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Illustration by Priyal Shah

Listen to this Story
Narrated by Anjan Prakash

YOU. YOUR PUPILS. YOUR FRIENDS. GOD. NOT A BAD PUBLIC, THAT

– Sir Thomas More (protagonist, A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt) 

Here is a story, like there always is, behind simple shifts that take place within. Many a time, the beauty of what has changed within us, hardly happens as an `aha’ moment. Much of it is experienced as an afterthought, `oh, I responded more calmly on this matter today, and that felt nice’, or `hmmm, this connection with nature, feels somehow deeper than before’ or `I don’t have that fear anymore, it seems to have melted away’.

Have you also felt like that at times?

Something you were working sincerely upon, or hoping to understand better, and wondered why there was no change in you, no signs of doing better, and suddenly after weeks, or maybe even years, you realize that the Universe has slipped the gift into you, without you even noticing it, and it is only in hindsight, in some action or thought, you figure out that your prayer was actually answered, your sincere attention, has borne fruit, and it has happened so, with an angel tip-toeing and dropping it into you.

I wish to first share a story, and then I shall connect some dots about how one such beautiful shift got slipped into me.

It was after lunch, and we were setting out upstream the Shiripuno river in a boat, to visit a small school of the Huaorani children in the Ecuadorian Amazon forest. A bunch of volunteers were working there to record the language of one of the oldest tribes of the Amazon jungle, the Huaoranis, with the hope of preserving this ancient language. We as travelers were going there to meet the children, and see the work going on there.

Huaoranis were the last contacted tribe in the Amazonian Ecuador, and this happened only in 1958, when the missionaries found a strategic way to establish contact. Until then this uncontacted tribe, considered one of the fiercest warrior tribes of the Amazon, had managed to drive away generations of people who had tried to make contact with them – invaders, many anthropologists who wanted to document them, as well as a few clever corporates trying to access oil and resources in the guise of missionaries coming forward to `civilize’ them. To this day, it is said that nearly five communities from this tribe have rejected all contact with the outside world and continue to live in isolated areas.

Coming back to that afternoon. We know that the Amazon jungle is the largest tropical rainforest, which means, it rains or it pours throughout the year. We were four of us in the canoe, journeying upstream for the school visit – Eweme, a senior member of the Huaorani tribe and our local guide and boatman; Xavier, the English speaking Ecuadorian guide; Keshav (my husband) and I. Even though the weather appeared fairly clear, we had our rain boots on, and our rain ponchos packed in our backpacks. The nearly 2 hour journey upriver was filled with the pleasure of enjoying the grand old trees lining the sides of the river, spotting of beautiful birds and butterflies, interesting stories by the guide, and the overall general excitement a jungle of this kind, offers. The river was calm, and the ride delightful and gentle. Nothing feels long when in a jungle, or so I then thought, and soon we were at the school. We spent our time watching the children learn, having conversations with the volunteers who were recording the language, listening to what both our guides had to show and share. We also walked the surrounding area of the school, looking at some flora and fauna. By now we had spent nearly two hours, and it was not only getting very close to sunset, but we also began to see real thick dark clouds gathering. Eweme, urged Xavier, that we head to our boats. Already the playful, curious, don’t-want-to-go-back-so-soon me, had stretched our time there, and ensured we were off schedule by over half hour.

