It's Not Over Till the Wicker Man Burns
Trip Start May 05, 2011
19Trip End Sep 08, 2011
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First things first: I SURVIVED THE BURN.
Secondly: that last sentence may not seem to make any sense at the moment. Read on, and prepare for an especially remarkable entry (!)
Thirdly: I am actually home in the wonderful town of Chipping Norton at present. So there for those who predicted my untimely death whilst travelling! The reason that I have post-locationed this entry to the site of Burning Man Festival is because...well, frankly, this makes for a far more interesting location. Since Black Rock City - the site of Burning Man - is in the middle of a desert; and since it only exists for one week every year (after the festival, the city is dismantled and everyone goes home, leaving no trace), well then it even trumps the magic of Chipping Norton.
Now, Burning Man is CLEARLY the most exciting thing about this entry, but before I get to that part, I need to quickly recap the exciting events during my last couple of days in San Francisco. So I shall start with Saturday 27 August. This was a day that was remarkable primarily for its total contrast with the madness that was to come. Sylvia, her boyfriend Stephen and I rented a car and headed out into the woods around San Francisco. We hiked amongst the hills, sheltering under ginormous redwoods from the occasional burst of sunshine that broke through the famous bay area fog. As far as deeply atmospheric walks go, this was pretty high up there - particularly when we emerged from a leafy canopy of trees to survey a golden Californian landscape above blankets of mist. Perhaps most specatcularly, upon a bluff overlooking a beach, we got some fantastic photos of me imitating Caspar David Friedrich's 'The Lone Wanderer Amongst the Mists', that classic, studo-pretentious Romantic masterpiece of art. Which made me very happy; after all, I have been extremely lax with my artistic piracy of late, even if the other kinds of piracy have seen a considerably better showing. That evening, I headed out clubbing with three girls from the hostel, which was a lot of fun, but which of course departed slightly from my prevailing appreciation of fine art and nature (except where these things existed in the clubs of San Francisco (!))
On Sunday, there was little we could think about other than the Burn (Burning Man Festival, for all you non-Burners out there!) But since it was our last day in the city, we were hardly going to waste it! Sylvia and Stephen journeyed over to Berkley (which was apparently exceedingly pretty), and I headed to Fisherman's Wharf and Golden Gate Park before meeting them for dinner. Fisherman's Wharf was fantastic! There were about a hundred sea lions, lounging about on platforms near Pier 39, constantly barraging one another, slapping each other silly, knocking one another into the water and just generally clowning around for the amusement of tourists. The good news: when my future world domination plans call for the conscription of an army of sea lions, I'll know where to go. Might need to teach them a little bit of discipline, however...I also managed to drop into a remarkable museum of old arcade games on the pierfront, which had preserved little pieces of pre-WWII Americana amusement for the fascination of modern teens and twentysomethings. Without wanting to judge the 1920s, they seemed to be primarily a mechanical selection of boxing games, finger baseball, and saucy puppet shows. Nevertheless, it was an interesting glance back in time, and since mechanical 'Grandma' read me a rather delightful fortune, I'm not complaining. And after an exciting time at the pier, I went in search of the bison in Golden Gate Park (totally not worth it - I now know the real meaning of freezing fog - damn you, shorts and t-shirt!) before dinner and a manic packing session. Such was my swansong to San Francisco.
And so began our trip to Burning Man! We set out at about 10:30am on Monday morning, hoping to get there with plenty of time to spare. After all, Stephen (who did not attend the festival) had very kindly volunteered to drive us to the gates of Black Rock City, before driving home to San Francisco later that evening. Turns out, we planned out everything perfectly EXCEPT the crucial element of timing. Stopping for an hour or two in Sacramento to raid Wal-Mart (yes, I'm ashamed; but I'm also poor) was probably just about legitimate; the discovery that we would have to wait about two hours to fill our water barrels sort of sent us off kilter, and the 3-4 hour wait to drive up to the gates of Black Rock City certainly set us into the conclusively 'punctually challenged' box. Poor old Stephen ended up dropping us off at 11pm after an exhausting day of driving, and then having to drive home to San Francisco. Rather sensibly, he stopped off in Reno and spent the night there instead - though only after a police car pulled him over, discovered he was totally shattered, and gave him an escort back along a hundred mile stretch of desert road!
