This is a guest post of sorts written by my good friend, Tatine G. Faylona, upon her return from Burning Man (BM for short, for the purposes of this post), “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada”. BM is one trip that many people — including, me, personally! — would probably never even think of making. But Tatine being Tatine — with her boundless zest and energy for life, her amazing creativity, and her blatant refusal to stick to stereotypes – she finally outdid herself in all her years of several off-the-beaten-path trips across the globe with this adventure. With her permission, here is her first-hand account of a burgin’s BM experience.
Just a Little Mad-Crazy
a.k.a. Testosterosa at 4:05 and F
Ten years ago I went skydiving on a dare on the same day. I liked that it’s a nice round number – 10 – and thought to myself: I should do something as adventurous (a.k.a., a little mad-crazy) and see where it leads me.
The search brought me to a place called Black Rock City desert – around 150km north of Reno, Nevada, and an ephemeral city built only for an annual 8-day festival called Burning Man.
Despite months also of frenetic search, I only found one other Filipino who has been to Burning Man but his only comment when I sought him out was: Call me after you return from BM!
More than a month since my Burning Man experience, I think that I now fully understand what he meant. When it comes to Burning Man, there are simply no words. As friends and family ask me how it was or what it was all about, I fumble and I grapple and resist articulation since Burning Man is one of those that you’d rather bring someone to rather than attempt to describe.
Burning Man, to those who may have heard about it, is an annual event that brings all kinds of people from all parts of the world to an antique lakebed called the playa and where anything and everything imaginable happens.
One finds all manner of creative and radical self-expression in costumes (or complete lack thereof) and in various theme camps and art installations in the desert. Depending on your preference or even mood for the day, you can bike to a homebrew camp and sample all kinds of beer or begin a pilgrimage to the Man and the beautifully ornate Temple of Juno.
Made mostly of intricately designed filigreed wood, this Temple is burnt on the last day of the festival to symbolize letting go of past hurts or brokenness, or to commemorate loved ones lost. Some burgins (first-time burners like myself) could similarly venture farther out into the deep playa past midnight and chance upon a movie theatre-art installation actually screening old Cary Grant movies at 4am while scouring for some Skittles displayed in a make-believe vending machine! Everything is inevitably fascinating and you simply marvel at how the best kind of creativity also provides hilarious escapes into flights of fancy. How else could one call jumping into unknown adventures provided by random art cars that only follow rules established by the DMV – a.k.a. Department of Mutant Vehicles?!
Despite the city being huge and literally offering a smorgasbord of all kinds of performances (open mic, anyone?), musical stops (my new favourites: March Fourth Marching Band and Pfbbt!), jaw-dropping art installations (from a giant E G O installation…
…to the fire-breathing octopus tentacles of El Pulpo Mecanico…
…to the unique sinking ship experience inside La Llorona), and a guide book that lists the schedules (sunrise to sunrise!) religiously, I mostly decided to go off the grid and just let the playa magic do its work. No handy iPhone camera clicks, no journal scribbling, no recording of anything except sensory perceptions. I found myself observing myself in the sea of interesting people in and around my French Manila and Third Creamery camp which, in Black Rock City map, was located in 4:05 and Foxglove (F) street.
On an evening when I decided to simply ensconce myself in our camp’s warm sofa, our next door neighbor’s karaoke antics became too irresistible when Little Mermaid’s Under the Sea melody wafted through my chill out space! So I sang and danced some in their Hammock Camp hangout. Then with some whiskey-kombucha combo I unexpectedly tagged along with Bill and Atira (TBT forever!) from whom I learned how to let out the monkey in me. Otherwise I don’t know how I could have climbed the almost 10-storey wobbly scaffolding Mal-Mart installation and still have the energy to belt out, with feet (and lives) dangling, We Built This City on Rock and Roll! Testosterosa, my playa name, was born on this night of the trio monkeys.
One late afternoon I biked all the way to the middle of the Esplanade and took in the Burning Man landscape of giant art installations with the backdrop of unicorn flags and mountain ranges. Infinite space and unexpected serenity cast in a whirlwind of burners biking off to their next adventure.
