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Bruce Parry: 'The greatest journey of my life has been figuring out who I am'

A rite of passage is important for many young people It's why I joined the Marines: to prove myself. But societies all over the world use this youthful angst to fight wars. You go to an area such as the Omo Valley, Ethiopia [where Parry stayed with the Nyangatom tribe], and the different tribes are essentially cousins who've developed a separate identity to fight for the scarce resources there. The elders play on the young men's sense of pride, wind them up and send them off on a killing spree. We do that in our society, too, albeit in a more civilized way.

It's easy to look down on those we don't understand It was the subtext of [Parry's BBC documentary] Tribe from the beginning. I remember teaching a carpenter in Sumatra to play chess. He couldn't speak English and he hadn't been to school, but he thrashed every one of us, including all of the Oxford grads. Those are telling moments when you realise how easy it is to form a negative impression of a people just because they don't fit in with how we normally compartmentalise people.

Cannibalism is a cultural act that we turn out noses up at, but even with the [cannibalistic West Papuan] Kombai tribe, we didn't go there with an agenda, but to learn from them. There's anxiety and insecurity in their society, just as in ours; they fear witchcraft, which leads them to go out and kill the person they think has cast a spell over them. Then they eat them as they believe it's the only way to exorcise a witch's soul.

Orang-utans are naughty as hell I was staying in an orang-utan rehab centre in Borneo and they would come in to our quarters and raid our rucksacks; they became perfectly adept at undoing clips, drawing cords and pulling everything out and tasting it all before finding our cameras, inserting the nail of their little finger under the latch and taking the film out and destroying it just to annoy us; it was remarkable being that close to primates.

Most people think the arctic is just a white expanse It's actually a massive, undefined area full of riches, covering territories such as America, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Russia, and in just a few decades it might be free of ice in the summer. [In the recent BBC2 show Arctic with Bruce Parry] we wanted to highlight the huge issue of global warming, oil and gas exploitation and the heartbreaking plight of some of the indigenous populations.

I'm in a period of abstinence – from sex, drugs, alcohol and rock'n'roll. We are all so addicted to stimulation that I wanted to see what it would be like to not do those things for a while. It's amazing to realise how hard it is, but once you grasp that, you realise how much we are at the mercy of these controlling forces within us. To break them gives you great strength and puts you back in control of your body.

There's no escaping that my carbon footprint is massive There I am on TV in a helicopter, talking about our addiction to oil, and the irony couldn't be more ridiculous. But I have to believe that my overall impact on the planet is more positive than negative, otherwise I would not sleep at night.

The greatest journey of my life has been figuring out who I am and being comfortable with that; so many of us don't want to take that inwards look. Meditation and strong powerful plants, such as ayahuasca, that are taken in tribal society, allow you to have a hard look at yourself and see objectively how others perceive you. Often what you see isn't pretty, but it allows you to make adjustments, such as reducing your ego, and become a more pleasant person. 1

Bruce Parry, 41, is a British explorer and TV presenter. His book 'Arctic' (Conway, £20) is out now. The DVD of his TV series 'Arctic with Bruce Parry' is out on 28 February