October 2009

“YOU REMEMBERED TO BRING YOUR PASSPORT?” they asked as they stuffed us into the idling bus. To where we were headed, no one knew.

Most thought we were going to Poland, after all it was the closest country to Berlin. I hoped we were going to the Czech Republic, and was taking bets. I curled up in my chair and tried to sleep, only to be awoken an hour later as the bus pulled off onto a dirt road. A man ducked into the bus and announced in a thick German accent: “You will now need to put on life vests. We will go down the river.” I asked, “We’re kayaking to Prague?” But my voice was lost in the zipping noise of heavy jackets being put on. It was 50 degrees out.

Some of us were more skilled at navigating our yellow canoes than others.

…And then it appeared: The Schloss Tornow castle. Through chattering teeth I thought to myself: “It better have internet access.”

It didn’t. It had a sauna in the basement, tens of bedrooms, a magnificent fireplace that crackled day and night, a piano room, ball rooms, living rooms, room rooms, staircases, and secrets– like the freshly killed and skinned boar we found in the kitchen..

Lunch was being served, and while our guides laughed about how they managed to trick everyone into packing their passports, I went exploring, and picked a room on the top floor.

It was Halloween and although most of the group had been tasked with a big project, a few of us dressed up as Americans (scary), and went out trick or treating. We soon learned, as we knocked on the doors of the seven houses in the square mile surrounding the castle, that Germans adhere to the idea that Halloween is only for the kinder. Arguing that I am 12 years old at heart didn’t get me very far. A man with a junk heap in his backyard gave us four shots of jägermeister, a kind woman gave us each a bottle of beer. We needed it. It was cold.

The others were hard at work creating a face made out of wood. It was destined to be burned to the ground in a ceremony. They had commandeered a tractor and were busy hauling wood cleared from the forest. They brought in load after load, tools were distributed, and they got down to business creating a two-story tall wooden face

Ernst the project leader approached me as the others built, “Kosta, you must make the fire! The eyes, they must glow like a beast. It is very important!” I asked for clarification, and instead of explaining further he pulled out a bag of red powder “Dragon’s Breath” (essentially ground up road flares). The pyro in me twitched with excitement. I asked if he had any gun powder, or explosives, for added effect. “I will make a call,” he said.

Soon I found myself in the backseat of a beat up Volvo driving to the home of a hunter named Paul. He looked me up and down and unceremoniously handed five vials of black powder to me. “You must be careful.” He warned. I could barely blow up a mailbox with the miniscule amount, I don’t know what he was worried about.

The team was frantically trying to put the face onto its support structure. Hans, a severely ADHD wonder, was teetering on a ladder trying to hacksaw through a branch that was in the way. Everyone shouted their opinion on how he should be doing things.

After a few hours of experimentation we decided to fill aluminum pouches with dragons breath, gunpowder for sparkle, and use bomb fuse. They pyrotechnics were wrapped up in bailing wire and tied to the face in the exact location where the mouth and eyes were to be. We dipped them in kerosene to make sure they would catch fire. My contribution was done, and the others were busy writing a note and affixing it to the face. We were to burn our fears, our insecurities, and our egos. The face was not a stranger– it was our own.

I was uncertain whether our pyrotechnics would light. We hadn’t made done any tests—we simply assumed they would work. I affixed a torch to the end of a long stick and leaned it towards our creation. The lips crackled to life, and the eyes soon followed. Everyone cheered.

We huddled together in the bitter cold and watched as our hard work, our fears, and our egos turned to smoke and drifted into the night sky. The moon hung full, watching over us. All was perfect, as it always is, and always will be.

–fin–

Palomar 5 was a “social-experiment” designed to understand how groups can innovate in unique environments. 30 participants from around the world came to Berlin Germany for six weeks in the fall of 2009. The event described was part of the Palomar 5 experience.

Part I: Ask, Alice

The following is Part I of V. The story began in mid August.

Costa Rica was the first and only place that I drove a manual transmission. On the highways deep sink holes are denoted by a single cone, 4×4 is mandatory, and fording crocodile infested rivers is not an uncommon practice.  But that was Costa Rica, and this is England… a far more sinister place.

Everyone except me drives on the wrong side of the road, the roundabouts induce nausea, the car seating is all messed up, and a variety of very observant cameras make me anxious. In the first ten minutes upon departing from the rental agency I managed to clip four side view mirrors, hit a curb at high speed, lose two shiny hubcaps, melt the clutch, and played a few accidental games of chicken with oncoming traffic.

The navigator was pissed.  “You’re going to kill me; you’re driving too close on the left! You keep hitting mirrors!”  She glared at me with her giant eyes.  I had only known Alice for a number of hours; we were off to a great start on our five day adventure.

Allow me to elaborate.  Alice, the navigator, works in a hotel.  On a daily basis she books rooms, handles disasters, thwarts the attempts of married men to get her number, and dreams about living out of a backpack.  Her personal goal: save $20,000 and get lost somewhere on the planet. Monetarily she’s halfway there; mentally she’s been penning her own global version of “On The Road” for years.  She speaks four languages, has been to 24 countries, and until a few days ago, didn’t know how to read a road map.  Why? because she always had boys to do that for her…

How we met is a bit of a story on its own.

My dad once told me: “When the whites of a woman’s eyes are pearly white, it means she’s ovulating.  These are the ones who are who are ready for your attention.”  I couldn’t help but notice her dark brown iris surrounded by porcelain white, and then I couldn’t help but stare, and then I couldn’t help but wander up to her as she worked her hotel desk.  I stated the biologically obvious: “You look like you’re ovulating.”

She looked me straight in the eyes with intention, “How did you know?” she responded while fiddling with a BIC pen.

After a pregnant pause I continued, “I just know these things.”  Without hesitation she took my hand and dragged me to the laundry room.  In a sea of clean linen we had the most mind blowing, juicy, and loud four minutes of sex ever.

Wouldn’t that have been lovely?  Oh the joys of an active imagination. I don’t actually remember our short interaction. The Today Show had put me up in Alice’s Rockefeller hotel in NYC for a morning news spot.  As I was checking out we said some witty things to one another.  It wasn’t as cheesy as “so you come here often” and certainly not as dashing as “You look like you’re ovulating.”  –But certainly somewhere in between.  I distinctly remember a good fifteen seconds of staring contest that took place.

I left a business card with one of her co-workers with the instructions, “Tell Alice she was lovely, I would love to get to know her better.”

A week later, back in Montreal, while pondering my existence and eating ice-cream my phone rang: “Kosta?  This is Alice.” she said.  With a full mouth I responded: “Who’s Alice?”

As we chatted it became more and more apparent that this girl was about as nutty as I was.   Her lone travels through Eastern Europe, Brazil, Portugal, Spain were inspiring.  She made a proposal late one evening “You’re going to Amsterdam at the end of August for that hacking camp.  I want to go to the Creamfields festival in England around when you’re finished there.  Let’s meet up.”  Without missing a beat I replied: “Sure.”

Five days of travelling with an almost complete stranger.  Sounds like a lovely idea.

Continue to Part II.