AfrikaBurn 2023: 24 to 30 April

Burning with Joy

Text and photos by Milu

Would you have liked it as much as I did? Would you have felt the magic wave carrying you from one experience to the next? Would the smile that did not leave my face for days have also inhabited yours? Would the joy that transpired through every pore of my body have been contagious or would you have maybe added even more into the mix? I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it, I was already sooo happy. In a way I had not been for a looong time; well, with the exception of some of the carefree, laughter-filled times with you.

Was it the incredible freedom I had, the lack of obligations, the independence from technology, phones, plans, needing to be somewhere for someone, at some time? Maybe. Though I did have to volunteer a couple of times a day, generally at 10am and 5pm, to make sure the western-looking Steampunk Saloon camp looked neat and clean. Generally it already was, leaving me free to go back to my freedom. But the last day. It felt a bit like a punishment, a reminder that life is not all joy and silliness. The carpeted floor was covered in all size cuttings of colourful material, felt and cardboard, glue, scissors and all the accessories needed to create the most creative nipple covers. I felt a bit like Cinderella left behind from the ball, cleaning the mess the sisters had left while they partied away, bare-breasted and high. But it was quick, and soon enough I was back wearing my silly smile. With one of those AfrikaBurn philosophical reminders that every now and then parachuted into my mind. In this case, that life has its ups and downs, and one cannot expect to always be happy. It’s more, were it not for those more difficult, sad or upsetting moments, we’d probably not even notice the joy of when life is just about perfect.

Was it the myriad moments which left me in the most unexpected and child-like awe and filled me with such intense gratitude? Walking across the night-time desert eating a bowl of tuna, pea and tomato spaghetti, while making our way to a distant enflamed dot – the burning clan sculpture. A huge crowd of wonder-filled people lit up by the dancing flames and standing underneath a big sideways-moving cloud of heat, sparks and smoke as the big wooden multi-faceted dancing man gradually gave way to the fire. Spinning in circles with my open arms as The Killers sang and my eyes stared at the pale blue and pink sky at sunset. But just for one quick song as this was only a tiny break from cooking our multi-grain risotto, basil and feta dinner. Smiling at strangers and being smiled back at. The beautiful conversation with the Swiss guy, who told me that the Burn had freed his soul: our complicity as we chatted about everything we loved there, as we danced, the fake red rose he gave me later, so I would not forget him. I have not.

The intense conversations about life and love that Lorena and I had the first eve, after struggling to put up camp in the strong wind which kept blowing our tents all over the place. Walking from art piece to sculpture, the feeling of being at the Burn gradually starting to sink in, slowly coming to understand what it all meant, the inner circle, the theme camps, the mutant vehicles, the immensity of the desert. The peace as we shared a huge wooden deck chair that stared out into the rocky vastness under the star-studded sky. The decision taken there and then that we’d have a guacamole sunset gin and tonic aperitivo there, one of the eves. You know I can’t do without those. The curiosity as I touched the big elephant tusk made of rough cotton, its wooden legs, the metal frame at least three meters high. The little jump in my heart as I discovered my favourite art piece, the one that spoke about the magic moment in which you feel love for the first time; the loss that pervades you when that connection breaks; but the redemption that happens if you surrender to the fact that everything changes; and the metamorphosis that follows thereafter, if you leave the sorrow behind, have faith that this experience has allowed you to grow, and let the sun kiss your face.

The kisses my cheeks collected from affectionate strangers and acquaintances.

The little carpeted library theme camp in a quiet residential tented area, with bean bags, cushions and sofas, the neat shelves covered in books, and us, chatting about the most random subjects, me taking careful notes of any emerging pearl of wisdom in my little book. And then the quick walk to the Greasemonkeys camp, to see if Johan had managed to fix his bike. Most importantly, to see if he could help me to roll a spliff. And instead, the curious inquiries upon my arrival back at the library, greeted with a convinced assertion that two guys were on their way to help out. Followed by their prompt, earnest, surprise-welcomed arrival. Their spliff rolling accompanied by chats, silliness, absent-minded paging through books, little girls from the camp serving fudge and crunchies. Had I landed in heaven?

