Lessons from the jungle



A few months ago, I had enthusiastically agreed on a project with friends at The Active Holiday Company: to be a trip leader for a bunch of teenagers doing a 7-day summer internship at Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh. It’s been over a week since I returned from this trip, but I can still hear the cicadas in the forest during moments of reflection. Here are some lessons that I’d like to remember:

  • Small cities are where it’s at: We flew into Raipur and went to Kanha from there. Two highly professional cab rides in Raipur taught me that ambition and curiosity are alive and kicking in the small towns of India. One cabbie asked that I respond to him in English so he learns it, and the other spoke fluently in English, using phrases like “across-verticals” and “comprehensively designed program” There’s something in the small townie attitude to  growth and learning that the big city possibly stifles.


  • Our feet love trails: We spent a week walking in trails. The return to paved roads wasn’t nice, to say the least! The soles of my feet were looking for uneven surfaces. Trail walking isn’t a skill to be learnt, after all, but, possibly, a skill to be remembered.


  • On the privacy policy of Tigers…: The purpose of going to Kanha for many people is to spot a tiger. With over 120 tigers, this is the world’s largest population of tigers in the wild. We got an audience with one for 30 minutes. But some of us couldn’t help think that we were hounding him for pictures and trespassing on his privacy. He showed in every non-verbal way possible that he wasn’t interested in another human interaction. I would rather have had a world that has enough tigers in the wild, than an instance where tigers in national park look at humans in open top jeeps and move on, because they’ve been used to them from infancy.


  • You can’t fight expertise: Our on-ground partners in knowledge was The Corbett Foundation. That they were called away on kill sites where human-animal conflicts  took place, and so our schedule had to be tweaked, that they had photos from the field to share to help us differentiate between domestic dogs, Dholes, Foxes and Jackals, and that they could hold the attention of teenagers on the scat of big cats for 30 minutes… all spoke to their street cred. On top of this, the willingness to take on the challenge of 9 teenagers and getting them excited about the brain fever bird or tribal dating practices – this speaks to their work ethic and a genuine need to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.


  • Good service is unforgettable: We stayed in a rather plush venue called Infinity Resorts.  This was primarily because they were housed in the same compound as our knowledge partners. The staff’s attitude went beyond hospitality: I’m not talking about the warm smiles you get from the staff of any nice resort. Details like packing a safari breakfast at 4am keeping in mind individual preferences, driving out into the jungle at 5am to look for a phone that had fallen on the floor during a jeep transfer, doing an outdoors dinner without being asked, just so the adolescents could experience supper under stars they don’t get to see in the city and breaking into truly sincere smiles the moment they set eyes on you, like you were an old friend… I could go on. When people love the work they do, it just shines out of them.
  • Through the looking lenses: We tended to see the Tiger and other animals through the lenses more than through our own eyes. Some of us proceeded to miss the tiger’s descent into a watering hole (doesn’t make for good pictures), because it was time to check the shot on phones and cameras. Maybe this is the future. If it is, it is distinctly unglamorous, and also more than a little self-serving.


  • Program design influences quality of learning: We can’t control what the participant children take away from an experience like this. We would like them to take away a lot and might even lament that the group dynamics or tendency to chat with each other takes away from the learnings. At the end of the day, a well-designed program ensures that there are more interactions with the experts. Between that and the exposure to the field and realities therein, there are plenty of take aways we saw the kids walking away with. I experienced that with the group. The most common refrain was a surprised, “I was walking away with more than I thought I would!” Many of them might have come to the program to get internship hours that might help with college applications but they were walking away with so much more.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious: The guides and drivers in our safari jeeps were a study in grace. They see tigers everyday, in their line of work. But in all three safaris, the possibility of a tiger sighting made them more excited than it did any of us. They were the first to whip their cameras out and shoot. They had higher energy levels when telling other drivers where to go to see the tiger. This infused energy in the rest of us in their cars, and in passers-by! Their sincerity in doing everything they could to not only help us see animals in the wild, but also teaching us how to identify when an animal is nearby (The chitals’ and monkeys’ tiger call are etched in my brain)


  • Storytelling is in our genes & we educate ourselves out of it: When the locals spoke, often in pure Hindi, they held us in thrall. They tended to share stories, use metaphors and liven up their monologues with the same ease as Stephen Colbert. How come they have these skills in spades, while we need powerpoint decks? They seem to be going with their gut, while we’re struggling for the right split of data and anecdote. They were being very natural, communicating with the sincere intent to be understood. Having forgotten what natural feels like, we are possibly undoing the effects of a left-brain focussed education, and are reintroducing stories into our lives.


  • Our lives are enriched by our stories: I was most excited about going into Jungle Book country. I was taking pictures of  road signs that said Seoni, 180kms, and of black rocks in the jungle that could’ve been Council Rock. More than once,  a tree stump or a stone looked like Akela, taking in the sun on the path up ahead. The excitement of being among the Gonds, who gave a Neoproterozoic (yep, I looked that one up) landmass its name was another. As was the fact that we were on the terrain that pushed up  the Himalayas. There is such poetry woven into the daily life!


With racket-tailed black Drongos, Jackals, stories of close encounters with Tigers and the lives of tribals relegated to suitable slots in the memory, it’s time for the next adventure. On! On!


This post is for my longtime friend KC whose heart beats for Kanha. It’s also in memory of two departed friends. I didn’t think i’d be toasting absent friends this early in life, and can’t fathom what pains those closest to them are experiencing. They live on in our stories.

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