Author: Gabriella Bordignon
Based on Jacek Palkiewicz book “Pasja zycia” (“Passion of life”), (Zysk i S-ka Publishing 2007).
At first glance there is nothing to distinguish him from the crowd except perhaps a confident posture, the spring in his step and well-honed powers of observation. Not everyone who meets Jacek Palkiewicz is willing to offer him friendship. Some claim that modesty is not one of his sins and that he is too confident in his own abilities. Others are offended by the arrogance, egoism, impertinence and conceit contained in the following words: “I will win any game you choose to play, not because I am more intelligent or stronger, but because I never tire and you do.” Still others remember a sentence broadcast in a commercial for an Italian bicycle: “Wherever you go, we’ve already been there.”
Some accuse him of cultivating an exaggerated image of a tough guy: ruthless determination, emotional camouflage, Spartan self-control, brevity, stony distance and a demanding level of personal fitness by means of training, shooting practice using a Glock, etc. There are also those, primarily individuals who have failed to realize their own ambitions, who are annoyed by the cult of Palkiewicz and out of envy attempt to destroy his reputation – sitting in their comfortable chairs, they make rash judgments.
Those who have been able to get to know this frenetic traveler and born leader admit that this first impression is misleading. Under a seemingly cold demeanor, there is a “normal” man. A strong personality, loyalty, directness, professionalism and charisma with time provoke curiosity and later attract and engender affection. A handful of committed fans are more than sufficient. Each, amazed by his thrilling life, is prepared to forgive him for a lack of sensitivity, an uncompromising nature and raw and brutal honesty, frequently interpreted as an unpleasant way of being.
As a rule people do not hide their jealousy of what he has done and experienced or the richness of impressions and thrills of emotion he has accumulated at every latitude of our planet. The American weekly Newsweek, with appreciation for his obsessive curiosity about the world, included him among the last generation of explorers. His successors will no longer be able to enjoy the fascinating colors of a camel caravan, meadows on the plateaus of Bhutan or elephants in the jungles of Indochina.
Italian writer Vittorio G. Rossi, highly impressed by his passion for life, wrote: “He has a sense of adventure in the same way that he has ears and a nose. On land and sea he has achieved unforgettable deeds. He is tough and able to fight every difficulty, but can also admit that fear and pain are inseparable companions in his life.”
“Life gives every person as much as he has the courage to take and I have no intention of giving up anything that is my due,” he once wrote. Another time he said: “Life is too short not to search for instant gratification.” Palkiewicz is certainly addicted to adrenaline. It would seem that these full and rich emotional experiences are the main value that gives sense to his life.
He speaks several languages fluently and moves with ease in New York, Saigon, Paris and Caracas. As a master of survival he is not afraid of getting lost in the desert or Amazon jungle. Duel citizenship allowed him to be one of the first Poles to enjoy the benefits of European Union citizenship many years ago. He enjoys even greater popularity abroad than in his own country, earning universal admiration in Russia and Italy, where he is called “secondo Polacco”, the second Pole (after the Pope).
This daring explorer caught the irresistible virus of curiosity in the world in a provincial town in Mazuria, where he memorized the entire atlas. In 1970 he traveled to Italy, where – in his own words – “he fell into Linda’s arms.” The elegant Latino brunette of ideal beauty who became his wife tells a somewhat different story: “Initially, I didn’t want to see him, but later he gained my affection thanks to a strong personality, engendering a feeling of safety and trust.”
Soon after the wedding, he visited Genoa, where he passed an exam to become a 2nd Mate, administered by a commission at the Liberian consulate. Without a seaman’s school or experience at sea, he achieved a level which is normally gained after many years of work.
After two years of tortuous, as he describes it, existence, he found a position briefly at a gold mine in Ghana, a job he quit after a good friend died in a mining accident. At those times his greatest fascination was the Black Continent. He traveled to Sierra Leone, where he was employed as a security officer at Selection Trust, an opencast diamond mine in Yèngeme, owned by the British. “Living conditions”, Jacek recalls, “were satisfactory: a spacious lodge with servants, silverware, French wine, a terrace with a view of a golf course …”
Work was another story and involved patrolling a terrain of 400 km2 by jeep to drive off trespassers, which necessitated a constant series of shootouts. But this wasn’t the worst. Everyone was subject to a claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia and obsessive suspicion, similar to the logic that prevails within the intelligence community – trust no one. Soon he left and returned home to Bassano del Grappa, near Venice.
In order to receive a daily dose of adrenaline, in 1983 he founded the first survival academy on the European continent. All of the cards were in his hand. Eight years earlier he conquered the Atlantic alone in a life raft, completed a survival course in Arizona and underwent training in the famous Leo Gleser Israeli school of counter-terrorism. In Japan he observed methods of educating managers, a true school of character and test of spirit that unleashes the growth of dynamism, faith in oneself, team spirit and risk awareness – in other words, exactly the skills needed by a modern leader.
