A’Sahara (The Desert)
Located on a stretch of desert land, surrounded by mountains, a festival is erected once a year. Unlike a lot of barren, rocky Israeli desert that I’m familiar with, the setting of this event takes place on a silty, ever-changing type of sand. My friend, Gilad, tells me this type of sand is called fesh-fesh in South Africa.
The conditions here are overwhelming and radical, beginning with the sand. If this event were a film, one of the supporting character would be the fesh-fesh. Fesh-Fesh has this incredible ability to infiltrate, permeate, and stick to every nook, cranny, and surface. There’s a certain level of surrender that everyone on the playa acknowledges, even those who are attending the event for the first time.
As a “virgin”, you get initiated before you even unload your bags. At the gate entering the playa , a “virgin” is asked to exit the vehicle, lie down in the sand, and make a sand angel. It feels like a message — the sooner you make peace with the fact that you will be perpetually dirty, the sooner you will be able to enjoy your experience. Perhaps “enjoy your experience” is the wrong description. It may be more accurate to write that it helps underscore elements of the experience that are important and deemphasize those that aren’t.
Inevitably, the sand conquers us all and becomes an inescapable fact of our realities; it’s in our every breath, in our food, and our water. Being so fine, the sand gets whipped up into sandstorms at the slightest disturbance. Like clockwork, an eager wind appears to blow throughout the day every day. The magnitude of the sandstorms is variable, from heavy clouds limiting visibility to distant, beautiful cyclones.
Finally, there is the sweltering heat of the day. It begins in one’s tent, incubating most people by seven or eight in the morning. The stifling heat surrounds everyone, inducing claustrophobia. The heat would seem insufferable; against all odds, it feels manageable.
During the day, it’s common to find people sheltering themselves in the shade of large tents. Many nap, chat, and eat to take their minds off of the conditions. Additionally, a common “gift” that many dole on friends and strangers is to spray each other with water bottles to cool off.
Looking back, I marvel at how I quickly developed an appreciation for some seemingly banal items — walls, shade, and water. The ability to have tarp walls that kept out most of the sand that was blowing during the day was a relief. Shade almost seems to go without saying, but time and again, I found myself feeling incredibly thankful that I was able to enjoy a roof in the sweltering heat.
I learned to love water in a way that I hadn’t before. For years, I’d unwittingly cultivated a distaste for water. In preparation for this event, I enthusiastically supported the idea that my camp purchase alcohol and soft drinks to enjoy during the Burn. After the first day, I realized I could not imagine a more satisfying beverage than cold water. Water felt like it could breath life back into me.
The actual playa is something to behold. Candidly, I must admit that after years of looking at photos of prior Burns, I felt underwhelmed by the final product of any given camp on the playa. I perceived the camps to be aesthetically unappealing, slapped together and unable to offer comforts that I imagined were important to me as I’ve increasingly embodied the yuppie archetype.
Once experiencing how much work goes into building a camp and the scale of a camp in comparison to a single individual, an appreciation for the camps began to set in. When I found a camp (like mine) with moderate first-world amenities such as sinks and private areas with showers, I marveled at the luxury of it all despite a slapped-together, Mad Max aesthetic. The process of erecting camps with amenities in general requires planning, ingenuity, engineering prowess, and grit, but it is doubly impressive when considering the challenge of hard labor in the heat and sand.
It boggles my mind to consider the effort and challenge of constructing a multi-story building or art installation, especially when one knows that in short order, you must dismantle these gargantuan structures you invested so much time and effort building. Camps on the playa are, in effect, giant utilitarian mandalas.
The vast majority of the camps are built around a theme. The themes vary in breadth and scope, but they are almost all geared towards providing some service or creating some value on the playa . People attending the event call this phenomenon “gifting”. Some camps try to provide basic services for surviving in the desert, such as a camp dedicated towards building showers (bring your own water) or camps who serve food and drink to passers by. Others are devoted towards sourcing forms of entertainment, from dance parties of all types of music to mazes, hammocks, human gyroscopes, and skateparks. Still others try to provide appropriate (both in ambiance and privacy) spaces for people to engage in their own forms of recreation, from calmer activities such as reading nooks or taking naps to more involved activities like yoga or sex (! Be still, my Puritanical American heart). Finally, some camps are simply dedicated towards improving the temporary aesthetic of the playa by building large and small scale art installations for people to probe, climb, engage, and discover. Many camps do not limit themselves to a single form of value, often mixing form and function with a unique flair.
The experience of walking through the camps is somewhat akin to meandering through a grand bazaar with an unlimited budget and infinite time. You may encounter a stall vendor who offers something similar to another vendor a few stalls away, other times you’ll find the only stall in entire bazaar to offer a particular good or service. But having no budget or time limit means that you don’t feel a pronounced urgency to engage with any one stall and there’s more of a general enjoyment from seeing what the entire bazaar has to offer.
