Salka Wind Blog

Posts on the Andean Cosmovision

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Fund Raising for Q’ero Artisans

Hi, Kenosis Spirit Keepers, the non-profit for which I am vice-president, is holding a fund raiser to help some artisans from the Q’ero region attend an international folk art fair.  It is part of our effort to help them sustain their traditional culture.  For a great deal more information, or if you would like to donate, please click on the following link.  Thanks, you may now return to your regularly scheduled activities.

Q’ero Go Fund Me Campaign


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Language, Thought, and Worldviews in Tolkien’s Writing

Progress report:  I am nearing (I hope) a presentable draft of the story covering my third trip to Peru to work with Américo Yábar and the people of Q’ero.  In the meantime, here is something I have just written that ties into my meta-consideration of worldviews.

I was reading in The Letters of JRR Tolkien (Letter #171) a response he wrote to a college student who had written to Tolkien, criticizing his use of archaic words and sentence structures in LOTR. The writer particularly didn’t like the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall”, calling it horrible, and referring to it as tushery. I had to pull out my dictionary. Tushery is “writing of poor quality distinguished by the presence of affectedly archaic diction” (Merriam-Webster). Tushery is usually associated with authors who have little knowledge of medieval English who toss some old-timey words (e.g. ‘verily’ or ‘pish’) into a character’s dialog in an attempt to make the character fit a medieval setting.

It struck me as presumptuous, at the least, to tell Tolkien, who was a professor of philology (the study of language) and of Old English and Middle English literature, that he was creating affectedly archaic diction. Tolkien’s response touches upon the relationship between language, thought, and worldviews. It also shines light on his skill of giving the reader implicit knowledge of the speaker, not so such by what the speaker says, as by how he or she says it.

Tolkien begins by talking about the basic nature of real archaic English, stating that many of the things said in archaic English can not be expressed in modern English. This, I found, to be a mind-expanding consideration with fascinating ramifications. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once declared that only deaf linguists believe that accurate translations from one language to another are effectively possible (Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, pg 292). It had not occurred to me that this might also apply in this case, that ideas expressed in the language of archaic times may not be possible to express in modern English.

To demonstrate his point, Tolkien pulls in an example of his use of archaic English from the chapter that the writer so disliked, The King of the Golden Hall. This is King Theoden speaking:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

The words are all familiar to us, and are still in use today. None of them, with the possible exception of ‘Nay’, have the aroma of the archaic. What is archaic about the passage has to do with the structure of the sentences. Tolkien demonstrates this by saying the same thing in modern English:

‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties…thus shall I sleep better.’

But, Tolkien states, a King who spoke in that modern fashion would not have had those thoughts! There is an incongruity between modern English and Theoden’s way of thinking. To have Theoden speak his thoughts in modern English would be, in Tolkien’s words, “far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English” that he used. The people who spoke archaic English not only spoke differently than the way we speak, they also thought differently than the way we think.

Tolkien then goes on to demonstrate several differences between the diction of archaic English and that of modern English. He states that modern English is regrettably looser, more full of little ’empty’ words (see the example above), and yet at the same time is much more limited in its acceptable ways of putting words together in a sentence. Archaic English provides word orders that are terser, more vivid, and sometimes nobler than modern English. He concludes by asking the writer to free himself of the “extraordinary 20th Century delusion” the our current way of speaking has some “peculiar validity, above those of other times”. I would add that this is true not only of the way we speak but also of the way we think. Our current worldview assumes that the way we think in modern times has greater validity than the way we thought in other times. I bring that up as something to consider, to loosen the rigidity of our thinking that arises out of cultural arrogance.

Returning to how Theoden speaks in LOTR. Even though he uses word orders that are no longer deemed acceptable, we can still understand what he is saying. And further, the way Theoden speaks gives us a great deal of implicit knowledge about his character. We get a sense of his worldview, his nobility, what he values, and a sense of his culture. Tolkien was a master at giving the reader a great deal of implicit information about a character, not just by what the characters say but also by the way they say it.

To examine that further I would like to turn to the writings of professor Tom Shippey, who taught at Oxford during some of the same time as Tolkien, and held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University, which Tolkien held earlier in his career. Professor Shippey has published two insightful books on Tolkien, The Road to Middle-Earth, and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. I don’t agree with some of his interpretations of Tolkien’s work, but his books contain some gems. My favorite is Shippey’s analysis of the chapter “The Council of Elrond”.

“The chapter is a largely unappreciated tour-de-force…It breaks, furthermore, most of the rules which might be given to an apprentice writer. For one thing, though it is 15000 words long, in it nothing happens: it consists entirely of people talking. For another, it has an unusual number of speakers present (twelve), the majority of them (seven) unknown to the reader and appearing for the first time. Just to make things more difficult, the longest speech, by Gandalf, which takes up close on half the total, contains direct quotation from seven more speakers, or writers, all of them apart from Butterbur and Gaffer Gamgee new to the story, and some of them (Saruman, Denethor) to be extremely important to it later on. Other speakers, like Glóin, give direct quotation from yet more speakers, Dáin and Sauron’s messenger. Like so many committee meetings, this chapter could very easily have disintegrated, lost its way, or simply become too boring to follow. The fact that it does not is brought about by two things, Tolkien’s extremely firm grasp of the history of Middle-earth; and his unusual ability to suggest cultural variation by differences and mode of speech” (Author of the Century, pp 68-69).

Shippey demonstrates this with illuminating examples from several of the twenty speakers in the chapter; including Elrond, Glóin, Sauron’s messenger, Saruman, Aragorn, and Boromir*. He then concludes:

“The gist of the paragraphs above is only this. People draw information not only from what is said, but from how it is said. The continuous variations of language within this complex chapter tell us almost subliminally how reliable characters are, how old they are, how self-assured they are, how mistaken they are, what kind of person they are. All this is as vital as the direct information conveyed, not least, as has been said, to prevent the whole chapter from degenerating into the minutes of a committee meeting, which in a sense is what it is. Tolkien’s linguistic control (a professional skill for him) is one of his least appreciated abilities…” (pg 76)

This can also be seen in the farewells that Balin (a dwarf) and Bilbo (a hobbit) give each other at the end of The Hobbit.

“‘Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!’ said Balin at last. ‘If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!’

‘If ever you are passing my way,’ said Bilbo, ‘don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!'” p. 305

As Shippey points out, the two are saying the same thing, but in very different ways that both reflect and give us implicit knowledge of their respective cultures (The Road to Middle-earth, pg 86).

When I first read this in Shippey’s book I suddenly better understood something from Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories, where he states “Stories that are actually concerned primarily with ‘fairies’, that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called ‘elves’, are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the aventures** of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.” (in Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, pg 32).

We can see in Bilbo’s farewell that he talks, and probably thinks, quite a bit like we do, certainly more so than do dwarves or elves. In The Hobbit and LOTR, the presence of the hobbits gives us a vicarious experience of what it would be like to be in that world. The hobbits give us a human perspective of Faerie, one from which that realm is mysterious, dangerous, and somehow alluring, yet not alien. We get to view it through the eyes of someone with whom we can relate for we share a similar worldview. When I contemplate what a story would be like if everyone spoke, all the time, in a fashion similar to Balin’s, I can see that the story would not be all the palatable to me (as much as I cherish the dwarven characters).

Tolkien created a secondary world for us to enter and explore. He did not, of course, actually create that world physically, we enter a representation of that world that arises in our minds as we read his words. His ability to give us that experience relied heavily upon his profound knowledge of language, its relationship to thought, and the relationship between language, thought, and worldview. With that knowledge he was able to take us to ancient times that exist in fantasy, and to the Perilous Realm of Faerie itself.


* Shippey’s states that Tolkien has Elrond speak in an archaic manner to continually remind the reader of Elrond’s great age (several thousand years old). Shippey adds, “Many critics have complained of Tolkien’s archaic style in one section or another; they have failed to realize that he understood archaism far more technically than they ever could, and could switch it on and off at will, as he could modern colloquialism” (pg 70)”.

** “Instead of the usual English word adventures Tolkien chooses the French aventures, which conveys, in addition to the usual meaning of ‘exciting experiences’, the darker implications of hazard, uncertainty and outright danger that his following phrase ‘the Perilous Realm’ underscores.” (From the Editors’ Commentary in Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, pg 93). Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories has been published in several contexts. I like this book the best, as it presents both an earlier draft and the final draft of the essay (both drafts have some interesting points that the other leaves out), and I enjoy some of the editor’s comments.

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My First Trip to Peru (with photos)

Draft 2.4: Photos added to the story (they enter the story after I get to Cusco).  A few of the photos were pulled from later trips when I just couldn’t find a good enough pict from Trip 1. Note: clicking on a photo will open a larger version of it in a new tab.

The “Andean Cosmovision” refers to the way the indigenous people of the high Andes perceive and interact with reality. It is fundamentally different than the Western worldview. The Cosmovision is not a set of concepts or beliefs, it cannot be described or encompassed with words. It can, however, be experienced and thus it can be explored. I have been exploring the Andean Cosmovision for the past 26 years under the tutelage and guidance of my friend and mentor don Américo Yábar, and with the assistance of his son Gayle Yábar.

In 2014 I published a book, The Andean Cosmovision: A Path for Exploring Profound Aspects of Ourselves, Nature, and the Cosmos (see The Andean Cosmovision ) which included many Andean meditations that can serve as portals for entering and exploring the Cosmovision. I later published several additional meditations in this blog. I then, essentially, ran out of things to say, as I had given as much ‘how-to” information as I could share, and the topic is one that simply cannot be approached through intellectual descriptions and explanations.

There is, however, another way to share some of the beautiful and significant aspects of the Andean Cosmovision without becoming pedantic (and subsequently losing its essence), and that is through stories. Stories have the ability to deliver a level of understanding that can’t be delivered in any other way. I have decided to write a book of stories that share my experiences of working with don Américo. The following story of my first trip to Peru is the first I have written and will probably serve as the third chapter of the book. As with my previous book, I have decided to write (and post) the chapters in the order in which they want to be written, and then later go back and polish them up and arrange them in an order that is reasonable (or better yet…artistic).

I hope that for those of you who have not worked with Américo in Peru that these stories will give you a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the Andean Cosmovision. And for those of you who have worked with Américo in Peru, I hope that you find some delight in reading a description of the people and places and experiences that you know so well.

Due to the length of this post I have also made it available to be downloaded as a PDF (but without the photos) at I hope you enjoy it.


[In the first two chapters–yet to be written–I describe how I met don Américo Yábar, a mystic and poet from the Andes of Peru; how he offered to serve as my mentor in an exploration of the Andean Cosmovision; and his invitation for me to come to Peru to work with him there. I also introduce Tom Best, who organized several Américo workshops in the United States, including the workshop in which I first met Américo two years before I traveled to Peru.]

In 1996, Tom Best arranged to take a small group, including myself, to travel to Peru to work with Américo. Our plans were to meet Américo in Cusco, and then travel with him up into the high Andes to his ancestral house, called “Salka Wasi” (Quechua–the language of the Andes–for the “House of Undomesticated Energy”). We were also going to have the opportunity to work with paq’os from Q’ero.

The term paq’o does not have a direct corresponding term in English. It is often translated as mystic or shaman. I would say that mystic is closer to the mark.

Q’ero is a very remote region high in the Andes, near the sacred mountain Apu Ausangate. The people who live there are referred to as the Q’ero. They are considered to be among the purest keepers of the ancient Andean view of reality (the Andean Cosmovision). The Q’ero live in isolated villages high in the Andes. They were first “discovered” by the anthropologist Dr. Oscar Nuñez del Prado who encountered them during a fiesta in the town of Paucartambo in 1955. Since then they have become rather famous, due to their open-hearted willingness to share their knowledge with the people of the West.

My story begins with me sitting in the international terminal of the Los Angeles airport awaiting my flight to Lima, Peru. I had flown to Los Angeles earlier that morning from the small airport in St. George, Utah, an hour drive south from Cedar City (my home at the time). St. George had flights to L.A., but the airport was so small that passengers had to walk outdoors onto the tarmac and then up a flight of movable stairs to get into the plane. As I climbed up the stairs my wife Betsy, and my two sons, Ben and Christopher (eight and four years old) were waving at me from the fence along the tarmac. Betsy cried when I left them at the gate, not tears of “please don’t go” but tears of “you are flying so far away, please be safe”. I teared up as well as I looked at them through the plane’s window and waved goodbye, not sure if they could see me.

A couple of hours later I was sitting in the LAX airport, and I was scared. Really scared. I was about to travel 4,000 miles from my home, to another continent, to another hemisphere of the planet, to a third world country, of whose language I only knew about 100 words , by myself.

