Confessions of a Festival Backpacker
Overwhelming excitement, deteriorating hygiene standards and severe exhaustion are a few notable demeanours a first time international music festival backpacker will communicate. I did. Traveling is an invigorating activity at most times. Traveling to a massive, festival in a faraway continent is strangely so. Maybe even a tad paradoxical. The entire extravaganza will leave you physically drained, but the experience is refreshing. Let me borrow, and slightly modify, the tagline off a global electronic brand to reinstate my point.
“You have either been to European music festival, or well, you haven’t!”
Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Florence and the Machine and Ben Howard were a few acts off the 85 odd who played the three stages at Rock Werchter, Belgium, last year. The annual, four-day festival is a sprawling affair attracting over 85,000 attendees (official numbers, no exaggeration) every day. Comprising a plethora of artists, Werchter caters to myriad genres. I found myself rushing from a Jack White guitar lesson into a Skrillex dance riot back to a serenading Snow Patrol tottering in to a midnight Incubus jam and exulting at a Mumford and Sons special (arguably, the best set at the festival).
DO: Know the festival schedule like the back of your palm. Plan your day and earmark the acts you intend to watch. Timings will collide. Heartbreaking, but choices have to be made. You travel a few thousand miles to discover you must choose between Calvin Harris, Wolfmother and Noel Gallaghar. Not Cool.
We all enjoy a little fashion when we travel. But, a crowded festival isn’t exactly a Milan runaway. It can act as a theatre for the stylishly absurd. Animal suits, space suits, swim suits or no suits at all, the audience is eager to astonish. Dig in to your old, creaky suitcase and fetch that alien costume, you never thought you would wear again. You just might.
DON’T: Leave your Sunday best behind. Halloween leftovers. Check.
Every year the accommodation for campers, at Werchter, has increased. It isn’t a surprise as attendees, over the years, have ascertained the feasibility of camping across the festival ground. The unlimited revelry at a camping ground with fellow music lovers is equally enticing. Though, the entertainment comes at a price. Comfort must not be a priority. The hygiene yardstick should be at an all-time low. A sound night’s sleep is impossible and as I discovered an inflatable mattress is a must.
DO: Camping involves a few basic amenities. A tent, a sleeping bag, a mattress, a pillow (if you must), toiletries and a flashlight are absolutely compulsory. Returning to your tent, after a 14-hour concert stint only to discover a spider crawling up your tent flap cannot be fun. Any form of a disposable water container is ideal. If you have been camping earlier, figure the other value-adds you would want to take along. Though, camping sites have strict rules. Check on those before you walk in with your chef knife collection.
In spite of what you may believe, festivals are prime breeding territory for thieves and pick-pockets. EVEN, in the West. Hence, avoid a heavy, loaded backpack when you walk into your designated site. Carry minimal clothing. Leave that Tommy watch you received as a gift with your brother back home and when attending the shows, carry your little back pack along. Most festival grounds provide safe lockers on rent.
DO: Passport, extra money, travel tickets, keys and any other “lost and never found” sort of article goes into the locker. They are big enough for your small backpack which should pretty much fit in all your required clothing and that sunscreen lotion too. A day into the fest and you will realise that it wasn’t effeminate of me have suggested this. Though, if you haven’t used it on Day 1, it wouldn’t really matter after that.
DON’T: Avoid packing in the extra umbrella or a rain coat or your favourite pair of gumboots. Most festivals host a flea market. Besides your essentials, these stalls often have an interesting collection of memorabilia, souvenirs, clothing and accessories.
If a festival line-up boasts of Pearl Jam, RHCP, Snow Patrol, Mastodon, The Cure, Deadmau5 (he isn’t ‘dead-mau-5’, he is ‘dead-mouse’), James Morrison, Incubus and other popular global stars it is easy to ignore the rest. But, a true music fanatic will discover at least 3 new bands at a festival. It is imperative you must. Interact with the locals and speak to people to figure which act an ignorant you must explore.
DO: Venture beyond the stages. Most festival grounds are enormous and you usually restrict yourself to traveling between stages. It is quite an exercise by itself. But, if you did conjure that extra ounce of energy and went across to the left corner of the field, you would discover newer food options (eating the same junk over 4 days can be tedious), a tattoo parlour, shops and maybe even a brand sponsored, all day long dance party.
It is ironic, that I have saved my most important piece of advice for the end.
DO: Always, emphatically re-iterating, ALWAYS, carry more money than you think you need.
Festivals are expensive. The food is and so are the drinks. Your appetite is definitely enhanced at such venues. Music, food and drinks all day long is a great package deal. The music is unlimited. Invariably, you do not keep a tab on the amount you spend on the grub either. Also, a little, or sometimes excessive shopping, is inevitable. The official merchandise WILL drive you crazy. So, have that extra cash stashed away somewhere in your backpack.
DON’T: Never have all your money and cards kept at the same place. Distribute them, along with photocopies of your visa and passport.
Your first time festival experience is undoubtedly an adrenaline high. Watching artist you have idolized over the years with thousands of others amidst a spectacular display of stage production is pure ecstasy. Discovering your camping neighbour, a stranger when you first arrived, is your sing along partner for Pearl Jam’s ‘Elderly Woman behind the Counter in a Small Town’ can be socially uplifting. The grandeur is unparalleled. The experience, well, worth writing about.
PS: Every major festival has an adjacent smaller cousin. Search for those. Chris Cornell, solo and unplugged, is what I found.
Anupam Sarkar is a filmmaker, a musical enthusiast and most importantly, a true blue travel junkie.