Curiosity #82: Hushed Cities and Sustainable Shadows

Anthropology, Travel, Uncategorized

“Take a look around,” he said. We stood in an ancient Inca enclosure. Some of the surrounding partitions amounted to homes without roofs, with door-frames bolstered by ancient wood and rectangular window-like nooks set three meters above ground. No one but myself and my new friend, who happened to be the hostel receptionist, stood in view of what I perceived to be a masterpiece.

Sensing my interest in local identity earlier that day, Francisco had promised to take me after work “to a spot where no one goes.”

He delivered. We parked his motorbike by the side of the road near the top of a mountain. After climbing to the crest, we passed through sticks on hinges into a clearing. All around me stood abandoned settlement. I felt a deluded sense of privilege as if I had stumbled upon a dead animal.

The city before me wasn’t my discovery, of course. It was a hushed treasure, kept well and at peace.

Francisco urged me to wander at my own pace. Inside the first home I entered, the nothingness felt nothing like nothing. The wind and light and wrapped around the outside of the stone walls. I could hear it, see it. Inside the Inca home I was removed from the outdoors. The walls lent a shadowy sense of solitude that, even without the roof, enfolded me in shelter.

IMG_4396Five hundred years after the conquest of the Incas at Ollantaytambo, the structures stood with as much functioning potential as they once did. Grass grew within square perimeters. With such limited space, it was hard to imagine residences filled with eccentricities. Inca society, according to the the Quechuan concept, “ayni”, unified its micro-communities under the idea that people kept only what they needed. There was no pomp and no stretch over one’s neighbors.

Through the windows I could see the knees of mountains. Their heights didn’t impose upon me from where they stood. They stood level with my breast. Looking over the edge I could see terraces from where the motorbike began its mount, some of the farmland still framed by ancient rock foundations.

IMG_4398Circling back, I found Francisco lying on his back near the gate. He lay under the sky, legs extended, hands cushioning his head. When I walked towards him, he stood.

“You like the city?” he asked.

“It’s an image from a fairy tale,” I said, stupidly. There was another impression I kept hidden. The space felt haunted. More a hive than a fairy land, it was too perfect and genius to stand empty.

“Do you ever resent what happened here?” I asked. Earlier at the hostel, he had told me that his sister was an anthropologist on local history. He held a similar interest (albeit a non-academic one) in Ollantaytambo’s history, and identified strongly with the successes and losses of his ancestors.

Francisco shook his head. “The conquest happened because it had to happen. Society is changing, even now. When people choose to value things over people, the outcome is war and destruction. It’s an evolution. It started happening long ago and continues now.”

We strolled into a a section of houses I hadn’t yet explored. Airy green pathways fed from house to house. The clusters of residences were organized in a circle at the crest of the mountain, all surrounded by a stone membrane.

For a moment we both forgot about history. “Look at the windows and doors of this one!” said Francisco. “From outside the house it looks like a face!”

IMG_4406IMG_4403IMG_4397IMG_4405We reached one of the highest structures and looked through a square window. He pointed out the famous fortress near the city center.

Ollantaytambo’s fortress remained the main source of tourism for the city, attracting hundreds of visitors and thousands of dollars a day. Now it poised hundreds of meters below. We saw little shapes with limbs collecting in clumps along different tiers of hill.

“How is it that we’re the only ones here?” I asked Francisco, turning back towards our settlement on high. The sun was setting. The shadow of a mountain let its skirt flare over the valley.

“Every resident from Ollantaytambo knows about this place,” he said. “The locals have just chosen not to make it an attraction.”

We walked back to the clearing into which we originally entered and sat on the grass.

“So do you want to keep working in tourism?” I asked him.

Francisco tore at the grass between his legs. “No. I’m 27, and I’ve been working for other people long enough. You saw the home we passed on the way up? I built that. It’s a nice space, and I can rent it out to temporary residents. Besides that, I have a small bit of land so I can grow all the grains and vegetables I need. There’s even a stream, so maybe I can farm some fish. The goal is to be totally self-sustainable. ”

Francisco pointed to a far mountain. “You know some people still live really high up? Higher than this? I lived with them for a while. They have no watches or electricity, so they wake up when the sun hits, around four in the morning, and go to sleep very early. Everything they need is grown around them. All else is given away.”

We passed a woman in braids on the way down. She sat with her baby and llama. Crafts lay sprawled before her knees.

