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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

I'm going back to Cusco. Hmm. I don't think so. (ive)

PERU | Friday, 8 May 2009 | Views [1354]

View of the Cathedral of Cusco

View of the Cathedral of Cusco

Cusco, Peru, was the capital of the Inca Empire. The name means “navel” in Quechua and the city was believed to be the center of the world by the Incas. Not surprisingly, then, there are many, many Inca ruins in and near the city. And, also, many Spanish colonial buildings built atop Inca ruins in a symbolic and psychologically devestating representation of the conquest. In fact, the main cathedral in the Plaza de Armas is built with gorgeous stones pillaged from the Inca holy site of Saqsaywaman (jokingly pronounced by every American as Sexy Woman). The entire city is a reminder of the destruction of a people – as most buildings are colonial structures built on top of Inca foundations; the Inca stonework is still visible up to about knee height and then the quality of the stonework obviously deteriorates. Located at 10,800 feet, it is tradition for new arrivals to the city (usually from sea level in Lima) to drink lots of coca tea, which is touted to help ease the headaches and lethargy that often accompany the altitude transition. Cusco, now with a population of almost 350,000, is one of those magical cities with great natural beauty, history, and vibrancy. That's probably why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1983 and why over a million tourists visit it each year. I fell in love with Cusco when I went there in 2000 – and was excited to return. But the reality is that “you can never go back.” As many times as I've heard the saying and experienced its truth, I wasn't prepared for how weird it was to go back to Cusco. So much had changed.

Part of the difference had to do with differences in myself. For one thing, when I went to Peru in 2000 I had spent months and months gearing up for it – reading everything I could about Peruvian culture and especially Peruvian spirituality, training at the gym and Green Lake Park for the Inka Trail trek to Machu Picchu, and saving money so I could do anything and everything I wanted while I was there. This time, of course, Peru was happening as one month of a 14 month worldwide journey. And as the only country we are hitting that I have already been to, I did almost nothing to prepare for it beyond reflecting on my last visit, and I invited Miral to make all the decisions on what we did and didn't do there, since I'd seen the country before. I felt very goal-oriented and driven in Peru in 2000 – this time I felt much more open to whatever might happen.

Maybe more profoundly, I had been divorced for all of about six months when I went to Peru in 2000 and I was still only beginning to recover. I remember that I still ruminated about the marriage falling apart, vacillating between angry bouts of blaming her and depressing binges of beating myself up. Having met no one I was even remotely interested in, and unsure if I could stomach starting again with someone new if I did, I mentally prepared for the possibility of always being alone. I had recently started a daily Buddhist meditation practice and could already sense that it was going to be very healthy for me, but I had not yet really tasted any distance from my thoughts and feelings as reality and they still overwhelmed me. I remember meditating in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco each day I was there, but I also remember the ruminating thoughts that accompanied me nearly everywhere I went in Peru.

Ten years later, life is pretty different. The years of meditation seem like they have paid some dividends. I feel like I am less easily carried away by my thoughts and feelings and the inevitable ups and downs of life – sometimes even genuinely curious about and amazed by the whole display. I feel like I have had some brief tastes of the great mystery that lies beyond my sense of an individual self. Most importantly, I hope that I have become a more awake and caring person, even though I am almost constantly reminded of how much further I have to go. Whereas I was still feeling pretty confused about how to handle the future when I went to Peru in 2000, in 2009 I am feeling a much healthier balance of openness and purposefulness. So it was strange to be in Cusco – and to remember -- not just remember in my mind, but to feel again “who I was” the last time I walked through this Plaza or in that market.

And despite my worries back then, I am definitely not alone now. After a lot of years of wondering if I'd ever meet someone special again, I have. I am traveling with and my life is intertwined with a woman who is completely magical. A woman who is stunningly bright and articulate and has stretched my thinking on everything from religion to relationship to personal growth -- who possesses a child-like enthusiasm and playfulness that has infused my life with a huge amount of joy – who is so dedicated to turning each and every experience of her life into a cause for celebration that life truly feels like an unending chain of sacredness. I arrived in Cusco this time in partnership with someone who shares my intention to live an uncommon life deep with meaning. Parents often talk about the joys and renewal of seeing the world through the eyes of their children. Not to steal from a lyric of Elliott Smith's, but I found myself in love with Cusco in a new way seeing it through Miral's eyes. She was drawn to exploring the more chaotic side of real, everyday Cusco and was pretty uninterested in looking at the local Inca ruins, feeling that nothing could match her experience at Machu Picchu.

As much as I was a different person with a different outlook and agenda when I explored Cusco in 2000, Cusco was a different city then, too. Extreme and unmistakable changes had occurred. Maybe two images capture it best.

