Peru unguided: returning reflective
Back down at sea level, I’ve stocked up on comforting food and some new music from the library: John Lee Hooker’s blues, gospel from Curtis Mayfield, and Omara Portuondo’s classic Cuban style. I need to hear a woman singing old songs in Spanish. The music from this trip was eclectic and discombobulated. Pan flute bands found us in restaurants and on the occasional street corner, there were snippets of Ricky Martin wafting from pharmacias, and Pat Benatar ushered us into Juliaca singing Love is a Battlefield on the bus radio.
Juliaca is a broken down black market town, full of robbers who won’t pay taxes, says the bus guide on the way through to Puno. The saying goes: If you dream of three small dogs, it means you will be robbed the next day, and if you dream of somebody from Juliaca, it means that you already have been.
Samsara city. Place of suffering. Piles of dirt, puddles the size of alleyways.
Cold bright hard rain. Always the bright colors in the knapsacks the women make of blankets, the redness in the brown cheeks, the wide high skirts and the thin stocking-ed legs. In this brown muck, the Quechua shine like berries, like fruits. You cannot help to look at them and they to look at you. It is something pure in their gaze, like they have not cluttered the path to their heart. Even in this muck. If a Juliacan robbed me, I’d feel like I deserved it.
Some worlds, pass by –
Other places, sink in –
The legend goes that the children of the sun god and the goddess of the moon rose from the waters of Lago Titicaca about 800 years ago: Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo went north with a golden staff, and the edict to stop only when the soil was so fertile that the staff would plunge to its full length in the earth. And so the divine founders of a chosen race began the Incan empire in the Sacred Valley – just outside of Cusco, or as the Quechua spell their city, Qosqo, two and a half miles high, the navel of the world – uniting the four territories of Tawantinsuyo in all directions. The Incans believed as the Mayans do: As above, so below, and so the Milky Way above them was mirrored in the topography of their landscape, and their sacred river linked to it at the edge of the world, feeding water back and forth between the earth and sky.
The Urubamba River begins in the high La Reyes pass north of Lago Titicaca, emerging from the light grasslands of the altiplano. The people dwelling here build themselves small matrix mud houses with reed roofs. They keep cows and sheep and llamas and sometimes pigs. Later on up north the river will be called the Vilcanota and then it will join the Amazon, as the jungle river’s the largest tributary. I don’t know whether it flows clean or not as it passes through jungle banks, whether any abundancy of plants can restore it to balance and health. While it is the Urubamba it is a trashed river, which the people use incongruently, as a gift taken for granted, as something pure corrupted by Reality, or as though their source of water was not sacred. After all, it has been a long time since the people were ruled by the Incan Sun God, and the God of the Spaniards loves gold more than people.
When Francisco Pizarro and his two brothers set about to conquer a sub-continent for the honor and glory of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, at the height of his powers in the 16thy century,
“The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous navigations, and battles of the Spaniards – vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord – will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels…
For when, either in ancient or modern times, have such great exploits been achieved by so few against so many, over so many climes, across so many seas, over such distances by land, to subdue the unseen and unkown? Whose deeds can be compared with those of Spain? Our Spaniards, being few in number, never having more than 200 or 300 men together, and sometimes only 100 and even fewer, have, in our time, conquered more territory than has ever been know before, or than all the faithful and infidel princes possess.” p.69 Guns, Germs, and Steel
Who indeed, can compare with deeds with Spain? The Conquistadors were an advance squadron of mercenaries. The Spanish settlers who followed in their wake, unleashed epidemics upon the indigenous people, wiping out a huge percentage of the 10 million inhabitants of the pan-Andean world. And this God that the Spanish insisted upon – advancing with “a cross in one hand and the bible in the other hand” p.71 GGS to demand that Incan leader Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of their Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain – this God seemed a powerful one, furnishing his servants with horses and steel, ruthless minds and devious hearts, single-minded in their mission, to subjugate the unwitting populace and to bring home gold for the king.
And it is hard to discern between the conquerors’ tale and the long-back facts. The smallpox began spreading south through the subcontinent in 1526, and it claimed the lives of both Incan and Aztec emperors. The Incan Empire that Pizarro’s troops faced, was a divided one: after Huayna Capac and his court succumbed to the disease, his sons battled it out in civil war. Pizarro captured Atahuallpa with 168 men and a biblical trap, ransomed him for a stateroom’s worth of gold, and then killed him anyway. Atahuallpa’s 80,000 Indians were armed with wooden clubs and sticks and lightly padded armor. The conquistadors sported chain mail and swords, and some of them were on horses. Scruples nowhere to be seen. The Incas didn’t have a clue what they were up against – bloodthirsty devils with a fierce God of their own – or to what lengths the Spaniards would go in their “exploits”. A people who act in the name of their God can be horribly convincing.
The Inca worshipped their ruler as an incarnation of the Sun God, and surely took similar if less brutal methods to further the spread of empire. There were fourteen Inca rulers, and by the time Francisco Pizarro killed Atahuallpa, the people of the Sun God may have begun to wonder which god’s favor to curry. The Spaniards faced guerilla war from Manco Inca, then a teenaged half-brother to Atahuallpa, who hid in the jungle of Vilcabamba and made his stand by diverting the Urubamba River to flood out the Spanish troops at Ollantaytambo. The Inca line passed to Manco’s sons, who each eventually met strange ends over the next 40 years. The “last Inca”, Tupac Amaru, was publicly executed in Qosqo’s main plaza, where the cathedrals squatted on the old Inca palaces. It must have been a banner day for the Spanish, God and country – the complete dominion of an empire.
The Spanish were interested in gold. They focused their attention on the mines in the north of Peru for many years, and melted mass quantities down for passage back to Spain. During one revolt, the Indians held their own public execution in the plaza, pouring gold down
a conquistador’s throat, using bones to hold his gullet open.
How much will it take to satiate you?
They must have wondered this for years before they acted upon their question.
The gold lined his intestines and finally burst the Spaniard’s bowels in what must have been
a very satisfying display of public retribution.
How do you break the spirit of a people who have worshipped a god of the sun? You must be vicious about it: a people who know balance with nature must be thrown out of balance themselves, so that they wail to their gods for help and find themselves deserted. Once they have lost faith, they become corruptible.
In Peru, the conquistadors made sure to smash the Intihuatana – the central stone, the hitching posts of the sun – in order to scatter the spirits of a temple. (They never found Machu Picchu, so the Intihuatana there remains intact, except for where a tv camera fell from a helicopter during the shooting of a beer commercial and chipped a piece off of one corner.) The churches in Qosqo went up on the primary Incan sites. Then the Spanish built competing Catholic cathedrals on the old central square. Here Pizarro had the last Incan quartered and pulled apart by horses.
Yet beneath the rendering apart of colonization, the spirit of the universal continues. The people could not stop the Spaniards, but they could adapt to life in the new empire. The Incan capitol, Qosqo is a town of “los tremblores”, and their patron saint is the black Christ, who hangs from the cross wearing the bottom half of an Incan tunic that the Spanish sliced in two. There are black Madonnas, also, in the elaborate gold leafed altars that stretch up to the ceiling in most Peruvian churches, filled with niches where statues and paintings depict many saints. The images of coca leaves and snakes and birds fill out the detail work in the elaborate friezes. At the top of one altar, shining down over the heads of the nobles and land-holders on to the shoulders of the peasants sitting towards the back, is the image of a golden sun. “The sun most high.” Room for Pachamama and the three levels of life in Incan cosmology: serpent, puma, condor; room for everybody. The Catholic is universal, yes?
The world is dirty. I have for some time now secretly blamed Christianity for our blatant disregard for the sacredness of energy source material. This perversion of the sacred has been carried out in great force all over the world in the name of a number of institutions: capital, religious, and governmental, and has acted upon the Indigenous in different orders of importance at different times. Power is attained when all three realms fall under influence.
You can trace it back across a culture in architecture, like reading stones.
Basta, Enough –
Begin: What are we doing here, and why?
As traveling people, as tourists, we armed with our three guidebooks and cross-referencing our resource information, we try to begin with no lenses on, but the process is more like dissolving one at a time. At first it cannot even sink in, what we are seeing; the colors are so much and the light is so bright.
On the final flight at dawn into Qosqo from Lima – the tips of entire mountains rose as tropical islands in a sea of clouds. We traced roads with our fingers across the impossible curves, made pencil dots in our minds where there might have been houses. The topography was reversed in the color palette, the sea was light the land was dark and we were above it and mesmerized, sponges of the sensorium.
John Steinbeck put it like this, in his Log from the Sea of Cortez:
We had known that sooner or later we must develop an explanation for what we were doing which would be short and convincing. It couldn’t be the truth because that wouldn’t be convincing at all. How can you say to a people who are preoccupied with getting enough food and enough children that you have come to pick up useless little animals so that perhaps your world picture will be enlarged? That didn’t even convince us. But there had to be a story, for everyone asked us. One of us had once taken a long walking trip through the southern United States. At first he had tried to explain that he did it because he liked to walk and because he saw and felt the country better that way. When he gave this explanation there was unbelief and dislike for him. Is sounded like a lie. Finally a man said to him, “You can’t fool me, you’re doing it on a bet.” And after that he used this explanation, and everyone liked and understood him from then on. p.83,4
We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another, as this young man searches for a light in his wife’s eyes and that one for the hot warmth of fighting. These little boys and young men on the tide flat do not even know that they search for such things too. We say to them, “We are looking for curios, for certain small animals.” p.89
And so we were going to take pictures and write stories about what we saw and experienced, and we were going to collect certain textiles to take home with us, namely hats and socks of warm wool. And we did those things and other things happened to us along the way, in the form of people and altitude and places and the thoughts we had in response.