She must have seen me on the way up. I remembered what Francisco said about the history of self-sustainability and, as I walked past with a wave, hoped her livelihood didn’t depend on frugal travelers like me.

As Francisco revived his bike, I took one more look back at the fence of the abandoned city. I encoded the remnants of its tale.

For me it was a testament to the extent to which beauty could be gutted by greed. But for Francisco and the other the locals of Ollantaytambo, it was a place for reflection. It was whispered of and adored, and, from what my own guts could gather, a dignified reminder of identity.


(Above: The entrance to Ollantaytambo’s fortress)



(Above: Two dances from the independence festival at the city center, which carried throughout June)


(Terraces at the skirt of the mountain where Francisco and I began our ascent)

Curiosity #81: Attached at the Navel

Anthropology, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Machu Picchu averages about 2000 visitors a day. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world, but a Peruvian will never tell you Machu Picchu is the greatest city ever built, nor will they tell you it’s the greatest triumph their ancestors ever accomplished.

The greatest masterpiece of the Incas was Cusco. Cusco was once considered the center or “navel” of the world. Incan chroniclers documented that the city was once 100% veneered in gold. The boundaries of the city were constructed in the shape of a puma, with the head serving as the fortress. The heart of the city held the temple, Koricanche, the most sacred of Inca sites, where the gods were worshipped and the bodies of Incan kings were preserved. Courtyard buildings, shrines, and plazas filled the metropolis, reflecting supremacy of artisanship that only took 100 years to perfect.


These spaces have long been either emptied or laid flat, pillaged by Pizarro, afterwards emptied and burned by Franciscans, bricked over and stuffed with colonial rococo-style figurines imposing white supremacy. But not all is lost. Much is still preserved in the culture and language of the local people.

Living Remains

A four-day, three night tour to Machu Picchu lent the first hint at what remained of Quechua identity. My Machu Picchu tour was registered with a company called Lorenzo Expeditions. Our guide, Wilbur, was a middle-aged local from the Sacred Valley who claimed he had been hired by every tour company in the city. I could see why: he in many ways embodied the intelligence and identity standing since the days of Incan reign. He was as much a relic as the ancient walls.

The tour brought us to local villages, some tucked into the highland jungle. There was a varied pace of hiking and stopping, and in the latter stretches we would receive explanations of the significance of the spaces we passed. Wilbur brought us to coffee farms. He fanned out coca leaves in wild forest groves. He explained the critical connection between his people and their land and did not leave out details of injustice brought on by foreign misconceptions.


You want to understand our culture, he said? First learn our language. Then you will know the ways of our people.

Naturally none of our 10 trekking members knew the local speech, but Wilbur did his best to explain the trials and collective identity of the Sacred Valley descendants.


The Incan empire was not soft on its people, but it paid mind to general needs. While the imperial and ceremonial center was foiled in gold, the currency lay in exchange of services. Civilians of the empire were required to perform tasks and labor (primarily in agriculture, mining, construction, and artisanship) and in return were delivered provisions by the State. The remainder of goods were exchanged through a bartering system.

The real measure of wealth was not measured in money or gold, but in textiles. Only the Incan kings and nobles could wear them, their elaborate designs woven through the toil of mit’a (the strenuous work quota appointed to commoners).

After the Europeans came, currency took precedence over craft. Pizarro pillaged for gold, and Atahualpa, the Incan king in today’s Ecuador, filled two rooms with the mineral to buy his freedom. He satisfied the ransom but was executed anyway after betraying his brother.

Peruvians know Pizarro as the man who claimed all the gold in Peru, including Cusco. He also brought a lesson: wealth in currency allowed one to wield horrifying power worldwide.

Five hundred years later, this lesson still holds true.

Today the people of the Sacred Valley hold similar occupations as they once did, primarily in agriculture, with others in construction, weaving, and mining. While the work restrictions are nowhere near as imposing as they were during the days of Incan rule, the payoff is nowhere near fair.

Tourism is Cusco’s leading industry. It’s hard to find a good tour to Machu Picchu without paying at least $300. A backpacker’s hostel can earn $10 from each laundry service, and a restaurant in the city center charges over $50 for a family meal of fried rice.

Meanwhile, farmers in the fields earn hardly enough to sustain themselves. They return to wooden shacks with no electricity and no plumbing. Delicious mangoes and avocados bring in $3-4 for every package of 100.

The coca leaf industry is a whole other ordeal.