I really did think so, when I sat down on one of the exotic cushioned sofas in the Persian-carpeted Ethiopian tea and coffee house. A handsome bare-chested kind man, with black pants, top hat and gold waistcoat, fluttering elegantly in the Bedouin-like space handing us a small cup of warm Moroccan mint tea, only to revisit us shortly afterwards with the Chinese green tea equivalent. The colourful-costumed clientele absorbed in conversation, thought or contemplation. My silly smile and childlike enthusiasm unable to control itself, as I commented excitedly to Lorena about how I could never have imagined 90% of what I had been seeing, as my eyes rested on the angel-looking pale man lying close to us, dressed in his mint green kaftan, fluorescent green digital plastic watch on his wrist. My bright eyes even brighter as his neighbours started applying eyeliner and lipstick on his nonchalant, pouty face while we made our way to the Petit Paris tent for the irresistible bubbly happy hour.

Perhaps it was the astonishing creativity concentrated in such a small radius. Ladybird-clad Piaggio ape, with a moustache? Night-time, brightly-lit tennis match between competitive kid and middle-aged, white-linen-dressed man, with Panama hat? Green-turf-coated, marquee-ed and palm-leaf decorated beetle? White armadillo-looking quadbike?

Postcard-laden post office, to write a more or less meaningful message home? Huge, upward and downward-moving dragonfly with continuously-changing light patterns on its wings, which could take six people for a ride? Intimate cinema showing film d’époque to enthralled audience? Rickshaw carrying huge cloth sweetcorn on roof? Wooden, wheeled sailing boat? Fake (or real?) midday wedding, with obligatory purple attire, and cheeky bride that left prospective jittery chicks honking as the velvety one-daisy bouquet bounced back in the bride’s hands, tied as it was to a spring? What looked like a kilometers-long string of red kites, crossing half the sky, always visible from wherever one stood? Or maybe the huge big-eyed green octopus that travelled the Burn skies and observed the fleeting crowds from above. Limousine beetle with dragon wings? Red-veiled quad bike, dragging big three-wheeled trailer with two purple fur couches, shaded by wide pale silky wings and decorated with further maroon, bronze and sienna tulle flags, driven – through two rope reins – by blonde-Madonna-like lady in ivory-white wedding dress adorned with fake large roses?

No… I could not have imagined 90% of the things I saw… which were but a fraction of all there was to be seen… events to be attended… art pieces to be interpreted… shows to be applauded… games to be played… tunes to be boogied to… costumes to be inspired by… happiness to be savoured…

My blessing to get into the magic flow of the Burn given by the kind-hearted North Irish, bird doctorate student Luke. My hesitant, shy request to trade some of my grass for a drag of his spliff met with a welcoming smile and reminder that it’s more fun to smoke together. As we listened to the acoustic guitar and deep voice of a jam session participant, cross-legged on the ground of a small, unpretentious tented space, our chats about surrendering to the flow of the burn followed those about who we were.

And surrender I did. As the smile started appearing on my face and as I hurriedly made my way back “home” to see if Lorena had woken up, my sleeveless, fur-coated journalist friend greeted me with a surprised, enthusiastic hug. Already so much to recount to the sleepy-eyed Lorena. My silly excitement bubbling up from all places as we prepared our some-time-after-noon breakfast. Dariusz’s offer to meet at 9pm that night at a particular tent met with dismissive dismay as I claimed I was not there to make plans. They were unneeded that night, as I joyously greeted him and Lorenzo on one of the many dance floors. How privileged to be able to move from one to another, in safety, driven only by the fancy of a different tune, curiosity of what was happening next door, a change in beat. How lucky to be able to jump around at any time of day or night, in any fashion, clothed or unclothed, eyes closed or connected to the crazy world around, in the middle of the vastness of the desert at noon or in a crowded, sweaty tent at 4am, by one of the loud dj-ed, pimped-up mutant vehicles, or following the tunes coming out of a fake dustbin.

The ease with which undergrad companion Dave and I held each other, while strolling about the last eve immersed in the sunset light and in one of the most special heart to heart conversations that summed up what the Burn can be, and was for us. The humble pride he’d felt when one girl, a few years before, had approached him to ask if he remembered how they’d run naked around one of the Burn fires, and how that action had changed her life and liberated her from unneeded burdens and chains. A change in career, a move, a start in the arts world, just because she’d had the courage to follow this trend that Dave had set, and which I’d witnessed the night before, with some surprise and feeling of discomfort as I thought about how painful it must have been to run barefoot on the rocky, possibly charcoal-laden ground. Not for me.

