Burning Man is Whatever You Want

Today I’m faced with the impossible task of describing perhaps the most interesting week of my life, spent in the desert of Nevada, below the bright Milky Way and between the tall, dry mountains.  Burning Man is an art festival.  It’s a music festival.  It’s a camping trip.  It’s a surreal cultural experience unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.  And this year would be my first ever Burning Man.  I’ll share my experience here, with a disclaimer that words, images, and videos cannot describe the brilliance of this event.  You need to participate for yourself to truly understand.  Oh, and one more disclaimer, I was completely sober the entire time.  You don’t need to be on drugs or drunk to experience what I’ve described below.

Quick Recap of the Trip

After roughly eight hours on the road we arrived at the gate of Black Rock City, located 110 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada.  The line for the gate took another three hours or so, getting us to camp just after 3am Monday morning.  From there we setup camp, which was composed mostly of tents, yurts, and a 24-foot communal dome.  After several hours camp was finally setup at 9am Monday morning.  Needless to say the long drive, wait at the gate, and camp setup was exhausting.  Yet it would lead to a truly unique and amazing experience for the days to come.

After a few hours of napping I decided to jump on my bike and explore Black Rock City.  Black Rock City is organized as a big circle, with the center and the top 2/3rds of the city left open for art installations.  Riding into the open playa was like nothing I’ve ever done before.  Describing the open playa as a collection of art does exactly zero justice for the truly awing experience one has when blessed with such a beautiful environment.  I rode my bike to and from interactive art installations, noticing the hilarious and exciting costumes and art cars around me as I biked under the desert sun.  The open playa at night is even more magical.  Art cars drive around blaring music and spouting fire, warming and entertaining the well-lit pedestrians and bikers wandering around the beautiful and vibrant city.  Everything is lit with EL-wire, LEDs, or flame throwers.

The remainder of the week’s evenings would be spent dancing all night, either at 20,000 watt art cars such as Robot Heart or DanceTronauts, or at sound camps such as Opulent Temple or Nexus, turning their volume to 11 when the sun finally rises over a city that never sleeps, blasting their electronic music into the deep playa for the world to hear.  The days were occupied by endless creative interactions–both events and art–provided by the participants of Burning Man.

Burning Man was as interesting, exciting, and fun as any week could possibly be.  But its culture resonates with me far more than its entertainment does.  I’ll run through the three major cultural aspects of Burning Man that are most meaningful to me.

Radical Self-Reliance

Black Rock City has a gift economy, with generosities and compassion in the form of anything from hair washing to communal bathing to food and drink, activities, what have you.  However, one can’t survive solely on the gifts of others.  Each participant is expected to bring their own food, water, shelter, and any other means of survival for the week.

Living in the desert isn’t easy.  The alcaline playa dust eats at your skin and clothing.  The nights are cold, getting as low as the 30s and 40s.  And the days are hot, reaching temperatures in the high 90s.  Hydration is key to survival.  And despite having all sorts of friendly, compassionate neighbors and health volunteers, you really are on your own to survive.

The sense of self reliance gave me the confidence that I could live anywhere I needed to. I feel great being able to survive in a desert that seemingly tries to kill all forms of life.

Impermanence

Burning Man is perhaps the biggest testament to the reality of impermanence that I’ve ever experienced.  After all, the city only exists for a week.  Participants and city volunteers spend months on end building the man himself, the Temple, and other art installations, all to be burned at the end of the week.  All senses and experiences, both good and bad, come to an end whether we want them to or not.  Wanting too much of a good thing is dangerous; closing ourselves onto a bad thing causes suffering.

Burning Man reminds me that all things are temporary.  All things come and go.  Impermanence in many ways makes good times more meaningful, and in the same way helps bad times to pass more quickly. Impermanence isn’t something we should beat or overcome, perhaps with luxurious or material possessions.  Impermanence should be embraced.  Burning Man helped me embrace impermanence.  There’s no other experience that is more about the present moment than Burning Man.

Individuality

Last, and definitely not least, is the individuality that is expressed at Burning Man.  No other time in my life have I felt the ability to truly be myself, to do whatever I felt like at a given moment, with no thought at all about others’ expectations.  Like the man, expectations are burned.

I’ve been struggling for the last two months trying to find an idea worth devoting myself to for the next phase of my professional life.  Throughout this self-exploratory period I’ve struggled with what others might think of me or my ideas, taking certain feedback too personally and ultimately letting the software community control my dreams and passions.

No more.  Burning Man is the amazing experience it is because of how individual it is.  With no social construct to guide art or events, the imagination runs wild and creates truly beautiful, inspiring forms of art and events.  The same can be true for software.  I’m done looking for an idea that will please others.  I’m going to build what I believe in.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, the individuals that spend months planning events or creating art give away their creation for free, to the gift economy at large.  And they’re happier because of it.  Compassion is the true path to inner happiness because giving to the community around us strengthens the community, bringing more love and compassion to ourselves in doing so.

