This one time at Burning Man, I saw a ridiculously beautiful cloudy sky, tasted delicious honey beer and met elves. Wait … well no, it didn’t happen on playa, but still, it did happen at Burning Man.
In late June, I visited Latvia for the second annual Burn Degošie Jani (DeJa), a Regional Event hosted by the Latvian Burner community and attended by people from neighboring countries. This gathering brought together around 170 people from Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland, USA, Ireland, Poland, Australia, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Thailand and UK, all to participate, contribute and volunteer for magic to happen. I also made a quick stop in Estonia for Bling, an event organized by a group of like-minded people trying to create a participatory experience.
When I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia, it felt right. For some unknown reason I felt at home and even the strange language kind of made sense to me. The airport was tiny. The public transportation bus stop was just few steps outside the main entrance. As I waited, I noticed that everyone looked stylish and I quickly learned that internet lied to me because Latvians no longer use their own currency LAT, but switched to EUROs (damn internet liar). After my fight with the bus ticket machine, I looked up to the sky and felt in love. For the rest of my stay in Latvia, I actually had to try hard not to look at the sky ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I do have a stupid amount of photos of their cloudy skies. Tourists!
In the city, I met my dear local friend Aya, had traditional Latvian meatballs, tasted honey beer (and I wouldn’t believe, coming from the land of the beer, that I would appreciate this one so much) and after a while Steffen from Germany joined, then Sascha from Switzerland landed, and soon enough we were group of Burners, each from a different country, all excited to share the same adventure in Latvian countryside.
DeJa takes place on a hemp farm about 2 hours from Riga and the whole ride is lined by green fields and trees. There was a Newbie in our car and because one of the Principles of DeJa is “each one teach one”, we decided to put her to the test. She blew our minds by not only knowing the Principles, but also by the way in which she explained them to us. I can’t tell you what she said, but the way she did it left us with our mouths open. We were ready for DeJa!
The ride was swift and we kept ourselves entertained by sharing stories. One time, we were storytelling so intensely that we missed the exit from the roundabout. It was an enormous roundabout, so our concentration on the exit faded away with another story and we missed it again. The third time was our time and we finally made it out of the circle with a lot of laughter and, after few minutes, we got to the last part of our journey to Deja. We had to follow exact instructions to get on the right dirt road, follow the right fence and end up in the right middle of nowhere in a giant green field.
DeJa is inspired by both the Latvian and Lithuanian Midsummer tradition and Burning Man. It is fascinating fusion and evolution of these two elements, incorporating the ethos of the Burner culture with the holiday that is integral to culture of Latvia to create a regional event. Old songs and stories, wreaths in the hair from flowers for women and from young branches for men, fires everywhere and of course jumping over the fire and dancing around it. It was beautiful to observe how natural all the traditions still are for people, not something “old” we do just because it is expected, but something we want to do because it defines us.
For entertainment, there was a mixture of old Latvian traditions, LED lights, drum circles, “new noise music” (i.e. everything from 60’s until today, even classical music as I remember), art, a Russian camp with a bamboo tower, Lithuanians with burn barrels, projections, and fog slowly sneaking in on us, the sky of such a bright colours with clouds so close you wanted to touch them. And, of course fire.
To attend Deja, you had to apply for a Visa. Once you were approved, you were gifted access to the event and were welcome to pitch your tent under 200 year-old apple trees, or next to the pond, or on the field further away from music. There was an outdoor common kitchen, a barn for electronic music, and even a barn for more relaxed music and gatherings. During the event, people built a sauna which, along with some art, actually stayed on the property after Deja.
“Leave a better place.”
The evenings were full of storytelling around the fire. We heard interesting stories about survival, about funny drunkeness, and even about scary experiences with voodoo. The days were full of conversation about the future and about plans for a bigger Baltic Burn, which would include Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian Burners. These groups are already preparing projects together. This year in Black Rock City, the group is presenting a Midway project together as a part of the Man Pavilion. Baltic Altar was interactive installation which allows you to compose music along with other participants.
As I’m sure many of you can relate, once you’re at a Burn, it can be really hard to leave … even after it’s over. A few of us at Deja were intrigued by hearing about Bling in Estonia happening in Vango Wonderland with around 200 participants and we promised the organizers that we’d stop by. So we did! We all just jumped into the car in the morning and hit the road again. It was the funniest ride ever. I do not sing, usually for safety reasons. This time we all sung and danced on our seats and every now and then made “aww” sounds looking at the beautiful nature of the countryside and cloudy sky.
Once we made it to Estonia, we met elves. Estonians are elves and fairies. That’s it. I have no other explanation. Like elves and fairies, they are loving, joyful, laughing and open. This was also true of the Bling event itself.
Though Bling is not an official Burning Man event, it’s very much created in a similar spirit. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful events I have ever been to. My usual snark and sarcasm vanished away once we arrived and I enjoyed the fairytale site of wooden houses and soft grass while surrounded by beautiful human beings and lot of good tunes, workshops and talks. The sun never really set because of the Summer Solstice and how North we were and time just seemed to exist on a different level.
People were touched that we made the effort to come only for one day and they were blown away by the crew of the second car from DeJa, which came just for the evening to support their friends and be together.
The very bright night sky and great music kept us awake, dancing, talking, laughing. In the morning, when we were all gathered together and kids were climbing on the dome (and let me tell you, there are few cuter things than a five year-old girl in a dress learning how to climb), I heard someone make a speech to the crowd. Then, about seven guys stood up and went away. In few minutes, they were back with a huge pot of oatmeal and marmalades, fruits, nuts, coffee and tea and the whole meadow turned into the breakfast picnic. (The only thing which kept me from wondering if this all was really happening were the excessive amount of mosquitoes, serving as an ever-present reality check.) Then, the day rolled on into more workshops, talks, music, and even a sauna!
Before we left the event, it took us ages to say goodbye to all of this beauty. The burn of the effigy at DeJa was waiting and was absolutely worthy of coming back for. Girls had made elaborate wreaths from flowers, guys from branches with green leaves. We all made big circle around the effigy, some people started singing, some dancing and we all were present to the Midsummer night. The sky got surprisingly dark and the fire was consuming the wood and hemp while thousands of sparks flew through the air.
The magic of Baltics truly happened.