Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book combines travel writing with pop science discussion of what makes people happy (or unhappy.) Weiner travels to ten countries in pursuit of happiness, and reflects upon the cultural components of bliss.

Some of the countries, like Switzerland and Iceland, rank among the world’s happiest in international surveys. Some of the countries, such as Qatar and America, have every reason to be happy, but aren’t necessarily as blissful as the rest of the world would expect. Some of them, like India and Thailand, have good reason to be unhappy, and yet they manage to be global exemplars of happiness [at least within certain domains.]

Then there are a few nations that have unique relationships to happiness. Bhutan has a national policy on happiness [plus it’s a Buddhist country, and Buddhism probably offers the most skillful explanation of what it takes to be happy of any world religion.] Moldova provides a counterweight as it’s one of the least happy countries in the world. Weiner visits the Netherlands in part because one of the biggest academic centers studying happiness is located in Rotterdam, but it also offers an opportunity to study whether the country’s unbridled hedonism (drugs and prostitution are legal) correlates to happiness. That leaves Great Britain, a country known for wearing the same happy face as its sad, terrified, and enraged faces.

I’ve been to half of the countries on Weiner’s itinerary, and—of the others—I’ve been to countries that share some—though not all—of the cultural constituents of happiness. (e.g. I haven’t been to Qatar, but I’ve been to the UAE. I haven’t been to Moldova, but I’ve seen somewhat less grim Eastern European states. I haven’t been to Switzerland or Iceland but I’ve been to cold countries in Western Europe. I haven’t been to Bhutan, but I’ve been in areas where Tibetan Buddhism was the dominant cultural feature.) This allowed me to compare my experiences with the author’s, as well as to learn about some of the cultural proclivities that I didn’t understand during my travels. And I did find a lot of common ground with the author, as well as learned a lot.

I found this book to be interesting, readable, and funny. Weiner has a wacky sense of humor that contributes to the light-hearted tone of the book—perfect for the subject. That said, some people may be offended because the author doesn’t pull punches in the effort to build a punchline, and this sometimes comes off as mocking cultures. However, in all cases—even that of Moldova—Weiner does try to show the silver lining within each culture.

The paperback edition I read had no graphics or ancillary matter. There are no citations or referred works (except in text), and the chapters are presented as journalistic essays. The chapters largely stand alone, and so one could read just particular countries of interest. He does refer back to events that happened in earlier chapter or research that related to another country’s cultural proclivities, but not often. The first chapter, on the Netherlands, would be a good one to read first because he describes many of the scientific findings on happiness in that one.

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in what makes some places happier (or sadder) than others.

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Blinders (Literal and Figurative) in the Martial Arts

IMG_2553Many years ago I was training at a dōjō that had a practitioner who was a teacher for the blind. He requested that we put together a self-defense workshop for his students.  (If you’re wondering what kind of evil jackass would attack a blind person, rest assured that—sadly–such a level of jackassitude exists in the world.) The request presented an intriguing challenge. How does one adapt techniques that are premised on being able to see what the opponent is doing? Or maybe one shouldn’t adapt existing techniques but rather start from square one?

 

In preparation for working up a lesson plan, the person that asked for the workshop briefed the black belts. We learned that very few of the blind students lived in complete darkness. Instead, they displayed a wide range of different visual impairments. He even brought a large bag of goggles that simulated various impairments so that we could train in them to better understand what would or wouldn’t work with different types of impairment.

 

There were goggles that had funnels over the eyes such that one could see two little circles clearly while the rest of the world was black. There were others that had a complete field of view, but had translucent tape over the lenses so that everything was reduced to fuzzy blobs—as if one were looking through Vaseline. There were lenses that had a crackle effect such that one could only see veins of area clearly. There were goggles with no peripheral vision, and ones with only peripheral vision. He also had some goggles that blacked out the world entirely. Completely blind individuals may not be as common as one would think, but they certainly exist. Putting on any of the goggles was disorienting at first. A couple of the black belts even got vertigo or nausea when they moved around too quickly.

