By the Fire (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tiger Trail)

We had reached an impasse, and I was becoming frustrated.

“I understand he’s gained a new awareness,” I said. “What I don’t understand is what exactly that awareness is.”

I had slipped into fact-collecting—or, more precisely, ‘attitude-collecting’—mode, a sort-of aggressive pose I sometimes assume when given the attention of a person whose life has been distinctly different from mine. I admit that this happens more often when I’m in the midst of a culture I think I don’t adequately understand. There’s no judgment inherent to this culling, but there is something predatory about it; if I want your words, to add your Weltanschauung to my reserves, I will work hard to procure them. And if I don’t get what I’m looking for, I can get testy.

“Imagine I’m looking to become a poacher,” I said, after Saleem translated another unsatisfactory response from the object of my investigation. “What would he say to me? How would he persuade me not to? That is, besides telling me it’s against the law.”

Across the fire, Saleem paused, apparently considering how best to render this question. The man whose mind I wanted laid bare lay curled on a mat to my left, his head perched casually on his hands and his eyes in a squint, shielding them from the blistering smoke that issued from the thick block of burning teak. Light rain pitter-pattering on the blue tarp that was our roof and the constant, static buzz of the jungle’s night insects filled the momentary void.

Finally, Saleem offered a version of my question to the guide, who paused in turn and then answers in Malayalam while Saleem ‘hmmm’d and swerved his head from side to side—the typical, indeterminate gesture of the Indian engaged in conversation.

“It’s simple,” Saleem says, and I’m unsure if he means this insultingly. “In fact, there were four members of his group who didn’t stop poaching when he did, and he in fact had to explain to them why it is important to conserve and protect the forest.”

Inexplicably, this answer ticked me off. “Okay,” I said, “but, look: conservation is just a word. It’s a means to an end. What I want to know is, what is it exactly he values about the forest? In his words.”

Saleem said he didn’t understand.

“I mean…” And then, more aggressive than ever, I tried a different tack. “Saleem,” I said, “why do you value the forest? I mean, why do you want to preserve it?”

Again, he paused and then answered simply: “Our sustainability.”

We had spent the last two days trudging through soggy fields and under semi-evergreen canopies in search of elusive flora and fauna. Together we had been soaked by the monsoon rains, alternately drizzles and downpours. And together we had been dried by the interminable fire. We had eaten together, sambar and pillowy mushrooms plucked during our wanderings, fish curry made of tilapia caught, killed and cleaned in the morning of our second day. Together we had rowed the bamboo raft and slept through roaring snores and winds. And we had talked, hesitantly at first, haltingly, in rhythms dictated by our mutual language deficiencies. We: four guides (two named Kojimon, meaning ‘little son,’ one a raspy-voiced grizzled, self-professed ‘grampa,’ the other the infectiously smiley, dazzlingly cheery man I was interrogating); our forest guard, a rail-thin government employee recently transferred from his home in Allepey; Saleem, the resident-Cardamom-County-forest-expert; and our party—Crist, Amie, Milo and I. On the first day we were accompanied by a fellow American, a young engineer named Tal, who was making the most of his holiday between employment for a solar-energy company and graduate school at Cornell University, the school that happened to unite the Inmans and me.

Anyone who has been camping for more than a day knows well the bond that forms between fellows by the fire, the intimacy of communing beneath an open sky. And despite the language barrier, this relationship nevertheless prevailed between our party and native hosts.

The very unique aspect of the Tiger Trail program, which takes guests and plops them in the thick of the Periyar for either one or two nights, is the history and biography of the guides, about which not enough can be said. Only fifteen years ago, these men, professionals of the forest, experts on its ins and outs, markings, and droppings, had been prosecuted poachers, some of them racking up as many as fourteen or fifteen charges against them for their collection of bark from Vayana (a type of cinnamon) trees, which is used in the manufacture industrial paints, and the hunting of bison for meat. These men had lived in the forest in ill-repute for weeks on end, unable to return to their homes for fear of the police who waited for them. But in the course of their trials, the stakes of which were nothing less than life in prison, they had been offered a deal by the Forest Department: immunity in exchange for a life devoted to the protection of the forest, to its maintenance and survival. Perhaps they converted then only out of self-preservation. But today they are nothing less than advocates, guardians of a land rich in resources and imperiled because of them.

They have transformed into true hosts, brilliant chefs and instructors on how and why to live simply in the forest, using only what is needed and nothing more. In return for their conversion, they had been given the opportunity to raise their children with the respect of the community, as well as an income, which, though perhaps not rivalling the handsome fees they could procure for the felling of a single Sandalwood tree, nevertheless had granted them the dignity of legitimacy. And it was the details of this transformation that I so eagerly sought on this, the last night of our trip.

But Saleem’s telegraphic riposte (that is, ‘our sustainability’) gave me cause to pause. I was thrown back upon myself and my abstractions, and was forced to ask myself, did I really need further explanation? Or did I, in my gut, understand? And more and more as the night wore on, and as the others slept soundly in their tents, and we three—Saleem, the younger of the Kojimons, and I—talked idly for hours, swapping stories, it dawned on me that something had changed. I wasn’t any longer seeking information, though I was gaining it; not details, not rounded and perfect understanding, but rather fragments. I learned of the notorious smuggler Veerapan and we laughed about his mustache. We joked and dreamed about finding $22 billion worth of gold and jewels in a Hindu temple, and I learned how highly Indians think of Bill Clinton. We were equals for those few hours, just men by a fire, a fire like the one thousands and thousands of years ago that gave birth to human warmth and ingenuity. And Saleem’s opinion of how to resolve Israeli-Palestinian hostilities (“it starts with the family”) didn’t seem at all reductive to me then, but rather idyllic—quiet and assured.

I can’t justify the Tiger Trail based solely on the wonders of the forest. Like all sacred experiences, its power is in the effervescence of moments shared with the people with whom you travel (and, of course, the shooting of the breeze). I see now that, though I didn’t intend to, for those few hours I gave up asking questions, quit demanding things of my environment, and simply sat with good men. And, for my troubles, I came away beautifully empty-handed.

21 thoughts on “By the Fire (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tiger Trail)

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