US and European governments point at Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, for the impact the cocaine industry has had on their societies.

Holding out a handful of inconspicuous leaves he picked from the forest trail, Wilbur said, “The greatest problem in our country is not drug addiction, but diabetes. Here we drink too much soda. Do we blame the United States for the production of Coca Cola?”

Coca leaves have been used since the days of the Incas. They were not—are not—used by Andean locals for the production of the cocaine (most of cocaine industry is concentrated in the jungle regions). Coca leaves have long been perceived as medicinal and sacred. The ancients knew that chewing the leaves led not only to health benefits, but facilitated a connection between humanity and the gods.

Countries demand that Peru limit its coca production. These governments promise they will reward those who farm coffee beans in place of coca plants. This, the governments insist, will lend new opportunities for farmers’ profit through increased demand for a globally-cherished export. But coffee beans can be picked only 2 times a year (coca plants every 3 months). And since Peru can not compete with countries like Costa Rica for production of coffee beans, the farmers see little payoff.

Still, though, the Quechuans are a hard-working people. They farm to survive, take what they need, and give the rest to the neighbors.


In the ancient days Wirocacha created the sun, moon, stars, time, and civilization. The apus, or lesser gods (the storms, the mountains and the rivers) served as the hands of the creator. Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, ensured fluid relations between all things. 

At the height of the Incan Empire, the Incan Kings and the gods were worshipped in the temple of Koricanche in Cusco. It was said the 12 Incan Kings whose bodies rested in Koricanche were so well-preserved that they didn’t look dead. On notable occasions the royal mummies would rest on the shoulders of Cusco civilians and be paraded around the city so the strength of their spirits could bring stability to the empire.

When the Franciscans came, the bodies were burned. The vases used in place of the bodies were taken for an archaeological display by a Yale professor.

Today, the main spectacles in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas are its grand churches. Nearly everyone identifies as Catholic. Religious education is a required discipline in public schools, and the Catholic authorities hold great influence over the government.

When Wilbur, who never outwardly identified his spiritual orientation, tried to enroll his first child in public school, the very first question from the registrar was “Are you Catholic?” The second question was “Are you married?”

In spite of this, the locals still believe in the apus and in the great one, Wirocacha. And the Andes themselves: for the Quechua people it has always been, and still is, nature first.

Apart from the gods, the Quechua people maintain faith in their ancestors. Quechua funerals entail a large cross atop the coffin. Since this tradition’s inception, it appeased local Catholic officials who thought this a demonstration of obedience towards the Church. But truly it was a subversion towards syncretism. The cross atop the coffins do not commemorate Christ, but the living spirits of their loved ones.

Spiritual practice carried from the Incan empire is most prevalent in the fields. When planting new crops (beans, potatoes, carrots), farmers first pray to Pachamama with coca leaves. They thank her for providing nourishment and, once they eat their first meal, offer the first plate to Her.


Quechua once united the Incan Empire. In the 18th century the language of Quechua was banned from use by religious authorities, who once used the language to infiltrate local spirit beliefs with their own.

The use of Quechua was only allowed use again after Peru gained its independence in the 19th century. But by then the language had been lost to feelings of local inferiority. Younger generations perceived Quechua speech as belonging to the static, rural class. The way of the future was Spanish.

Now Quechua is seeing a minor resurgence. It is spoken proudly in the rural highlands and sometimes in the cities. This is an improvement from when Wilbur was a child, when native Quechua speakers like himself struggled to integrate into public schools.

Now more families teach children the ancient tongue, and, amidst the inundation of foreign influence from the tourism industry, traditional forms of expression remain the primary way of preserving local identity.

The Nature of “Discovery” and Conquest

Wilbur and I walked along the railroad that led to Aguas Calientes, the tourist city that led to Machu Picchu. We both had taken off our jackets despite the altitude. The flaps of his open collared shirt tossed with the wind which passed over the neighboring river. We paced up the metal and rock.

Wilbur and I spoke of conquest. While I condemned the nature of conquest in the Americas, I brought up the reality that conquest has existed everywhere, including among the Incas, since the dawn of human existence.

Conquest is different from destruction, he explained. Surely the Incas conquered many people, leading them to be the greatest empire in South America. But conquest does not require obliteration or oppression. Wilbur said that in both Quechua and Spanish, the word “conquest” could be used to describe the trapping of a lover.

