Friday, June 13, 2014

We went to Midburn and Survived! we've been to Midburn - Israel's first Burning Man event - and we survived. Maybe we have changed a little; hopefully for the better. Let me try to explain what happened, how we felt; how, a week later and still in a state of "decompression", we feel now, and what we have possibly learned from Midburn.

Midburn, in its very essence, is spiritual. Before you start thinking that I've gone over to the dark side (or the light side) let me hasten to add that nobody could ever accuse me of being a particularly religious or observant person. But put aside the endless trance music (PLEASE!!!); set aside for the moment, the fun and exuberance and all-night partying; in embracing the ethos of Burning Man, the 10 Principles and the often surreal atmosphere, there is a certain "spirituality" that cannot be denied.

Why else would people weep with sheer emotion as the effigies and the Man were engulfed in flames? Why else would they feel the awe and wonder of the vast expanse of the desert? Why else would they rejoice in spending five days in primitive, bare bones, sand-blasted, and yes, often downright unpleasant conditions? How else can you account for the atmosphere of joy, enthusiasm, helpfulness, cooperation, sharing, caring and selfless giving that characterized the entire experience? 
And how else can you explain an Israeli on-duty policeman hanging his contribution on the gifting tree?!! 
The Effigy before the burn

Even the image of Midburn "officials" walking somberly in the darkness towards the effigy to commence the burning ceremony was ancient and primal, like priests gathering around the altar, with the congregation thronged in eager anticipation of the ultimate climax.

The overall feeling at Midburn is one of total freedom: freedom from the norms of a judgmental and demanding society; freedom from conforming; freedom of expression, of emotion, of dress (or undress as the mood takes you, and certainly took a number of Burners); freedom of movement, of creativity. Freedom to just be who you are and what you want to be on your own terms...all completely benign; without competition, without criticism, without aggression and without any expectations.

We arrived at the incredibly well-organized tent city that sprung up in the desert just off Route 40, a few kilometers beyond Kibbutz Sde Boker in the south of Israel, at around lunch-time on Tuesday. Even before we subjected our overloaded Subaru to the rutted dirt track that pretended to be a road, we felt a "frisson" of excitement at seeing the wooden effigies, Temple and "Man" on the slight rise just beyond the camp. 

At the entrance we were greeted by a phalanx of exotically dressed "greeters" (our younger daughter Liz - Aliza - among them); garbed, so it seemed, for an other-worldly Purim party; fairies, boys and girls in multi-colored costumes of somewhat free design, guys on stilts wearing top hats, strangely clad creatures crawling out of their lairs, all manner of desert denizens just waiting to receive us "Virgin Burners" and initiate us into this alternative existence for the next five days. We entered a drive-through tent, where we were shown a short animated video about what was expected of us at Midburn and how to behave. After this welcome, each car was invited by the greeters to stop at a large gong, to be struck with a huge hammer, announcing their arrival. 

This process eventually slowed down the entrance of vehicles to a crawl and by midnight, it was taking more than two hours to get from the tar road to the gate - about 1 km. Nothing remotely like in Nevada, where according to Lizi - who has been to two Burning Man (Mans, Men?) - it takes more than 12 hours to travel from Reno to the Playa at Black Rock - normally a two hour drive! But she says, it's all part of the experience for the 65,000 who attend. And the Midburn "p'kak" (traffic jam) didn't seem to dull anybody's enthusiasm here either. 

At our prearranged site Marlyn somewhat naively set out her beautiful scrap-denim door mat in front of our tent. Needless to say, its gorgeous design rapidly became invisible, consumed by the desert sand.
There is a denim door mat under there somewhere....

Then we  explored the "city" on the "Playa" - the term used for the expanse of Negev on which Midburn was set up.

There is no money allowed at Midburn - the only thing you could buy for your coin was ice, as a public safety measure. Everything else was given or taken - without any concept or prospect of an "exchange". So to describe Midburn's economy as "bartering" is inaccurate. It's "gifting". Plain and simple.

The Playa was home to various individual camps, in which the members undertook to provide "things" - services, food, drink, music, yoga, counselling, activities for children ...even showers; each participant undertaking certain responsibilities to ensure its smooth running.

