How our wine-tasting in Chile and Argentina went south

Our good friend Howard still shakes his head in amazement when he recalls his attempt to visit Argentinean wineries back in 1990. He and another friend were in western Argentina to climb Mt. Aconcagua, but they had some extra time and figured they could just get a taxi driver to take them around. Argentina today is the fifth biggest wine producer in the world, and the industry was already big back then. But their request confounded the taxi driver. He’d never heard of anyone visiting local wineries for tastings.

Things have changed a lot. Beautiful tasting rooms have been built since then, and companies to shepherd tourists to them have prospered. I knew we’d have our own car both in Chile and Argentina, so I figured I could devise a little tasting tour on our own. I did some research and created an itinerary. We had a little success but mostly struck out, if in a more sophisticated way than Howard and Wes.

I know now it was dumb of me not to try emailing the wineries I’d targeted and making reservations. But it’s the dead of winter! All the vines look dead and shriveled. We planned to visit most of these places on weekdays. And at the Concha y Toro winery south of Santiago, our first oenophilic destination, everything did go just as I’d planned. We parked, bought tickets ($23 each) for the 11:30 English-language tour I’d read about online, and had a pleasant time strolling the august grounds, hearing winey factoids, and tasting four local varieties.

Concha y Toro boasts it’s now the second biggest winery in the world, with around 27,000 acres under cultivation. So I probably should have guessed other wineries might not be so well organized. We were organized enough to drive to our hotel in Santa Cruz, check in, then head out to visit one of the best-reputed wineries on the famous Colchagua Valley’s “Ruta de Vino.” The website for Montes had said they were open until 5:30, and we arrived around 4:30, seeking only a tasting, not another a full tour. At the gate, however, a guard brusquely informed us this was impossible. The only option was to do a combined tour and tasting, and we’d missed the English-language one by hours. If we wanted to be allowed on the Montes grounds, we’d have to return the next day.

Our route the next day led in the opposition direction. On consulting with our host at the hotel, he recommended we instead head for one of the wineries in the Casablanca Valley, close to Valparaiso, our next destination. We spent a chunk of that morning visiting an outstanding Santa Cruz attraction, a private museum built by a Chilean whom our guidebook referred to as “the king of the cluster bomb.” Attractive and well-designed, the Colchagua Museum covered an amazing span of Chilean history and culture, but I think all four of us were most wowed by the multimedia pavilion that recounts the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped almost a mile underground and rescued after two months (in late 2010).

The miners’ underground refuge
The capsule that took them up to the surface

We felt confident pulling into the Vinamar winery a little after 4:10. It was supposed to be open for at least another hour. But once again a guard barred our way. Tastings were over at 4 pm, he declared.

I allowed the expression on my face to crumple. “But we drove all the way here from Santa Cruz!” I exclaimed, That took him aback; I think he was afraid I was about to cry. He telephoned his boss, and after some back and forth, we were admitted and told we could purchase a few glasses of wine.

Somehow, by the time we climbed the stairs into the grandiose facilities, we were offered a standard tasting of sparkling wines (cost: $9.50 per person). They were pleasant, and it made the day feel like less than catastrophic.

Our tasting attempts when we got to Argentina went less well.

There, I had worked out an elaborate plan, drawing heavily from a 2018 New York Times article about spending 36 hours in Mendoza. Almost instantly it got thrown out of whack. The evening we arrived, we stayed up late eating a wonderful dinner (and feeling the effects of the one-hour time change between Argentina and Chile, from where we’d flown that afternoon). So we got off to a slow start Sunday morning and scrapped the late-morning tasting I had planned not far from Mendoza. Instead we headed south to the Uco Valley, Argentina’s Napa. Zuccardi, one of the country’s most respected vintners, had built a facility there in 2016 that sounded worth the roughly 2 hours it would take to get to it. We found the drive moderately interesting, and as we approached it, the winery itself looked striking.

