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After Burning Man

If it had been the script for a movie it would have been dismissed as to unlikely to be true: a movie director, a photomodel, a math student & world champion juggling, a spiritual healer, a hippie whose car had broken down on the way to Burning Man, an amazing social media organizer and a random guy. And me, and all of us in the campervan / RV traveling eastbound out of Burning Man.
I had seen my last Burning Man sunrise of 2011, packed my stuff and driven the 30 kilo backpack on my bicycle through the dessert across the Burning Man playa and had arrived at the campervan at 08.00. We were scheduled to leave at noon and by now it was past 16.00 hrs and we still hadn’t moved because one person was missing. We had been waiting inside the campervan in the smoldering heat of the Nevada desert with sand storms beating the car. Despite the “somewhat eclectic” mix of people tensions were high. Was there any truth in the rumours of a car crash that blocked the road? Should we stay another night to enjoy Burning Man? Most people wanted to leave and just in time the last person hopped on board and we departed. We drove for half an hour until we hit the traffic jam and soon we were realised that we would be stuck for at least another 5 hours. At least we were moving.
During the wait in the traffic jam, people regularly hopped out of the car and chatted with their neighbours, watched kites in the sky or just stretched their legs. The “random guy” had hopped out for a long time. We asked him to stay in the car, but to no avail. Just before the campervan left the desert, he hopped out to see some friends behind us in the traffic jam. We never saw him again and all his stuff was in the car.
And so started our road trip. Europeans often make fun of the geographical knowledge of Americans (“Belgium, is that the capital of The Netherlands?”), but I had no clue how far the drive to Austin (my next destination) was going to be. The answer was: long. But during the days our eclectic group spend together we had an amazing time. To be frank: my world is very different from the world of a healer. I don’t see crystals in light beams with my bare eyes. I don’t feel magnetic flows radiating of mountains. He does and he’s an amazing guy. A world champion juggeling with a background in math is a totally different story. We spend countless hours brainstorming about iPhone apps, internet startups and patterns in throwing juggeling balls. A photomodel is not the typical person I hang out with, but she did brighten up our days. The owner of the car is a movie director, artist and photomodel too. She had the tough job of keeping us all sane and get the campervan / RV home in one piece.
To many things happened on that trip to recount here: we enjoyed the amazing decoration of the camper, we lost and found an alive three legged cat, swam in a gorgeous lake in the middle of the desert mountains, saw the most amazing sunset next to the Grand Canyon, etc. etc. A worthy continuation of Burning Man.
At the same time there were many sad stories: “do you have any brothers and sisters?” “yes, three and they’re all dead”. “If I don’t arrive back in time for work I will lose my job, I don’t have any savings and my parents don’t support me”. After I had left the campervan, I went on a 23 hrs busride from Alburquerque to Austin. More sadness. From the creative joyful white people of Burning Man to the harsh reality of American poverty (I definitely was the only one who had chosen the bus because I preferred it to flying). My fellow riders on this tour were immigrants and disillusioned consumers.
Reality had biten hard, but it wasn’t able to wash out the memories of Burning Man. I’ll be there again in 2012, let me know if you want to join.
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At Burning Man