There's the International House of Pancakes camp, cooking up pancakes day and night to feed the masses; over there, the "Shithole" camp, dispensing Bloody "" Mary's to anybody brave enough to try them - without a doubt four parts Vodka, four parts Tabasco, 1-part tomato juice! Here's the Puppet camp, where anybody can use the gorgeous puppets provided to put on a show (as Camilla and I did for Omri); a Jungle camp, a family camp and a dozen or so others - and of course that Trance Music camp (right next to ours which accounted for my three restless nights!) Art installations, dance, amazingly supple pole dancers, sculptures, music, all-night revelers, the Dome of Rock - with a drum set perched high on top of a geodesic dome - so many events and experiences.

And of course the amazing structures, art installations and effigies centered around the overall "Genesis" theme, each and every one an outpouring of dynamic creativity, talent and sheer hard work.

To fully participate in this spirit of "giving", Marlyn and I - probably among the more senior Burners around - decided to give of our personal skills. Marlyn held a lovely scrap-denim quilting workshop with a wonderful group of international students from the Ben Gurion University Sde Boker campus. I gave a story-telling hour, reading from the works of my late friend Pnina Isseroff, and South African author Herman Charles Bosman. 
"Grandpa" 8-meters of amazing carpentry

Facilities were...errr...basic: without dwelling on it, the most popular vehicle crawling around the camp in the early morning, stopping at each line of Porta-potties, was the "Negev Naki" ("Clean Negev") waste disposal truck...'nuff said. 

The Shower camp provided welcome wetness in the desert heat - as long as you were prepared to stand pretty much in the open (preferably without your clothes) to get sprayed with water and soap. It was exhilarating ...particularly after the
"Grandpa" detail
day-long sand storm that battered the camp on Thursday - EVERYTHING was covered in sand - and a week later, after having washed and washed and washed, we are still finding remnants of the Playa among our gear...and I can still taste and smell the desert dryness.

Ever tried flying a kite in a sandstorm? Not recommended...especially when the string on Omri's kite broke twice (but that's another story!)

All 3,000 burners adhered to and were vigilant about "Leaving no Trace". There was nary a scrap of paper, plastic or any trash whatsoever, anywhere. Any "moop" (matter out of place) which might have been blown about by the wind, was quickly scooped up and sealed in a personal garbage bag to be dumped later.

At times, I felt as if we had been transported into a post-Apocalyptic movie. Many of the participants were dressed in Mad Max-style garb, aviator goggles, leather flying helmets, cut-off military-style shorts and desert boots. I could imagine the organizers calling everybody together to make an announcement that the rest of the world had been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust and that we 3,000 Midburners were the last survivors...and this is where we would be living for the rest of our lives, relying only on the 10 Principles as our guiding ideology.
Wind-powered desert tricycle - shades of Mad Max
Does this sound somewhat Utopian? Possibly. But I don't believe "Utopia" is what the founders of Burning Man had in mind. No, I think they just intended to get people back to basics for a short while, to encourage human kindness, to show them what they could do, what they could achieve when they really had to and hoping that such conditions would generate a change in attitudes and some creativity which all could enjoy.
If that was their intention, then they certainly succeeded at Midburn. The level of creativity, in the designing and building, the creating of the effigies, the Man, Grandpa, the Temple and numerous other installations was incredible. The level of cooperation and sharing between the various camps was inspiring. And the sheer hard work  and dedication put in by the Midburn team in a year of planning and then setting up the Playa in searing desert heat, is beyond praiseworthy.

In closing, I wish to repeat that while I am neither particularly religious nor observant, sometimes, something weird and wonderful, and often inexplicable happens - especially in the desert.

Like Midburn

It took place over Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah in the wilderness. The following quote (admittedly paraphrased to suit my purpose - I hope the good Rav will forgive me) creates an intriguing link between Midburn and Shavuot. 
"The desert. A place of emptiness, of desolation...(as the Talmud says,)
to grasp Torah one must make himself owner-less like the desert. One must nullify himself, abandon himself as it were, and simply allow whatever happens to happen — just let the Divine light flow in. One must put aside critical thinking..."  
Rav Hanan Schlesinger, Texas Jewish Post

I believe this puts Midburn and the Burning Man experience into apt perspective.