Once again a gate barred our entry, but we managed to slip in behind another car whose occupants had made reservations. Once inside, however, we were informed that the only tasting worth taking would cost 3,500 Argentine pesos per person — about $84 each. We could hardly believe our ears. The Times article had said tastings started at 400 pesos per person ($9.55) and included “a tour that goes from vines to vat to a gorgeous tasting room…” We questioned and counter-questioned the hostess, but she remained firm. Seeing our consternation, she suggested we drink a complimentary glass of sparkling wine while we decided what we wanted to do. We drank the bubbly, but then dejectedly trudged back to our car. (No way were we prepared to pay $336 for a wine tasting.)

As I type this, I can’t help wondering whether we didn’t misunderstand something. The hostess didn’t speak much English and my Spanish is hardly that of a native. At the time, however, it certainly seemed we were at an impasse. Tears actually did feel my eyes. I’d subjected my family to 4-5 hours of driving through only moderately interesting countryside in exchange for…a small free glass of sparkling wine?

The restaurant looked great too, but we couldn’t get a table

Worse, we were all now ravenous but it was approaching 3 pm, the “witching hour,” as Stephanie referred to that period every afternoon when almost everything in Argentina closes. The whole ride back to Mendoza, every eatery that Google Maps pointed us to was shuttered. Near the city, we stopped at one final winery (much praised by the Times writer), where we only were allowed through its closed gate in order to inquire about making a reservation. The hostess told me no spaces were available for lunch the next day (a Monday), but she would email me if they had a cancellation. I never heard from her again.

Typical Argentine countryside near the Uco Valley

As grimly as this all played out, we did enjoy some great meals (accompanied by good, astonishingly inexpensive wine) in Mendoza, where we probably should have just hung out for our short time there. Steve and I also weren’t unhappy to have gotten the limited insight into the landscapes in that part of Argentina and central Chile.

We did a few other touristic things, pleasant, but not all that interesting. Two observations from the Chile-Argentina portion of our trip will probably linger longest in my memory.

— A dog’s life, Chilean-style. I mentioned in an earlier post what a startling portion of the Santiago dogs were clad in coats. We saw coat-wearing dogs in Valparaiso, too, but they were walked by their owners amidst a virtually army of homeless dogs. “People here say they’re not homeless,” our guide on the walking tour told us. “They belong to everyone.” He may have been joking, but he said there were 300,000 human residents of the city and 100,000 dogs. “Every tourist has to take one with you at the end of the tour.” The free-spirited Chilean canines break into and snack on garbage or feast on the scraps that locals put out for them. Lucky ones get to snooze in free-standing dog houses.

That same guide showed us a mural depicting various animal icons. The dog was the most heroic among them. “If someone’s your best friend, you call him your dog. He’s always got your back.”

It’s a little ironic, then, that the most memorable of all the delicious food we ate in Chile was… a hot dog! They don’t call them that, but rather completos. For almost 100 years, Chileans have been loading up their bun-cradled sausages with a panoply of ingredients: tomatoes, avocados, sauerkraut, French fries, fried eggs, and more, usually topped with an ocean of fluffy mayonnaise. We ate them in a venerable old restaurant near the historic center, and we ate them in the airport, shortly before we left.

If they’re lucky, some of my friends will soon be served them back in San Diego.

Winter wonderland

This is what the street in front of our hotel Saturday morning looked like.

We travel so rarely to wintry places it’s hard for me to remember the risk involved in doing so: the weather may be too cold or rainy to enjoy the destination. In the case of our current adventure, there was no avoiding winter if we wanted to see the total eclipse that will occur here tomorrow, July 2. July is winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Since the whole of the continent (from north of Santiago in Chile to Buenos Aires in Argentina) falls within the path of totality, we did have to choose where to try and experience it. We’d never visited Chile before, so that made us want to go there. But the weather west of the Andes is notorious for being gray and rainy in winter. We finally decided to start out in Chile but then make the short flight to Mendoza, Argentina on the eastern side, where the skies were much more likely to be clear. Still, with weather, any choice made months ahead is a gamble.

