Q&A with Roxane Jessi, Author of “Once Upon a Time in the Dust: Burning Man Around the World”
Roxane Jessi has spent her life exploring communities around the world, traveling to more than countries. Her career has been anything but conventional, working on Congolese police reform, Iraq counterterrorism, and women’s rights in Africa. Disillusioned with our disconnected societies, she had an aha moment during her first Burning Man sunrise. She became fascinated with how Burning Man manifests across cultures, and eventually embarked on a yearlong round-the-world tour of seven Burns to find out. She worked throughout, alternating between suits and tutus while trying to stay sane. She typically spends a quarter of the burn rummaging for *insert missing object* in her tent/ bag and the rest lost on solo missions.
What was your first experience at Burning Man like?
When I arrived at the Burning Man event in Black Rock City, I didn’t know what to expect. After a two-day quest, I landed in the middle of a white-out, the kind of dust storm where you can’t see your outstretched hand. I was broken, jet lagged and exhausted, deaf in one ear from a burst eardrum on the plane. I spent the first day in a daze. Had I just traveled across the world to be in an extreme environment with a bunch of naked hippies?!
But that night when the dust settled, I got on my bike and cycled out. I turned a corner and my jaw dropped at the world of creativity I found. By sunrise I was tearing up. Fast forward to today and I’ve been to 18 events, here I explain why.
At the time, all my friends were settling down and having kids, and I felt trapped in the grown-up game. But the people I encountered in Black Rock City preferred to be in the middle of nowhere playing too. There was no age divide, with wonderfully dusty 80-year-olds clambering on bikes and exploring like they were 16. For the first time in a while, I turned my phone off and spent hours in deep conversations about our broken world with people I’d just met. There was something about the way people came together to build and gift freely that was unlike anything I’d experienced. Suddenly I felt less alone.
You explain how you made some big changes when you got back from Black Rock City. How did that feel?
When I got back, I hit decompression like a head-on collision. I was at yet another bachelorette party making small talk, and when I tried explaining what I’d lived, I got blank looks. “Oh, that sounds interesting,” people said before going back to wedding planning chat. I wanted out.
This is a common side effect of Burning Man; there is even an article warning people not to “divorce their parakeet” after leaving the event. But I was done being cautious. I’d spent my career working in the development aid sector and was due to go to Zimbabwe. There and then I decided I would press reset on life and take off for longer than planned.
After three bumpy weeks working, sitting an exam (I was studying alongside full-time work) and unraveling my life in London, I was on a flight. The night before leaving, I went to a David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) concert. The song Comfortably Numb came on and I realized that, like the lyrics, I’d been sleepwalking through life. Like so many of us. But something had been awakened.
How did you find out about Burning Man’s Regional Network?
I eventually stayed in Zimbabwe for six months, but then got a job offer in London that was too good to turn down. After some to-ing and fro-ing, I went back to my old life. I soon fell into a functional depression, because after seeing Oz who wants to go back to Kansas?
Several months later I was back in Africa for work, and by chance met someone who was going to AfrikaBurn. I didn’t even know there were Burns outside of Black Rock City! Three days later I hit the dirt road to the Tankwa desert with a suitcase full of suits. I fell in love all over again. But this time it was deeper. Here I was miles away from Black Rock City yet making the same type of connections. All this on a continent I have a deep attachment to, having spent much of my career working here.
At AfrikaBurn I discovered Outreach and their work supporting local communities, including programs that fed kids at local schools year-round. Its mission resonated deeply with mine. Two years later I would return to AfrikaBurn and camp with Outreach and recipients of their grant program.
On the last day the sun set flaming red on the Tankwa desert, and as I looked around at this free-spirited community, I thought: I could do this forever. Something had happened in that desert. And what’s more, it was happening to people around me. You didn’t have to go to Black Rock City to feel this magic, you could be anywhere in the world.
How did you decide to write a book?
