What BiG TeA PaRtY does on VACATION:
Playa del Fuego, an East Coast Burning Man
BY ELIZABETH FIEND
They burn a pony, not a man. The vibe is chill, not hot.
I was trying to describe the difference between Burning Man, which by now every one knows about, and Playa del Fuego, which is still pretty much a secret, to my Burning Man campmates last year, who would be coming to PDF for the first time. ) PDF is the mid-Atlantic regional “burn” – one of the many regional off-shoots of Burning Man.
Playa del Fuego is nothing and everything like Burning Man.
Held in not-so remote Odessa, Delaware, PDF is a four-day campout with a max capacity of 800 peeps (editors note: as of 2009 1,000), and this alone changes the tone. It’s a personal, intimate scene of outlandish, crazy, weird, extraordinary strangers who will end up being your best friends at the end of the weekend. That is, if you do it right.
Playa del Fuego is closer to the first Burning Man I attended, way back in 1996, when there were only 8,000 participants, unlike today’s 40,000-plus.
At today’s Burning Man, you’ll encounter astounding creations like the Belgian Waffle — a $250,000 project constructed of 100 miles of wooden beams. A spun-shredded wheat marvel by day, and a glorious electronica shrine by night. State-of-the-art sound and light with cult DJs flown in from Europe, it’s impressive and amazing, but it isn’t that personal.
Interaction is what PDF is all about.
PDF is about connecting and participating. Sure B’Man’s motto is participation, but it’s increasingly difficult to compete for attention if you don’t have some major bucks and a lot of folks behind your group.
I was telling my six campmates that we needed to dream up a theme camp to make the most out of our experience at PDF. A theme camp is an event, a residence, a place to dance or chill, a giving of yourself, music, street theater, performance, art of any kind.
Jokingly I said a PDF theme camp could be as simple as offering people a pickle. For example we could be Camp
Pickle where the pickle wasn’t really that important it was engaging the other participants — the act of inviting them into our campsite to have a pickle that would be important.
Then things went real bad for me. Someone jumped in and said “What about pretzels? We could give out Philly soft pretzels too.” Then a deep discussion ensued about what exactly was the saltiest snax of all (salt and vinegar potato chips).
Whoo, just wait a darn minute, I was feeling real uncomfortable about the direction of the conversation. I got a reputation here! I’m a gonzo health advocate, remember — I can’t be in a camp dedicated to salt! “Salt, it’s the next transfat” I shouted. They looked at me and laughed, like I was kidding.
“If we’re going to create a theme camp dedicated to salt” I told them “I’ll have to have a counter-theme, one dedicated to the opposite of sodium — potassium. Maybe I’d even have to bring my blood pressure monitor.” Laughs all around. Then someone said “Yeah and you could dress up like a nurse too!!”
And so, Camp Sodi-YUM! was born.
We did give out salty snax, and we did have pickle on a stick, we did entice strangers to drink Pickle-Tini’s (a martini with pickle juice). And yes, I dressed like a nurse and gave blood pressure readings — and to my delight, people really wanted to know their numbers! They were interested in their health; they asked me information about what blood pressure readings really meant. (They knew I wasn’t a real nurse right?!?)
PDF is held on the land of a motor cycle gang — two gangs actually, Veterans of Vietnam Motorcycle Association and their younger brethren, veterans since ‘Nam, the Second Brigade. They’re tough and scary looking, and they mean it when they wear their colors. But they have names like Pineapple, Sneakers and Pooch.
If there was any sexually explicit action going on (and there was quite a bit this fall), just look for the half-dozen or so golf carts pulled up front, real close. The vets and their wives would be there gawking. But the restraint they showed was mind boggling. They were totally hands off (unless asked), truly poster children for “No Means No.” Of course, they’re under strict orders not to cause any shame or bring any trouble to their club.
Philly was totally in the house at PDF.
Camp 215 hosted the Naked Slip and Slide, 800 sq. ft of wet, slippery, sudsy, naked fun. At the foot of the Slip and Slide sit the judges — the vets and their wives. Just like in the Olympics, they hold up score cards. Of course, these score cards were laminated to stay dry.
