Have you ever traveled with a friend overseas, or crossed the country in a car? By the time your journey is over, one of two things has happened: you have become closer and bonded for life, or you never want to speak to each other again.
Burning Man is completely different from any traveling you might do, but in many respects, it’s the same as any other journey. The people you camp with can make your experience stellar-righteous, or turn it in to a living hell. We’ve all heard stories about people marrying people they’ve met on the playa, or meeting friends, future roommates and co-workers. But for each good story, there is a corresponding one about friends and lovers parting ways after their week in the desert.
Here are a few tips that might help you preserve relationships of all sorts at Burning Man, culled from the experiences of people who have been there before.
The People-Unfriendly Playa
Like dogs, some people just don’t belong at Burning Man. Does your partner go into convulsions when there’s no place to plug in the blow dryer? Does your best friend hate crowds? Do yourself a favor, and leave them at home. Not only will they have a horrible time and complain all week long, but you will end up babysitting, and will resent them for ruining your vacation. This is a huge issue for couples. Trust me, the time apart will do you good.
Know Thy Campmates
Black Rock City is happening at night. You’ll be out frolicking and enjoying the sights after the sun goes down, but what will you do when the sun is up? You’ll be sitting under your shade structure with the people you came with, day in and day out. This bonding time can be incredibly fun, provided you like everyone in your camp. In 1994, I attended Burning Man for the first time with eight hardy, easygoing and resourceful individuals … and one neurotic and insecure woman who we invited on a whim. Her incessant and inane babbling had us all running for cover in the next camp. If you’ve ever stayed out late to avoid your roommate or spouse, you know this game. This is your home for the week. As such, it should be as comfortable as possible.
You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto
With any organized group, people tend to fall into their natural roles. If you have a large group, chances are you will have somebody who becomes Mama, Chief Construction Foreman, Organizer of Outings or Head Chef, to name a few. It’s good, though, to make sure everybody in your group has similar goals, and that they will pull their weight equally. Like Dog People vs. Cat People, the People Who Want Party All Night and Eat Food Out of a Can should not camp with the People Who Prepare Elaborate Meals and Do Yoga Every Morning. You don’t want to end up taking care of a bunch of people who aren’t taking care of themselves.
Welcome to Camp Dis/Harmony
Theme camps require huge amounts of cooperation and effort. Everyone in your group needs to be committed to building and/or staffing your space. Make sure people know what is expected of them ahead of time, and find out how people want to contribute. Nothing will tear you apart quicker than making assumptions on what others have committed to. Ambitious projects quickly become forced marches when only a couple of people shoulder the load. Don’t get upset when things don’t come together on the first day. People will need time to acclimate, unwind and decompress when they arrive. And don’t forget to factor in the unpredictable weather. If your theme camp comes together by Friday, you’ll be doing better than many.
That old expression, “Best of Plans Mislaid” is especially apropos to the Burning Man experience. There’s a lot to do and see, and simple tasks take much longer than you think they will. People get sidetracked, caught up, distracted and too busy to keep their promises. Prior to the event, it probably seemed like a great idea to hook up with friends Thursday evening at sundown, but when Thursday evening rolls around, a nap seems like a much better idea. Unfortunately, you can’t pick up the phone and let them know you won’t be making it. Cut yourself, and your friends, some slack, and don’t take it personally. It’s not that they don’t love you; most likely they were too exhausted to make the effort.
Take Care of Yourself
It takes about two minutes to become over-stimulated at Burning Man. Between the people, the sights and the sounds, you will find yourself in a place where the rules have changed and few things are what they seem. Add in a couple of days of exertion in the heat, sleep deprivation, mild dehydration and decreased appetite, and you may find yourself feeling a bit edgy. Chances are you will take it out on those people who are closest to you. When you find yourself getting ready to pitch a hissy fit, stop. Get out of the sun. Drink some water. Eat some food. Take a nap. There. Don’t you feel better?
Sex and the Single Burner
Once upon a time, I did a stint as an advice columnist. Here is the answer to a question I received.
