Archive for October, 2009

The Human Carcass Wash

Two o’clock on the first Monday of the festival and I was ready and waiting at the PolyParadise Camp, which is run by people who describe themselves as “Polyamorous”. It is not a word I had heard before as in Europe we tend to stick to ménage a trois. For polyamorous means being in a relationship with two or more people at the same time. The programme of events in this camp were largely based around discussing, exploring and thinking about the nature of human sexuality, the body, and emotions such as jealousy, mistrust, love and desire.

I had been at the festival for two days already as we had obtained early entry passes in order to help build our camp Club Verboten, under the watchful eye of our leader Omar. Thus I had already built up a healthy deposit of playa dust in unmentionable areas. Unmentionably though they may have been, unreachable or uncleanable they certainly were not, and this is why I had come to experience The Human Carcass Wash.

Under a large canopy stood 40 or so men and woman of all shapes and sizes, colours and age. The one thing they had in common was that they were all totally naked. I quickly disrobed and went in to hear what was being said by the leader of the exercise, an older gentleman (50ish) with pink and blue hair, the warmest and most constant smile I think I have ever seen and a temperament which quickly began to help me overcome the slight paralysis I felt at being exposed before so many people. My tolerance for public nudity was not a boundary I had ever attempted to gauge or move. As far as I was concerned public nudity was not something I would probably engage in, minus the odd nude night time swim. I do not mean I frowned upon it, but it was not something I had ever considered as a pastime.

The leader was explaining that in each of the four 1 metre squared trays that had been placed in a row were workstations at which teams of four would perform a service for the “client” who had arrived there, having started at box 1. Before one became a “client” we had to work at each of the stations starting at the 4th and working backwards.

At the 1st station four people used misters to pray soap all over the client and use one hand to make sure it got to all areas. At the 2nd, 8 hands were used to scrub and work the soap into the skin. More misters at the 3rd station, the rinsing station before finally the client went to box number 4 where 8 hands would dry them using nothing but force and a downward motion. The two most important rules were, firstly that we had to ask what boundaries our client had – i.e. what parts of the body they did not want to be touched (if any) – and to respect them. Secondly, we were to treat each other with attention and care.

By the time we came to begin, the crowd of nudies had swelled to around 80. Before we started the wash we formed groups of 12ish so we could wash our hands:

“This is a desert, and water is precious” said our leader. “I want you to place all of your hands in the centre, one on top of another.” Once done he began to pour water on the top hands. “Wash each other´s hands, do not allow the water to hit the ground.” Slowly the mass of hands began to writhe and pulsate with the rhythm of the wash. It was not possible to tell which hand was mine and which was not. “Now, I want to ask you a question. Look at these hands – do you care if the hands you are washing are black or white? Do you care if they are male or female? Do you care if they are gay, straight, young old, thin or fat?”


What I took from this was that bodies, so often valued for their sexual potential only, can be an amazing means of communication and a way to give pleasure to someone on a non-sexual basis. We were washing and touching each other in a way that in everyday life generally we would only be experienced with a tiny handful of people, solely because it felt so good to do so. Pleasure was being derived from our consensual touching. It feels good to be so touched by another human being. I had actually felt this two weeks previously in EH´s lake house in Ontario, Canada: I had awoken feeling slightly groggy and bemused when EH´s boyfriend Don Franky asked if I wanted a hug, which I did – the day then took on a different hue.

The rule that we had to treat our clients with care was beneficial not just for the client but for me. It was fun trying to make the experience as pleasing as possible (bearing in mind this was totally non-sexual). Using my hands to please other persons of many different body types was uniquely satisfying. It felt like connecting with the other humans present in a very basic way, speaking with our bodies, recognising them as a primary source of entertainment that they are – think of the delight a baby derives from tugging on its own toes, or when someone blows a raspberry on its belly. A connection on equal terms.

Soon enough it was my turn to go through the wash:

“What are your boundaries?”