And yet I had found some liberation. Another layer of hardness felt as though it had cracked and been shed. I told Dave excitedly how I felt that life in a way had been unlocked by being there, by experiencing the magic wave that – as long as I avoided craving for it, demanding a particular experience or expecting a certain feeling – had been carrying me from one beautiful, gratitude-filled moment to another. How fascinating it had been to see how remaining in the present moment would keep me surfing on this magic wave, in which I felt connected with everything around me, and yet how quickly that connection would break if I tried to control it. Another little pearl of wisdom elegantly whispered by the Burn: why try control people and situations, instead of enjoying the beauty of what is, trusting that that is best for that moment? At the Burn, I became convinced that feeling grateful can be one of the strongest magnets for the ignition of this wave that can carry us effortlessly through life.

I thought about how the previous morning I had idly started the day, with no idea of what it may hold. But the magic was already at our tent’s doorstep. Two couches set up in the middle of the road separating us from the uplifting, smooth deep house that the neighbours in front had started playing for any and all passersby, accompanied by frozen margarita shots. 10.30am. I have no idea, actually. My phone dead and just the car to reveal the time to ensure I would not miss my volunteering shifts. Then the encounter with one of the two incredibly sweet grey-haired and bearded men who became like two uncles that I regularly started visiting for a quick chat or gossip on my way back from the raised long-drop toilets in our neighbourhood. Brown t-shirt and purple tutu, we started chatting by one of the couches, only to be invited to join him, very shortly afterwards, to take a ride in his pimped-up motorbike dragging a fence-enclosed stand with wooden table and benches. Still wearing my pyjama, but at least with clean teeth (and tongue, of course), I observed young girls, yoga mat under their arms, leaving one of the classes. Skimpily-dressed vain women being photographed by a huge wooden frame. Bikes lazily exploring the buzzing, yet languid inner circle, where one could not tell whether people had just woken up or were yet to go to bed. They explained to me how the burns worked, the fact they had cancelled the previous day’s, due to the fuckin’ maddening winds that had nearly driven me crazy, but that were going to be held later that day. If I wanted any pictures of the sculptures, I had to put my camera to work. Already there for a few weeks to set up the Burn, their caravan camp looking like a welcoming home, they were perfect, gentle hosts…

As I wondered around, taking pictures, observing and absorbing everything, I would oscillate between feeling like Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio in the Land of Toys. I could at times feel the thin, dangerous line between enjoying life, in all its multi-faceted pleasures, with reckless abandon, and the unwanted, unexpected turns it could sometimes take, as I felt most strongly perhaps at 3am, catching sight of what looked like fearful glances on what suddenly appeared to be hostile dance floors. I felt I could only live this ephemeral decadence for so long, before I would be transformed into a donkey to be sold off…

As I took the last, meandering contemporaneous sunset and moonrise pictures, the eve before we were set to go back to the real world, I gracefully came across the little gong shrine that I had meant to visit again before leaving. As I rang the line of small pure-sounding bells hanging on three strings, as a ceremonial thank you to all that I had lived, in such a concentrated amount of time, I felt so fortunate to have found the key to one of my closed doors and to have been able to unlock some of this joy which is inside all of us.I felt sad that so many people are not even aware that there is a key to be looked for, that there are closed doors inside us, and that life can be so beautiful, if we seek to unleash it. Should that not be one of our main pursuits? At least for those of us who have the privilege of not worrying about our everyday survival?

How could a smile not permeate my face there, and for a few weeks after, as I – oh so enthusiastically – remembered and recounted the realisations, sensations and odd experiences I had lived through? One of the last images from the Burn is that of the full moon, with one of the biggest halos I had ever seen, and two clouds above and below, creating the outline of a huge eye. As I asked Lorena if she could also see the eye of the sky, and as she assented, I noticed a little star in one of its corners, as if it was blinking at us, and saying that all is good. As Mohammed would say, it is possible.

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