No man can live this life unchanged. He will carry the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match. — Wilfred Thesiger
Axwell blasted through my tinny iPhone speaker on repeat, my long drive through the Israeli desert soundtracked by the one song that had loaded before I’d lost service driving out of Tel Aviv. I rolled down the windows and sang along at the top of my lungs, eager to hype myself up for the self-imposed challenge that lay ahead: five days solo at a festival I’ve never attended, at which I knew no one, in a country I’d never been to and didn’t speak the language of.
It had been a while since I’d really pushed myself this far out of my comfort zone.
This entire six week trip to Kuwait, Egypt and Israel had been about challenging myself. So why not finish it with a bang and do something that truly kind of terrified me? This wasn’t just any festival. I was headed to Midburn, Israel’s regional burn — an official Burning Man community event, for those not familiar with the term. Essentially, Burning Man in the Middle East.
Going to any burn, solo or not, is intimidating. I’d spent the prior twenty-four hours preparing to be radically self-reliant in the desert, and I still felt laughably unprepared compared to my typical Burning Man preparations. All the way I had one eye on the sobering news reports rolling in of violent outbreaks along the Gaza Strip, and rising tension over the US’s controversial decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem. Opening Google Maps the night before my departure, I scanned news reports and worked out the distance between the festival site and the border where nearly fifty people had died that day. They were about an hour apart.
But I didn’t have much time to dwell on that. After sorting through several complicated rideshare offers, I decided to take the (expensive) reigns and rent a car myself last minute. Lugging gallons of water around the city, trying to decipher Hebrew-only parking signs, getting my digital life ready to go offline, navigating to camping stores and gratefully accepting the generosity of Israeli friends who lent me bedding and warm clothes; I kept busy.
Driving away from Tel Aviv, I rolled down the windows and left it all behind – anxiety over personal drama, work, the stress and sadness of the headlines.
I had a desert to go get lost in.
At times, I wondered if I meant that literally rather than figuratively. Driving to Burning Man is a pilgrimage, of sorts — the long, often hours-long line to get through the gates is a badge of honor. Due to my travel schedule I arrived on day two of Midburn (I figured five days in the desert would be plenty — spoiler alert, it wasn’t) and for a long time, I didn’t see a single hint that my final destination was near. Then finally — a sculpture of a biker emerged like a mirage. I smiled. I was almost there.
Then came the real challenge: getting my stuff from my car to the camp. At Burning Man, you drive straight up to your campsite. At Midburn, no non art-car vehicles are allowed into the grid. Struggling with an over-ambitious load of bags, I took all of four steps on the playa sand when I felt literally one of the most horrific things I’ve ever felt in my life: the sole of the right boot of my one pair of festival shoes ripping free.
Trying not to panic, I made my way to my camp, bracing myself before I entered. I’d found Mexicamp via the Midburn International Facebook group, where I’d made what must have been an equal parts charming and desperate post pleading for a camp after finally nabbing a ticket a month prior to the event. Not all camps accept non-English speakers and I was very late to the game, so I was incredibly lucky to land a spot at such a popular, well-organized camp.
Giving myself a pep talk to be brave, I entered the “members only” section and started looking for anyone I recognized from the camp’s Facebook group or Whatsapp chat. Someone in the chat had offered me use of their spare tent, and since I’d been unable to reach them to confirm the day prior, I prayed that they had remembered, trying not to start running backup scenarios in my mind. Eventually I got my hands on the tent, and flooded with relief, started the awkward journey of attempting to find somewhere to set it up.
aerial photos by my friend Dave Jones, who unlike me was not too lazy to fly his drone over the playa
After a wrestling match with my tent, a glue gun repair session with my boot, and another two trips to my car, I was eager to get out and explore. Throwing on a pink wig and loading up my day bag, I wandered to the communal area of our camp. Be brave, I told myself again. Make friends.
I scanned the area for a friendly face and seeing a group of girls my age I wandered over, smiled, waved, and I kid you not, sat down on a bench that immediately fell over backwards. Sitting back up and trying to pretend I wasn’t dying inside, I introduced myself and attempted to make some festival small talk, asking how the previous night had been and if there were any particularly impressive camps I had to check out. “Just go look at all of them,” was the flat reply as the girls stared back at me blankly.
Mkay then! Remember what I said about Israelis being sabres — thorny on the outside, and sweet on the inside? Guess I was still on the thorny layer. Operation Make Besties on the back burner, I set off solo to explore.
Wandering across the playa, I came across one of those truly magical burn parties. Seemingly sprung from the sand, a party was raging around a pirate ship, on which an artist was playing an electric violin set. I was captivated. I joined the crowd, dancing and getting lost in the music.
