November 22nd, 2022 | Let It Burn! I Went to Burning Man and Here Is What Happened.
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Zellich.
This year was intensive so far. The other day, I had a terrible day. All of a sudden, it came to my mind to text my friend, Nicole. When we talked on the phone on that memorable day, all of a sudden she asked if I would… go to Burning Man with her. And so we went.
Let’s Go to California!
This year was intensive so far — as I recently described in the article “House Is Not Home: How My Travels Influenced My Thoughts About Life.” It was primarily because I invested a lot more time and funds in myself than ever before.
Firstly, I finally took care of my mental health. I went for therapy, hypnotherapy, hug-therapy, and even acupuncture — you can read the whole story in the article “The Piano.”
Secondly, I took risks and invested a lot in my company. I first spent a month with my parents in Poland. Then, I went to Amsterdam for three months — you can read about some of my conclusions in the article “The Doctor Manhattan Syndrome.”
Subsequently, I made an expedition across the ocean and traveled all the way to California for another two months, to look for new avenues for my little company. I experienced a major culture shock — you can read about some of my conclusions in the article “Startup Culture in Bay Area vs Startup Culture in Amsterdam.”
I had high hopes related to my trip to California. For the past three years I was walking really hard on my company, and I still had no return on my work — which was deeply frustrating. But I also knew that this was mainly my own fault; I am not a natural salesperson and I tend to procrastinate sales and marketing tasks as much as I can.
So, I hoped to get inspired, try new projects, and meet new people. I also made a resolution to finally learn how to use elbows, better promote my work, and start putting a proper price tag on my time.
A Troubled Gal At the End of the World.
And so I dared to come all the way to California to solve my problems… and for a long time, it didn’t work the way I expected. I was going to meetups, I tried to organize some meetups by myself, talking to people, coaching, and working on a new book.
And I felt once again that I was pedaling in vain as for the time being, nothing was really changing about my situation. I didn’t feel like I fought for myself well enough all over again. Plus, I was as far away from home and from friends as one can be, and with a pretty empty account as I constantly reinvest in my company.
But that was not the end of inconvenience. Just a few weeks before I left Europe, I had visited my parents in Poland and we had a wild argument — I still don’t even understand. It seemed to me that my presence was just infuriating them, no matter what I did or said.
Plus, my sister lives in a huge house in Mountain View together with her husband, but she refuses to have any contact with me (I also don’t even know why). And so I lived in a dorm with four other people in the room while my sister and her rich husband were staying in their villa just ten kilometers apart.
For worse, I had no car and we were located quite far away from the center of the Bay Area, so locomotion was quite hard. People in the house were intelligent and colorful, but they had completely different lives and problems than me. And everyone but me cars, which was frustrating.
The other day, I had a terrible day. I got an anxiety attack and was hyperventilating in my corner of the room. And then, all of a sudden, it came to my mind to text my friend, Nicole.
How I Found Myself In the Desert of Nevada.
Nicole is an awesome person whom I met just two weeks earlier at the local, legendary Hackerspace, Hacker Dojo. She was a lab manager, full-stack software developer, a former pilot, and an engaged hacker in free time. Somehow, we bonded really quickly, despite having so different backgrounds.
When we talked on the phone on that memorable day when I was at my lowest point, all of a sudden she asked if I would… go to Burning Man with her. “I have all the equipment, and a space in my tent. We just need to find you a ticket and off we go!” — she said.
At first, I was shocked. I had heard of Burning Man for many, many years — mostly because in Europe, it had a status of a cult, hardcore, exotic festival where crazy things always happen.
Every August, social media was full of colorful pictures of smiling celebs, extravagant art pieces in the desert fire, drinks, dances, dust — you name it. Indeed, lots of big names in the entertainment industry visit Burning Man each year. This year alone, celebs such as Paris Hilton, Cindy Crawford, Puff Diddy, Heidi Klum, Karlie Kloss, or Diplo were all seen in the Playa.
Anyway, while watching the photos over the years, I could never guess that one day I would make it by myself.
To Go Or Not To Go? That’s The Question.
To go or not to go? — I was asking myself. On the one hand the festival was expensive, time-costly, and might be physically draining. I would need to spend the whole 10 days without the Internet — which sounded like forever, especially to a solopreneur with a company in infancy.
On the other hand though, I am weirdly religious. Whenever too many stars line up at a time, I feel like it is either gods in action, or it is my own subconsciousness taking charge of events. Whatever that is, the conclusion is the same: just do it!
Especially in this situation, I felt like this gift was dropped to my hands from the sky at the perfect moment. I felt cornered, out of energy, and out of ideas on how to get out of the situation.
