Sunday, September 12, 2004

Burning Man

The author with Primus - 1992 (Pic by Umlaut)

By Salome

This Burning Man virgin finally popped her cherry.

After many years of listening to people’s descriptions of the phenom I absolutely must experience, I finally got there to see it for myself. A little thing called the first week of school prevented this high school teacher from skipping out on her job to get dusty and half naked, but the calendar gods fell differently this year, enabling me to take off time in the second week of school instead.

I expected the nakedness, the pounding techno music, the art cars, the dust, the cool people. I had been told in minute detail about Burning Man and made, albeit inadvertently I’m sure, to feel like the prime loser for never having attended it. All that is behind me now.

Burning Man didn’t change my life forever. It isn’t the center of my social universe. And yet it was really cool. Here’s one reason:

I lay in a tent with my Virgin Atlantic beddy-byes over my eyes, wishing I were still asleep but reluctant to get up and make the four-planet trek to the bathroom where I may or may not find toilet paper. Someone a couple camps over put on Lennon’s “Imagine” and I couldn’t help but have tears gather at the corner of my eyes. There’s a war on. There’s a Republican convention on. There’s an inarticulate hatemonger in the White House. But here were nearly 40,000 people living life in peace, sharing all the world. They can imagine there’s no money and no possessions too, except what we share to feed each other and keep the sun from frying us. There’s solar powered pizza ovens and a whole camp dedicated to recycling our trash and people who have learned to leave no trace that they have lived there for nearly two weeks. Here’s a brotherhood and sisterhood, a place where at least for a short while we can find hope again and restore our faith in people. That was real and that was worth the dust, the expense, the trek, the discomfort, and the 24-hour pounding techno.

It’s something when a stranger will wash your disgusting, playatized feet. It’s something when someone you don’t know, and many who you do, will tell you that you’re beautiful. It’s something when a group of people will take the time to make a bunch of absinthe and serve it to you for free. It’s something when people like your camp so much that they will volunteer to do the nasty little jobs like cleaning old tobacco out of hookahs just to thank you for making a cool space that they’ve enjoyed. And all of these could happen on the same day, whereas we might be happy if these kinds of things came through our lives once within a year.

Here’s something else that I didn’t expect and that I really appreciated: Everyone lives in the moment. This place exists for but a week, and with tens of thousands of people there, we all know we might not run into each other again. So people say what they’re feeling right then and make it count. I met some amazing people, but we never exchanged contact information. We won’t ever do lunch or email each other for a month before discontinuing. We just appreciated each other’s beauty and coolness for that brief time. Sounds hokey--maybe it is--but I liked it. And it was pervasive. I got smiles and greetings wherever I went. People waved and yelled out love for my camp. All the time, people made eye contact and paid attention. People took the time. The joke was that it’s playa time, but I wish I could bring a little more playa time into my life.

I also expected the creativity, the art and dancing and costuming, but it was still a constant and astonishing pleasure to witness it moment after moment after moment. I saw a woman too beautiful to be merely human spinning a fiery hoop around her body. People in homemade costumes too numerous to describe—furry, sleek, spangly, sexy, exotic, half-naked, bejeweled, colorful—eye candy that inspired and delighted me. I would stand and forget to move as I faced the playa and saw a wooly mammoth skeleton roll by, or a mobile movie theater playing Barbarella, or a circular saw cutting across the desert, or a guy on a tandem bike whose passenger was a flaming, pedaling man. My knees would start moving involuntarily to the 24-hour pounding techno or to the band that showed up at our camp asking to play while acrobats bent and contorted in front of them. And I got to be the dancing girl I always yearn to be, barefootedly swaying and shaking my hips and feeling the Middle Eastern beats, loving myself, only to have person after person tell me how beautiful I was to watch. How often do you get to do what makes you love yourself and have an audience that appreciates it just as much as you do? Well, I got to do it numerous times a day, day after day, and for that I’m grateful.

I’m also grateful to the people at my camp—Hookahdome—who provided generous hospitality, a respite from the elements, and something other than 24-hour pounding techno to endless, grateful burners. My campmates spent thousands of dollars and countless hours (heard of Microsoft Widows? I was feeling like a Hookahdome Widow for the last couple months) creating a space and a magic flying carpet that ended up surpassing all of our expectations as a favorite hangout for thousands of people. On Saturday afternoon, Gordon rode around the Esplanade, popping into different camps, and found 21 people as the most one had, while Hookahdome had about 45 people inside ours and another 38 waiting in the sun to get in. DJs, belly dancers, fire spinners, and bands wanted to perform at Hookahdome. Hookah experts and hookah virgins alike smoked our hookahs (one Lebanese guy excitedly told me, “We have a hookah at our house and I can’t wait to try yours. Even my grandmother smokes it.”) Domers (Hookahns?) vacuumed playa dust (thanks Brian for having a vacuum fetish!), led yoga mornings, spanked pillows (“Bad pillow!” cried Rosminah), stuck their fingers into sticky jars of tobacco, and stayed patient while dusty people ran to jump onto a flying carpet as it passed, all to provide this service. We rocked. And I’m immensely proud to say I was one of them.

You may say I’m a dreamer. You may be going, “Oh gawd, another starry-eyed convert. Do I gotta listen to one more person go on about Burning Man?” But as the greeters said to us as we left the playa, “Take Burning Man back with you to the real world.” That means the openness, the awareness, the creativity, the living-in-the-present-moment, the gratitude for things and each other, the care for the places we live. There’s a lot of good in that.

Editor's Note: I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert you can remember your name, 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.