Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Paul Chhabra
Somewhere in the middle of my fifth night, living in the dusty chaos of Black Rock City, I find myself out in the deep playa, wheeling through the blessedly cool night air on a bicycle. My pedals, or derailleurs, or some other part, (never did figure that out) squeak familiarly, rhythmically; the air from my speed blows through my hair. A quarter moon flows through the crystalline darkness, illuminating the rare, ghostly clouds, which give depth to the sky and distant stars, making it clear that this star is “near” and that one “far away,” showing the whole universe to be a gemmed sphere, sparkling and translucent, with me somehow lodged directly in its center. It rolls over and around and through me, making my sore ass tremble on the bike seat, making me laugh out loud at nothing.
Nearby, a fellow human, a woman with dreads falling all the way down her back, whirrs by on a bike, intent on her direction, slipping out of and back into the darkness in an instant. Our teeth shine momentarily, nearly unseen in the moonlight, as we smile and nod slightly in that tiny moment when we pass. And then she is gone.
Around me in the distance, in nearly every direction, the playa undulates and glows and blares and booms and explodes and burns. The world’s biggest, craziest carnival takes place all around me, though I feel like a man alone in the middle of an endless desert. Lost under the stars.
Sound systems ring out from everywhere, shaking the ground and stirring the air. Bass lines, some mindless and blocky, some undulating like a jungle snake, some hard like diamonds, some as funky as toe-jam funk, writhe around me, trying, each of them, to pull me in. Drums, and blips, and bleeps and rings and scratching fly in every direction, reminding me that I am no man lost alone in a desert: It wasn’t long ago that I was immersed in a DJ’s sound over at the Hotel Galactica, bouncing around, drunk and grinning, with a couple of hundred other revelers, also warming up for a night of getting down. I feel delicious warmth throbbing in my thigh muscles, from dancing, and from riding through the night.
I realize that I have been driving blind and directionless: I have pedaled, fast, for the Cathedral, and then, nearing it, wheeled away, thinking, “no, that’s not it at all…” Then I was flying toward the waffle, madly in the night, until I thought, “nah, too early for the waffle…” Then here, then there. Now it seems like an eternity since I was at the Hotel, since I was warm and overwhelmed with sound and dancing. I must make up my mind, pick a direction, and get inside Club Burning Man before it is too late. I must dance, right Now.
As I fly toward Lotus I am in tears from the wind, but also from the moon, which cannot possibly be so strange and beautiful, and this ground, which cannot possibly be so flat and immense, and these mountains, which cannot possibly be so massive and distant, and all of these people, who cannot possibly be so pretty, and so precious, and so dear, in their mad-max, bondage, hippy, punk, purple-haired, dreaded and shaved, tattooed and pierced finery, and my heart, which I know cannot possibly be so warm and alive.
Tonight I will dance at Lotus, and then at the Alex Grey dome, and then the waffle, and later, toward dawn, at the Opulent Temple. And when that dawn finally does arise and I slowly pedal (squeak squeak) over the playa and back into the tired streets, nodding and mumbling “good morning” into all of the weary eyes around me, I will feel complete.
The Ashram was one of my favorite places at Burning Man ’06: A four-star hotel on the playa, it offered luxury suites for newlyweds and other lucky bastards, a fine restaurant, and a day spa. None of this had anything to do with me. I knew this place only because down in the lobby, there was a lovely little bar, contained in a small circus tent, decorated like an ashram, with a glowing, psychedelic altar to Hanuman, and rugs on the ground. This was the only bar at Burning Man where I was always instantly charmed and amazed by the bartender, where I always got the drink that I ordered-because they would ask! they would ask, “and what are you having tonight, sir?”-where everyone was always smiling. The djs at this place, they were the shit. They knew it all, the world stuff, the Indian shit, the stuff that’s going on now, and the history of dance music; they had it down, and the music that they spun was the best. They were the kind of guys who knew the exact moment to throw Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel into the mix.
So I was dancing there one night, and it was starting to flow; I was feeling real warm, just starting to sweat, when she suddenly appeared.
She was tiny and beautiful and could move without restriction. She loved to dance. She was the most perfectly undisguised, unpretentious, true being that I had seen all week, and I fell madly in love. I danced near her and hoped she wouldn’t notice, and hoped that she would, and I caught her eye, and danced away, and danced back. It is embarrassing to think that she did not notice any of this, but I am sure that it must be true. This was all just me lost in my own mind.
But she was so very something, that I did that thing, without premeditation or fear or self-consciousness, that I never do; I danced over to her and looked right into her eyes and smiled broadly as she smiled back at me. I leaned forward and asked, “What is your name?” And heard her voice through the noise. “Stephanie? I’m Paul.” We hugged. We danced around each other a brief while.