 

Now imagine what it would be like if one had always had the goggles on, that it was the only worldview one had ever known. Furthermore, imagine that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis all wore the same variety of goggles. You wouldn’t see it as an affliction or a limitation. To you, your view of the world would be full and complete. You would engage in behaviors that might seem odd to an outsider with unobstructed vision (e.g. sweeping your hands around in big arcs, turning your head at unusual angles, or calling out into the “darkness”), but these behaviors wouldn’t seem odd to you because you’d know it as natural behavior for someone who experienced the world as you did.  Because everyone you dealt with would see the world in the same way, it wouldn’t occur to you to think about whether there was another way to behave.

 

The preceding paragraph serves as an analogy for culture. One’s own culture is often invisible, especially if you don’t get outside of it much. All the people around you confirm your belief that you’re seeing the world as it is and behaving in the only natural and normal way imaginable. Sure, you may notice other people’s cultures—their skewed worldviews and the anomalous behaviors that result– but that’s because they do “strange things.” Still, some individuals will maintain that their culture doesn’t display any of the “odd” ways of behaving that more “exotic” cultures do.

 

But it does. Every culture is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly of how a people goes about living in the world given their cultural blind spots and skews. It includes collective coping mechanism for dealing with fears of uncertainty, and those are often the ugly side of culture. They encourage ingroup / outgroup separation, as well as primitive and superstitious approaches to dealing with those events, people, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.

 

It’s easy to display double standards when one is blind to culture. I will give an example from my own life. It’s only been since I’ve been living in India (and traveling in Asia) that I’ve become aware of how many people are upset by Westerner’s secularization of Eastern religious / spiritual symbols and imagery. That’s a mouthful; so let me explain what I mean by “secularization of Eastern symbols and imagery.” I’m talking about “OM” T-shirts / pendants, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan thanka paintings, mandalas  (on T-shirts or posters), miniature shrines, or tattoos that are purchased because they are trendy, aesthetically pleasing, or vaguely conceptually pleasing without any real understanding of the tradition from which they came or intention of honoring it.

 

Granted it’s easy to miss the above issue if you’re a tourist because: a.) Many of said Eastern traditions practice a live-and-let-live lifestyle that make their practitioners unlikely to be confrontational about such things (in contrast to  practitioners of Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.)) b.) There are merchants in every country who are willing to sell anything to anybody for a buck, and so there are vast markets for tourists that offer up these symbols and images in droves.

 

It still intrigues me that it once caught me off guard that there were Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. who were dismayed by the secularization of their traditions. I’m agnostic, but I was raised in a Christian household. Therefore, I can imagine the animosity aroused by the following conversation.

 

A: [Wearing a simple crucifix [or Star of David or crescent & star] pendant on a chain.]

B: Hey, A, I didn’t know you were Christian [or Jewish or Muslim]?

A: Because I’m not.

B: But you’re wearing a crucifix [or other Abrahamic symbol] pendant?

A: Oh, yeah, that. That doesn’t mean anything. It just looks cool. It’s kind of like the Nike swoosh.

B: [Jaw slackens.]

 

Now replace the crucifix with an “OM” shirt, and an inquiry about whether “A” is Hindu. Does it feel the same? If it doesn’t, why shouldn’t it?

 

Every martial art represents a subculture embedded in the culture of the place from which it came.  [Sometimes this becomes a mélange, as when a Japanese martial art is practiced in America. In such cases the dōjō usually reflects elements of Japanese culture (e.g. ritualized and formal practice), elements of American culture (e.g. 40+ belt ranks so that students can get a new rank at least once a year so they don’t quit), and elements of the martial art’s culture (e.g. harder or softer approaches to engaging the opponent.)]

