Monday, October 17, 2016

Getting There: A Long Introduction

Burning Man 2016

Back in 2014, I was told about the amazing, seemingly-illusive Low Income Ticket Program at Burning Man. A neighbor from a nearby co-op had just gotten back from Burning Man and was telling me all about their experience. At the time, all I could hear was "money, money, moeny, time off from work (does this person have a job?), money money, party in the desert". 

"Great, I thought, "a camping festival doesn't sound too bad. I just don't think I could afford that." I thanked them for sharing their story and went on with my day. 

At that time, anything that involved being away from my job longer than a day felt superfluous and I deemed the whole thing not worth the hassle of asking off. This was also following a death in the family that'd occurred not too long before, so I wasn't looking to do anything risky and unkown.

2015 rolled around. I heard whispers of something called the Low Income Ticket Program for Burning Man. By the time I was privvy to it, the deadline had passed. Around August, I saw the Facebook posts and got questions from people asking if I was going. 2015 just wasn't the right timing as I'd just visited Kenya (and a large part of my father's side of the family) for the first time. My capacity for adventure was satiated, and I was didn't want to wash out the glow I'd picked up with the harsh desert environment in Nevada. Not to mention, I was fresh out of paid days off from work (and still reeling from the $1,000 plane fare to get to the other side of the world and back). 

Cue 2016: I'd rang in the new year at Indra's Awarehouse during a Golden New Year's Eve party complete with costumers, glitter, face paint, a stripper pole (no party is complete without one), lasers, and two gong fu cha stations going in the loft. You could stick out your tongue and taste the silky, electric magic the air held. I was riding high on the smooth caffeine buzz from the tea, shennanigans on the dance floor, and the smooth beats blaring from the speakers. Did I mention that alot of people looked like golden gods, goddesses, and faeries? Yea, all of that, and the collective wish to furiously shake off all the fucked-up things that'd happened to us in 2015 were all coming to an apex during this warehouse party. 

And I'd been homeless for 2 weeks following months of under-employment and a violating break-in at my house. 

I wasn't on the street, sleeping under a bridge. But, for any of us who've been there, you know what I mean. You're hundreds of miles away from family, maybe you have a car, full of all your worldly possessions, and it's cold outside. And then you get laid off. 

2015 couldn't end without something bad happening. Multiple bad things happening. All of it at the same time. 

So this was how 2016 started. 

Eventually, February rolled around and afforded me an opportunity to move in somewhere where I wasn't required to pay a deposit. Without the kindness that was shown to me by this individual, I would still be homeless for who knows how long. 

Through all of that, a City of Austin artwork proposal kept me going. It gave me a sense of purpose, usefulness. Dignity that was lost in being without a guaranteed place to sleep for almost 2 months. After being too broke to visit my family for the holidays. After being too sullen to take delight in other people's good fortune. 

It just so happened that the deadline for the City's artwork proposal and the Low Income Ticket program were during the same month. I now had 2 things to keep my mind occupied in-between filling out mountains of job applications and being mired of an aura of low self-worth.

(Trust me: this all is relevant to my Burning Man experience. Bear with me!)

I submitted my Low Income Ticket application in February, and started marking my calendar for the 6-8 weeks that it should have taken to get a response back. 

1 month, then 2 months, then 3 months came and went. By then I was starting to worry that, not only did I not apply in time to get one of these precious tickets, it wasn't even worth them putting me out of my misery to tell me "no". 

Now, during this time of in-between-places-ness and joblessness (save for a few gigs here and there), I'd racked up a ton of credit card debt. I'd been paying for food, gas, the occasional AirBnB, and a month of rent to a friend who let me stay in his apt for a month - ALL ON MY CREDIT CARD. I was already broke when the homelessness happened, so everything was going on credit. How was I able to pay for my next place, you ask? An un-cashed check from my car insurance company. By a stroke of luck, a college kid hit my car at 10 mph and left a dent big enough to pay out $1,000. 

Kept the dent, got a room!

So, through all that, I started aggressively paying down my debt once I got a job. I'd wanted to save a little for Burning Man, but after I didn't get a reply for so long, I thought it best to solely attend to my rapidly falling credit score.

Then came month 4. I got the email stating that I'd been approved! 

"Great!" I thought, "I have nooooo money for that! I was literally homeless less than half a year ago. And look at all this debt! This is an insult, a slap in the face, a cruel joke that I set myself up for!!!"

