My tribal tour in India was like getting into a time machine which sent me back 10,000 years. Yes, ten thousand years ago, right in the heart of the agriculture revolution!
It all started in a university seminal far away from the jungles of southern India (sorry for being ambiguous, but traveling to this place is not recommended and can get quite dangerous). The seminar was called “Hunter and Gatherers at the edge of agriculture revolution”. It was rather boring until a guy came to deliver a host lecture about his field work where he was living with a certain tribe ( sorry again – can’t reveal the nameL) which has just been transformed from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle into permanent settlements. That means – from a nomadic society to an agricultural society living in one place. He was there with them for one year researching aspects of the education system within nomadic societies.
When he was sharing with us his experiences and showing slides on the classroom walls, I knew I had to be there. Three years later, it happened. I was able to find, though not the exact tribe he was living with, others who had undergo the same process.
After begging Ragu (not his real name), a really nice guy we met in a tiny town in south India, for three days to introduce me to some guys from the nearby village who matched the profile I described to him, he had agreed. I had to stay in my tent for three more days at the backyard of local family until they finally arrived.
One evening two guys came to my camp site –looking at them evinced a feeling of disappointment. I started to believe, as they approached me with Ragu, that this was a scam in Indian style. At the a first glance they look like they have just finished a shift in a local bank, only they have forgotten to wash their cloths for quite a long time. But after almost three years in India I thought I have seen it all!
Ragu translated everything I said to their local language. “Why don’t we all go for a nice trek in the jungle?” simple massage to deliver, yes? For some reason it took them almost 15 minutes to come up with the following answer: “sure, no problem!”
Two days after, we met on side of the high way early in the morning. On one side was the village and on the other side a dense jungle. I have started to get nervous as I looked in it. So many poisonous species of reptiles are living happily inside those bushes. I knew that it’s the kingdom of wildlife in India and I was about to meet them all in person. I was terrified. Going into the jungle, accompanied only by two former Indian bank clerks and Ragu who had last been on a tour in primary school, was not something to be proud of.
We kept on hearing noises from the bushes and the whole idea of having a tribal tour in India began to seem silly. We prayed that they wouldn’t come, but again good old Murphy was right: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” and they guys just appeared in front of us.
Five minutes of walking in the jungle was enough for us to look back towards where we thought should be the road and feel helpless. We had lost all our navigation skills (something both of us are known for) – we were completely disoriented. Everything seems to be the same: high grass (heaven for snakes), deciduous low trees typical of India’s dry broad forests located in tropical and subtropical areas (perfect for elephants to hide and attack). Apparently, elephants aren’t exactly the sweet pets you visit in the zoo. As matter of fact, a lot of the deaths reported by these tribes are caused by elephant attacks. When I asked them what animal they were most afraid of, they replied very clearly – elephants! So there we were in the middle of the jungle, on a supposed tribal tour in India for which we had to rely only on those two guys dressed up with smart and terribly dirty suits wearing flip-flops and a nice frightened translator. This did not bode well!
However since we could do nothing about it, no trails to show us the way out, and a rapid pace of waking into the dense forest dictated by the “clerks” which we had to keep up with, we were forced accept our fate. These were our expedition members for good and for bad. What bothered us was the fact that they only came with one big knife (Machete) and some pieces of bed sheets wrapped around their chests.
A few hours later, all our suspicions were gone. It happened when we started to descend down towards the river (again sorry for not being able to disclose any details about the place – it’s for their sake) when we were abruptly ordered to keep our mouths shut. We didn’t understand any of this (as the sponsors of this expedition we thought we deserved a better attitude). However, we immediately complied. We stopped walking like they did but there was nothing to justify it.
Suddenly, after one minute, we felt the ground moving under our feet. Tree leafs started to shake and slowly a strong sound of galloping engulfed us. We stayed put, as they did. The nose got stronger, until we noticed that a huge herd of Indian Guar was crossing our way! For few minutes we were standing there 20 meters from the running herd as if we were standing on a traffic red light. After the herd passed us we kept walking. How the hell did they know about it?