This was one of my most joyous moments from Midburn, upon reflection. I can’t sugarcoat it, I’d had a rough start. Getting settled in my camp had been physically exhausting and awkward. I’d felt totally out of my element, failed to bond with anyone, and was having a hard time shaking the feel that I was an interloper. I was wondering that the heck I had gotten myself into.
But finding that music and that shared communal energy at the pirate ship, I felt this very overwhelming sense that everything was going to be fine. I didn’t need anyone else for this journey, I already had my best friend along: me!
Okay girl, I told myself. This is going to be an adventure.
Back at my camp, it was like the universe rewarded me for being at peace by myself. I found the most incredible sight: a familiar face.
It was Dave, an American photographer who’d I’d met very briefly in Tel Aviv for the first time. We’d barely had the chance to chat in the craziness of wrapping up my Vibe Israel tour, yet seeing him on the playa, I felt as if I’d found a long-lost dear friend. And he would become one, indeed — my photo walk buddy, my cohort in mischief, and my own personal stand up comedian for this beautiful experience in the Negev Desert. And it all started right there, over excited plans to explore the playa at night.
Burns are playgrounds for grown ups. The playas really transform as the sun sets. Lights and colors blink to life, and suddenly the stark, endless desert you spent all day in becomes this moving, magical real life video game.
I layered up for the cold, so grateful to my friend Omer back in Tel Aviv, who had lent me a closet worth of warm clothes and bedding.
And then we played.
We had a big night, but there was no way I was making it to sunrise. The day had taken its toll, and I couldn’t wait to crawl into my tent full of borrowed blankets and sleep. Yup, my name is Alex and I got to festivals and get a full night of slumber!
I started my morning with a well-organized camp breakfast — the communal meals were one of my favorite aspects of Mexicamp — and a yoga class led by the sweet Israeli girl who’d invited me to the camp via Facebook, and who I met for the first time that morning.
After a dusty class and my best festival hangover cures, I felt ready to face the hot desert day. Dressing up is one of my absolute favorite aspects of festivals — if I were to run for president, I’d run on the platform that every day be Halloween — and so I couldn’t wait to rock the antlers I’d bought at Wonderfruit the year before.
(Speaking of Halloween, I think my costume for the year was a bit Mexicamp inspired!)
Walking around the full playa during the day and really getting a sense of it in the daylight for the first time, I had to keep reminding myself that I hadn’t been magically transported to Black Rock City. It was striking how similar this desert was.
The name Midburn is a hybrid of midbar, the Hebrew word for desert, and burn, an English word that calls to mind the original Burning Man in Nevada. (It also celebrates the fact that the festival is timed with Shavuot, a Jewish holiday marking the mid point of the year.) The first Midburn took place in 2014, after a group of Israeli friends returned home from Burning Man inspired by what they’d experienced. It has grown incredibly quickly, already becoming the second largest in the world at 11,000 attendees, clipping right at the heels of Afrikaburn. I don’t have to wonder why — throughout my time in Israel I began to understand how a burn would find such strong, fast roots here.
The camps that make up a burn, and from what I observed, ran efficiently and with ease at Midburn, bring to mind the Israeli tradition of kibbutzes, collective communities that share both resources and workloads. And, of course, the conscripted army service in modern Israel cultivates an incredible sense of fellowship and appreciation for the common good. Yet at the same time, the radical self-reliance that is one of the ten principles of any burn is an intrinsic part of the Israeli spirit. There is a famous quote in Jewish culture, “im ein ani li, mi li?”
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Eventually I ripped myself away from the playa so that I could head back to Mexicamp for my bartending shift. I’d had to sign up for two shifts as part of my camp duties: one behind-the-scenes dinner preparation shift, and one forward-facing bartending shift.
I have a whole post coming up about the ways in which Burning Man and Midburn compare and contrast (it was one of the biggest questions I got during and after the festival) but one that stood out is Midburn has far less open bars and food offerings.
Which was great in a way, because it made ours all the more popular! I loved my bartending shift. The language and cultural barriers undoubtedly made it hard, in some cases, to strike up casual conversations, at least at first. Well, when you’ve got free booze in your hands, everyone wants to talk to you, and conveniently everyone suddenly speaking English! (Ha.) Great music was blasting, the dance floor was full, and I enjoyed getting to know my fellow Mexicampers a bit better.
After the party wrapped, Dave and I met up for our favorite time on the playa, that beautiful sunset pretty light. (My only gripe with Mexicamp’s organization, actually, was that dinner was scheduled right for this magical sunset hour.)
Considering cameras were pretty unwelcome at Midburn — more on that in an upcoming post, too — I let Dave take over photographer duties while I enjoyed the last moments of the warmth and glow of the sun. And then ran to eat — cause priorities, ya know?