Landing in the early bright bowl of Qosqo, it was too late already to begin squinting. We kept looking with our eyes unusually wide. We were going to take what came wide open, and let the armor of western civilized standards fall soft upon the heaps of garbage lining the sides of the roads and pooled in pockets of water on the uneven ground.
Not a lot of trees in Peru. The Eucalyptus imported in the 19th century to try to curb erosion and landslides are toxic trees, and other plants won’t grow in the root soil. The notion of blame gets swallowed up along the way, there is so much to absorb and this trip is just a first impression. Like spending a day on an adventure with someone you have never met before. Worlds collide and offer glimpses and occasional moments of hilarity and lots of mutual confusion. And you keep it to yourself if something gets you riled up, because you are powerless, just as they seem to be, to change anything, and you don’t have the language to explain it anyway.
And what if you did
have the language, what then? How would you use it
and would anybody listen?
You go with questions, vague and unformed,
about the mystery at the heart of everything
and how it comes out in the art and ceremony and architecture of a place,
and how the natural world balances the people and how the people treat the place,
and whether they’re losing their essential connection.
Because there is mystery at the heart of you, and you know it
but also you know that it is tenuous.
You are a master at recognizing the degree to which a soul is lost
from its source because you were born with a lost faith, into a place
with great natural splendor and into a culture at odds.
You can tell when there is paradox, and you want to know
how other people survive theirs. You want to be reminded
of a kind of living that takes time to honor by every day action.
Not the honor of men clad in armor ready to defend empty
words and politics with blood.
And you want to be reminded of the similarities: of your capacity
to live in this reality, and of what it will evoke in you.
This is what I mean by Indigenous:
the spell of soundness unbroken
or woven repeatedly in new patterns
of lineage, a thread to follow.
Not introduced, not disconnected from source.
this is not to say unbruised
Indigenous has fallen
under the lash and stood up again.
We plopped down in Qosqo’s plaza de armas at 7:30 in the morning, 26 hours into our journeying, just before the square woke up. Sitting on a park bench in the navel of the world, stupefied in the bright sun, slightly at a loss, our hearts picking up the beat, a little fluttery. A woman was clipping the grass at our feet by hand. We couldn’t understand her at all. She was un-phased by our near muteness and went on with her work around us. Upstairs in the newly un-shuttered morning, there was coffee waiting for us, and pancakes and eggs Yak Mama style, and a view out the balcony at the square filling in with fathers walking their daughters to school, and shoe shine boys and old men and kids selling strips of postcards. There was vending on street corners and in the middle of the road. Public and private work different down there.
We flagged down a Llama taxi to drive us through the valley out to Ollantaytambo. We passed an adventure park with bungee jumping for the crazy tourists who were not already afflicted with altitude sickness. I was feeling the altitude very clearly, as though we’d just touched down in a valley at the top of a mountain range on the other end of the world. I remember focusing on just breathing in the back seat of the cab; things got boiled down real simple there for a while. The landscape could only introduce itself in passing and my body was still hurtling through unfamiliar space, trying to catch up.
We arrived at a private paradise behind the train station, a white stucco Albergue with dark wood and glass gallon jars full of medicinal herbs, gardens full of datura trees, and a small stream in the corner. A painter’s house, the painter gone and us the only guests, with a view off the balcony of the temple/fortress/storehouse ruins on the mountain across the valley. The longer we looked the more ruins we saw in the hills.
The town of Ollantaytambo, where Manco Inca made his stand against the conquistadors in 1536, was built in the shape of a trapezoid. They flooded the river plain and nearly forced the Spanish back to Qosqo, but they paid for it later. Pizarro, pissed that Manco Inca wouldn’t negotiate and surrender, had his sister captured and killed, and floated her body down the river on a raft.
Charlie and Joel practice wrapping their lips around Ollantaytambo. It becomes a mantra soon, involving presence of mind and attention, the shift in concentration involved to pronounce the word, and then what the name comes to mean.
Ollantaytambo is where it begins. All the rest is just getting us there. After this place we are following along, trying to record what we see. We see a place where land and sky intertwine, where stars rain down on rivers and the rifts in the Milky Way are dark star constellations, shape shifting into animal forms. Qosqo the navel of the world, reflected in the stars. Ollantaytambo another star in the Incan empire, downriver, up the old road toward Machu Picchu.
Our second afternoon, Charlie took us on a wander up the village road a ways, to a spot for sitting with a view back down the valley, shaped like the maize growing in the fields. The village children were incredibly cute in exchange for propinos, and had Joel with the rooster photo right away. He was glad to oblige and they followed us for a bit with kittens and big smiles and hands out asking for more.
Each kid does it differently; the old ask too. Some attitudes are more innocent than others. We are rich, and they are poor. It seems okay for them to ask. We say yes, we say no. We walk on.
I draw cho ku rei in the ground of our sitting spot and give Charlie and Joel a Reiki intro. We’re talking about powerful spots like sacred valleys and how they move through you, shifting you into new landscape within yourself. As above so below; as without, so within.
Sky above, earth below, tree in front, purple mountain behind. I am in the universe and the universe is in me. The Taoist qi gung shaking exercise, standing knees bent slightly in the sacred rectangle, sending a shaking down the spine into the legs and feet. Out through the arms, looseness in the joints, soft or fast, large or subtle, shaking the energy down towards the earth. Shaking loose the excess charge of computer screens and intrinsic gripping; drawing breath through the root from the ground up into the lungs and heart, and continuing up through the top of the head. Charlie is visual, he sees a geyser of light. I just feel things. We sit and exchange breath with the land and I feel full and clear, a conduit between earth and heaven, a channel of breath.
It’s no big deal to these people; this is their context, their history, their world. But standing in the rough stone enclosure of an empty bullpen looking out over the green stalks of white maize and the impossibly huge mountains ringing the valley, the land song is palpable.
Are there other ways to put this?
And in that presence of land, we could feel ourselves. And from that place of clarity, I think we each made private vows to shape our futures with, and were glad of the company and the happenstance, of coming so far to a place and sharing a moment which will serve as a touchstone in years to come.
As it usually goes with epiphanies – even the ones you can share with your friends – they tend to shift quickly into new obstacles once the moment has passed. We came down from our moment with shrieks and barking, as the American family from the plane descended upon our paradise and filled the place with their classic movie presence. Chevy Chase is alive and well in the Chicago suburbs, and his wife is desperately afraid that she’s lost her kids to pop culture. She got five of their flights with airline miles, and she packed pumpkin pie mix in her luggage. The kids are a disturbing and typical lot, the oldest one comatose and droopy, the baby a blonde spitfire named Grace: a terror at 7 and probably wild all her life. Her dad calls her Goo. Her brothers chase her around the grounds to make her scream, and her cousin alternates yelling “Bark!” and “Shut up!” at the nervous weimeraner named Nico who we’d been quietly befriending. Nico is a nutcase by dinner, climbing up to stand in my lap and bark as the family files past.
Dinner is incredible, and we share a room, but not a table with the Family; they are two brothers reuniting, it turns out. One has been living with his wife and son in Puno for the last ten years, with a terrible ego and a self disdaining air that probably comes from being chronically embarrassed of himself, the other with the overly benign manner of a big man with an oblivious brood, and they’ve met up to share a family vacation and Thanksgiving holiday in Copacabana. The ESL teacher from Puno tells us how easy it is to get to Bolivia from where we will be at Lago Titicaca. A light comes into our eyes and we begin to scheme.
We share a table with Marianna and Peter, a Dutch woman and a man from the states. She flies half time for the airlines and he does business in Holland and New York. I love their story; that two people can make their own lives work and still share in a relationship. I’m collecting examples of unconventional truth wherever I find them. They tell us about the co-op in Brooklyn, where every member has to work one shift a month, and of the special foods they enjoy. It begins to sound like a mythical place in Marianna’s world. We talk some politics and they tell us about the upcoming vote to decentralize Peru, and also about the recent attack on Irish tourists walking the Inca Trail. They met some members of the group up at Machu Picchu and heard the story from them. They believed at the time that it might have been police related, from the kind of guns the robbers had and from their level of organization. They went around to each tent one at a time, holding a man from the US hostage by gun, and took everybody’s everything.
They beat up the porters and the guards but not the tourists.
We meet up with a few members of the group a few days later on the bus trip to Puno. They tell us that three people have been captured: a former cook on the Inca trail, and two campesinos. No police connection so far. But the police have been taken off guarding the trail for lack of funding. Which is obscene, given the amount coming in each day in train tickets, bus tickets, and admission fees. It costs at least $150 to get to wander around Machu Picchu. Sometimes it costs thousands of dollars to walk the old Inca road to the legendary lost city, with porters and cooks and donkeys and backpacking visitors in expensive shoes. The locals wear sandals made from recycled tires. Their feet look like the feet of animals, the feet of pilgrims. That’s what some of the vote around decentralizing is concerned with – how to keep the money coming into the region from being diverted to Lima so quickly and absolutely – this is the question that community-based tourism seeks to answer.
