of fiberglass, so I got weird itching sensations sometimes.) When blowing around it was white, but when it got wet it turned orange; and it is what caused my tent to creak at night like an old ship.
Because I was spending so much time in the sun I was getting tan so it was becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between dust that was stuck to me and me just being tan. Using wet-naps before every meal cleaned most of it off but I noticed as the week wore on that I cared about it less and less. Because it was very alkaline dust even breathing it after a while gave you a craving for acidic food like pickles and chillies.
I was taking notes on a small pad of paper but after a while the dust and heat dried up my pen so I had to switch to using a pencil.
Because the wind blew pretty steady from the same direction the dust seemed to accumulate into the same area, on the 3:00 and 9:00 roads. This meant that when the water trucks drove around to knock down the dust the dust dunes would turn into potholes.
I wore sandals the first day. Within that time the dry air, and alkaline dust wore a blister using broken-in comfortable sandals into the top of my foot. I had heard of “playa foot” but I didn’t think it could happen so fast. I wore hiking boots the rest of the time and had some people make the comment that they could tell I was an old veteran because I was wearing boots.
Normally a dust storm would last 10-15 minutes and be over. There was usually around 4-5 a day. It wasn’t until Friday that we had our first bad dust storm. Of course I had been packing away my sleeping bag and pillow so that they wouldn’t get covered in dust should there be a bad dust storm during the day but this was the first time I forgot so now everything was covered.
Even in the small dust storms it was easy to loose your bearings. As long as I didn’t stop I could pretty much keep riding a straight line across the playa. But, if I stopped to look at some art then continue I could be off by as much as 45 degrees when I arrived at the other side of the circle.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - Costumes

Obviously with it being my first time there I was not totally sure of how to dress. My usual garb included just wearing shorts, hiking boots, and a big straw hat. I usually had a large checkered scarf (or Keffiyeh) around my neck for covering my mouth and nose during the dust storms. I also had around my neck at any given time: goggles, water bottle, head lamp, volunteer medallion (that I couldn’t take off because the string got knotted) and light. From time to time they would get tangled when I was trying to use one of them and be rather strangling.
Different events that I went to felt I was very underdressed and had racks of costumes they would give away. In their desire to find stuff that fit me among other things I got a full pirate costume with hat and cape, and a green fury blanket that I used as a cape. I would wear these from time to time too.
Because of the heat and state of liberty being felt, other people where in different states of dress. Like most European beaches it caught me off guard for about 15 minutes before acclimating to it. Most of the people in full costumes did not have hats or water bottles and frankly looked like the only people that were hot. I guess like everywhere else you must suffer to look fashionable. Popular costumes included kilts for men and bikinis or lingerie for women. So basically it was a beach without water. The less people wore while riding bikes the easier it was to see how bike seats do not help the male anatomy and it had to be painful for women to ride over pot holes in the road (of which there were many.)
I did go through 2 bottles of sunscreen and avoided getting a sunburn but I saw plenty of other people that were not so lucky. The way I looked at it was I knew if I didn’t use enough then it would hamper me being able to enjoy further fun so it was one of the things I kept on top of.
Since most costumes did not provide a way to carry necessities people would use backpacks, camelbacks, photo vests, tool belts, army utility belts, and fanny packs to carry things like cameras, lip balm, goggles, lights, and other necessities.
Besides the the costumes that were given to me I also found lights on the ground (called “ground score”) that helped keep me lit at night front and back. We were pretty lucky that there was a full moon most of the time I was there but riding bikes at night without lights was still stupid and earned you the title of “dark tard” or “playa ninja”. Other things I found were a teddy bear and a gnome that I was able to zip-tie to my bike.

