This post was inspired in part by Radical Self-Reliance and Rich People at Burning Man by Rosie.
If Burning Man is a city, then those who spend the week following its ten principles are the Black Rock City citizens. Likewise, those who know nothing of the principles and come just to party the weekend the man burns are known as tourists. It’s easy to be irritated by the people leaving solo cups in the port-o-potties while burners are cleaning the playa of other peoples’ tiny sequins and bussing out all their own trash and recycling. After all, if there are too many tourists, Burning Man ceases to be a participatory event. It becomes little more than Coachella with nudity. My first run in with a tourist was obvious. It was just after the man burned Saturday night, when the tourists come in droves. I’d just met the fabulous, beautiful Dawn, whom I was looking forward to connecting with back in the Bay Area, when this guy offered us a beer. Let’s call him Bob. Bob was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, odd attire in a space set aside for radical self-expression.
My second clue: his first grasp at conversation was to ask Dawn why she was drinking water. Now, Dawn’s water bottle was actually filled with a vodka mix, but to ask anyone why she’s drinking water in the desert struck me as oddly ignorant of the surroundings. This isn’t a keggar, bro. People die out here without proper hydration, and self-reliant burners (i.e. all of them) should be carrying water.
To confirm my suspicions, I asked Bob when he’d gotten to Burning Man. “Today,” he said, and I offered my condolences that he’d arrived so late. No, it was awesome, he assured me. He’d bought the ticket last night and the guy “hooked him up with everything.” This simple statement goes against (arguably) the most important principle of Burning Man, participation.
My new friend Dawn wanted to get away from this tourist (I think the word she used, albeit discreetly, was “loser”) and my allegiance to her was greater than to him, so we smiled and danced away. Now, I wasn’t rude to Bob. While I’m sure he’d have preferred a longer conversation, our response was at least as friendly as any he’d be likely to get at a bar in the default world. But was it radical acceptance? Definitely not. Smug judgment was closer to the feeling.
Some of you may be thinking, so what? No harm done. True, but I can’t help but feel like an opportunity was lost. In not truly practicing radical acceptance, I lost the chance to see this bro have a genuine epiphany. To those who’ve never been it may seem I’m overstating things, but trust, for many playa virgins experiencing the radically different culture of Burning Man is life-altering. I’m reminded of the girl in the cafe who nervously took the stage at the open mic to ramble on about how her week at Burning Man had changed her life. Though her emotions struck me, there was a certain blasé understanding in the audience as well: of course it did sweetie. That’s what this place does to people.
I wish I’d asked Bob what he plans to do with all the spent beer cans. It could have sparked an interesting conversation about MOOP, and opened up his understanding of what it means to participate in a “Leave No Trace” event. I got away from Bob before I fully explored my own curiosity about what it means to be a tourist. What does “he provided everything” entail? Tents? Costumes? Bikes? Water? Goggles? Gifts? Was he one of those rich fellows in RVs the media exclaims is “ruining Burning Man”? If not, what does the more moderate, middle-class tourist package include? Did the scalper who gave him the hook up also provide him with the Survival Guide, or give him any sort of guidance on the principles? And how much did Bob pay for this package anyhow? In retrospect, I have a thousand questions that will now go unanswered, because I was eager to get away from this person and back to “my people.”
He had a long way to go in becoming a Black Rock City citizen. But that makes him precisely the type of person who can have their mind blown by the BRC community, and in one fiery spark find himself transformed into a lifelong burner, like the girl in the cafe. I missed the chance to be a part of that. Bob was receptive, open to any questions I might have asked him. We could have had a real conversation, but instead I opted out. I can only hope that before sunrise Bob found some true burners to show him the ropes and introduce him to the principles through their practice: acceptance and participation.