Dust Angels – A first-timer heads to Burning Man

(A censored version of this story appeared as the cover story of the Travel section, New Zealand Herald, December 1, 2015)

First-timer Derek Cheng heads to Burning Man in the Nevada desert in search of fun and dancing, and discovers a creative and generous community, based on a set of values to admire and inspire.

burning man

A deep inhalation, eyes closed, and the strong, musty smell of desert dust. I’m biking across a barren wasteland, fine grains of sand swirling around me, cutting visibility to mere metres. But the Burning Man playa is no ordinary desert. As every orifice fends off sand, art installations – enormous and ridiculous – peek through the white-out: a towering, metal woman three storeys high, a Gothic cathedral with intricate portraits at every window, a fire-breathing serpent with a glowing spine and hovering jaws.

Another breath. The vast, night sky is a stark contrast to the kaleidoscopic orgy of colour from thousands of LED lights illuminating the sandy plain, while limbs flail around me in dancing mayhem amid pulsing, body-shuddering bass.

Exhale, and inhale again. An industrial stench. I’m standing naked in a room full of people, covered in body paint. An equally naked man engages me in casual conversation, his body betraying his arousal. My eyelids twitch, and now I’m in a room, surrounded by copulating couples, as my partner Katelyn encourages me to focus on her amid the sensory onslaught.

Another breath. Now I’m in a sandy road, in front of a warm smile offering coconut ice cream. Now shoulder to shoulder in a naked foam party. Now swimming through hundreds of soft teddy bears the size of giant pillows.

It has been a few days since I emerged from the fabulous, mind-blowing absurdity that is Burning Man, a showcase for the infinity of human expression and experience.  It is often thought of as a bunch of naked hippies dancing ’til dawn and basking in lawless anarchy – and it is, but it’s so much more: gargantuan art structures, an open and inclusive community, daily workshops on everything from yoga to dance to how to enhance your orgasm.

Memories offer respite from an otherwise foggy, fumbling mind, still reeling from sleep-deprived, substance-fueled hedonism. Each memory holds a lesson – radical inclusion, shameless self-expression, limitless generosity – that is nurtured from spending a week in Black Rock City, a bustling, temporary metropolis in the wonderfully sparse Nevada Desert.

What began as a gathering of 20 people on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 has now morphed into one of the most popular events in the world. Burning Man was initially a solstice celebration, where a 2.7m-tall wooden effigy was burnt as an act of self-expression, one of the 10 principles.

By 1991, the festival was still modest – 250 attended – and had moved to Black Rock Desert. Every year the number of participants mushroomed – initially by word of mouth; by 2004, it had swelled to 35,000 people. This year 70,000 people attended what is now considered an event and global cultural movement, rather than a festival.

The venue accentuates the principles of Burning Man, including self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, and leaving no trace. The desert is constantly trying to kill you. No water, no food. The daytime heat, the night time freeze, the brutal dust blizzards. It is a testament to those who go that they not only survive, but thrive.

The Man occupies the central point of the playa, a vast area dotted with artworks of mesmerising, mammoth proportions. Encircling the playa is the esplanade, and beyond that, a circular grid of streets and camp sites.

There are all walks of life, from hippies to corporates to families to retired couples. Much has been made of so-called turn-key camps: lavish sites with air-conditioning, personal chefs, private parties, and paid helpers to cater for Silicon Valley gurus and others for whom money is no object. One such camp was reportedly worth $17,000 per head.

Yet Burning Man’s doors are open to all; one of the tenets is radical inclusion. I arrived with an open mind and no expectations. I was soon acquainted with the standard burner greeting – a warm, welcoming hug at the entrance gate. A virgin burner, after an embrace, is told to make a dust angel. “It’s as clean as you’ll be all week,” I was told as I lay in the sand, waving arms and legs.

Our band of merry burners set up camp, and then jumped on bikes to explore, stopping frequently. A bluegrass band here, a bar with freshly squeezed lemonade there, a tequila here. Brightly coloured outfits, lots of nakedness, and the ubiquitous thumping of house music.

The theme was The Carnival of Mirrors, and stalls near the Man had a circus flavour. A starkly different atmosphere – one of sombre grieving – pervaded the 25m-high arching entrance to the Temple of Promise. Burners arrived grasping mementos from loved ones who had passed away, attaching them to walls and ceilings along with epitaphs, photographs, hand-prints. Tearful embraces everywhere. The temple is set aflame on the last night.