And this invitation to Burning Man was like once in a lifetime opportunity. If someone asked you: “Hey, would you like to join the Oscars Ceremony with me tomorrow?,” wouldn’t you go? Most people would put aside all the projects, pack, and go. I definitely would.
Besides, when a patient’s heart slowly stops on the operation table, what do you do? Do you hug them? No. You place electrodes on their chest and put an electric current through their body. And that was it — my own shock therapy.
At first, some of my housemates couldn’t believe that I would take such a prompt decision to go to a festival which people typically prepare for for months.
But I must say that I was really lucky. Nicole had a ton of equipment and she could easily accommodate two people. It was her third Burning Man and she was perfectly aware of what to expect at the site. Her living room was full of stuff, from the floor to the ceiling. We barely managed to squeeze into the car.
And so we went on the 8-hour drive toward the Nevada desert, with a break for shopping at a grocery store.
Our preparations and trip to Nevada with Nicole.
What Is Burning Man, Actually?
So, Burning Man is more than just a festival. It is a community, a movement, a life philosophy, or a lifestyle. The annual festival in the Nevada desert (as well as dozens of local events all around the world) is only an annual gathering of the Burning Man’s supporters (also known as Burners), and a common celebration — which is a tip of the iceberg.
The event is often related to as transformative, or even transcendental. Many people report taking career-changing decisions during the festival; they decide to start new careers, move to another part of the world, leave long-term partners, and whatnot. This phenomenon is so common that one tip that all fresh Burners get is “Don’t ditch your job right after coming back from Burning Man” or “Don’t make radical life changing decisions in the next 30 days.”
Of course, as a Mekka for techies, celebs, and hippies primarily coming here from California, but also flying in from all around the world), Burning Man generates controversy as the outlet where “the rich cosplay the poor.” There are also tons of epic stories and anecdotes flying around the festival. For instance, the founders of Google, Sergey Grin and Larry Page, famously took Martin Schmidt to Burning Man to test whether he could let go of his ego and merge with the crowd. As he passed the test, they made him the CEO of the company.
But how did it all start? Well, the beginnings were quite modest. The festival tradition started back in 1986 (the same as my life, actually) Baker Beach in San Francisco as a niche, hipster bonfire ritual on the summer solstice. Larry Harvey and Jerry James built the first statue of Burning Man and established a nine-day festival (leading up to and including Labor Day) around it.
The name of the festival comes from the wooden statue of Burning Man, burned during a ceremony happening on the penultimate day of the festival.
The festival gained in size and recognition over the years. In 1997 the event permanently moved to at Black Rock City, a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert in the Pershing County in Nevada, about 100 miles (160 km) North-Northeast of Reno.
While in 1986, the first edition of Burning Man attracted 20 attendees, this year the attendance was roughly 80,000 souls. Today, the spirit of Burning Man spread across the globe and hundreds of small, local editions of the event are organized all around the world, including South Africa, Taiwan, New Zealand, or the Netherlands.
There is also a series of the “Decompression” events, typically happening a short time after the main event. These are reunion parties where you can rest with other Burners, share memories, and mentally prepare for the next burn.
If you would like to hear more about the history behind Burning Man, especially from the architectonic point of view, please take a look at this documentary by an acclaimed architect, Dami Lee, available on YouTube.
Indeed, my housemates who were also former participants of Burning Man, were talking about the festival with great deal of sentiment and respect. I could see that they were emotionally attached to this culture and they would like to return to the festival as soon as possible.
On Burners and Their Common Habits.
As mentioned before, Burning Man is much more than a festival — it is also a living, breathing community. In 2004, ten guiding principles of the festival were formulated. These are: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.
Gifting and radical self-reliance are the interesting ones, as in many ways, they are contradictory.
Gifting means that you should be selfless and develop an attitude in which you will be willing to contribute to the festival and its participants as much as you can, donating your time, effort, and possibly some material goods as well. And of course, you won’t leave strangers in need without help. There is even a saying, “Playa provides,” meaning that if you need something, you will sooner magically find it in the Playa, as other Burners will rush to help you.
On the other hand though, self-reliance means that you don’t count on any help. You should bring all the equipment and supplies with you, and be self-sufficient for the whole duration of the festival so that you don’t need to ask for any help. Once you are at the festival, you are not allowed to leave Black Rock City and then come back — leaving is a one-way ticket. So, you need to make sure you don’t run out of supplies or equipment.
It was surprising to me how some people were treating self-reliance. I could ask them about the time in the street, and instead of looking at the watch, they would angrily say, “Self-reliance, sis!” and walk away. Pricks.
The Consent and the Slang.
The festival also has strict rules when it comes to consent. It would be naive to expect that 80,000 people consuming tons of alcohol won’t engage in any entertainment involving sexual behaviors. Instead of trying to ignore the elephant in the room, the organizers openly talk about consent. The leading rule at the festival is, “If it is not ‘Hell yes!,’ it is ‘No.’”