But...what if it works?

Through my amazingly cool Austin network, I knew a theme camp, The Temple of Uni-Tea, that was going to the playa that might need an extra set of hands. They lovingly accepted me with open arms.

So, I had a ticket and a camp. But, l didn't have time to save up money by the end of August. It was June already. 

The negative self-talk started up again " You're just a temp, you don't even have a real job. Why try when you're not a real employee anyway, they'll never allow you 9 days off, even if you had the money! Just give up." 

That negative self-talk had a good point. I'd been working as a temp call center agent for about 4 months, with no end date listed for my contract. I had no idea if I was going to be hired on or, like the people who'd laid me off before the holidays, if I was going to be discarded after they'd silently replaced us with actual employees. I tamped down my desires and quietly resumed life as normal. Unsatisfied with how this story was ending. 

After a week of feeling grim and restless, I off-handedly asked my boss if I could have a couple of work-weeks off to go to Burning Man. I was partially joking, but he said "yes". He'd said this just as calmly and nonchalantly as I'd asked. Stunned, I turned around in my seat and asked again.


"Yes, just send me an email and I'll adjust the schedule." That was easy. (Take THAT negative self-talk!)

Later, he explained that he thought I'd quit or just never come back if he said no. It's not entirely impossible as I know many Burners who've done just that. An employer can either acquiesce to the wild desire, or find someone else to do their job. Luckily, I worked somewhere that was understaffed. Plus, I was good at my job.

Negative self-talk rebutted this victory: "So, you have a ticket with your name on it, a camp, a task within that camp, and time off work. Where are you going to get the funds? Do you have a way there? You don't have a tent! Are you going to be a mooch, or just give up?"

That's when I saw my family and community come together in a overwhelmingly supportive way.

Here's something about me: I HATE asking for help, especially financial help. After I'd crunched the numbers, I knew what I had to do. I could either wallow in self pity or own up to the fact that I'd put in the necessary work and just needed to ask for help. A lot of help. I did an EFT (emotional freedom technique) session on a Monday night, and made my GoFundMePage the next morning. 

Photo Credit: Rocketman

So, How Was Burning Man?

You may have seen spoofs of how it's not cool to ask how someone's Burning Man experience was. Don't feel bad for asking, that's why I made this post! Some of the photos were not taken by me and have been credited with the name of the photographer. (Disposable cameras aren't the best for shots taken at night)

My story begins with a wonderfully passionate love-making session with a dear lover (as any good adventure starts).

Five hours later, I boarded the plane to San Francisco.

Catching the Burner Express Bus to Black Rock City, I created a mini-roadtrip for myself so I could pick up some new sights along the way. I figured I could only afford 12 hours of California, but enjoyed seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the urbane-chic cityscape complete with streetcars. 

My view of San Francisco from my hostel.

I'd never been to California before. Let me say, WOW. From the 5 hours of it that I saw from the bus, it felt like going through 3 different countries. The hazy, chilly waters of the Bay gave way to soaring, lush mountains, then a patch of land that looked like Sicily, then into piney hills that looked fit to house mountain lions and bears. 

With all the tension of sitting on a plane and the 5 hours of sleep I got at the hostel, a dozed off and arrived to an otherwise unassuming expanse of pale nothingness loosely cupped by a semi-circle of jagged mountains.

We'd arrived! 

As we pulled closer to the express lane (designated for busses like the one I was on), I noticed that the driver had turned off the a/c. And it was getting muggy. Then hot. 

Apparently, the powder-like dust is so fine that it would have been easily sucked into the vents and blasting us. The dust still found its way in. The air smelled different and I could tell it was already trying to create a layer on my lung's aveoli. I put on my facemask. 

The bus came to a stop and it was now time to pull out our Burning Man tickets to show to the gate-keeper. I found this odd as 2 people had checked my ticket before boarding, then stamped my hand, made me turn around 3 times, and call them uncle. Did they REALLY need to see the damned thing again?

I reach into my passport belt and find nothing my LIT (Low Income Ticket) confirmation email, a receipt showing that I'd paid for it, and my bus ticket confirmation email. But no ticket. 

I was sitting at the bus, watching the gate-keeper grimly looking straight into my soul. As if he automatically knew! I couldn't find my ticket. But I knew I had from a memory of looking at it's gold print as I was sitting in my seat. Was I hallucinating? Did I get all the way out here just to be turned away? Surely with my receipt and and confirmation email (and the stamp on my hand), they'd let me in....right?