Jacek’s initiative met with unquestionable success. His week-long courses were attended by representatives of various professions, including state employees, students, military pilots and even missionaries – all of whom were eager to learn how to cope with extreme situations. Si vis pacem, para bellum — prepare for war if you want peace. The master frequently reminded his students “in order to counteract evil, one must know and foresee its negative consequences”.
Extreme physical exertion, pain and suffering are the daily bread of Palkiewicz’s school, but these are precisely the tools that reinforce the psyche and guarantee the ability to access greater determination in life. A certificate from the school has for many become a prestigious calling card and a status symbol. Once well-known Italian actor Enrico Montesano and his producer attended the classes with the intent of creating a sensational film about Palkiewicz and his school. One year later Uomini duri (Three Tough Guys) became the biggest box office hit of the year.
With time Jacek turned his attention to ambitious scientific-research exploration. In 1992 he received permission from Vietnamese authorities to live among the isolated local Jaraj community, which maintained a one-thousand-year tradition and continues to live in the heart of the jungle.
Two years later he found a small group of Yanomami in the river basin of the Upper Orinoko that had no contact with our civilization. In that same year, he made contact with the Bausi tribe on the Mamberamo River in West Irian, a prehistoric enclave, where headhunting and cannibalism are practiced. What others can only dream about, he experiences in the waking world.
In 1996 Jacek led a scientific expedition to establish conclusively the source of the Amazon, later officially confirmed by the Geographic Society in Lima. In Poland a few envious individuals engaged in a distasteful intrigue. The explorer, whose find was questioned, reacted to this insinuations and dishonest manipulations calmly. As usual he disregarded those who did not like him, deriding their stupidity and meanness. I suppose he had cause for pride when the discovery became a frequent topic for Master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, particularly when Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi honored him in a decree issued June 2, 2003 for “a significant contribution in the field of geography” with the highest distinction – the Order of Knighthood of the Republic.
He has a knack for handling media relations, which more than once has caused petty envy. “I don’t have my own public relations agent”, he says. “I have to make sure that I ‘sell’ successfully. It is not enough to be deserving – someone has to notice and ‘buy’.” He is sensitive concerning his own authority and does not give in to outside influences of any kind. An uncompromising and ruthless approach to life narrows his network of friends considerably.
Here I would like to describe one particular episode. Jacek has made his own small contribution to space exploration. His lonely trip across the Atlantic in 1975 on a life boat, the first such trip in the history of navigation, was also a kind of cosmic psychological laboratory. The success of long-term missions in orbit depends to a large extent on deeper knowledge of how man functions over longer periods in stressful situations with limited stimuli. American scientists working for NASA were interested in the problem of deprivation during his 44-day trip. The experiences accumulated by this volunteer castaway and the notes taken during his adventures under conditions of extreme isolation from reality and constant danger, were scrupulously used in scientific research.
Someone once wrote with sarcasm that Palkiewicz refused to take part in a mission led by Jacques Yves Cousteau because he doesn’t like to stand in the shadows of others. “It wasn’t exactly like that”, he claims many years later. “In 1982 the ‘Commandant’ actually invited me to travel to the Amazon, but I did not go because I was already leaving on an expedition to Vietnam.” Jacek also enjoys the esteem of Thor Heyerdahl, who wrote in the dedication of his last book: “I have enormous respect for Palkiewicz because of his professionalism and unusual explorational achievements.” It was Heyerdahl who in 1994 recommended Palkiewicz to the highly elite group of Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society of London, which affiliates talented figures who have contributed to the growth and popularization of the geographic sciences. At the time he emphasized Jacek’s work in expanding the borders of human endurance in extreme situations and life-threatening climates as well as the variety of expeditions led by Palkiewicz in the search for lost civilizations, unusual phenomenon and people.
Jacek’s stand on environmental protection is well known. In 1978 in Monaco, Princess Grace Kelly awarded him a prestigious distinction for his fight on behalf of the purity of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a campaign organized by WWF, the World Organization of Nature Conservation, in honor of the International Year of the Sea and was designed to spread public awareness concerning the moral obligation of making real effort to protect seawaters.
1989 Sting offered to collaborate with Palkiewicz in his campaign to protect the rights of Amazon Indians and a few years later Jacek led an ecological expedition of cosmonauts to Siberia under the patronage of President Boris Yeltsin. All press agencies and media representatives covered this international mission, involved in saving our planet. For three days it was the subject of a wide range of discussions. Later the world soon forgot about the message of these space heroes. Deprived of his illusions, Palkiewicz comments on those times: “I believed in utopia and didn’t want to believe that the realism of the industrial age would suffocate the interests of mankind.”