What was also a nice discovery for me, was that Burners had the tendency to bear hug each other. And come on, what is better in this world than bear hugs!
Burning Man also has its own slang. For instance, MOOP means “Matter out of Place” and Obtainium means all the items you acquire during Burning Man as gifts or objects found in the dust.
What brought my attention was the common greeting at the festival, “Fuck your burn!” People greeted me with these words so often that at some point, I started asking them what this means.
To my surprise, no one knew the answer. People were looking at me as if they just got a facepalm. My personal theory is that this greeting is supposed to mean “Make best out of your Burning Man experience!” — but I don’t know for sure.
The Three Types of Burners.
In general, there are three groups of Burners: builders, attendees, and last-weekend attendees.
Builders are all those who come to the festival a few days, or even a few weeks earlier, and build all these impressive buildings, art pieces, and constructions for the participants to attend.
Attendees are the people like Nicole and me — participants who come and stay solely for the time of the festival. Of course, attendees also take an active part in the festival and contribute, but to a minor extent compared to builders.
The last group is the late attendees who only come for the last weekend of the festival. These people are usually Instagram influencers and banana kids.
They are not willing to make all the effort to stand the heat, cold nights, sand storms, and all the other inconveniences during the week. They just come to the place to take part in the closing parties and ceremonial burns — to take spectacular photos and promote themselves on social media.
It is easy to recognize this crowd, as they look more rested and take more care of their appearance than all the others.
Warning: This Festival Is Addictive!
I also noticed that most Burners were recidivists — they were returning to Burning Man multiple times, often for decades. Actually, the first timers like me were in the minority.
The organizers and other Burners used to call such newcomers virgins. I tried to explain to them that “an unmarried Polish woman” and “a virgin” are not synonyms. But eventually, I spent the whole festival as a virgin anyways.
Actually, during Burning Man, you could also receive your own, individual festival name — but you could not pick that name by yourself; someone else needs to give it to you. If you didn’t enjoy your festival name, then well, bad luck — you had to gracefully carry it anyways. Under you went to a special camp where you could go through a ritual to take it off.
Lastly, at the festival, people are chilled and don’t rush anywhere. It makes no sense as many events happen spontaneously in the streets. That’s why your plans change all the time. If you make an appointment with someone, you need to accept that they will likely be late — which is often referred to as “Playa time,” meaning “give or take.”
As mentioned before, the festival takes place in the desert of Nevada. The festival site is referred to as Playa. It is an inhospitable, ancient lake flat made of alkaline dust. Burners treat the dust at the Playa as sacred. Leaving any MOOP or throwing out liquids (including water!) into the dust of the Playa is frowned upon.
The organizers care that the area is left intact after the festival. Despite the strict rules of the festival, they carefully clean after the event and make sure that the dust as well as the structure of the sand below the surface of the Playa are left in perfect condition.
Black Rock City is laid out like a clock. Half of the circle is dedicated to camping. The other half is a giant open space reserved for art and referred to as “Deep Playa.” The camping is sectioned into blocks, which are then sectioned into about 1,500 camps.
Plan of the Playa, source: Duncan Rawlison, Flickr.
The main pavement along the edge of the Deep Playa (and at the same time, the most prestigious spot to camp) is called de Esplanade. Car traffic is not allowed there, and at night, the place turns into a real festival of lights.
Every camp at Burning Man has a designated spot marked with a letter and a number to name the block, a name, as well as a central theme around which the camp provides some form of service or entertainment to the festival. It can be anything, from a bar, through dancing, a party, a maintenance point, an art car, a game to play, to a photo booth.
As a Burner, you have a choice: you can either join a camp or camp on your own in the outskirts of the event. Each choice has its pros and cons.
If you join a camp, you are guaranteed access to a ticket for the event. You can also share facilities with your camp members, such as a room under special constructions screening tents from sunshine, a shower or food supplies. You also feel safer in a pack, although the festival is generally safe.
But at the same time, you need to share duties with other camp members, which often means building stuff or taking shifts at the facilities provided by the camp. Camps are also rated for performance and cleanness after the festival and placed accordingly the following year.
The closer to the Deep Playa the more prestigious spot for the camp. So, as a camp member, you have the responsibility to leave the place perfectly clean or otherwise, you pull your campmates down.
Camping on your own, on the other hand, gives you a lot of personal freedom as you can decide by yourself how you wish to contribute to the festival. On the other hand though, you are placed in a distance from all the main buildings and facilities and you have no personal support from camp mates.