Despite the environmental extremes present during the day, people cheerfully walk from camp to camp. Some of the visits are social calls. Given the lack of phones, these social calls hearken back to days when people were never in constant contact. Attempts vary in their success to find the desired member of a given camp. Missed connections are just another fact of reality.
Other visits are simply to enjoy the ambiance of a camp full of strangers, or satisfy one’s curiosity about what the camp actually does if it’s not immediately apparent.
Most camps are set up with two areas — a public space to receive guests and present the playa with their camp’s contributions, and a private area where tents are pitched, food is prepared, and sometimes inhabitants seek refuge from the stimulation of the public space.
Surprisingly to me, there are a large number of families with small children walking around during this period, some children toddler-age or younger. Some young mothers are found pushing their babies in rugged strollers through the event, as if taking a leisurely stroll on a boardwalk.
Some tweens are tentative about the affair. A conversation with a precocious 10 year old reveals that she enjoys wandering around the playa, engaging in activities like the maze with her father. But when asked about costumes (or lack thereof) worn by many adults, she notes that some are fun but others are too brazen for her tastes. A man wearing a cape but no shirt is acceptable, but feathers, glitter or wings on that same man feels outside of her comfort zone. Still, on balance, she enjoys the atmosphere.
My camp is the PatzPatz camp, which means the bubble wrap camp in Hebrew. We keep a large roll of bubble wrap at the ready and invite passers by to pull down a sheet and pop them during our visiting hours. Officially, our visiting ours are between noon and 7PM. The bubble wrap is located adjacent to our public area, modeled after a living room. We have two sofas that can seat 5–6 people, and another eight to ten chairs placed opposite the sofas. In the middle, a large, square coffee table holds ashtrays, drinks and snacks, spray bottles, various tchotchkes that we share or give away to our guests.
Occasionally, there are only a small number of people from our camp sitting in our public living room. Other times, it’s packed. Our camp is especially a hit with the parents and children.
To raise morale and entertain visitors, one of our camp members hijacks the speaker system in order to play our theme song. A low-fi recording begins with chipper, upbeat guitar strumming followed by a voice cheerfully belting a jingle discussing the fun of popping bubble wrap, the numerous ways to pop bubble wrap, and how (objectively speaking, of course) PatzPatz is the most fun camp on the playa. The song soon becomes infamous, an anthem requested by our neighboring camps if only to marvel at the shameless spectacle of it all. It’s in good fun, though — those neighbors often delight in putting a face to the disembodied voice they hear time and again.
When I now see a bird’s-eye view of the playa and realize how many people came together to create this giant carnival playground, I’m floored.
It seems as if the playa was created for the night. At dusk, one notices an accumulation of people growing on the hillside where the effigy  stands. The coalescence of people grows as the sun wanes further into the horizon until just a rose and gold hue remains above the mountains. At that point, an electric transformation begins. At the beginning, you see the darkening violet sky punctuated by complementary bright greens, oranges, blues, reds, pinks, purples and more from various LED light installations. Synthesizers begin call-and-response patterns from multiple zones surrounding the effigy, crescendoing from low-grade hums into multiple raves. The sound grows as the light fades from the sky. Once the sky turns pitch black, a new overwhelming sensory experience begins.
Wandering through the camps at night, details previously unnoticed during the day suddenly jump out at the eye. A camp that seemed to contain a number of erect white plastic poles suddenly reveals itself a well-lit and welcoming oasis, the poles actually landscape-lit artistic trees inviting passers by to rest under their “branches”. An impressive two-story dome constructed of large plastic tiles reveals the true motivation behind its plastic shell — as the music being played within waxes and wanes, the tiles illuminate and change color.
New installations are pitched under the cover of night. Examples are numerous:
The Diablo. A thin metal dome suspended about 10 feet in the air is pumped with gas. A pilot light stays lit while the dome slowly accumulates with more gas until the fuel and flame make contact. The ensuing effect is hypnotic — a wave of fire expands and engulfs the entire area of the dome, then the remaining fire dances. The flame changes in intensity and color, moving from electric blue to yellow, taking forms of fish, flowers, dancers, and more. After a mesmerizing two-minute dance, the fire will extinguish itself only to reignite once the dome refills with enough gas.
A balloon filled with helium floats 100 feet into the air. It’s tethered to the ground by two long metal lines, each adorned with fairy lights twinkling along the entire length. As the balloon moves through the air, the metal lines follow it, giving the impression of a thin swaying tower shimmering in the night or perhaps twin comets, leaving in their wake a trail of never-ending star dust. People use the surface of the balloon as a target for their green lasers, turning the invisible balloon into a canvas for vivid scribbles in the night.
And there’s more.