One of the most dramatic art installations was R-Evolution, a 15m-tall metallic, naked woman, legs shoulder-width apart, chest open, eyes closed. Every so often, her chest would rise and fall, as if breathing. Elsewhere, burners clambered over 4m-tall letters spelling “LIVE”, “DREAM”, “BE”, and “OKAY”.

The gift economy was as ubiquitous as the beats and the art. Cuisines and beverages of all flavours were offered at various camps; money is useless except for buying ice, and coffee at Centre Camp. Trampolines and hammocks and bicycle obstacle courses were open to all.

Kindness is contagious. After receiving countless gifts from ice cream to beautiful stones to cocktails, I spent one afternoon standing in our sandy street with a watermelon, offering a slice to anyone. Though a small gesture, I received countless hugs, and invitations to parties in Berlin and Melbourne. I felt like the embodiment of the mantra: love is unconditional giving.

The previous night, seeking respite from the rave scene, we stumbled upon The Firmament: classical strings accompanying a ceiling of wavy lights that flash according to the crescendos of the music. Upon arrival, a stranger handed me psychedelic glasses to enhance the light show. When we left, I passed them to a couple beside us, who offered candy in return. Homeward-bound, someone threw me bracelet lights when he saw that my bike lights had died. The following night, we corralled passersby to join our wine and cheese evening.

In an age where everything is viewed through a money-making prism, it is extraordinary to consider that Burning Man is built on volunteer hours and donations. Millions are spent on fantastic and amazing things to be enjoyed for free – the $390 ticket mainly goes towards playa infrastructure and art subsidies.

And no one was using their art or campsite to promote a brand or product. The principle of decommodification means a complete absence of logos. No corporate sponsorship, no vendors. It was refreshing to peruse the schedule of workshops and not be bombarded with advertisements.

The sheer size of the site was overwhelming. It transformed us all into explorers, filled with wonder and an urge to push boundaries in the spirit of discovery.

“I call on the Gods to empower this beautiful woman before me with vitality, with lust for life, with strength!”

It seemed slightly ridiculous to be yelling these words at Katelyn, but embarrassment soon faded, as everyone in the room was doing the same thing. The teacher – aptly named Blaze – seemed to genuinely believe that some power was coming down from the skies and into his partner.

We were in a workshop on sensual chakra for couples. Most of the people, including myself, were naked. And there was nowhere to hide in a packed room, with couples stretched out on yoga mats, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee.

There are seven chakras, Blaze told us, motioning from head to toe, and giving particular emphasis to the heart and genitals. We were moving through each of these energy pathways, awakening them, and using them to love each other.

Not since communal high school showers after a football game had I been so naked around so many people. Except for the previous day, that is, when Katelyn and I partook in a naked body paint session. It was odd to be naked at first, but the majority had shed their clothes so it soon seemed natural. The shier, partially-clothed people were the ones slightly out of place.

Radical inclusion means not passing judgement. There were no cliques of giggling teenagers, pointing not so subtly at a person whose beauty differed to what we see on magazine covers and television screens.

At the painting session, Tony, from Canada, took a particular interest in Katelyn’s art. He encouraged her to paint grey ears and cheeks around my manly bits to create the image of an elephant, and brazenly looked on as she did so, his own nakedness betraying his enjoyment. I’d never been so openly the subject of another man’s arousal, but the absence of any harm eased any discomfort.

Today’s chakra workshop was another push into previously unexplored territory. Katelyn lay down while I massaged her sensually. A beautiful couple next to us were whispering and moaning with each other. The atmosphere was more than charged.

The exercise finished and, as I stood, my self-consciousness dissipated when I realised that most of the men in the room were similarly afflicted. Shame was noticeably absent. A feeling akin to liberation rushed forth.

When the workshop finished, a voice cried out: “To the orgy tent!” The infamous Orgydome is a series of air-conditioned rooms where couples – or groups – can intertwine limbs in the presence of other collections of intertwined limbs.

I’ve always resided in the realm of the less adventurous when it came to sex, and making love in a roomful of love-makers had only ever been an infrequent fantasy. But I was diving down the well of new experiences, so why not?

At the Orgydome, we were given large buckets with supplies in them – lube, condoms, towelettes. We walked into a large, open area, where couples were in various states of copulation. Opting for a small room with a couch and four mattresses, we lay down on a mattress and stripped.

I’d thought that I would enjoy being in the presence of other lovers, and though I felt no discomfort, a cascade of desire was not forthcoming. The atmosphere was far more electric in the chakra session. We folded into our own world, reminded of the others’ presence by the occasional distracting slap.