(My thanks to Shoshana Michael-Zucker, Hod ve'Hadar Masoriti Congregation in Kfar Saba, for inspiring me with these thoughts.)

Here are some more pictures. To see other amazing photographs go to Eyal Levkovitch's Facebook page

Camilla's pic of Omri recreating the line of cars waiting to get into Midburn
(without any prompting from anyone)
Patchwork shade cloth at the adjacent camp site
The Playa
Our campsite - Marlyn, Liz, Omri and Snake
Sand everywhere...
"Lend-a-Freind" (sic) Camp
(the Hebrew at the bottom reads:
"This camp supports Dyslexia!")
Lighting up for the night

Yes, we did set up our shower cubicle - IT WORKED!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Burning Man - Midburn - here we come, ready or not... we're going to Midburn - Israel's first Burning Man event. And we're packed and ready (ha ha ha).
I have two burning questions: (1) will we ever get everything into our ridiculously space-challenged Subaru; and (2) will we be the same people coming back home after this daunting (at least from this end of the tube) experience?
The closer we get to this event, the more questions I have: questions about existence, about relationships, about the meaning of life... oh, cut the bullshit! I'm far too much of a cynic for that, so what I'm really anticipating is spending four days in the desert with all our kids and "Omri Bomri", the original desert boy, our gorgeous grandson who lives only 20 minutes from the Midburn Playa, in Mitzpe Ramon. That will be the fun part.
Omri Desert Boy
The not fun part will be packing the car (like I said, very little space even with the seats folded)...and then UNPACKING the car when we get home; removing all the garbage we will have collected - leaving no trace of our ever having been there; setting up our camp; trying to survive on dry rations for four days (home-made granola, rice, pasta, biscuits, energy bars...maybe some vegetables).
Seriously folks: I can't help feeling a sort of deja vue pre-Woodstock butterflies in the stomach trepidation about this entire enterprise: not that I was at Woodstock (I have some friends who were and it was held on the farm of an uncle of a friend - and that's another story); but I've seen the movie enough times, and spent my teenage years wallowing in the sound track! I know Midburn-Burning Man is NOTHING like Woodstock in terms of the event, performances, installations, workshops and so on... however, the expectations of being in the gorgeous Negev, surviving with only Porta-potties provided and everything else based on self-reliance - along with 2,000 other masochists - fills me with a sense of adventure and, yes, excitement.
Here's our check, on second thoughts you don't want to read that, it's PAGES long but it does include some very important basic survival items such as: ground black pepper (don't ask); good Italian coffee; machineta (to "espresso" the coffee); a couple of bottles of red wine; corkscrew; Marlyn's denim scraps (for her workshop!); gallons of water; and of course our home built, very professional and sophisticated Midburn spec shower cubicle (!) Here's what we're not taking: Smartphones, iPads, laptops, email, Internet, TV...YAY!
This is what our apartment looks like at the moment:
Waiting at the front door...
...and the shower stall (absent the ground sheet curtain)

Now let's understand each other: we're no strangers to camping- we've camped in the Negev and we've camped in the Galil; we're regulars at Jacobs Ladder and we even spent a Pesach yonks ago on the shores of the Red Sea (well, really on Coral Beach in Eilat, but it kinda counts). However, THIS experience is beyond the pale for even the hardiest members of our camping crowd. They all think we're nuts. Comments range from: "Are you bonkers?" to "Well, good luck and thanks for all the fish." (Don't worry folks, we're taking good, robust towels with us: OK if you get it, you get it, if you don't then ... ah well, update your reading list...:) ) Mind you, the weather this morning was enough to raise a few doubts...
Briefly, why are we actually doing this? Is it some kind of advanced-age dementia? A searching for our youth; a need to express ourselves once again in an artistic, free-form manner? Or just the thought of being isolated from the daily scramble to survive in the modern world, transformed to the need to survive in a more primitive format? Actually, it's all of the above and more:
Our younger daughter, Liz (Aliza) has been to two Burning Man events in Nevada. She is now a key member of the Israel Midburn organization and she threatened us with instant mortification if we didn't come to Midburn to support her! Well, not quite as dramatic as that. We've always believed in inter-family support: whenever the kids were doing something: sports, dancing, performing, exhibiting, we've always made every effort to be there for cheer them on, to be part of their triumphs (even if they didn't win the 25-yard egg-and-spoon race) we felt we just had to support Lizi-Bizi and the amazing team of Midburn volunteers by joining in and letting go of our middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road existence (truthfully, we're not really like that -  ask the kids - but it sounds good). We even gave up on Jacobs Ladder this year to be there for Lizi. We're damned proud of what she and her team have accomplished and we understand exactly what goes into putting together an event like this (It's not a "festival" folks; it's an EVENT!) That's where our support comes from: and it's exciting, like I said earlier; and even pioneering, given that this is Israel's first Midburn-Burning Man regional event. 
And to those of you who were just too damned chicken to join us --- waaaahhh; waggling fingers on each side of head, tongue extended: "I blow my nose in your general direction..." disdain - harrumph!  This will certainly be an experience to remember - or try to forget, we'll let you know about that  later...