As I wrote in the last post, we lucked out in Santiago when the rain that had been forecast didn’t materialize on Monday until late in the afternoon, then Tuesday turned bright and sunny. Clouds moved in again on Wednesday, the day we drove into the countryside to see the wine country (an experience I hope to report on later). The gloom there never turned into rain, but my spirits sank when I saw my Apple Weather app was predicting downpours for both Friday and Saturday, the days I had earmarked for taking walking tours around Valparaiso and its tony neighbor, Vina Del Mar.

Happily, apps sometimes get it wrong. All day and into Friday evening, the sky only looked threatening. Steve and I spent hours enjoying a guided “free” (i.e. tips-supported) walking tour, while Michael and Stephanie roamed the city on their own. All of us enjoyed the place. Valpo (as it’s known) has had it’s share of hard knocks over the past 100-plus years. It developed on the shores of a fabulous natural harbor, but one so plagued by pirates in the 1500s that the original Spanish rulers decided to build their capital (Santiago) about 60 miles inland.

Looking down from one of the hillsides in Valparaiso. Vina Del Mar can be seen in the distance, across the bay.

Mining and seafaring activities made the coastal city boom in the late 1800s, when more than 30 steep funicular elevators were built to help locals ascend and descend the town’s vertiginous hills.

Sadly, only 8 are still working.

But then a quake in 1906 devastated the place, and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 took more wind out of its sails. When the Germans invented a way to make a synthetic substitute for saltpeter chemically, that decimated the mining that had fueled the city’s short-lived boom. Valpo declined steeply throughout most of the 20th century, earning a reputation as a place of crime and decay.

When several of its oldest neighborhoods were declared a UN World Heritage Site in 2003, that attracted tourists whose presence has helped to turn things around. It also imposed a thicket of bureaucratic regulation, and we heard that local property owners have been divided over whether the UN designation has been worth it. From the visitor’s viewpoint, the wild architectural jumble that now exists is lots of fun to look at.

Some buildings have been beautifully restored, while some have been abandoned because the costs of fixing them up are now so prohibitive. Most buildings are brightly painted, and a burgeoning mural scene has added to the eye candy.

We met up with Mike and Stephanie after lunch, planning to take a walking tour of Vina del Mar together, but it wound up being canceled (because, we were told, the guide’s home had been broken into and burglarized), so we wound up seeing some of the sights on our own.

Parts of Vina reminded us of La Jolla, while other parts looked more like Rio.

Only by late afternoon did light sprinkles (and tired feet) drive us back to our hostel for a break.

The rain started in earnest Friday night and we woke Saturday morning to the sound of such a deafening downpour it made me want to snuggle down in bed and stay there all morning. Instead we checked out of our rooms, left our bags at the hostel’s front desk, and took an Uber to the one-time home (now museum) in Valparaiso of Chilean poet/diplomat/politician Pablo Neruda. La Sebastiana, as it’s known, is an enchanting place, full of color and art and interesting insights into Neruda’s large life.

The cow on the table was a punch bowl. Neruda hosted lots of parties.

Like magic, when we left the house, the rain had cleared, and we were able to walk for a while before catching another Uber, returning to the hostel, and hitting the road back to Santiago’s airport.

The weather’s been good since we landed in Mendoza Saturday night. Lots of clouds yesterday, but they cleared by Sunday evening, and today the weather app prediction for San Juan looks like this:

We plan to drive to San Juan, a few hours north of Mendoza, this afternoon. We’ll use it as our launchpad tomorrow: Eclipse Day. If the weather stays clear, that’ll be great, since it will let us concentrate on the other big looming challenge: figuring out where to go to watch the celestial drama.

