Trapped in Paradise, Using Burner Wits at Wits’ End

Athena Demos went to Panama’s Tribal Gathering Festival in search of the sacred feminine, but a global pandemic would lead her to summon her own hard-won “superpowers” in the remote jungle gathering.

Athena, a former Executive Director of Los Angeles League of Arts and an Emeritus L.A. Regional Contact, was working on a pitch for a show about indigenous women and their practices around menstruation, birth, marriage and moon-cycle rituals.

So she decided to attend the annual 18-day Tribal Gathering Festival, which brings together indigenous cultures and modern tribes to learn, create and celebrate with each other at a beach site three hours north of Panama.

“It’s like connecting with the earth when you connect with the indigenous from all over the world, because their whole way of life is connected to the earth,” Athena explained. “I really felt like every sit-down was with someone who was so much more grounded than I am — and I think I’m grounded,” she added with a laugh.

Click on photos to see details

She spent the first week connecting with representatives from 60 tribes from 35 countries, taking workshops, immersing herself in indigenous beliefs and practices, and interviewing as many women as possible. The second week, more people came to the jungle site, and the gathering morphed into its second planned phase — a psytrance festival.

What wasn’t planned was the coronavirus outbreak, which was spreading rapidly and raising alarms worldwide — unbeknownst to the disconnected (and Immediacy-immersed) festival-goers. 

When it was time to pack it up and head home, the Panamanian police said the Spanish equivalent of “not so fast.” 

Anyone who’d been in Panama for more than 14 days and had a flight that day or the next was allowed to leave, although many Tribal Gathering participants still faced challenges getting off the site and out of the country. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of people were required to stay at the festival site, a place that wasn’t prepared to host a large number of people for longer than the event. Government officials offered conflicting advice about what was going on and took passports. Confusion reigned among participants — but, surprisingly, so did calm.

“We had just spent two weeks in this place of sheer love in utopia and cooperation. So any time stressful energy came up, the community was there to immediately call it and bring it down now,” Athena recalled. “It was beautiful. The only chaos that I could see came from the Panamanian officials because they did not know what the fuck to do with us.”

Click on photos to see details

That’s when Athena drew on her can-do instincts, and everything she had learned from running Burning Man Regional events for many years.

“I feel like taking large amounts of chaotic minutia and putting it in order is my superpower,” said Athena, who helped turn a scary situation into one where everyone worked together to create what they needed to survive for an indefinite length of time.

The festival’s volunteer coordinators had left the premises before the quarantine, so Athena banded with festival organizers and stepped up as community organizer to mobilize attendees.

She implemented a chalkboard with jobs and shifts, along with an incentive system: if you did eight hours of work, you got three free meals; one meal required four hours. Jobs included disbanding stages, working in the main kitchen, and helping at the pizza, smoothie, chai, and alcohol bars.

Thanks to the locals who replenished the produce and other food supplies, the vestiges of the festival almost made it a luxury culinary experience.

“Probably the best food that I ate in the whole time I was in Panama was at that festival,” Athena said. “Vice can just suck it because we were never on rations, ever.”

Click on photos to see details

Sadly, the event’s “Leave No Trace” efforts were in disarray. Athena educated the remaining festival-goers about Burning Man’s Leaving No Trace Principle and created a volunteer crew with three others to pick up cigarette butts and trash. By the end of the week, she had a 10-person MOOP team. She felt sure that Leaving No Trace would be a higher priority for the festival in the future.

“Everyone on the team now believes that next year we need to do education around cigarette butts. There were way too many on the ground,” she recalled. “Four women have decided to take that on as the thing they do next year, and coordinate with me. I’m like, ‘Great! Let’s make this happen.’ They’re gonna have a bitchn’ LNT crew.”

After about five days, word came that Panama was about to close its borders, and authorities said everyone had to leave. Athena quickly booked a flight for herself and four others. The departure was not seamless: It took hours and some yelling to get their passports back; and various embassies offered different levels of assistance for their citizens.

Then a police escort arrived for the journey to Panama City, the departure point for everyone’s flights. Cruising at 80-90 miles per hour and gliding through checkpoints, Athena said she felt a complete shift in energy, and she began to feel her freedom return.

Plane ride back to Mexico: Athena finally escapes

“It was crazy. I felt like some diplomat, but we were just a bunch of dirty hippies — and we were dirty, let me tell ya,” she laughed. “I mean, we swam in lagoons, we swam in the ocean, and we took showers with watering cans, but we were dirty.”