First image: One of my favorite memories of Cusco from 2000 was wandering the streets around the Plaza de Armas looking for cool Peruvian wares. Tapestries, new and antique. Jewelry. Woven wall hangings. Little statues, like Tumi, the Pre-Inca good luck symbol. Scarves. Socks. Sweaters. And, of course, Peruvian ski hats. All of these beautiful items were being sold by women sitting on blankets on the side walk. To a person, they were dressed in the clothing of their indigenous heritage, and most of them were attending to child care needs simultaneously with selling their items - from infants to school-age kids. And they were skilled in the art of hard sales. If you so much as glanced in the direction of their blanket -- “Amigo! Amigo! Look! Real Alpaca!” Then they would provide Spanish language lists of every item on their blanket. If you walked over to them, you were locked in a sales conversation that would take walking away to sever. Really, there is no choice for them. How do you possibly get a leg-up when you are one of a hundred women selling the same exact items? I have to admit that I remember moments of being annoyed by the women on the blankets. Their in-your-face sales tactics could be a little much, stepping over and around them and through the crowds they attracted made getting from point A to point B more difficult, and you had to give your purchases from them a good hard inhale before buying them, because so many of them had the worn-in smell of gas fumes, burning firewood, and cooking meat that was quintessential Cusco. But, to me, those women on their blankets with their children were a beautiful part of the essence of Cusco. I liked to buy my souvenirs from these women. Unlike my usual experience at stores in the US, it made me feel like I was purchasing from the humans who actually made the items (although that probably wasn't true in all cases) and I knew that my money was supporting a human in much need of financial support (which seemed unmistakably true in every case).

As Miral and I walked down Marquez Mantas Street on this trip and approached the Plaza de Armas, I noticed a building I remembered well – one with a sidewalk in front of it that was elevated a few steps up. I remembered that this sidewalk was lined with these women on their blankets and I remembered stepping over them on repeated nights walking around Cusco. But there were no women there this time. Not even one woman. Nor one blanket. No Peruvian souvenirs. No preciously dirty children with crusted noses. In fact, on one side of the building was now an upscale cafe serving Starbucks-like coffee drinks, with tables and outdoor heaters on the elevated sidewalk, enclosed in a glassed railing. On the other side of the building was a North Face store. I did a double-take because I could have sworn I was at an American shopping mall.

Second image: When I was in Cusco in 2000, the Plaza de Armas teemed with people (mostly children) begging for handouts. Even as my ten days in Cusco progressed and I became somewhat used to the constant requests in memorized English words (“Senor! Your President is Bill Clinton. Some money please?”), I still wasn't prepared for a sight I saw toward the end of my stay – one of those sights that burns into your memory. A desparate man was in one corner of the plaza. He was hobbling along with such struggling that one had to conclude he was very sick. His hair was long and matted and thick with dirt. His clothing was literally tattered rags and what was left of his pants were falling off of his body, exposing his own excrement that was running down his leg. I remember thinking that this must be what the untouchables in India look like. He eventually sat down on a curb. I remember wondering if he would die there. The man who owned the store he sat in front of handed him some scraps of food and sent him on his way. Flash to 2009 - as Miral and I entered the Plaza and I looked over to that same corner of the Plaza and remembered that man, I was immediately struck by what now stood maybe one or two doors down from where the man had sat. A McDonalds. In the Cusco Plaza de Armas.

Changes like this seemed to be everywhere. A little restaurant that served cuy (Guinea Pig – yes, a Peruvian delicacy!) and clay-oven pizzas was now an Israeli owned bagel shop. A nondescript shop that sold pencil sketches of local landmarks that may or may not have been sketched by the store owner who swore he was the artist, now sold the kind of hip art pieces you'd find at Fireworks stores in Seattle, with a loft for serving freshly made chai tea (not coca tea, mind you – chai tea!). Another non-descript store with wooden walls and floor that had piles and piles of classic Peruvian sweaters, the kind where the owner had to fish through the piles when you described what you were looking for, was replaced by a store with stucco walls, lush carpeting, and 1/8 of the clothing inventory neatly displayed on hangers and metal clothing racks, each one with a price tag boasting a cost about eight times that of the sweaters I saw there in 2000. In that kind of 'Rudy Giuliani cleans up Times Square' style, the Plaza de Armas was cleared of beggers, allowing tourists greater immunity from poverty as they admired the cathedral and other buildings. Now there was only “legitimate begging,” from restaurant and tour guide touts.

Like Times Square in the 90s, you couldn't help but wonder if the poor people who used to be there now had enough money, or if they had simply been sent away. It seemed like a sanitized Cusco -- but was it? As I looked around at the average people on the streets, I also noticed changes. In 2000, many of the people walking the streets wore indigenous clothing and sandals made from tire rubber. And, if not, they wore the rejected t-shirts and other fashions of North America that are so common in the third world – mostly covered in dirt with an appearance as if they had not been washed in months. Now, the people were cleanly dressed. Almost everyone wore fashionable jeans. And although the shirts, blouses, and shoes may not all have been styles currently typical in the US, they all looked like they had been bought at a mall.