With my colourful-party-flags-and-sunflower-decorated bike (Salamat, Arthur! Thanks, Jazzzy!) parked beside me, I took my time looking in one direction and slowly turning to the next horizon until I made a full circle. My fingers tentatively touched the beautiful sunset which was quite easy to imagine was within my reach. After all, it is not every day that one’s spirit dances to that fire-belly in the soul.
Another day in Center Camp I decided to walk in and volunteer at the Cafe. Never having worked in a coffee shop before, it was a unique experience of learning how to work the cash register and assisting the barista with the inflow of orders in the only place in Black Rock City where monetary exchange was allowed. Unique of course was working with costumed fellow volunteers whose team leader, Gogo, would suddenly announce: “Ok everyone, time to stop working and time to dance!” So there we were, volunteers in full revelry behind the Cafe counter as four lines of likely thirsty Burning Man onlookers smiled at the antics of folks who would later take their orders but not before being naughtily asked, “What’s the secret password?”
Quite expectedly, I thought that I would suffer from the dry heat and cold evenings but I miraculously survived the harsh elements. In a special way, this was made possible by the kindness of campmates (especially Captain Ryan!) and their unstinting devotion to detailed logistical arrangements for almost-30 people. We had a stellar kitchen, a monkey hut shade structure (so that’s what I was trying to sledgehammer to the ground!) for all our tents, a tepee, bike racks, hammocks, solar camp shower bags, and yes, a hexayurt cum acoustic-and-all-kinds-of-things lounge!
Not even able to recall when was the last time I rode a bike, I surprisingly found myself riding through everything (tremendous thanks to Nick’s moral support); even during an evening dust storm wearing blurry goggles and barely breathable respirator mask (think Darth Vader!) just to quickly hear Armin van Buuren and Carl Cox make the desert crowd dance like unbridled pagans in a place aptly called, Opulent Temple.
At moments when the sheer creative humour of the playa and its people caught me unawares, I would quite literally cackle to myself and sometimes just laugh uncontrollably. Even my daily morning walk to the porta-potty was an adventure. Nothing could compare to being fully woken up by our very own porta-potty maître d’ dressed in his feathered hat and penguin coat finery, checking off our imagined reservations to the porta-potty cubicles and just engaging us in funny repartee. In wacky response to his, “How was the food, Madam/Sir?” query, folks just coming out of their morning ablutions would let it all out by either saying, “Compliments to the chef!” or “Ah, sh*tty service!” Now is that not hilarious imagination at work?!
Burning Man was definitely surreal, undeniably indescribable, but very much a personal experience. One makes Burning Man however they want it to be – whether as a playground for music, all kinds of libations, or as a huge expanse of transformative space that leads one to reflect on where your little dot in the universe belongs. Or it could even be all of the above! One defines their own radical participation and freely chooses the manner in which they wish to do so. One lets go and one takes in according to their personal rhythm and I think that’s how an authentic empowering experience liberates. To some it took the form of participating in Furthursday or Tutu Tuesday (Merci, Dina and Tibo); for others it was venturing into an open mic performance, or giving free creepy hugs (a couple walked around bearing this sign!), or simply engaging in authentic interactions (Kirk, you’ll forever be my BM soul brother!).
I especially liked that in a true Burning Man community, one does not dictate how you should be or what you should wear. I believe that this is fundamental to its radical inclusion principle, one among 10 core BM principles. To simply be, to let others be, and to live each present moment well comprised the challenge and answer to burgin me. Happily so, there are no regrets.
I left Black Rock City after the burning of the Man and after witnessing an impressive pyrotechnics that accompanied this 26-year old ritual.
At the time, I recalled a similar evening in the interior mountains of Oriental Mindoro, around a circle of young and old indigenous Mangyan peoples, where the latter shared their oral history through chanting and poetry. These are moments that stay with us because the rituals and the circles signify more than an evening with the moon and stars. Very likely, these are moments when we unquestioningly savor simply existing, simply being, and relish the unique community of humanity.
Unlike my skydiving experience that was essentially a 13-second free fall, I’m still up in the Burning Man sky and not sure yet when and where I want to land.