“None” I replied. And I was washed.

32 hands touched every part of my body in the next five minutes. I emerged, clean, refreshed, glowing and with an altered feeling about my body, other bodies and nudity.

Whilst I respect people’s desire to remain clothed in public, and I would never seek to get naked when it would be socially awkward to do so, the feeling of freedom and the complete comfort I felt having become so used to my own nakedness in the hour I had spent in the Human Carcass Wash, was very alluring. I had accepted my body as a body among bodies, all equal, all pleasure seeking, all human. Never had that truth been exposed to me. I am not now a nudity warrior, I do not champion its cause or want to go shopping in the nude, but I loved every second of feeling that warm air on my skin and feeling at peace with myself and the others there with me. I returned twice for the same experience.

About halfway through my wash the leader shouted:

“ Who wants extra credit?” A chorus of ayes.

Notice how beautiful everyone is!” he cried triumphantly. A huge cheer erupted. I can offer no better summation.


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Biking the desert. Photo by EH

Biking the desert. Photo by EH

On Wednesday evening we (this is a no names sketch) cycled to the trash fence. This is in what is known as deep playa. In other words it is two or three kilometres from the city, beyond the Temple of Joy, where only one or two art installations are posted. Not many people venture out here (at least not at the same time), which is precisely why we had come, about an hour before sundown, to begin a journey that will stay with me as one of the most hilarious and mind stretching evenings of my life.

The mountains to the West were beginning to cast their formidable shadow on the vast, perfectly flat ancient seabed that is The Playa. The mountains to the East, which looked like they were created by an almightily hand that scooped up a handful of dust and let it fall slowly through a clenched fist, and which I imagined would crumble under even the slightest pressure from a human foot, were stroked by  the golden light of the late afternoon sun which retained much of its heat.

This is nowehere. Absolute nowhere. Photo by EH

This is nowehere. Absolute nowhere. Photo by EH

They sky was still electric blue save for a small gathering of clouds making their way leisurely toward us from the South. The scene was beautifully alien and was about to become more so.

We dropped our bikes and sat in a circle and passed around a small brown vile which contained liquid LSD. A tentative and solitary drop was placed on the flap of skin between thumb and forefinger and then licked off. This was a nervous time for us all, being as we were, largely inexperienced with hallucinogenic drugs.

Not long afterwards my limbs started to feel slightly twitchy, or uncomfortable in the position I was sitting in, and a great pleasure was taken in stretching and moving them. The feeling of unease had long since vanished and been replaced by a quiet contentment.

Two of our party needed the toilet (bear with me on this anecdote!), which was a slight inconvenience as the nearest porta-potties were a long ride away through mounds of playa dust. Nevertheless things became desperate as it were, and I agreed to cycle with them. We set off and noticed some toilets about halfway between us and thTemple of Joy, which was a happy result for us all. We cycled along the path until it ran out, about 70 metres from the destination, at which point my two allies dropped their bikes and ran with all their might toward their goal. As I remained with my bike musing on the whimsical nature of the sight of those two strange creatures sprinting for a piss, I noticed them sprinting right back! They arrived breathless and more explosive than ever. I can only imagine the horror at running with ever increasing desperation which must have given way to an overwhelming sense of joy at the coming relief, only to find that doors were locked. Only then did they realise that the whole installation of 20 toilets was just that: an art installation – entirely two dimensional. 20 toilet doors to nowhere, in a row!!!

By the time we got back from the real potties the sun had dipped behind the mountains, the full moon was rising, and the colours I was seeing were burning much brighter than before. They were not necessarily different, but I could distinguish all the different hues and tones and palates that made up every single part of the multilayered, multicoloured evening sky; the clouds now pink with the sun’s rays cutting horizontally across them, and the silver lights being shed by the all too present moon. It was time to explore, and we decided to head in the general direction of anywhere.