When I arrived at the Playa, I got a deja vu. The place looked almost entirely like the cover of my own book, “How to Navigate in the Job Market and Shine in the Job Interviews,” that I planned and made together with my graphic designer just a few weeks earlier — without knowing that I would soon find myself at this unique festival. “Am I Medium or was that fate?” — I was asking myself.
Organization of the Event.
I must say that I had mixed feelings about the organization of the event. Many elements were organized just perfectly. The Burning Man company managing the festival gives away grants for art, and the results are stunning. Many installations and art cars are true masterpieces. The whole Deep Playa is a giant, living and breathing art gallery, better than any gallery I have ever seen before.
The organizers also care about safety. There is a station for rangers and a police station. Although it is better to avoid American police at all costs, rangers are the people to go to with all kinds of problems.
They are Burning Man veterans and volunteers who serve as a civil patrol, maintenance crew, professional negotiators, and first aid in one. No need to say that they are highly respected individuals at the event and everyone wants to drink with them.
There is also fantastic healthcare at the festival, including facilities such as an Xray scanner and an operation room. At the festival, I met a guy who got his liver operated on during the event — it’s no joke. In normal conditions, such an operation costs $20,000 or more. If you try to figure out how to get cheap healthcare in the US, now you know. The ticket to Burning Man is about $500.
However, I felt that some elements of the festival are not well thought through. The toilets were incredibly dirty, hot on the inside, stinky, and disgusting. I attended many festivals, and never have I ever seen anything like this before. They clearly stick out as the worst part of the festival.
The Burning Man as the Symbol of the Festival.
As mentioned before, the pivotal moment of the festival is burning the Burning Man. On the inside of the Burning Man statue, there are selected art exhibits which Burners can see for the whole week preceding the burn.
This time around, there were a total of 34 exhibits, with a team of 2-20 contributors behind each one of them. Of course, the art that got burned together with the whole statue during the burn ceremony.
Every year, the design of Burning Man as well as the scenario for the show, and the pyrotechnic effects durn the burn, are different. The burn always happens on the penultimate day of the festival.
Many people come to the festival specifically to watch the ceremonial burn, happening accompanied by music, wild dances with fire, and spectacular fireworks.
What does burning the Burning Man symbolize? Officially, it means “the rebirth of not only the Man, but of the community as well.” But in fact, it means something else to every Burner. It is just like any other piece of art — open to interpretation and you make whatever you like off of it.
Of course, I was attending the burn. Suddenly, at the beginning of the ceremony, the Burning Man raised its arms. I asked around about what it means. Nobody around me knew the answer, but everyone had their own theory. Some people were speculating that raising arms is like an invitation to attend the ceremony. Others were saying that raised arms is a sign of succumbing to fire.
Overall, this burn was a joyful celebration, with people cheering a lot. The crowd was getting fierce every time and yelled like attendees of a football match every time a part of the statue was falling down in fire. This crowd behavior gave me some flavor of a destructive, barbarian tribe like the villagers from The Wicker Man.
After the ceremony, I asked a few Burning Man veterans how they experienced the burn. Everyone had a different opinion. Some people were complaining that the statue was too small or that it burned too fast. In general however, they were pointing out that there were more lights and less fire than it used to be in the past.
The Burning Man statue is not the only object burned during the festival. Yet another important object is the wooden temple, often referred to as “the soul of the festival” — a large construction facing the statue of Burning Man and burned on the last day of the festival, marking the official ending of the event.
Some participants have a strong spiritual connection with the temple. Others visit it as a place of contemplation, a place of reflection, a place of reunions. However, today, the temple is mostly used as the place to grieve and say, “Goodbye” to friends and family who passed away recently. If anyone among your family, friends, or pets died, you are free to leave a note in paper or written on the walls of the temple, so that it can be burned during the ceremony.
You can also leave a note with a wish, or a dream. I left my note there too.
The temple burning ceremony is way different from the Burning Man burning ceremony. It is much more somber and silent, and gives some religious vibes for a change. Many people cry at the burn, while others just stare at the fire, deep in thoughts. To me, it felt like one of the Sunday masses I used to attend as a kid.
I also had my own theory about the temple, namely that it materializes dreams like Solaris from Stanisław Lem’s book. I visited the construction on Saturday evening, just before the temple got closed for the incoming burn.
I was thirsty and I missed my favorite drug, namely Coke. And what did I find in the middle of the temple? A whole new 1-liter bottle of Coke! How come? Literally in the middle of the desert. Playa provides.
My Personal Experience At Burning Man 2022.
And now, let’s talk a little bit about my personal experience at Burning Man. First to say, taking the decision to go to Burning Man was harder for me than the experience in itself. I was scared to leave my company alone for 10 days.
But at the same time, the vision of spending 10 days without the internet was truly tempting. As it turned out, I was able to fully immerse myself in this fancy world and forget about anything else.