I wondered if Cusco had been artifically cleaned up to enhance its tourist draw – or if the tourist draw of the city had boosted the localy economy enough that the city had money to clean up. I must have said, “This is not the Cusco I remember,” a thousand times to Miral. Still, I don't think she really believed my descriptions of how the city used to be. I kept flashing on a recommendation from a book we read before we left the US (I think it was called The Practical Nomad or something like that). The author warned not to feel let down when going to those magentizing “once-in-a-lifetime” tourist destinations in exotic locations only to find cities that looked suprisingly like cities back home. He warned against regret for not having traveled there sooner to see “the real city – before it modernized” -- for whatever you are seeing when you are travelling, he noted, is the real city. Still, I fould myself saddened by the sight of a more Western Cusco and wished it had more of the texture of the city I remembered from 2000.

Some people say that the destiny of our world is a monoculture – a single culture shared by all nations and peoples. It is sobering to think of the beautiful diversity that would be lost in the development of a monoculture - diversity of dress, music, dance, language, interpersonal style, custom, ritual. And unfortunately, the monoculture that seems to be taking hold is looking a lot like our Western culture, with billboards and strip malls lining four-lane highways, fast food and other instant gratifications abounding, and sex-based advertising that artificially creates desire for unneeded goods. A Cusco looking more and more like Seattle, Kathmandu like L.A., and Denpasar like Las Vegas. Worst of all is the globalization of values that elevate material gain over internal peace, material gain over relational connection, and material gain over spiritual growth. Material gain over everything.

It was interesting to have this intense reminder that everything in this world is impermanent and changing – my own ways of looking at and working with life, my own life circumstances, cultural expressions, economic conditions - everything changing. Nothing is immune. And with that change comes judgment. “My life is better in 2009 than it was in 2000.” “Cusco felt so much better in 2000 than in 2009.” Making judgments, even though without being able to take the complete birds-eye view of eternity that is the wisdom underlying this universe, it is so hard to know which changes will truly lead to good and which to bad. Who could have seen that as Cheney and Bush were planning pre-emptive invasions and Rice and Rumsfeld were okaying torture that they were setting the stage for us to have a President Obama? How could I have been certain that the struggles I felt in 2000 would give birth to this precious period I am experiencing now – and how can I be certain of what beauty and/or pain this precious period will give birth to? So what is happening now is nothing more or less than what is – and judging it as right or wrong is kind of silly. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche so elegantly put it, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

So, as certain as I felt that I didn't like 2009 Cusco as much as I did 2000 Cusco, and that the rise of the Western monoculture feels like a terrible tragedy, I have to admit that I don't know. In the short-run, I have to acknowledge the possibility that Cusco is now a community much better off, through reduced poverty and disease that came from embracing Western marketing and commercial culture. And in the long-run I have to acknowledge that good could come from the rise of a monoculture. Like, maybe nations sharing the same culture will have less reason for conflict and war. Maybe if all peoples of the world shared a culture John Lennon's imagined country-less world would be born. I just don't know.

My dear friend Pam recently returned from Kenya and Tanzania, where she was deeply moved by the Massai peoples and the many modern threats to their way of life. She emailed me about her experiences there and discussed her growing need to find ways to give these dying cultures voice – just as much for our benefit as for theirs. If a monoculture is truly our destiny, I can only hope that it ends up being a weaving of the best of what the world's current cultures offer. Pam's emails reminded me that as much as so-called third world nations would be sure to benefit from the scientific, technological, and medical advances of the West, so do we have so much to learn from more traditional cultures with people who seem so much more connected to their bodies, their inner well-being, their families and townspeople, their natural envrionment, and the great Spirit that infuses all of that. In actively sharing our culture with the world we could have more compassionate motivations than financial gain, and end our blindness to the need to just as actively invite the other cultures of the world to share with us.

Rather than delivering messages of their backwardness, we should be asking them to help us regain the ways of being more deeply human that we have lost. The Learning from Ladakh program I will be participating in Ladakh, India, during the month of August has this mission in sending Westerners to live among the indigenous peoples of this Himalayan region. (It is based on the startling and beautiful wake-up call of a book called Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge.) And as we bring our technology to these cultures, so should we be asking them to come to us to share their wisdom. Pam is right now trying to figure out new and creative ways to help make such visits a possibility. I hope she is successful, that programs like the one in Ladakh grow, and that many others are inspired to help in this effort. Because even though we never know if what is happening now is “good” or “bad,” and can never be fully certain if what we want to see change is what is best for the world or not, we still have a deep responsibility to do our best to take the steps that bring what we feel is needed into the world – and only then, to let go and see what happens.


 

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