The long journey was not a problem for me. Firstly, it allowed Sylvia and myself to be TOTALLY ABSOLUTELY 100% and NO MISTAKES certain that we had EVERYTHING that we needed. This included 22 gallons of water, about 18 bagels, numerous breakfast bars, tins of tuna, lentils and kidney beans (Sylvia is a vegetarian; hence I was also (almost) vegetarian for the duration of the week-long festival). But the long journey also allowed me to get to work on my contribution to Burning Man. Now, I don't know how many of you have read up on the ethos of the festival (although if you are interested, here's the link to Burning Man's website: http://www.burningman.com/) but it is a no currency affair. This means that you are expressly prohibited from buying or selling anything on the Playa (the Black Rock City site) except for coffee and ice, both of which may only be sold by the event organisers. Anything that you own may be 'gifted' to another if you so wish; or you may trade. Since the festival has a very conscious art-festival theme, most of the non-food non-drink stuff that is gifted is art-based, or community-driven (such as Burning Man medallions). Of course, I didn't want to be left unable to trade or contribute to the festival, so I had to come up with the perfect artistic contribution. Something non-bulky and lightweight, which could be carried into the festival and given in exchange for acts of kindness, friendship, hilarity, or other artsy wonderfulness. This dilemma racked me for months, beginning in Brazil, but in San Francisco, the perfect solution presented itself. I bought bags of old toys in the Mission District of San Francisco for about a dollar a bag, and the moment I got into the car to hed to Black Rock, I began tearing them apart with my penknife...Before stitching them back together in weird and wonderful, and frankly disturbing ways! Yes, for anyone that is familiar with the concept, I 'Franked' (ie to Frankenstein) a load of toys to make brilliantly nightmarish creatures. And I finally found a use for that saw on my penknife (and a talent for fluffy decapitation - take that, beanie baby!) Thus, my long car journey was extremely productive: I had an army of goodies (well, baddies), ready to trade or gift away, when I arrived on the Playa in the darkest of night.
(By the way - the franked toys actually look rather good, and a few are now sitting on my kitchen table. Mum says that they're an early sign of a psychopathic mind, but I tend to disagree. They're actually unintentionally cute! Plus, we'll see who has the last laugh when she's buried at the bottom of the garden...(!))
So - we arrived after a long and arduous journey, at about midnight, in the midst of a dust-storm. Since Black Rock is actually a desert (Black Rock City only exists one week of the year - the rest of the time, it's dust and more dust) a dust-storm is actually pretty serious business, particularly if it turns into a full blown white-out. Luckily, we both bought goggles in San Francisco, which largely kept us from danger. The last leg (from the gate into the city), we were smuggled in inside a RV by two fantastically spaced-out brothers. And upon arriving at about midnight, in a random location, we had no idea of where to pitch our tent. Fortune smiled on us. Firstly, a really nice group who were camped on a site at 6 O'Clock and Funeral took us in and agreed to let us stay on the edge of their village. The 'Forestvillans' (Burners from Forestville, California) were exceedingly kind in this respect, and they even helped us pitch our tent. Secondly, by blind chance, we happened to be in one of the premier locations in the city; close to centre camp and everything going on, but away from the noise of all of the raves at night. As we settled down to sleep at about 2am that evening, we knew we had landed on our feet. What we perhaps did not realise was that we had only been given a taste of the incredible kindness and good feeling that exists within Black Rock City for the space of that one week.