Q. I’m going out to Burning Man for the first time and I’m curious about the sexual energy involved. Could the Goddess of Love give me a survival guide to sex at Burning Man?
A. As you state, there is a lot of sexual energy swirling and whirling about, much like a little hippie chick at a Dead show. Anything and everything can and will happen when you stick a bunch of homo sapiens in an empty desert. Here’s the inside skinny that will make your journey through the sexual side of Black Rock City more pleasant.
- Figure out what you want. Love? Sex? Your wildest fantasies? It’s all there for the taking. And for goodness sake, make sure the person across from you wants the same thing. If she or he doesn’t, there are 500 others who do. Don’t go breakin’ no hearts.
- Be respectful. Just because people are walking around naked does not necessarily mean they wish *you* were naked in a small enclosed space with them. Learn to take no for an answer, and don’t be afraid to use the “n” word yourself.
- Pay attention to your body. The desert is a dangerous place, and the climate alone will push you to the limit physically. Get plenty of rest, monitor your substance intake and carry water with you at all times (you also have to drink the water).
- Always play safe. If your budget for supplies didn’t include condoms, stop by and see the fine folks at Safer Sex Camp. They’ll hook you up.
- Make love to the playa, and she will love you back. Become one with the sun, the stars, and the omnipresent dust. (Word up to Annie Sprinkle for that piece of advice.)
- Don’t be afraid to try new things. If there was ever a space for exploring, this is it! Who knows, you may even like it and want to do it again…and again and again….
- Take responsibility for your own pleasure. You can find anything your little heart desires, but you have to ask for it first! If you don’t get what you want, look in the mirror.
Joined at the Hip
Burning Man is particularly hard on couples. If you can make it through Burning Man, you can make it through anything! Here are a couple of pieces of advice from those who have been there.
From Greg X. Presley:
Burning Man has stressed my relationship more than any other single event/episode/situation I can name. There are, however, precautionary measures I can recommend…5 Ways to (Maybe) Keep a Relationship Beyond Burning Man
- Watch each other’s hydration! The first sign of dehydration is irritability — a bad mood. Who gets the brunt of that? You and your partner, of course. Try it yourself. Just skip a few quarts, then pick a fight over anything. Works like a charm out on the playa. Of course, you’ll probably have to find another ride home.
- Make dates, and keep them. Knowing that your beloved will be back, say, around dusk, to escort/be escorted by you on a pre-planned evening is an effective counter for that ‘left behind’ feeling. And make your next date as soon as the last one’s over, before the glow fades.
- Massage — anytime it’s not too hot. Feet especially. Increase your tactile time to compensate for the inevitable shortage of routine relationship reassurances that playa life entails.
- Push boundaries? Nyet! I know it’s Burning Man. I know it’s about self-expression. Does that matter to the heart? No! Even if he/she says ‘it’s ok’ now, it won’t be then, or later.
- Secret treats. You know the drill: flowers and chocolate, wine and cheese, whatever. The name of this game is “I Went to Burning Man but I Thought *Only* About You.” If you can’t stand playing this one, then better sell one of those two tickets before it’s too late.
Take care of one another. Watch to insure that enough water is going through you both — more than you think you need. If you don’t stay hydrated, you’ll be broken up by the end of the event, I can almost guarantee.
Equally important, be sure to take time with and time away from one another. Don’t forget that you are individuals. Exposure to the event has a different impact on everyone. One of you may be way into it, while the other might have a hard time adjusting. One of you might be into sitting around camp and making stuff, while the other wants to don costumes and do performance art in the cafe. Don’t be pushy and expect your partner to do the same things you want to do at every second.
Spend all the time together you want, but leave room for yourself and your own interests, too. Remember that there are thousands of new friends for you each to meet as well, so each of you should feel encouraged to spend time with other people as well as each other. Still, be sure to schedule plenty of ‘dates’ together, and keep them. Take time to plan trips around the city with each other, or have a standing date for coffee each day. Just make sure that you honor your time together, but also apart.
And in the End…
Burning Man is an experiment in temporary community. You are free to make new rules, and find different ways of relating with people. Learning more about other human beings — and yourself — is a big part of the reason we’re here!