He was sitting with his back to me, so I started with the outlines of his shoulders, then the back of his head, his shabby greying hair, then finally down his torso to his butt. It wasn’t often I had a naked guy sitting in front of me, but here it felt like just another weekday.
“Forget about hands, and forget about faces,” the teacher said. “You won’t have time, and they’re not important, anyway.”
It was just past noon, and around a hundred of were sat on the floor in a circle, in the corner of the CEXx tent. A naked stranger laid out like he was sunbathing in the centre. CEXx (pronounced Sex-ex) was a large, mysterious tent, hidden in one of the backstreets of Tankwa Town, and probably one of the most interesting. But not many people even knew it was here. During the day they ran lectures and discussions such as “Sex on Drugs” and “Kink 101”, but once night fell, the tent turned into the Play Zone; a sexual playground for the hedonists. Just across from us I could see the infamous Dome, a large tent where couples were invited to indulge in “anything goes” at night. We were sitting in the Petting Area; what happened on this floor at night I didn’t know exactly, certainly something kinky, but right now it was the day, and the hundred of us had gathered for something slightly more innocent: Nude sketching lessons.
Lynesha P was sitting beside me, scribbling away. I glanced over at her sheet. Her sketch was scruffy, busy. Mine, more like a stencil piece. But they both resembled the same muscular back and shabby head of hair. How about that. We were both artists now.
The next volunteer was a young hippie with Jesus hair, after him, a voluptuous blonde with long wavy locks and milky white skin. By then I felt like I was finding my inner Picasso, but Lynesha P had other ideas.
“Speed dating starts in five minutes. Stay or go?”
Earlier in the week, she and I had been flicking through the guidebook looking at all the different events we’d been missing – pancakes, pasta, topless parades. But when we’d turned the page onto “Silent Speed Dating”, both of us nodded that was a must-do. Even though neither of us really knew what it was.
I nodded and flicked my head towards the door. As I folded up my masterpieces and got up to leave, I gave a love bracelet to the girl next to me who’d lent me a pencil, whispered a thank you to the teacher, and the two of us tiptoed back out onto the Binnekring.
Silent speed dating was at a camp called Vagabonds, right in the centre of town. Run by a bunch of crazy Scandinavian kids, they offered everything from morning dance parties to cacao ceremonies to sweat-outs in a full size sauna they’d hauled into the desert. The day before I’d walked by and was given a massage in their “spa” by a charming Californian gal, noting how tranquil and unassuming the camp was. But today, it was packed full to the brim. Evidently everybody in Tankwa was ready to speed date in silence.
A young man hopped on the tiny stage in the corner and clapped everyone to attention.
“You’re going to walk around with your hand up until you find a partner. Then we’re going to play the music for two minutes. There is no talking! Look into your partner, and see what you see.”
Everyone paired up pretty quickly. Within a few seconds I locked eyes with a petite sandy blonde, like a mini Jennifer Aniston. They hadn’t told us to hold hands, but there came an urge to hold my palms out, and she placed hers in mine.
“Time starts now!”
The tent turned silent. Yoga music began flowing out of the speakers. At first, it just felt like a staring contest. Her eyes were small, and dark, frosty blue. Every ten seconds she turned away to giggle, then stared back at me nervously, like we were at a school prom and it was the first time she’d danced with a boy. But thirty seconds passed, and her eyes changed, from smiling eyes to nervous eyes to curious eyes to startled eyes. When’s the last time you stared into a stranger’s eyes? Have you ever? It is an unnerving, naked, electrifying thing. At first it felt like the time couldn’t pass quickly enough, but by the end, it felt like two minutes had passed in a flash. When the music stopped, we embraced each other tightly. Then we looked at each other and hugged again. We had shared something, although we didn’t quite know what it was. But, we couldn’t talk about it. We didn’t even have time to think about it. We were already being told to hurry up and find a new partner.