As I sat there in the terminal I thumbed through again the various cautionary notes from my guidebook to Peru (The Peru Travel Survival Kit, by Lonely Planet).

Peru has a reputation for thievery and, unfortunately, it is fully warranted…By taking some basic precautions and exercising a reasonable amount of vigilance, you probably won’t get robbed…It’s good to know that armed theft is not as frequent as sneak theft and you should remember that crowded places are the haunts of pickpockets…Snatch theft is also common so don’t wear gold necklaces and expensive wristwatches or you’re liable to have them snatched from your body…Thieves often work in pairs or groups. Whilst your attention is being distracted, one thief is robbing you–whether it be a bunch of kids fighting in front of you, an old lady ‘accidentally’ bumping into you, someone dropping something on your clothes, the possibilities go on and on. The only thing you can do is to try, as much as possible, to avoid being in very tight crowds and to stay alert, especially when something out of the ordinary occurs…To worry you further, there are the razor blade artists…They simply slit open your luggage with a razor blade when you’re not looking…When walking with my large pack, I move fast and avoid stopping which makes it difficult for anyone intent on cutting the bag. If I have to stop, at a street crossing for example, I tend to gently sway from side to side so I can feel if anyone is touching my pack and I look around a lot…One of the best solutions to the rip-off problem is to travel with a friend and to watch one another.

Definitely avoid any conversations with someone who offers you drugs. In fact, talking to any stranger on the street can hold risks. It has happened that travelers who have talked to strangers have been stopped soon after by ‘plain clothes’ police officers and accused of talking to a drug dealer. In such a situation, never get into a vehicle with the ‘police’, but insist on going to a bona fide police station on foot. Be wary of false or crooked police who prey on tourists…

It is a good idea to carry an emergency kit….

This guerrilla organization Sendero Luminoso controls and terrorizes some of the remoter parts of Peru…there is now evidence that the Sendero and the drug cartels are connected in their attempts to disrupt the stability of Peru and some of the drug growing regions of Peru are now dangerous to travel in….The routes to avoid at this time are….

As I looked up from my book at the people who were also waiting for our plane. I could see that most of them were Peruvian and they were not speaking English. I had been very much looking forward to experiencing the Peruvian culture, but in my anxiety I now saw them as being alien, different, and that was scary. I yearned for the safety and comfort of familiarity. “I could be home right now”, I thought. “I could be sitting on my couch, safe and comfortable at home, with my family, watching football on the TV. I could just change my mind and go back home instead!” When the call came to board our plane to Peru, however, I stood up and joined the line filing onto the boarding ramp.

Years earlier, when I was a young man, I went sky diving. Once. It was important to me at the time to do something that I knew logically was safe but that would scare the beejeebees out of me. I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I would not let fear, a fear that was not grounded upon real danger, stop me from doing something. It was the type of sky diving where we jumped out of the plane on our own, connected to a static line that would automatically pull out our chute after a fall of several seconds (at least that was the theory). Something that contributed to the whole fear experience for me was that we didn’t just jump out of a door. When it was our turn we had to step out onto the wheel of the small plane, and reach out to the strut leading up to the wing, step off the wheel and dangle there until we were told to let go. I, obviously, survived, and I had nightmares for about a year after that, finding myself once again in the plane on the way up, so incredibly scared, and wondering why in the world I was doing it again.

We were scheduled to spend 10 days with don Américo in Peru. I was arriving a week early, giving myself a day to see Lima and then several days to explore Cusco before meeting up with Américo. I was visiting Lima just because I thought I might as well as long as I had to go through there on the way to Cusco. Lima did not have a good reputation as a tourist spot. Unlike Cusco, which was the ancient capital of the Inca empire, Lima was built by the conquistadores after the conquest of the Incas. It thus had no interesting pre-colonial ruins. It had a population of around 6 million people, many of them having moved down from the Andes and living in poverty in shanties around the city. It also had the reputation as being a relatively dangerous place to visit. I had reserved a room in a hotel about five blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the city square.

On the flight down I connected with a few people who were also going to Peru for the first time, and who seemed as nervous about it as I was. We made some tentative plans to meet in Cusco, seeking some reassurance from not being completely alone in our travels, but those plans ended up not coming to fruition. Eventually, I fell asleep in my seat, and awoke to an announcement that we were preparing to land, with an accompanying surge of adrenalin.

We arrived around midnight. I got off the plane in a strange mental state that was part adrenalin and part lack of sleep. It was a very surrealistic scene. Lima is on the coast, the air was heavy with humidity, and the lights were surrounded by globes of illumination. The air smelt of the sea, mixed with industrial pollutants and the aroma of a large city. Teenage soldiers carrying sub machine guns stood sentry on the roof of the airport and wandered around on the tarmac. The walk from the plane to customs took us down a series of long, long hallways, seemingly circling the airport a couple of times.

I made it through customs ok. Following the guidebook, I went to a counter in the airport that arranges for taxi rides. The guidebook warned that while there are many taxi drivers waiting outside the airport doors to offer rides, that this was definitely not a safe option, as some of those are not really taxi drivers and they may take you some place to rob you. Using the taxi arranged by the airport tourist counter, I made it safely to my hotel, after about an hour drive that included sudden shortcuts down small side streets that led me to wonder if I was being taken to a place to be robbed. The hotel catered to business people and was fairly nice. The door to my room was located inside the stair well, which seemed rather strange. The room was ok but the hotel had no air conditioning. I opened the window and eventually fell asleep to the sounds of bar music and loud conversations wafting up from the street seven stories below.

The next morning I set out to explore the Plaza de Armas. I knew I was only five blocks away but I stopped at the front desk of the hotel to ask the best way to get there. They informed me, quite sincerely, that I should not go out on the streets at all as it would not be safe. When it became clear that I was going to anyway, they added, “Today is Sunday. You should know that the police do not work on Sundays.” That was certainly something I had not considered. But, I just decided to go anyway. I thought the most likely crime I would encounter would be robbery or pickpocketing, and I didn’t take much money with me on the walk. I am taller than most Peruvians, and I tried to fluff up and look bigger, holding my arms a bit out from my sides, and I made it a point to look very alert. It wasn’t a relaxed stroll. But still, it was interesting and stimulating. I reached the Plaza to find it rather unimpressive, just old and dirty post-colonial buildings. Standing on the edge of the square, looking it over, I was approached by a roguish looking young man, in manner and dress he reminded me of Michael Douglas in the movie “Romancing the Stone”. After establishing that I didn’t need any of his tourist opportunities we engaged in a friendly chat, and he gave me some advice about traveling to Cusco.

I returned to the hotel early, and later that night went to the hotel bar to get a drink. The bar took up the entire top floor of the hotel, the windows looked out on the smog of Lima. There was only one other customer, a business man. We struck up a brief conversation but had little in common. He seemed rather depressed or discouraged.

That was my experience of Lima. I have since traveled through Lima many, many times on my way to or from Cusco. After that first trip, if I have had a long enough layover to need a room, I have always taken a taxi to Mira Flores, a nice outlaying area along the coast where most of the embassies are located.

My flight to Cusco the next morning was scheduled to leave at 6:00 AM. I arrived at the Lima airport around 4:00. Flying into Cusco is a bit dicey. It is located at 11,000 feet and flights there are often cancelled due to poor weather. Approaching planes have to turn and dive into the Cusco valley which is surrounded by high mountains. If the weather isn’t quite right then planes can’t safely land. My guidebook warned me that sometimes flights will leave earlier than scheduled to take advantage of a break in the weather at Cusco.

The Lima airport in those days was rundown and dirty. Gates didn’t list the departing flights and, due to my lack of Spanish and the distortions of the PA system, I couldn’t understand a thing that was being said in the announcements. I approached a friendly looking, older woman, and managed to communicate that I wanted to compare tickets. I saw that she was on the same flight as me. At some point, the loudspeakers said “WNXDS UHJDR DWEFR XAMD!” and about half the people sitting around me got up and moved to another gate. I saw that she was one of them so I followed her.

Our plane took off just as it was starting to get light. Thanks to my trusty guidebook I had chosen a window seat on the side of the plane that usually has the best view of the Andean mountains. We climbed above the clouds. I had to struggle mightily against lack of sleep, and the warmth and hum of the plane, to stay awake. Outside, the top of the clouds turned pink from the sunrise, and then suddenly there were the Andean peaks soaring up through the clouds! Oh my God, they were so majestic and beautiful.

It only takes about an hour to fly from Lima to Cusco. The plane banked steeply and dropped down into the Cusco valley. As the plane landed I had to once again slip into survival mode (anxiety and adrenalin) to face the great unknowns of making my way through a strange land and knowing so little of the language. While Lima had been warm and humid, when I got off the plane in Cusco it was cold, and the air was noticeably thin.

As I walked into the Cusco airport I heard live Andean music playing, it ended up being from a group performing by the luggage carousels. The people around me were excited and happy to be in Cusco. I started to shift from being scared to being excited myself, but I was wondering whether or not the transportation that Américo had promised would indeed be waiting for me outside the airport, and contemplating what I would do if it wasn’t. I picked up my bags and walked out of the doors into the parking lot and the cold morning sunshine.

In the crowd of taxi drivers waiting outside the door was a darling young woman (in her early twenties), Américo’s daughter Arilu, calling out my name and then waving enthusiastically at me when our eyes met. She gave me a big friendly hug, and offered to take my big duffle bag, which like a dazed idiot I handed over to her . She struggled for a few feet with it before it was scooped up by a personable and handsome young man (in his late teens) who was Gayle, her brother. He gave me a friendly hug hello and introduced me to two of his friends who had also come along to pick me up. We all piled into two cars and they drove me to my hostal, The Maria Rosa, located on the Avenida Sol (“The Avenue of the Sun”) about six blocks from the main square, the Plaza de Armas.

They took my luggage into the hostal and helped me to register. Then Arilu sat me down and served me some coca tea, which helps the body acclimate to high altitudes. After talking with me for a bit and being assured that I was ok, they took off, promising that someone would contact me soon to fill me in on the plans. I felt like I had been enveloped in the loving arms of my own family, it was like having my brother live in town. I knew that they would make sure I was ok and be there (and care) if there were any problems. I began to relax.

Hostals are a type of lodging found in Spain and Hispanic America. They are essentially hotels but somewhat smaller and less expensive, and usually owned and run by a family. The Maria Rosa had cinder block walls, a very thin and worn carpet, was somewhat rundown, and was very clean. Spartan, rundown, clean describes many places I’ve stayed at in the Andes. The proprietors were two very friendly, middle aged, Peruvian women. The place was cold for it had no heating. Despite Cusco being at 11,000 feet, almost none of the buildings–including restaurants, hostals, government buildings, and museums–have heat. The only exceptions I can think of are some of the fancier hotels. People there just live with the cold. That Peru is fairly equatorial helps keep it from being too amazingly cold–it rarely snows in Cusco–still it is a very noticeable part of being there. Often the hostals will provide–if you ask–a portable electric space heater for your room. No space heaters were available at the Maria Rosa, and the toilets did not have toilet seats. This is very common. Toilets in restrooms and lower scale hostals typically don’t have toilet seats. My friend Oscar once asked about this when we were in Peru, and was told that many places don’t provide toilet seats because they just get stolen. For both of us, our reaction was, “really”?

Tom Best was scheduled to arrive a few days later, right before our time with Américo was scheduled to start. I had arrived several days early to explore Cusco, as had the other three participants in this adventure; Bob, Judy, and Gina. Bob was my roommate and had arrived in town a day before me. He was out when I arrived and I climbed into bed and fell asleep, this was about 9:00 in the morning. Around 11:00 there was a gentle knock on my door and I opened it to the woman from the front desk who informed me that Arilu had called to let me know that Américo would drop by the hostal at 1:00 that afternoon to welcome me to Peru.

Shortly before 1:00 I went downstairs to the hostal lobby, with my mind wrapped in that dull gray fog that comes from awaking from a nap after too little sleep. Following mystic/shaman time, Américo strode into the lobby from the street around 1:30, full of his usual love, energy, and presence, accompanied by Arilu to do the translating. Américo describes his English as being “catastrophic”, but it is still much better than my Spanish.