I have known Jacek for one-quarter of a century and participated in some of his expeditions, which cost me a great deal of self-discipline. He is a demanding boss, extremely hard and exacting. More than once I was unable to swallow his categorical nature, lack of tolerance for weakness in any form and ruthless condemnation of insubordination, but later in a moment of cool reflection, I always had to admit that he was right.
He is a colorful figure, a hyperactive individual with inexhaustible reserves of energy, iron health and ruthless determination. Whatever he does is accomplished with unrivaled drive and passion, as if each day was his last and there was nothing to lose. The unbridled, animal desire that is often visible in his emotional attachments sometimes reaches the level of a heart attack.
He has all the personality traits of a born leader: decision-making ability, faith in his own decisions, confidence, optimism, resistance to stress, objective judgment and common sense in interpersonal relations. His is a master at organization. An expedition under extremely difficult conditions to Borneo ended in success only because of smooth functioning logistics. Jacek’s charisma, which creates the will to accept his severe discipline, makes it possible to maintain high morale for many long weeks and therefore ensures mental strength and maximum physical exertion. It is precisely thanks to the imposition of these strict criteria, applied across the board to all participants, that none of more than a dozen expeditions has ended in failure.
Fascinating travels also involve, however, great difficulty, fear, discomfort, stress and sometimes near death experiences. Despite this he is unable to sit safely at home longer than two weeks at a time. It would seem that he is unable to satisfy his unusual need for thrills and the challenge of overcoming difficulty. The admirable explorations made by this restless nomad are the subject of numerous European publications. Methodic in his actions, he brings shocking news from his travels, telling of legends and inflaming the human imagination. Jacek’s accounts, highly accessible to the reader, are stripped of unnecessary embellishment.
His own catalogue of books includes more than a dozen titles.
Sensitive to female beauty, he is frequently seen in the company of models and gorgeous Brazilian beauties. Nonetheless, his greatest fascination remains his wife Linda. “He is able to attract attention from women who value his charisma and personality”, said once Ursula Andress, Sean Connery’s partner in the film James Bond 007 and the recipient of a Golden Globe in 2001 for being the sexiest of all the Bond girls.
In the summer of 1997 this tireless explorer appeared in a new manifestation. At that time it was revealed that he had long been involved in the problems connected with counteracting international terrorism. Now with the blessing of several European countries, he has taken on the training of elite counter-terrorist teams, teaching them to survive in the extremely difficult conditions of the desert, high mountains and poles. These training sessions are designed to prepare commandos for special assignments abroad as well as reinforce international cooperation.
One day Jacek was contacted by the secretary of an international corporation, who asked him whether he would be willing to organize a so-called incentive trip, intended to strengthen the bonds between employees and their firm, motivate them to greater productivity as well as increase levels of integration and solidarity within the team – all of this in grand adventure style, accompanied by physical exertion, tourist attractions, training, the thrill of emotion and fun. Jacek’s experience, rigor, organizational and leadership abilities allowed him to guarantee this organization a quality and unforgettable program. A luxurious and exotic trip to the desert of Skeleton Coast in Namibia turned out to be a dream vacation for distributors from the electronics sector and as a result the company was pleased with its investment.
Another time Jacek received a proposal to organize “a vacation with adrenaline and entirely new and exciting experiences” for a group of managers employed by a well-known export company, active people, stressed and subjected to a great deal of pressure at work. In order to avoid a slower tempo to the one which they were accustomed to and a loss of motivation, they went in search of new experiences and at the same time active relaxation. Jacek heard: “Cost is no object. They will, of course, travel in 1st class and after returning from the wilderness live in the Hotel Ritz where they will recover after the difficult expedition.”
He accepted the commission without a great deal of enthusiasm. The first few day both sides sized each other up: they still had doubts about overcoming the difficulties they faced, while he feared whether he was able to keep the entire group under control. As it turned out, no one failed. The instructor of elite teams of special forces was also able to handle a very demanding group of individuals. Later he revealed that he had taken along a small bottle of Martell, which he pulled out one evening in order to relief tension and stress. “Jacek is firm and demanding, but his great charisma is able to facilitate positive group dynamics”, commented one the trip participants.
The Palkiewicz home in the elegant suburbs of Bassano del Grappa is not only an oasis of rest, but also a gallery of aboriginal and Amazon Indian art. The dining room features a fantastic collection of Linda’s paintings, among which it is impossible to choose favorites – still lives painted in oil or charcoal landscapes. Another branch of that home is an apartment in Warsaw.