Burning Man. What can I say about this festival that can begin to describe what awaited us when we awoke the next morning? I have already mentioned the emphasis on a community of people, living together, sharing experiences, giving freely to one another and really contributing to the festival as a whole. What else? Well, I should probably make it clear that this festival is as much about self-reliance and survival in a harsh environment. If you ran out of water, others would undoubtedly help you. But that's not the point. Everyone who attends should aim to achieve self sufficiency, to enjoy the experience, and to leave no trace (no rubbish or Matter Out Of Place - MOOP). But in order to contrast Burning Man with the countless other festival that exist, I have to describe it thus: it is a fantastic, inconceivably spactacular rave festival, that lasts for a whole week and that has a distinctly arty character. In contrast to Glastonbury, there is no main stage to host famous performers, but that isn't what the Burn is about. There is music, particularly after dark - but is is an eclectic mix of discos and raves, that are either in fixed 'villages' or that are started in random locations by the presence of an artcar with mammoth speakers. Most of the day is spent wandering, visiting camps or 'villages', attending fun, creative activities, getting together, eating, dancing, building, painting, or creating. The city is planned out on a radial model, like a clockface, with concentric rings which make up streets in an alphabet pattern running away from the centre (hence, we were camped at 6 O'Clock and Funeral, or 6 and F on the radial map). And though villages, artworks, and the huge wicker man are fixed (The Man being at the centre of the city, of course), artcars or 'Mutant Vehicles' zoom across the Playa (the clear central expanse of the city), taking the rave to wherever it needs to be! The art is fantastic, and a lot of the burnable stuff - from the Man, to the wooden Black Rock City Temple (at 12 O'Clock), to the 12 huge effigies that surround the man - is art itself (if temporary art). The Mutant Vehicles are the most incredible sight. They are sculpted works of art - giant beasts built onto a car or bus base, often with platforms and dancefloors that can support up to fifty people, in all manner of different themes and styles. Cars that look like creepy giant scorpions, or praying mantisses, or golden dragons, with rave decks, speakers, flamethrowers, and huge swinging limbs, mean that any first time Burner will spend his first morning with his mouth agape in amazement. And even after days of riding on the back of an ambling church or zooming pirate ship, and dancing under the glare of neon and disco lights to the latest dubstep, he will be constantly amazed by what he sees in the city. Trust me, I know - my jaw almost got locked in agape wonderment!
Burning Man is like nothing else I've ever seen before. It is like the best 'activity' parts of other music festivals; or like a week-long Cambridge Ball (at $210 for the whole week, it's cheaper than both). But it's also full of people of all ages - many twentysomethings, but lots of parents also choose to bring their young kids. And because people keep on coming back (and because it originated in San Francisco) there are also loads of older people - stretching from middle-aged until well into their eighties. And it's great to have such a mix there, because it creates such fun vibes. Now, there is quite a bit of nudity (this festival was started by hippies, after all), but it becomes so mundane that it loses any semblance of shock. Also, although there are some rather dodgy villages, nudity out on the Playa is totally de-sexualised and unremarkable, which is fantastic. Most people don't get naked (probably mainly due to fear of sunburn) and neither Sylvia nor I felt any inclination to ditch our clothes (we were given so much cool clothing - how could we not wear it!) But overall, all of this contributed to a truly amazing, fantastical experience - a dramatic contrast from what Burners describe as the 'default world'.
