FireDrums 2014 and San Francisco
Way back in January at Poi Love Camp I'd asked Jonathan Alvarez what he thought the best flow festival was during them summer in the USA, and he told me he thought FireDrums was number one, so I put it in my calendar and mostly forgot about it. Much later I realised it was only a few weeks away, and decided to impulse buy a ticket, sort out some flights and get my self along to see it for myself.
I flew from San Pedro Sula (aka. Murderville) to San Francisco, with a brief stopover in Houston, but a delayed flight meant that I was arriving at 11pm instead of 9pm like I had intended, so it was very late by the time I left the airport, which meant I got the royal introduction from San Francisco wackos, from the crazy guy on BART who was laughing and ranting, telling everyone that he wasn't dead, and that he'd killed Elvis, to the super friendly homeless guy on the bus who was very insistent that I had to visit Pier 39 while I'm in town to see the real San Francisco.
I was staying with some people I'd gotten in touch with through couchsurfing, a very hospitable girl named Camille and her lovely house mate Rose. They were awesome! They even had a little dinner party one night; I couldn't have asked for better hosts.
I had a day in San Francisco to sort out things I needed for FireDrums (sleeping bag, camp mat, food. I was lucky enough to get offered a lift and a spot in someone's tent which saved me a whole lot of hassle), but I started off the day by exploring some of the mission street, one of the oldest and longest streets in the city.
I found some cool little alleyways full of murals, Clarion Alley in particular.
During the day I ended up walking nearly the entire length of Mission street right down to the ferry building (I switched over to Market at some point when Mission got too seedy for me, I think it was about the time I saw a deaf woman gesturing blowjobs at passing cars, then at me), with a quick detour to the camping shop to pick up the stuff I needed and a quick stop in at Chez Maman, a restaurant that pretty much everyone I know from Melbourne who's been to San Francisco seems to rave about.
Chez Maman was a tiny little place, mostly just counter seating along the grill. I got a basic burger with goats cheese, and it was pretty good, but that and a beer came out to $25 with taxes and the tip so it was more than I would have liked to spend just on lunch. Maybe I'd feel better about it if I still had an income.
The next morning my ride to FireDrums, a friendly bloke named Peter, showed up in his truck and we headed a few hours north to Navarro; the beautiful FireDrums site fully of enormous redwood trees. Peter was kind enough to offer me not just a ride, but also some space to sleep in his tent which made flying in for the event a whole lot easier than it could have been. Thanks again mate!
On arrival we quickly put up Peter's tent, then went off to work our first volunteer shifts. As part of keeping costs down, everyone attending FireDrums is expected to help out by doing a few volunteer shifts. I volunteered for one of the setup shifts, which resulted in me working on putting together the stand for the Teserect, a magical mirror filled box that belongs to Prometheatrics. Prometheatrics happens to be the burning man camp I was lined up to camp with, so as a bonus I got to meet a few people from the camp, TeaFaerie, Sean and Spin, all of whom are lovely.
Wandering around later that afternoon I ran into Tim and Lou, two more spinners I'd briefly met back home in Oz, who were touring around the USA hitting all the bit flow festivals. Nice to see some familiar faces and hear some accents from home.
I also bumped into Jonathan who gave me a super excited welcome as though I was flow-famous or something. That guy is so damn friendly!
The event opened with an opening ceremony around the fire circle, led by Sky (?) and Ben Drexler, yet another person who made a huge number of youtube tutorials I've watched.
Each day of FireDrums was cram packed with workshops for all different kinds of things, from poi to staffs, hoop to juggling, footwork to flexibility. I took some great classes about all different kinds of poi throws and tosses which I feel add a bit of a club juggling flair to spinning poi; classes on different advanced stalls, Tim's classes on iso-pendulums and tape-desk toroids, and a bunch more. With some many workshops each day, you really had to accept you couldn't go to all of the ones you wanted to, and if you went to one in every timeslot you were thoroughly burnt out with information overload for the day.
I'd been wanting to purchase my first set of fire poi for a while, and so had been looking around at all the market stalls and had narrowed it down to just a few different types of wicks. After the fire circle started up the first night, I managed to find some people with the kind I was looking at who were kind enough to let me have a go with them lit up, so I could get a better idea of how they differed.
I ended up splashing out for some twista style wicks, glow-in-the-dark soft pom grips, and fancy new Technora fire resistant rope leashes instead of the traditional chains, so that my fire poi and my LED poi feel a bit more similar. I got in a good number of burns each night and have been extremely happy with the new poi.
One evening their was a showcase of performers getting up on the stage of the amphitheatre to show off their skills. There was some fantastic partner acts and one of the most amazing hoopers I've ever seen. An epic display of talent on show.
