Feeling the burn

How a television producer quit her job and brought a jeepney to the middle of nowhere.


WORDS AND IMAGES  ANDREA AGUILAR

Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in the Northern Nevada desert to create a temporary city of self-expression. Participants set up camp and spend a full week sharing their art, music, food, dance, or anything else to help build a community and show off what makes them special. After a full week in the hot summer heat, the city disappears and leaves no trace of its existence. Burning Man wasn’t always the huge festival in the desert like we know it today.

It started in 1986 as nothing more than few friends celebrating the Summer Solstice with a bonfire on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. The name “Burning Man” came about when a couple of the founders, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, built an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy to burn at the end of the night. The yearly ritual grew in attendance, as did the size of the wooden man. Within three years, more than 200 people gathered on the beach to watch a 40-foot-tall burning man.

San Francisco’s police department wasn’t fond of that many people indulging their pyromania on its beach, so a bigger space was needed for this tradition. In Northern Nevada, 100 miles outside of Reno, a new home was found in the Black Rock Desert where the festival has taken place for the last 25 years. On a dried lake bed in the middle of nowhere — through word of mouth — the festival grew by hundreds of attendees. Soon, thousands joined in. Burning Man became a media darling, covered by magazines, television shows, and early Internet discussions. After the birth of social media in 2010, attendance grew exponentially to 50,000 and the event began selling out quickly every year since. Recent conversation has shifted to the festival’s gentrification and how the 1% — technoprats like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk, in particular — have turned the desert playa into a “business bacchanalia,” as one Bay Area Web site put it.

This piece isn’t about that. Many have an idea of what Burning Man is, but few really understand until you go yourself (as I have, but I do not belong to the 1%). Some think it’s a big party, others think it’s a big concert. In my opinion, Burning Man is a giant potluck created by thousands of artists, musicians, and creative types intent on giving back to the Burner community. There are no spectators at Burning Man, only participants. It’s the participation that makes Burning Man different from any other festival in the world. Whether it’s making a “space whale” art installation, or launching an anvil into the sky with explosives (because why not?), or just feeding your neighbors, there are thousands of things to see and do. We spend all year working on projects to give others the experience of a lifetime which helps to create lifelong friends. The playa is a place that revolves around principles such as acceptance, inclusion, and communal effort. There is no money in Burning Man, which relies on a gift — and not barter — economy. You give what you have without the expectation of receiving anything in return and everyone does the same.

Growing up as a first generation Filipina-American, I never truly felt like I fit in. Using the lessons learned at Burning Man, I decided to share my culture and my passion for environmentalism to build a moving (in the literal sense) art installation: I painted a bus in the spirit of the jeepney and then transformed it to resemble the endangered Philippine eagle using steel bars and fabric. Our Philippine eagle art car was a loud, colorful beacon that invited people into the camp I helped found. My vision was to present a one-of-a-kind, authentic Filipino experience at Burning Man, but I couldn’t do it alone.

Yana Gilbuena, who had no formal training in cooking, left behind several jobs to become a traveling chef. Using the recipes taught by her grandmother and aunt, she had served unique Filipino pop-up dinners in 50 states before she set her sights on Burning Man. We transported food in coolers 600 miles from Los Angeles to the Black Rock Desert, using dry ice to keep it fresh before setting up a fully functional mobile kitchen in a carport tent. Throughout the week, we served 150 traditional kamayan dinners and were told over and over by guests that it was the best meal they had ever eaten at Burning Man in all their years of attending. Just like everything else at Burning Man, the food was free of charge.

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“Salo,” one of several traditional kamayan dinners prepared in a fully functional mobile kitchen set up in a carport tent.
“Salo,” one of several traditional kamayan dinners prepared in a fully functional mobile kitchen set up in a carport tent; The Jeepney Eagle Art Car being asssembled at Black Rock City.
The Jeepney Eagle Art Car being assembled at Black Rock City.

Gingee, on the other hand, a Filipina music producer, DJ, and vocalist, played multiple stages throughout the week, exposing crowds of people to her original songs featuring traditional Filipino kulintang drums played over electronic dance music. A lot of EDM can be heard in Burning Man, but rarely does it have a Filipino influence.

We were extremely excited that so many Filipinos (first-timers and veterans alike) came by our camp to visit. They brought their friends along to learn what “being Filipino” means. Within minutes, Filipino hospitality kicked right in. Everyone pitched in with cooking, serving, and cleanup of our public meals, smiling the entire time and telling to their non-Filipino friends how our camp reminded them so much of home. It never got old to hear a stranger roll in and shout “Is this the Filipino Camp?”

Each person had an amazing story to tell either about the Philippines, Burning Man, or a mix of both. Never have I felt I had so much in common than these wonderful people who came and shared a bit of themselves as we shared our camp with them as our gift. These were all proud moments for me and our crew. I’m so honored to have created a real community and it’s not stopping now that the festival is over. We will be devoting the next year to bringing our unique and participatory take on Filipino culture beyond Burning Man, showing people that getting involved is the most rewarding experience you can have.