My next partner was a tall guy with large green eyes and a kind face. A young Nicholas Cage – the City of Angels version. He had a face with a permanent smile but as our “date” started and the seconds ticked on, I noticed how much sadness his eyes showed. I guessed, that smile was hiding something, pain that hadn’t passed yet. You see people’s eyes all the time, but how often do you actually look inside them, study them, see the colours swirl, try to read the story they tell? Or let others do so to you? You don’t realise how vulnerable your eyes make you, until you have a stranger staring straight into them, reading your life story.
My next partner was a young Asian guy. Right away I guessed he had a background similar to mine. Asians were scarce at AfrikaBurn; very few things in Tankwa Town were customary to our cultures. But that’s what made it intriguing. For us, just being there was almost a form of rebellion. As the music started and we looked into each other, it was instant brotherhood. I’d seen those eyes a million times. Everything he’d been through in his life, every piece of self doubt, every question he’d asked himself in the middle of the night, I felt like I already knew and understood. As he let on a smile and a knowing nod, I knew he was seeing the same. He was a dreamer like me. He was also from a place where his friends and parents were probably wondering what the hell he was doing at a place like this. But we didn’t care. We were here. The music stopped and we grinned and hugged triumphantly. Like, man, I knew I wasn’t the only one.
My final partner was a young African woman, with small eyes, big cheeks, and a childish smile. We held hands. As the music started she tilted her head slightly to the side, her eyes curious. As I gazed, somehow, I could tell she had a child. Her eyes reminded me of my mother’s. I searched her eyes, trying to see why. But all it did was make me realise how after all these years, I’d never really looked into my mother’s eyes. After all these years, maybe I still didn’t even really know her. Underneath just being my mother, what were her fears, insecurities? What did she think about at night? What were things she secretly wished for? What made her happy? What did she want to be when she grew up? I’d never taken the time to look, see who she really was. A tear rolled down one side of my face. And this woman standing in front of me, squeezed my hands, gazed, deeper, wanting to know more. Another tear. Her eyes were sad now too, but loving. She squeezed my hands again. I smiled. The music stopped.
She opened her arms and I smiled with relief as we hugged, wiping the trails from my cheeks.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.”
As we broke, I saw Lynesha P smiling at me adoringly from the corner. I smiled back and shook my head, as if to say, don’t even ask. I’m fine. But as everyone searched for partners for the next round, I took a seat outside and watched from a distance. I couldn’t handle another round. Plus, I’d seen everything I needed to see.
“That was the most amazing thing…” Lynesha said as we walked out after it was over. Her eyes were as wide as her grin. “You were so emotional! I don’t know if we’ll ever get to do anything like that again.”
Now walking back in the sunshine amongst the crowd, it did feel like we’d been through something. Something a little bit magical, something nobody else would understand. Even if that were the only memorable thing I did my whole week in Tankwa Town, it would’ve all been worth it.
My Ranger shift that night finished at 9. I hadn’t made plans with anyone, so I wrapped up in furs and wandered down to State of Bliss. It was quiet, only a handful of people lounging while someone tinkered on the piano. I took a seat on the floor and unwound. My feet were weary from the hours of walking – between the daytime fun and my night shift, I’d covered the entire town at least three times over already, and the night hadn’t even begun.
As I zoned out to the music, I noticed one of Grizzly’s friends appear at the lounge entrance. Tall, slender, melanated, beautiful, wrapped in a bright orange fur jacket you could see in the night ten miles away. She spotted me and tip toed over.
“Heyyyy! Mind if I sit with you?” she whispered.
“Course not, what’s up.”
“Chilling. Where Leslie at?”
It was odd; normally I bumped into Grizzly three or four times a day, but I’d been out on the playa since morning and hadn’t seen her once.
“No idea. Maybe we’ll catch her tonight.”
After three or four songs she started gathering her things.
“I’m gonna head to Atypical. You wanna come?”
