We reached the gates around 6 AM. Greeted with a hug and a “welcome home” from one of the greeters at the gate, the first time burners (a.k.a virgins) faced initiation! We rolled in the dust before slamming a gong with all our might, declaring: “No longer a virgin!” As of that point, we were officially “burners”. I had rarely been hugged with such vigour and conviction, let alone by a stranger. Secondly, I sure as hell didn’t feel at home. It turns out both those things would drastically change during the course of the week. Innocent as I was, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
We first headed towards the man, standing near the centre of the pentagon-shaped perimeter. We rode by countless pieces of art, of all shapes and size, scattered across the desert floor. I felt like a bee in a giant flowerbed, my curiosity was drawn in every direction, towards every single structure in my line of sight.
Hardly an hour into my first burn, I was already discovering what I call “burners’ remorse”; the realisation that I would inevitably “miss out” on much of the creativity exposed on the playa because of its astounding ubiquity. How foolish to begin my journey by thinking of all which would go unseen?
We rode our bike to the Temple (a wooden structure of great spirituality), then on to the most mind-blowing 35ft metal statue of an elegantly arched back female figure, then on to a café for a free cappuccino and finally on to an actual movie theatre—all set up on the desert floor, dozens of miles away from civilisation.
Arriving at Burning Man, I was most curious to discover the functioning of its “gift economy”. Gifting at such a large scale seemed literally impossible to me. As far back as I can remember, never have I spent a week without so much as seeing a banknote. Selfless gifting was ubiquitous at Burning Man. Food, drink, hugs, bracelets, necklaces, messages…you name it, it was out there. Take 60’000 people, remove currency and replace it with gifting and sharing—the result is extraordinary. From my experience, the act of giving broke down all walls and led to my most memorable encounters.
I still couldn’t fathom the point of this extraterrestrial-like place, but I loved it. Something magical had caught my attention; I had yet to figure out what. If Burning Man felt like an awkward event during the day, it was another planet at night. The desert literally lit up with thousands of neon lights, colourful LEDs and incessant sporadic blasts of fire. Again, my head was turning from left to right and my bike swerved back and forth as my attention drifted from one surreal happening to another.
Introverted me was walking around in a Japanese kimono, feeling self-conscious and shy. I initially got lost in conversation, realising that conventional subjects of discussion weren’t relevant at Burning Man. I was also discovering a new greeting culture; forget handshakes or kisses—hugs are king at Burning Man. The more I was hugged, the more I got into the groove. Burning Man hugs were meant to be like the hug I received from the greeters, filled with intensity, love and compassion.
I had been at Burning Man for 24 hours and had yet to discover the best of its music scene.
Stationed out in “deep playa”, Robot Heart is a music bus, decked out with a 10ft tall, 40ft wide baseline—astronomically powerful. Its sound waves blast off into the night, across the desert floor, over the mountains—eventually greeting the rising sun. As we arrived, I couldn’t keep my feet still, the beat instantly took over. The bass was light-years beyond anything I’d experienced before, resonating throughout my body. The music shook me from the inside, sinking in through my bones. I was mesmerised. That night essentially redefined—if not wiped out—my conception of the imaginable boundaries of music. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, the sun creeped over the mountains. The crowd turned and threw its arms in the air, embracing the moment and the beauty of life. Energy—a word entirely devoid of meaning to me before Burning Man—was radiating from my surrounding with unconceivable intensity. It was the most liberating feeling of my life. It was freedom from the mind, just pure bliss in the moment.
That’s when it all changed.
A sudden sense of belonging settled over me. I was discovering a significant part of myself I never knew existed. It was so dramatically new and different, casting a whole new light on my experience in the desert. In a couple days, Burning Man had gone from being a foreign place and way of life to a place I called home.
It is a place, I believe, anyone with an open mind could essentially call home. By definition, it is a place offering freedom from the outer world. By taking away all the distractions, you allow yourself to take in and give out all the things that matter. I took the time—unlike ever before—to ride around the playa with no objective other than being. And to my great surprise, that is where the magic happened. That is when I came across the most fascinating people and places. And serendipity would often have its say, crossing my path with that of others, time and time again. It felt great being free.
Be and let be, don’t judge.
The days came and went—and before I knew it—it was the night of the burn. As I watched the man go up in flames beside my dad, I contemplated the meaning of burning that, which had taken so much effort to build. In my mind, the fire marked not only the end of an evolution, from youth to maturity, but also a stepping-stone to a new beginning. As I kept my eyes on the flames, I almost wished, it were I falling to pieces, leaving place for a fresh start based on the wonderful principles I had discovered. I wished for myself to never forget the greatness of letting life come to me and surprise me in the wildest of ways. I wished to no longer be the slave of my obsessive mind, instead relinquishing power and trust to the universe.
Life is really quite similar to Burning Man, filled with ups and downs and countless opportunity. But like all wonderful things, it eventually comes to an end. The present moment is all we really have, and for me, it’s time I start living it. Not only at Burning Man, but wherever my earthly journey may lead me…