 

The way that culture plays into a country’s martial arts may not become clear until one has practiced the martial arts of different countries—particularly in their nation of origin. While my own experience is limited, I have practiced Japanese kobudō in America (and extremely briefly in Japan), Muaythai in Thailand, and Kalaripayattu in India. I’ll leave Muaythai out of the discussion for the time being because I can most easily make my point by contrasting Japanese and Indian martial arts.  The Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve practiced each reflects the nature of its respective culture, and they couldn’t be more different.

 

IMG_4525What are the differences between the Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve studied? I’ve been known to answer that by saying that the Japanese martial art rarely uses kicks above waist level, while in Kalaripayattu if you’re only kicking at the height of your opponent’s head you’ll be urged to get your kick up a couple of feet higher.  What does that mean? The Japanese are expert at stripping out the needless and they work by paring away excess rather than building difficulty. The impulse of the Japanese is to avoid being showy. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) appeals to the Japanese mind. (Except for the “Stupid” part, which would be considered needlessly confrontational and gratuitously mean-spirited.) There’s a reason why Japanese martial arts don’t feature prominently in global martial arts cinema. They don’t wow with their physicality; efficiency is at the fore.

 

IMG_2246On the other hand, Indians are a vastly more flamboyant bunch, and Kalaripayattu is extremely impressive to watch and in terms of the physicality required to perform the techniques.  The Indian art isn’t about simplifying or cutting away the unnecessary. One has to get in progressively better shape as one advances to be able to perform techniques that require one leap higher, move faster, and be stronger. The Indian art isn’t about paring away excess, it’s about making such an impressive physical display that the opponent wonders whether one is just a man, or whether one might not be part bird or lion.

 

It might sound like I’m saying that the Japanese martial art is more realistic than the Indian one. Not really. Each of them is unrealistic in its own way. It’s often pointed out that the Japanese trained left-handedness out of their swordsmen, but that’s only one way in which Japanese martial arts counter individuation.  Given what we see in terms of how “southpaws” are often more successful in boxing, MMA, and street fighting, eliminating left-handedness seems like an unsound tactic at the individual level. There are undoubtedly many practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts who can dominate most opponents who fight in an orthodox manner, but who would be thrown into complete disarray by an attacker who used chaotic heathen tactics. Consider that the only thing that kept the Japanese from being routed (and ruled) by the Mongolians was two fortuitous monsoons. The samurai were tremendously skilled as individual combatants, but the Mongolians could—literally—ride circles around them in warfare between armies. Perhaps, a more relevant question is whether Miyamoto Musashi would have defeated Sasaki Kojirō if the former had followed all the formal protocols of Japanese dueling instead of showing up late, carving his bokken from a boat oar, and generally presenting a f*@# you attitude. Who knows? But as the story is generally told, Musashi’s disrespectful and unorthodox behavior threw Sasaki off his game, and it was by no means a given that Musashi would win. Some believed Sasaki to be the more technically proficient swordsman.

 

All martial arts are models of combative activity apropos to the needs of a particular time, place, culture, and use.  And—as I used to frequently hear in academia—all models are wrong, though many are useful. (Sometimes, it’s written: “All models are lies, but many are useful.”)

 

[FYI: to the readers who say, “The martial art I practice is completely realistic.” My reply: “You must go through a lot of body-bags. Good for you? I guess?”]

BOOK REVIEW: The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian Ed. by Istvan Bori

The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of NationhoodThe Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of Nationhood by ISTVAN BORI

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book is a collection of 50 short essays on various topics (origins, history, arts, sciences, products, and entertainment) as they relate to Hungary and Hungarian-ness. There isn’t a great deal of depth to most of the essays, and so this isn’t the book for someone who is well-acquainted with Hungary and Hungarians and wants a deep level understanding. However, it would be a very useful and easily digested resource for travelers visiting Hungary who want insight into this smallish nation with its very long history. For those familiar with Hungary, this nation has a national character that is quite unique and which is characterized by intelligence, solitariness, and a certain variety of gloominess.

