Cacao tastes chalky and makes you need to shit. In both respects, it is very similar to cheap cocaine. Unfortunately, the resemblance ends there.
I'm gulping down honey-sweetened cacao at an event organized by London-based silent dating experts Shhh Dating. The cacao—claggy and lukewarm—pools in bitter lumps in my mouth. I find myself longing for the familiar delights of a rose-based slushie instead.
I've been invited to cover tonight's dating event in my unofficial capacity as Broadly's resident lonely heart. Earlier in the day, my editor Zing is insistent I find a way to snort the cacao when no-one is looking. Apparently, cacao is the hot new ingestible in the nightclubs of Berlin, but I'm unconvinced. Sticky brown fluids may feature prominently in the wipe-clean environs of specialist fetish clubs, but not the sort you'd want to ingest—at least not without health insurance. Besides, drugs are cheap in the European clubbing capital. Why snort cacao?
"Make sure you get a photo snorting it!" says Zing, cheerily waving me off. I squeeze all thought of dank shit rooms out of my mind.
Sadly, I get lost on route and arrive to find the cacao bubbling gently on a portable stove. The event's being held at Farmopolis, which describes itself as a "major new urban farming destination" but mostly looks like a restaurant with a couple of greenhouses attached. I walk into a wood-panelled room and take a seat on a plastic-covered hay bale. A serious-looking guy is sitting cross-legged, playing the flute with conviction.
I introduce myself to Shhh Dating founder Adam Taffler. Taffler is also a serious-looking guy in a jeweled Ottoman hat, with an extremely promising and complicated moustache. He eyes me intently, like a store guard following a group of teenage girls around Sephora. I ask him to explain the science.
"Really tonight isn't about science, it's about ritual. It's about self-awareness. It's about becoming sensitive of our bodies, how we feel about ourselves, what we like and don't like, and allowing that to guide and open us," Taffler answers. He concludes, "The cacao is just a way in."
In my experience, I venture, sober dating is a somber thing. Navigate your way through the dating world dry and you may get lost. Lubricate your path with alcohol and—like oiling a stuck needle on an errant compass—you'll find your way more surely through difficult terrain.
"Alcohol can be a way of hiding; losing your inhibitions; covering things up. I think that's a big problem in dating nowadays," Taffler responds. "You're not meeting the real person, and later you'll be disappointed. My guests tend to have relationships for longer."
Chat over, it's time for some warm-up exercises. Taffler introduces photographer Alice and I to the thirty-strong group. Not everyone is thrilled by the idea of a journalist and photographer documenting their dating endeavors—understandably.
"What publication are you from?" someone asks.
"VICE", I respond.
I hear an audible groan.
"Is there anyone here who doesn't want their picture taken?" Alice asks.
80 percent of the room put their hands up. A supremely unchill woman with brown hair in a leather jacket weighs in.
"Perhaps you could stage some photos after the event?"
"I could photograph people so you can't see their faces?" Alice suggests politely.
Supremely Unchill Woman repeats her question in aggressively pointed tones. It's clear it's not a request—it's a demand. We acquiesce. Very serious guy continues to play world music on his flute.
We start with some introductory exercises. Walking around, we make eye contact and shake hands with the other attendees. We progress through the various greetings: Air kisses, namastes."Namaste," I murmur to a man with a red moustache. "Namaste," woman with beaded plait.
Greetings over, it's time for us to arrive together.
"I just want to take a moment for everyone to arrive together," Taffler explains. "Let's take a few breaths to arrive here. Let the breath fall out of you."
I exhale with intent.
I keep expecting the exercises to end and for us to move on with the dating portion of the night, but it turns out the exercises are the night. After a clapping section I don't understand, we play a jumping game.
"Get into groups and try and jump at the same time," Taffler instructs. We leap together like a 90s boy band posing for their first cover shoot. More jumping, in bigger groups this time. Some people are still clapping. We're a classroom of first-graders playing games before home-time.
Next we're instructed to find a partner and practice some Kung Fu. "Touch your opponent in an appropriate place with the minimum force possible," Taffler warns. I resolve not to grab anyone by the pussy.
I pair off with a petite woman with a blonde pixie crop. She taps me lightly on shoulder and laughs. A wave of uncontrollable competitiveness takes over and I (accidentally) punch her forehead. I feel guilty, but it's also the most fun I've had all evening.
After this we play a game where you have to follow the other person's hand. My partner pivots, hand-outstretched, while I chase his palm. "I feel dizzy," I complain. He smiles serenely and continues to spin. When it's my turn I make him lie on his belly and drag him along the floor while chuckling maniacally. "I don't like it when it's your turn," he comments.
Finally, it's time for some cacao. We gather in a circle. Serious-looking flute guy switches effortlessly into tribal tunes. I feel like I'm queuing for an Amazon rainforest-themed Disney ride. Cacao is dished out.
[At this point Supremely Unchill woman complains and Alice has to put her camera away, hence there are no pictures of me drinking the cacao.]
Taffler explains that this is very high quality cacao that he sources from a man called Keith. There is also honey to sweeten it, but don't use the agave because there's not much left. I go to write this down but am told off for taking too many notes on my phone. For all the quasi-spirituality, the vibe is strangely aggressive.
Before we drink the cacao, we have to do something called a cacao ceremony. We shut our eyes obediently.
As far as I can tell, the cacao ceremony involves Taffler inviting us to be aware of random body parts and asking us how they feel. No matter how they feel, Taffler seems to think that's all right. For example:
"I invite you to be aware of your solar plexus. How does it feel?"
[Rainforest music plays.]
"If it feels sore, that's all right."
[I contemplate the precise location of my solar plexus.]
"If it feels like a regular solar plexus, that's all right too."
We do this for what feels like a long time until Taffler runs out of body parts to invite us to. Next we're asked to smell our drinks. Mine smells delicious—slightly spicy and rich. Finally, we're allowed to drink.
The cacao is lukewarm. I drink it anyway.
Afterwards it's back to—you guessed it—more games. Most of them involve staring, hugging, or staring and hugging. An older guy places his palm flat against mine while staring into my eyes and I feel a sudden surge of empathy for him. It's as intimate and exposing as a Ob-Gyn exam or performance artist Marina Abramović's 2010 MoMa exhibit.
After more games (including one where we smell each other) the night's over and it's time to head home. Before we can leave, Taffler asks us to form an oval of happiness. We huddle together. Walking out, I notice a few people seem to have paired off—maybe there's something to all the jumping and staring after all.
Out in the cold October air, the cacao finally kicks in. I feel oddly wired...but there's something else. My abdomen grumbles ominously.
I set off on one last search—not for love, but for a toilet.