After she was gone, a little voice in the back of my head insisted that I would see her again, in two nights (the night of the burn) and that if I did, it would be a sign. A sign that what I had seen and felt was true.
Two nights later, late, in the Alex Grey dome, I was in the flow, and I was in the zone, dancing hard. I was painfully aware that the whole shebang was just about over. I was wanting good stuff with an ache. I was dancing on tired feet.
Suddenly, of course, she was there, not across the room, not in a group standing nearby, but right there: Suddenly she was the person standing right next to me. She was the very next person dancing on my left. I turned, and my eyes lit up, and (dare I say it?) I think hers did too. And she said my name. She remembered my name. “Paul, right?” And there you have it. My sign. Two nights later, just as had been prophesied. So what did I do? Why, I did nothing at all. I just kept dancing, and so did Stephanie.
Sometimes she would disappear, and I would feel lonely and sad in the crowd, she is gone, I would think, as I danced, but then she would reappear, having only gone to pee or something. Sincerely, I tried not to stalk her, or watch her, or look for her, but somehow, I always knew where she was, or that she was gone, always did I love the way she danced, always was I charmed by the twinkle in her eye. Gratefully did I see the worshipful and protecting way her friends interacted with her, the men as gallant as they could be, all of them dancing like a big, happy unit.
It all seems a long time ago, and I only saw her for moments at a time, only twice in my life, in the dark, so I cannot be sure what she looked like. Her hair was red, wasn’t it? reddish? dirty blonde? It was parted on the side imprecisely, straight, carelessly falling down to her shoulders. Wasn’t she freckled? freckly? I think that she was. She wasn’t dressed like a burner, or a hippy, or a punk; she wasn’t in a costume, or out of one; she was dressed like Stephanie. She didn’t dance this way, or that way, like the cool people, or like the uncool. She danced like Stephanie. For a few hours, she was the best friend I have never met.
All night, I had experienced the sadness of seeing her go, only to have her back, but when she really did go, I knew it for sure, for I saw her get all of her stuff: her bag, and her water, and her warm things to wear. I tried not to stare as she made her way out of the dome, sliding between all of the dancing bodies, into the chill morning air, ninety-seven minutes before dawn. She and her people hung out there for a few minutes, while I kept on dancing inside, watching their silhouettes as they slowly put on their things and prepared for the bike ride home.
And I said, goodnight, Stephanie, to her in my heart, like I was saying goodnight, and goodbye, to every beautiful woman who holds that soft, soothing, fiery, and dangerous thing that I need so badly, and fear I may never again get. And I felt in that spinning, melancholy psychedelia, that it was all alright.
I danced till dawn that night, went back to camp with the intention of going to sleep, and instead found a friend to go out with again, and so I danced till noon, and didn’t fall asleep till two thirty in the afternoon, when a goddess and friend with an RV gave me another chance at life, and the temple burn, by letting me nap in her cool, darkened space.
On a hot, random afternoon, I suddenly find myself unable to go on. What the fuck am I doing out here? What the fuck was I thinking? Because I have come out here, all of my money is now gone, this sun is burning a hole in my very soul, and I have nowhere to go. What the fuck? I can barely move.
When I say nowhere to go, I mean nowhere to go. You can’t go to your tent in heat like this, can’t walk or ride the streets. (I conveniently forget that I was riding the streets happily in this very same heat, at this very same time of the afternoon, just yesterday.) What can you do? You sit and stare and feel the grime melting over you, running with your sweat. You feel the tiredness. You watch the endless processions of phonies and fakes and pervs, pretending that they are all so fucking special, always and forever hitting on each other in such pathetic and goofy ways. (You need a spanking. Oooh spank me. You seem tense, do you need a massage? Come, take a ride on my friend’s art car. We are having the most special, secret V.I.P. party tonight, wanna come?)
Hiding in the HeebeeGeebee chill space tent, sitting ramrod straight, in an attempt to silence my mind, and meditate; my annoyance and frustration become a filter, filtering out every charming sight and sound from my perception, and a funnel as well, an amplifier that brings every unwelcome voice and aggravating conversation clearly through the clouds of dust, blinding light, and booming art car sound systems:
“…So she texts that to me! And sends the picture!”
“Dude, yes, and it was during a meeting!”
(Laughter) “Dude, no way.”
“He is so totally hot.”
“Did you see what he was wearing? Did you ever see him spin fire?”
“Oh my god.”
“Are you going to take Psychic Stimulation through Nibbling and Tickling with Peacock Feathers, First Level, for Bondage Enhancement? 7:30 and Eager, at 2:30.”
“Isn’t that kind of advanced?”