Hungary has had a much larger impact on the world than either its size would suggest, or than most of the world recognizes. Famously, the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb, wouldn’t have achieved success in such a rapid timeframe—if at all–if it weren’t for a slate of Hungarian-educated scientists including Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Jon Von Neumann. Few of his peers would have disputed the statement that Von Neumann was the smartest person on the planet during his day. Challenging explosives calculations that made the atomic bomb possible are just part of a legacy that also included being the father of game theory–an approach to strategic interactions that is in widespread use in Economics and the social sciences today.

There are some areas in which Hungary has certain niche. For example, while Hungary might not be thought of as an athletics powerhouse, generally speaking, the Hungarians dominate in the sport of water polo and are frequently strong contenders in some swimming events.

This book’s chapters are roughly organized, but not formally grouped, into alike topics. For example, foods, beverages, spices, and desserts are all one after the other. Various history topics are presented together, and the same is true of the arts. Some of the chapters are on much more concrete topics than others. For example, there are chapters on “Fate” and “Soul” up front that are more conceptual than the average chapters. As I indicated, this is a collection of essays by various authors, and that means that there’s not a solitary tone and approach throughout the book. However, there was a single chief editor, and so the chapters aren’t distractingly disparate either.

I believe the book was unfortunately named. “The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian” makes it sound as if this would be a perfect gift for the children of emigrants, i.e. people who’ve visited the country and spent time around Hungarians, but who want to learn more about their native culture. It probably doesn’t give enough depth and new information for such people. For example, the chapters on cuisine talk about pogácsa and gulyas (i.e. goulash), and don’t delve into the exotic, but rather stick with the everyday cuisine with which any visitor to Hungary will already be familiar. On the other hand, tourists and travelers for whom this book might be ideal could be led astray, thinking the book is offering them more depth than they want, need, or can reasonably digest. That being said, there are chapters on niche subjects such as “contemporary writers” or “folk dancing” from which even a veteran visitor to Hungary might pick up something new.

I’d recommend this book–particularly for those who haven’t yet spent a great deal of time in Hungary or who work or interact with Hungarians and want more insight into their nature. Each essay is short and easily digested.

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First World Problems Are So Adorable

 

How deep is it? No one knows.

How deep is it? No one knows.

In the interest of enhancing global understanding and camaraderie, I’ve built a translator of common first world (FW) problems–putting them in terms of their Rest of the World (RoW) equivalents.

FW: This food needs salt.
RoW: This food needs food.

FW: My health insurance premiums went up $20 per month.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.

FW: My car is in the shop again.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.

FW: It’s raining again today.
RoW: My house was washed off its foundations and is currently floating down the Brahmaputra River.

FW: Looks like those devils from the other party got a majority in the legislature.
RoW: This coup was particularly bloody.

FW: Squirrels are getting into my bird feeder.
RoW: A tiger ate my family.

FW: A traffic jam made me late for Pilates class.
RoW: While limping through the Kyber Pass to get antibiotics for my right stump, I was socked in by an unanticipated blizzard.

FW: My GPS says this road cuts under the interstate, but now I’ve got to go around.
RoW: What’s GPS?

DAILY PHOTO: Half a Tree is Better than None

Taken December 7, 2013 in Cox Town.

Taken December 7, 2013 in Cox Town.

I took this photo yesterday in Cox Town as we were walking over to the United Charities Bazaar (a great and highly recommended event.) It’s a tree that juts out into the road next to a small Hindu temple. When they put in a flyover, they cut away quite a bit of the tree, but the part that remains seems to be thriving.

When one moves to a new country, one experiences a wide variety of cultural insights. All of a sudden, this invisible thing called culture becomes visible. There are, of course, many norms that grate on one’s nerves with respect to the culture one has been transplanted into. In the vast majority of cases, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the new culture–they are just differences, just shocks to one’s system. There are a few cultural proclivities that one can fairly say are objectively inferior, and it’s a testament to India that they are trying to fix these problems (e.g. by outlawing the caste, by trying to prevent killing off of girl children, etc.)