During Incan conquests, the armies brought gifts to weaker communities, lent respect to local rulers, and, despite insisting on adoption of the Quechua tongue and the Incan ways, allowed freedom of local beliefs and languages within micro-circles.

European Colonists did not engage in conquest; they dealt in destruction. They did not aim to adopt peoples, as the Incas did, but obliterate “inferior” identities from existence.

They did not completely succeed.

Looping the Cord

Machu Picchu is a masterpiece, but it’s only a hint of what stood at the Incan center. In Quechua, the name “Machu Picchu” means “this whole mountain,” signifying treasure in the greater picture.

Back in Cusco, the center of the world might be defaced and buried by Franciscan churches and foreign feet, but the most precious remains aren’t at the top of the mountain; they are at the core of the human being: how Quechua people today embrace left chest to left chest, heart to heart.


Curiosity #80: All the Needy Men


Dear P,

You were my only father for thousands of miles. Remember how we used to go out for lunch and talk about folklore? We dissected the way the figures in our myths decided our heroes and our ills.

I discovered a bit of American folklore after I last saw you.

Once there were the needle-men of New Orleans. In the nineteenth century, these needle-men crept up behind unsuspecting gentlemen of inconsequential status. In the movie theaters, in dark alleys, the needle-men would inject fast-acting toxins into their victims so the bodies would fall limp where they sat and stood. The bodies were collected and sold for medical research in Chicago and New York.

Let’s imagine that there are needle-men of a sort lurking behind all people. Let’s suppose the needle-man doesn’t seek to kill, but to transform. Alterations of character reign his specialty: only expected when, in response to his artistry, desperation confounds love, “no” warps into “yes.”

I’ve had a few runs with the needle-men of Peru. Here are few stories to unsettle you.


He slipped off his pants before he got into bed. I told him he couldn’t touch me. We were only sleeping in the same place in this road-side hostel because there was an emergency preventing us from going home. I had a boyfriend, and needless to say, sleeping in the same bed with my male host on my first day in a foreign city wasn’t ideal for any party. Despite my Spanish capabilities being limited as they were, I was understood.

I stayed awake beneath our teddy-bear fleece comforter, eyes open, heat climbing as I wriggled to find a comfortable position. He snuggled next to me. I had practice avoiding bed-time contact from when my sister and I slept in pull-outs on family vacations, feet smacking one another until we learned to sleep on polar ends, thin and still.

Rodrigo didn’t care for tacit rules. The further I scooched to the edge of the bed, the more closely he followed. I bore my weight against the wall so I could park in the crease where the mattress ended and the wall began. I managed to secure an inch of space as we both pretended to sleep. I heard his breathing on the pillow beside me. Sometimes his belly reached me as he inhaled, and in those moments fat swarmed around my elbow. I hid my face underneath the covers.

It was about two in the morning. He sat up in the dark. In one movement, he bent over the side of the bed and either put something down or picked something up. He lay back down quickly, resuming his original position beneath the covers. I lay in the bed for some minutes, imagining a knife in his hand, or something to bludgeon me with. How did men here (or anywhere) handle rejection? Was I wrong to assume respectful distance from my host, telling him only at the end of the night that my intentions never had nor would extend beyond friendship?

His body was still now. I sensed him waiting. “Excuse me,” I said. “I need to get up to use the bathroom.”

Oh no, I’m sorry, we didn’t get a room with a bathroom. I’m sorry, I don’t know if we can use the one in the hallway. Don’t get—”

I pulled back the covers, violently, so I could see what he hid. I caught sight of a uniformly-colored swarm of skin before he snatched the covers to pull them over himself. He had removed everything below the waist. I went to the bathroom, peed, came back.

He lay there pretending to have the covers open voluntarily. He allowed me to see him in his undershirt and briefs. “Is it ok?” he said in English. There was a pause. Then he said “I’m sorry.”

I just need some space,” I said.

Yes, yes. We’re here because it’s just. An. Emergency.” He got out of bed, pulled his pants back on, and was out the door. He said “I’m going to the bathroom.” He didn’t come back.

I was lucky the hostel manager called him the next morning so I could return to where I was meant to stay, retrieve my bags and passport. After leaving his house—which wasn’t really his house, but the live-in office of a best friend—I got on a bus without telling him my next destination.

In fact I didn’t even know.


“Come, come he said, to my house. You’ll have some coffee and you’ll be on your way.”

