Many wonderful stories were left in the comments on our “Hey, First Timers! How Was Your Burn?” post, but one in particular stopped us in our tracks. I wrote its author, Paul French, to see if he’d let us reprint it as a post of its own, and to invite him to contribute more posts to the Burning Blog — it was that good.

He agreed, and at the same time reminded me that we’d met on playa that year, randomly, at Distrikt, where we enjoyed a very pleasant chat. They say the playa gives you what you need, whether you know what that is or not, and well, there ya go — another case of playa serendipity. And with that, here’s Paul’s story:

There is no English translation for the first gift I received at Burning Man. It was not a necklace or a bracelet or other trinkety item of raiment. Instead, it left me exposed, across a stretch of seven extraordinary days on the playa, to both brutal sadness and the gates of personal freedom. It was gifted to me by Mitch, from Chicago, when I told him of my plans to travel to the Northern shores of Brazil.

Photo by Michael Holden

It was a feeling.

A single word.


As Mitch explained it to me, saudade is a Portuguese word that came to describe a sadness for those who set off on long journeys to sea, or to battle, but never returned. More mysteriously, it’s the anticipation of longing. It’s the duality of envisioning, before you should, a future swamped with nostalgia.

It was with me as I explored the customs and structures of Burning Man, where the most inhospitable place on the planet is transformed, for a fleeting week, into the most creative space in the universe. Saudade was coiled and fused with the ten principles of Burning Man, which inspire participants to carry the playa’s spirit back beyond the mountains and into rebooted lives.

It felt like a warning.

Enjoy this. Preserve this.

I knew Burning Man, like any other party, would come and go, but saudade wanted to know why Black Rock City was the only place on the planet where a civilisation with no bins could produce no litter. Saudade wanted to know if people who came for the party would leave with the message.

Saudade listened as a man called Joe Quirk addressed the crowd at TEDx Black Rock City, envisioning a world unrestricted by borders or visas or work permits. A world lived in floating cities on the sea, equipped to save the environment, cure disease, solve global food shortages and jettison millions out of poverty. In our lifetime? But why not? As Quirk has pointed out, a mere 66 years separated the Wright brothers covering the wings of their first airplane with ‘Pride of the West’ ladies underwear and Neil Armstrong getting moon on his boots.

Burning Man was focused on impermanence. The importance of letting everything go. I was struck, obviously, by the primal value of the wildest party I’d ever seen, but knocked clean cold by the duality of the desert. I saw written on the playa’s Temple deep etchings of regret, remorse, sadness. Saudade. It was written ablaze on a metal sculpture called ‘Phoenix Risen’, built from the scraps of 2011’s Trojan Horse and in homage to Harley Payne, a burner who skydived into last year’s event and died, from heart failure, just a few hours later.

As the sun slanted on the Phoenix, I was approached by a Burning Man volunteer called Bambi. He wanted to know how I felt, as a virgin burner. I told him that I felt a thousand different things, but that I understood. In words I know to be Gandhi’s, I told him that I felt the importance of being the change you want to see in the world. I told him what I had heard about the oceans. We talked about how powerful it could be as a theme. He promised he would plant the idea at the committee’s table.

Between turning my back on the Phoenix Risen and sitting down to watch the temple’s flames, I examined a shrine to Steve Jobs. I read a line from his biography:

“As you get older, your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.”

As the flames took hold, I learnt that you don’t need to blow things up to tear things down.

I said goodbye to my grandmother. I realised a truth about a friend. I saw, clearer than crystal, the parts of me I wanted to leave behind. I tasted my own tears.

I watched it all burn.


About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009.

27 Comments on “Saudade

  • Brody says:

    Welcome (home), Paul!
    I enjoyed this story the first time I read it in the comments of that post, and enjoyed it even more on its own. Congrats on joining our ranks, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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  • Mimi says:

    Last year was my first year. Here’s an extract of what I wrote back then. Full piece is on the link above.

    “Can’t wait to smell that goddam dust,” says Sipri, but I don’t know what she means because I’m a Burn Virgin, crammed sweatily into an old school bus that claims to be from San Dieguito, though none of us know where San Dieguito is. There’s Fresh, J-Bang, Genius, Sipri – and then two Craigslist will-o-the-wisps Fresh found to alleviate the gas costs from Glendale, CA to Black Rock City, Nevada. A slight, elfin waif from Mississippi, Faline, who claims – we suspect erroneously – to be 21, and a snoring, slobbering, middle-aged, overweight self-proclaimed “Orange County Republican”, Steve, who seems uncertain whether this is a journalistic pursuit, a dangerous foray into liberal land, an exercise in self-knowledge, or all three.

