As an angry, easily annoyed Londoner, Tijana had every intention of hating Burning Man, but she didn't. A month after her first Burn, where she survived for 12 days, she reflects on how her time in Black Rock City changed her. Because, although no "transformation" is clearly visible (she's not exactly a tree-hugger yet), something definitely did happen.

Once, at job interview, I was asked to describe myself in three words. I found this to be a fascinating question and thought deeply before giving my answer: "Sarcastic, pessimistic and argumentative." I didn't get the job, but almost a decade later those three words are still surprisingly accurate  with the addition of "cynical, stubborn, impatient and judgmental."

I was brought up on a council estate (public housing) and educated at an inner-city comprehensive. "Please" and "thank you" don't come naturally to me and "sorry" is almost impossible to pronounce. I get annoyed way too easily. I say no a lot and often leave the party early. If we are introduced I've probably forgotten your name within 10 seconds and I think I'm an expert on whatever it is you're talking about.
I'm too busy to look up from my phone when on public transport. I’m basically your average Londoner. So when I was invited to Burning Man in previous years, I wasn't really interested. Drugs and techno raves in dust storms in the desert, with strangers, for a week? Yeah, no.

But this year I was invited by a man I was a little in love with and had the offer to stay at First Camp. I wasn't entirely sure what that meant but I was told it's not something you say no to. So I said yes. I figured I would stay for around four days, the standard for a first-timer, and I would fly in and out of the festival. I ended up driving in a U-Haul both ways and staying for 12 days. I had a blast, clearly, but didn’t feel like I’d had a major transformational experience  a word thrown around a lot when talking about Burning Man. No life-changing moment. No crazy intense psychedelic trip. I didn't find a new spirituality. I'm not hugging trees now. I don’t even want to quit my job or move to a different place. But something has happened to me. If I would try to explain it, I'd say it mostly boils down to these eight things I learned.


Photo by Colin Krisel


1. Hug More

I arrived at the festival a few days before its official opening to help set up my camp. I immediately had to confront the issue I have with hugging strangers. The first person I met was a man in his sixties called Geoffrey. I stuck my hand out and he looked at me quizzically before giving me a bear hug. After 12 days of hugging I couldn't figure out what my issue with it was. It seems so logical now: Why be cold when you meet someone? They feel just as insecure as you. And what's more secure than a hug? 


2. Communicate

Next hurdle was the conversation. I was used to trivial city small talk and the inevitable "What do you do?" question. But at Burning Man that first day, Geoffrey (or anyone else) never asked me what I did. Instead he asked me, right off the bat, to share three things about myself that most people didn't know. I was so thrown off that my shield of cool shattered at my feet. I shared, and then he thanked me for sharing, gave me a bandana and walked away. It was about an hour later, while building our shade structure and being frazzled from sharing such personal information with a stranger, that it hit me: I forgot to ask him anything.

When someone asks what you do, you give your job title and immediately ask the same question back. Like a reflex. But when you share something personal, you're so wrapped up in yourself that you don't consider the person beside you as anything other than a listener. To ask them a personal question in return, you have to genuinely be interested in their response. I'm usually not that interested. I've actually lost a close friend once because she was always the listener. I thought of that friendship, destroyed by my own selfishness, and ran to find Geoffrey. I really wanted to know more about him. Not what he did, but everything else.



Photo by Tijana Tamburic


3. Actually Listen

Every day I was meeting dozens of new people  at meal times, on explorations, while volunteering in the kitchen. I'm notoriously awful at remembering names, but for some reason I could remember every single person's name at Burning Man. And it wasn't just their name, but facts about them, their connections with other people. At the time I thought it was a magical "playa gift," a superpower, bestowed upon me for the duration of the festival. But in hindsight, I was just listening better. I don't want to say I was more "present," but my mind was fully concentrated on what they were saying. The lack of distractions helped. I had no phone, no watch (I was ordered to remove it on the second day), no other tech. When you meet someone, try putting your phone away and focusing fully on them. You might be amazed by what you learn and what you can remember afterward.


4. Be Patient

Impatience is dealt with before you even enter the festival. The wait to reach the gate and greeters can be anywhere from three to 23 hours long. And being forced to wait for hours, for what seems like no logical reason, is exactly what you need. What are you rushing for, anyway? Where is it you're going? Take a deep breath and get into the pace of a life where you don't have work meetings or spin classes to catch. Relax, take a minute, think about your life. Hey, why not even get out of your car and go meet some people?

I normally get really antsy on long flights. I'm uncomfortable, I've watched all the good films and eaten all my food. Why aren't we there yet? But on my most recent flight I spent the first three hours just thinking. We landed and I hadn't even turned on a screen. I had taken some time just for myself, to reflect and get in the right headspace for my destination. I'm not saying that if I found myself in a crazy traffic jam I wouldn't call everyone around me names, but maybe it would take me a little longer to reach boiling point
— and by then, there might not be traffic anymore. I'm not sure how long this patience will last (pun intended), but I’m enjoying it in many ways. Life is better if you have patience with people, situations and above all yourself.