However, if one is honest with oneself, one also gains insight into one’s native culture, and its particular inferiorities.  As I said, we take culture so for granted that we don’t necessarily even see the peculiarities of our own culture. One of the Indian  norms that I find most laudable is the preservation of living things to the extent possible. Put alternatively, one of the norms of my own culture that I’ve come to find most dismaying is the belief that anything that causes a person the least inconvenience must die immediately.

I imagine that some Westerners in India find it to be a pain to have to step out into the street when walking down the sidewalk because there are occasionally ten-foot diameter trees hogging the whole sidewalk. In the US, they’d just cut down the big tree and replace it with a dwarf tree of some sort that would never give them a problem–and if it did, just get out the saw.

The Deferential Calculus of Being an American in India

Every time I come home, the security man at the desk at our apartment building jumps to his feet and proceeds to stand at attention until I pass. This makes me uncomfortable, as do the many other ingrained acts of deference that occasionally border on obsequiousness. I’ve considered stopping to tell him he can be permanently “at ease” with me, but given the language barrier I’m afraid I’d just confuse the issue–plus have him standing at attention that much more longer. So, when in Rome…

If you’re an American, but not, say… General Pershing, you’d probably find this makes you uneasy as well. I think one of the reasons that Americans have historically excelled at technological development  is that we were in a hurry to have machines do our laundry, wash our dishes, or trim our nose hairs so that we wouldn’t have to have some other human apparently kowtowing to us. (This may be why the 19th century North was considerably more technologically advanced than its Southern counterpart, which had successfully rationalized a subclass of human being.)

There’s a guy who stands at the end of the lane and lifts a swing arm up and down every time a car (or, oddly, a pedestrian such as myself) comes down the lane. The first couple times I walked around the end in hopes of indicating to him that, “Hey, see you don’t really need to swing that thing up, I can just walk right around it, easy as pie.” I think I hurt his feelings, or–perhaps worse–undermined his reason for getting up in the morning. My point is that operating a swing-arm barrier is a perfect example of the type of job that has been completely mechanized in America.

I’m sure that cultural differences are the root of my discomfort. India is coming from the caste system, whereby who you were born to determined your status in a rigidly hierarchical structure. While Indians may have dropped the caste system, the underlying thought process dies hard. I, on the other hand, come from a culture which believes that on a fundamental level we are all equal. Americans are often stymied as to why we are viewed as being arrogant by other cultures. This may be a failure to see things in the same light. It’s not so much that we project that we are better than the average Joe, it’s that we don’t accept that the kings and holy men those cultures hold dear are above us. This is true. I don’t think I’m better than the door man, but I also don’t think the King of [Fill in the blank] is better than me. [OK, the perception of arrogance is also partly that we’re loud and expect a ubiquity of comfort that is simply not available in much of the world. There is that. And the fact that our leaders often think they can fix every problem everywhere, and–given this is not actually true–we have left a lot of chaos in the our wake since our rise to hegemony.]

So the whole culture thing is part of it. However, I also worry that the man who brings my food with a warm smile and a bow is spitting in it. I wonder if the lady who launders my clothes, and then goes the extra mile by ironing them (though they mostly consist of T-shirts and jeans), might be preparing an itching powder attack. I wonder if the security guy standing at attention is just waiting for me to lock myself out of my apartment so that he can exercise some passive aggressive payback. [I suspect this is why Indian bureaucracy is notoriously slow and prickly. It’s a desire to exercise the leg up on has while one is in other ways part of an underclass.] I heard a comedienne of Indian origin say that her mother always flew British Airways just for the delight of bossing a Brit around. All of this consternation is because I worry that they think that I think I’m superior to them, which I don’t.