These people are farmers, they understand irrigation, but the money is not flowing freely across the countryside. It pools down on the coast in pockets. Lima is surrounded by shantytowns, where people come in from the countryside, hoping for some better life and money to send back to their families, millions and millions of them.
We wandered the old shops in the morning before catching the afternoon train to Aguas Calientes. In a downstairs room I found an old rainbow wool fringe belt and some wrist tassels: a dancer’s costume the woman explains, for dancing the Condor. The three levels of the Incan world again: serpent, puma, condor, and the four directions. I have never danced the condor, but I have danced bird, feline, and snake energies of my own world. Maybe the fringe will teach me its movements. Maybe I will invent my own.
The vistadome trip is timeless: the train is empty and the track follows the river through the mountain gorges deeper into the backlands. There are windows above us and we catch glimpses of the Inca trail, and of tiny hamlets tucked into the folds of river and mountain. We keep grinning at each other and then back at the landscape. Some part of me will ride this train in the back of my mind ad infinitum, my eyes wide and crinkled in a smile.
Aguas Calientes, the base camp town for Peru’s claim to the 8th wonder of the world, is a mixed bag of rotten and magical. We followed a tip and stayed in a rooftop tree house room looking down over the jumbled buildings in the folds of the mountains. It has been a sacred place, with hot water mineral springs up the road from town, but is managed poorly and fallen from any antiquarian heights by the influx of 20th century tourism. Something seedy exists there, drawn to the concentration of foreign ignorants shuffled through town with their pocket books open and their eye overwhelmed. I stayed in the room for sundown while Charlie and Joel wandered town for food and phone options.
The place feeling was palpable again, and I took my shoes off and wandered barefoot up the hillside grounds of Rupa Wasi. I found a boulder with orchids growing on it and practiced some qi gung, saying prayers to the place and for our trip to the ancient city in the morning.
We each slept poorly as it turned out, awakened by a loud thump in the night nearby and stunned a bit by an intense fear, which takes many forms in the groggy mind. I lay there afraid to fall back asleep, surging with energy, needing to pee. Joel was also wide-awake all night and in the morning we talked about the vivid dreams, and the strange whistling animal we heard fighting in the night. A beautiful young man made us dawn porridge for breakfast and we caught the second bus up the switchback dirt road to Machu Picchu, our styrofoam cups of mate de coca bouncing along in the aisle as we snuck quick sips between turns.
Machu Picchu is an unfinished city spread across the top of a rocky mountain and surrounded by peaks in all four directions. Up the hill from the city, above the noble palaces and west of the agricultural terraces stretching in endless steppes, lies the quarry: a field of boulders in various stages of work, with orchids and begonias blooming purple and red in the midst of the granite jungle. A city of rocks, smoothed down by rhyolite: minerals speaking to each other through soft skin and intention. The city a star, a land-borne mirror to the Milky Way.
As above, so below.
We took the 10 soles tour with Percy, who showed us around the site for a few hours, suggesting “classic photo” spots, until the rain soaked us all the way through. We split from the tour and found a cave on the far side of the city, down from the worker’s dwellings and overlooking the graveyard stones. The clouds filled in the valley absolutely, surrounding us in mist and we ate our sandwiches and fruit and were sheltered by the mountain. The rains sent many people down and we had a full time by ourselves for a bit, before some British ladies came by on “an aquatic tour” and they translated for us that the cave next door was one of the solstice windows. A Pachamama moon cave, with a long slab of rock extending like a tooth from the ceiling, and stripes of color running along its length. When the sun rises to shine in here on solstice it must be incredible – not a public spectacle, but a private ceremony, for priests and Incan leaders, who must have channeled the sun just as they hitched it to a post on the uppermost stone in the city, to keep it returning through the sky.
True things remain true, no matter how strange the context later seems to become. We spent time in a cave during a rainstorm on Machu Picchu and it changed us, charged us. I found a forked stick in a little niche in the side of the cave. I found a rock and a bone. It looked like it could have been part of a jaw. We saw birds in the stones, we felt the years of exertion in the work nooks, we felt the spirits of the place, the men who worked the rocks of the city resting their bones beneath boulders at last. Palpable, the kind you feel in the hairs on your arms, the back of your eyes.
Machu Picchu is a magnetic place of power in league with Great Britain’s Avebury and Glastonbury sites: the sacred cartography maps ley lines and places of convergence. These places where people are drawn without knowing why, necessarily, only that they have to go. My seat mate on the bus trip up the mountain was a woman from Houston. She was sitting by the window, putting herself through altitude sickness and an obvious fear of heights in order to spend the morning wandering among stones in the rain. We all were, to some extent. Why she was doing this had something to do with family and something to do with her own kind of pilgrimage, whether she could articulate it or not. She was driven.
Maybe she saw explorer Hiram Bingen’s 1914 photographs in an old National Geographic when she was a kid, maybe one of her girlfriends went and couldn’t quite explain what it was that she loved, only that she did. What higher recommendation for a place than our inability to fully comprehend its wonder?
A place with its mystery intact, no mater how many people come seeking their own in its midst. “Is your amazement amazed yet?” one of our books asked, and yes, the place delivers the ineffable. There are birds in the stones and the clouds dance their veils across the shoulders of the peaks and the eye gets stripped down so softly that it feels like love.
We stop and linger on the way out, looking back as people must have before they left the city through the side door, out onto the terraced fields of maize and quinoa, the buildings and temples rising out of the bedrock of the mountain in seamless continuity between natural and shaped stone. The Incans bridged the specialties of indigenous tribes, integrating the terracing methods of agriculture and erosion mitigation with the mastery of stonework and the complex system of roads and message runners, to keep goods and information moving quickly throughout an empire that they understood to be a celestial reflection of time plotted upon topography.
The road from here extends down the north gate, the traditional exit from the city. We take the bus, which turns slowly enough down the muddy hairpin turns that it is possible to pretend we are not rolling down the side of a soggy mountain. I draw reiki symbols in the steam fogging up the windows just in case. When we get down it is still before noon and we all split up to see some things on our own. Charlie discovers The Cat Empire and takes the cd into town to burn it. I want to go nowhere in town, only let the morning filter through in its own way.
I spend the afternoon taking notes from one of the Rupa Wasi lending library books. There are some esoteric scriptures on the shelves, including a pictoral of ancient Tibetan tantric medicinal texts. I browse it for a bit but all the old monks in the drawings have their dicks out and it makes the American in me uneasy.
The text I choose is called Galactic Alignment, and I take it with me into the cafe room for the afternoon. It draws parallels between ancient Celtic, Egyptian, Mayan, Vedic, and Incan cosmologies about time and lines of power in topography. The author addresses the 2012 question in terms of the transformation of consciousness as we come into alignment with the galactic center, located in the Milky Way, in the place to where the scorpion’s tail and the sagittarian hunter’s arrow are pointing, the dark cloud constellation of mother and baby llama.
Because it is the end of November and we are traveling during the time of Scorpio into Sagittarius, in between each of our birthdays, and in the same cusp time in the sky where the center of the galaxy lies, it is precipitous to discover this information. It lends an astrological framework or reason to the fullness of the experience, and locates it in time and space.
We get it – now is our time, this is our time, and we are here, in a land that understands the same things we do about root systems. If we map the sky onto Peru, Qosqo is the dark rift.
Little pockets of light along the way of the journey,
the qi of sacred places is mixed and powerful, not benign.
Joseph Campbell talks about how the sacred will find you if
you leave yourself vulnerable to it, if you go in open.
But it will not leave you unstirred, not settled in the same way as before.
The Apus, the mountain spirits, the snake of the sacred river wandering in their folds,
they radiate a consistent, connected reminder through the soil itself;
we may settle ourselves down upon these banks and forge a human scale life,
but always there is the presence of a greater timeline, waiting.
Aguas Calientes could come sliding down into rubble at any time,
jostled by earthquake, swallowed by landslide, the whole town disappearing, gone.
What is sacred about the place will endure, the succulents and orchids growing high up
the cliffsides, the sun and breezes passing through the narrow cleft between ranges.
The beautiful man who made us breakfast is helping to prepare a “family lunch” in epic proportions and gourmet style. The woman who must own this place is dressed in white with tibetan prayer beads strung around her neck, and a strong presence of ease and light. She spent six months in retreat in BC, and we talk for a bit about the energy of trees in the Pacific Northwest, how she is lucky she has a place of strong spirit like this to return to. The younger people could be her children or kindred employees, and are also in white although the young woman spills chicha morada – the purple corn juice – on her sleeves, and the young man’s t-shirt says Party Animal DC on the front and 69 on the back. His smile is holy and damn sexy at the same time.
They bring me salad with tomatoes and pickled beets, and a spruced up traditional corn pudding with raisins and olives and fennel, and a huge turret of cantonese rice, chicken, peppers, eggs – I eat all of it, slowly, prayerfully, gratefully. Wash it down with the chicha morada.
And then on the ridiculous train trip back up to Qosqo, the antithesis of our empty beautiful ride in, I try to keep it in my system. It doesn’t work. “Manco Capac’s Revenge” they call it –
At the Poroy train station I run to the bathroom and return my glorious meal, my headwaters gushing brilliantly purple.