I presented my case to the dusty, grim-faced gate-keeper, even presenting my driver's license to prove I was me, but I was escorted off the bus. What shocked me even more than how strict this whole operation was is the patient generosity that the other bus riders exhibited.

Instead of rolling eyes and frowns, people were actively trying to HELP. All the attention just made my face burn, so I refused to make eye contact with anyone while my seat neighbors double-checked my backpack. 

I got all the way to the box office, gusts of dusty windy obscuring my vision, and reached a grimmer-faced guy behind the counter. I explained my situation, provided proof that I paid for the ticket, that the ticket was specifically awarded to me, and my driver's license to prove that I was me. I showed him my stamped hand to add further proof that I didn't magically stow away on the bus before through the two-step verification process. 

He was unfazed. 

He was even unfazed that he saw proof that I'd picked up my ticket earlier that day in the dusty laptop before him. He told me such.

Just as I was about to summon my inner-most "Im-bout-tago south Memphis on yo' ass", I was interrupted by a tiny, dread-locked woman who exclaimed that the ticket had been recovered from my backpack! She arrived just in time.

Dashing through the dust, I made it back to the bus with my face burning, expecting that I was absolutely RUINING Burning Man for everyone, obviously. 

But all I heard was applause, and all I could see was smiling, cheering faces. Apparently this search for the ticket had become a mini team-building exercise and everyone was more happy and relived than I was embarrassed and angry. Tears shot to my eyes and I felt silly. 

"I haven't even technically gotten in yet and I'm having this kind of adrenaline rush already???" 

I knew I'd be in for a treat. 

While getting my luggage, I ended up missing the initiation (NO! I will not spoil it for you). But I did this later by myself in deep playa, so I wouldn't miss out. 

The rest of that day was pretty un-eventful as I'd spent 2 whole days in transit and the last thing I could do was keep my eyes open. I quickly set up a tent (without staking it down) and stretched out on my comfy donated sleeping bags. 

My camp, and home, for seven days. (The mountains were way bigger than they appear in this photo)

That was Day 1. 

Now, I won't continue my story in a chronological fashion (time moves its own way out there), but what follows is me finally dropping into my body and having the experience of a lifetime:

So, how was it to be in the desert? For anyone who's been to or lived in Texas, this would not make you batt an eye. For me, it was a typical day, minus the sticky humidity in Texas that makes the heat stick to you. Being out in Black Rock City just felt like being cooked slowly by dry heat (if you I was standing in direct sunlight) or just plain fine if I in the shade. There's constant wind, so there's rarely a feeling of stagnated heat. Just dusty if you end up solely using a bandana over your nose and mouth as I did. The facemask I had was a bit small for my face, but luckily I had back-up bandanas. Yay, radical self-reliance! 

I roughed it out with the whole walking everywhere thing, making excuses that I could really enjoy and savor the things I passed. But that was a lie. I eventually grew jealous of all the people on bikes who were able to get around more quickly and pack more experiences into their day in comparison to me. Classic FOMO (fear of missing out). 

What's so awesome about showing up without a bike is that I could participate in the bike-share program, Yellow Bike. Now, Yellow Bikes aren't yellow, they're actually lime green. They're also identified by the lack of crazy decorations and the very obvious red spray-painted text "YELLOW BIKE" on the side of the frame. The rules state that they are never to be locked, taken into your camp (out of the sight of others), and never decorated. Of course, as more people showed up to the playa, these rules were followed less and less and I found myself walking for miles at a time, unable to find a bike. At one point I had to rescue a Yellow Bike from some smart-ass who technically followed the rules by not locking the bike and having it in plain sight - except the bike was sandwiched between two regular bikes that WERE locked together, rending the technically-not-locked-up bike hard to access. (I found two nice Burner men who lifted the locked bikes while I untangled the handlebars of that oh-so-coveted Yellow Bike and rode back to my camp triumphantly).

Once I found one of these coveted bikes, that was the turning point from me just taking in the scene around me and actually BEING in the moment. The flat terrain provides a smooth riding experience, and being on the bike with the wind going through my hair felt freeing. Everything was quiet except the wind and my own thoughts. Not the chattery thoughts that tell you that you forgot to pick up your child from school or that you missed a deadline to pay a bill, the kind of feeling within you that is purely you without all the worry. Myself and I became very good friends while riding together. 