Right, now you've had a chance to digest what the Burn is all about - back to the narrative! And back to our first day in the city. We had a programme - a whole book, detailing events at the hundreds of villages all over Black Rock City throughout the week - but on the first day, we were satisfied to simply wander in perpetual amazement throughout the labyrinthine metropolis that lay before us. Like pretty much everyone, we had adopted 'Playa Names' - personas that we held onto for the duration of the week, and that we lived through - and in the first day or so we just about remembered to introduce ourselves appropriately. Sylvia, taking her cue from the 'Rites of Passage' theme for this year's Burning Man, was the 'Butter Lion', a creature that emerged from its summer dress chrysalis after dark in a funky lion torso costume. By day I was 'Psypher' owing to the unintentional purchase of an Indiana University t-shirt in New York City (don't ask), and by night I was the 'Shadow Tiger', a name which brought me a fair few compliments. Butter Lion and Psypher were certainly astounded by the volume and variety of things that had been erected upon the playa - a giant portal in the shape of a gear; a roller-disco; an uncountable number of trampolines...We got to the stage where every new discovery, emerging through the perpetual dust-storm, almost knocked us for six. There was the giant wooden horse of Troy. Of course. A metal octopus and a giant mechanical face...A metal forest, wooden voodoo doll effigies, a drinks van built by LA Burners out of wood which housed friendly servers with attitude...We had to stop into the Kostume Kult just to take our breath! This village - started by New York Burners - spent the whole year contacting costume manufacturers, collecting the unpopular or defective costumes that would otherwise be dumped, and it gives them all away on the Playa! Tonnes and tonnes of them! Since Sylvia and I met when she made my costume for 'Troy: The Panto' in my first year at Girton, we had to go inside - and we did so at least once more that same week - and we got some fantastic clothes out of it. The only condition the Kult applied: we all had to strut our stuff on their catwalk after picking up our new clothing. Fine by us! (and by everyone else, it seems!)
After a few obstacle courses and a good twenty minutes on a mammoth swing (still, I maintain, less dangerous that my attempt at rollerdisco earlier that day), Sylvia and I found our way to the Man - the giant wooden effigy in the centre of the city. That is, we found our way there after attending the wedding of a man and a woman who had met at Burning Man a few years before; who had got engaged at Burning Man the previous year, and who now arrived with a random assortment of wedding guests bearing purple and white flags and really touching speeches! After this, the man might have been less incredible, except that from the Man's platform, we could see out over the whole city. The Man himself is also an iconic, artistic feat of engineering - towering above all else, acting as the central marker for navigation in the city. And after our little pilgrimage, we returned to camp too astounded to speak. Lucky we only had to eat!
The evening was full of raves and unexpected surprises. On our way out, we stopped by Couchsurfer Camp, for a quick dance with friendly non-Americans. I wore a 'Rave Pirate' outfit that I had constructed from a colourful children's hoodie that they had been giving away at YET ANOTHER costume place; Sylvia went dressed in her Butter Lion attire. We received many compliments before dancing away into the night - stopping at about nine raves on our progress around the city. We even passed the 'Thuderdome', where macho men Burner volunteers on swings battered the sweet bejesus out of one another with foam bats. But by far the most memorable part was raving underneath an artcar with two HUGE flamethrowers on its platform. Drunken Burners climbed onto this car, and shot out 20 foot jets of flame over our heads. It's rather lucky BM safety regulations meant that the flamethrowers couldn't be aimed below the horizontal, or we may have all been toast. As it happens, it was a fun, and was really a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic experience. Afterwards, as we cooled down in the cold desert night, Sylvia and I found the Trojan Horse (illuminated in scarlet neon at night) and climbed inside, where the views from the horse's mouth were fantastic (an expanse of neon in all conceivable colours), and an absinthe bar was waiting to serve any that asked. Exhausted, we finally headed to bed - after a phenomenal first day.
Sleeping was a good idea. This was a week-long festival after all, so eating right and getting rest were always going to be important. BUT - it was even more significant to get to sleep fairly early, because the beating desert sun rose every morning (whether we wanted it to our not) and by 9 or 10 am our tent was a genuine sauna: totally impossible to breathe in, never mind sleep in! Most nights, we got to bed by 2-4am, so we regularly got 5-6 hours of sleep. We survived on it. And tiredness was never going to stop us! On the Wednesday morning, we conclusively discovered this fact. Despite cumulative exhausion, we hit the Playa bright and early. Wandering once more, we found ourselves playing on aerobatic swings, drinking delicious free lemonade, sitting down at 'Camp Vampire' next to a rather grotesque and gnarly mannequin, and eating random mysterious food served from behind a wall (mine tasted like chilli!) We attended that Mad Hatter's Tea Party, before rocking back and forth on a 30 foot rocking chair. We crashed a masquerade ball, and a random man from Alaska let me try his demonic, hand-crafted mask on whilst we raved under a giant chicken. (I know that this all seems like a nonsensical rant; I can only promise you that all of this did actually happen. I have the photographs to prove it.) And as we headed home, we were caught in a total white-out, which reminded me that no matter how preposterous and fun they had made the festival, we were still simply hanging around in a great, uncaring and dramatic natural wilderness. Until we wandered over to a giant shark kite, which - with its ropes and wires obscured amongst the sandstorm - simply appeared to be flying through the sky to eat us (!)