I felt unleashed after over 3 years of staying glued to my computer non stop. Even when I was taking a day off within this time, I was never fully free from emails, notifications, and social media.
I also have to say that the timing of the event was just perfect. End of August and the beginning of September is when everyone in the Western culture comes back from vacations and gears up for work. Which means that it is downtime. No major decisions are taken, no budget is spent… Nothing important happens.
Furthermore, I was very lucky to meet Nicole this summer. She is a superhuman who can repair anything, generally has a good mood, and solves problems really quickly. We gave each other plenty of freedom. We sometimes went places together but in general, we explored the festival in our own ways.
Nicole brought me with her to her camp, Ebb & Glow. The population of the camp was about 100 souls, mostly in their 50ies and 60ies. It astonished me how many middle-aged people go to Burning Man in general. I met thousands and thousands of them!
The Ebb & Glow camp. Photos #1, #2, #3: courtesy of Stephen Zellich. Photos #4, #5, #6: Natalia.
The main facilities at the Ebb & Glow camp were the Piano Bar with a giant piano inside, the bike shop (which was a DIY bike repair point) and a dream spa where one could refresh their face, palm and feet using cosmetic nourishing masks.
Just like everybody else, I had to take on some duties during the festival. As a Polish, I felt qualified to become a barmaid at the Piano Bar.
Interestingly, the Piano Bar was conveniently spotted on the opposite side of the street from the Orgy Dome, a facility “for couples and moresomes.” Every night, hundreds of couples were waiting outdoors hoping to get in and enjoy a swingers club experience. The Cuddle Dome looked much cooler than the Orgy Dome if you ask me, but what do I know!
Since only couples and groups were let into the Dome, dozens of single men were walking into the Piano bar every evening, looking for a partner to get into the Dome with. So, in fact I had two roles, as a barmaid and a matchmaker. How nice.
The Orgy Dome. I sent this photo to my parents right after Burning Man so that they know that I am having fun.
At night, I used to walk down the Esplanade. Camps on the left, and glowing bikes and art cars on the right — it looked like walking down the beach next to the ocean, and observing all the sea monsters and mysterious creatures living deep in the ocean on the right hand side. Slow, huge art cars were moving like whales surrounded by small bikes galloping like plankton. The view reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of Love, Death and Robots, “Fish Night.”
I also experienced a sentimental moment while walking down the Esplanade. On my first evening at the Playa, I strolled down the Esplanade, amazed by this whole spectacular festival of lights when all of a sudden, I noticed a middle-aged, composed man sitting on a bench and observing the crowd. His name was Esteban, and he offered me a bag of M&Ms for no reason (well, Playa provides – that’s the reason I guess). So, I sat down with him to have a little chat. And a few minutes later, I walked away.
The other day, when the festival was about to end, I passed by Esplanade at night once again. And who do my old eyes see? Esteban, sitting on the same bench! When we noticed me, he jumped toward me and said with tears in his eyes that he had been sitting on this bench every evening for the whole festival, hoping that I would pass by again. How cool and moving (but also weird) is that!
Deep Playa at night. Source: Flickr.
You also need to know that Playa is a special place where professionals of all kinds come to present their extraordinary skills, and to gift other Burners by using their talent and knowledge on behalf of others. The other evening, I was just passing by Ebb & Glow when some young man from our camp stood in my way, saying, “Please hurry! We have an acupuncture session run by a practitioner with 25 years of experience here. The session will close in 20 minutes, and we still have free beds. Are you in?”
I am afraid of needles, veins, blood, and anything related, so at first, I was disgusted at a bare thought that I could go for something like this. On the other hand though, how can you just say “no!” to something that you don’t even know? That’s an approach not worthy of a scientist. She was there, she was experienced, and I was a troubled enough to search for any new ideas for how to heal my mind and body. So, I just said, “OK then!” and I walked into her tent.
To my surprise, she started the session from asking me a few questions about my health and mental health. While I was talking about the topics that bothered me, she kept on nodding in silence and starring at me with her big brown eyes.
When I finished, she only said one word: “Kidney!” According to her, my kidneys were too weak and that was the primary reason for all my troubles. Then, she put me on one of the beds and gently wiggled 14 ultra-thin needles into my body, mostly my head, palms, feet, and knees, and let me stay in one position for 20 minutes.
I’s also like to mention that she forgot to take off one of the needles from my body. So, unaware of the fact, I walked out of the tent with some disgusting little needle sticking out of my left knee. What a perfect situation for someone with a phobia of needles! Remember: trust your acupuncturist but still check their work.
Do I believe that this whole session might work? Well, as a neuroscientist, I can tell that Western research mostly focuses on the brain, while we still don’t know much about the peripheral nervous system. Who knows, perhaps 5,000 years of Chinese tradition of sticking needles into human body led to some interesting discoveries.
