Happy (Theme) Campers

The Vault of Hivin’ (photo by Phoebee McAfee)

The camp fell together by happy accident. At a dinner in 2003, I seated my brother the construction guy next to my BFF the drag a capella singer, hoping their shared love of Burning Man would get them through a meal. Over that meal they conjured The Vault of Hivin’, a bewinged VW beetle towing chalkboards for a spelling bee, and a sound system that blasted the Bee-gees, the B-52’s, and Sting. They decided to collaborate on this vision and camp together, reasoning that the construction gearheads needed artistic vision, and the drag queens needed a ratchet up with implementation. After a decade of sticking together, we are truly a ragtag, multigenerational family of folks who love our annual reinvention fest. Having campmates with wildly diverse skills is a gift – somebody has to remember how to put up the shade structure, and somebody else has to make it blingy but not moopy.

Miajuana! (photo by Ralph Davila)

Our best theme was probably Miajuana! which combined Lucha Libre Mexican wrestling with a Titty Tequila bar festooned with a whole laundry line of the largest and smallest bras we could scavenge (until the big bras all got appropriated as costumes.) Our construction wizards built a regulation-size wrestling ring on two trailers, surrounded by a two-story viewing platform and a repurposed tiki bar. The drag queens pumped lavender mist water on the shockingly large crowds who came, while the gearheads offered goopy-cheese nachos, and tang-and-tequila margaritas; we had colorful ringside commentary and interactive NSFW “burro rides” during intermission. We poured through gallons of booze and bales of chips, but the canned ‘cheez’ and pickled jalapenos never seemed to run out. Wrestlers of both genders showed up with their own multicolored masks. When it rained, it deteriorated into clothing-optional mud wrestling which ended when we all stopped to watch the double rainbow. It took us eight months to develop amnesia over that one.

Spin the wheel at the Titty Tequila Bar and you might get Lucky or Spanko! (Photo Nova Maldonado)

Right, the amnesia. Sometime around the Winter Solstice, the annual theme camp amnesia sets in. Our merry band of fifteen or so stalwarts — numbed to distraction by holidays with actual family — forget all of last years’ peccadilloes with playa family. Theme camp amnesia obliterates recollections of the previous year’s overambitious initiative, which invariably includes solar-powered mood lighting, spectacular costumes, and a shade structure with plush, dust-free carpet made entirely of emission-free burnable fibers which also transports itself. We forget last September when we collectively swore we would NEVER DO A THEME CAMP AGAIN, that we’d spend next year “riding bikes around tagging people with sunscreen as art.” That recollection is replaced by the low-grade fever of longing for the camaraderie and email avalanche of minutiae which occupies the long months before the short week in the desert.

Kasbus Kamp Layout, 2012

Once the fever sets in, it’s contagious. We set a meeting (cheapie happy hour), discuss the possiblilities and divvy up the tasks. We consider past triumphs and failures, other theme camps we want to emulate, and crazy ideas that probably won’t work. Eventually, we come up with a concept, a name, a volunteer to complete the application and the map, a champion of LNT, an on-playa impresario to make sure the events run smoothly. Over the course of eight years, our group has developed criteria for choosing next year’s activity. After attempting a few art projects and a ridiculously ambitious seated 80th birthday dinner for fifty, we discovered our skills are best suited to do theme camps. We like to conceive a new one every year. The concept has to fulfill someone’s dream, something they have always wanted to manifest. It has to be fun and inclusive, with roles and costumes for everyone in the camp. It has to be crazy enough to attract lots of new participants, but not so momentous that we can’t pull it off with all thirty hands and a few feet on deck. Our experience recommends a recurring midday event beginning early in the week. If it incorporates the Kazbus, our camp art car, so much the better.

Leopardy! (photo by Richard Binkoff)

For the quirky-nerdy Leopardy! game show, we joined forces with a New York Burner who had worked as a quiz show question writer. We created the puss-print set, busked for audience with stickered mints and lip balm, and provided leopard clothing for audience members to play along. After three days of intense competition, we offered the grand prize of a ticket to the next year’s Burn. Leopardy! was a spot of fun, and then some.  Last year, we hosted Harem Pants Belly Dance, a combo lesson/flashmob to celebrate the fertility dance of the desert. Our shade structure was draped and tasselled like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. When our participants arrived, they were anointed with body painting and fragrant oils, and adorned with coin scarves to embellish the lesson of simple steps. After an hour of instruction in taksim and gawazi, we attempted to ignite a flashmob. Imagine encountering the Kazbus disgorging fifty dancers of dubious skill following one sinuous instructor, snaking into formation to the strains of the Middle Eastern oud, hip scarves and finger cymbals (mostly) marking the beat. Our performance standards were rudimentary, but our participation standards were minaret-high.

The lesson/performance concept worked so well that we have decided on a modified version for this year, with a hula nod to the Pacific Islands. We’ll be offering Pacific Island dance lessons with a flashmob to follow. We’ve already forgotten how much work a theme camp is, the sweet sensation of perfectionism and pain on playa time. We forget how tired we will be before the gates open. We forget the actual, and focus on the potential of our amazing, effortless, seamless, wildly appealing entry in the What/Where/When guide. We’re calling this year’s theme camp Playanesia. We hope you won’t forget to join us there!


About the author: Jennifer Raiser

Jennifer Raiser

Jennifer Raiser is an avid long-time Burner, Burning Man Project board member and Treasurer, and the author of the book, “Burning Man: Art on Fire.” Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, and numerous publications. As CocoCabana on playa, she appears in Ranger khaki, Gate black, and radically self-expressive cowgirl boots.

10 Comments on “Happy (Theme) Campers

  • Nebula says:

    Sounds awesome! I will most definitely try to stop by! :)

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  • affinity says:

    As always delightful but OMG you start from scratch conceptually every year…

    “…we discovered our skills are best suited to do theme camps. We like to conceive a new one every year. The concept has to fulfill someone’s dream, something they have always wanted to manifest. It has to be fun and inclusive, with roles and costumes for everyone in the camp. It has to be crazy enough to attract lots of new participants, but not so momentous that we can’t pull it off with all thirty hands and a few feet on deck.”

    I love it. It is all I can do to come every year and do the same things. Fabulous!

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  • Moze says:

    Theme Camp fever. Love this Jennifer and I love me some Kazbus!

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  • Morocco says:

    Coco, you have captured the deliriously creative whirl of theme-camping beautifully. From conception to gestation to labor pains to “here we are, Playa, come and get it!”, there is nothing quite as thrilling as giving birth to a theme camp – an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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  • Canela Picante de la Playa says:

    so THAT’s how it all began! Nice to know the history, Coco, and so well written!

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  • Cheeky says:

    What a beautiful love letter and reminisce of BRC and the playa family that is Kazbus. A delightful read, woman of so many talents. Miss you all, heaps! M x

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  • Meow says:

    2012 – I am a virgin no more! Glad to have lost my virginity with the Kazbus Crew

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  • Rachel says:

    Interesting to read how it all came together, sounds like something to checkout as it sounds great.

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  • diarmuid says:

    hi Jennifer, we stumbled upon Camp Miajuana in 2010 and Spanko and his wife treated myself and my friend to wonderful hospitality – later on in the week I couldn’t find the camp again ( or in 2011 ) !

    I would love to return the hospitality so if you could email me contact details and / or will you be returning to the playa again this year ?

    thanks Dermot aka Big Toast

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  • john curley says:

    wonderful, fabulous and amazing. just like you!

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