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What I Learnt At Burning Man That Changed The Way I Travel - Part 1. What Is This Burning Man Thing

Nothing is better than a summer spent travelling festival to festival. You have your musical extravagances, your fire and circus intensives, your hippied out yoga retreats and then there is Burning Man.

what is this burning man thing anyway

Burning Man is a whole other experience. Often portrayed by the mainstream media as the biggest drug fuelled party on the planet. If you show up on the plya believing this is going to be just another crazy party, you may be in for a shock.

I have just gotten back from Kiwiburn, New Zealand’s regional burn event and am reminded just how much of my personal philosophy and travel style has been inspired by burner events.

You see Burning Man is not a festival in the traditional sense. The easiest way to explain it, is simply that it’s a full immersion experience. You do not passively watch a music act or learn a skill in a workshop (though you may well do both those things at BM) There is no line up, you are part of the performance, you bring your inspirations and you participate, collaborate and communicate. There are no spectators.

Ann K Addley

Burning man is based on 10 principals that shape the community and your experience of the festival. Some of these principals are easier to live by than others and you will surely see those who haven’t mastered them quite yet, but by not acknowledging what burners are trying to achieve you risk cutting yourself off from some pretty incredible life lessons.

Radical inclusion – That’s right, anyone is welcome. Just like in real life you will meet all types and some of those types won’t be on board with whatever you’re working on, but that’s ok, excepting differences can help us stop alienating valuable members of the community, just because their ideas are different from our own.

Gifting - We are encouraged to show our appreciation of others through gifting, whether that is with a drink, a massage or a helping hand. Discovering how healing, the act of bringing joy to another person is, can take us a long way in life even when we have few material possessions.

Decommodification – BM is a money-free zone, here is a place where nothing is for sale, corporate advertising is not constantly influencing you and the label on your clothes is less important than if you made them yourself. Refocusing energy from material possessions and a money based economy helps us evaluate what our priorities really are.

Radical self-reliance – The Plya is a notoriously harsh environment and you are expected to provide everything you need to be happy and healthy during the event; that means, food, water, shelter etc. Understanding what you will need to undertake for any projects you may be working on, means you are not a burden on the community, it also instils a sense of pride when you realise what you can really achieve if you set your mind to it.

Radical self-expression – The bigger the better, BM is famous for its crazy costumes and wacky theme camps. Here you can be yourself times 1000, whether you are exploring a new concept, rocking your own personal style or only packing your birthday suit, here in the melting pot of inspiration there are no judgements, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, you won’t know unless you give it a try.

burning man nervada

Immediacy – This is one of the biggest aspects of BM and yet one of the hardest to explain. This is an environment based on participation, on saying yes to whatever crazy concept is thrown at you. Massage workshop? Yes please. Naked moonlight bike ride? Sure. Spontaneous dance party? Why not. In daily life we put many barriers between ourselves and our inner selves. We do not always acknowledge our environment or instincts but by actively participating in our community, we can break through some of those barriers and learn new things about ourselves by seizing the moment with the simple phrase “yes let’s.”

Participation – For me this is what sets BM apart from other festivals, it’s this participation that lets us achieve immediacy. As well as joining in with workshops, performances and meals you are encouraged to actively participate; wear crazy costumes, join a theme camp, give massages, paint faces, whatever you’re comfortable with. With many burns under my belt, I can say without a doubt the more you put in the more you get out. It may sound counter intuitive in today’s 'Me! Me! Me!' world but my favourite burns have by far been those where I slaved away in all types of weather, with those I had only just met, to create amazing things for my community to enjoy.

Communal effort -– 65,992 people attended BM 2014, each one of those people carried in their own food, water and shelter. Now imagine what those dedicated individuals could achieve when they band together. In less than 20 years BM has grown from 20 people to 65,000 with people flying in from all over the planet to attend. I cannot think of a better example of what you can achieve with a great concept and a bunch of people willing to work within the community. BM is now a non for profit organisation, that means the infrastructure that supported those 65,992 people was built entirely by volunteers. These are our festivals, it is up to us to contribute what we can.

Civic responsibility – When we take ownership of an event we also take on the responsibility for making it a safe, civil society. Organisers, from theme camps to regional burns take responsibility for the participant’s welfare as well as conforming to local laws. If you choose to attend these events you are responsible for complying with any regulations set. You have a personal responsibility to behave in a safe and respectful manner benefiting yourself and the community.

Leave no trace – BM respects the environment. The festival does not provide bins, it is your personal responsibility to clean up after yourself and remove everything you brought in. After exodus, an army of volunteers combs the plya for missed rubbish, endeavouring to leave the environment in better condition than we found it. With such a large gathering this principal helps minimise our environmental impact as well as ensuring that the local councils and government allow BM to continue to run in their area.

There are lots of factors that contribute to Burning Man becoming known as a life changing event. The whole affair is designed to take you outside your comfort zone and force you to live in the moment. In fact if you do decide to attend I would suggest you read some of the survival guides strewn about the internet, not just the packing list variety but the ones that give you some idea of what to expect emotionally and how to best prepare yourself for a happy healthy burn.


How all this makes me a better traveller

There is a higher than average chance that a burn will change the way you see yourself and the world and it’s this change that I believe is so valuable to travellers.

Many people start holidaying on booked tours, attending cultural shows designed specific for tourists and watching the world go by from their air conditioned bus.

But there is more to travelling than being a passive observer, to really learn from your travels, to connect with your environment and appreciate a new culture, you must be willing to submerge yourself in it. In this, every one of the Burning Man principals carry’s a valuable lesson for new travellers.

●How to interact with people with backgrounds and values different than our own.

●How generosity to strangers benefits us even when we have little to give.

●How to recognise and appreciate values other than money.

●How much we can achieve under our own steam with the right planning.

●How we can be ourselves or whoever we want to be.

●How to live in the moment and appreciate what we have.

●How to say “yes let’s” and interact with the world around us.

●How much we can achieve when we work together.

●How to take responsibility for your own actions.

●How to minimise our impact on our environment and clean up after ourselves.

All this advice is perfect for first time travelers, it shapes how you see and interact with the world around you. Helping you to get the most out of your travel and be an inspiration to those you meet.

Man Burn 2013

I started this post to share how BM made me a better traveller, but discovered that I couldn't do this without explaining what BM is. Now the post is getting a bit lengthy, so I'm going to split it up. Check back here next week for part 2, including how to get the most out of your burn/travel and how to find regional burns to get you started.


Author of Stress Free Adventure Planning

If you enjoyed this post check out this one on how to use the Couchsurfing network or click here for my FREE travel budget calculator and monthly tips on saving money on you travel.

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