Over the next year an idea started to form. I was back in London but had already checked out of my old life. I wanted to research this global movement and understand how it changed people across very different cultures. After Black Rock City 2017 I mapped out a journey to go to seven Burns on five continents in a year and experience it first-hand.
By calling us to participate in art and creation, Burning Man helps us reconnect with our creativity. As a child I would spend hours lost in books and writing. Over the years that passion was replaced by essays and reports.
This was an opportunity to reconnect with that lost creativity while giving back to the community. I didn’t just want to experience these events for myself, I would write a book about the journey, sharing what I learnt across the Regional Network. And that’s how Once Upon a Time in the Dust was born.
How did you manage to engage in seven far-distant Burning Man events, which meant much self-reliant travel and time away from home? Did you work remotely from every event you visited?
I spent six months planning, eventually choosing to attend Fuego Austral in Argentina (April 2018), AfrikaBurn in South Africa (April 2018), Midburn in Israel (May 2018), Nowhere in Spain (July 2018), Black Rock City in the US (August 2018), Burning Japan in Japan (October 2018), and Blazing Swan in Australia (April 2019). There are more than 100 official Regional Burning Man Events globally, but I selected these as much for logistical reasons, as for the diversity of cultural contexts.
Of course, I needed to make some radical changes to make it happen, including leaving my full-time office job and the city for good. My friends and family thought I had finally lost it, but the craziest ideas are the best. I also knew I couldn’t afford to be on the road for too long without working to fund the trip.
As tends to happen when we go all in, the world has a way of lending us a hand. Three months into the journey I landed my first remote contract. I haven’t set foot in an office since. Working, traveling, writing and participating in six Regional Events in the space of six months did come with its challenges. By the time I arrived at Burning Japan I was seriously jet-lagged, exhausted and burned out juggling a million things at once. But while I had less control over my life, I had more control over my destiny.
What are the main differences and similarities of the events that you found during the journey?
People often ask me what my favorite Regional is, which is tough to answer. Each burn is different, and a mirror of its culture, which makes sense given they are participant-led social experiments. The strength of the Regional Network is that it brings this social experiment closer to home for many, making it far more accessible. Localizing the experience reduces the use of resources, and increases sustainability. Local events tend to be smaller, with much less emphasis on large-scale art. Several Regional Events choose not to burn structures, further minimizing their environmental footprint. These local initiatives are also creating a community of social change agents and artists within the countries they operate in.
The first stop on my tour was Fuego Austral in Argentina. I remember the feeling of exhilaration as I landed. It was the first time for over a decade that I had taken more than two consecutive weeks off, and I felt so free. Time off for reflection is so important for our personal development — but we go through life at a hundred miles an hour, why is that?
Fuego Austral is just 500 people in a field, but it had the same magic as a city of 80,000 people. In the pampa we took time to chat over mate, amidst helping out and getting to know the artists behind the many smaller-scale art structures. In many ways it took Burning Man’s 10 Principles back to basics. I was home.
As you can see from the dates, six of the seven burns I participated in happened in quick succession. With each event I felt like I was unlocking new chapters of my life. I spend quite a bit of time describing what makes each event unique in the book, but ultimately, it was the similarities that stood out the most. Each showed that the need for connection and creativity is universal.
The events seem to play a particularly important role in more restrictive societies. In Burning Japan, I met a first-time Burner who explained (via online translation!) how the experience had finally enabled him to open up to others. By the end of the event, he decided to remove the walls of a meditation space he had set up to mark his freedom from introversion. Israel’s Midburn provides an outlet for people who are dealing with life in a contested territory, as explained to me by a man who cried for the first time in 10 years.
You mention several times in the book moments when you felt lonely or challenged at these supposedly-joyful events. Do you think this is common in such an environment?
For all the fun to be had, the burn takes you out of your comfort zone. During the journey, there were many times when I was exhausted helping with grueling builds, or dirty and unable to sleep in a tiny tent, when I questioned my life choices. I was far from home and went to most of the events by myself, so it was at times lonely with plenty of moments for self-reflection.