After being welcomed enthusiastically by the woman at the hostal desk, he gave me a friendly hug and we sat down at a table in the breakfast area. I have since been to Peru almost a score of times, and Américo almost always has arranged to meet me soon after I have arrived. On this first trip, I arrived with one and a half of my feet still planted in the Western view of reality. Getting to Peru takes a huge amount of time and effort, and a quite a bit of money. When I arrive I am usually at least a little ambivalent about being there, having to rely on my memory of previous times with Américo to assure myself that it will all be worthwhile. Then when I am there it becomes obvious to me that indeed it was worth it. As an irrelevant side note, this is similar to my experiences when I used to travel to Grateful Dead concerts. Which reminds me that at some point I decided that Américo was the Jerry Garcia of shamans…a reference that will be highly significant to a small minority of you.

Being in Américo’s energy that morning, with his enthusiasm for what we would be doing, and his affection, immediately transported me with both feet into the Andean Cosmovision. Suddenly I was present. I felt like my being there with Américo, getting ready to go on this adventure together, was the coolest thing going on at that moment on the planet. The Cosmos was our destination, our hearts the space ship, our minds the passengers, and with the help of many, many friends along the way, including the trees and the rivers and the stars and the majestic mountains and the night sky, and with the people who converse with them. Kind of like that. My first meeting with Américo each trip always has this effect on me.

During our conversation I mentioned to Américo that that day was my birthday. He was delighted, and after a moment’s reflection, said that he had a special treat in mind for me. He asked me to be at the hostal at 5:00 that afternoon, ready to spend some time outdoors in the evening, and to invite Bob, Judy, and Gina as well.

Bob arrived back at the hostal shortly after Américo left. Bob was a Hungarian-born, middle-aged man with a bushy mustache, thinning dark hair, and a dour visage. I was to find that at times, particularly in response to touching moments, his dour mask would slip away, his eyes would soften and a delighted smile would emerge on this face. We were to get along very well together. He had already explored Cusco some, and that afternoon he took me out to show me around.

Cusco was the capital city of the Inca Empire that stretched for 2500 miles along the Andean mountains, the biggest empire in the world at the time, until it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Cusco is wonderful (it and Edinburgh have become my two favorite cities). It is not connected by rail to the coast, and the road from Lima to Cusco is long and arduous. As a result, the buildings are made of local materials, there are no tall buildings or skyscrapers, and most of the buildings in the main part of town are very old, some dating back to colonial times and built upon Inca ruins. All of the Inca temples and palaces in Cusco were destroyed by the Spanish but stretches of the Inca walls still exist in the city, often integrated into other structures. The city is also surrounded by many Inca ruins and sacred sites.

The sidewalks in modern Cusco are crowded with people offering to exchange currency, old women selling candies from trays, young tourists with backpacks, stylish looking business people smiling and chatting as they walk down the street, women dressed in traditional clothing with babies slung on their backs (the babies looking at me with wide eyes over their mothers’ shoulders), darling groups of children in uniform going to school, and beggars sitting on the sidewalk looking about as needy as a person can look. The streets are jammed with cars and taxis and minibuses. The driving strategy appears to be to floor it and honk at anything that might get in the way. Traffic lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. My strategy for crossing the street without a traffic light involves standing next to a local women and her child and then leaping to join them when they cross the street.

Photo by Alyson Froehlich.

The Avenida El Sol (Avenue of the Sun) runs several blocks uphill to Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas. Along the way it passes the remains of Coriconcha, the Court of Gold, the most famous temple of the Americas. The temple enclosure stretched hundreds of meters and housed 4,000 priests and attendants. Its walls were lined with gold and it contained a large golden disk positioned to catch the morning sun and illuminate the temple of the sun. It also contained a large silver disk that cast moonlight into the temple of the moon. In addition to these two temples there were shrines to Thunder and Lightning, to various stars, and to the Rainbow. Forty one sacred pathways, called ceques, radiated out from the temple into the rest of the Inca empire. Their alignments corresponded to the rising and setting of certain stars and constellations (including the Pleiades…which was important to the Incas), and the sun and the moon. Some ceques ran out to large monoliths standing on the mountainous horizons of the Cusco Valley, marking the azimuths of the winter and summer solstices, as well as critical dates for the planting of crops. Three hundred and twenty-seven huacas (sacred sites) were located on the ceques.

Coriconcha was completely destroyed by the Spanish, all of the gold and silver statues and idols were taken and melted down, and the virgins who attended the temple were raped. The Spanish then built the monastery of Santo Domingo over the ruins and Coriconcha disappeared. In 1950, however, a large earthquake leveled much of the monastery and revealed again the foundations of Coriconcha. The Incas had mastered the art of constructing stone walls and buildings that could withstand the many earthquakes that strike the region. Some effort was then taken to restore a small amount of the Inca temple, which now stands intermixed with the restored monastery. It is really not much to see as a ruin, but I love to go there and sit on one of the low walls overlooking the grass square below, and meditate, connecting with the energy of this place that the Incas selected as the center of their Cosmology.

Santo Domingo (the ruins of Coriconcha are in the white building to right).

Bob and I slowly walked up Avenida El Sol, past Coriconcha, to the Plaza de Armas. Cusco had hit me like a ton of bricks. The very high altitude, the cold, the intense sunlight, the crowds on the sidewalks, the honking horns, the diesel fumes, and just the energy of the city, were overwhelming. As we walked into the Plaza, vendors converged on us, trying to sells us hand-knitted gloves and sweaters, decorated gourds, watercolor paintings, hatbands, other various trinkets, and offering to shine my sneakers. They were surprisingly persistent, and would not take ‘no’ for an answer, or even ‘no, gracias’ repeated over and over again. I later discovered that the magic words to get them to go away was to say “possiblemente mas tarde” (“maybe later”). Also, after a day or two, once your are a familiar sight on the square, they largely stop approaching.

But at the time I was just being overwhelmed, with Cusco, with lack of sleep, with everything, and particularly with an indigenous woman who wanted me to buy one of her decorated gourds. She just wouldn’t give it up and followed me all around. Finally, I told Bob I had to flee, and so we ducked into a restaurant on the square (the vendors are not allowed into the restaurants). I plopped down at a table and gave a big sigh of relief, and then looked up. The woman was standing on the sidewalk in front of the window. When our eyes met she slowly raised a gourd and pointed at it…and we both burst out laughing.

Portico along Plaza de Francisco.

After a rest, Bob showed me some of his favorite places to buy Peruvian wares (hand-woven scarfs, gloves, and sweaters; figurines; ponchos; wall-hangings; musical instruments; hand-carved items, etc) . At the time Peruvians were allowed to set up stalls under the portico along one side of the Plaza de Francisco near the Plaza de Armas (in later years they were all forced to move to a couple of warehouses and await the tourist busses). Bob, however showed me some nondescript doorways that led down small alleyways into dirt courtyards hidden inside the blocks. There, twenty or so stalls would offer all sorts of stuff without the big crush and hard sales found in the streets. I had never been into shopping as a tourist until I hit Cusco. There were so many cool things to buy, particularly those with roots in the Andean culture. There was one stall in particular that I went back to several times. It was run by an old Andean woman who just had such a pleasant energy. We couldn’t converse very well with words, but that didn’t matter. We smiled a lot and our tone of voice suggested a connection.

It was my first experience of shopping in a culture where haggling over the price is expected. Bob was amazingly good at it. The vendor would state a price, he would offer one ridiculously lower, the vendor would move slightly in that direction, Bob would get angry and stomp out, to be called back, and so on, until he would get them down to a cost much lower than the original asking price. This was all new to me, and at first I was tempted to just given them the price they asked (which still seemed amazingly inexpensive), but I wanted to enter into this new culture, and explore a new way for me to be, so I learned how to haggle. After all of these years I am still inclined to want to pay what people ask, not because I am timid (like I was at the beginning), but because I know how much they need the money. Still, I dance a bit with them, getting them to lower their price a little, to honor their ways and to celebrate their culture.

Bob and I got back to the hostal with little time for me to get in a good rest (typical for my visits to Peru) before Américo was scheduled to arrive . Judy and Gina were there by then and I had a chance to meet them. Judy was an open hearted woman from a farm in Canada. Gina was a quiet and sincere woman from Wisconsin. We were a pretty compatible group, but then, we had in much common in our desire to work with Américo.


Judy, Bob, and Gina in Cusco.

Arilu had requested that we be in the lobby and ready to go at 5:00 so that Américo could just pull up and we could pile into his truck in the no-parking zone in front of the hostal. Somewhere around 5:30, Américo and Gayle pull up in Américo’s cab truck (the kind of truck that has two row of seats in the cab). In the back, in the bed of the truck, were five paq’os from Q’ero. The four of us piled into the truck and as we pulled away I looked back through the small window in the rear of cab. Looking in at us were the Q’ero; brown faces with very big smiles. I waved at them enthusiastically and they waved back.

Américo took some side streets to avoid the worst of Cusco traffic, and before long he turned onto a road that wound up into the mountains surrounding Cusco. We drove past the massive Inca ruins of Sacsayhauman that sits on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Shortly thereafter he turned off the main road onto a very rough dirt road. We bounced along that for a few hundred yards and parked at the bottom of a hill of stone. After we all climbed out of the truck Américo made the introductions. One of the Q’ero was don Pascual, who was a particularly dear friend of don Américo. I later learned that don Pascual and Américo had been friends for many, many, years. Don Pascual was a pampa mesayoq, one of the two levels of revered Q’ero paqos (the other being alto mesayoqs).

By then it was dusk. Peru is close to the equator and it seems to me like no matter what time of year I visit Peru, the days and nights are of about equal length, and it starts getting dark some time between 5:00 and 6:00. Don Américo and the Q’ero led us around the stone hill to its other side. There we were told by Américo that this was a pre-Inca sacred site called “Amaru Machay“, sometimes referred to as the “Temple of the Serpent” and other times as the “Temple of Mama Killa (the Moon)”.

Amaru is a great, Cosmic, serpent that has a powerful presence in the Andean Cosmology. Amaru emerges from the uju pacha, the under world, below the surface of the earth; it then travels through the kay pacha, the surface world, where we reside; and finally enters the hanaq pacha, the superior or upper world.

The Quechua word pacha does not correspond directly to any concept we have in the West. It is, instead, an integration of our concepts of place, time, and consciousness. The uju pacha is both the under world and the past; the kay pacha is both the surface world and the present, and the hanaq pacha is both the upper world and the future. Consciousness exists outside of any concepts we may have, including our concepts of space and time, and thus is present in all three of these pachas. As Amaru moves from the uju pacha through the kay pacha to the hanaq pacha it weaves these three pachas together. Amaru then returns from the hanaq pacha to the uju pacha in the form of lightening. In the Andean Cosmology Amaru is a symbol of wisdom and fertility, and also one of change. Amaru is a force that dismantles systems that are out of equilibrium and helps to bring them back into balance and harmony. The term machay translates from Quechua into English as a portal. Amaru Machay is therefore the portal of Amaru.

Now, Américo didn’t say any of this. Two years earlier, when I first met Américo, some things became clear to me. The first was that he was offering to serve as a bridge between the West and the Andean Cosmovision, a beautiful and ancient way of experiencing reality that is still part of the living culture of the high Andes, and that is fundamentally different than the Western worldview. The second was that what he had to share could only be learned experientially, it could not be expressed or taught by words or concepts. He was offering a different way of experiencing reality, of being in reality, not a different way of thinking about reality. I knew that my time with don Américo was not going to involve lectures, or the laying down of conceptual frameworks, or much in the way of explanations…for that matter.

As a young man, I was a voracious reader of books about psychology, mysticism, and consciousness. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology (the scientific study of perception, attention, learning, memory, and consciousness). When, however, I began to explore the Andean Cosmovision, I stopped reading anything related to that topic. I wanted my understanding of the Cosmovision to arise from my experiences in exploring it, rather than having my experiences be shaped by other people’s thoughts about it.

It took me about 17 years of exploring the Andean Cosmovision before I felt grounded enough in experiential knowledge to start reading what others had to say about it. I had a whole lot of intellectual questions about Andean culture and history that neither Américo nor my own experiences had answered, and so I began to fill in the corners of my knowledge by reading (mainly anthropological) works that I considered, based upon my experiences, to be valid and reliable.

Back at Amaru Machay…don Américo led us to a cave in the side of the hill. Américo told us that the cave is known as The Womb of Pachamama (Pachamama is the great mother who is the conscious planet earth). At the entrance two large snakes were carved in the stone walls. Their heads had been chopped off by the Spanish and their bodies heavily marred. The cave ended quickly in a chamber where several places to sit and a low altar had been cut out of the rock. Gayle had brought some candles which he lit and put on small ledges. In the ceiling of the chamber, above the alter, was a large, rounded, bulge of rock, known as Pachamama’s embryo. We all meditated for a while by candlelight, in the womb of Pachamama.