My system upheaveled, I crashed hard at the Hospedaje de San bBas in Qosqo, while Joel and Charlie found a late dinner. Slept through the morning and rose light headed with Charlie’s help for an afternoon walk up the thin streets full of steps to San Christobal, where we looked for the city in its shape of the puma. All the red tiled roofs and Spanish churches rising from the valley floor. And the hills surrounding carved with political slogans and people’s initials. We saw the ubiquitous JED, and Viva Peru. Behind us there were dead dogs in the sewer stream, and a llama tied to a post in the church square. It was rolling on its back with its legs in the air in very undignified llama fashion, and it made us slightly concerned. When we went to investigate, a little girl done up in full regalia accosted us for a propino, and we made our way down the hill. We passed many interesting doors and glimpsed some lovely internal gardens.
El senor de los tremblores was in full 3D wax museum regalia in the Cathedral la Compania de Jesus, finished in 1668 after the 1650 earthquake shook loose most of the colonial facades in the city, and destroyed the cathedral, which was built on the original Inca site of the Palace of the Serpents, where the Incan leader Huayna Capac lived. The heart of the Incan city was Huacaypata [the place of happiness] and Cusipata [the place of tears], on either side of the Rio Saphi. Here the peoples incorporated by the Incas brought some of their soil to Qosqo to mingle with symbolically with the soil of Huacaypata. The Spaniards split the plazas and built competing catholic cathedrals to line the plaza de armas. I don’t know what happened to the river; the only water we saw running through Qosqo was the sewer stream.
Back in the Plaza de San Blas, we found Joel sitting on the edge of the fountain in the square. We joined him and I caught the eye of a Quechua woman. She came toward us with her camera straps and sat on the grass to show me her weaving, which she wrapped around one outstretched foot. In her pack she carried a drop spindle and the raw wool. Margarita, with silver teeth, wise twinkle eyes, ruddy cheeks, and the long braids tied together with three black tassels. Her hands were wonderful to watch. Her husband carved the cassava gourds she carried in another sack, and her Spanish was direct and slow so I could follow along when she told me of a five year weaving program in her village. She taught us the Quechua word for beautiful. I bought from her a long runner piece -“mi beso trabajo”- that lies along my writing table. My cat has thrown up on it already, perhaps in unwitting solidarity. Once the other ladies saw that we were buying, there was a small mob of weaver women around us, who we gave a blanket No to and finally escaped by ducking around the corner of the cathedral.
That night there was lightning and the square was full of kids kicking a football around, teenagers and bolero musicians taking pictures around the fountain, couples kissing on the park benches, and even a parade featuring dragons, a horn section, and pan flutists from the music school. We hit a beautiful groove.
Thanks to Joel and Charlie’s excursion to the dentist office the day before, we have bus tickets and an all day ride to Puno past Wasau, “the town of fortune tellers” and the chiccaronerias, where the people come on Saturdays to eat guinea pig, grilled special for festivals. We pass Quillapampa where the town kilns fire most of the tiles for Qosqo rooftops, and stop for a bit in the colonial center of Andahuaylillas, with its Andean Sistine Chapel, painted almost entirely in frescoes by native people in the colonial style. It is the richest church in Peru, featuring much gold leaf, the patron saint of Qosqo the black Christ, San Pedro, San Isidro the farmer, and five languages over the arch into the sacristy: Latin, Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, and Poquina – a tribal language that doesn’t exist anymore.
Our guide asks us a tourist-set-up question: What kind of life would you rather lead, a life of flowers, or thorns? We most of us answer flowers, unsure how simple we’re supposed to be, and forgetting our Catholic doctrine. He leads us to the frescoes on either side of the front door: a path to hell laced with flowers and a path to heaven strewn in thorns.
Our next stop is at Raqchi, where the temple of the pan-Andean supreme creator god Viracocha still stands 15m tall in its central wall on the Royal road between Chile and Columbia. Made of a matrix of clay and “jigantun” cactus, the temple stood in tribute to the god who emerged from a nearby volcano, and as a tribute center where many of the 10 million Andean people in Incan times came to pay harvest taxes to the nobles of Viracocha. 154 colpas, round storehouses, held the tributes. The Spanish trashed most of it when they came through.
We are way up above sea level, leaving the sacred valley and its tributaries and traveling across the altiplano, the high plain. At 4100 meters, La Raya, the high pass, there is light rain and artisans in fluffy hats pulling a hard sell on the tourists disembarking from the buses.
A sadness visits the bus, this high up, where the houses are very small and families huddle under thatch roofs in the freezing clear nights. The stars must dance their path in flakes of frost across the altiplano. So little money involved in this world. We are way up in the middle of nothing and the bus guide reminds us of the shantytowns hugging Lima. 7 million people left their jungles and villages to scramble in the violence of poverty. This living here isn’t poverty; it is subsistence living, ageless.
I receive a visit from Tim’s spirit, gazing out the bus windows through his eyes, with a mix of righteous hope and sullen dejection. The question from Tim’s perspective comes back from time to time, what would this have been like with him next to me? More often than not I cannot imagine it. I have passed beyond his frame of reference, his story extends no further and mine it seems, keep winding through strange landscapes that host ghosts and stars alike.
The ghosts are going around, Charlie and I talk about it at breakfast the next morning: long bus rides are a time to contemplate the inevitable histories intertwining briefly with the possible futures, before we arrive again and break free of conjecture, in favor of creation.
One more stop in Pukara, where the little bulls are made that stand in pairs on many rooftops around the sacred valley. They stand for fertility and prosperity, and are supported by many of their living representations in small pens by the people’s houses. They are real and symbolic, bulls of many colors, torres. None of us can step into the cramped and musty tour museum. W wait it out in the rain instead.
I do some tai chi by the side of the old cathedral, trying to bring breath into my body. A small sign at the nearby house reads dios soy amor – and I meditate on that as I try to catch up to myself, feel the simple life in my body surging at its own pace, try to love it here. The cathedral itself is leaking and falling down and somewhat discouraging, but it feels most real and unobserved of any place of ritual we’ve yet visited. There is a stone slab at the center of the church in front of the main altar inscribed with the name of their priest, who died this year. A small pang for this place, a congregation whose padre is gone; a small prayer for revitalization in this grey dingy ceramics town.
The ladies and kids gather at the dilapidated square and cover their hats and sweaters and little bulls with plastic tarps until the five-minute window where the tourists board the buses. This is a good way to buy cheap presentos from local people, and also it feels like the inevitable byproduct of colonial tourism.
Much has been written beauitfully about the complex consequences of colonialism, by people who have experienced it formatively, first hand. I want to draw in broad strokes here and link Spanish colonialism in Peru with religion, colonialism of the British nature with government, and the US version with Capital. I saw it take the form of adventure tours, television and marketing, soft drink wars. These aspects of our culture we have exported widely across the globe with the intent of cultural incorporation into a global paradigm.
[The cola wars are also alive and decaying in Peru: Inkacola and RC and Fanta and Pepsi and Coca-cola came through maybe 10-15 years ago and painted a bunch of house and store walls throughout the countryside. Those homemade billboards are dirty and scratched, but they still proclaim the shiny sweet taste of imported beverages. The national soft drink, Inkacola, is bright yellow and tastes like fizzy bubble gum. People do drink it: old Quechuan men like Senor Chokay who we met on Thanksgiving, and tourists who want to develop a taste for Peru. I couldn’t do it. No taste is worse than bubblegum piss.]
Each of these examples of colonial thinking, in government, religion, and marketing are intended to influence and ultimately dominate different aspects of indigenous experience. Although mostly it all mixes up together and the indigenous people are scrappy and nobody is as pure of heart or scruples as they might like to believe in their private moments, and also people are just drawn to each other. Drawn to difference and possible improvements and images of heaven or the United States – whichever dream the people with money are selling. And the indigenous people will sell you a dream too, embodied by the Incan cross. The serpent, the puma, and the condor, the three steppes in the four directions, and the hole in the center, for spirit perhaps, although that may be my re-invigoration of their dream.
A storm gathers on the horizon of the altiplano, and the thick dark grey clouds dampen down the yellow sheen of the grasslands. As we approach Juliaca there is hail everywhere, and all the windows on the bus fog up and I have no idea how our driver is continuing to drive. Juliaca looks like a soggy hellhole as we pass through and it is here that we hear the story of dreams about little dogs and Juliacans that probably already robbed you. Our guide is supercalm and almost cheerful as he makes these warnings and pronouncements. Juliacans don’t like to pay taxes, so the government won’t send any money here to finish the roads, he says. The black market with Bolivia is what supports this town. Hooligans.
Like I said early on, I have a definite respect for places that run their own culture. Respect in the same sense as respect as I have for oceans, and mountain peaks, and other places where I know I cannot survive without mercy, and the respect that I pay is that of passing by.
Samsara – the human condition is in a state of suffering. Ignorance in this case not bliss.
It is the nature of this existence. Samsara is a wheel we keep traveling around and around until we get it, finally, that we don’t have to suffer. This is a Buddhist notion, and may seem
like a platitude unless you consider the scope of the cycle of lives and karma and the infinite variations upon timeless wisdoms and all the variegate tributaries of thought and feel and smell that one human being experiences during any one sojourn through a life and incarnation on the planet Earth – which has got to be one of the weirdest and strangely satisfying broken places in all of creation.