Midburn was particularly challenging as the allocation of tickets to “internationals” is only five percent and many camp signs are in Hebrew, so integrating takes more effort. But in this environment, I experienced my biggest highs and lows. There I met someone who had survived a near death experience that left him struggling to rebuild his life. Most epic journeys come from a deep and personal place — from a place of hurt that we are trying to heal. I had lived through a traumatic brush with death myself more than a decade before and was still trying to suppress the fallout. It felt like I had been cracked open that night. The way he was able to be vulnerable with someone he had just met touched me deeply.
I also had countless moments of pure joy. Taking part in a Midburn wedding where I deeply felt rather than understood the vows exchanged in Hebrew, witnessing a giant iridescent fish puppet-show made from recycled materials representing the fragility of our marine environment at AfrikaBurn, dancing a silent waltz with a mysterious Star Wars-esque character at Nowhere. And of course, marveling at art created for art’s sake that makes the soul cry. Gifting goes far beyond the material; it is in the unforgettable moments shared.
You explain the significance of the temple at Burning Man events. How did this impact you and others?
People often think of Burning Man as a big party, but it also provides a space for deep reflection. This is exemplified in the temple, a place to grieve loved ones. Often humans are good at coming together for celebration, but not so good at doing so for collective healing. All through my journey I saw how people sorely needed these spaces, and how different cultural contexts shaped how people interacted with them.
At Blazing Swan in Australia, I met a man in his early 20s dressed as Jesus. The year before he had met his partner at Blaze. They fell in love and made a pact to dress as Jesus and Mary when they returned together the following year. Now he came back alone after she tragically passed — Jesus without his Mary. The Burn and temple provided a way for him to process the grief and honor her memory. This is just one of the many stories I heard. We have too few outlets to deal with difficult emotions in our modern societies. My own family didn’t talk about feelings. The experience of the temple challenged me to open up about the loss of a close family member at a very young age, something I’m still coming to terms with.
I was eventually inspired to create an art project showcasing different temples around the world at Black Rock City 2019, including pictures and audio. I didn’t know then that most burn events would be canceled for the next two years due to the pandemic, and that when we gathered again we would need these healing spaces even more.
The pandemic was a tough time for many. My father was particularly at risk as he was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, so it was a stressful time for my family. Creating beautiful paintings of some of the pictures I had taken at Regional Events helped him through it — a testament to the power of art. A number of friends lost loved ones. In 2022 I became a Temple Guardian in Black Rock City to honor the healing spaces I had experienced and help others through this time of collective loss.
What is your hope for the movement? What do you plan to do next?
Burning Man culture is much more than its network of events, it is a year-round community. It runs a number of social development initiatives around the world through Burners Without Borders (BWB). Inspired by their experiences, many Burners become social activists back in their home countries. Regionals are springing up in new places such as Morocco, Namibia and potentially Colombia. In these contexts, any positive social initiative can have a big impact.
Recently, I have started blogging about these initiatives, hoping to shine a light on the people running them. I visited a BWB affiliated reforestation project in Colombia and met someone who had never been to a Burning Man event, but decided to get involved as she related to the principles.
In this way I am broadening my focus from how the movement inspires people to change, to what actions people take once they have internalized that change.
In short, you don’t need to “divorce your parakeet” like I did, but I hope learning about this remarkable global community will inspire you on your own journey. This week marks five years to the day since I first landed in Argentina, and I couldn’t imagine then that I would be holding a copy of the book in my hands today. The time is now to write your own story, be bold and join the charge for a more connected world!
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE DUST: Burning Man Around the World
by Roxane Jessi
March 2023 • Memoir/Travel • Softcover & eBook • 198 pages
Price: $18.95 • ISBN 978–1–7349659–4–0
You can also read Roxane’s series in the Burning Man Journal.