No sooner did we get into our canoe, the clouds burst into a heavy downpour, the skies turned completely dark grey, and in minutes, the dusk light transformed into the darkness of the night. One important  learning in nature has been, to learn to drop the familiarity of a city after sunset. In a city or any small town, even after sunset, until over 9pm at least, there is a variety of lights that are still ON, with shops open, people around, that one never understands the intensity of night and darkness. But when one is amidst abundant nature, and the sun sets, that’s it. It is pitch dark, period. There are no different levels of darkness, really. And so it was, that night in the jungle, and accompanying this was the pelting rain. We were all depending on the one man, Eweme, to row us back home. We had our ponchos ON, but the rain poured so heavily, that none of us could even lift our head for more than a few seconds, or keep our eyes open. About 20 minutes into the journey, the level of the river began to rise visibly. Eweme asked Xavier to reassure us that he would get us back to our lodge safely. I am sure all our three hearts were beating fast and loud, but for different reasons – mine was with joy and excitement, as I love such adventures, anything that makes me feel like I am in a NatGeo expedition of sorts, or in an adventure movie is highly welcome. But I could feel that Keshav’s and Xavier’s heart were beating for other reasons. Keshav’s, as he doesn’t swim, not that it would make any difference in that river, and Xavier’s, because he was especially responsible for the safety of the two of us.

But Eweme, at the forefront, appeared like this beautiful River Bender, an Earth Listener. Somehow just being aware that he carried the wisdom of his ancestors in his bones, made me blindly trust, that all would be well. Right behind, were the three of us huddled in the narrow canoe, one behind the other, tightly hugging the other from behind, to keep ourselves steady and not rock the canoe. If you had to visualize this, a good reference for the look and feel would be the movie `Sleepy Hollow’ if you have seen it. Lightning, thunder, rain, silhouettes of trees in several grand shapes and sizes now appearing overwhelming, water swelling up, and this lone canoe, trying to stay steady and make its way.

Soon there came a point, where the water levels had risen so high, I could see it was just an inch below the rim of our boat. Eweme bent down and muttered something very firmly, and Xavier turned back to pass on the message, it was that each time we hear Eweme or him scream `down’ we need to duck our heads immediately, as it means, there is an upcoming branch or something in the way that could hurt us. A branch that just hours ago felt like they were way above our heads when heading upstream, was now likely to be right in front of us, as that’s how much the river had risen already.

But Eweme, he seemed to know even without being able to see beyond two feet, what tree was coming up next, which branch, what big rock, and made his way through the river with acute alertness. And all that was running through my head then was, `what an incredible way to know the land. What an amazing way to know the river. How is he able to see, hear, feel, navigate, just using his own body as the instrument so gently and calmly? What presence! I was totally in awe of the relationship Eweme and the Earth shared in that moment’.

The journey back felt a whole lot longer even though we were downstream, but it also allowed Keshav and me to experience first-hand, what we had read so far about Indigenous People. How they live in oneness and harmony with the land, by sensing it in their being, and it became clear in watching Eweme, the land too enjoys being sensed through them. Eweme wasn’t resisting the weather, or resisting the river, or resisting the land. Instead he had become one with it, moving with it, around it, through it, just like water.

Yes, he had become water. I am able to describe this to you now, as it reminds me of this quote by Bruce Lee, `Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless. Like water. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend’.

How appropriate this quote to describe Eweme that night – he took the shape of the river, and the river took his shape, and together they moved like they were meant to, rain or pour. 

Each time I enthusiastically lifted my head to see where we were, and what I might be missing, I saw the gentle yet mighty silhouette of Eweme, standing and rowing, sitting and rowing, pushing away tiny branches with one hand every now and then, warning us with the `down’ signal when necessary, moving the boat through the gushing river.

As time stretched and stretched, and the intensity of the rain refused to come down, Eweme, said something, and our guide, shouted so we could hear, `we are now few minutes away from the landing area’. And there we were, finally at the anchor point, after nearly over two hours, helped off the boat by the other boys who were waiting for us. I remember, Keshav hugging Eweme, as soon as we got off the boat. That night, that night was a night for many whiskies, which Eweme too tasted for the first time and loved, even as we kept toasting to him every few minutes.