As we headed out onto the Playa that evening, we stepped into a ring of fire...literally. For the first time (but certainly not the last) we were stopped in our tracks by incredibly talented poi performers, who juggled flames, surrounded themselves with burning hula hoops, and cracked whips of fire. Suffice to say, it was sensational. It was also a great precursor to the main event: whilst in a slightly trippy, UV light, flourescent Alice in Wonderland themed coffee shop, we met a group of Irish students, who adopted us for an evening of wild dancing amidst flaming artcars and warehouse ravers. We even danced in a birdcage and rode around on a mobile church, before arriving at the quiet, meditative sanctum of Black Rock City - the Temple - at around 2am. Another fantasic night, that can only be described in a series of preposterous statements!
Thursday - our third day on the Playa - got off to a bit of a ridiculous start, as we wandered around looking for scheduled events which seemed to have moved beyond this reality, or which failed to happen. Never fear, though, for our wanderings took us in some pretty cool directions - to the Black Rock crazy golf course, for example (which was surprisingly superior, given that it had been dragged 400 miles into the desert on a truck). We ended up sampling vegan delights and exploring a whole other side of the city, before returning to the Man at the centre of the city for what has to be my second great highlight of the festival: a giant pitched sword battle! The owner of the spectacular golden dragon artcar had brought 400 giant foam swords to the desert, and another guy chipped in another fifty or so, allowing for a humungous middle-ages style duel-fest followed by a battle to rival Mel Gibson's Braveheart. We were divided into two armies, and told to run at the other force, and to fight for victory. As a matter of honour, anyone that was stabbed in the head or chest had to lie down dead - it's amazing how much of war seems to be stepping over fallen comrades - and the battle went on until one side was totally victorious. Though we lost 2 out of 3, we won the first battle, and I was in the triumphant charge that bashed those darned silvers down and claimed a heroic victory. Technically, since they wouldn't have been alive to fight the second battle in real life, I claim the victory! EVERYONE there had so much fun, that after an hour or so, even in the desert sun, we were reluctant to hang up our swords and go home.
That evening, the burning began. The twelve effigies that surrounded the Man went up in a primal, coursing surge of flame. From our vantage point near the voodoo doll effigy (made by the proud Burners of New Orleans), our eyes captured the scenes of total flaming annihilation and the mad carnival atmosphere that accompanied it. It was amazing, but it was only the first taste of all that was yet to come. It was also warm - a truly significant fact, given that by this stage in the week, the desert had really begun to cool down by around 10pm. Not good weather for open-toed sandals. Thursday evening was also a magic time, because for some unannounced reason, a flurry of villages across the city had decided to hold a Prom or Ball event. By this time, we had raided and pillaged various costume camps on so many occasions that Sylvia was able to go dressed in vintage late 19th Century promenade attire, whilst I went in something that resembled military attire, but was in truth far more Jazz Jackrabbit than Sergeant Major. Of course, in spite of costume irregularities, Sylvia agreed to be my date to all six Proms and/or Balls, and in order to demonstrate how infinitely superior Burning Man is when compared with any Cambridge May Ball (I think it's fairly accepted that BM is quite a bit cooler), we felt obliged to attend all six Proms in one evening. It was actually rather wonderful, and even though we were dancing in the desert at our first social engagement of the evening, we still maintained just the right amount of grace and raving flair. Next up - onto another Prom, which seemed to be a bit of a private party (so we just ate their food and left). Next - we meandered over to the Prom at 'The Pickle Joint' (somewhere that was to become a favourite haunt of ours, due to its proximity to our camp, and due to Sylvia's unearthly love for pickles). Of course, we stopped in for a pickle-tini (well, I just had a pickle) and chatted to Chris, the friendly bartender. Sylvia swing-danced with a random punter, and then, feeling rather exhausted, she retired for the evening, leaving me to tackle the last few Balls alone. Despite the frigid weather, I wandered out and had a good time. I danced, clustered around pretty much every brazier I could see, talked political philosophy well into the evening, was taken into some rather sketchy rave tents, and ran away, mad with glee, in order to return to the tent and get a good night's sleep before the dawn. And, in spite of the fact that Sylvia got around 10 hours' sleep that evening, whilst I got 4, we somehow stayed on the same energy levels. Then again, I'm a born raver!
