Spending a week in the hot, dry desert with 50,000 drunk hippies isn't everyone's idea of a great time. Burning Man is for a certain type of crazy; an optimistic, lunatic bunch who would go to great lengths to experience the biggest party in the world.
Having just arrived back from my first "Burn," I'm still in decompress mode, but can say with certainty I've been converted. Here's why:
There isn't a music festival anywhere that hasn't been branded by now. Beer and drink sponsors flying their annoying banners, tickets stamped with "Brought to you by..." and the godawful lackeys manning sponsor booths all take away from the experience. Burning Man still has none of that. In fact, it's totally banned. Decommodification is the name of the game. You're shocked by this enormous city with zero billboards. It's just about the art. And the madness.
This is circumstantial, though in a full week of wandering, meeting people and exploring, I didn't run into a single wasted jackass who was out to ruin people's fun. No groups of jocks out to cause a scene or prove their stupidity. I witnessed no fights, which in a drunken party of 50,000 people is quite impressive indeed. The people were friendly and helpful and inviting.
Generosity flows like wine
One of the main tenets of Burning Man is gifting. I didn't quite know what this meant until a group of Australian women brought our camp an amazing homecooked meal. Twice. And unconditionally. This generosity extended to everything from trinkets to repairs to booze. Lots and lots and lots of free booze. It's going to be hard to pay for cocktails ever again. On the other side of it, gifting shots of rum to total strangers in the middle of the desert is a lot of fun.
The art is mind-blowing
Never having visited before, my expectations were low, and I expected tacky hippie paintings and shoddily constructed floats. After a week, I can honestly say that most modern art galleries in the world could learn a thing or two from visiting. Sure, there are lots of low-brow installations, but the wealth of amazing stuff is mind-boggling. Serious cash is dropped on many of these pieces, and a lot of them are crafted by engineers and artists alike. You cannot experience a 350-foot pier complete with sounds of the ocean and electroluminescent barnacles without smiling. And the fire-breathing octopus is a pure stunner.
The bulk of visitors still hail from the west coast of the USA, but Burning Man is increasingly, amazingly international. Within a day I had met people from England, Australia, Korea, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Germany and South Africa. A remote desert in Nevada is transformed overnight into a global village. It's astounding, and one of those rare events that make you proud, and pleasantly surprised of your country.
All in all, expectations exceeded, shattered, incinerated.