In the workshops I had attended before going to Peru, Américo taught us many different types of meditations that accomplish various changes in our energy. Over the years that I have been traveling to Peru, however, I have noticed that Américo often just has us meditate (by quieting our minds) and lets the energy of that particular, sacred, spot inform our meditation.

I have also come to find that there are many sacred places in Peru where the Andeans, rather than building a temple, left the site largely in its natural condition, with just perhaps some stairs, an altar, and seats upon which to meditate, cut out of the natural stone. I believe these are largely of pre-Inca origin, although they were later used by the Inca as well. Rather than moving people indoors, out of nature, to connect with the sacred, these places facilitate connecting to the beauty, and the sacred, found within nature.

When we had finished, Américo drove us all back to Cusco. When Bob and I returned to our room I found a pair of alpaca wool gloves on my pillow, a birthday present from the women who ran the hostal.

Gayle phoned the next morning and offered to drop by after lunch and take us to see the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. We had nothing scheduled before that, but then Américo and Arilu appeared at the hostal. Américo was out doing errands in that part of town and wanted to know if any of us would be interested in joining him. Judy and I were the only ones there and we were delighted to accompany him. He drove us to San Blas, an artist neighborhood uphill from the Plaza de Armas, and we followed him around as he dropped in to see a few of his artist friends, which gave us a chance to see their works. One of his friends specialized in making statues of people with very elongated necks. It was a fun outing.

Me, Arilu, Judy in San Blas

Shortly before lunch time Judy and I returned to the hostal, hooked up with Bob and Gina, and then we all walked up to Plaza de Armas looking for some food. We found a restaurant on the second floor of a building with a balcony overlooking the plaza. It was very pleasant to sit on a balcony and look out over the Plaza de Armas. The square is surrounded by old, two-story buildings holding restaurants, shops, and guided-tour centers, and a couple of large, colonial churches. The square itself is mainly grass, with a large fountain with water gushing out of the mouths of geese and an Inca emperor standing on top (added after this first trip). Not far beyond the square are the mountains surrounding Cusco, not the big majestic apus, but still they make a nice backdrop. It is a great place for people-watching. There is often a parade, or a ceremony, or protest march being held on the square, or hordes of adorable, very young, children decked out in their school uniforms, being herded around by their teachers.

The plaza comprises about half of the square that was there during the time of the Incas. Back then the square was divided by the river Sapphi, which now runs underground beneath the buildings on the West side. Before the conquest the square was flanked by Inca palaces. They were all destroyed by the Spanish. A cathedral stands where the palace of Inca Viracocha once stood. A large church stands on the ruins of the palace of Huayna Capac. There are, however, places around the square where the original Inca walls have been artistically incorporated into the buildings. There is a restaurant on the plaza that has an Inca wall, I’ve stayed in a hostal near the plaza where my room had an Inca wall, and there are stretches of Inca walls along the streets leading out from the square.

Inca Walls.

The Inca built their walls by shaping large stones to fit together. They didn’t just cut them into cubes for stacking, they shaped each stone to fit the contours of the others. The stones fit so closely together than you can’t slip a piece of paper between them. They also incorporated protuberances in the walls, looking rather like nipples, that help the wall to release excessive energy. The Inca walls and structures were designed to withstand the frequent earthquakes in the area.

The restaurant with the balcony where we ate was called Keros, and I later learned it was run by one of Américo’s cousins. More recently its name was changed to Los Balcones. Every time I have visited Cusco I have gone to that balcony, and ordered a meal or a beer or a cappuccino, and sat, deeply contented, looking out at Cusco and the hills beyond.

Plaza de Armas from the balcony.

That afternoon Gayle, Arilu, and Javier (a friend of theirs) came by to take us to, and show us around, Sacsayhuaman. Sacsayhuaman is an immense ruin sitting on top of a hill overlooking Cusco. Western archaeologists aren’t sure whether it was a citadel, a temple, or both. It was probably both, as the Inca did not draw the distinction we draw between the secular and the sacred. Cusco was originally laid out by the Inca to be in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman as its head.

It was at Sacsayhuaman that the Inca made their last stand in Cusco against the Spanish Conquistadores, a battle that the Spanish came very close to losing. After the conquest, Sacsayhuaman was used as a source of easy, pre-cut, stones for the construction of churches, government buildings, and the homes of the wealthiest Spanish in Cusco. All that is left now at Sacsayhuaman are the stones that were too large to move that constituted the immense ramparts of the site. The three ramparts are each about 1000 feet long and 18 feet tall. The heaviest stone in the ramparts is estimated to weigh some 200 tons. Like the Inca walls in Cusco, these stones were cut and placed so precisely that a knife blade cannot fit between them. Before the complex was destroyed, a Spanish chronicler estimated that it was large enough to house a garrison of 5,000 men.

Late afternoon in Sacsayhuaman.

Gayle led us along a path that ran along the top of a rampart. Below us was a large grass-covered plaza. Gayle told us that in the time of the Inca, the paqo’s from the length and breadth of the Inca Empire would gather together for a ceremony once a year on the plaza. We walked on for a bit, and then I began to have a curious experience. It was as if the huge crowd of paq’os were just on the other side of a veil, I could almost see them and I could almost hear them. How I could almost see or almost hear something is a mystery to me. It was as if they were really there, but not really there. Years later I read an anthropologist’s description of how the ancient Andean people experienced the flow of time. The Andean people believed that at critical points in the timeline, time would bifurcate, and two different timelines would proceed forward. When I read that, I thought back to that experience at Sacsayhuaman. There are places in the world that are reputed to have only a thin veil between two different realities (the Scottish island of Iona is such a place). I wondered if perhaps Sacsayhuaman, or the effect it was having on my state of consciousness, might have thinned the veil between my world and one where the Inca still existed.

That was only the first of some interesting experiences I had on that visit to Sacsayhuaman. After we had gazed out at the plaza for a few reflective minutes, Gayle led us further down the path along the top of the rampart. As I was walking I burst into tears. I wasn’t thinking sad thoughts, I just started crying. Then I stopped, walked a bit further, and burst into tears again without any thoughts or images that would seem to have triggered it. This happened several times. It didn’t concern me, I was just curious about what was going on with me.

Gayle then led us to the mouth of a cave that was barred with a locked gate. He said that this cave was very long, rumors had it that it went all the way to Bolivia. It was locked because there was bad air down there, and several people had died while exploring it. There was some shade where we were standing outside of the cave, and I sat down to rest with my back against a large rock. As I was sitting there, I drifted into a vision.

Now, I would like to say a little about my “visions”. Some of my friends have very clear and intense images when they have a vision. I don’t. I think it would be cool to have experiences like that, although these same friends also mention that there are some drawbacks. I mainly experience altered states of consciousness kinesthetically, i.e. as feelings that arise when I meditate, rather then images or sounds.

It is rare for me to have visions while meditating. When I do, they are not like the visual images I have when I look about me, or that I experience in dreams. They are more like what I experience when I daydream. My daydreams, however, are scripted by my conscious flow of thought. My visions are like daydreams that I don’t script, my conscious mind observes them, but doesn’t create them. So where do the images of my visions come from? Well, they are not the product of my conscious mind, so they must either be generated by my unconscious mind or they are generated by something outside of myself. My intellect would rather like to know which it is, but my heart only wants to know whether there is beauty and meaning in the vision.

Getting back to my vision at Sacsayhuaman. As I was sitting there on the ground, with my back against the rock, looking at the mouth of the cave, a whirlpool of something like smoke appeared in front of me. The whirlpool was about 8 feet tall, its mouth facing me, and the smoke spiraling away from me toward the cave. Within the smoke, sparkling lights like stars began to flash. And–this is the part that was so significant to me–I suddenly knew that in looking at this whirlpool I was somehow looking at myself. Then a very clear thought arose within me, “I am a much more mysterious Being than my Western society has led me to believe.” Followed by, “And so is everyone else”. This, for me, had the ring of deep truth. We are much more mysterious Beings than our society has led us to believe.

When Gayle dropped us off back at the hostal, he told us that Américo again had something special planned for us the next evening. This meant that we had the rest of that day and most of the following day to relax and tourista around. In general, we spent our free time in Cusco going out for lunch and dinner (breakfast was provided by the hostal), checking out museums, shopping for Peruvian doodads, and just walking around looking at everything; interspersed with resting as our bodies were still getting used to the energy and altitude of Cusco. Being in Cusco is so different from my everyday life in the U.S. The sights are different, the sounds are different, the smells are different. The people are different, their everyday lives are different, their culture is different. And in that difference I sense something of value that we lost in the industrial revolution.

I had, by then, reached a nice, secure, place about my being in Cusco. It sounds paradoxical, but I found that if I never let my guard down, then I could relax. By not letting my guard down I mean that every time I left my hostal I had my passport, tickets, and most of my money, stashed in a security pouch that I wore around my waist under my pants. I never left my daypack dangling on the back of a chair in a restaurant, I always put it somewhere that would make it difficult for a thief to grab it and run. When I left my room I would put anything of value that I wasn’t taking with me into a locked suitcase. And I–more or less–restricted my wanderings to the safe parts of town. By taking these precautions, I could relax and enjoy myself.

The following evening Américo pulled up again to our hostal in his truck. He was in a very jolly mood. He looked at me and broke into a big smile. He complemented me on the state of my energy and said that I looked like an angel. He drove the four of us to his house in Cusco. We arrived just as a half dozen Q’ero walked up the sidewalk and at the same time as Gayle pulled up in his truck. Américo was tickled by the synchronicity of everyone arriving at the same time.

The Q’ero clambered into the back of our pickup truck with the usual amount of smiles and waves of greeting. Américo then noticed another Q’ero walking up the street. He exclaimed “Oh good…don Julio is here! I’ll ask him to join us.” He jumped out of the truck and walked over to talk to him. Américo returned and told us that Julio would not be joining us. He had just arrived in town after the five day walk over the mountains from Q’ero to Cusco. Américo explained that it can be very disorienting to shift from the salka (undomesticated energy) of the high Andes to the domesticated and frenetic energy of the City. Don Julio had told Américo that he needed to wander around for a few hours to adjust his energy.

We drove up to the hills above Cusco, past Sacsaywaman, to the ruins called Tambo Machay. Three tourist busses were parked there, however, so Américo changed his mind and had Gayle drive us again to Amaru Machay. By the time we got there it was dark. Mama Tuta, mother night, had opened her arms, spreading wide her robes and revealing the stars. There, hanging low in the night sky, was the Southern Cross. As a child I had learned the names of all of the major constellations in the Northern sky. I never thought I would have a chance to see the Southern Cross, I was thrilled.

After we arrived at Amaru Machay Américo led us into a narrow canyon that cut through the stone hill. A short way into the canyon we came to a halt. One of the Q’ero climbed part way up the canyon wall and began to speak in Quechua. It was so dark in the canyon that I could only see him as a silhouette against the stars. From his tone of voice, and his cadence, and the energy I was feeling, I could tell that he was giving us a blessing, calling upon Pachamama and the Apus and other sacred Beings.

It was a beautiful moment, and magical. I felt the essence of who I am expanding out beyond the boundaries of my physical body. Then, among the various entities the paq’o was calling upon, I heard him include “Apu Jesucristo”. In my thoughts I exclaimed, “What is Christianity doing in this ceremony? Man, its everywhere, even in the Q’ero. I didn’t come all the way to Peru for a Western-religion based blessing (grumble, grumble, grumble)” I realized at that point that I was back in my head. My experience of my own Being had shrunk to a small sphere of consciousness located behind my eyeballs…which is my normal state of being.

Some part of me that resides outside that sphere gave a gentle “shhhh, you can think about this later.” My mind quieted and I once again found my experience of self expanding out into the Cosmos. I could feel the Q’ero and the stars and my immediate surroundings, we all seemed as one. And there was more, a vibration just below the threshold of feelings, and shimmering just on the other side of sight.

I thought, “Wow, this is a really altered state of consciousness. By turning off my thoughts am I becoming aware of a state I was already in, or does turning off my thoughts create this a shift in state?” Followed by another gentle, internal, “shhhhh”. I was back in my head. “Oh yeah, sorry about that.” I returned to the experience of my expanded self.

This, of course, is what mediation is all about, at least for me. Meditating requires my turning off my internal dialog. My internal dialog always intrudes, when I realize that has happened I simply release it and get back to meditating. With practice I get better at going longer periods without internal dialog while I am meditating…most days. Sometimes turning off my internal dialog is like trying to ignore a marching band parading by. The experience I had that night at Amaru Machay was special to me, for I had never swung back and forth so quickly and repeatedly from such a deep meditative state and my normal cerebral consciousness. The contrast between those two extremes taught me something valuable but ineffable about shifting my states of energy.