Sophia Perennis et Universalis – perhaps the antidote to Samsara – the primordial tradition of universal wisdom, so named by a couple of deep friends. Philosophers from two very different traditions; Coomaraswamy was writing in Boston, and Rene Guenon writing in Cairo after he became a Muslim when they struck up a mutually fascinating correspondence to partner their individual lines of thought. Guenon had written about how:
“the myth of progress allows modern civilization to masquerade as the most sophisticated in all of human history – this is a reversal of the true situation: modern civilization is not the result of progress, it is the civilization of the Kali Yuga, the darkest age, in which humanity, obsessed with materialism, has been completely removed from a direct experience of connection with the highest source.” p.145 Galactic Alignment
The Vedic scriptures in India explain cycles of time in terms of Yugas. There are four: the golden, silver, bronze, and iron epochs, of increasingly shortened lengths, that depict an cycle of disintegration in the divine nature of man towards base and cruel ends. We find ourselves in the waning years of the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, the time of suffering. It is implied that the wheel of cycles keeps turning, and that Kali will, dancing, trample this age’s “fragmented remnants of degenerate humanity,” and so 1,200 years of Iron will give way to a Satya Yuga, a next 4,800 years of golden time, “so that earth’s flowering can start anew.” p.126 GA.
Coomaraswamy looked into what he called:
“the paradox at the heart of all reality. The two paths framed as positions in the Vedic conflict between the asura and deva spirits – titans and angels – united on a higher plane as complements. Each pole contains the seed of the opposite, otherwise, there is no basis for the relationship. It takes both sides playing their roles to generate the nectar of consciousness. How the nectar is ‘imbibed’ by each side is a function of their inherent natures.” p.173 GA, cc 1997 Princeton U. Press – The Door in the Sky
The path of knowledge and the path of power – this is the choice that the soul makes.
So here in the end of one of the large cycles, be it Mayan, Incan, or Vedic, there are places of concentrated suffering, so palpable that you can feel it through the windows of a bus. You can see down the side streets: more cars propped up on mounds of dirt, more life in its destitution
continuing in the crumbling infrastructure of a dismissed town, and it will occur to you that Here is where the shit is going down.
Samsara cities, they’re sickening, some.
And what are we? Are we pilgrims thinly disguised, are we tourists too?
I might nominate Joel as a deva spirit, I might wonder about myself as a minor titan.
What are we doing here, consuming the resources of a place?
Drinking of its nectar, so to speak.
“There’s another way. Talking about Love to the people,
Little bit of warming to the cold.
Little bit of brotherhood, yeah. It could be good for us all.
In the morning, it’s alright. I’m not giving up I’ve got a lifetime
to keep living right. The way you do it – is to get right to it.”
Curtis Mayfield chimes in behind me, singing praises.
I followed a rainbow with my breath for a while in between Juliaca and Puno, as it wavered to complete its span. The whole presence was strong, but the clouds dampened over it in lengths of its bridge. It was only a complete rainbow so briefly, but it ranged across many small high mountains and shone over much yellow bright grass and that moment of completeness was not the point, not any indication of the fortitude of the energetic imprint, no less of a rainbow for the cloud cover, I guess I mean to say. When you link to something with your breath, it goes privately through you and the experience is clear and filled out in memory. It was this way with the rainbow, and the tai chi spots along the way, and the cab ride, and also with the puttery motor on thanksgiving day, I remember those moments internally, as well as through the lens of my eyes and any particularly strong thoughts or sharp feelings that accompanied the experience.
By the time we got to Puno, we were all tucked inside ourselves with the long bus ride and not so much interested in seeing or doing or responding. Joel kept his hand on my back throughout our chaotic taxi ride intro to Puno to help me keep from upchucking out the window of the cab. I just concentrated on breathing through my mouth as the taxi driver made impossible choices in the pissing rain. Nausea is a powerful force at these altitudes.
That first night in Puno I stayed flat on the bed in the hotel as much as possible. I didn’t like Puno and I had no qualms about not liking Puno, given the first impression it made and the way it was affecting me. Puno had a certain characteristic smell, which may have been the smell of wet alpaca wool, or the cooking oil used to prepare many dishes – it was never clear, but it was always nauseating. And while the fellas went out for vegetarian food I threw up a few times and then tried watching Peruvian television, which was a perverse treat and also something of a confusion to me in my altitudinous state.
The advertising reminded me of the commercials I grew up with, where the beautiful man appears in the housewife’s kitchen with just the product for her cleaning needs, or the woman at the bar is approached by one geeky guy and one gorgeous one, and which will choose her depends upon whether she uses Pantene. Such basic lessons the tv taught us when marketing was in her childhood. I remember these cut and dried advertising solutions with a certain kind of nostalgia, for the days before the marketing involution, when advertising was still obvious and somehow less insidious.
The programming to accompany this advertising was a bit surreal. I came upon a long-forgotten mis-step of the 80’s, revived from the dark back recesses of memory. Living in perpetuity on Peruvian airwaves, is the show Small Wonder: the blond parents with the slightly chubby boy child and the little robot daughter in a red dress with a white pinafore. When dubbed in Spanish she seems slightly menacing in her monotone presence, and I suspect that she was sketchy when I was young and she was monotone in English, as well. Syndication is glorious, eh? Universal: Catholic.
The episode I watched was the one where Marge begins by trying to throw out some of the family’s old stuff, and Homer chases the Goodwill truck down the road and flings himself off the back of it with his cherished box of junk. There were skis in the box and so they go skiing and Marge breaks her leg and is in the hospital for a while having her coif massaged and Homer and Bart go on a rampage in the house and end up traipsing over to Ned’s covered in green goo and Ned sends them off to a leper colony in Hawaii and by the time Marge gets back from the hospital Lisa has the house all cleaned up and they go find the boys in Hawaii and watch the sun go down.
Sometimes it’s best not to look too deeply into the implications of pop culture, or to speculate about the export of one culture into another – what gets across and what gets twisted in the process. But I was feeling queerly and so I couldn’t help myself. Stereotypes expand and no matter what the Peruvians or Columbians or Mexicans think of the US, they watch, and they want because wanting is the desired result. And because they are Peruvians, and Columbians, and Mexicans, they work with that feeling in their own culture and it comes out looking like sanish soap operas and telenovelas, where the “passionate” woman throws a fit and strikes at the man, who hold her close in an embrace as her fists dissolve into sobs. Again, I’m feeling all the 8th grade hormones flushing newly through my system and the fascinated stare at the grown ups acting so immaturely.
One of the channels alternated between an old official talking head, and some music videos from a latina sensation named Mirabel perhaps, who is taking Madonna’s mini-movie tactic to new heights of sensuality. This marked my first hearing of the word meaning guilty: “Culpable”, in the courtroom scene of her love for an asshole, sung strong and clear and with a fair amount of cleavage exposed in her jailbird’s outfit. One night of tv confused my kundalini.
And it got me ruminating on the word Culpable, which means in English – to blame, from the root Culpa – guilt. Also in the C section of the dictionary is the word Cloy, which means to surfeit or satiate with something that was originally pleasing. Perhaps that’s what got to me with Peruvian tv –
The fellas came back from dinner wiped out, and I tried to explain the insights gleaned from my latest cultural experience, but really all I could say was Wow. Charlie remembered Small Wonder, and got the chance to glimpse it in its overdubbed glory later while we were trying to mask bathroom sounds. Our room had a private bath with acoustic tiles, which reverberated beautifully for the listening pleasure of those in the sleeping space. Joel gave a few of my belches resounding applause, and I started giggling uncontrollably at one point. Charlie was passed out cold early on into the third Harry Potter movie dubbed in Spanish, which provided a perfectly strange bookend to a conglomerated day.
The next day we switched hotels to mitigate the problematic undersmell, and Joel took a tricitaxi tour while Charlie and I wandered down the railroad tracks out of town to the Yavari, an amazing ship: commissioned fromt he British after Peruvian independence in 1860? and carted over the Andes in pieces on foot and with donkeys, and assembled on the shores of Lago Titicaca. Now decomissioned and moored on the lake beyond an empty and expensive hotel, the Yavari will soon be carrying passengers out on the lake again.
During our walk my brain was working again in its usual manner, and Charlie and I talked projects for the future, solidifying some goals and intentions. Ollantaytambo is an effective mantra – it signals shift and it is one of those rare gifts afforded to human beings, to be able to share shift with other people. This is where the groundwork gets laid. You begin to plan to get yourself where you want to be going.
Also on this walk I began to have warm feelings toward Puno, I began to like it quite a bit actually: the organized chaos of 3 wheeled bicycle taxis and collectivos and people flowing through the jumbled intersections all based upon an underlying law of momentum. The signs hung brightly from shops and the girls in skirts and knee socks finishing school were lovely and rough. It lacked any of the red-tiled charm of Qosqo, and felt just mostly Peruvian in the 21st century: a mixed bag, but essentially true.
We walked for a while down the promenade by the railroad tracks. Like many of Peru’s public works projects, this one looked like it had been started in the 70s and abandoned a few years later. The people continue to use their half- finished central esplanades, stepping around the drainage detours and mounds of rough earth. Something finished and shiny, while nice, would not be as livable, it would be incongruent with the pace and style – all these towns full of unfinished houses, the rebar corners dangling up in the air like antennas. This is a country interminably, amiably(?), in progress. It raised in me a sense of urgency at the suspended animation that comes of probably never having money to complete the projects once begun.