His apartment was a one-bedroom room with a stove. Two large beds took up the majority of the space, and there was an armchair covered in pink flowered cloth. He told me to sit down. As the water heated, he busied himself unpacking. He threw his pants over the back of the chair on which I sat, turned on the television, explained that the Chinese Soap Opera channel was the only one with signal. He changed his shoes. Unzipped his pants and stepped out of them, took off his over-shirt. He put on a flannel. Buckled his belt. His fly he left unzipped.

He sat on the bed beside the chair.

“How are you feeling? Your coffee will be ready in just a minute. Just a bit of coffee, then you will be on your way.”

He touched my hand.

“So cold! Why so cold? My little one! My love! Here, here.” He put his hands on mine, covered my fingers with his palms, which I pinned tight to my knees.

I didn’t know how to say “poor blood circulation runs in the family.” All I said was “My mother is the same.” I thought about how I peed on the side of the road on the path down from the Incan ruins at Sondo right before I met Romulo, how I didn’t travel with paper or sanitizer, and how those germs were part of him now.

“Look at me, what kind of man do you see, my love? I’m a good man. A clean man. A professor.”

In my lap he plopped his binder of 3-semesters worth of course material. The binder was purple, its plastic cover sporting a raised outline of Elsa from Frozen. Romulo was a professor of Urban Studies and Civics. Three semesters and then he rotated to a new city. I flipped through the course material: political issues in Peru and their social effects. Cultural issues in an urban sphere. Quite interesting actually, and I told him so.

He sipped my coffee with a spoon.

“You have a boyfriend,” he said, confirming what I had told him on the bus.

Yes,” I said.

He placed the coffee very carefully on a table beside my chair.

“Here relax, relax. Your hands are so cold my love!” He placed his hands over mine again. “How is your face?” He placed a clammy hand on my forehead. “O my little one! So cold! So cold, my love!”

He leaned from where he sat, hands still above my eyebrows, and moved his hands from my forehead to my cheeks. “Relax,” he said. He pressed my cheeks together, rubbed them around. I could feel the oil smearing, my trust waning.

“People in the West are so tense!” He said. Haha. He smiled, flashed me a gold tooth.

When he found more rigid than before, he rose and went to fix his own cup of coffee. As he stirred he spoke.

“You see I’m alone. I don’t have a family. I’m strong, but I want companionship. I have my brothers, my mother. My father is no longer alive. He was a doctor. He shot himself in the head. I used to have a girlfriend, but she died in Lima. It was a car accident. 2013. Four years I’ve been alone.”

He put the sugar spoon down and turned to me. He took off his glasses. His arms he opened as if he were a saint declaring himself fit for burning.

How old do you think I am?” he asked.

Forty three,” I guessed. I lied. He looked mid-fifties, old enough to be my father.

“Oh, Mamasita Mamasita.” He scurried over to me and again squeezed my cheeks. “Do you think I’m handsome?” Then he went back to fixing his coffee, murmuring all the while.

“I want a woman who is kind. Very intelligent. Earnest. Honest. Someone to spend a lifetime with.”

“There are many intelligent and beautiful women in Peru,” I said.

Yes, but they’re dirty” he said, scrunching up his face. “They drink. I don’t drink. I never did, not even in my twenties. I go all over, to Andahuaylas, to Ayacucho, to Abancay, to Cusco, to Puchio. I have not found a woman for me anywhere. Puh.”

I was somewhat amazed that I could follow all this despite his ramblings in Spanish. But in his gestures I understood all. I learned new words. “Sucio.” Dirty. “Salir.” To go out. “Vamos a comer cuy.” Come let’s go eat guinea pig.

He knelt before me so his face was directly before mine. “Look at me. What do you see. A good man? Yes mamasita I’m a good man. I’m a good man. A religious man.”

He took my hands kissed them. A kiss and a kiss. An assault of kisses. He tried to kiss my face. I pinned my chin to my chest so his lips wouldn’t reach mine. “Place your hands on my head.” When I didn’t move, he took my coffee mug from my hands and placed it on the side table.

“Come, mamasita.” He took one hand and placed it on his own forehead. “Two hands please,” he said. He grabbed hold of my wrists and pulled my hands down so that they traveled from his forehead to either side of his face onto his cheeks. “Relax, relax,” he said. He pulled my hands together so the meat of his face squished into a fish shape. I tried to suppress a laugh but it puttered out.

“Very relaxing, my love,” he said.

