When I was 9 my family relocated from Upstate New York to Orlando, Florida, an odd hodgepodge of concrete and drywall that is less a city and more a network, an expanse of strip malls and toll roads stretching for miles with no discernible locus—i.e. a place without place, a harbinger of the New America—both model for and copycat of other American NonCities. At the heart of this network, not in place but in time, is Walt Disney World, Orlando’s reason-to-be and essence, which lies below and hangs around the accretions and habits of Orlando-residents like a living ancestor. As Orlando’s originary purpose, it touches its inhabitants even if they try to avoid it; it shapes you, no matter how far away from it you stand.
I say this not only because I enjoy holding forth on the metaphysics of place (I do), or because I want to suggest I’m some sort of DisneyChild (I don’t), but because a curious circumstance surrounded our ‘Cloud Walk’ on Sunday morning that caused me to think about my relationship to where I grew up, and how these ‘living ancestors’ affect how we experience our environments.
As it happened, on the night before our trek the new intern, Sung, contracted a wicked headache that required a trip to a local clinic and, to make a long story short, prohibited him from joining us the next morning. We learned right before taking off that taking his place would be Manu, the guest relations trainee Gourvjit referred to in his post ‘Which God?’ Manu is an 18-year-old native of Kumily, the son of cardamom planters with a tribal heritage. After he and I spoke for the first time, when he accompanied me to a spice plantation just over a kilometer from the resort, I had tried to secure a formal interview with him. I had hoped this conversation would yield an interesting profile of an individual who, to me, represented the change in ambition and scope of the younger generation in the Cardamom Hills. Unfortunately, he was a bit gun-shy, uncomfortable with his proficiency at English, and it never came together as I had hoped.
Sunday was Manu’s last day as an employee at Cardamom County. He has gone to work for an airline—his goal—and will soon be based out of Kochin and Delhi. While at the resort, he projected a noticeably bright personality when assisting guests by carrying their bags, providing them with information, and explaining to them the facilities. Everyday for three months Manu posted what animals had been sighted by returning guests—Wild Elephant, Sambar Deer, Nilgiri langur—and everyday he shared with guests details about the different treks, what they could expect from Bamboo Rafting or the Jungle Walk.
And yet Manu had never been inside the forest. He had spent his entire 18 years within spitting distance of its border but had never crossed it. To put this in perspective, I have been here for five weeks and have been inside the forest more than five times. There is no easy explanation for this discrepancy. Perhaps there were economic impediments to his going, perhaps he never had the time. Or perhaps you grow up so near something it becomes almost invisible to you, a given with which you have only a subterranean relationship, i.e. one you don’t even know exists.
So on that morning we set out together, four westerners with (in some cases, extensive) prior experience in the forest, and the native of Kumily who had never once stepped inside.
There’s no point in me romanticizing his experience. He was not wide-eyed or overwhelmed in a way that would make this story clean and neat and moving. He was at times impatient and bored, a teenager with a single goal: to see an elephant. He quietly pleaded with our guide to find him one, a request at which the guide could only sympathetically smile while he offered to do his best. Only one moment struck me as at all cinematically salient: when, standing by a wide and lengthy ditch designed to keep elephants from accidentally entering the tribal village, Manu hesitated, turned to me and said “I’ve never been on the other side.” And with that we were off.
We didn’t see an elephant that day though the guide did his best, as promised. The particular walk we were on just isn’t plotted for sightings, but rather for breathtaking views of the landscape. And the Periyar, despite the diversity of its wildlife, is not a zoo, an important reality that takes several treks to truly recognize. It is not a place to spend three hours with hopes of spotting a tiger, and covering 3 sq km of its 925 doesn’t give a full taste of the wonder inside. In the end, it’s a shame that Manu was only given this chance to witness its possibilities.
But who can say how finally entering the forest actually affected him? And is not his disappointment as authentic a reaction as wide-eyed reverence? It seems to me that when we live so long with the story of a place we often forget to really see it. I can only hope that Manu will give it another chance some day in the future, with different expectations, and that I, for my part, can remember not to neglect that which is truly unique in my own environment. I wish Manu the best of luck in the air. And if you ever run into a particularly smiley steward on Kingfisher, ask him his name and if he’s yet to see an elephant.