Italian Corriere della Sera wrote that Palkiewicz is an apolitical guy, unaffiliated with any one grouping, which probably explains why at any time of day or night he could call the last three presidents of Poland, two of the last residents of the Kremlin as well as a few other European leaders.
The Palkiewiczs have a busy social calendar. A souvenir gallery includes photos of many well-known figures: famous English explorer Freya Stark, called “Lawrence of Arabia in a skirt”, Eduard Shevarnadze, Archbishop Bronislaw Dabrowski, a long-time secretary of the Polish Episcopate, writer Carlo Cassola and legendary reporter Oriana Falacci. Also found here is a likeness of Ursula Andress as well as Italian parliamentarian and grandson of the Duce, Alessandra Mussolini, Zbigniew Boniek, Jerzy Kukuczka, Adriano Celentano, cosmonauts Dhanibiekow and Shatalov, Claudia Cardinale and many other faces.
Jacek’s vacations typically have an urban character. For years he and Linda have traveled to the same places: Spain, Istanbul, Warsaw, Buenos Aires and Indochina. “Spain acts on myself and my husband like a magnet”, Linda says. “It is a colorful world of tradition, many world religions, the Gypsy folklore of Andalusia, the flamenco and bull fighting. As a painter I am inspired by the fiesta taurina, a choreographed event and concert of memorable impressions.”
Argentina has always attracted the restless traveler. I am convinced that this is the work of the tango, which acts like a drug. “Once it was said that the dance, saturated with passion and expression, was loose and provocative because it was born in bordellos and port dives”, says Jacek. “I don’t delve into its history. It is enough that I am enchanted by the magical rhythm and sensual moves of the dancers, nostalgia and sentimentalism, the guiding idea behind the tango and all of that which lends to the panorama of life in Argentina.”
During trips to Istanbul they always stay at the Hotel Mercure in room 1711 on the 17th floor. “From there we can see the best view of the city, sunset on the Golden Horn, the delicate shapes of minarets and the shining mosque of Solomon”, Linda says. The romantic beauty of the Far East is a challenge for the couple. “As the years pass some places are called differently than they were before”, says Jacek. “Saigon is now known as Ho Chi Minh, Ceylon as Sri Lanka, Siam — Thailand, Burma — Myanmar, but my memory will also operate according to the historic names, full of magic and mystery.”
“You can be a tough guy, but when a person lives on the edge, he has to become familiar with fear?” I say provocatively. The answer is an aggressive question: “Why not?! Whoever does not know fear is taking the risk of not returning home. That means he was unable to recognize a hidden danger in time. The proper use of fear is the father of caution. Fear is the key to reserves of energy, a way to activate hidden abilities.”
He approaches every aim with great caution and determination. Stubbornness drives him forward even when everything indicates that there is no chance the objective can be achieved. He is ready to make the largest sacrifices, take advantage of every element of physical or mental training. Once, before a trip across the Sahara, he ate a can of salted sardines and then refrained from drinking water. In preparation for an expedition to the South Pole, he slept all winter on his balcony.
The Italian weekly Panorama, which has devoted such a large article to Jacek, underlining his enormous engagement on various fronts, wrote that the adventures of Palkiewicz are legend and his unusually rich life could certainly become the material for a fascinating action film.
His intriguing life and restless temperament have been compared to the unusual adventures of Marco Polo. Accounts of the Venetian explorer were so full of fascinating events and descriptions of the world that they provoked disbelief in their authenticity. Those who have never set foot outside of their own home accused him of exaggeration and embellishment of the truth. When the explorer was on his deathbed, friends and family begged him to correct and edit the text of his book “in order to make it more believable.” At the time Polo claimed that he had described a mere fragment of that which he had seen during many years of exploration. I am reminded of that scene when Jacek shared with me a certain fact from a meeting with the author in the ladies Lions Club in Verona. Sitting near a woman he described as “a woman of a mature age, who smiled as if wanting to say: I still remember what pleasure is.” She commented in a whisper to a friend sitting nearby: “What an active imagination!” Since that time Jacek has rarely revealed his achievements.
On television he looks completely different than in photographs from his expeditions. Supposedly, when he turned 50, Linda required him to start wearing a shirt and tie on social occasions and official events. He does it willingly for her, but admits to feeling more comfortable in jeans and a sweater.
In the room which houses all the equipment needed to travel to every corner of the world, one closet is reserved for clothing appropriate for the desert, the Amazon, Siberia, etc. He is ready to travel at a moment’s notice, a habit that remains from his years as a special correspondent. When asked by the editor how soon he should reserve a seat on a transcontinental flight, Jacek’s answer was typically: “Send a taxi to my home in 15 minutes.”
Today is no exception. A special, consuming passion pushes him towards yet other challenges, continuing his life’s script.