Next day, after Sylvia and I both went in search of not very much (at opposite ends of the city), we met up in the afternoon at the Lego village. Well, one of the Lego villages, though sadly not the village that had made an entire artcar out of gargantuan Lego blocks. There, we let our youthful creativity reign free, as we were set the challenge of building a model artcar each. Due to the preposterous number of hours I invested in Lego during my childhood, I was perhaps at a little bit of an advantage over pretty much everyone in attendance, but even I was surprised when my ridiculously orange fighter heli-plane drew the envious admiration of a couple of little boys. But since I am (technically) an adult, I left the model for them to break up and use the parts however they so wished. Well, you can't take it with you. Except that you could - and indeed Sylvia did, and she later photographed her model in stages as she disassembled it so that she could present it to her boyfriend and instruct him on how to reconstruct it. We were both given Lego Burning Man medallions, which I'm sure will rank pretty highly for both of us as souveniers of our trip!
That evening, it got EPIC. Literally. For, at midnight on Friday, the Trojan Horse was due to be set alight; but only once it had been pulled through the gates of Troy. Cue yours truly, constructing yet another fantastic Spartan costume from the random assortment of rave outfits and Prom king cloaks (that I happened to pick up), determined to be among those that pulled this gigantic horse. The Trojans were actually rather prescriptive about who was allowed to pull: only those that were dressed as 'slaves', in self-fashioned togas. This unfortunately meant that Sylvia (dressed as a lion - not really close) was excluded. However, despite being dressed as a Spartan warrior (not a slave) I reasoned that their historical accuracy was poor enough to squeeze me in (Greeks didn't wear togas - the Romans did). With around two hundred of us pulling, this giant beast moved rather quickly, and within no time, it was ensconced inside Troy. We had about four hours to spare, so the two of us climbed a platform and danced away as the sun set over the jagged mountains on the horizon. After a quick bar-crawl, we were back in front of the horse, waiting for it to go up in smoke. Perhaps by this point we had developed an unhealthy obsession with burning things. Perhaps we wanted to replay history, and toast some arrogant Greeks. Or perhaps we just really didn't like horses. Whatever the reason, when this giant wooden horse ignited, we were delighted and awed, and almost blown over. Having watched the effigies burn the previous evening, neither of us really expected anything other than a simple - if ginormous and graceful - bonfire. Oh no no, my friend. It began with the floorshow, and flurry of poi dancers, teasing us with their flames, as they built up into a rhythm. Soon, flaming archers appeared on the scene, and from every angle, they shot their shafts into the body of the horse. The horse did not simply ignite. Its mane burst with fireworks, and a load of rockets (once ignited) shot into the sky. Soon enough, the beast itself was in flames, and the flicker of fire bursting from its head reached up to about a hundred feet in the air. It was so hot, we felt like moving back - a step we quickly took when we discovered that the fire was raining down hot ashes on our heads! It was utterly fantastic, and of course, because all of the Mutant Vehicles had turned out to see the burn, a volley of raves began immediatelt after the last timber collapsed. Rave on, for Troy! Sylvia and I quickly ducked out of the rave, however; the Snowflake Village was hosting its annual performance of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show', which was remarkably well done (by actors partly in underwear in very very cold conditions - all credit to them!) The performance was most remarkable, however, for its audience - who seemed to know all of the prompts and heckles that this musical could ever hope to elicit (in chorus).