The next ten hours were spent in a deeply exciting voyage of discovery. It was a physical exploration of the wonders and structures of the playa. It was an exploration of touch – everything felt new, as though touching it with fresh fingers. It was a visual exploration of colour, form, reality, and vision. It was a whole body exploration – the sensation of sitting or lying were completely altered, the way my body felt was wholly different. I could move and stretch in new, formerly unappreciated ways.

We came across a giant Rubik’s Cube suspended as if by invisible force in the black air. The squares of light were moving and I felt like I could control them by standing on a nearby podium and placing my hands on a coloured shield on which there were buttons (it later transpired that this was in fact the case!).

The Rubiks Cube. Photo by EH

The Rubiks Cube. Photo by EH

There was a 10 metre long wall made of fractured mirrors which I ran around and around because to see the lights of the city in a broken reflection made me feel that it was not I, but the entire world that was revolving.

I spent an hour laughing uncontrollably with 100 others under a giant cube containing 1000s of tiny lights the size and shape of ping pong balls. The lights worked in sync and gave me the impression of lying just outside a huge cosmic nebula of stars that were flying around their universes of colour, and that I could touch and possibly enter that cloud if I just, reached, out, my, hand – but someone had thought of that and clever put a net in between us. This was before I realised there were 3D glassed to accompany the light show. Oh Good Lord.

And then we found: The Ribbons. In a camp toward the back of the city some clever sod had erected, in an S shape roughly 12 metres long, a net about 3 metres in the air and 1 metre wide. The edge of the netting was peppered with lights which may or may not have been changing colour – my eyes were more than making up for static lighting by now. Hanging from this net were thousands of long silver strips of ribbon than came down almost to the ground. They ran for the whole of the length of the S-shape.

As I lay on my back nearby, gazing at the moon and the rush of colours streaking through the thin cloud cover, I suddenly decided to walk through the field of ribbons which looked so pretty in the lights.

As soon as I parted the ribbons and entered I was not in the real world anymore, I was in an enchanted forest of green light and the silver trunks of trees of whose branches I was never to see. I was a child of the Brothers Grimm, I was fantasy, I was tiny in the great new world I had discovered. I used my arms to part the ribbons, or shards of light ahead of me and explored with wonder and dumbfoundedness. I felt completely surrounded, mystified and alone.

My time in that world ended and I was reborn into the real world with all its sights, noises and smells, as the last ribbon slipped from my forehead. I instantly yelled to my friends and thus the next two hours were spent discovering new universes inside the ribbons.

Occasionally I would meet a companion in the midst of their own visions; an unidentified form would appear in the foggy distance, until, right face to face, a moment of joyful recognition and hysterical laughter before continuing onwards with our own missions.

One time I went through and I saw myself reflected thousands of times in each ribbon. I was singing a song although I could not hear the music – yet the layered heads of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody music video sprang to mind. A vehicle of some sort parked near the ribbons distributing red light onto us. This changed everything. I was now swimming, actually swimming through deep red liquid while all around me bubbles were effervescing toward the surface and reaching the sky. Often times the wind would blow which changed the dynamic yet again; the ribbons were now horizontal as I struggled through a hail of metallic elements. Sometimes the wind would lift the ribbons completely above my head and I was rudely dumped in and exposed to a reality I had no wish to participate in. Instinctively my hands would raise upwards pleading with the ribbons and trying to pull the blanket of imagination back over my excited head.

At the end of each trip we would talk about what we had seen, contemplate leaving, and decide that one more adventure through the ribbons was probably necessary.

I have a piece of that ribbon in my backpack right now. As me and a friend curled up under my fur coat in a hammock we came across in a nearby camp, and watched the moon set and the sun rise, I would be lying if I told you otherwise than the conversation returned, not infrequently, to those magical ribbons!

