Friday, January 08, 1999

Burning Man recap

Not many people might compare the Black Rock Desert about 100 miles North of Las Vegas, Nevada to the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, but having been in both places I must say, there are quite a few similarities between this arid prehistoric lake bed during the Burning Man Festival and this lush tropical island during New Year's Eve.

In case you weren't aware, I was a very lucky bean to be able to be transported to the B.V.I.'s for the holidays. Lots of 45 sunblock and a big straw hat have enabled me to fool even those who knew I went, as I'm just about as pale as before I left.

Aside from geography, the similarities between these two festivals struck me immensely. Two years ago when I went to the Burning Man festival, over 14,000 people arrived over a few days in an assortment of caravans to experiment in this dry desert for a week in spontaneous community and explore the relationship between traditional and non-traditional culture, reality and cyber-reality. Camps were set up in a semi-circle shape and the Burning Man, a four-story effigy, was at the helm. A few days before Old Year's Night, as coined by Foxy, the owner of one of the two popular bars in "town," approximately 300 boats arrive to anchor in a 300 foot wide semi-circle harbor. The 150 locals of this four-mile long normally slow-paced, chickens-and-goats-in-the-main-"road" island gather to build shacks for a night and serve PainKillers (an unfrozen, unblended Pina Colada), fried chicken, conch fritters and Johnny Cakes to the sailors and crew who arrive days before to indulge and relax from days of sailing, snorkeling and diving. (Chef's Note: These Johnny Cakes are a far cry from Rhode's Island's version of pancakes. They are more similar to the Italian fried dough balls typically bought at street festivals, but not as soft and with no sweet powdered sugar to put on top.)

At least 1000 people convene to knock back a few of Foxy's famous Sly Fox rum drinks, indulge in Rudy's (the other major establishment's owner) famous pig roast and Caribbean lobster dinner, and hang loose with old and new friends. As New Year's Eve Day drew to a close the excitement and energy picked up despite the grueling heat that bore down on you all day. Schools of college-aged kids swam around smaller schools of older couples and families. By the time 11:00 rolled around there were plastic cups and paper plates strew about everywhere. That didn't deter barefooted party-ers, some of whom looked to have overindulged in legal and illegal substances.

After a year of being out and about I might have chosen a quiet evening over a big bash, but there was one aspect of this wild party that was really fantastic. Our watches ticked towards 11:55 when all of a sudden we heard boat horns blaring and saw flares shooting up into the sky. There was no big lit ball atop a skyscraper or clock on the wall that everyone counted from, so we realized it must be midnight. It came up on us so quickly and quietly... We popped open the Dom and cheered to Health, Happiness, Friends, and the New Year. But then...wait! All of a sudden a whole crowd down at Foxy's began tooting horns and cheering. Hey!? Was it New Year's then? Or is it right now? And minutes later down at Rudy's on the other end of the island, another round of hootin' and hollerin' erupted! Oh -- I see, now it's midnight there. I guess what they say about Island time is's certainly not based on Greenwich Mean Time, but it's a Good Mean Time! We walked to Rudy's where a Reggae version of Auld Lang Syne played. Rudy was cheerful and I signed a lamp light with my name. It's not unusual for some of these island bars' wooden ceilings and posts to be covered in signatures of visitors from around the world. Down at the other end, a third band was just getting started at Foxy's. We marveled at the wild gyrations of a young flapper-attired woman who looked like she was transported (in a few ways).

Like Burning Man, this Old Year's Night festival has become legendary and grown in popularity. Like Burning Man, hundreds (thousands) of people converge to relax, cut loose, be mellow, be crazy. Like Burning Man, the instant community shows how where once nothing existed (except prehistoric dried clay and cow patties or 100s of feet of warm blue water and coral reefs), people will form their dwellings into divisions and subdivisions, order is created out of something that appears to be disorderly, invisible and unspoken rules are made with no dominance. Like Burning Man, the event results in a grand festival of lights, sounds, dancing, drinking and assorted revelries. And like Burning Man, the next day, as homesteaders pick up tents (or anchors), there is an efficient crew that swoops down with brooms and sanitation trucks to restore the natural calm beauty to these vastly different, yet similar paradises.

Happy New Year to everyone and to everyone a Good Night!