One of my favorite shots on my disposable camera.

Eventually, I fell into the routine of waking up every morning just before the sun rose, bathing out of my bowl, cleaning it out, eating some nuts, berries, and granola with coconut milk, then setting off on that day's adventure by biking to a far-off point, then making my way back toward camp, making as many stops as possible. Weaving back and forth among different events I saw in the Book, and striking up conversations with new faces while standing around whimsical art installations.

It was around Day 3, Wednesday, that I really settled into the flow of my environment. I knew that the porta-potties in my "neighborhood" were cleaned around 8:30 am. I knew that free breakfast was provided 9 - 11ish. I knew that the sun didn't get unbearably intense until about 4. By then, I'd head back to camp to have tea and nap. What happened along the way was nothing short of magic.

One my favorite activities at Burning Man was following artcars on my bike. The El Pulpo Mechanico Art Car being the one that entranced me the most. This thing shoots fire to what feels like 20 feet into the air and plays music. It's rustic metallic structure and bronze color invoke the feeling of a unique character. It also has a face on all 4 sides of the head that gnash with jagged teeth and unsettles you with its bulging eyes. It also has the look of one of my favorite Indie games, Machinarium, so this art piece holds a special place in my heart.

Photo Credit: Rocketman

Upon closer inspection, it is plated in flattened cooking strays and muffin baking sheets. It also has this creepy screeching metal sound it produces when the legs move. I followed this art car around on several nights, my heart fluttering at every explosion of blazing wonder. 

Waiting in line became a secondary past-time. Whether in line for coffee or vegan ice cream, you get accustomed to the feeling of not having to be anywhere at any given time. Once you strip yourself of being better than the person in front of you, and feeling like you'll die if you can't get what you want in 2 seconds, life is sweet. Even when waiting. The realization of waiting not being a form of the Universe punishing you was a very powerful tool I had in realizing how much I had to be thankful for in the present moment. Realizing how much I already had access to once I stopped focusing on the things ahead of me. 

Plus, a little anticipation never hurt anyone!

And when I wished really hard for something, I got it! Playa magic. While wandering with some other female camp-mates we started wishing really hard to interact with some hot Burner guys. We playfully chanted the mantra: "Hot boys, hot boys, hot boys" over and over again, being amused by our own silliness (yet still serious about this request). 

And guess what fucking happened.

By the end of the day we each found exactly what we were looking for! My hot boy had a really sexy, exotic name that I will not divulge (plus he may be reading this RIGHT NOW). 

On the same day of consciously telling the playa what I wanted, I came across a massage camp. The sun had set, so all of the official activities were geared toward the party crowd, so I could tell that this camp had likely been giving out free massages that day and were winding down. That's when I caught sight of a muscular, shirtless, bronze man next to a massage table beneath a shade structure that had partial privacy. I'm not making this up.

I had a desire for a massage and a hot boy separately, and now the playa was presenting both on a dusty platter. I opened my mouth and asked for what I wanted. He looked at me and agreed to give me a massage, because I was there and I'd asked. MORAL OF THE STORY, KIDS!

Two desires, one delivery. 

My Burning Man experience was FULL of wishes being granted.

The workshops are a great place to try your hand at new activities, including bending metal in a forge!
Photo Credit: Jimmer Shine
The sign reads: "You are not your bullshit. Please discard it and remember who the fuck you really are."

I'm at a loss to what to tell you about first. As a morning person, there were only two nights that I was able to stay awake past 10 p.m. I do wish that there was a bit more to do at night, as far as promoted activities, other than drinking and dancing. I like the latter, but not when the music is slow loud that I'm not able to hear myself think....or maybe that's the point. 

Anyway, the night of the "Big Burn" was Mardi Gras meets dusty magic. And driving of brightly lit, multi-colored art-cars and mutant vehicles. 

There's actually several nights where effigies (art structures) are burned. On the night of "The Man" being burned, I'd had a nap to ensure I'd have the energy to stay awake past 10 pm, but I wasn't feel particularly rowdy. Watching the Man burn felt cathartic, but somehow not "life-changing" enough like all the hype I'd built up around it. 