It was a strange ritual: rolling yourself in dessert dust upon arrival if you’re a first time (“virgin”) Burning Man participant (“Burner”). Warily, I rubbed some dessert sand on me, not wanting to get Frank’s car even more dirty. It had been a long drive and we’d been waiting in the hot sun, so all I wanted was to set up camp and get started. Frank explained that they were “greeters” as they told everybody “welcome home”. It seemed kind of childish to me, and I suspected the same level of honesty from them as the underpaid people at the entrance of shops everywhere across the USA. Only much later I would understand why.
I was thrilled. Something I had (literally) travelled half the planet for, days of preparation and hours of driving was about to commence. And then a big silence until I gasped: it’s huge! 50.000 people camping in the dessert isn’t something you can imagine. Near endless streets filled with campers (or RV’s as Americans call them), tents and anything that can create shade, in a three quarter circle. To my amazement we weren’t the only ones with a special car, there were 100’s, no thousands of cars like hours. From a little muffin concealing a a tricycle to massive trucks with sound systems to rival any club. Wearily I looked at my bike, most people drove bikes that were 3 meters high or 30 centimeters low, but few drove a standard second hand mountain bike like me.
Let’s explain a bit more. Burning Man comes alive at night, when the hot dessert sun is replaced by thousands and thousands of lights of what are called “Art trucks”. These are vehicles that typically are created by a camp, which is a group of people that decided to camp together and share things like food, water, shade and showers. All of these are precious as Burning Man has a pack-it-in-pack-it-out policy, meaning that everything you take to Burning Man has to be taken back. Moreover, you can’t buy anything at Burning Man except for ice that is used to cool food and beverages. There is a tradition of “gifting” which is different from “barter” in the sense that the other person doesn’t expect anything in return. This means for example that at Burning Man people will invite total strangers in their camps and have them drink and/or eat for free. And this happens a lot. At first I didn’t understand: was there some corporation behind each camp that sponsored the drinks? (but why didn’t I see any corporate logo’s?), were all of these people filthy rich? (they sure didn’t look like it). In the end the answer is much simpler than this: these people are very friendly and generous. So many a night you will share food and drinks with interesting strangers. At a very different level there are many similarities between TED and Burning Man: both TED and Burning Man bring together an amazing group of minds from very different backgrounds. Even though I’ve never attended a TED, I can tell that Burning Man is more hedonistic. Day and night you’ll hear pumping techno from the large “sound camps”. Is it all party then? No, definitely not. To my own surprise you’ll quite a number of people sitting on their own in the dessert or biking around and enjoying the art structures that are spread out throughout the city.
But what do people do there? I had a look at the planning for Burning Man and for the first day I saw 48 pages with 12 items per page. At that point I resigned to seeing “everything”. Actually, most people will tell you that they accomplish very little of their goals at Burning Man: “I was on the way to a class on a subject I never had even heard of, when I saw a group of people doing an amazing art performance, during which I met another group of people who told me about a performance at sunset tonight….”.
If this all sounds very chaotic: it is. And it’s wonderful. Burning Man is the best thing I’ve ever done. By a long shot. Why you ask? Sure there’s great art, interesting lectures, beautiful art cars, living a week in the dessert, amazing sunsets/rises. But Burning Man is all about the people. Nearly everybody creates something and contributes to the experience of others. From executives to people on the brink of losing their job and forced to live on the street, anybody and everybody has interesting stories to share or things to show. At a personal, level I learnt some of the wisest lessons of my trip right there, by one of the most unlikely of teachers.
Come to Burning Man, really. Sure there are things that might not be for you. One of those things for me was loads of people walking around naked. It’s just not my thing. If you don’t like pumping techno bass: go to Hushville. You’ve got children? Go to Kidsville. You can’t carry all your stuff? Rent a camper, join a camp or make some friends up front. You don’t have money? You can make Burning Man as inexpensive as you want by getting (nearly) free rides to/from Burning Man.
Other questions? As the saying goes at Burning Man: “the playa will provide”. Seriously, nearly anything is available right there. Doesn’t matter if you need a welding machine, a screw, tent or anything. And people will share it with you for free. Burning Man has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and even if you’re very different, it probably will have the same effect on you.
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Going to Burning Man

It was one of those rainy days in San Francisco. And no matter how much I loved SF, I couldn’t help but feeling stressed for the trip to Burning Man. My backpack was full. So, how was I going to carry a bicycle, additional clothes, camping gear and food and water supplies for 10 days in the dessert?
But maybe I should start with why I was going to Burning Man anyway. It was an article from 1996 which had solidly locked Burning Man on my to-do-before-you-die list. Something about camping in the dessert, great people, cutting edge art and a progressive atmosphere, just triggered a switch. Before I left on this trip around the world I hadn’t met anybody who had been to Burning Man. Just a couple of days before I arrived in San Francisco I was contemplating not going to Burning Man at all. Mainly because I was in heaven already: a paradise-like island of the northern coast of Sulawesi, $15 per day (food and accommodation included) with stunning snorkeling at a 30 second walk from my hut. Why would I go through all the cost, effort and stress to be camping in the dessert?
But then, slowly but steadily the Burning Man magic kicked in. An online plea for help quickly resulted in a reply: “just travel to Frank and he will help you get to Burning Man”. I had managed to attach everything on my backpack (which ballooned to over 30 kilo’s / 60 pounds) and after a train journey of a couple of hours I arrived in the small city of Auburn. Frank picked me up in his pickup truck and as we drove to his house he told me that we’re probably going to leave a couple of days later. To shocked to speak because of the “theft” of my precious Burning Man days, I mocked in silence. Things cleared up quickly when Frank told me he had “a dragon”. What that meant became clear very quickly: it was a massive hard foam dragon mounted on an extended golf cart, seating up to 6 persons. “It just needs a little bit of work ” Frank confessed.
A dream came true: not only did I get to go to Burning Man, I could contribute something (however little as well). For the next day and a half I helped Frank with the last errands on the dragon. He helped me get the food and water shopping done. During these days Frank (a 12 year Burning Man veteran) and his with Susan housed and fed me (a total stranger) for free and shared their life’s stories. Both retired software engineers for the first large computers, they are not only very intelligent, but their unsurpassed hospitality made staying with them a true treat. My hurry to go to Burning Man was long forgotten when it was time to leave.
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