Many people have heard of the art festival Burning Man, but those who haven’t gone often have a wrong impression of it. Most people that knew I went asked “isn’t everything free there, like alcohol?” and “aren’t you going to do so many drugs there?!” Others comment on the fairies, hippies, glowing night life and raves that go on, while others try to understand where it is (in the middle of a desert, a former lake bed) and how a temporary city of 60,000 survives there for 8 days. What I went to Burning Man for was first and foremost for the art and artistic expression (it is, after all, an art festival), and also to explore a new environment, both natural and cultural.
The set up of burning man camp is circular: a clock where 12 noon has a temple, the centre of the clock is the Man, 6 o’clock is central camp, and around the circumference from 2 to 10 are camps. The art is all around you; the big circle of the clock has the major, large, installation art works, and camps all around are decorated to a theme. The only automobiles that are allowed to drive around camp are ‘art cars,’ and people themselves are walking art pieces covered in dust, fur, glowy stuff and costume.
The mentality of Black Rock City is unlike any other ‘real’ city in the world; people love, trust, respect and share almost unconditionally (with everyone), with the underlying philosophies of burning man being about self-expression, inclusion, communal effort, civil responsibility, participation, gifting, and leave-no-trace (garbage is affectionately called MOOP, an acronym for matter-out-of-place).
Self reliance and decommodification are other major themes of burning man; you are meant to bring enough food, water, shelter and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment, and the selling of ANYTHING is prohibited (a barter/exchange economy exists through the notion of gifting).
My personal experience of Burning Man was a surreal journey through self exploration, literally and figuratively speaking, where the art, camps and people I met at Burning Man all contributed an invaluable piece to an overall wonderful, unforgettable experience. There is definitely nowhere else on earth you can go and have a similar experience, and explaining it to people is almost a waste of time because its one of those things you cannot truly imagine or have expectations of until you go there and experience it yourself.
Word of advice: Go to Burning Man 2010.