I was surprised with the Burning Man magic though. While in daily life, I would probably run from any needle, here, it seem natural to just go with the flow and join the session.
Nine days on the Playa sound like a long time but trust me: there is not enough time to see everything that is worth seeing. You have to choose something and work out a strategy for how to effectively trespass the festival site. I am not as much into art as I am into people. My assumption was that, I could always watch the artwork online while most of the Burners I wouldn’t see ever again. So, people first.
As a cluster of interesting individuals, Burning Man was a perfect place to make brand new friends. I indeed met lots of people with interesting professions whom I would probably never encounter in daily life. For instance, I made friends with a horror movie director and with a girl who was planning to open a hotel for rabbits right after coming back from Burning Man.
And no wonder that you meet so many interesting people at Burning Man. When you decompose the event into elements, it’s nothing else than a gigantic party with well preselected participants. Only those who have enough cash to pay for the tickets and enough determination to complete the equipment and get to the location can participate. That’s quite a harsh selection.
Of course, I know that for the most part, friends met at Burning Man are single-use friends. People come from all around the world to meet at the festival, so the probability of ever meeting them again is close to zero. Well I guess things get worse when your single-use friends don’t realize that they are single-use friends.
Of course, I was also dancing as much as I could — dancing is my best painkiller. After over two years of a lockdown, I couldn’t spend my festival nights in any better way. During the lockdown, I was so dance-deprived that I even took a plane to Stockholm for one weekend last winter, only to dance in the clubs and then come back (Sweden was the only place in Europe where clubs were still open at that point).
Dancing has such a healing effect on me that I immediately let go and forget all the problems. So, nothing was bothering me on the dance floor. Even herds of half-naked influencers were not bothersome at all. Well, they usually can’t move anyway, they just trot with drinks in their hands.
With respect to the weather and overall conditions, Burning Man was less painful than I had expected. I had some problems with swollen feet on the last day of the festival and the heat really got me at that moment. But other than that, all was fine — despite the fact that it was the hottest edition of the festival to date.
Well, I am no princess in general. As an undergrad student in Warsaw, I went on camping trips and I often slept way below the freezing point. As a rule, I spend one night a year sleeping on a bench, and I often attend saunas where I spend hours in temperatures close to the boiling point.
So, the weather at Burning Man was nothing impressive. To be honest, it was the most luxurious camping conditions that I have ever experienced. People, food, and drinks everywhere, no real danger, medical care, impossible to get lost. Most comfortable vacation ever!
Perhaps that’s why, next to dancing and talking to people, I challenged myself physically. I intentionally walked through the streets of the Playa in a sandstorm. I guess I just wanted to breathe smoke, and a bleeding nose was not about to stop me. And I told a friend to bite me and to beat the shit out of me in the Orgy Dome.
I also went to the nearby Spanky’s Wine Bar. At Spanky’s, you have to roll a dice, and depending on the outcome, you either get spanks from a professional spank master named (surprise, surprise!) Spanky or a glass of bad wine.
I drew a spanking session, so I walked into a tent with Spanky and his spanking installation inside. “Put your pants down” — says Spanky. So I did.
Well, it turned out that professional spanking is completely not my thing. So, during the session I started talking to Spanky. He told me his whole career story. So it turned out that he had worked in the adult movie industry in Los Angeles for 20 years before coming to Burning Man.
I couldn’t not ask him this question: “So, is coming here and spanking drunk people in a dusty tent in the Nevada desert an actual career progress or regress?” “Hum” — answered Spanky and spanked me really hard.
Ech, I will have memories…
Getting Out Of The Festival Is a Nightmare.
The traffic jams after the festival are legendary as most people try to leave the Playa on the same day, namely Monday, the next day after the ceremonial burn of the Temple. Of course, you can leave earlier but then, you miss out on the pivotal moments of the festival, namely the burns. You can also leave the site later. But then, you need to face the feeling of abandonment that happens after every party where you are one of the last participants to leave.
And so we stood in a gigantic traffic jam for about 9 hours. Fortunately, many people around still had food and booze. They were leaving their vehicles, chatting, or even playing frisbee or doing yoga in groups. So, this long day was just one more, final chance to meet new Burners. Plus after over a week of partying, mostly separate from each other, Nicole and me had LOTS of juicy stories to tell to each other.
After the festival, the superhuman Nicole drove us all the way to Lake Tahoe, where we stayed overnight at the house of her friend, the head of the Burning Hearth community, Jack. Burning Hearth is one of the communities that grew around the Burning Man festival over the years. Burning Hearth was created with the purpose of spreading Burning Man’s values and philosophy across the globe. And Lake Tahoe was a magic place. If only I could still walk!
