Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Festival: Transformational

 11-11-11 - A magical beginning

On a small hilltop in rural Mpumalanga, a small province in South Africa, a mystical adventure in an epic landscape had begun. It was 11 November 2011, and just after 01h00 we rolled in, the full moon having just risen over the peak of a shimmering pyramid. We had just arrived at ONE Festival - the first festival experience for me (Arriving to this without knowing Psy was quite an experience).

I'd spent the last 3 or 4 months in a dark place. My Brother (Shaun) had called me up a few hours earlier, told me to pack a sleeping bag, tent and few other basics. It was good - the festival kicked off the start of a much needed healing process. We'd met a few like-minded people that we really clicked with. These handful of friends became family over the next few years. 

Parting Ways

8 years and many festivals later (all local to SA), we came together once again at the end of 2019. Our core group had grown substantially (probably not too far off from 20) with a significant number of festival-goers having familiar faces and some form of connection. "Camp Marshmallow" was great home to have in the campsites. However, there was a slightly sombre undertone this time. This would most likely be the last one a while. Change had been happening. My family and I were preparing to move to the US, and this was a farewell to what had become my festival family. It was a hard, heartfelt goodbye.

Return to Festival

Now it is an early Wednesday afternoon in late May, in 2023 as we sit in a hot and dusty car line just outside of Bakersfield. After arriving in the US in early March 2020, the state of the world combined with personal circumstance was not the most conducive for heading out for dusty stompings for a few years. But that had passed, an outing was overdue. We were heading in to Lightning In a Bottle. Bubbly excitement was prevalent, although I was also aware of a tinge of melancholy - I would be here without my Camp Marshmallow family. Good friends that were my car companions as we waved our armbands at the entry checkpoint brought the needed balance: An awesome couple had been going to US festivals for a while who I had connected with through disc golf (Paul & Yuri); and a new Brother (Duane), who was about to pop his festy-cherry. 

Lightning In a Bottle

Enter LIB. Wow. The highlight of festival-going prior to arriving here was AfrikaBurn (Burning Man South Africa), where we hosted the infamous Dr Wung's for the ~10k burners in 2015. As we meandered from the Sunset car/tent camp through Group Camping, then vendor/performer camps and on into the festival entrance, the scale of this event started to become apparent. I later learnt only 2/3's of last year's attendees came through: 18k vs 27k in 2022. Without this knowledge at that moment though, I was nodding my head to myself at how well everything seemed to be coordinated. Rangers were evenly distributed at points where everything from walk-in wheelbarrows to RVs were guided towards availability or designated camp spots with minimal bottlenecks. There were never lines at festival entrances through security checks. 

It was not as sparse all the time at the food vendors though - definitely some favourites that pulled longer waits during peak times. Tuna Poke bowls, Hawaii chicken and a breakfast burrito were noticeably enjoyed by many other people in addition to myself. It was super-convenient to use the cashless option (RFID on the wrist-band ticket). The bars were well placed and staffed. . It would have been nice to have a bit more selection on drinks though. It was not the end of the world to end up at Grand Antique for a bourbon or Irish. 

The bane of many festivals are the toilets. Yet here they were readily available - at worst a 10 minute walk from anywhere that I found myself lost at, and with enough to handle the number of people (I don't think I waited for more than 2 people in front of me at peak in the middle of the festival); and they were clean and stocked (TP / soap / hand-cleaning stations)! Without actually timing it, it seemed like they were being cleaned every 4 - 6 hours, maybe more frequently during busy periods. Water points were on point too - accessible without being too far apart, we were able to stay hydrated in the festival area, and stocked up in the campsite. Recycling/trash stations were easily accessible on the walk in through camping area, and there was daily availability of ice (although not at the outpost past Group Campsites in Sunset until day 3, so it was a long walk to the Shower/Recycling stop for a couple of days). 

LIB Experience - Art, Wellness, Music

After the move to the US, music was a common theme/soundtrack when we reconnected with our SA friends. Before immigrating, our Friday evening playlist while braai'ing (SA for BBQ) would often include the likes of Stephan Bodzin. A few months after moving here, we would put on a Ben Bohmer mix on our Saturday morning / their Saturday evening, and I've played this Sabo and Goldcap mix on more Sundays than months in each year. So when I discovered LIB's lineup, there was an immediate hook. I wanted to go. Just to be able to go to some stage called "Woogie" where I could experience 3 artists with "personal history" was enough to sell me. Not to mention some more popular mainstream names like Liquid Stranger or Zhou that have had enough replays in our household to make it monotonous to many. The initial interest in LIB was primarily about the music. We started wandering towards Junkyard on Wednesday evening, but as we got closer, it could not help transforming to a hop, skip and bounce as we got drawn into the dancefloor to have a fun jam session. 

It was shortly after this warmup that I started to realize how LIB is about so more than just the tunes. I'd seen some of the info about Yoga and talks before coming through, but took navigating through giant bananas or hustling through a light tunnel to click. "Oooooh - yeeeessss - thiiiiis". I've seen some posts on social media indicate that this year, there was a lot more focus on music headliners and a little less on some of the art aspects. Without history or expectation, this was icing almost as thick as the cake. The cake mixer was a thick beat blasting out a Funktion1 sound system right through my chest cavity. The Art cars were spectacular cherries on top.

Late one weekend morning, I found myself standing in front of the menu at Learning Kitchen, absorbing what talks were available. Going in with a music-centric focus had set the stage, and I had a moment of realization that has the sort of feeling one might get by going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, filling up on meat and then noticing there were some amazing veggie / starter / dessert options that you missed out on. I managed to squeeze in a few Compass activities (sunset smoke ceremony at Ceremonial Fire, a session at Crossroads), but would definitely like to earmark a few more at the next one.

80's hits at Grandma's house was a blast, and Grand Artique was an experience to remember - a drummer, an auction and the pickles amongst others.

Connections and community

The most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of festivals are the connections that form. There's a saying that's stuck with me, a saying I learnt from someone who taught me a lot: "You make friends / connections with people for reasons, seasons or lifetimes". 

On Saturday afternoon, standing in Grand Artique, I felt a tap on my shoulder. As I turned, I was greeted with a friendly face, followed by a question: "Are you from South Africa?" (the SA flag hat must have been a give-away). Within a few exchanges of words, the phrase comes up: "It's so good to hear that accent again". It always sounds good, and it always brings back a feeling of where I come from. That one felt like a reason - a short, transient reason that transpires quickly - to remind someone of home, and to be reminded of home. 

Sometimes the connections are a bit more persistent. Bonds feel strengthened with those who came in with you as friends. Excitement bounces off each other. Anxiousness is diluted and dissipated between us. New connections are established. There's a feeling of comfort with letting out some personal quirkiness that would normally be held back - being more yourself - and they don't seem to mind it, maybe even enjoy it a bit. Their quirkiness is fun and exciting too. 

I feel soul-fulfilled. I feel humbled, and the melancholy of my first festival family still lingers. I hope to reconnect with them in this sort of space. 

The strengthened and new connections are like sparks starting to form along some invisible network. I'm not even sure what the medium is - maybe it's just air. And the sparks are just lightning. And I am just a bottle.

Pics n stuff

Love to Shaun, Karin, Alex, Fran, Greg, Sean, Renee, Duane, Chris, Tash, Lee. Missed you guys stacks.