The Other Side

The Other SideThe story goes like this: A class of seventh graders travels from Bogotá to the Colombian Amazon and goes for a hike. Before leaving, their guide advises them to respect the indigenous elders and the spirits of the forest. Everybody nods when listening about the gruesome creatures, just one boy laughs. It’s the same boy that almost wets his pants at night when sleeping outside in the jungle, terrorized by a gnome in a tree, watching him. Only after the indigenous elder arrives and does some arcane ritual, the gnome leaves and the boy falls asleep.

Most of us will smile about this story. Childish imagination goes a long way when you’re camping far out in the jungle, having nothing but trees and birds and strange insects around you. And yet, it’s not the only one I’ve heard.

There are the three guys who went to spend a night at a canyon in Southern Colombia, known to be a place of the Dead. Before dawn, all three of them felt the irresistible urge to jump down the abyss. Two of them did and died, the third one survived to tell the story.

Then, there’s the German professor that goes to China to work. After a couple of weeks, his wife suffers from a strange illness, and his job is jeopardized. Problems accumulate until at last they follow their neighbors’ advice and contract a shaman to do a week-long cleaning ritual at their house. Immediately after that, the professor gets promoted and the illness goes away.

Good luck? A shaman with close contacts at the local university? I’m not sure about it. Sometimes, rationality limits our worldview. I say this as someone who was denied membership in the protestant church as a school kid – while the alleged reason was a bureaucratic error, I still believe that they didn’t want a member who would probably criticize more than pray. And while I never was a good natural scientist, I generally felt comfortable defending a position of healthy agnosticism.

My personal vision changed when I was invited to a chief’s birthday in the rain forest and saw a witch sitting up in a tree, looking at a few of us while we were chilling out under the star-lit sky. I would have blamed the coca-chewing and the tobacco-sniffing, but there where no psychedelics involved. What’s worse, the guy next to me saw her, too. He even described her the same way, and somehow I just won’t believe that the chief had prepared a wily video installation in the middle of the jungle only to fool us.

What should we make of this?

Your conclusions, as always, are yours to draw. As for me, I believe there is another side to things, a side that science cannot describe, measure, and analyze – yet?! Maybe so. Maybe one day we will find a tool in order to do so.

Until then, I prefer not making fun about the gnomes while I’m in the jungle, and get my house unhexed in case I ever move to China. The cost of doing so is low, and the benefits may be quite big. As far as I’m concerned, this is practical economics applied to real life.

Comments 6

  1. Emilie November 23, 2010

    Beautifully put. There’s definitely way more going on than science/rationality can explain. We forget this most of the time, but I really believe that it’s true. I’ve had a few magical moments like the one you described and they always feel amazing.

    “somehow I just won’t believe that the chief had prepared a wily video installation in the middle of the jungle only to fool us”.. haha!

    • Fabian November 23, 2010

      Thanks Emilie! I really think that rationality and modern science are great tools to use. But in the moments they don’t help us, we should be free to drop them and just experience whatever iss happening at that moment – even though we have no explanation for it!

  2. Jonathan Ziemba November 23, 2010

    Every time someone is making fun of something they are expressing fear. Relinquishing what you know for the unknown is frightening for most people. Another way to say this is fear/risk is an opportunity to take responsibility for our lives.

    We are all spinning at the greatest speed of 1,670 kph through time and space. Gullible humans on a globe that fear the unknown and answer their own questions. Some answers can only be describe, measure, and analyzed under a star-lit sky.

    Cheers Fabian and a toast to our childish imagination.

    • Fabian November 23, 2010

      So we’re once again on that glorious path under the night sky! :)
      Thanks as always for commenting, Jonathan! Sometimes, we don’t relinquish what we (believe to) know voluntarily, sometimes we just have no choice. I think it’s good to be prepared for that and, as you say, take it as an opportunity.

  3. Greg November 23, 2010

    I remember listening to stories from village elders and small children of the monster-spirits and nature-spirits that inhabited the land just beyond human cultivation and development, usually in an old forest, the deep mountains, or along a stream, while I lived in northern Japan. Each region and village had their own stories. Perhaps, this is the way children or newcomers are socialized to live in harmony with that place. It reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki’s film “My neighbor Totoro” where only the young daughters can see the totoros. It was nice that their professor father did not try to dismiss what his daughters had seen, but asked the nature spirits to look after them.

    • Fabian November 23, 2010

      Greg, unfortunately, I haven’t seen “My neighbor Totoro” yet, but it sounds very interesting. In some sense, I think you are right that these stories and spirits are elements of culture and they help to integrate people at a new place. Often, they have a background of hundreds, maybe even thousands of years of tradition, and I think it’s both interesting and satisfying to get in touch with this, in order to feel the vibe of where you are and better understand the people.

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