When the blessing was over, we slowly made our way through the darkness in the narrow canyon and then out into the open to an evening sky filled with stars, and a little light seeping up from Cusco down below. Don Américo and the Q’ero began to climb up steps cut into the side of the stone hill, which led to some benches, also cut out of the stone, and there we settled down to meditate.

I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder between don Pascual and another of the Q’ero. It occurred to me that this would be an excellent circumstance in which to get in touch with Pachamama, the great Being who is our mother the conscious planet Earth. With my imagination I floated out of my body, traveled a little away from the hill, and then went down into the Earth. At that point I stopped consciously running the experience, and had another vision (which I swear…really are rare for me).

I found myself in a cavern below the earth. There I encountered a Being of great warmth and tremendous love. She enfolded me in her embrace. I felt at home, loved, safe. Almost as a test, I then pictured myself lying on the floor of the cavern, with my throat cut, laying in a pool of my blood, and I knew that I was safe, that all was ok, that I was simply returning home to Pachamama. I later reflected on this experience, wondering if I will really return to Pachamama when I die, or if this is the last illusion that I will leave behind when I die.

After a while we got up and started walking back to the truck. I paused, looking up at the stars. Using my intent, I sent my energetic filaments to connect with the Southern Cross. As I was doing this don Pascual passed by, he said something to me in Quechua and then continued on. I had no idea what he had said but I wanted to know, so I kept repeating it over and over in my head while I made my way back to the truck. I repeated it to Américo, asking him to translate it for me. He told me that Pascual had said “I see you are connecting your filaments to the Southern Cross”. It was neat that he could tell that was what I was doing, and yet I had rather hoped for something more mystically significant.

When we had all climbed back into the truck, Américo put it into gear and we bounced our way along the rough dirt track. Just as we were pulling on to the main road there were flashing lights behind us and the quick chirp of a siren. We were being pulled over by the police. Américo sent Gayle back to sort things out. While we were waiting Américo turned to us with a soft smile and said, “Welcome to Peru. This is very much what Peru is like. One moment you are connected to the vast mystery of the Cosmos, and the next moment you are being pulled over by the police.”

Gayle returned after a few minutes to announce that we had been pulled over because the truck had a burned-out tail light. He had promised to get it fixed right away in Cusco and the police had let us go. But then he said, and Américo agreed, that the real reason we had been pulled over was because we had a truck full of Q’ero.

Peru has a very strong and very stratified social structure. At the top are the very rich European-looking Peruvians. At the very bottom are the indigenous people of Peru. These people, whom I have come to so greatly appreciate and respect, are often treated with scorn by the rest of the Peruvian society. In Peruvian television shows they are portrayed as buffoons. The Q’ero, identified by their traditional clothing, are often denied admittance to hotels and restaurants.

Tom Best once told me of a time when he and Américo had gone with the Q’ero into a restaurant. The restaurant served the Q’ero food that was obviously inferior to what was being given to everyone else, watery soup with no meat and few vegetables. Américo stormed into the restaurant’s kitchen and shouted at the cooks. What I have noticed over my trips to Peru is that when we go to a restaurant with the Q’ero, usually in some little village in the way outback, that Américo goes and talks with the management. He and Gayle then take on the role of being the waiters for the Q’ero, serving them their food with affection and respect.

As we were driving back that night from Amaru Machay, Américo told us that when the Q’ero walk the streets at night in Cusco, that pickup trucks will sometimes stop and teenagers then jump out and assault the Q’ero. For many years, to give them a safe place to stay and to make sure they had food, Américo would put the Q’ero up at his house when they visited Cusco. When his wife finally tired of this, Américo rented a house in Cusco where the Q’ero can stay in safety. He also made arrangements with a restaurant where if the Q’ero put their thumbprint on the bill Américo will pay it.

The next morning Tom Best arrived in Cusco. That evening was when our time with Américo had been officially scheduled to begin. Shortly after dinner that night, Gayle picked us up in the truck and drove us into the mountains surrounding Cusco. He parked the truck at the bottom of a canyon, and led us on foot up the side of the mountain and then into a forest. It was now getting dark. We wound our way slowly through the deeper darkness under the trees, and into a small clearing. There, sitting in a circle in the very dim light, were don Américo and about ten Q’ero. A gap had been left in the circle to so that we could join them.

This was the beginning of our formal work with the Q’ero. The next day they were going to give us a karpay (initiation ceremony). First, however, they wanted to meet with us to check out our energy, to make sure that it was congruent with their own. It was also a chance for our energy to start to mingle with theirs.

As we sat down I could see that the Q’ero all had woven cloths spread out on the ground in front of them. In the dark it was difficult to see exactly what they had displayed on the cloths but it looked like some of them had their mesas out. Mesa is the Spanish word for table, but in the Andes the mesa is a large, square, woven cloth that the paq’os used to wrap up and carry some of their sacred objects. The mesa is then opened and spread out on the ground to serve as a portable altar, with the sacred objects spread out upon it. Many of these sacred objects are q’uyas. Q’uyas are stones with which the paq’o has a special relationship. Q’uyas may be given to someone by a paq’o, or a person may find q’uyas of their own.

When I saw the paq’os and their mesas I entered into an internal debate. I had a q’uya that Américo had given me. I had it wrapped up in a red bandana and stashed in the daypack I had brought with me to this gathering with the Q’ero. I was debating whether or not it would be ok for me to lay my bandana on the ground in front of me and put my q’uya on it. I wanted to do this to show my respect for the Q’ero and to participate fully in the power of the moment. I didn’t know, however, whether this would be ok, whether it would be taken as a sign of respect or as a sign of disrespect by the Q’ero. I vacillated for a few minutes and then decided I would rather err on the side of not being timid and to follow my heart. I quietly spread my bandana on the ground and put my q’uya in its center. No one said anything.

Don Américo started things off with beautiful words of welcome, and then we went around the circle, with everyone saying what they wanted to about us all being there together. When the Q’ero spoke they spoke in Quechua, Américo would translate that into Spanish, and Tom would translate from Spanish to English. When we spoke to the Q’ero, the translations moved in the opposite direction.

As everyone took turns talking, I noticed something special going on inside me. I could feel the energy in the region of my heart growing stronger and expanding outwards. When it was my turn to speak I started off by saying what a great honor it was that the Q’ero had come all of the way to Cusco to be with us. Then, when I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I described what was going on within me at that moment, that I could feel the energy of my heart expanding. Don Pascual responded back, “Yes, we are watching that happen.”

Later, when the meeting was over, we all stood up and gave each other hugs. Then we began to slowly walk in the darkness, down through the trees, and back towards the truck. A Q’ero took each one of us by the hand to lead us down safely. As we emerged from the trees and into the starlight I looked at the Q’ero around us, and I had a Tolkienesque thought. It came to me that the Q’ero had the bodies of dwarves and the spirit of elves. The starlight shone upon their faces.

When we were back in the truck I asked Tom whether he thought it was ok that I had put my q’uya on a bandana in front of me when we sat down. His response was that the Q’ero had been hiding in isolated villages in the high Andes for the past 500 years, trying to protect themselves from the Spanish society that had outlawed their religion and ridiculed their customs. We represented the West to them. They knew that we had traveled a great distance to meet with them, and I had pulled out a q’uya and put it on a mesa. Tom looked at me, and stopped talking.

The next day was our karpay (initiation) ceremony with the Q’ero. It was not an initiation along the lines of going through some ordeal and then becoming members of the club. It was, instead, an initiation into a new state of consciousness. After having entered that state of consciousness it would then be available for us in the future, a new step in our dance with the Cosmos.

Américo picked us up around 10:00 in the morning, and we headed south on the main road that leads to Bolivia. After an hour or so we turned onto a dirt road that took us east into the Andes. After about another half hour of driving, we came upon Gayle and a dozen paq’os sitting on the side of the road next to a van. Gayle had driven them there to meet us. We got out of the truck and visited for a while. Ten of the paq’os were from Q’ero, and then there were another two paq’os from a region close to Q’ero who had gotten wind of what was going to happen that day and had asked if they could join in.

Pascualito and Gayle (front row) waiting for us to arrive.

Three of the Q’ero who were with us that day were to play important roles in my later trips to Peru. Don Pascual was one. At that time Pascual was in his seventies, but still did the five-day walk from Q’ero to Cusco, and back, in sandals, over the mountains, sometimes through snow. Américo had a special affinity with don Pascual, calling him “the Merlin of the Andes”. In addition to being friends, Pascual served as a guardian of Américo’s energy. Américo told me that when Pascual died that he might die soon thereafter. But Pascual did eventually die, several years later, and Américo is still going.

Another Q’ero with us that day was don Martin. Américo had saved his life once and they had become close friends. After this trip I didn’t see Martin again for another twenty years (when Américo arranged for Martin and his wife to do some energetic work on me). He is now, perhaps, the most highly revered of the Q’ero paqos. I’ll have more to say about don Martin when I describe my later trips to Peru.

The third Q’ero who was there that I would like to mention was don Pascualito. He was to accompany me on several later trips to Peru. When we met on this first trip he was quiet and withdrawn. Tom said that Pascualito’s first child had died during the first winter after her birth. Then his second child died during her first winter. And recently, his wife had died during the birth of their third child, leaving him with a newborn daughter to raise. About 800 Q’ero were living at that time, and their numbers were slowly diminishing from the rigors of living at 15,000 feet, the very limit of agriculture and herding, and far from any medical help. According to Tom, Pascualito had about had it with life in Q’ero and wanted out. Some years later, when I met Pascualito again, he had a new wife, and they worked together as healers. I believe he lives in Cusco now.

We all palled around for a bit on the side of the dirt road.


Tom had brought a rather large video camera (good video cameras in 1996 were large) and he and the Q’ero were having fun making videos of each other and then looking at them on the camera’s screen.

After a while we piled into our two vehicles and drove on a bit to where the road met the river Vilcanota. There we got out to meditate for a while next to the river, to prepare our energy for the karpay. Meditating with a river, connecting your energy to the energy of the river, can clean your energy as well as help it flow. While there we took some group photos.

Tom, don Martin, don Pascual, Bob

Don Américo (blue shirt), me (red shirt).

Apu Pachatusan in the background.

The Vilcanota River flows along the foot of Apu Pachatusan. An Apu is a great Being who is one of the majestic mountain peaks on the planet. An Apu is not a transcendent spirit who inhabits the mountain, it is the conscious mountain itself, a fine distinction, but I believe an important one. In our Western worldview we have, since the time of Descartes, separated reality into a physical realm of matter and energy, and a transcendent realm of souls who inhabit our physical bodies. In this view, consciousness is seen as being either part of our transcendent soul, or as something that emerges from a complicated nervous system. My understanding of the Andean Cosmovision is that the Cosmos consists of a vast network of energetic filaments. Where these energetic filaments come together to form a bundle, or node, is what we experience as an object. Consciousness is seen as an inherent attribute of the filaments. In this view, everything is conscious as everything is made out of these filaments, including the Earth (Pachamama) and the mountains (the Apus) and the stars and the rivers and the trees…

In the history of Western philosophy, the view that everything is conscious is known as panpsychism. Just out of intellectual curiosity I looked into panpsychism and found some interesting information. Panpsychism has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both the East and the West. It seems like such a strange concept to us now–that everything is conscious–but it was the predominant viewpoint in Western science until the beginning of the 20th Century. I discovered that William James and Alfred North Whitehead (both described below) ascribed to it. Panpsychism is emerging again in philosophy and psychology as modern scientists attempt to arrive at a reasonable model for the basic nature of consciousness.

William James (1842-1910) has been my favorite psychologist ever since I first discovered him while studying the history of psychology as part of my graduate studies. He is considered to be the “Father of American psychology”. Discovering that he was a proponent of panpsychism delighted but didn’t surprise me. He examined religion from a psychological perspective in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. Two of the more famous statements from that book are, “The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist”, and “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

That Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a proponent of panpsychism was a pleasant surprise to me. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled Principia Mathematica, that was one of the twentieth century’s most important works on mathematical logic. The book contained a chapter about “logical types”, which resolved a type of paradox that can arise in human communication but that also had fascinating ramifications in understanding reality. That chapter had a big effect on the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and through my studies of Bateson’s writings, had a big effect on how I view reality as well. I find it particularly useful in understanding how it can be possible to integrate two different worldviews, in my case, the Western worldview and the Andean Cosmovision.