Atypical Bar was the coolest bar in Tankwa Town. At least I thought so. The first time I went there was on Day 2, to warm my hands on the open fires outside, and one of the camp members came around with marshmallows on sticks for us to roast. I ate around six or seven and thought I was on my way to heaven. The next night, I learned their bar had a full menu of cocktails on offer all night every night. No other bar in Tankwa was blessing the crowd with free liquor like Atypical Bar. And tonight, it was hip hop night. The place was booming. Drinks flowed at the bar, marshmallows were flaming outside and the best music in Tankwa Town was blaring from its speakers.
“This is my shit!” Orange Fur yelled as we waltzed in at the top of a Pharrell classic.
The mood was jolly that night. The dancefloor shook harder with every song, conversation around the marshmallow fire was full of love, people flooded in off the Binnekring. It felt like all the friends I’d made in town found their way to Atypical Bar. Gin and laughter flowed, but often I’d look around and find myself thinking, Grizzly would love this. Between songs I’d turn to the entrance hoping to see her walk in, but she never did. It was an unforgettable day, unforgettable night. Just one face away from perfect.
Friday had arrived. Most people were in bed nursing hangovers, but myself and four other burly fellows had volunteered for the Friday morning Ice Slinger shift.
Nothing is bought or sold in Tankwa Town, but there is an exception; Ice. Several years ago, a bout of food poisoning swept through the Burn. Toilets were overflowed with vomit and diarrhea, and people were laid up in their tents with food poisoning for days. It was just another reminder that out here in the desert, food goes bad quick. Ice keeps the beer cold, but more importantly keeps the steaks fresh. So, Tankwa gets three truckloads of ice delivered daily, all sold at the Ice tent to keep the town chilled and healthy.
Of course, the Ice trucks don’t unload themselves. That’s what the Ice Slingers are for. Every morning the ice line stretches into the hundreds, as Ice Slingers muscle the bags off the back of the trucks and into people’s cooler bins.
Before the shift started, the four of us were handed gloves and briefed by the Ice Master.
“You two in the truck,” he said, pointing at us. “You two on the ground.”
He was a portly man, and fun, the kind you’d want as an uncle for your kids.
“I’ll call out the order and you fetch ’em. But remember to throw the bags! Don’t slide ’em. Ya understand? Don’t slide ’em! And move ’em quick!”
We pulled on our gloves and flexed our biceps, ready for a morning of hard labour.
“And one more thing. I’ll scream out the order – three bags, five bags, whatever. But if the order is for only one bag, I want you to scream out after me, one bag! Keep ya on ya toes.”
The line was already out the tent and winding down the Binnekring when we opened for business. People came armed with cooler bins, backpacks, trolleys, ready to cart their hauls of ice back to their camps.
My comrade was a young French guy, looked like a small Daniel Craig. From the back of the truck we threw them to the boys on the ground, shaky at first, throwing six, dropping four. But we found a rhythm quickly.
The line moved quick. Even though we were in the back of an ice truck, we worked up a sweat. It felt glorious, getting blood pumping through the muscles on a Friday morning. I hadn’t had this much fun all week.
Two bags. Five bags. Eleven bags. Three bags. One bag.
The line moved and moved, more people arrived, bought more ice, we changed trucks and kept going. Each truck we’d swap jobs with the other boys, from throwing to catching. Throwing burned your biceps, catching smashed your wrists ’til they bled, but we screamed one bag with all our might and loved every minute.
After an hour we’d run through the whole queue. We pulled off our gloves and leaned against the trucks, pumped up on endorphins with grins on our faces. The Ice Tent was still open for another hour, and people drip fed in every five minutes, but the hard work was done. We sat on the back of the trucks and chatted about our week, like four blue collar workers getting ready for the weekend. Which is exactly what we were.
When our Ice Slinger shift ended, the boss man gave us each a 5kg bag as a reward. As I was living on chocolate and biltong, I had no use for a bag of ice. But he insisted I take it. Everyone needs ice, gift it to someone. I knew exactly who.
In the backstreets of Tankwa Town is a camp called New Beginnings. New Beginnings was relatively unknown, but those who knew about it loved it. Because New Beginnings offered what every single person in Tankwa Town dreamed of. Hot showers.
