I am fortunate enough to have travelled extensively – a lot in my own beautiful country of South Africa, to Southern and Eastern Africa, parts of ‘developing’ South America and Asia, and also to many ‘developed’ countries and major cities of the world.
I have never come back from my travels in ‘developed’ countries, especially the cities, brimming over with a sense of connection to the warmth and friendliness of the people. They are often helpful and polite – but it is not the authentic warmth that you find in less ‘sophisticated’ societies. In the cities there is a disconnection and an avoidance of eye contact. I know it is extremely childish but I love playing sweet and sour in the large cities, cheerily saying hello, and watching the reactions of all my ‘civilized’ brethren.
I recently came back from spending a few weeks in Uganda and Rwanda, both countries with traumatic histories, and was blown away by the warmth and contentment of the people (just like I was in Bhutan and the rural parts of Peru). The vast majority of people live very basic and physically hard lives, but they seem happy. I challenge all our macho Lycra clad cyclists to keep up with one of the Rwandan locals cycling up and down their numerous hills on bikes with no gears and overloaded with bags of potatoes and bananas.
What really struck me was the gentleness of many of the men in Rwanda and Uganda. Apart from our darling guide Moses – three men especially struck a cord in my heart – a Rwandan tracker next to me who calmly, wordlessly and gently put his hands around my hips to let me know not to move when a gorilla came running at me. I was balanced on a ridge and had nowhere to go but backwards down a very steep hill.
The other was a Ugandan porter who held my hand and dragged me up and down hills for four hours as we bundu bashed our way through dense forests looking for gorillas. He let my hand go once and saw me trip over fresh air and would not let me go after that. We would stop and wait for the others in the party and a few minutes later I would realise that we were still holding hands – a very intimate connection with a complete stranger – but yet there was a spiritual sense of being nurtured by someone who was actually not a stranger.
And lastly, a Ugandan Wildlife Authorities ranger (I have never seen as many rifles in a country before – most of the rangers are part of the military and all carry a rifle) who was dispatched to find me when I was spotted from afar walking solo through a restricted area in the forest. Coming from Africa I am well aware of the dangers of wild animals and being a woman on my own, but that risk did not even enter my head. I had not noticed a very large sign warning that I was not allowed beyond a certain point without a guard. I was in such a happy bubble that my walk turned into a run as the path got narrower and narrower. I was unaware that Kampala had been notified and that soldiers were looking for me. One very relieved and lovely rifle free guard was the first to find me on my way back – I think I ran much faster and further than anyone expected – and he happily agreed to run with me as I had misjudged an uphill and was now running late. I ended up having four guys with guns escorting me out the restricted area. I had a half hour of questioning (sitting in a room surrounded by armed men) as to why I was in the forest, how could I not have seen the very large sign, and I kept on being told that I had broken the law, that I could have caused an international incident, and that ignorance was no defence. There was a lot of communication between my interrogators and the office in Kampala as I do not think they knew what to do with me. Although very stern and officious the men were at no time unfriendly or intimidating or looking for bribes. But what kept me calm was that my lovely rescuer did not leave my side at any time and seemed to have an intuitive sense of when panic started rising and would just gently tell me that all was fine. Which it was – luckily my next holiday is not going to be in a Ugandan jail.
I have been pondering as to why the people of these countries are so much more content and more intuitive – one thing is that living close to nature seems to have the effect of settling the mind and allowing people to awaken to their own inner nature, as all of nature connects in a grand web of connection. There is also more of a sense of simplicity, family and community which the western ‘developed’ world seems to have lost with its striving for material possessions, status symbols and its skewed definition of success.
As Albert Einstein says “The ancients knew something that we seem to have forgotten”.
Maybe we need to start the remembering process.