By Saturday, you could feel that the city was beginning to wind down slightly. Most camps are expected to leave on the Monday (Labor Day), and since Tuesday is a working day, some that have far to go leave on the Sunday (more fool them). However, there were a few things going on, and after a morning of toy-franking and eating lentil soup, we headed out to investigate. We found ourselves at cartoon camp, somehow in the midst of an improvised comedy jam (we had turned up for charades?), but this was an inordinate amount of fun until they played 'guess who I am' with an Iranian comedian, who (fairly unsurprisingly) had no idea that he was supposed to be Bob Hope. Ah, foolish Americans, assuming that your comedy reaches where your weapons don't. (Still, if it had been a character from 'Friends'...) After fits of side-splitting laughter, and a fairly chilled day, we headed back to camp for dinner and to prepare for the main event - the night that the man would BURN.
Somehow (I don't really know how) we got amazing seats on the ground (front row centre) for the Man burn, which was undoubtedly the bombastic, sensational and energy-fuelled climax of the whole festival. This time, there was no holding back; I unearthed the Shadow Tiger and we sat baying for the burn, for the obliterating fires, for the ashes...but not yet. Firstly, we were treated to a thusfar in my life unprecedented display of synchronised poi, firedancing with most dramatic coordination, with four hula hoops, with flaming swords, and whilst doing the tango (!) How these performers did not burn (a) themselves (b) me (c) Sylvia (d) the rest of the crowd (e) the man prematurely (the most dangerous risk) I don't know. But it was a SHOW. And after they finished, the performers unexpectedly rushed the audience and gave us all hugs, which was surprising and delightful, and which I hope all future performers will imitate. With the poi dancers aside, next came the men in firesuits, who had been set on fire and who ran over the open Playa below the Man, screaming with glee. Finally the time came to ignite the Man; and it didn't so much burn as explode! It was still lit up with neon when the fireworks stashed in the platform below the Man streamed up into the sky, in the most remarkable, pyrotechnically brilliant display I have yet seen in my life. Given that I saw the 4th of July Fireworks in Philadelphia, and the opening of a Fireworks festival in Vancouver on this trip alone, that is saying a lot. Rockets burst in a flurry of colour - unremitting and marvellous, totally unrivalled (the Man's fireworks tie with those at John's ball in 2010 - but only because John's were so clever about timing the fireworks to music. For bang alone, BM rules absolute). And then - in a completely unexpected shattering of gunpowder and flame - the man ignited with an explosion that was almost a mini mushroom cloud. Several more followed, and the neon lights must have been blasted apart. In no time, the whole man was engulfed in a tempest of fire, and the surging exhaltation that swept over the crowd was incredible. We sat, watching the last beams burning, dying, and finally collapsing, before the crowd behind us rushed forward, past the firemarshals, to the now flat bonfire, to burn their own artwork, clothes, you name it. After the burn, we raved - raved like there was no tomorrow, primarily to unfamiliar eighties music. But despite the array of fantastic mutant vehicles, nothing came close to the spectacular events that had just unfolded before our eyes.