Photo Credit: Andrew Jorgensen of

While I sat on the ground with people from all over the world, I took in this massive symbol of humankind's continuing process of dreaming, collaborating, building, cathartic release, then doing the whole process over again bigger and better than before. To some, it may seem pointless to destroy a piece of art, but think about how many things we've created as a species that is relevant enough to stand throughout time without ANY improvements. Things, no matter how amazing, start to crumble and lose relevance. Over time, instead of protecting things (and systems) that may be outdated, being at Burning Man showed me the importance of always staying curious. Always striving to learn more, build higher, burn brighter. To shake the mold. 

This ritualistic experience was a reminder, a gift, to really appreciate a moment in time that would never been repeated in quite the same way. To know be reminded of how ephemeral everything is in our lives. 
The feeling of being open to being bigger and more exploratory came full-circle as I got exclusive access to an art-car fashioned as a 2-story Attack from Mars pinball machine from the 50's. With a little help from a camp-mate, I had a memorable night sailing on top of this gussied-up bus (that was being driven from its roof with some creative jimmy-rigging, levers and poles). Once we got into deep playa (away from the lights, the bleepy-bloopy music, and everyone else in general), all I could hear was the loud wooshing sounds of the wind. All I could feel was being 20 feet in the air on a lilty platform that could've been the deck of a pirate ship. All I could see was the dust flying past my headlamp and tinted steampunk goggles. 

In the distance, I could barely make out the slightly-more-black shape of mountains fading into the black sky that could've been the Milky Way, close enough to reach out and taste with my tongue. Below the mountains, the waves of dust being blown across the ground looked like the calm waves of a pale ocean. I was in a different world. 

Eventually we came across the Black Rock City Observatory. We got off our ship/bus/pinball machine, we were greeted by Major Tom. Major Tom had a couple of high-power telescopes, but since the Burns left so much smoke in the sky, there was nothing to be viewed through the telescopes. 

Instead of seeing stars or planets, we got to TOUCH ONE! He pulled out a tiny piece of Mars that was purchased by the group. I got to put my finger on Mars, while riding in a pinball machine called Attack from Mars! 

After a while, the steampunk, pirate lady driving the pinball monster tried to steer us toward a speakeasy that was so far away from the rest of Burning Man, you HAD to get to it by riding something anything. Especially the night after the largest landmarks had been burned to the ground. When everything is seemingly miles apart on flat land, it's hard to find your way. Especially when coupled with intense darkness. 

On our way, we rescued a couple of Burners who were were lost/stranded on foot! They were sure they were going to die out there from lack of water and food and inhaling dust. Burning Man is full of people looking out for each other, and dedicated Burners called Rangers, who are devoted to making sure everyone is safe. 

For those nay-sayers that call Burning Man solely a place where the rich and famous go to party in the desert, I'd like to refute that with a couple of observations

First, you can't really tell anyone from anyone from anyone else. We were all dusty. And we were all in costumes, or various forms of nude. 


We wore googles and different types of face masks or bandannas. No one walked around plainly looking of any other "class" of anyone else. No one with huge pink purses with little dogs saddled inside. 
We are all covered in layers of dust, the great equalizer! 

I CAN say that I could tell where the Burners with more money resided. As I would bike to the further edges of the camp, I started to notice that I saw fewer camps primarily made of tents, to suddenly seeing nothing but RVs for an entire stretch of "road". Obviously the rich-people neighborhood! But guess what, if I had the money, I'd bring an RV, too! Avoiding porta-potties, having a private shower, your own kitchen....what's not to like about that?

Secondly, for those who think Burning Man is dead because it's not just the hard-core Burners, how do you expect to keep the community growing? How do you plan to propagate the ideas of radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, and "Leave No Trace", etc? 
Other people have to be exposed to a different way of living for those ideas to spread. To this day, I still regularly travel with my own spoon, bowl, and bottle of water.  I use fewer disposable items and am more aware of the trash I create. 

At the end of the week-long event, you have to take ALL your trash with you, so you learn very quickly to only bring the essentials. And items that serve multiple purposes. Or stuff you can burn at the end of the event.

All in all, I'm so honored to able to live this experience due to the wonderful donations of those who donated to my GoFundMe campaign, those who gave words of encouragement, my boss for giving me the time off, and everyone who made suggestions about what to bring! 

I made some life-long friends and am still inspired by all the amazing acts of love I experienced out in the desert. 

Until next time!