Yesterday I was eating at an Indian fast food joint called Kaati Zone. It’s one of those places that you order at the counter, get your food at the counter, and take it to one’s table. (FYI- this set up is much less common here except for little holes in the wall where one stands to eat.) When I was done, I pitched my trash in the trash can and put my tray on top, just like one would at a Wendy’s. When I turned around there was a young woman with her jaw agape and eyes wide looking right at me. My first thought was that I had pitched my wallet or my journal in the trash. I did a pat down and found I was alright. As I left, it dawned on me that her surprise may have had something to do with my handling of my own garbage.

Outsourced as a Guide to Indian Corporate Culture?

As my wife and I prepare for our move to Bangalore, we are doing research to help us avoid inadvertent insult and blasphemy . We’ve learned such useful facts as: a.) don’t tug on a Sikh man’s beard, and b.) don’t buy a statue of the goddess Durga to use as a hat rack.

Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

Durga Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

These are just the kind of faux pas a well-meaning but uninformed American couple might make. (Oh, you say, not really?)

Every culture has its little proclivities that seem insane from the outside, but which are so deeply ingrained as to be invisible from the inside. (In fact, I had trouble thinking up such American cultural proclivities, but I believe they exist. Our norms are just so ingrained as to be hard to see. Of course, we are also a  diverse society, a young nation, and tend toward the irreverent in the social domain– all of which may make our cultural idiosyncrasies look a bit different from those of more traditional societies.)

We’ve been reading books like Culture Shock! India, which is one of a series of books that explain the various cultural idiosyncrasies of different countries. (I was first introduced to the series through Culture Shock! Cambodia, though I have read other such books about China and Japan.)  Such guides are extremely useful for explaining do’s and don’ts. However, they don’t necessarily prepare one for the corporate culture of India, which is a mix of Indian, Western, and   multinational business cultures. For insight into the corporate culture we turned to:

OutsourcedFor those of you unfamiliar, Outsourced was a sitcom that ran for one season (2010-2011) on NBC. The premise of the show was that the manager of a novelty company call center is moved from the US to Mumbai. He becomes acquainted with Indian culture as he must teach his staff enough about American culture  so that they can communicate with the customers they are on the phone with all day. Some of the humor comes from the exposure of a very conservative workforce to products that include dildos and slutty Halloween costumes, but much of it is just cultural tension more broadly. The show was popular with critics and Americans familiar with India. Unfortunately, that was not enough to keep it on the air, particularly when Americans who buy tacky crap and couldn’t find India on a map were the butt of the joke at least as much as were Indians. (Americans who buy tacky crap and are geographically illiterate are a large demographic within the television viewing public.) At any rate, the show was clever and well-acted.

One may scoff at the use of a sitcom as reference material, but the show seemed to be well-researched. For example, I know that its discussion of the famous Indian head bobble matched the description in the cultural guide quite well. The bobble is a non answer that can mean virtually anything. The video below gives a more detailed explanation, but the visual is not so good. From what I’ve seen, most people tend to do this action more with the top of the head staying relatively stationary while the jawline swings side-to-side.

This left us wondering whether other elements of the show will ring true. The show introduced me to a new term, “holiduping.” This is when one’s employees convince a manager that a day is a holiday, when in reality it isn’t. To get the joke, you must know that Indians have enough work holidays to make US Federal employees say, “Damn, that’s a lot of holidays!” Furthermore, not all the holidays are national. There may be days taken off in Karnataka that are not in Gujarat, and vice versa. This can make it a challenge for new comers to keep track.

I’m curious as to the views of people in-the-know about how accurate Outsourced was. Most of the cast were Americans of Indian origin, but it doesn’t look like the same was true of the lead writers.

DAILY PHOTO: Rural Shrine Near Maewang, Thailand

In Thailand, there's a temple everywhere.

In Thailand, there’s a temple everywhere.

If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, you’ve probably seen gleaming golden temples even in remote, impoverished portions of the countryside . However, when it comes to the really off-the-beaten path areas occupied by just a few hill tribe farmers, one might think they’d be forced to hoof it to the nearest big shiny temple. Not so. There are little shrines like this one, marked by saffron cloth tied to trees, out in the middle of the jungle.