Monday, December 30, 2013

This blog is about travel. Not your regular type of travel: "Great beaches, supah hotels..." Oh no - this is a very personal, somewhat quirky insight into the country, region or city visited; an off-the-wall look at people and places, customs, attitudes, traditions, food; lots of pix...and a few secrets! So climb aboard and learn things that you maybe didn't know. Send me your feedback - if you've been there and found it different to my view, or if I've given you a new perspective. Time for take off!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cyprus in the Blink of an Eye

So, we all sailed off to Cyprus. It was on a whim actually – needing to get away, anywhere, anyhow, for even the briefest of breaks, Marlyn and I – and our close friends, Lynore and Neil Blum – decided to take a weekend cruise to Cyprus. It was one of those absolutely-not-to be missed deals, priced at way less than you can get a "tzimmer" in the north, and with the promise of being "chutz l'aretz" (overseas) that enticed us to book.
To make it a real adventure weekend, we decided to take a train from the Hod Hasharon station near our home to Haifa port. Good decision, we felt, because we got off the train almost at the gangplank; well, except for negotiating check-in, passport control and the duty free shops.

And there she was, waiting for us, moored to the Haifa dockside, our splendid craft and home for the weekend, the Golden Iris run by Mano Cruises. At just under 17,000 tons, not the hugest of ocean liners, but neat enough. Of course, Marlyn and I couldn't help initially comparing it to the Caribbean Princess on which we spent a week swanning about the Caribbean on a gifted holiday in 2007. 
But comparisons are odious. The Caribbean Princess was 10 times the size, three times the height and carried nearly four times as many passengers and crew. But then, what to do you really need for an overnight float across a short expanse of Mediterranean blue? Believe me, our Golden Iris was more than up to the task. Very comfortable air-conditioned cabin ( give it the correct term); excellent meals, and all the shipside diversions and entertainment normally associated with "cruising" – if you like discos, rather over-loud and quite honestly, mediocre cabaret, a raucous and smoke-filled casino and a crowded duty free shop somewhat like an Israeli supermarket just before a "chag". Did I mention that the ship was full? One thousand Israelis of all shapes, sizes, persuasions and origins; English-speakers, Russians, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Israelis...French-speakers, Spanish-speakers...just the sort of ethnic mix you would encounter anywhere in Israel. We were a floating microcosm of Israel, sailing off to experience a microcosm of Greece... 
The pleasure of the cruise for us was sitting on deck, in the glorious moonlight, cruising along at a decent clip on a glassy, smooth almost unruffled sea. We didn't get entangled with a single Gaza-bound flotilla, never encountered the Turkish navy, nor got within eyesight of an Israeli-Cypriot drilling rig. The balmy night air, the hypnotic view of the wake thrust aside by the ship's prow, the throb of the engines and an ever-so-gentle swaying put us in the mood for a good night's sleep. Early the next morning, we entered Larnaca harbor. My immediate reaction on viewing it out of the porthole was that we had turned around during the night and sailed back to Bat Yam...but that's a tad uncharitable. Larnaca, it turns out, was a somewhat pleasant enough city, gently laid back on a Saturday morning, with not too much traffic in the streets; which it turned out was a good thing because driving in Cyprus – courtesy of its colonial heritage – is on the left, like in South Africa and we had decided to hire a car for the day. 
Actually it only took a few minutes for us to do the "mind switch" and revert from left-hand drive to right-hand drive and call on our early driving education (sitting on dad's knee steering his enormous old Chevy...) But don't be fooled – driving in Israel for more than 20 years has left its mark – our car was a manual model and more than once I found myself trying to shift the door handle into third...
Once we collected our vehicle we met up with friends of the Blums', Sharon and Frank, who had moved to Cyprus from Durban 10 years ago. They offered to show us around the island for the day, and off we trundled, following them along the main highway up into the hill country towards Nicosia, to the village of Lefkara, famous for its fine filigree lace.
Lefkara Lace