Earlier in my career I would have used James’ and Whitehead’s belief in panpsychism to give the Andean Cosmovision some validity in the eyes of Western scientists. But frankly, I no longer care whether or not the Western worldview can validate the Andean Cosmovision, for I don’t see the Western worldview as being the superior of the two. They are simply two fundamentally different ways to face the ineffable mystery of existence. The integration of the two…well that is something special…and important.

Apu Pachatusan, unlike the other Apus I have since visited (e.g. Ausangate, Veronica, Salkantay, Wamanlipa), is rather unassuming in its appearance. It lacks the towering rocky peaks and glacial fields of the other Apus. It is just a large, brown, mountain, but it plays an important role in the Andean view of the Cosmos. That role has been described to me in two different ways; that Apu Pachatusan is the pillar that supports the Cosmos on its shoulders, and that Apu Pachatusan is the axis around which the Andean Cosmos turns. In either description, it is an important Apu in the Andes, and it was significant that our karpay ceremony was going to be held on its slopes.

After meditating by the river, and taking some group photos, we turned onto a road leading up the side of the Apu. We were heading for a huaca (sacred place) that, before the conquest, had been of great importance to the Andean people. The Spanish had built a sanctuary of San Salvador named Señor de Huanca on that spot, keeping with their strategy of placing Christian churches on sacred Andean locations.

Our two vehicles pulled into the church’s parking lot and we all climbed out. At that point a priest, looking quite agitated, came running out to confront us. I assume this was because of the presence of the Q’ero in their traditional clothing. Américo talked quietly to the priest for several minutes and what he said seemed to calm him down. Américo waived to us all to follow him and led us into the church. We went in, lit some candles, and sat there quietly for a bit. The Q’ero sat in the back row of pews looking slightly amused.

After sitting there for about 10 minutes, Américo stood up and we followed him out of the church, across the parking lot, and up the side of the mountain. The vegetation on the mountain consisted mainly of low trees and shrubs and–wherever the land was somewhat level–small plots of cultivated land. We stopped at one of those to have lunch. Gayle had hauled up a large burlap sack filled with food. He spread out a tarp on the ground to serve as a table cloth and dumped our food out in the middle of. Lunch consisted of fresh fruit (Cusco is only a day’s drive from the jungle), big wedges of cheese, piles of pocket bread (a locally baked product that is very tasty), and chocolate bars. The chocolate barely hit the ground before being grabbed up in delight by the Q’ero.

After lunch we all laid in the shade on the ground and had a siesta; Américo and Gayle, the dozen paq’os, Tom, Gina, Judy, Bob and I. I don’t know where it started or why, but one of the Q’ero began to giggle. It spread, of course, and soon we were all laughing. After a respite, someone would start to giggle again, and then the rest of us would break out laughing, and so it went on for ten minutes or so. Finally we settled down for a half hour of rest.

When the siesta was over, don Américo led the paq’os a bit further up the side of the mountain. Then he came back and beckoned us to join them. We found the paq’os in a small grassy area, sitting in two lines facing each other along opposite sides of a long woven cloth. On the cloth each paq’o had laid out various sacred accoutrements; primarily mesas, flowers, and piles of coca leaves. The ceremony began.

Amèrico leading us to the ceremony.

Several paq’os carefully selected, from the stashes in front of them, three prefect coca leaves for each of us, presenting them to us arranged as a fan. These ceremonial sets of three coca leaves are called k’intus. We were told to blow our very finest energy into the coca leaves, commingling our energy with that of the k’intu. Some of these k’intus were then added to an offering that the paq’os were putting together, and other k’intus were given to us to chew if we wished. Another use of a k’intu is to blow your finest energy through the coca leaves to establish a sacred connection with the Pachamama or an Apu or some other aspect of the Cosmos.

I had drunk coca tea in Cusco, but this was my first experience of chewing coca leaves. Gayle quietly told us that this was completely optional. If we wanted to, we were to chew the leaves a bit, and then stash them between our gums and cheek where their essence could flow into our body. He added that we were not to swallow the leaves. Then, when we felt like it, we could discretely take the wad of leaves out of our mouths and dispose of them in the foliage around us (it is considered impolite to just spit out the coca leaves).

Coca is very sacred to the Andean people. While it is also the base for making cocaine, coca leaves and cocaine are very different. it takes a huge amount of coca leaves to make a small amount of cocaine, and during the process 28 other chemicals are added as well. On a physical level, coca is a mild stimulant and anesthetic; it subdues hunger and helps the blood carry more oxygen; both useful for a day of strenuous work in the mountains. My own experience in chewing coca leaves is that it provides a level of stimulation about like having two cups of tea. On a social level, when a stash of leaves is shared among people it serves as a token of friendship and mutual connection. On a sacred level, it plays a very important role in a ritual connection to the Cosmos. For more information on coca I recommend The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community, by the anthropologist Catherine Allen.

As we continued with the ceremony, a woman or a child would occasionally walk by, driving a flock of sheep or a cow, or carrying a large bundle on their backs. They would just glance at us and continue on. Families were working their fields on the mountain side, not too far from us. At first I was surprised that Américo hadn’t selected a more isolated spot. But then I understood that this was Peru, where the sacred and the secular are one. The people greet the sun every morning as it rises above the mountains, they ask permission of the fields (the daughters of Pachamama) before they work them, they invite the Cosmos to join them when they have a fiesta. The sacred is inherent in everyday life.

After the paq’os had completed their offering to the Cosmos, several of them began to work on our energy. They took their mesas (the woven clothes containing their sacred objects) and gently touched us on the top of our heads, on our heart regions, and near our belly buttons. They leaned over and spoke Quechua into the top of our heads, and then blew energy down through the top of our heads and into our Being. When they blew down through the top of my head I experienced a flow of beautiful energy cascade down my spine. From the beginning of the ceremony I had begun to slip into an altered state of consciousness, with no apparent reason other than the ceremony itself. By the time they finished working on our energy I had been initiated into a profound, and beautiful, altered state of consciousness.

When they were finished working on us don Martin and don Pascualito gave us each a q’uya. A q’uya is a stone with which a paq’o has a special relationship, or one that he or she has infused with some special energy to give to another. Those q’uyas, 24 years later, are still in my mesa.

When the ceremony was over, we all sat back and relaxed. Américo had brought some pisco (local brandy) and we passed that around, each pouring ourselves a capful of pisco from the bottle. The Q’ero were also engaged in the partaking of sacred tobacco (smoking unfiltered Marlboro cigarettes…which I found to be rather amusing). I was feeling so mellow, and happy, and relaxed.

At that point an old woman approached our group and walked right up to me. She was dressed in indigenous clothes, wearing a colorful, knitted sweater and woven skirt, and sporting a white stove-pipe hat. She was amazingly short, so that even though I was sitting on the ground and she was standing we were almost at eye level. She had shining black eyes and a friendly smile. She spoke to me in Quechua. I had no idea what she said, but Américo, who was sitting near me, responded back to her in Quechua. She looked at him and then back at me, and smiled, and said something more. Again, Américo responded. When he finished she got a big, beautiful, smile on her face and turned to walk away. Américo called her back for a moment, rummaged around in what was left in the food bag, and gave her as much food as she could carry.

After she left, I asked Américo what that was all about. He said that when she first approached me she asked if I would like to see her chickens. Américo had responded by saying “No thank you mama”. She responded to that by saying “But they are really nice chickens, he might want to see them”. Américo then replied, “No thank you mama, I’m afraid he has no use for your chickens. But what he could use, would be for you to caress his dreams tonight with your gentle hands”. That was when she got her beautiful smile and walked away. When Américo told me that I felt like I was in a song.

Looking down the valley from Apu Pachatusan as we returned to the bus.

We walked back down to the parking lot, Gayle drove off with the Q’ero, and Américo drove us back to Cusco. Our time with the Q’ero was over for that trip. We were left with a deep concern about the future for the Q’ero. I don’t see how anyone with at least half a heart wouldn’t be worried about what was in store for them. They lived lives still informed by the Andean Cosmovision, and little influenced by the West. This was possible due to their living in such isolated villages in the high Andes. The Q’ero we met lived at 15,000 feet. As Américo put it, Western civilization was sweeping up the Andes like a tsunami. At the time of our trip, it had reached 12,000 feet and was still rising. The Q’ero could not move any higher. Q’ero, indeed, represented one of the few places on the earth where the West had yet to significantly intrude.

It was tempting to want to (metaphorically) build a wall around Q’ero to keep the West out. This, however, raised all sorts of ethical problems. Who are we to want to direct the future of Q’ero? Their numbers were declining, the story of don Pascualito is telling. To want them to stay isolated from the West was asking them to please continue their almost stone-age existence so that we could come visit them, and then return home to our refrigerators, central heating, internet and modern medicine.

The West, however, does not simply arrive with modern advancements and material goods. History shows us that when the West arrives, the indigenous worldview blows away in the wind, the land is exploited and destroyed, and the people move from subsistence farming to starving poverty. In reaching out for what they wanted (and in my opinion deserved) the Q’ero were likely to end up much worse off. That seemed by far the most likely result if everyone just stood by while the Western colonization of the Andean culture proceeded.

I also had a more global concern. Every worldview is based upon a set of assumptions about reality that make it easy for a society to excel at somethings but with a tradeoff that it makes is more difficult for the society to excel at other things. The Western worldview makes it easy for my society to excel at gathering information and inventing new technology, but it makes it hard for us to directly experience our connection to nature. The Andean Cosmovision makes it easy for people to experience our connection to nature but I don’t think the Incas would ever have gotten around to inventing the internal combustion engine. Our Western society is in a car speeding toward the edge of a cliff, and when we go off that cliff no saying we are sorry will make any difference, and we will take much of what is beautiful about this planet with us. We have all the technology we need to head toward a future of greater health and beauty on this planet, but we seem to lack the heart to do so. The Andean culture lacks the technology but has the heart. Integrating the two worldviews may be the answer. We can’t integrate the Andean Cosmovision with the Western worldview, however, if the Cosmovision no longer exists.

These were the issues I was wrestling with in my first trip to Peru (now 26 years ago). Since then, the Q’ero and other Andean people have been faced with all of the calamities that hide in the hand held behind the back of Westerners who have reached out the other hand to greet them. Some of us have done our best to help them. But I’d rather that story come out as I move forward through time in the accounts of my other trips to Peru.


The next morning, Américo, Gayle, and the five of us drove in a rented van to the Sacred Valley of Peru. The Sacred Valley is about an hour’s drive from Cusco. The road climbs up out of the Cusco Valley and travels along some high, flat land until it suddenly drops down into the Sacred Valley. That high territory is quite beautiful. It is covered in small plots of farmland, containing various crops at various stages of growth; some plots are fallow, others coming into bloom, and some showing just the promise of new growth. For all the world it looks like a patchwork quilt, spread out upon the lap of Pachamama, extending out from the road to the snow capped peaks in the distance.

High lands between Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

We stopped along the way to get out of the van, stretch our legs, take some pictures, and to just enjoy being there. Across the road from where we stopped, a potato field was being harvested (by hand). When the people harvest potatoes, they take the first few potatoes of the day and bury them in a hole, putting them back into the Pachamama from whence they came. They then light a small fire over the potatoes, cooking them for lunch. The fires are tended by people who can’t work the field. In addition to providing the nourishment needed for the hard day’s work, the ritual also honors the Pachamama.

Across the road, only about 30 yards away, sat a young woman, tending a fire while she nursed her baby. She was dressed in the typical indigenous clothes of a knitted sweater and a skirt woven from wool. She wore a tan hat with a wide brim and rounded peak, her baby was at her breast. Just as I was about to turn and climb into the van our eyes met, I paused, and she gave me a smile. It was the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. It was a smile that communicated a complete contentment with life. It was a moment that became embossed in my psyche. I climbed into the van and we took off.

At the far end of that high plateau the road came to the edge of the Sacred Valley, bordered along its far side by a line of truly spectacular mountains. The valley stretches 36 miles from the town of Pisac (elevation 9,800 feet) down to the town of Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet). It has a nice sized river confusingly known at various stretches as the Vilcanota, the Urubamba, the Vilcamayo, the Wilcanuta, and the Yucay. At Ollantaytambo the valley narrows, the road comes to an end, and the river tumbles down a gorge for 20 miles to Machu Picchu, before falling further down into the jungle to empty into the Amazon River, to begin a 4,000 mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean.

The valley has fertile soil and an agreeable climate and was the breadbasket for the Inca empire. Driving down its length you can see the remains of farming terraces the Incas had cut into the mountain sides, climbing unbelievably high up the mountains, almost to the peaks. While the vast majority of the terraces have long been abandoned, the valley floor is still heavily cultivated and provides food for Cusco.