Later that day, a friend asked me if I’d heard of the Buffer Zone. I had not.

“You have to take Katelyn there,” she enthused. “I’m quite a prudish person, but my friend told me I had to go. They basically use a car polisher as a sex toy.

“I watched as these girls were each given public orgasms a few metres from the public road, and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this, what would my mother say?!’

“So my turn comes and I lie down, and suddenly I’m full of doubt again. What if someone I know comes by? But soon I’m in this wave of orgasms, screaming and moaning, and someone grabs a mega-phone and holds it to my mouth. So now everyone on the block can hear me, and I don’t care!”

When we arrived at the Buffer Zone the following morning, a woman was giggling as her thighs were buffed. As the buffer moved higher, her facial expression suddenly changed from glee to slight horror. As pleasure oozed through her body, she pulled the sheet over her face. “I have to get one of these,” she said when she surfaced. “It’s better than all of the toys I have.”

Katelyn seemed slightly nervous as she lay down. I grabbed the buffer – an electric, rotating cloth – and began. She purred with the firm massage. As I moved to her sensitive areas, her purrs grew silent. She maintained her grimacing silence through three orgasms.

“Enough!” she eventually managed to say. “Woah.”

There seemed to be a constant theme to these daytime explorations. It is a curious evolution when sex and physical pleasure are the common denominators in a community free of shame and restrictions. And not just the workshops; one art-car had a model of a giant vagina across the front, prompting a friend to quip: “I’d like to see that collide with a penis-themed art-car.”

We took a few days to explore other types of workshops. Ashtanga yoga and acro-yoga. Dance and meditation. A visit to the Cuddle Puddle, full of hundreds of soft teddy bears, each the size of a small cloud. But the last day was reserved for Dr Bronner’s famous foam party.

Inside their enormous, covered structure, almost everyone was naked, or getting naked. And everyone was dancing in uproarious fashion. In the main section stood a huge, roofless glasshouse, where volunteers with hoses on the second floor saturated groups of people below.

We had an unfathomable amount of playa dust on our bodies. Multiple layers. We were split into two groups of about 20 people, and marched into the shower area, packed so tightly that naked bits couldn’t help but press against neighbouring naked bits. First, the foam. Soft, wondrous fluffiness. Everyone spun in circles to clean each other. If there had been a vehicle in the middle, we would’ve been a human car-wash.

A brief pause, and then several waves of cold water, leaving us clean and tingly. As we exited, we were in such a state of carefree bliss that we didn’t bother getting dressed. We skipped into the desert sun to air-dry, completely starkers and still dancing.

“Don’t bother taking your bike,” was the advice. The Man – 18m-tall and neon green and red – was about to be set aflame, and every burner was heading to the playa to watch the spectacle.  A cold snap had enveloped the desert, and I had opted for practical jeans, setting aside my tutu, purple tights, and beaver onesie for the night.

Burners young and old huddled together as flames engulfed the Man. Fireworks painted the sky splashes of vibrant colour, before explosions crumbled the Man’s foundations, leaving him to collapse into piles of glowing embers.

This past week had been a manic ride of epic adventures. I took a moment, casting an eye across the radiant characters of the playa, the psychedelic colours of the desert at night. I marveled at the imagination and resourcefulness to create this counterculture in this inhospitable wasteland.

And beyond the mere physical creations, an alchemy had taken place. This is a safe haven, where people can be themselves without fear or shame, where the relentless struggle to belong is replaced by honest values of inclusivity, self-expression, and generosity. Where creativity and community reign, and hugs replace handshakes. I tried to think of a moment in the past week where this microcosm had been tainted by a hint of animosity or anger. It must be here – it’s only human – but I had not witnessed any.

A euphoria overwhelmed me, an uplifting gratitude, but also a sadness. How will I be next week, when this will be a fading memory and my mind and body will feel utterly trampled? How will I embody the spirit of Burning Man when I am at a desk at work, or living in a house of comforts, in a society where mutiny erupts when flights are delayed, or Wifi goes down?

But I was fretting, and in that moment, once again, Burning Man provided. The final principle is immediacy: “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”

There remained one last night on the playa to be and dance without restraint, to admire and praise the ingenuity and magnificence of the human spirit, and to spread tenderness through loving embraces with friends, as well as strangers. I set off in search of neon and bass beats, of vitality and freedom and joy, with a bounce in my step, a wonder in my eyes, and a surge of warmth in my heart.

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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