We also tested for corona virus, and fortunately, none of us caught it despite the fact that we used to bear hug hundreds of people during the festival. I classify this in the miracle category.
Now, I would like to share a few observations about Burning Man that might sound interesting to you.
1. Apparently, there is no limit on the age and species of the festival participants.
At the site, I encountered a 1-year-old infant, a 6-year-old kid, as well as a dog.
2. You choose your level of comfort.
Officially, you have a choice between camping in an RV or a tent. But in fact, if your pockets are deep enough, you can have as luxurious a stay at Burning Man as you wish. There are travel offices offering all-inclusive tours that include everything from a luxurious RV with air conditioning through a cleaning crew to a personal chef. But without dust and sweat, what’s the point?
3. The easiest thing to find on Playa is alcohol.
This sounds like heaven, I know. But booze is, in principle, easier to get than water or food — especially in the last few days of the festival. As a barmaid, I had this problem: in the midst of the festival, all the mixers went out. I had a choice if to pour pure liquors or come up with some crippled solution.
In the end, I took a gallon of water and poured powder with electrolytes into it. Water with electrolytes tastes a bit like a weak lemon juice, so in absence of better mixers, it would do the job. And I could always produce more.
By the way, by the occasion of serving as a barmaid, I also discovered that I know nothing about cocktails. I just drink them, but that’s it. People were approaching me with simple requests such as “One margarita, please!” and I was standing there wondering how I will manage this without Google. What the hell goes into Margarita?
Touching the topic of electrolytes: Americans are crazy about it and don’t move anywhere without it. When they hear “Electrolytes,” their eyes light up. This enthusiasm reminded me of the “Idiocracy” movie so much that I was amused every time I saw it.
5. If you visit Orgy Dome, your status among Burners goes up.
As mentioned before, I sneaked into the Orgy Dome together with a friend — just to see it on the inside (of course!). It happened on the very last night the Dome was actually open, on the penultimate night of the festival.
When you walk into the Dome, they give you a characteristic, red hand bracelet. The next morning, I went to dance at sunrise, and I noticed how people reacted to this bracelet. They were coming to me, and congratulated me as if I did something spectacular or “hardcore.” Many people were curious about the Dome and asked how it was, admitting that they had no balls to walk in. Apparently, my status among Burners went up.
Hence, the lesson: the next time, I will go to Orgy Dome on the first night and then walk around with the bracelet for the whole week. That must be a whole different Burning Man experience!
6. If you have a checklist, start early.
If you have a list of locations and art pieces that you wish to visit, start as early as possible. During the festival, I discovered that many camps wrap up much earlier than promised. According to the official agenda, many camps were supposed to keep their exhibits until Saturday or even Sunday, while they were already gone from the festival on Friday.
So, since many camps do not deliver on their promises, start sightseeing as soon as you arrive at the Playa.
7. If you want to meet a particular person, you need to plan ahead.
Similarly, if you want to meet a particular person, you need to plan ahead, as Black Rock City is huge like a regular city and the probability of meeting someone by chance is close to zero. Plus, you have no Internet connection or phone reception.
So, if you know that a friend will be present at the festival, ask them about the coordinates of their camp.
I was actually extremely lucky as I met Charl, a friend from grad school from Nijmegen, just passing by the Piano Bar. We even went to a dance class in the middle of a sandstorm together. It was quite something!
My friend from grad school, Charl. So it turned out that his research consortium sponsored his trip to Burning Man this year. This is how our taxes are being spent, Ladies and Gentlemen!
8. Watch out: you might gain some weight!
One might think that high temperatures, camping, dance parties, and biking in the sand are perfect conditions to lose some weight. But don’t be fooled! In fact, the abundance of food and alcohol at the site and the fact that other Burners eagerly invite you to cheer by whisky or tequila day in day out, might gain you quite some weight.
So, if you are health-aware, you will be tempted to break all your rules. And if you surrender, well, prepare for a harsh diet when you come back.
9. Go for it with people whom you trust.
The quality of your Burning Man experience depends linearly on the quality of your companions. Even if you have the best brand new equipment, the dust at the Playa is merciless — things will break all the time along the way. So, take the right people with you and make sure that they are solid problem solvers.
Conclusions From the Festival.
This year’s Burning Man had a tagline “Waking Dreams.” And so it turns out that my dreams are rather uncomplicated. To be happy, I just need booze, dance, and bear hugs.
Also, to my mind, Burning Man is NOT a transcendental experience. It is also not a networking event, and not a gigantic amusement park. It is something different to everyone because you choose what you want to make off of it. I think that my way of experiencing the festival was different from what it is for most Americans, and I will tell you why.