We are works in progress too, probably unfinished in this lifetime. The pace of evolution is slow, and some calendars are much longer than the 2005 year count of the Christian patriarchy. And some calendars work in more than one dimension. One of the things that will occur in 2012 is the alignment of the solstice meridian with the galactic equator. This book I’ve been quoting from calls it a “catastrophe of cosmogenesis” – an energy increase flowing through earth as it and our sun align with the galactic center…
the tearing asunder that accompanies birth is akin to what happens when more energy breaks into a system – the effect is terrible, destructive, but opens up larger channels for energy to flow through. It’s about a process-oriented shift – an open door, a zone of opportunity to align with the galactic source of life. Our role, as the alignment generation, seems to be not to blow it, to believe in our highest potential…
Indigenous cultures that have made it to the threshold of the end-date are favored exemplars of survivability. They may be the true mid-wives of our rebirth into the next World Age. p.261 GA
On a more scientific front from the West, Oliver Reiser, a ‘cosmic synergist’ and for 50 years a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, developed a philosophical system relating the evolution of consciousness to the Non-locality principle, which states that: Any responsive object within a larger electro-magnetic field will instantly reorient itself to the changing angular position of the source of the field. Source and target are already connected. As we exist within the energetic field of the Milky Way, Reiser’s work was to explore the possibilities inherent in the analogy between the human brain and the spiral galaxy – he believed that both galaxy and brain can serve as time-spanning (intelligent) guidance systems for their respective systems. p.240 GA
There are so many factors influencing truth these days. I go by the feeling in my gut, where it is soupy and truth things resonate. These words struck me deeply in part because I have spent some time this year in cultures that retain indigenous perspectives around time and spirit, and in part because it feels true to my experience that we seem to be cycling through the deep nasty pit part of civilization, and I want us all to keep going. Therefore I locate something like hope in the possibility that I may still be alive to see the tide turn, and I locate something like relief in my intuitive common sense that things are all fucked up right now. And that “renewal is ultimately unavoidable, and we must charge forward on the divine path to arrive at higher wisdom.” p.230 GA
In my culture, science and astrology are at odds. Science and spirit are at odds – and so the synthesis of all this excites me deeply. I love it when opposing forces act within a context large enough to display their complementary aspects. And I love it when I can see into a culture that has responded differently to the influx of Christian influence: adapting and adopting without denying indigenous truth.
In the chapter from my new favorite cosmic text entitled: Vishnunabhi and the Anchor of the Vedic Yugas, I read what I have suspected for a while: that the anchor in this galactic energetic shift is the re-emergence of Isis energy, in the form of Kali, the Black Madonna, the serpent, and kundalini. This is the balancing feminine principle, which has gone underground throughout much of Europe, South and Central America, and was lost almost absolutely in the Christianity of the United States. Isis, central to the mysteries of the ancient Egyptian Initiatory tradition, a cosmic mother who became the virgin, the “ever merciful bestower of grace, wisdom, and renewal.” p.196 GA
And now I learn that she is also a place in the sky.
Steinbeck wrote of wandering the streets of Loreto in his Log from the Sea of Cortez and coming upon our Lady of Loreto, the Virgin herself.
“This Lady, of plaster and wood and paint, is one of the strong ecological factors of the town of Loreto, and not to know her and her strength is to fail to know Loreto. One could not ignore a granite monolith in the path of the waves. Such a rock, breaking the rushing waters, would have and effect on animal distribution radiating in circles like a dropped stone in a pool. So has this plaster lady a powerful effect on the deep black water of the human spirit. She may disappear and her name be lost, as the Magna Mater, as Isis, have disappeared. But something very like her will take her place, and the longings which created her will find somewhere in the world a similar altar on which to pour their force. No matter what her name is, Artemis, or Venus, or a girl behind a Woolworth counter vaguely remembered, she is as eternal as our species, and we will continue to manufacture her as long as we survive.” pp.144-5
That’s what myth is for. Joseph Campbell reminded us: “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations.” p201 GA
The myth keeps the sense of wonder moving, it keeps your amazement amazed.
On the walk back from the Yavari, we passed many things that I loved: giant slides for adults and kids alike, a skate park with half pipes, a street clown putting on a show for kids, a small go-kart track, a mercado with many tomatoes and cheese rounds wrapped in reeds and dented mangoes and los pinos, and open bags of rice and quinoa and herbs, and the Quechua ladies sitting in their wide skirts and long strips of braids, at ease with all the time in the world. We brought goods for a boat picnic the next day, on the way out to the peninsula. As we walked back to meet Joel, it was after work and school and during the time in the day when it seemed that all of Puno gathered to compete against each other in various sports. There were fierce and competent games of pick-up basketball, and risky football passes through traffic, and the bullfighting stadium was teeming with people lining the top rows. Nobody was in private gyms, or taking solo runs. They were lifting weights on the street and laughing. There was Lots of laughing for such a serious people.
There is something a little on the absurd side about Peru, I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. Peruvians are pretty quiet, so it isn’t the usual boisterous idiocy of more jovial peoples; It’s longer term than that.
That night we have a shopping spree of sweaters and hats and socks. One alley and we’re done for, bundled up in presents. I buy a bag to hold my assortment, and the bag becomes my new favorite thing. Joel found us a vegetarian restaurant on his adventure this afternoon, and we eat a meal beneath the shining visages of later-day female saints. Ma Ananda and Santa Gema Galgani. I try huajsapata – a mulled red wine with pisco brandy and orange and cinnamon. It is delicious, but I will throw it back up later. I’m feeling a bit desperate about the altitude at this point, and nervous about spending 3 hours on a boat tomorrow, which is Thanksgiving Day. The American family will be in Copacabana cooking their turkey in the hotel suite’s kitchen. We will be as far away from them as we can reach this close by – on the tip of the Copachica peninsula in a town called Llachon, watching the sun set and surrounded by a world that is in a state of thanksgiving most of the time. Not immersed yet, we are only skimming the surface of this place, but it is sinking in to us, one arch at a time.
We’re catching an early boat in the morning. I lie awake for a while that night, some reiki energy flowing after a couple of spooky occurrences in our room: the bathroom door slammed shut and then the bedside light switched back on. Charlie says if one more strange and buggy thing happens, that he’s outa here. I intuitively follow a good tact to ask ghosts to leave the room, but get shit-scared a short while later with the loud crashing sound coming from downstairs. Like metal on glass, like threatening to break. It is a terrible fear, similar to the one from the night at Rupa Wasi before Machu Picchu. This time I keep the reiki flowing and send the ghosts even further away. I send love, active, as a verb. I get out of the way, become the river bank.
There was a shoeshine man hassling Joel for a gig while we were waiting in line at the bank machine on the turistica street, earlier. I stepped in and got involved when it was clear that he wasn’t going away. And we stuck our tongues out at each other, until a real grin began to break through on each of our faces. He told me his story: “mi vida est muy triste.” He hurt his leg working and had to leave his village to come to the city. He has two children, still in Llachon as it turns out…and has to send them money and make a way for himself as well. We were standing in the middle of all sorts of street chaos and Joel stepped inside to get cash and Charlie had joined me and was listening intently. And Juan the shoeshine man was pointing to the rip in his pants and his obviously messed up knee and his thick feet in their sandals made of tire treads. And no part of me wanted to give him money.
And I told him so just as clearly as he had told me of the woes – I put my hands in a Namaste position and I made him a prayer and I touched my heart. And I thought about how I could probably help him with the pain in his leg, to work with him so that he could work again, but that I couldn’t touch him on the street like this, and that if I helped his leg a little bit, it might take away his shoeshine gig sob story. My mind went there. And so I did not change the course of his evening or his life. I might have thanked him for telling me his story, which is a benevolent response to someone who insists upon sharing their misery with you in the hopes of influencing your behavior towards them. Reward seeking for pain is also called comfort and everybody needs it, but we do not get to choose the form in which we receive it.
So I’m praying for Juan the shoeshine guy, who like most of us, does not have an entirely benevolent presence, and therefore he makes it easy for the doubt to creep in about the validity of his suffering. I’m not praying anything in particular for Juan, I’m just sending love to meet my fear. Charlie and Joel fell asleep pretty instantly after threatening to bolt, and it turns our the next morning that they did not hear any of the glass and metal clanging that sent me on such a charged tour through my ethics around survival and prayer. I was a warrior for some principle that night, I vanquished some private demon perhaps.
Thanksgiving Epic Adventure At Sea, prologue on ecology:
Don’t think that we didn’t listen carefully to the ESL teacher in Ollantaytambo about how easy
it was to get to Bolivia from here. Or hear the Chicago mom when she told us that her family would be sharing a Thanksgiving meal at a hotel in Copacabana, and that she had packed pumpkin pie mix in her luggage along with cranberries, and she didn’t even like cranberries. There is no one quite so motivated as a mother once she begins to fear that she has lost her children to pop culture. We heard the fright in her voice when she talked about her oldest son and how he wasn’t old enough to be going to college. She was hoping that he would be stirred by Peru and perhaps use his “flex year” teaching English or helping out somehow. Growing Up. It was a noble and desperate hope. We used this information to help us plan Around the American family, as much as possible. It was our original hope to make it down to Copacabana on the day before thanksgiving, and then buzz back up out onto one of the islands for the holiday itself. That became an ambitious plan, given the altitude and our general speed of travel, and so it was pretty easy to let go of the Bolivia idea, to tuck it into that place in the metaphorical wallet where easy side day field trips are stored.