Athena is now sheltering in place in Mexico and back to work on her show pitch. She’s returned to her day-to-day life with a newfound confidence in her Burner experience and her ability to turn chaos into order under pressure. “Every time I get to use my superpower, it reaffirms that I have it.” 


Top photo: Global Tribal Gathering on Colon Beach, Panama by The Nomadic Daughter Photography. All post photos by Athena Demos

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is Burning Man Project's Digital Community Manager. She went to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 (seven months pregnant, no less) and immediately wanted to leave. (She didn't know dust storms were a thing.) But 24 hours after that initial shock, she fell in love with it, and it's been a part of her life in big and small ways ever since. On playa, you'll usually find her camping in Kidsville, riding Bahamut the dragon, or hugging a speaker because she loves music so much.

19 Comments on “Trapped in Paradise, Using Burner Wits at Wits’ End

  • splat says:

    Beautiful work, Athena. What a great story of overcoming chaos and bringing principles to the site.

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  • Boyd willat says:

    Athena, a natural born leader in every case at all times and an example to all of us to belong in the moment and make the best of it. You are the best! BOYD

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  • Rio says:

    Athena! A force not to be trifled with. LA and Burner proud.

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  • $teven says:

    Wild! Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Athena. You have always been a natural bridge builder and community organizer. Way to jump in, encourage Communal Effort and leave a positive trace!

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  • Athena, you rock girl. If you see this, I know the perfect solution for avoiding cig litter at Tribal Gathering and anywhere else; a pocket ashtray made of recycled plastic. Learned about them at Envision 2019 in Costa Rica, then gifted 600 at BRC 2019 to rave reviews. You pop the lit cig in and close the flap and it gets snuffed out with no smell or moop. Costs less than one cig! The supplier is Braingarden.ca and there is a pic at the bottom of the web page https://playatech.com/bm-19-rapidly-deployable-shelters/ Keep up the great work and attitude!

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  • Scott says:

    I was working in this event I had been onsite for over a month before the event and I am employed directly by the event.. I remember seeing this individual trying to leave site and her demands.
    It was somewhat irritating to keep getting interrupted in our takedown work to keep getting pestered by this individual that took it upon herself to interfere and actually raise tension by her emotional demands to be taken notice of and the need to appear important in some way..

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    • Athena says:

      You are thinking of a different person. I worked directly with James Baker. I never made any demands on anyone. I never asked for anything for myself. I did ask for trash bags and gloves for the volunteers I organized to pick up the trash around the event.
      I never asked to leave the event. I asked to stay and help. I was invited by Tim Raper and James Baker to be in the production meeting on Monday night and was granted permission to film it.
      I do remember a woman who was very demanding. She tried to take the microphone during announcements. She was always interupting. I saw her. All of production did. I am not this person.

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      • Scott says:

        I understand if this page might have misquoted you.. reporters often do..

        I’m sure that if anyone from site reads this if they see it, will understand that…

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  • Scott says:

    I was working in this event I remember seeing this individual trying to leave site and her demands.
    It was somewhat irritating to keep getting interrupted in our takedown work to keep getting pestered by this individual that took it upon herself to interfere and actually raise tension by her emotional demands to be taken notice of and the need to appear important in some way..

    Report comment

  • Dragnet says:

    Athena! Way to lead and kick ass……what an experience…..buena suerte Amiga…

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  • Ziggi says:

    Superpowers, indeed. Athena is a superhero!

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  • Mark DeCew says:

    If Athena were at the Fyre Festival, the event would have actually happened. I have been witness to her mad organizational skills, problem solving knack, and commitment to our community as long as I have known her. Props to you Athena my goddess!

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  • Kiki says:

    Athena – Amazing story. Thank you for sharing your adventure and lessons. The world is better because of YOU!
    -Kiki

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  • BGV says:

    Athena. A BRC “Tribal Boot Camp” veteran. I’d happily be stuck in the jungle with you organizing. Stay safe my friend.

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  • Nzuri says:

    Are you single beloved?

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  • Ismail Abdul Aziz says:

    Thank you for being so straightforward and an open book Athena. You have lots of natural beauty and bodily assets. But… You are all over the internet butt ass naked. And I’m sure you get approached from men, and I’m sure those men will be turned down dismissed and called names like, creep, thirsty or weirdo. But yet women still love to be all over the internet butt naked and buck wild. This is the example little girls and boys have to see. We’ve become a desensitized society and a nearly godless society with zero morale or modesty.

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