Dark city, bright city

I came to Santiago (Chile) packing a 2017 New York Times article entitled “36 Hours in Santiago.” Steve and I actually had more than 50 hours in the Chilean capital, so I never intended to follow the Times itinerary to the letter. Still I like the 36- (or often 48- or 72-hours) in Wherever format; it suggests sightseeing highlights and often gives me ideas for where to eat. I borrowed the format last fall when I blogged about our 31 hours in Seoul, a stopover during which I concluded that Seoul deserves to be included on any list of the great cities on the planet. Fifty hours in Chile’s biggest city made me think Santiago doesn’t. But it also reminded me that any attempt to make snap judgments about a brief stop anywhere is fraught with peril.

Our first 24 hours in Santiago started off uncomfortably and then went downhill. I felt elated when our Avianca flight from Mexico City arrived about 8:20 pm Sunday — a bit early. But then we had to spend 40 minutes in line to get a simple entry stamp in our passports. We felt happy again to find our bags (which we checked, due to their weight) waiting for us on a moving carousel. After collecting them, we made our way through a gauntlet of some of the most aggressive taxi drivers I’ve confronted anywhere. I had studied up on the best way to take an Uber from the airport into the city, a move reported to be difficult because the taxi drivers hate the Uberfolk so much they sometimes physically attack them. I’d found (and photocopied) one detailed blog post that counseled going to the short-term parking lot next to the Holiday Inn across the street from the airport. Uber drivers could pick up passengers there without being harassed, this writer reported. But when Steve and I tried to follow his directions, we failed epically. The driver we were connected with texted us (in Spanish) that he could not get into that parking lot. He suggested meeting us elsewhere, but we couldn’t figure out where he was talking about. Finally, 20 minutes later, exhausted and irritated, we gave up and instead paid for a pre-paid taxi that turned out to be fast and efficient (if $10 more expensive than an Uber ride probably would have been.)

Our Airbnb apartment was fine, but by the time we reached it (around 10:30 pm), we were starving. (My advice: do not ever count on Avianca to feed you over the course of a long day.) Happily, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant across the street was still open, and we gobbled down some excellent seafood and Pisco sours before climbing into bed.

The doorbell buzzing at 6 am Monday morning surprised us awake. It was our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, arriving two hours earlier than we expected them, and with a friend in tow whose hotel wasn’t accessible until 2 pm. They all collapsed with exhaustion, and Steve and I took to the street to do some exploring.

It was barely 40 degrees, the sky a dismal steely gray, rain clearly on the way. Looking for a coffee shop, we passed countless giant apartment buildings, most of them ranging in style from plain to ugly. Graffiti covered a lot of the facades, some of it muralistic but much simple tagging.

The Malpocho riverbed is a bit lacking in charm too.

On one corner a small knot of riot police appeared to be massing (though we saw nothing remotely riotous looking in the surrounding area.) We passed a number of dogs being walked, and I was charmed by how many were dressed, either in winter coats or raincoats. Still they didn’t look much happier than many of the people.

My spirits bounced up later, when we had collected Michael and Stephanie and Devin and headed to the historic heart of the city for a Chilean staple known as the “completo” — a hot dog laden with any of a host of toppings.

I chose the Italiano, so named for its colors.

After lunch we strolled around the huge central plaza, popping into the cathedral and central post office. It started drizzling, but we plowed on, visiting the central market and a old train station that’s been converted to a social center. By then the cold rain was strengthening; the sky darker. By the time we reached the central library, a vast structure that reminded me of New York City’s, I was too cold and tired to want to go in (though Steve, Mike, and Stephanie soldiered on). Once back in the apartment, I took some pleasure in my phone’s report that I had covered 8.8 miles and climbed 20 floors.

Saturday morning, Santiago felt like a different city. The rain was gone, and patches of sunny blue sky flirted with light clouds. It took us a while to get organized, but by late morning, the five of us had walked to the foot of Cerro San Cristobal, a spur of the Andes that’s one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. An ancient funicular carries passengers up to the top, near the site of a tower Virgin Mary. She looks quite strikingbut even more dazzling were the line of snow-laden nearby Andes that she overlooks.