The valley has many Inca and pre-Inca sacred sites and ruins (including major ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo). The Inca considered the Sacred Valley, and its river, to be an Earthly manifestation of the Milky Way, which they referred to as The River of Stars. The Milky Way played an important role in the Incan cosmology.

The road wound down into the Sacred Valley, arriving at the valley floor at the town of Urubamba (I’ve always liked the sound of that name). There we turned left onto the road that travels alongside the river to Ollantaytambo, following the railroad tracks that lead from Cusco, through Ollantaytambo, to Machu Picchu. When we reached Ollantaytambo we were directed by traffic officers down some narrow, one-lane streets to the main tourist parking lot at the foot of the Inca ruins. The lot was surrounded by vendors sitting at tables under awnings, selling the many and varied things that tourists like to buy in Peru.

The small town of Ollantaytambo is the only town in Peru that has survived pretty much as the Inca’s laid it out several hundred years ago. When you climb up one of the surrounding hills and look down at the town you can see that it is trapezoidal in shape. In its full, original, design it represented an ear of corn. The streets of Ollantaytambo are oriented to the rising of the sun on summer solstice. Water still continually flows down gutters along the sides of some of the streets.

The main Inca ruins are on the side of a mountain facing the village. A long series of terraces with steps lead up to a temple of the sun at the top. The terraces and temple were designed to form the outline of a llama on the side of the mountain. The Inca work at Ollantaytambo was interrupted by the invasion of the Spanish and the temple was not completed. After the defeat at Sacsaywaman, Manco Inca led his troops to Ollantaytambo to make another stand against the Spanish. At first, the Incas were victorious against the Spanish forces, but when overwhelming Spanish reinforcements arrived, Manco withdrew from Ollantaytambo to make his last stand at Vilcambamba. During the battle at Ollantaytambo, the Spanish captured Manco’s wife. When Manco refused to surrender the Spanish stripped her naked, flogged her, shot her with arrows, then tied her body to a raft and sent it down the river to be seen by Manco’s men who were arrayed downstream.

Temple of the Sun.

On a cliff across from the ruins, on the opposite side of Ollantaytambo, is a huge stone face, with a partially defined upper body holding a large sack over his shoulder and wearing what looks like a small crown. The whole figure is 140 meters tall. It has the appearance of being a natural rock formation that looks remarkably like a face, but the cliff was at least partly worked by human hands. The figure is Tunupa, messenger from the Cosmic Consciousness to humanity, depicted as he emerges from the Uju Pacha (the interior world and the world of the past). A few hundred yards to his right (as he faces you), on the shelf of a cliff, sits the ruins of a temple dedicated to Tunupa. When the sun first rises on the summer solstice it sends a shaft of light that illuminates the temple.

The face of Tunupa is in the lower center of the screen, half in shadow.

Closeup of Tunupa and his temple.

A note on my use here of the term “Cosmic Consciousness”. When you read of Tunupa he is usually described as a messenger of Wiracocha. Wiracocha, in turn, is usually described as the Andean god of creation. I believe, however, that this is a conceptual distortion that comes not just from translating from one language to another, but from translating from one worldview to another. In his chapter Three Times, Three Spaces in Cosmos Quechua, in the book Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment, the indigenous Peruvian anthropologist Salvador Palomino writes, “In the Quechua language, the words ‘religion’ and ‘god’ do not exist, but we use them in Spanish to indicate our relationship with the divine beings that are the holy forces of nature”. It is my understanding that in the Andean Cosmovision the Cosmos, rather than being the creation of an outside entity, is itself a conscious Being with a creative impulse that organizes itself and changes over time.

After we arrived at Ollantaytambo, Américo sent Gayle to find us a place to have lunch. When he returned he led us up some stairs to the second floor of a building to a restaurant that had windows overlooking the ruins. If you have ever been to a third-world tourist site and had lunch at a place that draws in the young adult backpacking crowd you can probably picture about what the restaurant was like. Gayle had managed to find a table with enough chairs for us to crowd around, and we had some lunch selected on the principle of what would be safe to eat.

After lunch we walked down to the parking lot at the foot of the ruins, passed through the tourist ticket gate, and slowly climbed the stairs leading up past the terraces to the Temple of the Sun at the top. It was rather crowded with tourists, and there wasn’t a lot to see at the uncompleted temple. Américo led us around a corner, up at that high place, that took us out of the crowds, to a rock shelf overlooking a canyon. This, Américo told us, was the Temple of the Wind, which was indeed blowing at that spot. We sat down and meditated, connecting with the wind, for a while. Meditations that connect us to the wind can be used to clean our energy and to expand our consciousness and Being.

After the meditation, Américo took us along a high trail to another long set of stairs where we could descend to the valley below. At the bottom we turned away from the main ruins and walked along a very nice stream.

The high trail.

After we had walked a little ways, Américo had us turn back and look at the rock formation we had just passed. There, up a bit on the side of the cliff, was a large, stone condor. It looked like a completely natural rock formation, but also looked uncannily like a condor’s head, poking out between hunched shoulders. The exactly correct position of its eye supports the idea that it was worked a least a little by human hands. Below the condor, toward the foot of the cliff, the Incas, or pre-Incas, had carved out of the cliff a flat shelf to serve as an altar. There the shadow from the beak of the condor falls, and there they would leave offerings to the condor. On that shelf is a stone gnomon where the shadow from the condor’s beak falls on the summer solstice.

The condor; hunched shoulders, beak facing to the left, dark eye, light breast.

We continued up the valley floor along a path that led between the bottom of the cliff and the river until we arrived at the ruins of several small rooms made of stacked blocks of stone. Channels had been cut into the stone to allow some of the river’s water to flow artistically through the area. Américo told us that in the ancient days this place had been reserved for the women to do their ritual work. He added that the women at that time were amazingly short in height, which brought to my mind the old woman who approached me on Apu Pachatusan. Here he invited us to meditate again.

I started to realize something at this point. When I am with a group of people in Peru, at some sacred spot or a place of good energy, and Américo invites us to meditate, he then disappears around a corner or over the crest of the hill. He comes back after a while to bring the meditation to a close. I don’t know what he is doing out of our sight. Perhaps he is resting or having a smoke (metaphorically speaking). When he returns, however, he often makes a few–sometimes specific–comments about the quality of our meditations. From that I get the impression that he is monitoring our meditating at some level I don’t understand, or perhaps even aiding us, as an intermediary with the Cosmos. He has never mentioned it and I haven’t asked.

When we finished at Ollantaytambo, we drove to a hotel in the Sacred Valley to spend the night. It was a nice step-up from our place in Cusco. The hotel had an expanse of grass around it, and lots of tropical flowers growing in the flower beds, and tables under large umbrellas. The rooms were also nice. It would have been great to spend more than just the one night there. I was so tired I went to bed early and felt like I was missing out on some of the pleasure of being in that comfortable and pretty locale..

The next day we drove to the town of Pisac at the upper end of the Sacred Valley. Once a week, including the day we were there, it has a farmer’s market for the indigenous local people. It also has a really nice, and large, crafts market. I had never been much into tourist shopping before that trip, but I have discovered that I really enjoy it in Peru (and still do). There are so many fascinating things to buy that are very Peruvian, that I have never seen anywhere else, and that make great presents for when I return home. Just being there milling around and interacting with the Peruvian people is such a pleasant difference from my normal life.

Pisac Market.

Me, Bob, Tom, Gina, Judy.

After we had finished shopping, Américo took us up to the ruins in the terraced hills above the town. The Pisac ruins were a major Incan site; with a Temple to the Sun (including a rock outcropping that was a hitching post for the Sun), altars, fountains, and baths, all situated within a large enough walled enclosure to provide a sanctuary for the people in the area during an invasion. We went there to meditate in the energy of the ruins. The meditation there, by my perspective, was a bit of a dud. Américo had taken us to a relatively isolated place in the ruins to meditate, but soon after we started a tour group came by, led by someone wielding a whistle and a megaphone. The group finally moved on but they were soon followed by others.

Don Amèrico in Pisac Ruins.

After our visit to Pisac we headed back to Cusco to spend the night before moving on to stay for several days at Salka Wasi, Américo’s ancestral home in the Andes.

The next morning Arilu and Américo picked us up in a van with a driver that we had hired to take us to Salka Wasi. Gayle had earlier taken off in the truck, which was filled with provisions (food, safe water, and candles) for our stay. On the way out of Cusco Américo stopped at a store where we could stock up on personal things we might want to have with us at Salka Wasi; wine, cookies, bottled water for the trip there, and so on.

During the previous few days we had all been busy trying to get small bills and change for our visit to the outback of Peru. The people outside of the cities cannot make change for large denomination bills, nor do they want them. Merchants in Cusco can make change but don’t like to. My strategy is, when in Cusco, to pay for meals with large bills ( restaurants can handle that), and to avoid spending the small stuff whenever possible (which can be darned inconvenient at times). For every trip I’ve taken to Peru, I have spent the first couple of days working the system to get change before leaving Cusco.

We drove south out of Cusco on the paved road toward Bolivia for about an hour. Much of that hour was spent just getting out of Cusco. We then turned east on a dirt road and headed up into the mountains. It was a frightening and dangerous journey. The road climbed up a side canyon towards the mountain peaks, climbing much faster along the side of the mountain than the river at the bottom of the canyon. Soon there was a steep drop off of two thousand feet on one side of the road, and a cliff face on the other side.

Climbing up into the Andes. Apu Pachatusan in the background.

There were no guardrails. The dirt road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other…slowly and carefully. Occasionally huge open-bed trucks would come barreling around the corners and down the road at us, filled with produce from the jungle (this was one of the routes from the jungle to Cusco). In the back of the trucks, standing between or sitting on the bags of produce, were colorfully dressed indigenous people (it is an inexpensive way to travel through the Andes). When we confronted each other, often accompanied by the hard application of brakes, one of the vehicles, usually ours, would have to back up–very carefully–to a wider spot in the road. The narrow road had many blind curves and the trucks were traveling fast and downhill. At each blind curve our driver would slow down and sound his horn before we would venture around it.

Photo by Tom Malloy (from a later trip).

As we neared the top of the mountain, the bottom of the canyon to our left rose quickly up to meet us, and then the road spilled onto a high land of rolling hills. We had entered the purely indigenous lands of the Andes. Cusco and the Sacred Valley are a mixture of the indigenous, Quechua-speaking culture, and a modern, Spanish-speaking culture that has benefited from the inflow of money from tourism. Up in the high Andes the money from tourism doesn’t flow. The culture, the language, the dwellings, and the life-style are predominantly indigenous.

In the van we bumped up and down the dirt road, passing small villages, people working the fields by hand, and adobe walls. Our driver was playing a cassette tape that could be described as “101 Peruvian Pipes Play the Beatles”. Although it was some 30 years after the Beatles had broken up, we often heard their music in places that catered to tourists. I figured the Peruvians knew it was a safe bet that the music would be enjoyed by Westerners, or perhaps it was the case that the Peruvians liked it a lot too.

We were all sitting in our seats watching Peru, and the people of Peru, and the lives of the people of Peru, glide by the window. We had just reaching the outskirts of the Andean town of Huancarani, when on the van stereo the Beatle song “With a Little Help from My Friends” came on, and we all started to sing along with it. I was looking at a Peruvian woman, in her native dress, running along the road as we drove past. And I realized, suddenly, that the Beatles had always been singing about a world, or a potential world, or some very special aspect of our world, that was not like our world, but better, more beautiful; and that I was seeing, outside the window, in the high Andes of Peru, the reality the Beatles had been singing about. It was a very deep connection for me, and seemed to come not from my conscious mind, nor my unconscious mind, but from the depths of ourselves where we connect with the Cosmos.

Taking a break. Me (writing notes about the location of the photos I had taken), Arilu, Gina, and Tom.

Huancarani was a large enough town to have a town square and a few local government offices. We climbed stiffly out of the van and went in search of a restroom we could use. We found one close to the government offices; bring your own toilet paper, no toilet seat, and a 50 centimo fee. Américo was out by the van talking to a couple of locals. What we were to discover is that almost everywhere we go in Peru, from Cusco down to the tiny villages, people come running up when they see Américo, smiling and greeting him, eager to talk with him, or lean out of windows to wave at him. On my most recent trip to Peru, one of those big produce trucks passed our bus, and a woman riding in the back spotted Américo and shouted out “Papa Américo! Papa Américo!” as they went by. This happens all the time.

I’m, like, “I’m with him!” when we meet people. But more seriously, being with Américo is like having a ticket into instant acceptance by the indigenous people of Peru, which is incredible. Being with Américo is a ticket into the people’s lives, but to stay welcomed there requires my willingness to interact with them with an open heart. I can’t tell you how much I love being in a culture where that is the path to acceptance. When I return to the United States our society seems so cold.