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The Man under construction

The Man under construction. Photo by EH

Burning Man is a festival held annually in a desert in Nevada USA. It is so called because of a giant wooden edifice in the shape of a man that presides over the crescent shaped temporary city in which roughly 45,000 live for a week, totally self sufficiently. The Man represents, to me, the everyday, the commonplace routine of rules and social interactions, and the cultural norms we live each day of our lives. When I went to the festival I left as many of these laws as I was able to at the “Greeting Station” where, upon arrival, we were met by two semi naked greeters and one wholly naked greeter (“nudity is forbidden this year” she wryly told me). They dragged us out of the car, hugged us, welcomed us “home” before drawing a circle in the dusty playa representing our hitherto stated boundaries. We all leapt out of the circle with gusto and rang a giant bell whilst screaming, “I am not a virgin anymore”. At the end of the week The Man is burnt to the ground.

The festival is such a complicated mass of interactions and ideas that to try to describe it all would be futile, not least because the experiences of the man in the next porta-potty along would be totally different to mine. Additionally there is so much symbolism involved in, and meaning behind, the 100s of pieces of art that are scattered around the desert; beneath the ethos and aims of the festival; and surrounding the experiences I had, that it is important to me now not to try to explain what any of them actually mean, for to do so would contradict the experiences of others who have been, and prejudice the views of those who have yet to.

All I can say with certainty is that the ten days I spent in that moneyless community built under the brutal sun, were unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I am still piecing together in my mind exactly what happened, and figuring out what part the incredible people I met are going to play in my life.

Therefore, what follows is a series of sketches of some of the most remarkable things I did and saw during my stay in Black Rock City. I apologise if I raise questions I then do not attempt to answer. In fact, I recant that! I hope I raise questions you want answering. However, be assured that I am not the man to answer them. The only man who can is 30 metres tall, made of wood and will stand proudly over Burning Man 2010 – so I advise to buy yourself a ticket and direct all further enquiries to him….

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An extract from Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas.

A trunk was then brought to Tenochititlan [now Mexico City] from the Gulf of Mexico. It had been washed up on the shore. Inside were several suits of clothes, some jewels and a sword. Whose possessions were they? No one had ever seen anything like them before. The Emporor Montezuma divided the contents between the kings of Tacubaya and Texcoco. A little later a message came from Yucatan, probably sent by a Mexican merchant. It was a folded manuscript. This depicted three white temples at sea floating on large canoes…

Then merchants from Xicallanco seem to have more reports of strange new men. This probably confirmed stories from the other Mexican outposts farther south down the isthmus of Central America. The Mexica would thus perhaps have heard of a colony of white men which had been established in 1513 only a thousand miles (as the crow flies) south east of Yucatan, in Darien.

It was also, later reported that in Mexico, after about 1502 a series of phenomena were observed which seemed to presage difficult times. First, for example, a tongue of fire in the sky, presumably a comet of unusual brilliance, was said to have been seen every night for a year. Then the thatched roof of the temple of Huitzilopochtli caught fire on top of the great pyramid: the flames could not be put out. Another temple, that of a more ancient deity, Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire (also known as the lord of the turquoise and even as the father and mother of the gods), was destroyed by what was described as a noiseless thunderbolt. This was especially alarming, since fire, expressed by family hearths and braziers before temples, was looked upon as one of the great achievements of the gods. Then a comet was said to have fallen sharply in the sky, to have divided in three, and to have scattered sparks throughout the Valley of Mexico. The water of the lake [on which Tenochititlan was built] foamed for no reason; many houses built next to the water were flooded…

The most famous tale of this time is the most esoteric: some fishermen were said to have found a bird like a crane, of an ashen colour. They showed it to the Emperor, who saw a mirror on its head. In the mirror, he observed the heavens and the stars, and then a number of men riding on deer, approaching as for war. The Emperor is said to have summoned specialist wise men. He asked them for their interpretation. But when they looked, the vision, the mirror, and he bird had all disappeared…