When I go to Bolivia though, I want it to be for a while. The Island of the Sun, just off the coast
of Copacabana, is where Manco Capac rose as one of Quetzacoatl’s forms, to lead the Incan Empire to 300 years of integration, astronomical and agricultural advancement, and a complex road and messaging system. Lago Titicaca is named after the mountain cat spirit of the Aymara people and the Quechua word for rock; the eyes of a mountain cat gleaming in a sacred rock on Isla del Sol. I read this about the Aymara tribe in one of our guidebooks:
“The Aymara people believe in ecology, harmony, and equilibrium. They see private land ownership as a sin, because Pachamama, the earth, is for everyone. We are sacred children of a sacred earth. Vincente Barnabe of the Andean Regional Superior Institute of Theological Studies put it this way: Land is life because it produces all that we need to live. Water emanates from the land as if from the veins of a human body, there is also the natural wealth of minerals, and pasture grows from it to feed the animals. Therefore, for the Aymaras, the Pachamama is sacred and since we are her children, we are also sacred. No one can replace the earth, she is not meant to be exploited, or to be converted into merchandise. Our duty is to respect and care for the earth. This is what white people are just beginning to realize, and it is called ecology. Respect for Pachamama is respect for ourselves as she is life. Today she is threatened with death and must be liberated for the sake of her children’s liberation.” p.245 Footprint
I do need to know if this rings true in the Aymara culture or not. The Quechua culture has, for me, begged some interesting questions about ecology.
Is it in the merging and melding of cultures where things get lost and slip through the cracks?
Is it western civilization utterly, which Has done and continues to, fuck with cultures that were right with the world, warp them to the point where they’ve lost themselves in their essential connection, and then seek to learn the last scraps of what is being lost in the aftermath?
OKAY. The Epic Adventure At Sea
The first person that morning who really stood out for me was Senor Chokay. I noticed him right away. Joel called him “a snappy dresser.” He had on converse sneakers and black faded dress pants and a dark green blazer and a bowler hat on top of his red and white alpaca cap.
And a look in his eye: inscrutable. One of the other men who clustered around us first thing in the morning to get us on the boat to the islands drew me a map of the peninsula and the ports, with a cross for the church in the town square, and the twin humps of Pachamama and Pachatata rising up behind the villagers homes. A good place for sunsets he said. He pointed at Senor Chokay and then said “Quechua”, and he wrote down some words for me in that language – beautiful baby, how are you, thank you, how much, where is the sleeping house – and their Spanish equivalents.
I tried to practice some of my Quechua words on the Aymara women who joined us on the public boat ride to the reed islands, and they, smiling, put me to rights about the differences. So I taught them some English and they shared some Aymara words and we smiled at each other and I sprayed them with some wintermint Relax mist, which made them giggle, and one of them showed me her baby wrapped up in the bundle of blankets on the seat.
It was a blissful beginning, easy, and the morning was warm early, and the Spanish men were reminding us to put on our sunscreen and we made a stop at the Uros Islands, where the Aymara women I’d been speaking to disembarked, and I got into a squatting reed fight with a small boy, and we saw some home taxidermy projects and the islands really are made entirely of reeds and they’re quite soft and satisfying to walk upon, and Senor Chokay loaded up a few bundles of green reeds into the fore of the boat, next to the line of our luggage, and all was truly right with the world when we made it past the reed ravines and out into the center of the bay and then the engine started to splutter out a bit. It took a minute to sink in.
I had been reading some really funny bits about the Hansen Sea-Cow motor on the collecting skiff from Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, and I took advantage of the lull in engine noise to share a passage from the book with Charlie. Andy the British fellow promptly took a nap, as did the Spanish bloke, while his wife sat down to compose what I’d hoped was a breathless journal entry but what later turned out to be a letter of complaint. Then I read for a bit more, while Charlie and Lauren the British girl chatted it up on the top deck. The captain of our little ship was Mario, Senor Chokay’s son, and quite an ingenious electrician. He took what looked like the carburetor apart and blew it clean, then switched back and forth between batteries, with an elaborate and entirely jerry-rigged system of charges floating in small plastic buckets. He got that engine started repeatedly. It would run for a short while, and then give up its ghost again.
It soon became clear that we were having an adventure. None of us were quite sure how big of one it was going to become. For the time being, we were in heaven, a sunny day, spare food, our sleeping bags and a wide variety of alpaca hats and socks to keep us warm. The young British couple turned out to be loads of fun. The Spanish couple struck me a bit odd, but I bet they were just nervous. I went upstairs to join Charlie and Lauren, past Joel who was holding forth in witness of the boatmen’s epic efforts at returning us to shore. Each time the engine cut out, Senor Chokay grabbed the forked end of a long eucalyptus branch which he had perhaps whittled smooth and affixed a flat paddle to the end of, and was swaying back and forth in a full body paddle to keep us pointed and moving infintesimally towards the place where we were heading. Joel wanted badly to help this man, and soon he did, grabbing one of the loose wooden floorboards of the boat and using it as a paddle off the side back. We did all eventually join him, uniting in one of those group efforts that just feels good to join in on, not that we made one whit of difference in moving the boat towards the peninsula. Charlie got the brilliant idea to share some of our los pinos with the boatmen. It began to dawn on us that the engine may not ever be “fixed”. This may be what got everybody in the mood to help paddle.
For a while it all came together. We could see the shore. Charlie’s NYC came out and he started trying to flag a powerboat passing by with a small hand mirror, and wondering if the water was warm enough that he could swim to shore and go for help. At this point there were pirates and dolphins.
We inch and list and then it begins to dawn on us that the paddling isn’t doing much. The Spanish couple has a cell phone it turns out, and they call somebody and tell them of our plight, but don’t seem at all convinced that help is on the way. And Senor Chokay and Mario don’t really want help anyways; seems if we get “rescued” then they have to pay for the rescuer’s gas, which they’d rather not do. They don’t seem too concerned about the 6 hours time it has taken us to get this far. If Charlie were to jump in the lake and swim for shore, they’d probably think that he was overreacting.
Charlie and Joel are rockstars. The shore does seem to grow closer. I read something from a guidebook to Lauren about the locals greeting tourists with cantuni garlands. This won’t happen for us, we’re going to land pretty far to the west of those locals, on what looks like a patch of beach where the locals stay inside. There are a few boats in the shallows, but nobody seems to show any interest in our slow drifting progress. There are a few moments where the men take the poles and ferry us close enough to touch shore, and for these moments I take pictures, the rest of the time I feel sort of placid, as though I am in someone else’s dream and all I need to do is remain calm. I am pretty frickin grateful, the whole day, for my life in conjuncture with these lives at this time.
Senor Chokay rolls up his pants legs and runs down the beach at one point. We think that he is going for help. While he is gone we sort through finances with the Spanish couple, who want their money back since they only had two days in this region and now they won’t be able to visit the islands. We convince Lauren and Andy to stay with us in a homestay on the peninsula for the night. I have the name of Valentin Quispe, who organizes tourism in the community. My plan is to take my couple few words of Quechua and ask around. It’s not a very big peninsula. We are teaching Lauren and Andy to play Palace when Senor Chokay comes back with no help but 30 soles refund to us. Which we accept and once we finish the game we unload our bags from the ship and wander down the one road toward town.
By some curious trick of fate, Mario gets the boat going and we watch father and son puttering under their own power down the shoreline past us, to harbor. We get there shortly thereafter, and Senor Chokay tracks us down on the road to yell at us in pretty quick Spanish that we should give him his 30 soles back, since he got us to the peninsula. Joel calms him down and one of us finally gets what he’s saying and we hand him back his money and he tells us that he isn’t taking anybody to any islands and we say no, good. And we ask him where the sleeping place is and he gestures down the road and we leave with nothing more to be said. Goodbye Senor Chokay.
We hopscotch down the road, enquiring after the home of Valentin Quispe. The peninsula is beautiful and people keep handing us from one to the next, until I am giggling like a madwoman and the strange and beautiful circumstances that have led us here.
We do reach Valentin Quispe, and he is full up. So he sits us down with mate de coca and some bread, and sets off into the village to find us a host family. He comes back with Juan, who leads us down the village trail. It is a glorious evening, and the sun is just going down as we walk and Juan stops up for a moment at a house just before a large arch that stretches like a stone rainbow across the road. It is the five of us and we all feel like we’re about to step into another world and that we should make prayers of thanks and permission or something reverent, and we do and we walk the five of us, into our own private adventure for the evening. And then Juan catches up with us and leads us past a twilight volleyball game in the town square to his house, where Juana waits to meet us in the little courtyard.