I stood up. “I can’t stay. I’m sorry. I check out from my hostel at six. Goodbye.”

He rushed to the stove and started pouring me another cup of coffee. When I put my hand up in refusal he put down the pot.

Fine. Fine. Go. Let’s go.”

He escorted me down. When we went to the gate, he looked towards the concrete. “Goodbye,” he said. The gate clanked shut behind him.

I scurried to the main road, breathed, hailed a buggy. Five minutes later and I was at my hostel. Two hours later and I was on the road to Cusco.


On the bus to Ayacucho I was the only foreigner. As I waded through the isle to my seat I saw one man who, in the din of the evening, looked like three sets of concentric circles.

It was a night bus. After we all had settled in our seats and the engine started, the lights flipped off. I could sense the circle man looking over to at every hour or so to check to see how I was faring, or perhaps to see if I was really there.

Towards the end of the bus ride, as we ventured up a particularly vicious wind of mountain road, I felt sick. I tripped several times on my way to the back of the bus, then fell onto a side platform. Fevered and almost incapacitated, the circle man was the one who opened the bathroom door, held out the bag for me to puke in, gave me a tissue soaked with alcohol to soothe the brain.

It was because of this graciousness, or perhaps it was out of exhaustion and resign, that I allowed him to escort me to my hostel in Ayacucho. He had not yet secured sleeping accommodations and so reserved a one-night stay at the same place in a separate room on a different floor.

Breakfast wouldn’t be offered until the next day, so we went out for coffee. After a short walk down a cobble-stone hill, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. We found a two-story cafe in the Plaza del Armas and ordered juice and sandwiches.

Are you feeling better? he asked. I could still taste the puke in my mouth.

I asked if he had a family. It was only my fourth day in South America, and I hardly knew any words in Spanish. He told me had two siblings, a sister and a brother. In his mid-forties, it was clear he had no spouse or children of his own.

Where was my boyfriend? Why wasn’t he with me?

The waitress came up with our juice and sandwiches. I reached out and began to eat.

Carlos told me he was called into Ayacucho to do technical repairs for a military database. “So you’ve traveled far for your work?” I asked in broken Spanish. “You enjoy it?”

Yes, he said. It’s alright. I do important work. I’m called to many cities. Here’s my card. You know when I saw you I thought you looked lost. And drunk. I travel a lot but I don’t see women I like. I want a woman who is very intelligent. When I saw you I thought you were intelligent and beautiful.”

He reached out to touch my hand. “Your hands are cold” he said. “You don’t have gloves? You need a shower and rest, and then you’ll be better. I know.” He brought my fingers to his lips. I thought, puke. Dust.

I pulled my hands away so I could continue eating my sandwich.

After escorting me back he booked another room in the same hotel. “Save your dinner for me.”

I made a point to stay out until it was well past evening. He checked out the morning of the next day.

Dear P,

The needle-man doesn’t know age. He doesn’t know fidelity or fun. He is the cardinal traveler, working with stealth. His victims love him without knowing he’s there.

Remember how you supported your wife, unsteady after her stroke, from the living room to the bedroom, the day before I left? Remember how you scurried over to me at the guest table, pouring margarita mix into my glass? Instead of sitting across from me in your usual chair, you sat next to me on the couch. From there you told me, in a very unfatherly way, just how well you would miss me.

The needle-man might explain why, in all my travels, I watched the same possessive afflictions consume selfless, socially-conscious, even pious men. You are the same as Rodrigo, Romulo, and Carlos. You are the same as the Korean acupuncture specialist who pressed a metallic gadget to my breast, my Ghanaian chaperone with his distant fiancé.

The first time this sort of thing happened, you came to my house on the day the volcano erupted. It was Valentine’s Day. I stood outside my kitchen and my balcony windows dumped in a snowscape, only it wasn’t snow. It was ash, ash, falling on the courtyards and the trees. You pinned me against the wall. I could smell your age. I felt your tongue prying against my lips. The entire city was shut in, and there was no excuse to escort you out.

I wasn’t angry. I just thought, “where are you?”


Curiosity #79: Prophecies of Potential


There was a moment in Bali, sitting in front of a Hindu priest, when I learned the horror of being being told who and what I was. It was the second day of my visit on the island, and Pak Bedot, knowing my keenness for local wisdom, and perhaps hoping to learn a little more about his guest, took me to his cousin for an astrology reading.