Sunday really was the beginning of the end. None of the (very few) events scheduled for that day really moved us, so we spent the morning franking yet more animals, before wandering around looking for our friends before they left. It was rather unnerving to awake to discover that part of the city around you had left in the night! And the Forestvillans were packing up preparing to leave before that evening. All of the streetsigns had been torn down for souvenirs; the main points of reference (the effigies, the wooden horse, and the Man) were all gone. Parts of our camp were moving away; our tent, which had been snugly concealed behind the domes of Forestville, now stood alone in the dust. There was only one thing to do that day. The Temple, the last great structure on the Playa (truly the size of a temple) was going up in flames. Come hell or high water, we would be there to witness it. But unlike the manic excitement that accompanied the burning of the Man the night before, this time the burn was a solemn affair. So many people had written messages to loved ones who had died on the walls of that temple; for them it was a way of remembering, of reconnecting with family. Although some cheered as it went up, the majority of us sat in pensive silence, whilst others called out their goodbyes, as tears rolled down cheeks and ghosts were laid to rest. I guess I'm lucky not to be in that position; but it was fascinating, a whole other side to Burning Man.
We very quickly returned to our tent and settled down to sleep. Brian, a terribly nice Irishman camped near us who we had been talking to the whole week (but who we had been calling Ryan, rather embarassingly), had offered to give us a lift out of the festival. One snag - he wanted to get going to avoid the queue, so that meant leaving at 5:30am. Which meant getting up at 4:30am, so we could take down the tent, and so that Sylvia could pack. I probably don't need to tell you that this was a bit of a departure from our normal sleeping pattern! Despite leaving mega-early, we still had a 5 hour wait to get out. I'm glad we did leave early, though - later on, this increased to 10 hours then 7 hours, and whilst waiting (stationery), the engine was off, so there was no a/c. I for one would have preferred to avoid the roasting desert heat! The journey back was fine, and Brian was a champion for driving us, even though we did slightly almost veer off the road a few times due to overwhelming tiredness (we stopped and took several rests). But it was 3pm by the time we got to Reno, and neither Sylvia or I could countenance Brian's plan for him to continue on to Yosemite National Park (maybe 10 hours' drive away). Luckily, he was conducive to the idea of staying and sleeping, so the three of us rented a huge room (almost a suite) in a Reno Casino hotel. As they expected us to gamble our lives away, the rent was cheap, and for the first time in 7 days, we were able to get showers! And to use the swimming pool!
(Trust me - both were sorely needed to get the Playa dust off our skin. On Sunday, finding that we had way too much water, Sylvia and I had been forced to dump half of the supply that we brought. I didn't fancy totally wasting it, and it was a warm day, so I poured the barrels out over myself. It did wash away some of the pristine white Playa dust that had cemented over my skin. Bed news is, it revealed a layer of black grime underneath. Bad festival. Mental note - next time, make friends with RV owner with shower.)
After getting clean (well, cleaner), we headed out to explore Sparks (the city merged with Reno, where we were staying). We shot some pool, I somehow emerged as champion (by default), and we ate vegetarian pizza. Then we slept - it was ever so sorely needed!
Our last full day in America (and not in an airport) was fun. We woke up slightly less tired, and the three of us were determined to get some good food (vegetarian - I was the only carnivore) before we set off on our journeys home. So pizza again, then (!) We waved goodbye to Brian - an excellent chap - and Sylvia and I wandered through Sparks, slightly underwhelmed by the sight of a real city once more. Their marina was very nice, however. We donated our sleeping mats to Goodwill, and prepared to bid goodbye to America. As a pleasant last surprise, Reno airport was decked out with signs and figures welcoming Burners, and everyone there was especially friendly - best airport by far.
Sylvia and I hugged as she left at around 4:30am, and I prepared for the 24 hour epic journey home. Return to the default world, and then on to Oxford. Well, at least I might dodge the real world for a good while yet (!) I've learned so much about the Americans in the last few months. I've had so many incredible experiences. I hope you've all enjoyed reading about them, and that you feel inspired to travel too. Thank you, for being a fantastic audience, for all your comments and responses. Sorry that I've always been rushed for time, or haven't felt able to respond to them - they've meant a lot. And I hope that someday soon, I will be reading about your exciting adventures. I promise to be exceedingly jealous.