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Burning Man 2003

Hmm... Describing Burning Man in words. It's difficult.

20 Sep 2003

OK, So after a mad all-night packing marathon and a long drive, I found myself in nevada around noon on monday august 25th, entering Black Rock City.

Black Rock City is the name of the Burning Man "city". For as long as it exists (just one week) it is the 7th largest city in the state of nevada, with 30,000 residents. Signs at the gate say 'Welcome Home', and after spending a week there i can see why people refer to it as their "spiritual home". oh yes, I will most definitely be going back again.

And there it was. a huge semi-circle of tents, stretching back for a mile or so, embracing a giant blue neon man surveying the building of the community from the top of a huge pyramid. we were on a flat expanse of fine sand known as the playa -- a now-dry prehistoric lakebed. The playa dust is highly alkali and incredibly drying, and it coats absolutely everything within seconds. My (yes, pink) hair was pretty much dreadlocked within a couple of days, and everyone looked porcelain-perfect with faces coated in creamy-coloured powder (albeit porcelain-perfect and about ten years older than usual, thanks to the dryness of the atmosphere).

And the actual event? It really is impossible to explain without making you get up off that ass and come with me next year. All the art, events and performances are put together by the community itself. That means that people just like you and me spend an entire year planning, practising and constructing their theme camp -- often putting thousands of hours of work and even more thousands of dollars into their project.

Our theme camp -- proclamation camp -- was comparitively low-key and low-budget: A couple of massive bilboards (contructed on-site, from midnight till dawn on tuesday!) covered with velcro, and a couple of bins filled with velcro letters, for people to DIY their own billboard proclamations. mucho fun for the tripping freaks, we woke most mornings to discover billboards covered with nonsensical combinations of symbols, letters and numbers. most of the time, though, the things people wrote were actually legible, and pretty clever at that.

Compare that effort (which was actually quite an effort, what with transporting huge pieces of timber cross-country and all), with the camp of the people next to us. known as clan destino, they were a group of trapeze artists and fire dancers, who twice a day put on incredible displays of stunning trapeze work (on an actual trapeze they built at the event), fire dancing, burlesque performance, and also ran a huge dance music tent and a couple of what're known as art cars.

Art cars are customised vehicles that roam the playa at around 5 miles an hour. the best ones are the huge converted buses that look like dragons, pirate ships, ballrooms... It's pretty funny to find yourself saying "watch out for the shark" or, "there's a colloseum coming this way" in the middle of the desert.

My absolute favourite art car was one discovered at dawn on the sunday morning after The Burn (The Burn is the BIG night, when they burn the man, and his pyramid -- all that work, and they only let him stand for a few days!): The Ambient Ambulance. The Ambient Ambulance drives around the event, distributing emergency chill to those in need of, well, chill. After a big night of walking, dancing and exploring, the ambient ambulance was an oasis in the desert. Literally. It was always freezing cold at dawn, and the ambulance had rolled out carpet covered in rugs, pillows and blankets. We cozied up under stacks of warmth and lay back in pure comfort as the sun rose over black rock city and the ambient ambulance crew distributed freshly made hot chai tea and grilled cheese sandwiches. It felt like the beginning of something, some kind of change or new start or second chance... and here's where all the description in the world fails and somehow degenerates into new-age waffle.

I really don't think burning man can be described. Maybe I should have kept a diary of each day, but even that wouldn't capture the atmosphere. It isn't an easy holiday; You need to be entirely self-sufficient. You need to supply all your own water and food. You need to not shower for eight days. You need to open your mind more than it already is, not matter how liberal you think you are. You need to brave the dryest and hottest days, white-out dust-storms, and freezing night-time temperatures. You are rewarded with the most incredible sun-rises and -sets I have ever seen, the bluest sky imaginable, and moments of absolute perfection and joy.

I found myself feeling the familiar atmosphere of the gathering, but in such an incredibly different environment it's hard to draw direct parallels. The biggest similarity is definitely the atmosphere of positivity and excitement, more a reminder of the earlier gatherings than the later ones, perhaps. But it's compounded by the extraordinary lengths people have taken to get there and the amount of effort that has gone into participating rather than being an audience member... Not to mention the far-harsher physical environment, which gives its own trials and rewards. there's nothing like a calm, clear, warm sunset after an afternoon of white-out duststorm!