The sight of them energized all of us. After a nearby lunch, we covered a lot more ground, walking to a huge central food market……a striking arts complex… and more. We also had a fantastic meal that night (almost 30 separates tastes showcasing the ancestral foods of Chile).

The day made me feel we could easily have enjoyed at least a few more days in Santiago. But we wanted at least a glimpse of the vast Chilean wine country. We’re in the midst of it now. Outside my Santa Cruz hotel window, the sky looks awfully threatening. At least we have a rental car to (mostly) get us around.

Waking up in CDMX

Mexico City impressed me when I first went there, around the end of 1978. It was the first non-European capital I’d ever visited, and it felt exotic. It was the Third World, as we called developing nations back then. On our taxi ride from the airport to our Zona Rosa hotel, I remember eyeing shanties; smelling burning garbage. That visit also exposed me to world-class marvels: the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the city’s huge central plaza, its marvelous anthropology museum, Chapultepec Park. We hung out mostly in the chic neighborhoods, and I recall concluding that the city seemed a wild mixture of Paris and Tijuana.

I liked it a lot, and Steve and I returned several times over the next few years, but the worst things about Mexico City — its choking air pollution and awful traffic — loomed larger and larger over time. Returning from Oaxaca in 1984, we passed through briefly but then didn’t go back for almost 35 years.

Seeing Mexico City again over the last two days made me feel like I had napped and awakened in a world that was familiar but also different in startling ways. Driving from the airport into town I noticed nothing like those old-school Latin American slums. (They must still exist, but in less obvious areas.) We smelled no burning garbage. When we rode the metro, the cars were packed and humid but cleaner and less odiferous than some crowded American subways I’ve endured.

Even the name has changed. Traditionally known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply DF, the city three years ago became more jurisdictionally independent, at the same time getting rechristened as La Ciudad de Mexico. CDMX (part acronym, part brand?) is now emblazoned on everything from buses to garbage cans (three classes for trash, organic, and recyclables). The moniker made me think of a computer operating system; made the urban center it represents seem somehow jazzier. Indeed everyone has cell phones; Bird scooters and Uber drivers are ubiquitous. Over and over I was struck by how comfortable I was; how much Mexico City now feels like home, if more brightly painted and stylish than San Diego.

Because of our previous visits here, we had told ourselves we need not be frenetic about sightseeing, but in the end we couldn’t resist slipping into our old hyperactive ways. We covered almost 9 miles on foot Friday; more than 10 yesterday. We walked from our Airbnb apartment in the elegant old Condesa neighborhood to visit a new museum downtown dedicated to pulque (the mildly alcoholic ancient Mexican drink of the masses that has gotten trendy in recent years.) The museum proved underwhelming, but admission included tastes, so I can now report that both peanut- and red-wine-flavored pulque are delicious.

Other flavor choices included cheese, honey, pineapple, pine nut, and more.

We spent time in two different art museums, one filled with the staggeringly huge collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

A crucified Christ made from an elephant tusk (or maybe several?) is just one of the 66,000 art objects on display.

Adjoining the Slim’s Museo Soumaya, the newish Museo Jumex, dedicated to contemporary art, was hosting a brainy exhibition focusing on the work of artists Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons. Besides us, it drew a throng of Mexicans of all ages.

Koons’ gigantic Play-doh pile (made of interlocking aluminum pieces rather than actual Play-doh) amazed me with its beauty and complex craftsmanship.

During our two days, we ate several meals at red-hot restaurants where we only lucked into tables because we arrived so much earlier than the locals.

We didn’t eat any street snacks, though they have to rank among the most colorful in the world.

What excited us more than anything was our experience in the city’s historic center. We decided to run down there on the spur of the moment, catching a metro from the Chapultepec station (5 minutes from our apartment) to the Zócalo. When I’d first seen it more than 40 years ago, that plaza blew my mind with its vastness. On Saturday afternoon, it seemed to have shrunk (probably in comparison with some of the other vast plazas I’ve tramped through over the years). Mexico City’s zocalo once was the site of a great pyramid in the heart of the Aztecs’ capital, Teotihuacan. But the Spanish conquistadors had torn the pyramid down and used the stones to create the plaza and cathedral and the other grand buildings that still surround it today.