The walk to their camp was longer than I expected; I arrived almost breathless.
“Is this the New Beginnings crew?” I asked, dripping with sweat, a fresh bag of ice in my arms. They turned and looked at me, a few of them nodding with smiles.
“I’ve come to gift you a bag of ice.”
Suddenly their eyes turned to glitter as they eyed the bag in my hands. Some of them whimpered with joy. The thank you’s came so fast I couldn’t keep track of them.
“Least I can do. You’re doing God’s work out here.”
And it was true, they were. The New Beginnings shower is like any other shower, but out here in the desert it might as well be a suite at the Radisson. It’s a standard showerhead hooked up to a huge metal water tank, heated with flame. There’s a gun that dispenses bio degradable soap. Flick it on, and you’ve got a winning hot shower to wash your sins away. But there’s a catch. It’s outdoor. Not only outdoor, it’s basically on a stage. If you’re going to shower, you do it on display for all of Tankwa Town to see. But after a week in the desert that was the last thing I cared about. I stripped, stood on the little wooden platform, flicked the water on. Piping hot water rained down onto my face and down my naked body. A week of dust and sweat and dirt and grime washed away, each second bringing out longer and louder moans of unashamed ahhhhhh. People in line looked, passers by on the street looked. But there’s something liberating about being naked in front of people. First it feels terrifying, then a little odd, and then, the most normal thing in the world. By the time I stepped off those wooden slats, I didn’t just feel clean. I felt fearless.
I walked into Atypical Bar that night as if I’d done it every Friday Night for the last ten years. I handed over my cup to the bar, they mixed me a blue tonic with gin. I said hi to the familiar faces standing at the fires out front, on the dancefloor, sitting around on the couches. Five days ago Tankwa Town had been a complete mystery, but now, it was as if we really lived here.
It was well past midnight when she walked in. I was sitting on a bench by the DJ, sharing a joint with a wacky trio I’d befriended. The guy sitting next to me was dressed like Willy Wonka, and had motioned for me to come sit with his crew as he lit up. As we sat there laughing about nothing, I saw her wander in off the Binnekring. I watched her for a moment. She was alone, looking lost, perhaps searching for a friendly face. I handed the joint back to Willy and went up to greet her.
I smiled. We stood out by the fires, talking while warming our hands.
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I know! Nah I did think about you yesterday, and today,” she smiled.
“No really I did! Where have you been anyway. Let me guess. Working.”
“Yeah, I was on Ice Slinging this morning actually.”
I showed her the cuts on my wrists.
“Mister hard worker.”
I went back inside and shook hands with Willy. He gave me a hug, I handed him a love bracelet. He examined it like a raw diamond, then hugged me again.
“Love your work, by the way,” he grinned, nodding at Grizzly standing outside.
“It’s nothing like that,” I smiled.
He nodded and pursed his lips, bro style. We exchanged smiles again, bumped fists and turned to go our ways.
Grizzly was waiting for me by the fires. I raised my eyebrows at her, saying, where to?
“Let’s check out the cinema?”
Sweet Love Cinema was just a few camps down. It was a large tent, open air, a projector up front playing non-stop movies all through the night. Laid out in front were fifty or so bean bags where people came to chill, sleep, smoke, pass the day or night. It was always packed when I’d walked past, but on this night, at this hour, it was barely half full. Grizzly and I slipped into the back row, put our feet up. She snuggled against me as we hid under our scarves, braving the breeze blowing in behind us. It was an old sixties slapstick playing. Grizzly watched as I lay there gazing around the tent. How much work it must have taken to build this, put it all together, just for the people. How many more places like this were hiding around town that I hadn’t discovered yet? I realised how much I was going to miss this, how I wasn’t ready for it to end yet. But tomorrow was the last day. In 24 hours, this would all be over.
As I snapped out of a doze one more time, I caught Grizzly’s eyes starting to close.
“C’mon. I’ll walk you home.”
