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Meet Danny, the Jungle Man

A teacher is reminded that the lessons that really stick are rarely a part of the official course material.

A teacher is reminded that the lessons that really stick are rarely a part of the official course material.

The best part about growing up in the Amazon was the people, and when I was a kid, one of my absolute favorite people was Jungle Man Danny Fast. Like me, Danny was raised by missionaries. But unlike me, he had spent a lot of his childhood in the deep jungle of Peru with an indigenous people called the Achuar.

Danny had widow's-peaked brown hair, the strong, ripcord muscles of jungle living, and flat feet and toes from a life spent walking around barefoot. When most of his friends had graduated high school and moved back to their home countries of Canada, the United States, and (in Danny’s case) Germany, Danny had stayed in the jungle to live with the people he had come to love. I guess you could say that to a jungle boy like me—living in dread of the day I would have to leave the muggy, vine-draped land of my childhood—Danny offered up vision of Never-Never Land.

But the real parrot-feather in his battered cap—the thing that pushed him over the top and into “uber-cool-hero-worship-land”—was that Danny had actually been on television, acting as a guide and interpreter for a 1987 National Geographic special on the Achuar people and their use of medicinal plants. As a fluent English, Spanish, and Achuar speaker, he was pretty much the only human being on the face of the planet with the ability, time, and inclination for the job. As a result, he got his 15 minutes and became a bit of a celebrity within our little community.

I’m not sure how, exactly, Danny and I became friends. Perhaps it was our shared love of fishing or the fact that he, like me, was an avid reader. Whatever it was, whenever Danny happened to pop in to visit his parents and stock up before returning to his life in the jungle, he and I always ended up spending a lot of time together. A consummate storyteller, as we fished and paddled around the nearby lake he kept me spellbound with jungle tales, into which were woven lessons about life, indigenous culture, natural history—you name it.

As time passed, our visits tended to revolve less around shared jungle adventures and more around the deeper stuff of life. We often sat up late into the evening, just talking. He would tell me his stories and we would chat about philosophy, science, and religion.

Then I graduated and moved away. Unlike Danny, I had no real place of my own. It was never my mission, so when my borrowed time expired, I hopped on one plane after another, ending up at university during one of the coldest British Columbia winters in decades.

You can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy. I spent hours wandering campus sidewalks in the mist and drizzle of the night, wishing that I, like Danny, could have stayed in a place where everything—even the smell of the air—wasn’t so strange.

But Danny was with me, too. See, without realizing what was happening, I had absorbed him into my way of thinking. My perspective had been drastically shaped by a man who lived, by choice, at a pace and with a simplicity unthinkable to the average North American. He was, in short, my teacher. His way of thinking had become a part of me, and I have worked his teachings into my life as I have spent the past 13 years in this foreign culture, gradually learning to make it my own. He was a missionary kid of American and German descent, destined to return to a life of “civilized” wealth, living out his “potential” as an educated, Caucasian male. He became the Jungle Man.

Two years ago, when I moved from British Columbia to North Carolina in order to be closer to family and a few childhood friends, this Jungle Man was there as well. His mother, long since a widow, had fallen ill and needed constant care. So Dan (as he had come to be known) put his dream of helping the Achuar develop a local, sustainable industry and protein source on hold and moved to America to care for his mother.

I see him most weeks now. We sit in his book-lined loft and talk, as before, about loftier things. He tells me his stories, and with them continues to teach me about life. In a culture obsessed with the self and personal advancement, he stands for me as a reminder of selfless familial devotion. He teaches me how to live.

Teaching is a privilege that happens when we least expect it. As a professional educator, it's easy to forget that the lessons that stick are often not a part of the official course material. It's easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of lessons and evaluation—to forget that sometimes, by just being me, I can really change a life.

Photographs used by permission of the author.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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