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.

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