Photo by Tijana Tamburic


5. Be Humble, Say Sorry

Saying yes to coming to Burning Man was my first yes  followed by hundreds more when I arrived. I can’t actually remember a time I said no, and if I did I’m sure I changed my mind. Once I got used to yes, my vocabulary opened up to words like "please" and "thank you" with more ease than I thought possible. It then opened up the floodgates to "sorry." I was never very good at saying sorry, primarily because I thought I was never wrong but also because it felt like a direct assault on my ego. But at Burning Man, I was constantly wrong. I had never tried to build and live in a city in the desert and there were people here who had (for many years running) and I had to respect their advice. Follow instructions  and that can be a good thing. I met two amazing chefs at my camp, Wally and Gib, who offer their services ... as sous-chefs. They spend all year shouting orders, so for this week alone they want to take orders. It’s actually very humbling, as it implies you don’t know everything and maybe you can learn from others. I know, I was surprised too. 


6. Be Vulnerable

A good friend of mine just before my voyage to Burning Man told me if there’s one thing I should try to do while out there it’s be more vulnerable. This, to me, seemed like stupid advice. I’ve spent my life trying to be the tough girl: I bottle things up, convinced that there is no place for them in the outside world, that I shouldn’t let anyone in on my weaknesses. I had heard a lot about the effect the Temple has on its beholders at Burning Man and was determined to be open to its energy, but many times I felt nothing. I walked through the crowds of crying people, I read their messages and looked at the photos and objects they left behind, I marveled at the Tibetan architecture built by volunteers who were all processing something painful. Still, no tears. Until one day I decided to cycle out at sunrise on my own and sit in a quiet spot outside and just look at it. I stared at it as fluorescent pink crept over the horizon and I started to count the hanging lanterns, each one then representing someone I had lost in my life. I said their names aloud and when I was done they were all there: peaceful and beautiful, surrounded by sunrise. The lanterns started to blur and a stone rolled down my throat, sharp and painful. I was crying. 

On the final day of the festival the Temple burns. It’s a quiet and contemplative moment where everyone gathers and just watches. The fire tumbled directly up and a woman behind me called Syn, who had become like a mother to me at First Camp, said, "Straight to heaven." It’s not hard to imagine how this burning holy structure, full of messages and photos and images of people no longer with us, can be viewed as a metaphor for souls going to heaven, but visually it was so much more literal than that. As the flames rose, desert dust devils starting spinning out from the flames and disappearing, like caged souls that had finally been freed. I was at peace with these souls and felt nothing but love for my new unconventional family that surrounded me. I had just met these people and yet they knew the real, authentic me better than anyone. Maybe my friend was right.



Photo by Aaron Suen


7. Give More

One of the 10 Burning Man principles is gifting. Not to be confused with bartering, gifting is giving something with no expectation of receiving anything in return. I didn’t really believe in altruism before Burning Man, but in a community where everyone is looking out for each other it becomes quite easy to not think about yourself at all. A gift doesn’t have to be a physical object, either  some of the best gifts I received at Burning Man were acts of kindness or thoughtful things people said. Because in everyday life, we take more than we realize. We don’t appreciate all of it, we don’t even notice some of it and we definitely don’t say thank you for most of it. Burning Man made me really appreciate the things my friends and family do for me without my asking them to, but more importantly it made me actually thank them. Do something as simple as telling your family you love them, or telling your friends you really appreciate them, and you might just make their day. Do it now.


8. Waste Less

We all say we’ll recycle, we’ll turn the tap off when we brush our teeth and unplug our laptop or phone when it’s done charging, but sometimes we forget. We’re too busy. But when you watch a city being built in the desert and see what it takes to power and run it from scratch, you can’t help but appreciate the little things. Leave No Trace (one of the principles of Burning Man) means leaving the desert exactly as we found it  so if I saw anything on the ground that shouldn’t be there, I would pick it up, put it in my bag, throw it in the trash in my RV and then take all that trash back to Reno with me to be disposed of properly. When I got to L.A. after Burning Man and saw litter on the floor, my immediate instinct was to pick it up. It doesn’t belong there, even less so in nature. And while I can't promise I will always be picking up rubbish off the floor, I am taking steps to be less wasteful with our finite resources. 

To be honest, I didn't feel a cosmic shift in my life when I returned to the "default world." All the above lessons weren't adding up to any clear manifestation. But a week later I was given six tickets to an orchestral concert in Los Angeles. I invited three friends and one friend brought two of their friends. I gave my friends hugs and the two friends of friends gave me a little wave. These two people didn't clap much during the concert; they didn't share their picnic food with me; they didn't try to talk to me. They left just after the intermission without saying good-bye or thank you. A burning rage built inside me. After the concert I turned to my friend who had invited them and lashed out: "Why were they being so rude and unfriendly?" He looked at me blankly. "They were being totally normal, what's wrong with you?"

I was taken aback by his response. Was it possible that Burning Man had set such a high standard for how strangers should behave toward other strangers? Was I being crazy? I looked at my other friends and they shrugged their shoulders. "That's the kind of thing you would do  an Irish exit," one of them said, and I felt terrible. Was I really just like that? How awful a thought. What must so many people think of me? I didn't care before, but now I do. I care what impression I leave on strangers, the imprint I leave on the planet, what I'm doing with my life. I care about my friends and my family so much so that I might actually tell them that. That's what Burning Man did for me: I care.

Photo by Tijana Tamburic

And I care about you.  

Tell me three things about you most people don't know.

By Tijana Tamburic

Tijana is a model, historian, editor and comic book publisher who travel writes in her free time. She was born in Serbia, raised in London and now lives in New York. She loves food. Follow her on Instagram.