7 things I learned at Burning Man

How do you begin to describe something indescribable?

Pretty tricky, huh?

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time. It has now been five months since I went to Black Rock City and when I tell you few weeks or even days pass without me either thinking about my experiences there or dreaming about them, I’m far from lying.

My best friend and I had been traveling through Utah and Arizona for about 10 days doing hikes and visiting the different national parks in the region. As if that wasn’t a trip wonderful enough, it was about to get a pretty amazing twist.

We had both been wanting to participate in Burning Man’s vibrant and loving community for years. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Burning Man is an annual gathering of 70,000+ people. Together, you build an entire city in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert only to take everything down a week later. The event dates back to the 80s where Larry Harvey among with a few friends started burning effigies on San Francisco’s beaches as a form of radical self-expression. Fast forward to the 90s and the guys had swapped the beach for some Black Rock Desert to host the event. One of the most wonderful qualities of this community is the close-to-non-existence of any rules and regulations. Freedom reigns here. That said though, to paint a better picture of what this community is all about I’ve listed the city’s 10 main principles below:

  • Radical inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification (no money, transactions, sponsorships or ads are allowed)
  • Radical self-reliance (bring everything you need to survive in the desert for a week with you)
  • Radical self-expression
  • Communal effort
  • Civic responsibility
  • Leaving no trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy (this is all about getting in better touch with your inner self by immersing yourself in direct experiences)

So, back to our story. This year, I had decided it was time to go. I had no idea how, but I knew it was happening. So, in short, unable to get tickets from the sales, we reached out to the Burning Man community’s ePlaya Forum telling our story about who we are, why we wanted to go and how we would contribute to the experience. We ended up with two gifted tickets and two vehicle passes (one we had to gracefully deny as we’d already received one).

So yes, it’s definitely hard to describe the indescribable. Going there was like taking a leap down the rabbit hole finding something I had no idea I’d even been looking for: a place to call home with a community of like-minded people to call family. So, I figured, instead of starting to recount my stories of the wacky experiences I had and the profound connections that I made or even try to make sense of what actually happened there, I’d rather tell you the Cliff Notes version: my main learnings from a week spent in Black Rock City…

Within the first hour of getting to Black Rock City we’d already jumped on an art car (a sardine can) to go bar hopping, pass by a hot dog stand for some food before heading to a deserted Boeing 747 on the deep playa.

1. Bizarre goes out the door.

For something to be abnormal it needs to be out of the norm. What happens then, when there is no norm? Easy: it leaves no room for the bizarre. Walking down the deep playa I passed by iron roses on fire, an abundance of different type of swings in all shapes and sizes, a circus, I jumped on a sardine can to get transported to a pillow fight on a trampoline and turned around as I saw 8-foot tall stools and tables that made up a bar for people on stilts. Let’s also not forget Tutu Tuesday where practically everyone, men and women alike dress up in tutus. By the time you leave Black Rock City you will find that few things surprise you. Naked people riding a tandem bike? Seen it. Waking up in a stapler after dancing for 12 hours. Been there.

But hey, why is this so important?

In our everyday lives, most of us at least, are constantly bombarded with messages, “shoulds”, social schemas and indications of how we should live our lives. What gets lost then is the true connection we have with ourselves. The freedom to express who we really are without any judgement. Black Rock City really is, the biggest “no judgement zone” I have ever experienced. And when you see people truly being who they are to 100% everything else about them (occupation, family matters, looks, cultural background) literally EVERYTHING just melts away. What you are left with is the best part – the core, which is really where our humanity lives.

2. Hugs are the closest thing to an official currency

There is no money allowed in Black Rock City. Instead, you learn to thrive as a community of giving. No, it’s not trade-geared either. It’s simply giving without any expectations. Having lived in the United States for well over six years now I am scared at how removed we are from each other. Sure, a competitive economy has its benefits in terms of innovation and productivity but what gets lost along the way if not our basic connection to each other? We forget that we’re all connected and that to thrive we all need each other. Money is, after all, just a means. Now, what happens when money gets taken away? Instead of trying to sell or trade items we give with the simple intention of giving. These selfless and non-individualistic acts are so crucial. Why? Because they replace the fear of not being able to thrive by yourself with the understanding that you will do so with your community. Giving to other people also puts more trust in other people. And that’s part of the magic of the playa, the idea that whatever you need, someone else has and will be quick give or throw your way: “the playa provides”, so to speak.

A few instances of the playa providing in the form of polaroids.


3. Time is the biggest irony

We all know time is a man-made concept. At Black Rock City, it’s even treated in an ironic way. The city itself is organized by hours of the clock. Yet, at the same time (no pun intended), even though there are occasional events happening at certain hours, rarely will you see people looking at their wrist. There is just such an abundance of experiences to have that even if you do try to make it to one event chances are you will not. And that’s OK. You’ll get side-tracked big time, finding more immersive experiences you had no idea even existed. And isn’t that really how we should be looking at life instead of time-boxing our experiences and our lives?

Case in point: this is me getting “side tracked” on my way to a nitrogen ice cream truck. Safe to say I didn’t get to it in time.
And here is instance numero 867549. A wall and an abundance of paint? Don’t mind if I do!

4. You will most likely not take many pictures

So this one was funny for me. I love taking pictures and I had even brought my DSLR with me. But, because of all the hefty sand storms I never took it out on the playa. Also, you will find that even if you, like I did, have a water-and-whatever-else-proof case for your phone with you, chances are you will still end up with 3-10 pictures from the entire week. Why? Because you get so immersed in the beauty of the playa, yourself, and everything around you that you forget to try to capture the moment. You’re too caught up in living the moment, so then why even try to recreate it?

Aaaaaand this is why I wasn’t too keen on whipping out my camera.

5. You start to care more for the environment

Part of the Burning Man mantra is to leave no trace behind. Such trace is called “MOOP” (matter out of place). When you’re surrounded by people constantly picking up trash they randomly find, ashing cigarettes in Altoid cans, storing tissues in their backpacks or running after a plastic bag on the loose, you start to think twice about the impact we have on the earth everyday. And hopefully, that is something you take with you home.

6. What happens when you let people do whatever they want

There are few rules in Black Rock City and what that does is allow people to do whatever they want. And what do people do when they can do whatever they want? They create. Think about it. When you ask most people what they’d love to do for a living provided all jobs paid the same most people tend to  drift toward something that’s creative in nature. Ultimately, we don’t want to just consume, we want to create. We know that our time on earth is limited so we think of our creations as being a part of ourselves that transcends our time here. All tangents aside, because of this extremely liberal approach, practically everything you see hear, touch and taste is art at Black Rock City. It’s really an overload for all the senses.

7. You find HOME.

As if points 1-6 didn’t spell it out already. You definitely find home. Coming into Black Rock City, you are welcomed home with hugs, making sand angels and ringing the gong only to enter a place where people genuinely care for each other, where there is no greed or fear. Where people express their true selves and there is no norm. A place to explore, to create, and to give.

Be sure to read my next post which offers some more practical tips for the Burning Man first-timer and for those interested in going while on a budget!

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