Yossi Ghinsberg at ITC Sonar on Friday. Picture by Sayantan Ghosh
He was stranded in the middle of the treacherous Amazon rainforests. He was washed away by a raging waterfall. He was cast away into nowhere. He ducked jaguars and termite attacks. And, he lived to tell the tale.
If this sounds like Alchemist meets Indiana Jones meets Cast Away, well, it’s just the simple life story of Yossi Ghinsberg.
The 54-year-old Israeli explorer shared moments from his extraordinary journey and left his audience at Infocom 2013 inspired to build insights and shift their thinking, something in which he finds his “true calling”.
It all began in an Egyptian port town, where Yossi was posted after being drafted into the navy for three years at 18 as part of mandatory military service. “The deserts of Sinai opened me to the culture of Bedouins who had a great impact on my impressionable mind, especially because their way of savouring life was so different,” said Yossi, who spent his vacations in Bedouin villages, learning their language and going fishing. “The romance of it, being in the desert with these people all dressed in white on camels, I was enchanted… it kept me going for three years.”
Yossi’s love for travel and discovery sent him “looking for remote and indigenous tribes” and live with them. “I spent a year doing all kinds of jobs to save money to make it to South America. Construction work in freezing Norway, fishing in Alaska, loading and unloading trucks in New York....”
But Yossi wasn’t there just for fun, he had a mission — “to be an explorer like the heroes in adventure stories I had read, discover a tribe, marry the daughter of the chief and find gold and diamonds!”
Inspired by Papillon, Henri Charrière’s memoirs of his escape from a French prison, Yossi walked into the unchartered jungles of the Amazon in the monsoon of 1981. With him were three friends — Marcus, Kevin “and Carl, who introduced himself as an Austrian geologist. In retrospect, I found Carl was an escaped criminal trying to find refuge in Bolivia. He had made up the stories that I went after”.
What was meant to be a journey of discovery soon turned into a perilous struggle as the four men spent days without food and rest till they decided to take the life-altering chance of going rafting down the river. “After weeks of getting nowhere we saw some excitement in this so we built a raft and set afloat,” Yossi recalls.
Days on the eight-log raft weren’t easy. Marcus developed a fungal infection and Carl fell out of the expedition while Yossi and Kevin took on the challenge of completing the journey. “The decision has haunted me for the rest of my life because we never saw them ever again.”
There was a “canyon with a rapid of raging water” waiting and before they knew it, Kevin jumped out and swam to the bank while Yossi “afraid to let go” clung to the raft. “The water was so fast, it took me in and in the next half hour I went through so much that the raft broke to pieces, our backpacks were lost,” said Yossi, who went tumbling down the cascade, holding on to the last piece of log. “It lasted a few seconds till I reached a shore, exhilarated that I was alive.”
He didn’t break a bone or suffer a scratch, when “even a small thing would have taken away my balance and killed me”, said Yossi, attributing his survival to “sheer miracle or “divine intervention”.
Then began the uphill task of walking through the jungles for weeks in search of a trace of humanity, surviving on eggs found in bird nests or fruits that fell from trees. “It wasn’t trivial to stay alive in the rainy season without a machete, gun or fire that even the indigenous people need to survive…. I realised I had gone from being a victim to a hero. That I was stronger than I thought and my spirit was unbeatable.”
Yossi remembers going through insufferable pain before going into a state of calm when “the pain didn’t matter anymore”. It was a miracle every day as he dodged “jaguar, termites, wild boars, deadly snakes, and all kinds of insects laying larva inside my skin before I began to hallucinate… something that saved my life… this rich world of lucid dreams helped me rest and fight fear”.
Born to “holocaust survivors”, Yossi feels his survival instincts were partly shaped by his parents’ tales of endurance.
After 19 days in the jungles, Yossi was rescued by a search party led by Kevin. Food was the first thing on his mind. “There was dried venison on the boat, I couldn’t stop eating,” he smiled, digging into his dinner of mutton biryani and paalak corn at ITC Sonar on Friday.
Returning to ordinary life was tough as Yossi “felt disconnected”. He spent a year writing about his experience and Jungle became a bestseller. “But I needed to travel again.”
Married with four children, Yossi’s romance with the Bedouin way of life continues as he lives in tents. “I either place it on the roof, in the garden or the verandah. My wife and I sleep in the tent while my kids sleep in the bedroom…. And it’s not just a sleeping camping bag. It’s lush and permanent with a little pond next to it,” said Yossi, who even has “a beautiful Indian tent with mirrorwork that I put on the roof of my house in Israel”.
Yossi’s nomadic trail has taken him to the US, Australia and Israel, treating opium addicts, building a ranch and returning to the Amazon 10 years later “to say thank you to the people”. He stayed on for three years and built an ecolodge, Chalalan, where he was once lost. “I did it with help from the aborigines and the resort has changed the life of the entire region.” Chalalan hosted Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt and the King of Sweden last month.
Looking back, Yossi, who has shared the stage with Bill Clinton and Richard Branson as motivational speaker, “can’t believe the beauties I experienced... it was the best time of my life”.
His life is waiting to find its way to the Hollywood big screen. “The rights are with Arclight Productions (producer of the Keira Knightly-starrer Anna Karenina) but on hold because I don’t want it to be just another action adventure,” says Yossi who has written much of the script. And who tops his directorial wish list? “Sean Penn I think would be good.”
What next? “Kevin’s 64 now…. While we’re still in good health you think we should plan another expedition?” he signs off.
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