“Well, sure, but we’ve already taken the advanced anal stimulation course, with eye-gazing.”
Exhausted and unable to meditate, I fall, sprawling onto the dusty rug, and close my eyes.
Someone is leaving this afternoon. He has family obligations, and has to go even before the burn. Everyone commiserates with him, feeling his sorrow, wishing he could stay. Me, I am overcome with jealousy. He gets to ride right on out of here, like it was nothing, take a shower, sit in a cool room, maybe even think a thought, while I remain trapped out here, in the billowing dust and endless heat, surrounded by a billion yuppies and college students, pretending to be weird for a few days, before they cover up their tats and go back to the cubicles and offices and classrooms in which they belong. These people so easily impressed that they think a wild costume or well-lit bike are revolutionary statements, or true works of art.
My negativity covers me, a second layer of dust over the physical one, and I become dark and invisible, waiting for the night to come.
4. Dust Cloud
The whipping wind causes dust devils to rise straight up from the ground, like ghosts arising in the pandemonium of the second coming. These dervishes melt into the sweeping clouds of powdered earth that rip by horizontally in the violent air. All of it lit up red and Halloween orange from the early morning sun.
Silhouettes, caped, dreaded, and skirted, move through this mysterious ruby shroud, looking beleaguered and battered. Something perfectly post-modern; something perfectly ancient.
5. Temple Burn Day
Temple Burn Day is a quiet, peaceful day. All day people are rolling out early; you hear the muted sounds of tear-down from every direction. Flags, banners, tarps, poles, towers, and floors are pulled down or pulled up, packed away, and loaded onto rented box trucks. Open spaces begin to appear, empty places in the blocks, and out on the playa. Familiar landmarks suddenly become empty unmarked playa.
People are in a state not unlike the default world’s New Year’s Day, that is, the day after the blow-out. Not only that, but they have work to do. And so they do it. Listen to some downbeat shit, and strike camp. If we’re going to do it one more night, that is to say, tonight, we gotta play our cards right today: We gotta conserve the energy we got left, we gotta get some shit done, or we’re just fucked come morning, we gotta have the right attitude. So we gotta keep it cruising. We are professionals, people. We keep it right here.
When temple burn time finally rolls around, I am feeling so damn good. Delicious. In over drive. A whole group of people is riding out together, the right group of people, and they’re calling, “Come on Paul, ride out with us. Let’s go to the temple burn.” They are making final adjustments on el-wire and tiaras and capes. They are placing the final glowsticks.
As I begin to roll out of the kitchen, someone stops to say goodbye to me. A beautiful sister. She is leaving now, before the temple burn. I hug her, and say goodbye, and have that conversation, and when I turn away, my group is gone. They have ridden out onto the playa; they are halfway to the temple already.
I am flooded with melancholy. See, now I am alone again. Now I am all alone again. I ride out there alone, and my eye is like an eagle’s, searching for anyone who is even vaguely familiar. Certainly they will go dancing after the burn, and I want to dance with them. I’ll never know where they went, if I don’t find them now.
And I ask myself, Why? Why didn’t you call out, Hey guys! Hey guys, wait for me! Like a normal person. Why don’t you admit that you need some folks to ask you to ride with them, lonely boy? Now how are you going to find them?
Out on the playa, every bike, and every group of walkers, is headed in one direction in the rapidly approaching dusk. The mountains opposite the sun on fire. We are headed to the temple. We are headed, once more, to a Burn. My bike squeaks comfortingly underneath me, and I smile, feeling clean, and rested enough, and ready.
When I reach the circle, I decide where to ditch my bike, glowing blue, orange, and red, and walk into the huge circular crowd, my heart still aching to find someone I know. So I walk serenely through the warm evening air, feeling warmth and love for all of the people milling around me, keeping my radar high and alert for anyone to connect with, saying in my heart, “One more time people. Let’s do this thing one more time.”
Finally I find a couple of people I do know, and I am happy. A brother and a sister. We find a place to sit cross-legged in the giant circle, our bodies touching lightly around the edges so that we make a triangular circuit. And someone quietly lights the temple on fire.
Tens of thousands of people quietly watch it burn.
I do mean quietly: For the first time since I got here, I hear: No sound systems, no shouting, no whoops, no hollers. Just quiet chatter, and loud above it, the roar and crackle of the temple, gradually burning down. Pure Pleasure courses through my arteries and veins; I am soaring up around the floating moon. I enter timelessness: I am meditation; my mind: silent and still.
When I return to these particular three dimensions, that is to say, four dimensions, I know that I want to dance a lot longer tonight than my body will allow; I want to stay awake longer than I can. And though I know everyone will be so cruelly tearing it down come morning, I also know this: I don’t ever want to leave my beloved city.