People in old Mexico were often influenced by far less dramatic events than these. Unaccustomed noises or sights of any kind, from the cry of an owl to the sight of a rabbit running into a house, suggested calamities. The call of a white headed hawk (identified with the sun) might have several interpretations. Anyone whose path was crossed by a weasel might expect a setback. The Mexica spent a great deal of time speculating about the significance of such things. This should not be a matter of surprise. It has been represented that these “portents” never occurred and the interpretations in consequence were invented later. Machiavelli in his Discorsi, in these very years (1515-18) remarked: “Both modern and ancient examples go to show that great events never happened in any town or in any country without their having been announced by portents, revelations, prodigious events or other celestial signs”… In this spirit of scepticism… some have argued that these portents in Mexico were artfully devised in the 1530s or 40s on the ground that simple people find catastrophes easier to bear if it can be argued that they have been foretold.

Yet most of these phenomena in Mexico were unsensational. Assuming that one or other of them occurred at all, they might have been forgotten had the Mexican empire subsequently prospered… Storms on the Lake of Mexico which caused water to foam were not infrequent. Fires on the thatched roofs on the top of  pyramids should have been expected since braziers were nearby. Two-headed beings [also having appeared] could have been Siamese twins. Both they and the bird with the mirror sound as if they were figments in the imagination of someone who had eaten sacred mushrooms… [Finally,] comets and eclipses were in fact seen in these years.

The most likely interpretation of the story of these portents is that some, if not all, of them occurred; that given that rumours of atrocious happenings in Panama and the Caribbean had reached Tenochtitlan, gloomy conclusions were being draw; that though they may have been temporarily forgotten, both the portents and the interpretations were recalled in 1519.

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Ladies in multifarious shades of colour and various states of Coiffedness sat fanning themselves, whilst the men folk, dressed exclusively in pale linen trousers and a traditional Mexican dress shirt (Guayabera), squirmed slightly in the humid atmosphere of the packed church. The chit-chat melded with the scent of the rose petals that covered the floor of the aisle, and wafted over the crowd of people standing in the entrance due to the huge turnout. It emerged into the wet, sunny, green air that hugged the skin of those who had come to celebrate the wedding of Julio and Ceci in the Hacienda san Gabriel se las Palmas, near Cuernavaca in the state of Merelos.

Cosmo and I had cleverly wed ourselves to a couple of chairs in the choir, right next to where Julio’s family were to sit. As we sat wondering whether we were to be evicted by the wedding planner who was strutting around like a producer backstage at the Oscars when Michael Moore is refusing to keep his speech to the preordained two minutes, the fanfare began.

Julio came up the aisle escorted by his three brothers, and his parents, though he was preceded by little Emilio and his cousin of equally diminutive stature. He wore a dark Boss suit ( in the second of his five costume changes of the day) with the socks and accessories we had much fun choosing a few days before on the last night he was to spend in the bedroom in which he had slept every day of his life in Mexico. His family retreated to their chairs after making the sign of the cross on their son and brother. Then – Mendelssohn! Ceci was radiant (this is the only acceptable adjective for describing a bride, and she was well worthy of it) as she glided down the aisle with a score of peach pink bridesmaids in tow.

The service was an emotional affair. Ceci cried at times and this triggered tears in Emilio, although no doubt tears of relief at seeing his parents so happily united. It struck me as I listened to readings (of which I understood a scant amount), and participated in the Mass, that although I do no believe in God, or the resurrection, the Catholic tradition does hold a lot of value especially for those getting married and those who are in attendance. What we witnessed was a ritual that has been part of the rhythm of life for centuries; billions of men and women have come together in this way, and even to a non-believer it seemed that to participate in such an ancient tradition is something very special and can add meaning to an event which to me is purely about the human rather than spiritual.