Several minutes later, another sign of hope showing that we were in good hands. It was when they stopped running again and asked Ragu to get us over (they were walking a head). Look at that… one of them pointed to the nearby ridge something like 50 meters away. We couldn’t see anything. Keep on looking, he pointed to the trees and smiled. At the beginning I saw some movement over there and then a herd of antelopes gradually traipsed out between the trees. It was amazing!
That’s it. We were so relieved; now everything had become so beautiful; the skies, sunset, and the colors of the trees, even the grass now was not that terrifying especially that I was now walking right behind the old clerk – literally inside his footsteps. If a python jumps out, it’d have him bit first.
As we descended to the river we started to hear the stream. We were in heaven the guys kept eating some fruits from the trees. When I picked a small fruit for myself, the old guy stopped me and said “No, poisonous.” Man, I was so close to being a hunter-gatherer, just wasn’t lucky with the tree…
As we kept going deeper into the forest, we realized that that we got the chance to witness something really big, a rare glance into some of the ancient patterns mankind was living by until 10,000 years ago. In other words, for most of the time, we have lived on this planet following the patterns that I saw in this ‘trek’.
One striking examples was their attitude towards nature: trees, the forest as a whole, animals, rocks, caves etc. They were talking to all of them. Not exactly in the typical conversational manner as we know it, but somewhat different. Before getting into the cave on the river bank the young “clerk” had gone to the river and was sort of “taking/singing/chanting” the same ‘conversation’ held with the rock we stayed under. Ragu had said that they considered the forest as ‘a nourishing parent.’ The entirety of what we call “nature”, is being dismantled into millions living parts that can be reached out to in their eyes.
Coming into jungle only with two strips of cloths hanging now seemed reasonable. They ate so much fruit on the way and now at evening time: dinner. One bamboo stick, one thorn easily molded into a hook, one soft root from the tree which acted as a fishing line and worms from the river as baits was all they needed to get us fish for dinner.
Be aware of the crocodiles and Good night!
The next morning we checked that all our organs were connected and no parts missing we sat down to have a coffee. Bringing coffee was under our responsibility. I was waiting to see how they would light the fire without matches, but unfortunately one of them took a lighter from his pocket and with no trouble at all lit a fire.
As we started to walk I was free of my previous day’s misgivings, and could notice the incredible methods they have developed to find their way in the wilderness. It is so simple but I would recommend you to try it. Hunter-gatherers usually travel in what are sometimes called ‘star shaped movements,’ that is one place as a center from where they are traveling to one direction and return back after a while. Next time would go in a different direction and return etc. until they cover 360 degrees of a certain area.
Travel by this pattern ensures that they won’t be the first to go on a trail even if the former members have been travelling there before quite a long time. But each of them leaves signs for the next group- they break branches in a way that will make them grow to the other direction. The future groups moving on the same route will be able to recognize the branches growth direction like traffic signs. Too simple ha? I do not advise trying this at home.
After 3 nights and 4 days learning so much (it is impossible to get it all in a single post) we managed to navigate ourselves back to the same village we took off from. In the meanwhile, we fell in love with those guys, even with Ragu who turned out to be the worst translator in India. But language in the jungle took on a totally different meaning for us as we found so many ways of communication. We have seen the ‘clerks’ in action: hunting. picking fruits from the trees. finding roots to cook at evening. fishing at the river, collecting honey from a 10 meter high beehive – climbing the tree like it was easier than going up to the mall’s second floor in an escalator. Even one time when I was sitting with the young clerk he pointed to a super cool place on the ridge which I assumed was an incredible view point and he told me: “you see this place up there? This is where I and wife are coming from time to time when we want to be alone…without the kids.”
We have seen it all; but never did they light a fire without the lighter regardless of the countless times I asked them to show me. Maybe they were two former bank clerks afterall…
Anyways as we got back we wanted to sit down together for one more cup of chai ( tea before our “tribal tour in India” was ended. They refused, but we insisted. In the restaurant, a dude told us politely: please step outside. In 2012, those guys are ultimately a tribal people. With that title, it’s very hard to live in India these days.
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