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They Burn Men There, Don’t They? Part 2: Day and Night

November 18, 2010

Burning Man is often so hard to describe because one’s experiences there are not only so different from the outside world, but also from each other. It is not a music concert, a rave, a flash mob, an art festival or a costume party, though it contains all of these. And any given day might be radically different from another – so, too, are the days and nights, afternoons and mornings (if you actually manage to wake up for the mornings) and the beginning and the end. The only unifying thread is the utter contrast to the ‘real world’ (a place frequently discussed – and feared – at Burning Man).

The nighttime is the easiest to explain, though the hardest to recreate without several hundred tons of LED, glowstick and l-wire, several million watts of speaker power and, depending on your preference, whatever you decide to put in your system to augment those. The night is sound and vision, and a lot of it. The sound could be bassy and vibrating – dancing at one of the many stages scattered around the playa at night, to techno, trance, house and the occasional pop and hip-hop. It could be rhythmic, acoustic and local, a guitar and African drum picked up and played at one’s own camp with neighbors, friends and whomever wanders by. Visually, it is the pitch dark of the desert sky contrasted by the most impressive neon light display this side of Tokyo. Everyone is wrapped in glow cords and shining, blinking LEDs; the stages, buildings and ‘mutant vehicles’ (jury-rigged art cars) emit colorful spotlights, impressive and sometimes bizarre psychedelic displays and many, many bursts of propane-propelled fireballs. On one edge of the playa, one can often see Dr. Megavolt in his iron-cage-suit producing white-hot bolts of electricity using his homemade Tesla coil.

The desert daytime is hot – even without the help of the ubiquitous flamethrowers – and one either sleeps off the night or stumbles upon something strange to do, usually while searching for something else. On a daily basis, you don’t plan, don’t shave, don’t check one’s cell phone, don’t check e-mail or facebook or mirrors, don’t buy or sell anything, don’t bathe (with interesting exceptions…), and don’t even pay attention to time, though this makes attending Black Rock City’s many workshops more difficult (I successfully made it to only one of these). You don’t have to think about who one is going to hang out with or what you are going to eat for lunch. You’ll run into someone, or something, and it’ll all be free of charge, a gift given by a generous someone. You’ll strike up a conversation with them, learn something or have a good laugh, then leave and probably never run into them again, and this will repeat itself over and over the whole time there.

On the other hand, trying to meet with specific people, even during the day, is a mess. Over half of the plans that I made with a friend of mine, Theo, in a nearby camp, fell through. We finally made it out together on a slow afternoon worthy of an aimless walk – the best kind at Burning Man – and took off towards the playa. A large throng of people had gathered near the desert-empty Outer Playa. Curious, we walked out towards it. The large throng turned out to be, specifically, a large throng of topless women who were finishing a topless women’s marathon. Some of them boarded a mutant vehicle with a dance floor and were celebrating to music. A gruff older man with a blender hooked up to a chainsaw motor loudly made the ladies margaritas.

Neither of us being topless women – and therefore not welcome to either the margaritas or the naked runner’s after party – we decided to leisurely stroll back. While walking along one of the wide ‘boulevards’ at the quarter hours – 3, 6, 9 o’clock – we suddenly notice something small and fast moving towards us. Looking down, an RV truck has stopped right in front of our toes. Some trick, or a stray toy car terrorizing sandaled toes? After rubbing our eyes for a moment, we see that on top of the car was a bowl of chips, a bowl of guacamole, a bottle of tequila, salt, limes and shotglasses. On the front of the car was painted, in bright green and red letters “El Guaco”, bordered by two cartoon avocados. We laughed, took a shot and exclaimed the universal prayer of burner gratitude, “Thank you Playa!”

(Upcoming – Part 3: Pushing Boundaries)

This post was originally published at Painting the Passports Brown.

(Special thanks to Ida and Jess for the pictures)
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