The Spaniards’ willingness, even insouciance, about obliterating every trace of another civilization horrified Steve and me on our first visit. Back then we were intrigued by news of a recent discovery by some electricians working on metro construction. They had found a huge disk honoring the Aztec moon goddess that suggested part of the original temple might still exist, buried under the city that developed over it. Work on investigatory excavation had started, but it looked pretty puny. Still, it held promise.

My biggest Rip Van Winkle moment was seeing what has happened since. The Templo Mayor complex, as it’s now known, today covers a huge area behind the Cathedral.The biggest outer pyramid, which honored the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, is gone. But you can clearly see the remains of what it once sheltered: about a dozen levels of construction dating from 1375 to 1519. You can stare at the double staircase where the bodies of human sacrificial victims were thrown down the steps after their hearts were ripped out. An impressive museum fills in a lot of the details, gory and otherwise. The power and scale of what once filled this space are unmistakable. It made me happy to see two of the main cultures that shaped this country co-existing more equitably.

The Zócalo metro station has a nice model of what once filled the area.

I should add a brief mention of the biggest disappointment of this visit. According to our iPhone weather apps, the air quality was still “Unhealthy” (in the 150-200 range — compared to the 20-50 that’s more the norm in San Diego). It wasn’t as stratospherically bad as the air in India last fall. It didn’t seem as bad as the air I remember from my early forays here, but that’s probably because summer is the rainy season, which washes out some of the pollution (and we used to visit in the wintertime). I wish I could return in another 35 years. Even sooner. It seems possible more good changes may be evident.

But I’m posting this now from our Airbnb in Santiago, where we arrived last night. We’ll have about 6 days in Chile, and throughout that time we’ll be filling a blank slate.

An auspicious beginning

Steve and I finally got to use the new(ish) cross-border footbridge that enables pedestrians to walk from San Diego (Otay Mesa) to Tijuana’s international airport, and what a pleasure that was. The last time we flew out of TJ was decades ago, and I’m sure we did it because the fares on Aeromexico were cheaper. I remember the whole experience as nightmarish. First you had to drive to the border and cross it, then grind on for what felt like ages through bad slums and poorly designed roads. The terminal itself was dingy and jammed with endless lines of travelers schlepping gigantic suitcases and other paraphernalia. Steve remembers seeing ripe, discarded baby diapers and other trash strewn on the terminal floor.

What we saw on this departure was almost unimaginably different — spotless marble floors, good lighting, comfy waiting areas, tempting food choices. Best of all was getting to the Tijuana terminal. Our friend Alberto gave us a lift from our house to the clean modern building on the US side of the border (quite close to where Trump’s big, beautiful, wall prototypes were erected.) It took us just minutes to buy our one-way tickets ($20 per person) to walk across the bridge and obtain our Mexican visas (from a high-tech kiosk). We scanned the bridge ticket and our boarding pass at a gate that opened for us automatically. Then we strolled over and above that pesky border between the two countries. The passage couldn’t have taken even five minutes.

In the photo above, you see the actual bridge. It looks like any corridor in any modern airport. Through the window in it, we could glimpse that bothersome wall.

Emerging into the Mexican facility, we joined a line that briskly moved through immigration and customs to emerge in the spiffy terminal, steps away from the VIP Lounge. We could use it because we get free Priority Passes with our Chase Sapphire credit cards.

It was a pleasant place to wait for the hour before we boarded.

When I was shopping for flights to Mexico City, I was startled to learn that NONE depart from San Diego. Now I understand why. The carriers out of Tijuana compete ferociously. (We paid just $67 per person for the three-hour-plus flight, and I have friends who’ve snagged $70 round-trip bargains occasionally.) Even adding on the bridge-crossing fee, it feels like a great deal. Being able to saunter across the border as we did, one could almost glimpse a different, brighter future.