We put our things down quickly and head back out to the coast for the last of sunset, sitting still for a long time as the orange fades into purple and then deep grey. We walk back up the stone path in the dusk light, and stop in at the square to buy Cusquena cerveza, which we drink in the courtyard at a stone table while waiting for dinner. Charlie brings out the star book, and we find the southern cross for the first time. I do sing the Crosby Stills Nash and Young song. Then, we go in to a stucco room with Juana’s weaving on the wall, for a dinner of potato soup with scallions and a potato omelette with rice, and chocolate pudding fresh from their cow’s milk. Juan sits down to eat with us for a bit and Lauren asks him about his family. He has five kids, it turns out, three of whom are at school in Puno and only come home on weekends. We praise the food and wish each other a happy Thanksgiving.
We need to brush Lauren up on the facts. She wonders if the Brits didn’t do something colonizing to provoke the holiday. She’s very sweet about it. She’s quite looking forward to meeting up with her parents for Christmas in Australia, and hearing her enthusiasm so genuine for her family and for Christmas, I feel jaded for a minute, cynical like the flip side of every coin.
Yet the truth resonating through our epic adventure is that we have come to this land as pilgrims, and been on the high seas and landed and went ashore and were made welcome by the natives to share in the bounty of their land, their harvest. This is what it must have felt like. All of our reflexive wincing away from the American family thanksgiving in Copacabana – it isn’t a problem with the principle of Thanksgiving. What we were feeling was a reverence, and as such a need for an authentic experience of the holiday. And consequently, I felt a sense of gratefulness for what works in my culture that I have never felt while immersed in my culture on this holiday, and mostly gratefulness for all the many worlds that share this earth, and of the chance to see more than my own culture in the light of tradition and time of celebration.
I have to throw up thanksgiving dinner. Altitude is no joke, and my stomach has now set into full revolt at the prospect of digesting anything at this elevation. Juan and Juana’s toilet situation is sketchy, involving a bucket of grey water to passively flush the works. There is a cardboard box next to the toilet bowl for tp and no toilet seat to speak of, pretty standard for 3rd world plumbing, but not the ideal situation for nausea. The smells and precarious positioning would be inducement to upchuck, if that weren’t what I was already hurrying to do.
It’s late and the stars are beautiful. I didn’t want to go back inside, only it was freezing and I didn’t want to wake my system up to the reality of our situation any more than I had to, so I ducked back inside the hut and tried lying down. And immediately needed to put my shoes back on for another trip to the repository. This one was full projectile force, fueled by the bubbles in the beer perhaps, and left me shaken and with my nose bleeding. I took that as a sign that things had finally gone too far, and spent some quiet moments under the newly found southern cross, communing with the spirits of sickness and promising them that I would fast the next day.
And so I spent a Buy Nothing Day, the busiest shopping day of the year, in a hut in a remote village in Peru, writing and meditating and consuming little bits of water. Charlie and Joel had amazing community experiences and saw another sunset break through the grey of a storm front moving in. They came by occasionally to check on me and to share stories.
2 combis, one tricitaxi race, 4 liftoffs home.
It rains and rains all morning and Juan is an angel, heading out to the square to negotiate us an express ride to Copachica direct from his door. Joel gives him an LED headlamp in thanks and we take a photo with him so excited in his new accessory. We have to show him how to push the button down long enough to turn it on. I don’t trust that he will remember after we are gone.
21 people and a baby in a toyota minivan on a rutted Peruvian road. We chase herds of wet sheep off the road; the wool hangs off them in clumpy dripping dreads. Two girls with long red sore scabs on their cheeks, ride with their sweaters up over their faces. Nobody speaks. The woman with their weaving wrapped in a blanket tied around their shoulders, tuck their babies into the bundle on top. Two of them get off at a village stop and I watch them help to load each other up, in the way of mothers everywhere. The baby is oversized and lethargic, and I am irrationally angry at it for a brief moment, and then it occurs to me that this woman’s baby is going to die.
What do you do as a consequence of having this thought? I imagine that a lot of volunteer work comes from such flashes of possibility, such foreign insight into suffering. There are no whys or wherefores here, just the Is-colored truth of life on our planet earth.
When the first world brushes against the third world, there is the inevitable feeling that something must be done. And we being Americans, are willing to use the floorboards if we have to. The girl holding her sweater over the sores on her cheeks, me in the back corner with the window cracked, breathing carefully through my mouth and fixing my eyes mostly on the horizon, our fates mingle for the space of a long quiet ride, in looks traded back and forth but never exchanged headlong. She exits the bus and is gone into the ether again, a memory now made a bit more firm by the writing out of a look that we never quite shared. Did I owe her something? Did I owe the shoeshine man more than the wishes in my heart?
My allegiance is to the river, if I must claim one. And these people are culpable, as am I now, by my presence in the system, for the state it is in. The water bottles are an easy symptom of a system malfunction. A country’s riches discovered are immediately at risk, whether they be mineral or cultural, of degradation by the forces of capital. No people in particular at fault, although the heads of certain corporate interests should be prosecuted as quickly as possible. When the tide turns from recrimination to remediation, the dominant voice will become again the voice of common sense. This is not a new concept to us as a species; common sense is a voice which speaks plain truth, truth a five year old can understand.
Common sense is the quotient impossible to program. It is what makes humans capable of discernment between that which is good for the species as a whole in the long run, and that which is good for the individual organism in the immediate present. It is why humans may not lose their entire future to disaster. But humanity’s prioritizing of capital over common sense has led to some very questionable decisions on the part of governments and privately contracted companies throughout the first, second, and third worlds.
Somewhere in the biological chain of drives we began to use the rhetoric of rationalization to help us get a little extra. We got caught up in the competition drive, and we created a system to support and quantify the creation and exchange of capital for the sake of accumulation. We sought power over each other in the application of new and creative ways to have more. This drive came up against and in conflict with the more indigenous drive to seek harmony and equilibrium with the Earth. People who saw themselves in relation to the planet were dominated by people who saw the planet in relation to themselves.
This is how it has been among people for huge epochs of our history. What our diverse histories share in fact, is this common story of domination, and the dominator’s reaction to this has traditionally been: Yes, this is how it is, this is how the world is. I am stronger and I have the advantage and I am going to use my advantage to secure some things for myself and for my lineage, for it is my dream that I serve, one that I hope to pass along to my children. This is true of Peruvians too, only the line of success is perhaps drawn closer to survival than to riches, and the circle of competition is smaller in scale.
And we come and we spend our money and we look around and we wonder what is to be done about these people who have so little of it and who never finish their houses or their parks, and who throw their trash on the ground and pee on the ground and grow food on the ground and graze their animals on the ground.
These people who will let their ancient city go to a dysfunctional government and in exchange many people will come and buy their wares. The wisdom does spread, in spite of the corrupt edges. The Intihuatana remained hidden intact at Machu Picchu for 400 years after the Spanish conquered. And the beer commercial probably brought it to a million viewers who could not imagine such a place existed before they saw the advertisement. The number of people who have made the trek because of what began with those shots, low over the top of the ruins, countless – And these sites of antiquity will not last for long at this rate of visitation, but perhaps the more people who see them, and the sooner, the better. Now is the time when things need shifting, and these places of power and ancient wisdom are deep catalysts in the spyche of the tourist, making unwitting pilgrims of us all.
What did they do before we came, with our eyes and our questions and our cameras and our guilt and our propinos?
Who will tell the Peruvians to take care of their rivers? Who will make the Peruvians listen? If their own mythology won’t safeguard their sacred river, no foreign perspective is likely to do the trick. And it won’t be concern for the people downstream in the Amazon, if it isn’t concern for their neighbors themselves. Government would need to change its nature and work toward spreading the money around, the people would need to draw deeply from their ancestral resources to find some old faith that can guide them towards trust in an era where trust is the last thing you need on your way to success.
Is it just that once we learn how far we are from being the center of the universe, something in the ego that hates to give up, has to be humbled?
It isn’t only the dream dying, for dreams die all the time and we dream up new ones,
but that the dream was built on a lie. The lie that there is-and-will-always-be More –
is connected to the lie that the things we throw away disappear –
is connected to the lie that there Isn’t enough to go around and we needs must fight each other for abundance –
is connected to the lie that our actions do not affect the plants and living creatures.
The base of all these lies has to do with where man is in relation to all these other alive beings. The base of the lie is in how we see ourselves, and what we are entitled to use as base material towards accomplishing our dreams. Some of us believe that we are entitled to use other people as base material, and also the stones of the earth and the trees of the forest and the pockets of oil and gas, and the waterways. And if the dream is big, it involves more use of resource, and the language of justification is larger. Terms like worldwide and international become the buzzwords of success, and we people spread the tenets of our lie around the globe like missionaries of capital, we come and we spend our money.
And it changes us,
and then what?
Atahualpa’s 80,000 Indians, lightly padded, were duped and slaughtered by a relative handful of Spanish with horses, guns, and blades. Should they have know better?
I’m tired of this God, the one that comes bearing down with the twin messages of sickness and salvation. This God has so little to say about respectful use, and so much pain to spread in the wake of a cross and a bible. The tinder from trees, those cathedrals with roots who stand in silent witness to the majesty, two sticks and a ream of parchment. Those persistent missionaries who staked out heathen backwoods to pursue and fulfill their mission for God, were they helping? We’ve got the science now, we’ve got the common sense to determine the results of this experiment. No of course they weren’t helping. This world is the result of “exploits” that severed crucial balancing links in the ecosystem. We’re careening, and knowing makes no difference.