THE FESTIVAL HUNTERFROM CHASING CHEESE WHEELS DOWNHILL TO BULLS THROUGH COBBLED STREETS, THIS FESTIVAL FAN HAS SEEN THE WILDEST AND WACKIEST IN THE WORLD.
Chip Conley, a former hotel entrepreneur and now an executive with Airbnb, first fell in love with festivals as a kid. But he didn’t become a serious festival collector until he attended Burning Man in his 30s and discovered what he calls “the transformative nature of festivals.”
“I got curious about why it is that when we’re getting more and more connected in the digital world we feel the need to have face-to-face experiences. The more digital we get, the more we need festivals as human rituals.”
From music and art, to food and film, to religious and traditional, he’s been to 75 festivals in 25 countries (including Burning Man for 17 years). In 2013 he launched a website about the best in the world called Fest300. Here are the wildest things he’s seen:
JUMP, BABY, JUMP
“A combo of pagan meets the Catholic Church, the El Colacho baby-jumping festival near Burgos, Spain, is so visually crazy,” says Conley of this 400-year-old tradition.
“All the babies in town are put on a dozen or so mattresses and two guys dressed as the devil get drunker and drunker and then jump over the mattresses.” As many as eight babies are lined up perfectly on each mattress and the jumpers have to clear up to three mattresses in a row. The local priest then blesses the babies after the “devil” has taken away their sins with the leap, even though the Catholic Church has disavowed the ritual.
“I’ve been told no baby has ever been injured,” he says.
Conley was almost crushed at the Kumbh Mela — and “loved it.” Hinduism’s largest festival attracts up to 100 million pilgrims over 55 days to bathe in the Ganges River in four locations in India. He attended the festivities at Allahabad where the crowd grew to about 30 million.
“The wildest thing I saw was a stampede and I was in it. Someone pushed their motorcycle along and it fell down but people still kept coming behind me. I ended up pancaked in the second level of a four-level-high group of people. The experience of that much humanity and the devotional nature was amazing!”
By contrast, another stampede — the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain — left Conley feeling “threatened” as well as uneasy about the morality of bull fighting.
“I ran the bulls. The adrenaline rush was amazing, just the emotional contagion of anxiety and excitement that runs through your body. But I didn’t love it. It was more mayhem than magic” (perhaps because men were gored in the thorax, armpit, and rectum and one nearly smothered to death when he was there).
Still, rumbling with the bulls was so intense that he didn’t realise he’d twisted his ankle on the cobblestone run until he reached the bullring at the end of this “absurd theatre of testosterone.”
THE BIG CHEESE
Another “adrenalin-junky experience,” says Conley, is the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll near Gloucester, England.
About 20-40 contestants chase an 8-pound wheel of cheese (actually a plastic replica since 2013) down a very steep hill full of ankle-breaking holes. This is not for wimps: The cheese can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour as it hurtles down the hill! Yeah, the first person to the bottom gets to take home the (real) cheese, but it’s really just about bragging rights.
“It’s very dangerous. You can easily lose your step,” he says. “It’s not for the faint of heart — or the easily bruised.”
Weird reaches a whole new level at Thaipusam, the Tamil Hindu festival of devotion celebrated each year in countries with a sizable Tamil community, such as Malaysia, where Conley witnessed it.
To prove their commitment to overcoming an obstacle, as penance for a sin or to honour a vow, devotees pierce their faces or tongues with long skewers and their backs with multiple fish hooks attached to pieces of fruit, bells or elaborately decorated frames that can weigh up to 220 lbs. They carry their “burdens” trance-like on a nine-mile pilgrimage walk from Kuala Lumpur to the temple at Batu Caves. To intensify the challenge, some participants are even restrained by long ropes attached to the hooks in their backs, which pull at their flesh grotesquely. Definitely not for the squeamish.
It’s “very visual and really wild,” says Conley.
THE HORSE WHISPERERS
Conley calls the famous Il Palio bareback horse race in Siena, Italy, “a strange mixture of Kentucky Derby and Renaissance fair, which is cool and fun.” While the medieval-era race with its wild pageantry and careening riders is the focus, what happens the night before in the rival neighbourhoods that sponsor the competitors he found even crazier.
“The whole neighbourhood erupts into a party and parades through town. I went to a dinner in one neighbourhood where the tradition is for the oldest woman in town — she could be a 95-year-old — to French kiss the young 20-something jockey for 10 minutes!”