If only the rest of our transits on this trip are as smooth and stress-free….

What it’s like to go to Burning Man

DSC02682I’ve long been curious about Burning Man, the anarchic arts festival that has taken place for decades during the week before Labor Day in the harsh northern Nevada desert. At one point, Steve and I thought maybe the time was right for us to check it out. This was about 5 years after our older son moved to Reno (located about 100 miles southwest of the event). Alas by then its popularity had exploded. In 2010 more than 50,000 people attended Burning Man; in 2011 for the first time ever, tickets sold out about a month before the festivities started. In an attempt to curb the madness, the organizers created a complicated ticket lottery for the 2012 festival — the very year we targeted to attend. To our chagrin, we could only secure one ticket, so we gave up and resold it.

After that, the organizers abandoned the lottery system, but Steve and I were busy with other projects. Ironically, our younger son, Elliot, in the fall of 2017, independently happened to participate in a regional Burning Man event (YOUtopia) held on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. It engaged him so much he subsequently became involved with the local (San Diego) “burner” community (which has both formal and informal meetups throughout the year). Los Angeles also is home to a similar community, which organizes a 3- to 4-day campout called BEquinox. Elliot made plans to attend BEquinox this year with a friend, but then the friend couldn’t make it, so he needed to unload the ticket. Steve and I looked at each other 11 days ago and had the same thought: if we could find a second available ticket, maybe we should seize the opportunity to go. Elliot encouraged us to join him.

Amazingly, in short order we got the extra ticket, rented an RV, found sitters for the puppy we’re currently raising for Canine Companions for Independence, rescheduled appointments we had made for the five days we would need to be away (Wednesday, March 20, through Sunday, the 24th). Elliot planned to ride up and back with us in our rented motor home but sleep in his own tent. Instead of taking place near Joshua Tree National Park, as it has in years past, this would unfold on land the LA burner community recently acquired in the Mojave Desert, not far from Edwards Air Force Base.

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Our cozy RV

At the end of winter, that patch of California is far more congenial than Black Rock in Nevada (site of the main Burning Man event) in late August. But the nights would be near freezing, we knew, and although we’ve done our share of tent camping over the years, we’re not crazy about it. 

Now that we’re back, I can report that even with a nice RV, the environmental challenges were what I liked least about the experience. A rainstorm that preceded us had just blown out by the time we arrived about 4:30 pm last Wednesday. Every day after that was sunny, but fierce, dusty, bone-chilling winds whipped through the complex on most of Thursday and again on Saturday. After sunset the temperature plunged to the mid-30s. The BEquinox organizers had set up plenty of (very well-maintained) porta-potties to serve those of the 1500 attendees who lacked RVs, but that was the only utility provided. All attendees had to transport in all their own water and power and pack out every trace of refuse (“Leaving No Trace” on the natural environment is one of the ten sacred burner guiding principles). In our RV, Steve and I were so comfortable it was tempting at times to stay inside and cocoon. But each time we resisted that temptation, we were rewarded.

I still can’t report on what the big famous Burning Man is like, but after participating in a lite version, I can much better imagine it. Here are the three biggest insights I gained:

No one should attend Burning Man (or one of its regional offspring) unless the guiding principles appeal to them.

Steve and I enjoyed seeing how those principles animated this evanescent community. But someone who disliked the sound of any of them would be unlikely to enjoy the experience; might hate it. As expressed by the BEquinox literature, those principles are: 

Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of our community. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” I took this to mean participants do have to respect the core principles. I didn’t notice any Nazis in the crowd. But attendees ranged from toddlers to octagenarians, and they had a variety of skin colors and sexual orientations. 