The Binnekring was particularly cold that night. Grizzly and I loitered along it, slowly. This stretch of desert, blazing with lights, music, crazy costumes, drugs, artwork, would have been a spectacle to anyone on any day of the week, but to us it had just become “that place down the street”. We walked and talked like it was just another quiet seafront boulevard.
“So you didn’t drink for a whole year? Why?”
I looked at the ground, thinking.
“I guess, I like the challenge of it. You know, my Mum told me something my grandma used to say. There are four things that break a man – womanising, drinking, smoking, gambling. So there’s this Asian thing where they say stay away from those things and you’ll be successful.”
“Is that why you’re successful?”
I looked up at her, surprised.
“Well you’ve like, travelled all over the world and everything….” she trailed off.
“And you speak Spanish. You got cool points for that.”
“Oh yeah, cool points?”
She looked at me and smiled.
“So many cool points.”
It was silent in the campground by the time we got to Grizzly’s place. Grizzly lived in a group camp right on the corner of 9ish Boulevard and Atlantis. Atlantis, Butterfly and Cherry Blossom were considered the “nice” streets of Tankwa’s suburbs. Up there, all the camps had big windproof canopies to pitch their tents under, proper kitchens, water tanks, and electricity generators. It was a little different down past Fata Morgana and beyond. There you started to see a lot more beer cans in the dirt, open fires, tents held together with duct tape. I flicked on my torch and we tiptoed through the camp to her tent.
I laughed when we got there. Her tent was barely the size of a sleeping bag, not tall enough to sit up in, and almost falling over. She pulled back the flaps.
“And that’s where I sleep.”
She had a “mattress” made out of her clothes, a sleeping bag on top, the rest of her stuff all stashed on top of each other. On the first day it would’ve looked rather charming and cosy, but after a week in Tankwa, it was barely standing. I shook my head.
“Grab your sleeping bag. Come stay with me in the hood tonight.”
Somehow to Grizzly, “grab your sleeping bag” meant “grab as much stuff as possible”. By the time she was done the two of us tiptoed out of there with half her clothes, blankets, pillow, food, all stuffed under our arms as we headed across the campground.
“Not in Atlantis anymore,” I said as we passed Cherry Blossom. “You’re now entering the ghetto. From here on it’s all drug dealers, Tankwa Town mafia. I mean look at that!”
I pointed to a pile of trash one camp had left out by the road. “It’s a hard life down this way.”
When we reached Fata Morgana, we turned off at my intersection towards home. Adrien Brody’s hippie tent was lit with flashing blue Christmas lights, as always, just beside it, the Dutchies van with the lights out, their bicycles resting against their bonnet. My tent was hidden from the roadside by their cars, but as we walked off the road and cut between them, there it was, sitting proudly in the dirt.
“Welcome to my mansion.”
I pulled back the flaps and we dumped all her stuff. I was surprisingly tired from the short walk, and collapsed into my pile of clothes.
“Oh my god, it’s a mansion for real. You can actually stand up in here.”
Grizzly started unravelling her stuff and fixing somewhere to sleep. As she lay out her pillow and unrolled her blanket, she suddenly stopped and looked up at me.
“Shit. I forgot my sleeping bag.”
“Are you serious!”
“Should I go back and get it?”
“Yeah, right. This is the hood, remember? You think you can go walking out there alone?”
Grizzly groaned, nudged me over and claimed half my mattress. I opened up my sleeping bag and whooshed it over us. Exhausted, we lay huddled together, laughing at the tragic bed we’d made. Usually it was hard to stay warm even with a sleeping bag all to myself, but with her laying against me the desert cold all but disappeared.
“I can’t believe it’s the last day tomorrow,” I whispered. We lay staring at the high roof of the mansion. “It feels like we’ve been here forever, but it also feels like…we just got here.”
It had crept up on us somehow; weird that we’d say goodbye in just one day. But, as we’d find out, a lot can happen in one day in Tankwa Town.
…to be continued.