Generations of both families were present and this moment for them must have been redolent of the same rites they received and may well receive, and the same rites that were administered to their ancestors since before the founding of the modern state of Mexico. Thus for me, we were witnesses not solely to a Catholic celebration of Christ, but a universal celebration of the human condition, human love, of the cycle of life, and of family. The moment Marixu (Julio’s mother) placed the blessed wafer in my mouth with the words El Cuerpo del Christo was the instant I could share in the marriage of my friends Julio and Ceci.

This was a young wedding, and nobody was afraid to show it: after the 700 guests were seated in a palatial marquee, Julio and Ceci arrived by horse drawn carriage to the sound of “I Got a Feeling” the ubiquitous summer dance hit of 09 (“I got a feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night” etc…). There was thrashing about on the stage by the bride and groom, the bridesmaids and their friends.

After we had politely dismissed a delicious 5 course dinner the party began, but not before the set dances. Julio and Ceci, Julio and his mum, Ceci and her dad etc. What followed was for me the most exciting moment. A song called (I assume) “You’re Family” was played and both families gathered on the floor, joined hands and danced. Toward the end of the song they formed a tight circle and embraced each other, a family newly created ( or cemented rather) that afternoon. Although this was a wedding of epic proportions and cost, seeing the two families dance together so gleefully with their children and each other, is the aspect of this fiesta that will remain with me the longest.

The best weddings I have been to,  my mother’s on a magical mountain in New Hampshire, Catherine Hill’s in a field in Dorset, and now this one  all share one thing: irrespective of scope or spend, the atmosphere has been one of familial jubilation. All the planning and money in the world could not purchase that sentiment (think Royal Family).

Enjoy your honeymoon Julio and Ceci!

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An extract from The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene, an account of his travels in the Mexico of 1938. Thanks to Sir William Wilmot for giving me the book to accompany me on my travels.

El Retiro is the swagger cabaret of Socialist Mexico, all red and gold and little baloons filled with gas, and chicken a la king. A film star at one table and a famous singer, and a rich men everywhere. American couples moved sedately accross the tiny dance floor while the music wailed, the women with exquisite hair and gentle indifference, and the middle aged American businessmen like overgrown schoolboys a hundred years younger than their young women. Then the cabaret began – a Mexican dancer with great bold thighs, and the American women lost a little of their remote superiority. They were being beaten at their own game – somebody who wasn’t beautiful and remote was drawing the attention of their men. They got vivacious and talked a little shrilly and powdered their faces, and suddenly appeared very young and inexperienced and unconfident, as the great thighs moved. But their turn came when the famous tenor sang. The American men lit their pipes and talked all through the song and then calpped heartily to show that they didn’t care, and the women closed their compact and listened – avidly…

Then the Waikiki, on a lower level socially and morally. Armed policemen (later that night the place was raided for Perez, the drug trafficker).  Lovely sexual instruments wearing little gold crosses, lolled on the sofas; a man had passed out altogether beside a blue soda water bottle. Small intimate parties struggled obscurely with shoulder straps, and presently got up and made for the hotel a little way down the street. My friend thought I might be lonely and insisted on finding me an American girl – there was only one in the place, and she was called Sally. I said I didn’t want her, but she obviously had for him (he was a Mexican) the glamour of foreignness. He said, ‘She’s nice. She’s refined – and interesting. You’ll like to talk to her. You’re a writer. She’ll tell you all about her life.’

I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to her about her life.’ You could see it all around without asking questions – in the red velvet sofas and the blue soda-water bottles and the passed out Mexican. But my friend had got a girl and he wanted me to have an American – somebody I could talk to easily. He kept on asking everybody, ‘Where’s Sally?’ and presently they found her – so there she came, picking a refined way across the dance floor, pasty, genteel, and a little scared, and very badly dressed. She said, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Yes, sir’ to everything I said. The formality, the subservience, the terrible refinement were uncanny.

My Mexican friend said, ‘She’s pretty, eh?’ and I had to look at that infinitely plain pasty face with all the vacancy of drug-stores and cheap movies and say, ‘Yes, fine.’

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