The view from Lefkara to the sea

Believing that traveling independently of the guided tours ensured we would not be crowded out by the unwashed hordes, we found Lefkara charming, quaint and very quiet – until the tour busses loaded with our shipmates all sporting their red Mano Cruises baseball caps, arrived! So, we beat a hasty retreat from Lefkara back to the coast. On the way we took in the view from the heights down the valley towards the sea. Lefkara sits in a landscape much like the Jerusalem hills. The terrain is very similar to Israel (well, it's only 260 kms away...almost part of it, you might say) and the temperature was about the same – HOT!

Driving down the coastal highway we passed through Limasol, taking a brief glance at the beachfront residential area – looks like a great place for an extended stay – and headed for Aphrodite's Rock – a legendary tourist  attraction almost at the far western end of the island. In mythology this is the birth place of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, (know by the Romans as Venus) and is the stuff of legends and superstitions. According to our guides, this was the ancient forerunner of Viagra; it is claimed that any man swimming around the rock, will be bountifully endowed. Neil, Frank and I agreed that none of us needed to take a swim, and off we went for lunch...
Aphrodite's Rock
Overlooking Aphrodite's Rock from an airy restaurant on the hill above the beach, we tucked into a delicious local lamb stew (at least we were told it was lamb, and we took their word for it, ignoring the goat herds in the vicinity...). Soon enough it was time to make our way back to Larnaca, return our car, and board the ship for the overnight trip back to Haifa.
It had been a magical day in Cyprus, and we had only one glitch – that was when we stopped for petrol right next door to a local branch of Marks and Spencer's - BIG MISTAKE. Marlyn and Lynore leaped out the car, with promises of "Just fill up and we'll be back..." The car was filled and the clock was ticking as we hung about for what seemed hours, waiting for the wives. The garage attendant started giving us strange looks and I swear she was on the verge of calling the local constabulary to check out these two weird looking guys, hanging around the gas pumps.  
Neil decided to mount a one-man search party and resolutely plunged into the store. I know what you're thinking – why not just call them on a cell phone? Well, it turns out that none of us had thought of setting up international calling facilities, so we had no reception...and besides, Marlyn had left her phone in the car. Eventually Neil staggered out of the store, totally bewildered. He had searched all five floors, and nary a sight of the girls. Had they been abducted by M&S staff, intent on holding them hostage until they bought thousands of Euro worth of goods? So, we waited – and I had visions of us missing the ship, being incarcerated in a Cypriot prison as illegal aliens, trying to explain to the children how their mothers had been engulfed in the bowels of M&S, when they appeared, smiling and – joy of joys – not a package between them (credit cards had been mercifully left in the car!).We made it back to the ship in time, took a nap, met for dinner and then settled in for the night cruise back to Haifa.

We arrived early Sunday morning, having been away for around 48 hours – and as we stepped off the Golden Iris and headed for the station and the train to take us back to Hod Hasharon, it really felt like a week. Until we got on the train – remind me, never, ever to take a train from Haifa (or anywhere in the country for that matter) between 7:00 and 9:30 in the morning. It was already packed with commuters and soldiers heading back to their bases – so full in fact that Neil and Lynore sat on the steps and I stood the entire 1½-hour journey home....still, we'd been to Cyprus, we'd been "chutz l'aretz" for the weekend– albeit in the blink of an eye – and it was worth every single micro-second – even standing in the train all the way home.