“Bad roads bring good people”.
On my last day in La Playa, I was chatting with an Irish-Scottish-Californian young guy, looking gorgeous in his UtilityKilt (a major trend between boys at Burning Man) and reasoning about the fact that 60 thousand people crammed together in the most challenging weather conditions can remain so peaceful, lovely to each other and generous, without ever an aggressive exchange or attitude. And his explanation was “bad roads bring good people”. I went away thinking I just received words of wisdom from a stranger, in the middle of nowhere, deep into the Nevada desert. This is the experience of Burning Man, something I find hard to share or talk about; something so incredible that one has experience it to understand.
From day one I knew it was not going to be physically easy or comfortable, but at the same time I was instantly in awe and amazed by the views, the feelings, the people. Burning Man happens for a week every year in the desert that sits among the Nevada mountains, at 4500 Square Foot above sea level, where once, many many centuries ago, was a lake. The city is built on sand, in the middle of nowhere and it lives by its own rules and laws, in perfect harmony for a week. The temperatures are very high during the day, the sun burns everything, including one’s lips and there are no trees for shade; and they go down to freezing at night. When you are lucky you only get a few of those incredible sand storms during which you can’t see one inch ahead and if you don’t cover eyes, mouth and nose you can’t breathe. If you are wealthy you live in an RV (about $10.000 a week to rent in Reno) if you are not, you live in a tent, as big and good as your possibilities allow. You better pay your stay in an organized camp, so as to make sure you have the right amount of everything you need to survive (especially water). In the Playa you cannot buy anything and if you really really need something, your only option is barter; and you better ask kindly, because nobody is less than lovely there.
I was there for three days, in a big tent, in one of the most loved camps: Mystopia. The camp is well known and loved by the habitués ‘cause it gets its name by the outside lounge built around big fans that send a fresh watery mist on the campers and the hundreds of daily guests, who fight for a space on one of the sofas or on the ground. Mystopia is also known for its Thursday at 1 o’clock French toast distribution. We actually made and distributed about 3000 lots of hot French toast to a huge line of people, from the naked to the barely dressed in fancy costumes that hugged and smiled and kissed us. Distributing French toast in Mystopia was actually my highlight, I received more love there than in the past 6 months.
The amazing thing about the Burners is that they feel free like nowhere else. In the Playa you can do whatever you wish, including painting your private parts in pink and happily riding your bicycle around the art, dancing all night, sleeping on the first couch you find all day and driving around in your self built art car in the shape of a golden dragon that spits fire every other minute.
Freedom is the greatest feeling I had: I never felt judged, never felt out of place, never felt shy about starting a little dance, for no other reason than inspiring music, in the middle of the day and on the road. I felt the freedom of not washing my hair, of not seeing a mirror for 3 days, not hearing the sound of a mobile phone or seeing the headlines of a newspaper. I had the liberating freedom of wearing a long white wig, with colourful, extra long eyelashes, and of not feeling ridiculous in it…. of being dirty and dusty and obviously quite ugly but not self conscious.
Time stops in the Playa. It really seems never to pass. Days are long and nights are even longer. If you don’t live in an air conditioned RV, you can never really hide, or retire to a private place. In your tent, during the day, you would burn alive. Therefore you never stop: you never stop going around and exploring or meeting, in 40 degrees Celsius and a sun that doesn’t forget to make you feel its constant presence, or talk with some weird naked person, while you try to pretend you didn’t notice that strange body painting down their crotch, or the forced new age language which you thought was soo out of fashion. So when you think (or hope) it is 6pm, you find someone with a watch (a rarity) and find out it is actually 2.30pm and you decide it’s time for a hula-hoop class, or a prayer in the temple, or yet another long bicycle ride deep in the desert where you can visit the art or listen to an impromptu speech about female orgasm.
One day I was so distracted by my feelings that I forgot to drink enough (and enough, at Burning man, is much more than you think). As a result that evening I experienced the worst headache of my life, accompanied by vomiting and dizziness. That wasn’t a highlight. Feeling sick in a tent on a freezing desert night is not the best thing that can happen to you. I was dreaming of a bed, a hot bath, a pillow; I was swearing that I would never ever do that again. But when I finally managed to calm the pain and get some sleep and I eventually woke up in a better state (but luckily no mirror to see my puffy eyes, so puffy I could feel their puffiness) I knew I would certainly do it again and never ever forget to drink enough water.
Text and Photography: Mimma Viglezio