Gifting. “Our community is devoted to acts of giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Over the three days and four nights, we were given many things, including jewelry, alcoholic drinks (bars offering free liquor are plentiful), a lesson in tie-dying, 5 minutes (each) to talk about anything we wanted. (Steve discussed his ongoing science-fiction project, and I talked about raising puppies to be service dogs. At this event we also heard discourses on mountain-climbing, desert tortoises, cosmology, parenting, city planning, how to write a novel in 3 days, and more.) Free food was ubiquitous (though we had brought our own meals.) We could have gotten ukelele lessons, made jewelry and puzzles and buttons, been massaged, gotten a fire-spinning lesson, played a giant game of Scrabble, and done more that we missed.  In turn, Steve and I gave away sweet, juicy, organically home-grown oranges. Folks seemed to appreciate them.

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The board at the Scrabble Camp

Decommodification. “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising…” Steve and I have nothing against capitalism, but it was interesting to spend a few days in a community where nothing could be bought or sold. 

Radical Self-Reliance. “Our community encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” What’s not to like about that?

Radical Self-Expression. “Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” This is the one I imagine might be most difficult for some folks to swallow. If some members of the community are expressing themselves by playing loud music or taking psychedelic drugs or walking around topless or naked (a small minority of the crowd, but a definite part of the scene), that’s part of the ethos. Consent, “the cornerstone of a healthy community,” helps to buffer some of the potential friction, but it seemed clear that by participating at all, one was consenting to at least being exposed to unconventional behavior. 

Communal Effort. “Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that enable such interaction.” Seeing what this relatively small (less than 1500 people) and brief (three-day) community produced made me think the big Burning Man event must be staggering. Besides the huge wooden structure (the “effigy”) that was burned on Saturday night (top image), the BEquinoxers set up art works like this throughout the grounds.

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Look inside the eye and you see the word “BEAUTY”
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The “Xylovan” was another interactive art piece

They brought in wonderful “art cars” that roamed the dirt streets offering hop-on hop-off rides.DSC02611DSC02624DSC02599 DSC02597

Some vehicles were tall…

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And some were small.
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You could ride in this “bookmobile”
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Either up top or in the back.
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Many of the art cars lighted up at night

One group set up an “Awesome Town” library, complete with potentially offensive books that participants were encouraged to burn on Friday night (after the effigy burning and before a dance party).IMG_4624

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Civic Responsibility. “We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”

Leaving No Trace. “Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”

Participation. “Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

Immediacy. “Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value within our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.” 

A High Hippie sartorial aesthetic infuses the burner culture.

I never came close to being a hippie in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was too young and way too straight-laced and conservative then. I had been vaguely aware that the costumes worn at Burning Man events were offbeat, but I was startled by how… uniformly most participants participated. Giant velvet Mad Hatter top hats, kilts andDSC02688 tutus, neon fur shin warmers, glitter, tie-dye, and onesies are the norm. Dressed in our jeans and t-shirts, Steve and I stuck out. That seemed okay too; no one appeared judgmental. But it was strange to feel a bit freakish by not dressing freakishly.

Everyone I talked with was interesting and likable. This event was like being at a giant three-day cocktail party filled with smart and interesting people who were ready to engage in conversation — chitchat that often quickly turned deep. We met doctors and lawyers and space engineers and software entrepreneurs and movie location scouts and covered topics ranging from camping skills to relationships. Of course we only talked to a tiny fraction of the attendees; maybe some would have been obnoxious. We’d have to return to another Burning Man event some day to learn more. We’re at least talking about that.

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The effigy under construction
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No trace of it was left the morning after the burning. Even the nails were collected with magnets.

 

 

 

 

 

And we’re off!

We decided for for the first time ever to get from San Diego to LA via the combination of Amtrak train and shuttle bus (from Union Station to LAX). So why not go old school all the way? Instead of taking a Lyft to the train station, we walked from our house to the #30 city bus station and paid $1.10 each for the ride.

Amazingly, it worked like a charm. We arrived at the airport 35 minutes before we could even check in for our flight.

We’ll head to the boarding gate in a few minutes and see if Singapore Airlines can get us across the Pacific Ocean to Korea as smoothly