Pak Bedot’s cousin lived in the village just outside Tampaksiring. He was a year or so into official priesthood, and had just moved into a new compound where he could host ceremonial gatherings. My host family owed him congratulations. We entered the compound with a basket-full of fruit and aromatic rice.

Amidst the house’s ongoing construction, at the center of the compound, was an elevated pagoda with a floor of bleached tile. On a cushion sat Pak Bedot’s cousin, bun tied high on his head, clothing loose and white.

What do you want to know, he asked. He looked bored. I figured Pak Bedot had called telling him a foreigner was looking for a show. When I told him I wanted to learn about his supernatural tap-ins, he pulled out a clean, laminated book he said was full of wisdom from Bali’s ancient Hindu sages. He lifted up four fingers “I can’t see ghosts or raise the dead, but I can read you based on your birthday.”

I told him the day, month, and year I was born. He spread the book, pointed to one spot on a page. The plastic cover crackled as the binding stretched. “Here,” he said, “You’re faithful.” “Loyal. You’re articulate with words.”

Pak Bedot, who lay on his side, nodded his head and muttered “mmmmmmm”. Pak Bedot’s wife, who made pointed efforts to prove she wasn’t interested in her husband’s bookish friends, particularly those of the female variety, sat looking away from us towards the pot of fried pig in the kitchen, tugging at her kabaya so it wouldn’t rise on her belly. The priest’s wife sat in the shade of another pagoda weaving baskets for a festival that would come next month.

The priest flipped toward the back of the book. He looked at me, almost reprimandingly. “You’re not frugal. When you give things away, you often regret it, and you like to wear things directly after you buy them.”

I listened on. This didn’t ring true (at least not after two years of living simply), and I thought back to all the bogus astrological projections I used to read in teen magazines. But surely ancient formulas held more merit? I was willing to believe.

Perhaps that willingness proved a mistake. The next and last reading profoundly unsettled me.

“Not smart, to the point where it frustrates you.” The word he used for smart is “pintar”, used also for “skilled” or “adept.”

The silence that followed bit my consciousness where I sat. I hugged the solemnity to myself and hid it behind closed features.

“So you are good and loyal,” said Pak Bedot to me, content now at welcoming this sort of stranger into his home.

In Indonesia, kindness and contribution towards others stood paramount over prideful attributes such as exceptionalism, intelligence, and renown. To most locals my astrological reading was a testament of good character, but for me it was a condemnation.

“Not smart to the point where it frustrates you. What does this mean?” I asked the priest.

Pak Bedot jumped in. He said it means that you are good at advising and writing, but better behind the scenes than as a figurehead.

It’s been over 1.5 years and that prophecy still haunts me. After taking the GRE twice with mediocre results, I wonder what path there is for cultural observers, for seekers, who stray outside conventional pursuits of wisdom.

So who is more merited to judge my potential, the ancient Balinese sages or the standardized testing panel? Or maybe they’re in collusion with one another?

As I write I’m sitting in Andahuaylas, Peru. Outside is a dusty urbanscape that sits in a valley in the Andes. I’m here on a stop between Ayacucho to Cusco. Upon arriving in Cusco I may or may not be welcomed by a local who has agreed to take me out to experience night life. This is contingent upon whether or not I’ll be able to reach him on a data-less phone.

Rewind several hours and I was being thrown side-to-side on a minibus whisking up clean roads that had been blasted and paved into the mountains. Rewind a day and I was touching woven textile in an artisan’s market.

The day before that I was inside a church adorned with holy figurines. Jesus on the wall looked pensive. Jesus on the steps towards the altar was being washed by a man who declared himself a religious anthropologist. “Peruvian culture is very rich!” he told me. Just then a traditionally-dressed old woman, who had been kneeling by a statue of the virgin Mary, emerged from prayer and paced towards me. She opened her arms. It happened so quickly. Before I knew it I was inside her embrace. I could feel her hands on my back. She kissed me on both cheeks, smiled and chuckled before she walked away.

I came here alone because when I get lost, beautiful things happen. The only intelligence necessary comes in adapting to the moment, and to puzzling my way to where I need to be.

As for where I need to go, that is, and perhaps always will be, unclear.


Above: The anthropologist and his family washing Jesus for the upcoming evening mass. Inglesia de San Francisco, Ayacusco.


Ayacucho’s Artisan Market, full of keychains, weavings, crosses, and religious dioramas (called retablos)



The route towards Santa Ana Market in Ayacucho.