    So the bus crawls on, 45 miles-per-hour, swaying and teetering dangerously on the 395 as we’re buffeted by winds, and the night begins to fall and the ruthless burn of the day gives way to the soft, cloying blanket heat of night, and Steve talks on and on.

    “You know they have an app? It’s called iburn. Dude, you gotta check out this freakin’ app. Did you know that Black Rock City is the third largest city in Nevada? Did you know that the whole thing started back in 1986 with, like, six dudes on a beach? Did you know that if you go deep playa….?”

    Fresh does know. Sipri does too. They’re old Burners who’ve been touched by something us virgins can’t quite grasp, though Steve tries to, with his apps and his internet printouts and his insatiable pursuit of knowledge and facts and concrete, material, quantifiable things. Steve has this habit of nudging us with three fingers extended, a sharp jab to the arm, demanding of attention. “Do an American accent,” he demands. But I don’t want to… “Do an American accent!” The bus sways and nurses us to sleep, and Steve jams us awake with his fingers, his incessant drone, until eventually, around midnight, after nine hours of driving, he, too sleeps, and melts like butter across water bottles and sun lotion and bags and bikes and pillows and bungees and tent poles and backpacks and blankets, oozing sweatily onto Sipri. Sipri – sharp, slim, takes no shit – eyes him with disgust and periodically kicks him when his sprawling limbs slobber too far onto her slim frame.

    We drive on.

    “Can’t wait to smell that goddamn dust,” mutters Sipri, and Genius takes the wheel so Fresh can sleep, and we hit wind so hard Sipri that starts to mutter Hail Mary’s, and Steve awakes with a disgusting jolt and starts screaming, panicked: “Genius! Dude! Are you sleepin’ at the wheel? Are you awake? Someone talk to him, talk to Genius, we’re gonna die, slow down dude, we’re gonna die…!”

    Someone might well die on this bus, but I’d hazard a guess that someone is Steve, and at the hands of a sentient human rather than the indiscriminate reaches of nature.

    We drive on.

    What to expect before you reach Black Rock City? Something familiar, I guess. The same social structures and expectations, common courtesies and learned, default responses – all those reflexes engrained in our soul, responsive as a kicked knee. Sure, I glimpsed something different, distant, deep in meditation in Kathmandu, high above the world on the Annapurna circuit, lost in satsang on the banks of the Ganges, healed in Chiang Mai by women who used to be boys. I glimpsed it, tasted it, smelled it, and it slipped away before I could even properly distinguish it, and that’s why I kept traveling, and eventually that drive, that thirst – it becomes so much a part of who you are, that you don’t notice it anymore, and you stop paying it attention. It doesn’t get extinguished, but it’s held at bay by the more urgent needs of the default world setting in. The drive for a career, for love, for a mortgage, for dreams, prestige, something, some things. Dreams put on ice, for just a few years, merely while you sort out enough money to live, because you’re nearing thirty, hearing the doors quietly slam and the music fade away, wondering where the party is, not bothering to check but walking on, not even caring that someone, somewhere, is dancing, while you’re not. It takes over – life, the default world – and, shamefaced, you remember a time when you said it never would, when canned tuna and zero in your bank account stood for uncompromising ideals and fierce beliefs and passionate adherences, and then suddenly you were the last one standing, lonely and lost, whilst your compadres insidiously graduated to something which felt to them like adulthood, but looks to you like a betrayal. You start searching, and you stop finding.

    We drive on.

    Somewhere in the middle of the night, after ten hours of driving, sipping warm water and chewing leathery jerky, RV’s and painted buses and beat-up station wagons piled high with bikes and crammed with tarps and rebar and rope and elwire and fur start to overtake us. They honk as they go past, wave, and something stirs in our soul. It’s 5am when we pull up at the first Burner gas station, three hours outside Black Rock City, and sleepy Carnival figures seep out of beat-up vehicles, sip coffee pensively, smile at each other, but still look away without expecting a response, because we smile and look away in the default world. We buy glittery tat and hours-old coffee, cheap straw hats and Mexican blankets, gallons of water just in case what we already had, wasn’t enough. Walmart – the official sponsor of Burning Man. We don’t yet laugh at this, because the Burn Virgins don’t know it’s OK to do so. We don’t know, yet, that there are no rules.