Eweme, was our guide over the next few days, and we trekked different parts of the jungle with him. There was such beauty in how he blended with the forest, in the way he called out to the birds, the way they responded to his presence, the way in which he interacted with all his senses, to navigate any part of his earth. He heard what we missed and spotted what we hadn’t even seen. His senses, eyes-ears-nose-touch-smell, were his compass, and the forest seemed to enjoy leaving little clues and breadcrumbs for him everywhere, to make a map, so we could move in the right direction to spot howler monkeys, or spider monkeys, or find medicinal plants, or find well camouflaged organisms on the bark of the trees, to discover, explore, learn and observe. It seemed like the forest and him were playing together. In this jungle, we did not miss knowing his language, because he communicated with his senses, and the forest communicated with clues, and so we understood what they shared and showed. The GPS here was not the digital Global Positioning System, but the Guiding Power of Senses, the most powerful inner GPS available to each one of us.

At the end of our stay with the Huaoranis, Eweme was the hardest to say goodbye to, and we were with him, till we had to get into the car to make our way back. This was nearly 10 years ago, and the days and moments spent with Eweme are vivid and clear in our memory.

Recently, a dear friend with whom I work on my work, asked me to write down for myself who I admire, and who I aspire to be, showing me how they are two different things. I made a list and shared. In the Aspire list, that contained names of people from several walks of life whom I wish to embody for different reasons, I had also mentioned Indigenous People and the Natural world.

A couple of days ago, I took a walk near the river that runs close to our home. It was raining and I sat down in the presence of the rain, river and trees thinking about what I wish to share through my blog post. Eweme showed up in my heart, the Amazon jungle showed up, and along with this came the realization that when I wrote Indigenous People on that Aspire List, subconsciously it is Eweme that I hold most in my heart. He was my first contact with any Indigenous People still inhabiting the forest, living in it, from it, and for it. I believe that all other Indigenous People I have met after, was guided from this wonderful spirit we had experienced.

In the last ten years, since our time with him, the way I see, hear, feel, sense, listen, observe and feel the non-human world has shifted. The way I see, hear, feel, sense, listen, observe and feel about the human world and our possibilities too, has shifted. Both of this, because through him I experienced what I had conceptually read about Indigenous People in books – I understood what being interconnected looks like, what being part of nature feels like, what engaging with the earth means. I also witnessed what we are capable of as humans, what we are made of, and what we are, and can be, by observing him.

In realizing this just a couple of days ago, I wondered how will I ever be able to tell Eweme what he has shifted within me, by showing the kind of sensory relationship possible with the land that surrounds me.

The answer to this question wasn’t far away. I am currently attending an educator-student conference online, and a panelist shared this from Robert Bolt’s play, `A Man for all Seasons’:

One of the characters in this play Richard Rich is seeking employment, and so this is the conversation that takes place between Thomas More, the protagonist of the play, and Richard:

Sir Thomas More: But Richard, that’s a little bribe. At court they offer you all sorts of things, home, manors, manor houses, coats of arms. Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

 In this, I got my answer.

Eweme, the natural world of Amazon, and the relationship they together shared, were my teachers showing me in each moment spent with them, how much we are of the Earth, how our senses shape, tune, develop, amplify, and align when in oneness to the rest of the natural world. How to build my own GPS.

They are my teachers. I am their pupil. You are my friends. Then the Higher Source or Higher Energy or Mother Nature, is the God, knows it. Indeed, not a bad public at all.

I was grateful and delighted with the answer received.

Wherever Eweme is, I am sure the earth is. Wherever the Huaoranis are, I am sure the earth is. The lodge we stayed in is no more operational, as the Ecuadorian government has moved into that area, which is why they had to close. The abundant oil in the Amazon forests, is a huge challenge for the Indigenous People to preserve their home, but what I do know is, they aren’t made to give up on this relationship, this bond, so easily. Remember, they are Fierce Warriors, River Benders, Earth Listeners.

This weekend, I invite us all to explore our natural GPS, our Guiding Power of Senses. I have put together a list of suggestions and pointers,  at the end of the post, that you could refer to. There are also several books and online resources to build this inner compass when in nature. Then of course, there are live resources like Eweme across the forests, oceans, mountains, deserts, peppered across India. It doesn’t matter how we make our way to this. If we do, and build this sensory relationship, it is ours to keep for life.

