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A Lesson from the Playa

What living in a desert with 70,000 strangers can teach you about yourself.

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By Shabrina Koeswologito

Travel Writer

22 Jun 2018 - 6 Minute Read

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When I was preparing to go to Burning Man for the first time, I kept hearing this same phrase: “The playa will give you what you need and not what you want.”

Now I finally know what that means.

Growing up as a woman in Indonesia, I spent my first 25 years adhering to conservative southeast Asian culture and my family’s expectations. But, after a week of living in a desert with more than 70,000 strangers, that all changed. Burning Man tested me physically and mentally.

It took us almost 12 hours to reach our campsite that first day. After setting up, I was exhausted, ready to collapse into sleep in my comfortable van. But that plan was cast aside as my friends dragged me out to explore the area by bike.

Laser lights, music, and art installations were everywhere, mesmerizing me. Riding along, I was astounded at how an entire city could emerge from the desert in a day.

Around 1am, we stopped at a stage where 200 people were already dancing.

I was lost in the music when I felt someone touch my shoulder – a stranger offering me weed. I’d tried it a few times in the past, but never enjoyed it… but now, I was at Burning Man. My mind told me to experience as much as I could, while my gut said no.

I smoked, and regretted it.

My friends were nowhere to be found. My heart was pounding – I felt scared, cold, and alone.

Why did I do this to myself? I wondered. Why did I go against my judgement just please a stranger?

“Wah! Wah, wah!”

On my left, people were exclaiming as an oncoming art car let out a plume of fire. On my right, lasers zig-zagged from the stage.

I sat down beside my bike and hugged my water pack, grateful that it was full. I can’t remember how long I sat there. Three strangers approached and kindly checked up on me.

Why did I do this to myself? I wondered. Why did I go against my judgement just please a stranger?

I thought of the last time I'd been this afraid. Four years ago, I almost died in a scuba diving accident. I was 30 meters underwater when my regulator malfunctioned. I panicked and my mind went blank. I had to be carried up to the surface and revived by my instructor. That night at Burning Man, I felt a similar kind of helplessness.

I’d always been a people pleaser, feeling bad every time I said the scary word “No.” It got to a point where I would sacrifice my time, energy, and sometimes money for anyone who wanted my help.

Sitting there on the playa (as the dry lakebed where Burning Man happens is known), I decided, “Enough is enough.”

I made it back to my camp at 5am. For the rest of the week, whenever I started to fall into my familiar, people-pleasing habits, I remembered the fear I felt on the first day, and it gave me the strength to follow my own instincts.

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I chose not to go to a bar that you had to be completely naked to enter. One day, exhausted from lack of sleep, I stayed back at our camp to read and rest, while everyone else went off to party. As uncomfortable as it felt to say no, somehow my gut knew what was best for me. My nervousness about this crazy event was replaced with ease – I could handle it.

Burning Man, at its best, sucks. It’s supposed to. In the crucible of the desert, in the process of surviving one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, it showed me capabilities far beyond the confines of my safe, somewhat boring middle-class life. It helped me be the best version of myself.

I became more open to new ideas.

More accepting of my body.

More honest about my beliefs.

I learned that saying “sorry” isn’t necessary when you stand up for what you believe in.

How to firmly say “Thank you, but no,” without feeling guilty.

And to understand that my gut is my greatest asset.

On the last day of the event, I found myself once again separated from my friends. The final art installation, The Temple, was about to be burned, and I was determined to be a part of it. I watched in rapt silence as, tier by tier, the five-meter temple was slowly engulfed in flames. I was alone – but this time, I felt at peace. The playa had given me what I needed.

Shabrina Koeswologito

Editor's note: Recreational marijuana use is legal in Nevada, with some restrictions. But please keep in mind, our insurance doesn't cover you if you're under the influence of marijuana (legal or not) and something goes wrong. 

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Travel Writer

A world traveler since the age of 11, Shabrina is the founder of the travel site Slow Travel Story. When she’s not traveling, she juggles living between New York City and her beloved hometown, Jakarta.

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