“Anything goes at Shambhala, man. If you want to walk down to the beach naked, then you walk down to the beach f***ing naked.”
I overhead this on Day One at Shambhala. Although this was my first time attending the festival, I had reason to believe that you could do what you want here. This stranger’s comment proved to me that it was true: Shambhala is where grown adults go to be completely irresponsible, and yet it’s completely acceptable.
This was an opportunity to wear all of my most fabulous thrift store finds. Gold, sparkles, animal print… clothes and patterns that would draw judging or confused gazes from citizens in my small community if I wore them on a regular day. But not here—this is where you do what you want. There are also lots of people who wore their regular clothes, which is fine, but I often thought to myself, “Are you sure you don’t wish you were wearing a skin-tight gold one-piece spandex suit? Don’t you want to get super weird?”
For example, at the Fractal Forest Funk Jam on Sunday afternoon, there was a middle-aged man gettin’ weird. Wearing nothing but zebra-print tape on his nipples and groin, he had broccoli florets stuck over his private parts. After some observation, I concluded that the broccoli was to add texture… and why not?!
It is also common to see people who are casually naked. In fact, a woman camped next to us that wore no makeup and spent the entire weekend topless. I couldn’t help but think about Anne-Marie in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.
“I rolled in at 4am and saw a pack of pigs digging their way into someone’s shade tent and getting into people’s food.”
First, to whoever let the pigs out: real mature. However, it is hilarious and made me love the festival even more. The site is a family-run working farm in the “off-season.” During the festival, you can buy burgers made with beef raised on the farm, smoothies using farm fresh fruit and veggies, organic homemade freezies, and delicious Oso Negro coffee roasted in Nelson. All of the vendors are small and local, art is carefully placed throughout the farm, all the festival signage is handmade, and there are cute flower gardens and planters around the grounds. All of the festival trucks and golf carts are old and had glowsticks taped to them for a little extra night visibility. It all adds up to an intimate, casual vibe. Shambhala doesn’t accept corporate sponsorship—and that is awesome.
“I couldn’t find my camp for over an hour last night!”
It’s fair to say that this festival is no place for idiots. It’s fairly large and the camping sections don’t have much in the way of clear signage, which is totally fine—it offers a challenge in the dark. There are uneven paths in the forest between stages with lighting designed to trip folks out. The stairs leading up to dancing forts are dark, with no reflective tape or signs saying “WATCH YOUR STEP.”
One evening I watched a girl walk right into a well-lit algae-filled pond outside of the Fractal Forest. To be fair, the surface looked solid, and security said she wasn’t the first. There is no need to fret though: if you’re geographically confused or have lost your motor skills, a stranger will have your back. It is commonly known as “Shambhalove.”
“Last night I was on the dance floor and I was taking my ‘disco biscuits’ and throwing it in the air and trying to catch it in my mouth!”
Wait. How did you manage to get that into the festival?! Drugs and booze are explicitly not allowed at Shambhala; however, they can’t pull the door panels off 5,000 or so vehicles. While security does search many vehicles thoroughly, at least six people randomly popped by our camp politely asking us if we “needed anything.” All I ever wanted was a cold beer, which I was mercifully given by someone during the Funk Jam. I will forever remember him as my Funk Jesus.
Shambhala has an incredible harm reduction strategy in place—it’s realistic and smart. People will figure out a way to do drugs if they want to, and Shambhala wants to make sure you are aware of the risks and are informed as much as possible on what you are taking. You can have your drugs tested at the festival, and people do—it’s the responsible thing to do. Maybe you bought something that turned out to be something completely different—this is a good thing to know. A bulletin board is conveniently located in the downtown area of the festival to display the results of the most common drug tests so people can avoid surprises.
I have never felt safer at a festival, or any concert for that matter, than I did at Shambhala. I took a break from dancing *once* to sit down against a fence, and a security guard came over to check in that I was actually okay. That simple act showed me that I was safe here, and that I was with “family.”
“C’mon babe… you must have come down here with shoes.”
The Salmo River runs right beside the festival, and I believe this woman’s shoes could very well have floated away. C’est la vie—time to dance barefoot (and maybe borrow a pair for the portapotty).
Afternoons are generally spent down by the Living Room stage, which faces the river. Chill, funky vinyl vibes and sunshine on the shores of the river with your buds, old and new, telling tales of experiences from the night before. Everyone shows an incredible amount of respect to the river (especially the dude coated in mud and weeds). It really doesn’t get much better than that.
“If you want to find me, I’ll be in the Fractal Forest with my people.”
Each stage has it’s own cult following, so to speak. The amount of thought and work that goes into the visual aesthetics of all six stages is devastatingly impressive. They are difficult to describe and there is no photography allowed in the Fractal Forest because it is truly impossible to capture. You’ll just have to go see it for yourself. Each stage has its own director, and generally caters to a certain taste of electronic music. There is something for everyone.
“I want to live at Shambhala!”
Okay, that’s a little extreme, but I get you. That weekend was one of the best of my life. Growing up in the Kootenays, I am ashamed it took me as long as it did to finally attend. There is a certain stigma attached to it: it’s just a rave in the forest for hippies. It is truly so much more than that. I was once told by a friend that he loved the festival (and has attended several times), yet he doesn’t even listen to “that kind of music.” It is considered a community to many, however, and it’s actually the largest “pop-up” community in the Kootenays. The festival’s guests and workers combined brings the community population to somewhere around 14,000. The city of Nelson sits at 10,000.
“Weeee want the Funk! Give up the Funk!”
The gates re-open on Sunday morning to people who just want to come for one day and night, although that is not really advertised. Sunday was actually my favourite day: the five-hour Fractal Forest Funk Jam and the headliners at the Pagoda were incredible. The Pagoda’s stage director told me that he was going to have all the women at his stage on Sunday, because he had booked some of the best tropical house DJs on the planet. He was right. MÖWE was hands-down the best set I have ever seen in my life. The unassuming Viennese woman stole my heart and inspired me with her wicked dance moves and angelic voice. Bakermat came second since I am a sucker for redheads, and the saxophone solos on the row of PK Sound speakers were mind blowing. On second thought, all days were liked equally. Each offered up an impressive lineup of DJs, forest adventures, sneaky spots to hang out, incredible food, and love for strangers.
I can now confidently sing Shambhala’s praises, and I would recommend the festival to anyone. Go for the whole weekend (which to devoted Shambhalovlies is considered a stat holiday), or go for one night. Whatever you do, don’t go another year without giving it a shot.
Stay gold, Shambhala. Stay gold.
WORDS: Sarah Peterson
PHOTOGRAPHY: Betty & Kora