The Philadelphia Experiment dominates a big corner of the central field, bringing to PDF that ‘invisible vibe’ they’re so famous for. It seemed like most of the PEX crew had winked out of existence this fall and the whole ship was being steered by the thinking man’s DJ Lee Mayjahs?, whose smile alone can turn the invisible into a very visible party.
Also from Philly, the elegant Camp Hope brought electronic music by night, tarot readings and chill space by day. Need a porcelain tea cup, or twenty? Head over to Trader Travis’s who got his start in the 90’s at the Astrocade. Travis brings along a bunch of stuff to trade that might be junk anywhere else but suddenly gleams like gold when you’re camping in a giant field with 800 kooks.
Which brings me to to the money thing, or non-money thing: Once inside PDF, everything is free. No money is exchange, even at the bar Whisky & Whores. Step right up to the bar, but bring your own cup. Drink their booze, or better yet, bring some to share.
Take a whirl at the stripper pole. Bring your partner! If you’re good, someone will come along and Saran wrap you both, to the stripper pole. Relax on the many couches or spin the Whisky & Whores wheel. Yes on the bar is a giant roulette style wheel. Take a spin if you dare; you could hit “show your nipples,” “bark like a dog,” “kiss the bartender,” or “body shot.” When someone spins “body shot,” the bartender announces it. Everyone gathers around one of the couches where the winner lays down, pulls off their top, and a shot (or four) is poured over their chest. A lucky someone gets to lap up the booze.
Oh I forgot, also at Whiskey & Whores is the ice luge, a 3 ft slab of ice. Select your poison and say Go! A shot or two or three will be poured down the groove in the inclined piece of ice straight into your mouth. Or in my case most of it by-passed my mouth and ended up dribbling into my bra. (Yes Mom, I had clothes on!)
There’s also a main stage at PDF where you can sign up to perform – whatever – got a band, into storytelling, perhaps a play? Each PDF is unique, its character is formed by the contributions of the people who attend.
And like at Burning Man, fire is an important element at PDF. Structures are built. Structures are burned. Fire artists spin, twirl, wiggle inside their flaming hoops, putting on quite an impressive and passionate inferno display.
OK, you’ve been dying to know right — why burn a pony?
The first PDF’s were held in Assateague, land of wild ponies, so a pony was adopted as the official PDF totem. The event quickly grew too large and freaky for the campground Rangers and was moved to the Vietnam vet’s land, which really is an awesome and appropriate location.
Oh, you don’t care about the pony, it’s the sexually explicated action you wanted to know about.
Scorpio & Spanquee’s Camp Redbottom offered friendly restraint or bun warming. Stop by at night for firing (aka flaming). They’ll light you on fire and extinguish you, promising “You won’t even have to beg for it, unless you really want to.”
Maybe Camp Contact! is more your speed. One afternoon I saw a lone woman getting a massage from five naked guys.
But this fall it was Camp Tramp that had the most action. It all started out with a trampoline. Add a bunch of naked people, some sex toys, throw in the dozen vets drooling on the fringe and you have one freaky-hot, love-making scene.
One of the (many) things I love about PDF is that it’s all ages. Not that all ages may attend, but that all ages do attend. It’s really nice to see 60-year-olds still flying the freak flag, and just as great to see the youngsters in training.
There is no vending at PDF.
The event is run entirely from top to bottom by volunteers and supported by ticket sales. A dedicated group of volunteers works year round to make this event happen. You could too.
Sign up and be involved with teams like fire safety, rangers, department of public works. Staff the help desk for a shift, be a greeter at the entrance gate. There’s an opportunity for all to volunteer on site, and if you attend you really should.
It’s not all fun and games.
Just like on the salt flat of Black Rock City, Nevada, home of Burning Man, the weather and noise are influential elements at PDF. Not the intense heat or dust storms that blow up and white-out miles of desert at B’Man. The nemesis at PDF is rain. And I don’t mean a few showers. I’m talking Nor’ Easters. Yeah, Odessa Delaware can be one wet, swampy place. And don’t expect to sleep, the volume (loudness) of the event is nothing short of massive.
Sources and For More Information:
PDF is held two times a year, Memorial and Columbus Day weekends. Tickets (this year) cost $36 and were sold online about two months before the event.