Burning Man 2009 - Wednesday

So in addition to the volunteer rangers and DPW (Dept. of public workers) that are there with the event the police forces I have seen include: Bureau of Land Management, National Park Rangers, County Sherifs from two different counties, FBI, and DEA. And yet drugs still seem to make their way around. I rode by one camp surrounded by black SUV’s yesterday and today there is a big empty spot on that block. I was offered plenty by other burners, and since I’m pretty naive I was even offered some stuff I have no idea what it was.
The way it works is the art cars. The rules go that if there is room then they have to offer you a ride. But they can only travel 5 miles per hour so they are also easy to catch up to. This means there is varying sized mobile parties constantly in motion all around you all blasting different music. If someone does not want to give rides they just build their art car for one. The system seems to work pretty well. When riding an art car you are at the mercy of where the driver is heading so I only rode them when I had no where in particular to go and was just more interested in meeting/talking to people.
I was actually surprised by the variety of music that I heard. Of course Burning Man is famous for its Techno, House, Rave, and Trance music. But I also heard bands such as Iron and Wine, Regina Spektor, and Ratatat. As far as genres go there was plenty of 70’s disco and 80’s alternative everywhere.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Burning Man 2009 - Food

Let me just say how happy I am about bringing MRE’s (“Meals Ready to Eat” used in the Army) instead of trying to cook out here. Dust gets on everything, including cooking utensils so everyone around me has to clean their cooking utensils after cooking to get off the old food and again before cooking to get off the dust. For me since each meal is in its own packet, I just tear it open. This also saved me from needing to pack all the extra cooking stuff which was helpful since I already had to leave some stuff at home from lack of space.
So the usual ritual goes something like this. In the morning I rip open a meal. put the main dish in with the chemical heater so it can be warming up. I drink one of my Gatorades then put whatever powder is in the meal into the the bottle and shake it up with water. Every meal comes with crackers and something to put on it, so I eat that while the meal is warming up. From there I eat the meal while the side dish is warming up. Then I eat the side dish and what ever desert there is. It even comes complete with a wet-nap to clean up and an after meal mint. Pack all the trash back into the original container and I’m done. No clean-up.
The funny thing is that MRE’s are portioned for soldiers while they are out in the field. (There is plenty of good propaganda included on the importance of eating right and eating enough) So that means eating 3 MRE’s a day will give you around 3500 calories. The funny thing is that I already have a high metabolism and with riding around for miles every day on my bike I can still feel myself losing weight. Luckily I brought protein shakes so I’ve been having a couple of those a day too along with beef jerky and dried fruit and nuts. So I am getting enough calories but I have developed a craving for fresh food. At some of the events they hand around huge platters of cantaloupe and oranges. I gotta say it is amazing how delicious they taste.
Water is always necessary. I never feel hot (yes, really) because my sweat is evaporating so fast. This meant I have to keep drinking water. By the end of trip I had gone through drinking more than 1 1/2 gallons of water a day without ever feeling bloated. The trick was always carrying a 1.5 liter water bottle that I filled when I returned to my tent for every meal.

Burning Man 2009 - Tuesday

I had brought ear plugs so that I could sleep through the 24 hour music but I was so tired I fell fast asleep and woke up refreshed. My thermometer showed that it had got up to 126 degrees during the day I didn’t believe it and reset it, it got up to 124 degrees Tuesday. That did not seem believable since it felt more comfortable than the 90 degree weather I had left in New York and I realized what it was: the thermometer was showing 20% humidity so sweat was evaporating as quick as my body could produce it, so my body was able to keep as cool as it wanted. Whereas in New York at 80-90% humidity sweat just drips down all over getting in my face and eyes making me hot and uncomfortable. So I hate to say it but it really isn't the heat, its the humidity, or lack thereof. I’m actually glad I can check the maximum and minimum on the thermometer because when I put it out in the sun it gets hot enough that the LCD screen just goes entirely black.
I retreated to my neighbors shade and started talking to them. When they asked me what my “playa name” was I had to confess it was my first time here and I didn’t have one. So she simply said my name backwards. I gave this new name to the next person that asked for it that day but with a nose full of dust he heard it as “creamy”. Well one was as good as the other. The next person responded that “creamy” would be a kids name, as an adult I should be known as just “cream” the funny thing is that the name stuck and everyone liked it the rest of the time I was there.
I tried using my kite camera but I brought a stunt kite with the hopes of having a way to control what the camera takes pictures of. In reality I can’t get the kite to hold still long enough to take a picture that isn’t all blurry and frankly with only one camera there is a lot that I want to take pictures of before my camera takes a 100 foot fall.