At night, many choose to escape the bustle of the camps and venture into the deep playa — an area containing the largest of all the art installations. During the night, these installations are the most bizarre. They are mostly wooden structures, some built to resemble recognizable objects like giant octopi or hands, others simply shapes that angle and twist at the most unexpected points. Some of the structures you can enter to find mirrors or voice-overs or video screens or sometimes nothing at all. Some are interactive, built with instructions to activate them by pressing a button or gripping a handle.
All the installations share a common theme — they are all characterized by extensive use of light. Sometimes the light uses the shape of the installation to create interesting shadows, other times the light is vibrant and synchronizes with music played in and around the installation.
In the of all case deep playa installations, they also share another attribute — they are destinations. In the deep playa, to reach any given work of art, one must walk anywhere between five to ten minutes through the desert night.
These interludes become moments of solace, sometimes the only true moments of calm one has between bouts of intense stimulation. Some people take time to revel in the quiet, spending meditative hours walking or lying down to gaze at the stars.
In some ways, it feels like the playa at night elicits some of the most primal instincts humans have. Many participants imitate moths — they are drawn and guided by the brightest, loudest and largest stimuli they can find. Often, crowd sizes appear to correlate with the intensity of the bass and how easy it is to see the installation in the distance.
It’s nine in the morning. Right now, it’s about as quiet as it’s been throughout the entire trip. Or rather, this time of day is as quiet as it gets. Despite the relative calm, there is still an unreasonable amount of noise. The sound systems that have been brought pound out low- to high-grade thumps, similar to how I imagine a world-class marathon runner’s heart beat would sound. At times, the metronomic beat eases in its intensity to a degree that you can no longer feel it. Despite these lulls, inevitably the palpable heartbeat returns with renewed vigor.
People stir from their lethargy, shaking off the night before. By eight in the morning, our neighbors — the coffee and cookies camp — are mobilized, having drank their coffee and eaten their own cookies. Their camp is buzzing with shouts to disconnect cables, punctuated by questions of whose items belong to whom and advertising last calls for food and shade. My camp is still eating our breakfast when our neighbors have taken down their main shade at noon.
Disassembling the camp is hard work. With each tent shade that goes down, I’m reminded again of how uninhabitable conditions of the desert are. The heat becomes more and more intolerable. As the goal of the event is, in part, to create something from nothing and to return it to nothing, we are on constant lookout for Chash-Lash. Chash-Lash is any object that doesn’t belong to the desert. We form long lines to comb our camp area for foreign objects, collecting bag after bag of garbage that we’ll throw away at a central disposal area.
Slowly, but surely, our home for the last week is taken apart. We’re left with our “luggage” baking in the sun while we crowd into small shaded region, our last refuge from the sun, waiting for our moving truck to arrive. The city that once was is just a memory, the once flourishing boulevards now traversed by a few stragglers or the trucks of teams dedicated to erase the final signs of human inhabitants after everyone else has departed. We load our truck as quickly as possible — first furniture, mattresses, tent materials, then our garbage.
A final stop at the central disposal area just outside the playa is humbling. The mountains of waste pile high. As we unload our garbage, sorted by paper, plastics, glass, compostables, and mixed garbage, Bedouins living just twenty minutes away pick through the usable remains. We hand them the remaining produce that we did not use. I am glad to experience this overwhelming event, but relieved to be able to walk away from it shortly. Seeing the Bedouins at the dump, I am reminded I had but a glimpse into the hard facts of life many people must face daily.
The Bedouins we meet at the end remind me of an Arabic greeting now incorporated into modern Hebrew — “Ahalan waSahalan”. I won’t be able to do proper justice to the translation, but it loosely means you are in the company of hospitable people who will treat you like family and you tread on smooth and flat land. I leave ruminating on the idea that to survive in the desert, it is necessary to rely on the kindness and hospitality of others and to reciprocate.
 The playa, literally translated as “beach” in Spanish, is the landscape upon which Midburn takes place. I suspect it was chosen both because it describes the sandy condition of the desert, but also suggests a place to play and let loose if read from the perspective of an English speaker.
 There are some exceptions to this rule. A favorite, albeit controversial exception, is the “Shithole” camp. The theme of the Shithole camp is to be as acerbic and generally unpleasant in a tongue-in-cheek way towards all denizens of the playa. Common antics of this camp are to send members out when people are first entering the playa in order to give false directions of where to setup camp or general heckling of passers by. It has been argued that people who enjoy engaging in similar banter are serviced by this camp, but suffice it to say that the camp is not universally embraced.
 The effigy is the famous wooden man that is burned on the third day of the event. Standing three to four stories high, this effigy was built like a toy wooden sculpture — wooden disks inserted at regular intervals into a base skeleton to create the suggestion of a filled-in wooden man (or, more accurately, it was an embracing man and woman engulfed by a set of wings). While the space between each wooden disk was large, the impression of fully featured humans was undeniable.