Before the pandemic, there was a unique gathering in the desert of Nevada where a temporary city was created. This place had come to be known as Black Rock City, and was the home of Burning Man. The event happened towards the end of August and the start of September of every year.
In 2017, I had the privilege of traveling to experience Burning Man to celebrate my 40th birthday. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience, as it was all about sensory immersion. Let me describe what it was like to be there by engaging in its 10 Principles, which reflect the community’s culture and ethos.
1. Radical inclusion
I believe Burning Man was a microcosm of the world, except that there were no judgments on people’s origins, political or religious views, sexual orientation, gender, age, educational attainment, economic status, and marital status. None of that mattered here. People from all backgrounds came here, and everyone embraced collective diversity. Everyone was welcome and treated with the respect a human being deserves. This place was the ultimate leveling field. In this place, every person was called a “Burner.”
I was intrigued when I found out that we didn’t need to spend money in this place (except for coffee and ice). Generosity abounded. For example, all you needed to do was bring your mug wherever you went, and you were all set, as people offered you drinks (including alcohol!). There was a place where I got free pizza and ice cream. My friend gave away lollipops. I gave away my beef jerky to anyone hungry.
All you needed to do was bring your mug wherever you went, and you were all set, as people offered you drinks (including alcohol!)
I never saw a Google, Microsoft, or Amazon signage anywhere—nor any other form of commercial advertising for that matter. And why should there be, especially if money didn’t exist in this place? Imagine a space where you didn’t get bombarded by product brand names with the intent of getting you to buy. Well, the Playa was such a place, and it just allowed you the freedom to be and to act without needing to worry about being sold anything.
4. Radical self-reliance
As I had to live in a desert for nine days, I learned to be a “boy scout” here. I had to ensure I had enough provisions for my food, water, shelter, transport, and other supplies, so I didn’t become someone else’s burden. I needed to look after my hygiene, given there were no proper bathrooms and showers. Wet wipes were particularly helpful for this. Essentially, I needed to learn how to survive and make use of the resources available to me. I was fortunate enough that my friends and I rented an RV van, which provided a level of “luxury” as we had airconditioning during the hot daytime instead of sweating in a tent.
5. Radical self-expression
Burning Man was the epitome of creativity. I was astonished by what I saw in this place: from the most decorated art cars, elaborate costumes, and fire-spewing mutant vehicles, to mind-blowing architectural designs and art installations. It was like being in a Mad Max movie. I dressed for the part and expressed myself in a variety of outfits to showcase my multi-faceted character. One day I was a Jedi, another I was a scientist, still another day I was a sultan. I could choose who I wanted to be.
6. Communal effort
There were porta-potties lined up in various city sections, and it was a communal effort to make sure these were well-maintained for everybody’s use
It took an entire community to build Black Rock City. Navigation was guided by the clock’s hour hand, as the city was set up like a circle around the “Man” art installation. Burners lived on a series of eight to 10 circular streets surrounding the circle’s outer edge. How did people go to the bathroom? There were porta-potties lined up in various city sections, and it was a communal effort to make sure these were well-maintained for everybody’s use. My friends and I joined the Dirty Beetle camp, which provided us with a “community within the community.” Being part of a camp helped sort out some of our logistics, like getting our RV van connected to a power source, having a common dining area where we could socialize, and having a space to shower. Being in a camp essentially gave us an “address” where people could find us.
7. Civic responsibility
I had a sense that people looked after each other. There was a duty to care for every person to ensure that people’s welfare and safety were of utmost concern, as there was no “police in uniform” here. It was every Burner’s onus to abide by human laws. Things like consent were important, as there was an emphasis on individual choice and personal freedom, which came with a certain level of responsibility.
8. Leaving no trace
The weather could be punishing, as there were some scorching days and freezing nights. There were days when we had sandstorms, so we were at the mercy of the elements. Being a temporary tenant in this flat and dried-up land, which we fondly called the Playa, I had a newfound respect for the environment. People’s mode of transportation was primarily a bicycle. I became aware of finding ways to achieving zero waste and became mindful of the impact of my carbon footprint. By the end of Burning Man, the entire Black Rock City was wholly disassembled, leaving the desert as bare as when the event began.
Did I mention that there was no mobile phone or internet signal in the desert, at least in my experience? There were no distractions, so I could fully participate in whatever was available to me. It was a “choose your own adventure” experience. There were days I would wake up early in the morning and ride my bike in the middle of the desert, chasing the music art cars of Robot Heart or Mayan Warrior, enjoying the music and laser lights until the sunrise. People could choose to showcase their talent, perform, play games, do volunteer work, and whatever way they wanted to be engaged. The key was having a genuine sense of participation and doing the action as a player, not just being a mere spectator.
Did I mention that there was no mobile phone or internet signal in the desert? There were no distractions, so I could fully participate
For me, it was important to be in the moment, to have the excitement and urgency to soak up the experience in all its fullness. The two moments that resonated with me most were the Burning of the Temple and the Burning of the Man. The Burning of the Man happened on the last Saturday night. It was very symbolic, as it was a potent reminder of my finite existence; I am dust and to dust shall I return. It was a special occasion where all the Burners, with all the beautiful art cars, surrounded the “Man” art installation that had been the center of the city the whole time, then watched it burn to the ground. The event was a humbling experience for everybody.
The other meaningful moment for me was to see the Burning of the Temple on the last Sunday. The Temple was like a holy place, and my experience of it was like going to a cemetery, where people put memories of loved ones who had passed away or got a sense of closure to what was incomplete. It was the only place in the city that was very quiet and solemn, save for some crying and weeping from some people. So having something like this burned signified the end of an era by letting go. For some people participating, this was quite a liberating experience.
Due to the pandemic, there is no Black Rock City built in the desert this year. However, this will not stop the observance of the Burning Man in the virtual multiverse. The Virtual Burn 2021 is happening from August 22 to September 7, 2021. Check out the Burning Man website for details: https://burningman.org/
My Burning Man experience is summarized best in an excerpt from my travel book Galà: Adventures of the Most-Well Traveled Filipinos, released this week on Amazon: “Imagine living for nine days in a temporary city in a desert with over 75,000 other people; where creativity and innovation live through the art cars, costumes, and playa art; where you can wear as much or as little as you want; where the only thing money can buy is ice and coffee; where you’re off the grid, as there’s almost no reception; where you get to design how you want to participate in life through radical rituals you choose; it’s an immersive experience where you find comfort and joy as you discover your Playa name in the process. These words have significance to Burners like me: Sandstorms. Bicycles. LED lights. Temple. Mutant Vehicles. Robot Heart. Mayan Warrior. Porta-Potties. Trash Fence. Tutu Tuesday. Human Carcass Wash. Decompression. Of all my world travel experiences, Burning Man is, hands down, at the top of my list!”
Amazon is running a promotion from the September 5-8, 2021, giving the Kindle ebook version of Galà for free! Here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0645231584/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=explorenextle-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=0645231584&linkId=6475137d537fb9ab96862497e05328f7