Yossi Ghinsberg’s eyes resemble lakes in a forest. Reflecting green and golden at the same time, with a ring of azure streaming in as if trying to inundate the irises, the pair has seen truly kaleidoscopic things.
From staring straight at the face of a jaguar mere centimetres away, to looking down at his body covered in a blanket of ants, these eyes have even bore witness to a frail woman in the middle of a jungle, whom Ginsberg claims to have aided for a few days before she vanished into thin air.
These were just some accounts the 58-year-old relayed in his memoir Jungle , which was adapted into a major motion picture of the same name and released in 2017. Daniel Radcliffe, proving he could do more than Harry Potter, played the 22-year-old vagabond Yossi Ghinsberg when he turned up lost in the dense rainforest near Bolivia’s Tuichi River. The ex-Israeli Navy officer was separated from his mochileros (Spanish for “backpackers”) friends — an American named Kevin, an Austrian named Karl, and a Swiss named Marcus — and spent almost three weeks alone, with only his imagination for company.
But he insisted the encounter with the lady was not contrived. “At that time, it was a mystery and even now, after more than 30 years, it is still a mystery,” says Ghinsberg. “My imagination was a major tool to my survival. I knew how to apply it because I couldn’t sleep, and it helped me rest. But this girl, she appeared. I didn’t tell myself to invent a girl. She just appeared.”
He remembers pulling her around, helping her to move as both wanted desperately to be found and saved. “Sometimes, I was really frustrated and screamed at her to hurry up. She didn’t help me, but she needed my help — and that was what saved my life; that somebody needed me, and it gave me a purpose.”
That, and his subsequent rescue by Kevin and a burly Bolivian riverman named Tico Tudela, changed Ghinsberg’s perspective on life. “The true power is revealed to you when you do things for others,” he imparts.
“The true power is revealed to you when you do things for others,” — Yossi Ghinsberg
So, after returning safely to and staying in Israel for about a decade — during which he wrote his first book — Yossi Ghinsberg returned to Tuichi River to help the indigenous Uchupiamonas de San Jose community. They came up with an eco-lodge called Chalalan. Cabanas and trail networks were built in 1992 in the Madidi National Park, a jungle paradise and one of the world’s richest protected areas for biodiversity. Finally initiated as a member of the 850-numbered Uchupiamonas tribe, Ghinsberg is now an ambassador and helps further their cause to protect the surrounding flora and fauna as well as bring in more tourist dollars.
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The villagers are the owners of the resort. They built and manage it. I only advise. The Uchupiamonas used to work in the nearby town of Rurrenabaque, scrubbing floors and doing other dirty work. Now, people from Rurrenabaque work for them instead.
As this prolific entrepreneur explains, “Everyone understands business. Talk about philosophy and conservation and nobody gets it. If you tell them: ‘Don’t kill the monkey, they are endangered’, the people won’t understand because they’ve been doing it for years. But when you tell them the tourists come to see the monkey, the monkey becomes your business partner and brings in more money — they understand.”
Aside from business acumen and wildlife conservation, another way Yossi Ghinsberg offers assistance to others is by giving motivational speeches around the world. He’s in Singapore for this year’s YPO EDGE convention, where global thought leaders address key issues in business, politics, science, technology, philanthropy and the humanities.
Looking at his two-day roster, Ghinsberg says, “I have two seminars and a talk to give.” However, he confesses that he was unable to speak during a rehearsal held the day before. “I cannot speak to empty chairs. My heart just doesn’t open for the empty chairs. But the moment I see people, words would flow easily.”
One wonders if Yossi Ghinsberg is fearful of being left alone, after his solitary 20-day jungle ordeal. He says it’s the opposite. “It wasn’t that I was afraid to be alone — I was afraid to be in the society, I didn’t fit in anymore. It was a crisis of values. In retrospect, I realised it was an existential crisis. I was screaming for meaning.”
“It’s about harmony,” Ghinsberg explains, “not like partnership or cooperation but it’s deeper; it’s symbiosis and synergy. Nature is very smart and efficient — there is no competing. Yes, a jaguar will eat a deer but the jaguar will never eliminate the deer. If you don’t compete, it’s easier. And how do you not compete? You find a niche. If you find a niche, by definition, there won’t be competition.”
“Nature is very smart and efficient — there is no competing. Yes, a jaguar will eat a deer but the jaguar will never eliminate the deer. If you don’t compete, it’s easier. And how do you not compete? You find a niche.” — Yossi Ghinsberg
Ghinsberg found his niche in storytelling. “I’m a natural storyteller. It’s a gift that I have. But the meaning of a gift is that you must give it. That’s what I hope to inspire in other people, to find their gift and understand the true meaning of it.”
He is also starting a new programme he calls Buy One Give One Free, where every time someone or an organisation invites him to speak, he gives another talk for free to a community of people nearby.
Ghinsberg’s eyes twinkle every time he talks about his raw passion for adventure and nature, but past the watery veil, they also show deep compassion and a pure love to live and give. As he discloses, “My life was truly saved by this.”