Rayna Jhaveri spent a week in a temporary city in the middle of a harsh desert as a “burner”, a participant in the annual Burning Man event. In the rugged mountains of Nevada, it’s a place with no baths, no buildings, no cellphones—just an expansive, isolated, dusty landscape. It’s a radical free expression of art, and of the minds of the 40,000 people who come to celebrate unbounded creativity.
The peculiar alkaline smell of the desert dust entered my nostrils long before we reached Black Rock City. With it came a rush of memories of my trip there two years ago. Once again, there I was, about to join 40,000 people from all over the world for a week-long artistic festival called Burning Man.
It took a lot of preparation. My friend from San Francisco and I packed a car full of things we thought we’d need, including water, food, tents and anything else that’s essential for living in the desert; I checked it all against a survival guide and, if anything was missing, well, we’d just have to live without it.
Black Rock Desert is literally in the middle of nowhere. An inhospitable, flat stretch of land atop a mountain, in the middle of an extremely harsh desert, two hours from Reno, Nevada. Each year, for Burning Man, a city is created, and seven days later dismantled; and the people leave, without a trace.
The whole week, I live in a money-less city where everything is gifted. There’s nothing to buy, except coffee and ice. There is no set demand from me or anyone else as we spend a week here. We’re here for an extraordinary experience, a celebration, to live cash-free in a participatory community; it’s not just a party. It’s an expression of art, of performance, a counterculture of “radical self-reliance”. Time has little meaning. The idea of value, too, is turned on its head. An expensive watch, for instance, has no value, but a smile or a handshake, or the foot massages I gift, have great value.
The first time I came here in 2004, I joined a group of 60 people who shared resources and logistics and set up a dance club. This time, it’s the two of us and we’ve brought some canned foods, plenty of water, gifts and not much else. For seven days, I roam through the city on my bicycle. It’s massive, it’s overwhelming and I can’t help feeling awestruck at everything happening, and at the location. We’re on a 4,000ft-high mountain, a playa, surrounded by mountain walls on either side.
One moment I could be wearing a blue wig, another, I could be jumping on a trampoline, or biking through the city, stopping for music, striking conversations with people in vivid costumes considered bizarre elsewhere, or closely examining some hyper-realistic art installation. The Belgian contingent has built a huge dance club, Uchronia, a 15-storey high cavern that’s one of the biggest draws each night.
Everyone spends a week without a bath, there’s simply no water to waste. Once a day, a truck goes around the tentopolis we’ve created, spraying water on to keep the sand from flying too much. I run behind it, to get a quick wash on the go. Eco-friendly here means you don’t pollute the sand with the water you brush your teeth with. You use a container to empty your mouth’s contents and turn it into an evaporation box. Loos here are portable units, for many a long walk from the tents. Burning Man is a “no trace left behind” event.
The weather here is unimaginably harsh, a blistering 40°C in the day, freezing at night. Wherever I drift, I must remember to carry my dust mask and sunglasses, because a dust storm can come up at any moment. And when it does, it will be a sudden white-out; I will not be able to see my hand in front of my face. A really bad storm that lasts two hours hits us one day. Unfazed, I sit it out in my tent, which leans over from the pressure of the wind. At some point during my first Burning Man experience, I had made friends with this talcum powder-like dust. The same dust I first smell miles outside Black Rock.
Burning Man defies precise description. It is what you make of it. For me, it’s an extremely intense experience. It’s made me think about the life choices I make; whether I’m willing to forego some career, money, fame, to live a life that’s more connected with people, with ecology, with nature.
And, of course, there’s the 40ft Burning Man effigy that is set ablaze in a huge bonfire at the end of the week. Symbolizing renewal, the emerging of new worlds, a rebirth, a new journey.
As told to Niloufer Venkatraman. Email your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org