So, for Americans, a place where no one is judgmental of each other, where you can let go, drink and dance in the streets, do whatever you like and feel safe, where everyone is equal and the culture assumes radical inclusivity, is exotic and appealing.
For me, this is the default — I live in the Netherlands and I have all these qualities in daily life. I am surrounded by extremely tolerant people, and I function in an environment where no one talks about others behind their back.
Moreover, Americans are known for their fast lifestyle which doesn’t leave much time for thinking about life. In American culture, you spend hours commuting every day, you work for long hours, and spend evenings cooking and keeping up with the news, TV series, cleaning around your enormous house, and catching up with friends. There is no room left for philosophical discussions on a daily basis.
In the Netherlands, life works differently. Everything is close, houses are small, we don’t overwork ourselves, we don’t cook as much, and we are happy with sandwiches for the most part. We have way too much time for thinking about life, values, and people.
Maybe that’s why I spent the festival in a “high school mode.” Instead of looking for life-changing thoughts, I was searching for the strangest and most outrageous things and activities you can possibly imagine. I took a late night ride through the Deep Playa on a giant banana. I took drugs. I pranked people. I spontaneously went for an acupuncture session despite I have fear of needles. Ten days pass by in no time! Work hard play hard, as they say.
And I am tougher on my mind than I thought. There was no point during the whole festival when I would even have a thought about leaving the place. Even better, despite my early worries, I didn’t feel any urge to use the Internet and to come back to the outer world. Many people say that Burning Man is a crazy experience. Well, to me, Burning Man is the normal, and the whole rest of the world in the crazy part.
You might also ask: so, in what condition did you find your own company after Burning Man? Actually, after coming back, I discovered that pretty much nothing has happened around my company 🙂 There were no important emails at my account, and the subcontractors got lazy when they were not watched. When the cat is away the mice play I guess. So, all projects were frozen for 10 days straight. But maybe that’s for the better. After all, it was my first and probably last real vacation in a long time =]
The beauty of the festival. Source: Duncan Rawlison, Flickr.
So, How Do I Feel After Attending Burning Man?
Well, I felt like at the festival, I was much more appreciated as a person than I used to be in daily life. I felt beautiful and understood. Maybe that’s why, right after coming back, I felt that for some reason, the rest of the world beyond Burning Man does not notice my value. For that reason, I felt some form of a fury and I wanted to see the whole world burn. I calmed down only after a day or two.
I also brought a souvenir from the festival. Namely, my butt got sunburned, and for a few days, I didn’t have a chance to take proper care of a wound that opened right across one of the buttocks. A month or two later, my skin healed, but I still see a dark stain whenever I look at my butt in the mirror, and it is likely to stay there for years and years. This festival really kicks ass.
I also think that with age, I appreciate the sense of humor in people more and more. My feeling is that people in the US, and especially here at Burning Man, are genuinely funnier than they are in the Netherlands. In NL, I can go bar hopping with friends, or go to a festival together… but we never really laugh together. I missed that.
And if I ever come to the festival again, I think it would be a great test for a serious relationship, for at least a few reasons. First, there is some amount of inconvenience which is irritating, so that you can check if your partner is laid back in such unusual conditions.
You definitely need to work in a team to solve problems together. Every day, some equipment will break. You will lose some items in the dust, you will run out of ice, some food will perish, you will miss some events, someone will get sore feet or sore eyes…
Moreover, there is a lot of temptation all around the place. Good looking people are everywhere, often walking around naked or semi-naked. Take that, plus hectoliters of alcohol, drugs, and hypnotizing music, and you have a great testing ground for your relationship. The desert brings the truth about people to the surface.
Funny enough, now after I am back, most friends are only interested in the Burning Man story, or even introduce me to their friends as “Natalia who has been to Burning Man.” Hey, don’t I have any more life achievements? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps this was the pivotal moment of life and now I am on the way straight down. I am kidding of course.
Can This Madness Last Forever?
So, what do I think about Burning Man, overall? Well, I feel it was a great adventure. But at the same time, it was only an adventure. I met Burners who believe in utopia and daydream about building a permanent version of Black Rock City, and moving there.
They don’t take into account that attending Burning Man is like living on credit. You take vacation and invest in the equipment and food which burns lots of funds. Plus, you leave the festival physically exhausted. It is not a sustainable lifestyle.
And so, this is it. I am a Burner now. I burned my fears in the desert, at least symbolically. Did it make me a better person? Probably not. In the short term, the main difference was that I grew a tire from eating and drinking non-stop. In the long term — we will see.
Are you thinking of visiting Burning Man in the future? Would you like to chat with me about my Burning Man experience? Just contact me! I will be happy to share.
Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2022, November 22nd). Let It Burn! I Went to Burning Man and Here Is What Happened. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/let-it-burn-what-happened-at-burning-man/
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