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  • Franko says:

    i love burners, and i especially love first-time burners. <3 <3 <3
    thank you for this.

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  • Jack says:

    This post makes me want to, more than ever, attend Burning Man.

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  • Charlie Knox says:

    Awesome, Paul… The spirit of your experience is a shout out for the experiences of many Burners, past and future. Present? That is the essence of your story held in each of our hearts… now!

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  • Judy says:

    Beautifully stated, elegantly worded, and perfectly captured; the sense of the burn, the joy of the party, the sorrow of loss and awareness of the impermanence of it all. Lovely. Thank you. Welcome home.

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  • bibi says:

    you made me cry…I was a virgin to at this year Burn and the feeling was so amazing and so intense i could not really find the words to describe it…. you found it for me. thank you.

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  • Joana says:

    This just made me cry. I’m portuguese…I’ve attended Burning Man on 2007 and 2008…I’ve been trying to go back but the distance makes it very hard. I’ll be able to some day. Thank you for this. I totally understand the word and really makes all sense on what you just said. Saudade is exactly what I feel. It’s always with me. It will always be…Thanks! Love you guys!

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  • Alex Segal says:

    That was beautifully expressed. Suadade would make a deep, meaningful theme.

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  • Sky says:

    Wow! That’s stunning… made me a little weepy in a good way. Thanks for that.

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  • Moneta says:

    Wow. As I 1st time burner the last part really touched me. Any words I could have to describe my burn will sound totally inadequate.

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  • Jason Howes says:

    Wow… Great story! I was part of the team that brought the Phoenix to life. I feel such gratitude to hear that the Phoenix touched just one person. Welcome to the community Paul! See you next year….

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  • Raisa says:

    I was attended last year, and I feel completly indentified with this story and with ‘Enjoy this. Preserve this.’

    Eché de menos no estar este año, y volveré.

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  • Bob says:

    That is beautiful. You will touch many with these words and trust, many more, with your deeds.

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  • Florent says:

    “the only place on the planet where a civilisation with no bins could produce no litter”

    How can people not realize that the littering occurs just SOMEWHERE ELSE !

    I was a First Timer at BM 2012. I can barely describe the deepness of my feelings, the amounts of great times and memories, after that event.

    But I’m also not blind. This lifetime is NOT sustainable. If everyone was living as people do at burning man, the world be happy. but dead…

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  • Mother Teresa says:

    I too was a 1st time burner this past year. As we came up 2 the city I began getting goosebumps and I was thrilled as I rang the bell and relished lying in the playa making a snow angel.

    Thank you for so elequently sharing your experience.

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  • Greg C says:

    You legend!! You bought some plastic cups to burning man as a gift, but this find my friend, this is the gift for us all! Love you buddy! enjoy travelling the world! xxxxx

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  • Greg C says:

    oh! and hi Will Chase! Great to have met you at districkt! keep smiling buddy! peace and love xxxxx

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  • mk dorta says:

    Paul? So beautiful. Thank You.
    peace – love – everlasting joy

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  • karin says:

    moving and wonderful words, thank you!

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  • Dirt Wheel says:

    Sometimes and exact definition helps. I know my burn this year was summed up by this in everyway.

    Saudade (European Portuguese: [sɐwˈðaðɨ], Brazilian Portuguese: [sawˈdadi] or [sawˈdadʒi], Galician: [sawˈðaðe]; plural saudades)

    [1] is a unique Portuguese word that has no immediate translation in English. Saudade describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return. It’s related to the feelings of longing, yearning.

    [2] A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing.

    Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one’s children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. In Portuguese, ‘tenho saudades tuas’, translates as ‘I have saudades of you’ meaning ‘I miss you’, but carries a much stronger tone. In fact, one can have ‘saudades’ of someone whom one is with, but have some feeling of loss towards the past or the future.

    In Brazil, the day of saudade is officially celebrated on January 30.

    Peace, Love & Good Happiness Stuff

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  • Seth says:

    Cheers, Paul. Thank you for contributing.


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  • Wild Flower says:

    Pure + Beautiful.
    Welcome Home. :)

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  • Paul French says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments here.

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  • jam7 says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments here.

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