My other volunteer shift was a fire safety shift, relieving a pretty girl named Leora of her post. Being a fire safety pretty much involves sitting at the edge of the fire circle with a blanket of fireproof material called Duvetyne, watching people spin, keeping an out out for any clothing that catches alight and letting the wearer know (and help them put it out if needed. My shift was pretty trouble free, mostly just putting out peoples props who were done spinning, although I did need to put the back of one dudes pants out that had caught on fire.
I should stop and say the fire circle was pretty crazy. Never before have I seen so many people spinning fire in one place, and so much talent. Even with all the safeties around, it almost felt like there was too much going on for everyone to have someone keeping an eye on them.
I find the contrast between Australian and USA approaches to safety really interesting. In the USA white gas is the fuel of choice, while in Australia it's frowned upon because it's quite a bit more dangerous and people prefer fuels with kerosene-like properties. Kerosene burns cooler, and it needs a wick to burn, which means that fuel spraying off or being spilt are less dangerous (but still not good). You can drop a lit match into a bucket of kerosene-like fuel and it will go out. Do the same with a bucket of white gas and you have a huge problem. Kerosene-like fuels do have the downsides that they don't burn as cleanly or as brightly.
Now the interesting part is (perhaps because of these choices in fuel), I've gotten the impression that people from the USA are far more conscientious about having a dedicated fire safety person around when people spin, with proper equipment around to put out fires. Maybe it's just me being unobservant, but I feel like I've spun fire, or seen people spinning fire back home in oz a load of times but I'd never been or seen a fire safety for anyone. I don't recall seeing Duvetyne in real life before going to the USA; at most I've heard of people using wet towels. It's funny how each country seems to have focused on optimizing one aspect of safety, but ignores another aspect.
Anyway, after sitting in the cold, being a fire safety for 2 hours, I went out and had another few burns with my new poi to warm up again. On my last burn of the night, I was offered some titanium powder, a substance you can apply to your props that makes them throw off little firefly like sparkles, especially when they stop abruptly, like in a spiral wrap. Wanting to see sparkles, I did a spiral wrap (perhaps too early in the burn with too much excess white gas, or perhaps the heat from the burning titanium?), and when the spiral unwrapped the top of my hand was on fire. I patted it out and kept spinning until the fuel on the poi burned out, after which I noticed it was actually quite a painful burn so I headed to first aid who gave me some antibiotic cream and told me to expect blisters.
The pain was pretty nasty, so I ended up taking some painkillers and some sleeping tablets and went to bed just so I didn't have to put up with it any longer. Anyway, it's a lesson I wont soon forget in being careless with new fuels that I'm not familiar with; both the titanium powder and the white gas.
The next day we got up and packed down the tent, and Peter mentioned he'd organized to give some chick a lift back with us to San Francisco, who turned out to be Leora from fire safety the night before.
Peter was very keen to go to some hot springs on the way back called Harbin that were "clothing optional." I think I saw one maybe person wearing pants. You'd be the strange one if you weren't naked.
Leora seemed equally hesitant as me to strip off, but I figured YOLO and we all stripped off and went and bathed in the springs. For the most part, me and Leora stuck together, so it was really good to have a “not-completely-comfortable-with-this” buddy there with me to share the experience with. Peter on the other hand seemed completely in his element. To be honest it was actually a lot less awkward/uncomfortable than I had imagined it might be. When everyone is naked it doesn't seem like such a big deal at all.
There was a super hot “meditation” pool, a hot “quiet” pool” a warm pool, an icy cold pool and a big swimming pool. We went into the hot pool for a little bit, then the super hot pool for all of about 30 seconds before it was too hot, then the icy pool, then the warm pool again, then the swimming pool... and then back and forth a bit more. It was a rather enjoyable way to relax for a few hours.
Coming back into San Francisco the bay was crazy foggy; a stark contrast from when we left in the other direction and it was clear blue skies. You couldn't even see the top of the Golden Gate bridge as we drove over it.
We dropped Leora off at the airport then headed back to Peter's place where he'd been kind enough to offer me his couch for a few nights.
I spent the few days before my flight exploring various places around San Francisco, some touristy, some of very little interest to most people.
I walked up telegraph hill because the trams were still on strike.
I went and had a look at Mission Dolores park. I went over to the Moscone centre, and asked some WWDC attendees about the new announcements this year.
I fan-stalked past Github HQ. I made a visit to one of the regular spin jams that take place at the Vulcan, home to a bunch of San Francisco's amazing poi spinners.
I went and checked out the Exploratorium, a huge hands on science museum that I would have loved as a kid (and was still awesome as an adult).
I went over to pier 39 to see the sea lions
and got my first glimpse of Alcatraz.
I even walked up the hill to Lombard st, the crookedest street in the world. I went and had a quick walk around Golden Gate park, and quickly realised I'd need to come back with more time up my sleeve.
This visit was just a teasing taste of San Francisco, but it was enough for me to know I want to spend a lot more time there.