A teacher. A pupil. Our Friends. God. Not a bad public, that.

Hope you would agree.

I look forward to hearing if this sharing brought up any such stories that might have created simple yet joyful shifts within you, either through a person, incident or experience which you became aware of only as an afterthought. I also look forward to hearing how you engage your GPS, and please offer anything that you have tried, so I can add it to my list.

Thank you for reading.

SUGGESTIONS

NOURISHING OUR INNER GPS, BY PICKING UP EARTH’S CLUES
  • Do pick a walk less than a kilometer around your home area, whether you are in a city or live amidst abundant nature. I would request you leave your mobile phone at home.
  • Watch where the sun rises and where the sun sets, so your East and West is sorted. Now mark your North and South. In getting to know the direction the Sun travels in different seasons, we can learn a lot about the flora and fauna around our home. Sunlight, Water, and Wind offer plenty of clues as most living forms depend on it, and design their lives around it.
  • Observe the trees, check which side is getting maximum sunlight. Another way to check is by studying the shape of the leaves. If one side has smaller thicker leaves than the other side, then it is a clue which side is getting more sunshine.
  • Check which side of your walking path has more flora growing, and is it different from the other side of the path. Then we might get to learn which plants do well in sunlight, and which ones thrive in shade.  
  • Look for prominent shapes and characters of trees, rocks, bushes, parks, hills, within the landscape and give them names, so the next time if someone asks you for direction you can use these as the new landmarks.
  • Look at the canopy of the trees, and observe which side they are bent towards, that will offer us clue about the direction of the wind in your area. See if it is the pattern in other trees as well.
  • Observe the roots of the trees, and in which direction they are more prominent. It is likely that is the direction of the wind in your region as well.
  • Listen to the birds, are they singing or are they making sounds that appear to be quick and rapid. If it is the later, it could mean they are sending out a warning signal either because they sensed you or sensed a prey nearby. They make different sounds for different situations.
  • Smell the air, that too could give you direction of the wind, as well as lead you to some beautiful flowers blooming very close to you.
  • If you are walking in the woods, by the river, observe if there are any many man-made pathways and see which one looks more used, that is the one likely to lead us to the nearest human habitat, in case you are lost.
  • Keep a few natural reference points, and allow yourself to get lost and see if you can find your way back by orienting yourself to the direction of the sun, to the direction of these nature landmarks you marked for yourself.
  • Watch if there are mushrooms growing on trees, if so on which side, and they will reveal to you the moisture content, and the direction of the Sun as well.
  • Now try the above in the night, using the moon, stars, insect sounds, smells of the night, shapes and figures, and it can offer another extraordinary experience.
  • Make friends with local people, and invite them for a walk with you if you have a common language. Ask them to point out medicinal plants to you. Ever since we have come to live in this Goan village, we always hear of so many plants growing right now in the monsoon, around our house used by locals for different ailments, or how they cook it.
  • Pick a tree, or a river, or a small part of a park and spend about 15 minutes just observing it, and you will begin to see so much more Life that just a two minute glance hasn’t offered.
  • Now, find a new one kilometer walk to explore, and make new observations.
  • Try and keep your eye out for patterns you see, or some extreme forms that you observe. Both could offer clues, and learning.

Most of what I share above are suggestions picked up by learning from the author, Tristan Gooley, and then putting a bunch of them into action. Some come from my Biomimicry Immersions, and spending time with naturalists as well as with Indigenous Peoples. You can create your own resources too that works for you.  

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Comments(3)

    • Arundathi Shetty

    • 5 months ago

    Thank you for another beautiful article and inspiring us to be in touch with our GPS, Anjan. It is always such a delight to read your articles. Looking forward to your next post.

    • Sandhya

    • 5 months ago

    Great to read this, Anjan!

    1. Thank you dear Sandhya, glad you enjoyed it. 🐌

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