Conclusion

At Burning Man there is no one to be other than yourself.  Yourself, self reliant, in the present moment, always.  I’ve never experienced anything like it.  As entertained as I was for the week I was living in Black Rock City, I took away far more in personal values than I could have ever expected.  I’m a better person because of Burning Man.  I’m stronger and more self confident, caring less about the social pressure I so easily let control my decisions.

I can’t recommend Burning Man enough.  There’s something for everyone there.  It will help you find yourself.  And at the very least, it’ll be a damn good time.

Update: I found a video that depicts the nightlife at Burning Man in as accurate a form as possible.  Though the feeling one has of being on the playa cannot be documented.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Photo credit: here here here

Malmo, Sweden and Rome, Italy

I was in Malmo, Sweden for Oredev, an awesome tech conference, October 31 through November 7.  I then vacationed in Rome for a few days, from November 7 through November 10.  I’m lazy so I have notes to share, but not a polished, fancy blog post.  Having blogged extensively about my time in Europe and China, I thought I should at least make a small post :).  Hello, goodbye, and I hope you enjoy!

Malmo:
* Emil, Tobias, Tara, Eric, Peter going to Tapas in Malmo, being confronted by Rupert, the creepy dude with the arabic ID.
** Made sexist jokes to Tara
** Made strange references to killing
** Told of a story where he rescued a family in Beirut
** Wouldn’t tell us his name or his business
** Wanted our business cards
** Bought us raspberry vodka shots
* Gave a full day workshop, two talks, and ran a panel
* Taxes, including sales tax, are about 75%
** Minimum wage is super high
** Quality of life seems very high
** Healthcare is very attentive, at least form the stories I heard
** Everyone is able to take 18 months maternity and paternity leave. Staggered between husband and wife.
** Most people takes 6 weeks off in the summer time
* Jumped in the Baltic sea, naked, after a sauna
** Ocean was 45 degrees F
** Sauna was 188 degrees F
* Had Swedish cuisine!
** Starter: pickled Herring with mayonnaise, bread, lettuce, tomato, dill, lemon
** Dinner: delicate potatoes with cod, carrots, peas, and mustard sauce
** Desert: vanilla pudding with apple sponge cake
* Enjoyed the beautiful park with Dan
* Wonderful dinner in city hall
** Pig blood soup
** Duck with potatoes, cabbage, prunes, apple sauce, apples. Delicious
** Port for desert, great company
** Michael asked me to moderate the Cloud Computing panel, and give a Cloud Computer talk
* Had another awesome Swedish meal: BBQ deer with potatoes
* Observation: everyone is beautiful here. Guys and girls.
* Dan and I did a day trip in Copenhagen
** We ate and drank on the famous street, Nyhavn. Cool place.
** Girls were unbelievable there
** I was rather sick, so we mostly just hung out and walked around
* Had a good organic dinner with Emil, several CS people, and Dan
** Good food, good wine
* Met Julia and her friend, Matilda, with Dan at TGI Fridays
** TGI Fridays is pretty posh in Europe. They had a DJ, etc.

Rome:
* Ate lunch in Ariaccea (a famous food village)
** Had starters, which were mostly meats, cheeses, vegetables, and other things
** Totally delicious
* Got a coffee, which in Italy is the tiniest amount of liquid, along with an Amaro, which is a digestive that’s good
* Got a beer Saturday night in Trastravere, which is a really cool hip scene
* Ate pizza and delicious fried starters at Pizzeria la Montecarlo in the city center
** Starters: Fritto misto (from Southern Italy)
** Dinner was at 9:30pm or so
* Went to a club Saturday night called Cearcolo degli Artisti — outdoors and indoors; cool place
* Sunday had breakfast at Mateo’s house; cake and coffee
* Sunday lunch was Silvio’s mom’s pasta with meat and salad
** Unbelievable
* Sunday went to Pigneto (street: Via del Pigneto) to get a beer. Really cool area
* Sunday dinner was Silvio’s mom, cooking onions + potatoes along with a fried steak (like wienerschnitzel). Soooo good
* Had desert wine called Passito in the Monti area, which is by the colosseum. Really cool area, and the wine was good
* Monday we relaxed, spent time in Trastravere, and played soccer with Silvio’s friends
** Europeans are totally fine showering naked with each other
** Ate dinner at around 10:00pm at Economica (pizzeria)
*** Had potato and sausage pizza, with bruschetta to start, and two half liters of Nastro Azzurro. Super good
** We then went to San Lorenzo, which is a very Mission-like hood
** Had a beer in Piazzetta, which is a little square in San Lorenzo
* Bought three Italian coffee makers (called a Moka), and Silvio’s mom gave me some coffee

Europe, In Summary

My Europe backpacking trip began and ended in London, England. My best friend, Dustin, his sister, Lindsay, and I flew directly from Los Angeles to Heathrow International Airport to meet another best friend of mine, Dan, whom I hadn’t seen in four years. The four of us started our 51-day journey the following day. The trip went as follows:

London, England – 6/19 – 6/20 (1 night)
Amsterdam, Netherlands – 6/20 – 6/21 (1 night)
Brussels, Belgium – 6/21 – 6/23 (2 nights)
Paris, France – 6/23 – 6/26 (3 nights)
Caen and Bayeux, France – 6/26 – 6/28 (2 nights)
Nice, France – 6/28 – 7/4 (6 nights)
Barcelona, Spain – 7/4 – 7/9 (5 nights)
Rome, Italy – 7/9 – 7/12 (3 nights)
Florence, Italy – 7/12 – 7/14 (2 nights)
Venice, Italy – 7/14 – 7/15 (1 night)
Salzburg, Austria – 7/15 – 7/18 (3 nights)
Munich, Germany – 7/18 – 7/23 (5 nights)
Prague, Czech Republic – 7/23 – 7/28 (5 nights)
Berlin, Germany – 7/28 – 8/3 (6 nights)
Amsterdam, Netherlands – 8/3 – 8/6 (3 nights)
London, England – 8/6 – 8/7 (1 night)

We started and ended in London because a roundtrip ticket in and out of Heathrow was much cheaper. The same thing goes with Amsterdam being on each end of the trip — flying in and out of Amsterdam was cheaper. Other than the journeys between Los Angeles, London, and Amsterdam, the only other flight we took was a one-way between Barcelona and Rome. All other journeys were made on train using our Eurail 15-day flexi-passes. Dan left us in Rome, and Morgan, Dustin’s girlfriend, met us in Rome.

We realized very fast that traveling with four people during the busiest travel time requires that hostels be reserved a few weeks ahead of time. This was unfortunate in some ways because we couldn’t be as free and agile as we would like, but making reservations also allowed us to usually stay at the best hostels.

There is no way I can sum up such a trip in a matter of paragraphs, so all I’ll say now is that my backpacking excursion across most of Western Europe was utterly amazing. Very soon I will have completed a post for each of the cities listed above, and these posts will be an attempt to share my experience with you. I’ll update the list above with links to these posts as I make them and also link each individual post to this summary post.  I’m not going to write a post for London, though, because we barely spent any time there — the pound-dollar conversion was too terrible (1:2.11).

I hope you enjoy, and please, please comment or email if you want any advice or have any questions.

Dan, Me, and Dustin in Rome.

Me, Dan, Dustin, Morgan, and Lindsay in Rome after eating really, really good food.

San Juan Island Cycle

Last weekend my roommate, Matt, and I cycled around San Juan island.  I thought I would describe our trip for those of you who might be interested.  It was a ton of fun, and I would recommend it everyone.

Drive from Seattle to Anacortes
The trip started with Matt and me leaving Seattle at 6:00am.  We arrived in Anacortes at around 7:30am, just in time for the 7:45am ferry.  Look here for a complete ferry schedule.  The drive was quick and easy.

Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
The ferry ride cost us around $14 each — $10 per person and $4 per bike.  It was very empty and very pleasant.  The ferry weaved through the San Juan islands and stopped at Orcas Island before arriving at Friday Harbor.  The ride was about 90 minutes and probably would have been around an hour without the Orcas Island stop.

Cycle around the Island
We started and ended our loop in Friday Harbor.  The route we took is mapped here.  Google says it’s 25 miles, but I have no way of confirming that.  The roads were constantly changing pitch, giving us short amounts of time on downhills and long amounts of time on uphills.  The island is generally flat, so each hill was relatively moderate but still challenging.  The whole ride took us about three hours, including at least 45 minutes of site seeing, relaxation, and photography.  The scenery was totally diverse — we traveled along cliff-side roads, through thick forests, beside farms (including Alpaca farms!), and across small prairies.  It was tons of fun!

About half way around the island was a national park and campsite.  If I were to do this ride again, I would pack a sleeping back and tarp and spend the night at this campsite.  The site is right on the water with a view of Victoria Island, and it was relatively deserted when we stopped to rest.

We ate awesome fish and beef burgers at The Hungry Clam restaurant after our ride in Friday Harbor’s quant downtown.  We also took a short stroll around the town, which consisted mostly of souvenir and tourist shops.

Ferry to Anacortes, Drive to Seattle
The trip back to Seattle was more or less the same as the trip up.  However, this time our ferry had come from Canada.  This meant that we had to go through customs on our way off the boat, which took all of two or three minutes.  We didn’t have our passports, and the border patrol officer was content with that.

Conclusions
All in all the trip was awesome, and I’m totally glad I did it.  It’s a relatively easy ride, but the scenery and isolation make it worthwhile. I wish I would have camped one night at the national park, but I suppose it was nice to pack light. Actually, come to think of it, it would be pretty challenging to bike around the island twice in a row. Maybe I’ll do that next :).