After dinner and a quick layering up, we were back out for another magical night in the surreal light up world 11,000 people had created. At this point, I wasn’t even bothering carrying my camera — thank goodness for Dave!
The night was notably warmer than the previous one, and in fact, unbeknownst to me, an unprecedented heat wave was settling over the desert. It was the last time I’d don a sweater.
photos by Dave Jones
The next morning I finally felt fully adjusted to burn life. Disconnecting from the default world, finding your groove on the playa — for me, it can take a little while to get there.
I was up early, so I threw on some of my favorite finds from the Egyptian market and headed over for breakfast at Pancake Empire, a camp I’d been invited to my someone who had stopped by our Mexicamp party the previous day. It was popping off, for first thing in the morning, and I quickly made friends as I waited in line for some syrupy goodness.
I’d spent the previous day covering the full playa on foot, exploring all the artworks and beautiful structures. This day, in which the sun was so searing even lifetimes residents of the Middle East were complaining, was all about the shady camps, and diving into the incredible themes and workshops and parties and settings burners had created in them.
I had the most incredible day, surrounded by incredible people. But before dinner, I felt this urge to run out to the playa and soak up those last moments of simmering sun solo. I felt high on the adventure of it all; so settled in the present moment I’d almost forgot that the world still existed outside that radial grid.
Little did I know, my favorite night of the burn was ahead.
The actual burns that took place the final two nights of the festival had less significance than their Burning Man counterparts. But still, the big burn on the penultimate night was a blast. It was the first time our camp really went out as a big whole group, and while it obviously didn’t last long before we split into smaller factions, it was a great way to kick off the night.
One of the things I loved about the smaller size of Midburn was that you ran into the same people over and over again. By night three, I felt like I was a regular in this weird little city of dreams in the desert.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that it was the warmest night I’d ever experienced at a burn (I put leggings on and otherwise just went out as I was dressed below!), the fact that I felt like I’d truly conquered this huge challenge I’d set out for myself, or the company, but that night was one of my favorite burn memories ever.
Needless to say, the next morning was a one way ticket to struggle town. But hangovers and record-breaking heat weren’t going to get me down! I put on my comfiest romper, accessorized with some neon blue, and headed straight to the Trash Pop party at Straight Friendly — the world’s best name for a gay theme camp, ever.
We made some very entertaining new friends, danced to Britney till it hurt, and laughed ourselves silly till I had to tear myself away to get back for my dinner shift.
After dinner, I made the rounds visiting the camps of all my new playa friends to say hi. I was trying to vaguely keep an eye on the time, which is hard to do when you don’t have a phone or other time keeping device onhand, and burst out laughing when I realized I’d kind of missed the temple burning because I was off doing something naughty. What could be a more perfect way to kick off my last night of my first Midburn?
While I share a lot of my festival experiences here, there’s plenty that happens at a burn that stays at a burn (or gets published in my future tell-all memoir, whatever) and this burn was full of those moments. Still, I hope I’ve shared enough to give you a sense of what a truly incredible experience this was for me.
The theme for this burn was “brainstorm,” which could not have been more perfect. While it might have looked at the time like I did whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I struggled with a lot of the same hesitations that stop many people from making their dreams a reality. It’s easy to get stuck in a routine, especially when you think, “my life is good, why can’t I just be happy, why do I think I deserve more?”
Burns always get me super reflective about who I am and if the life I’m living reflects that truth. I left Midburn so refreshed and inspired, with the kind of clarity that can only come from unplugging from the real world for a few days and living in a strange utopia in the desert instead.
photos by Dave Jones
I’m so proud of myself for taking on this challenge and gifting myself this beautiful five days. From the moment I realized that Israel’s regional burn overlapped with my final days in Israel, I took it as a sign I was meant to be there. Again — I didn’t have a ticket, I didn’t know a single person going, I don’t speak Hebrew, and I had never even been to Israel before.
What if I couldn’t get a ticket? What if I couldn’t find a camp? Who would I hang out with? What would I do at night? What if everything was in Hebrew? How would I possibly manage to gather everything I needed to be radically self reliant in the desert for five days? These were the questions that were playing on a loop in my mind as I wrestled with whether to plan to go or not.
I decided to manifest the best case scenario, and shipped myself a huge box of festival supplies from Thailand to Israel, just trusting the universe would put a ticket in my hands. Going to a burn blind and alone was exhilarating, overwhelming, and in the end, one of the most empowering travel experiences I’ve had.
Burns always feel, in retrospect, like wild crazy dreams you just woke up from. I left Midburn with a full heart and a dozen new friends, vowing that I’d be back the next year, no question. Of course, my life changed quite drastically, very shortly after this one, and it’s likely I won’t be there in 2019.
But Midburn and I will meet again. I’m certain.
Is Midburn on your festival bucket list?