After leaving Huancarani, Américo told us that if we needed a bathroom break in the future that all we needed to do was to shout out “Pee Pee Time”, and he would have the driver pull over at the first convenient copse of trees.

The road climbed a bit higher after Huancarani, and we soon reached a summit. Américo had the driver stop, and we got out. Américo pointed out in the distance the snow capped peaks of Q’ero, and in a slightly different direction, but still far away, the majestic peak of Apu Ausangate, perhaps the most important Apu in Peru. I was to travel to both Q’ero and Apu Ausangate in later trips.

After the summit the road began to slowly work its way down until we reached the edge of the valley containing the town of Paucartambo, our next stop. Just over the edge, the road wound by a collection of small, stone, cylindrical, structures called chullpas. The van pulled over and we walked over to them. There Américo told us the story of the Machukuna (Quechua for ‘ancient ones’), spiritual beings also known as The Children of the Moon, who are said to have built the chullpas. They cannot abide the sun, and after it has set they emerge from the chullpas and warm their bones by the red glow of the early evening sky. For a fuller version of this story please see “The Fate of the Machukuna” in my book The Andean Cosmovision, or my blog post by the same name (

Chullpas near Paucartambo

Chullpas in the hills near Paucartambo

We had been traveling on the dirt road for a couple of tiring hours by then, and we could see Paucartambo on the floor of the valley below us. The road, however, turned and went way up a side canyon before turning and heading down into the valley. The road was bone-jarringly washboarded, and it seemed like we would never get there. We finally arrived at the valley floor and the Paucartambo River (also known as the Mapacho River), that springs from the glaciers on the slopes of sacred Apu Ausangate.

Having reached the valley, we turned downriver and soon arrived at the town of Paucartambo, nestled between the river and the foot of the mountains. Paucartambo was important both in Inca and colonial times, being a gateway between Cusco and the jungle. It is also where Américo went to elementary school.

As we approached the town we could see that it was located on the other side of the river. On this side there were just a few buildings; a couple of small buildings on the bank of the river that could generously be called cafes, and a cement, two-story building containing a local farmer’s market. Along the curb on both sides of the road, women in indigenous clothing sat with cloths spread out on the ground in front of them, displaying various items of produce for sale.

Just past the cafes, Américo had the van stop to let us out. He invited us to walk into town by crossing the river on its arched, old, stone bridge (build in the 1770’s). He said the van would cross further downstream on the modern bridge used by cars and trucks, and meet us in the town square. We walked up to the top of the bridge and looked out over its stone parapet at the river for a while. The banks of the river were lined with 20 feet tall brick walls, leading from the river edge up to the level of the town. The walls were adorned with hanging flowers, the aesthetic effect of which was somewhat lessened by the large amount of trash floating in the eddies of the river. The river was somewhat milky, given its origins in the glaciers. Looking downstream we could see the new, metal, bridge for vehicular traffic. It had a plaque on it with the unlikely name of “Sven Ericsson”.

Photo of the old bridge taken from the Sven Ericsson bridge.

We passed over the bridge and walked through the narrow, cobblestone, streets of Paucartambo to the main square, where our van was indeed waiting for us. Américo had disappeared on some errand, and Arilu suggested we explore around a bit or visit a store for any last minute supplies we might want, for there would be no more stores after this.

Paucartambo was a town of one- and two-story buildings; most painted white, and all quite old. It seemed like a town where, 100 years earlier, time had stepped out, saying it would be right back, and then was never seen again. One of the surprising things, for me, was that the place appeared to be almost deserted. It was a hot, sunny, afternoon; perhaps it was siesta time.

Across the square from the van a short flight of cement stairs led up to an open door. Bob and Judy and I climbed up the steps and looked in. It was a small, general store, about the size of a living room. It was quite dim inside, the only light being what was flowing in through the door. After a moment of looking around I noticed in the shadows the proprietor, a middle-aged, Andean woman, sitting completely still behind the counter, and looking at us with–at the most–mild interest. I bought a candy bar and another bottle of water.

When we came back out into the sunlit square Américo was still not around, so we began to wander. The square had a fountain with no signs of water having flowed in it for a long time. Within the fountain were metal sculptures of figures wearing slightly disturbing costumes and masks with long noses, that we later heard play an important part in Paucartambo’s annual Fiesta de la Virgin del Carmen. While Paucartambo is located at 9,534 feet elevation, it is close to the equator, and palm trees grew in the town square. The town had an air that was a interesting blend of the high Andes and the jungle.

Américo eventually appeared and we all piled back into the van. Under Américo’s directions the driver drove up a winding side street of Paucartambo towards the mountains. We stopped once for Américo to jump out and talk to an old woman who lived along the way, someone with whom he had a special friendship. He wanted to make sure she was ok. As we got to the edge of town the paved road turned into dirt. Shortly thereafter the road forded a wide but shallow stream. On the other side of the stream was a closed-up adobe shack. Américo told us that sometimes, when it rains, the ford becomes impassable for a day or two. People coming down the road toward Paucartambo just have to wait it out on the far side of the river. When that happens, a woman shows up and sells them beer from the shack.

The dirt road from Paucartambo to Mollamarca–the village close to Salka Wasi–was rougher and narrower than the road from Cusco, just one-lane wide. When we encountered a vehicle coming the other way, which fortunately was rather rare, one of the vehicles had to back up to a wider spot. Like the road from Cusco, this one climbed up and up along the side of the mountain until there was a sheer drop of thousands of feet to the river far below.

Heading up toward Salka Wasi.

We drove for about a half an hour when the road suddenly turned around a bend and there, towering in the distance, was Apu Ausangate. Américo had the driver pull over and we climbed out to take pictures and to connect with the energy of the majestic and beautiful Apu.

Apu Ausangate.

We were on our way to Salka Wasi, which is Quechua for “The House of Undomesticated Energy”, Américo’s ancestral home in the high Andes. Tom Best had come down to Peru the year before and had been taken to Salka Wasi by Américo. Tom effused with the wonderfulness of the place, saying it was like an Andean monastery. This was to prove to be correct in some esoteric sense, but it gave me a completely inaccurate image of what it was like. In any event, it sounded like a great and mystical place, and we were going to spend several days there.


Eventually we pulled into the village of Mollamarca, situated about one third of the way up the side of a very large mountain. This was as close to Salka Wasi as we could get by car. I am sorry to say this Mollamarca, but I was very disappointed and concerned when I first stepped out of the van and looked around at the village. We parked in the main square, which was a large , flat, expanse of dirt, rather like a vacant lot, with piles of rocks and debris scattered about. It all looked depressingly dirty and poor. The small adobe houses had windows with no panes or shutters. I saw nothing charming about it, and I wondered how we could possibly have a pleasant time there.

A crowd of smiling villagers, mainly women and children, ran up to meet Américo when we arrived. He instructed us to take our daypacks with us, but to leave all of our luggage. Arilu would lead us down to Salka Wasi, while he met with the villagers. So, Tom, Judy, Gina, Bob and I followed Arilu as she made her way past some houses and down the side of the mountain. We passed some chickens running around, and a sow with piglets rooting in the ground next to a house, and the situation started to seem rather ok. We went rather steeply downhill for twenty minutes, the path was steep enough to require all of my attention to avoid sliding . Then Arilu opened a small gate in a rustic fence made out of sticks, and we walked over uncut grass towards a wooden door in an adobe wall. We had arrived at Salka Wasi, and my energy was reacting as if I was at the cusp of something special.

My first view of Salka Wasi. 1996.

Arilu took out some keys, and applied one of them to the big wooden door, wondering out loud as she did so whether or not Miguelito would be there to greet us. She opened the door and we walked in. Standing in a door to our left, immediately after we entered, was Miguelito. He looked ancient, short (compared to me…but most Andeans are), slight of build, with a fair amount of stubble on his aged face. He came across as immanently indigenous, but he was wearing a hodgepodge of Western-style clothing, including a Western, felt, hat with an upturned brim that he had squashed down over his traditional Andean hat (which was woven, colorful, with tassels).

Don Miguelito

Miguelito had the eyes of someone who had seen many very strange things, magical things, and that viewed as an outsider the world that I knew. He had the mannerisms of a very old person. I almost always have at least some sense of how to interact with someone, but with him I was clueless. I was friendly to him, but I also rather stepped back energetically, not knowing how to act. I felt a little bit intimidated, not by fear as much as by uncertainty.

Having greeted Miguelito (who greeted Judy and Gina with more interest than he did Bob and I) we entered the courtyard of Salka Wasi. The courtyard was covered with dry, rather threadbare, grass, with the remains of what might once have been a well in the center of it. It was surrounded on one side by a crumbling, old, adobe wall and on the other three sides by old, one-story, adobe buildings. The courtyard was on a bit of a slope. The upper boundary (on our right) was an abandoned building that looked like it might have once been used for storage or as a stable. Along our left, sloping downhill, was a series of dark-looking rooms with small windows and wooden doors that served as bedrooms for don Américo, and Gayle and his friends, when guests were staying in the main house. Across the courtyard from it was the old adobe wall. The back of the main house formed the lower boundary of the courtyard, showing just a couple of windows and a door.

Amèrico with Salka Wasi children.

Arilu led us down the lawn to the house. She showed us around, including were we would be sleeping. The house had three-foot thick adobe walls, with deep windowsills . The floors were of wood. We entered the main room first. It had a long dining table, capable of sitting a dozen people, and a living room area with old and simple chairs and sofas covered with Andean blankets, and llama pelts as rugs. The living room had a big, multi-paned, window looking out over the garden area on the downhill side of the house. Previous visitors had left many mementos on the shelf below the window; photos, little pieces of art, favorite books, and so on. On the whole, the place had a very pleasant, rather Andean counter-culture, feel about it. I came to decide that Tom was wrong, Salka Wasi was not an Andean monastery, it was an Andean Rivendale, the last homely house East of the Sea and West of the Mountains.

Salka Wasi had no electricity. We were to spend our nights there lit purely by candle light. I had never before stayed in a place lit only by candles, and I quickly grew to love it. The only running water was a hose that came in through a window into the bathroom for use in flushing the toilet (which had a toilet seat). The house had three bedrooms with two beds in each and little else; Spartan, clean, very old, and welcoming. We had brought our sleeping bags to throw on the beds, as there was no way for them to wash sheets for guests. There were, however, plenty of warm woolen blankets if we needed them.

As we were plopping our daypacks on our beds we heard coming from the courtyard many voices, animated, and happy, and Américo’s voice above them all. We went out and saw that the women and the children of the village had arrived with our luggage; women carrying duffle bags almost as big as themselves slung over their shoulders, and children half-dragging the smaller pieces. Américo was handing out tips to the women and candy to the children, trying to herd them into line so he could be sure to give something to everyone. We went out to get our suitcases and to be introduced to everyone. Américo had suggested, while we were in Cusco, that we buy some bags of candy for the children and we handed that out as well.

Some time after we had settled down, I was standing in the living room looking out the window at the garden, when I saw Miguelito walk solemnly by. He had put on a blue suit coat and was carrying some large garden shears. Gayle walked into the room at that moment, and standing next to me looking out, chuckled affectionately. He said that as near as he could tell, Miguelito, who was the caretaker of Salka Wasi, didn’t do anything when Américo and Gayle were away. Then, when he heard that they had arrived in the village, he would turn on a couple of sprinklers, put on his coat, get the shears, and go out to do some trimming.

Gayle had come in to let us know that dinner would be in a couple of hours, and that we should relax or wander around or do whatever we wanted until then. I decided to check out the gardens below the house. Immediately below the living room windows was a small lawn with healthy, green, uncut grass. Then the path dropped down a few steps at a small wall, and led into the garden area itself. The garden looked like the result of planting nice, domesticated, flowers, and then letting the area run a bit salka (wild), for many, many years. The path divided and wound its way through many engaging places to meditate, each with one or more places so sit on homemade chairs and stools made out of local willow or sawed-off tree trunks. There was a quiet place under a fruit tree that–long ago–had been part of an orchard, surrounded by flowers, that I came to like a lot. There were a few, tremendously tall, eucalyptus trees, where eagles nested, with benches at their feet where you could sit, meditating, with your back against the trees. Eucalyptus trees had been imported to Peru many years earlier to provide straight logs for buildings. Around one corner, and down a few steps, was a natural, shallow cave, with several stools, where you could get in touch with the uju pacha (the interior world). There were many places like this, created with an artistic touch, welcoming humans to connect with nature, in salka.

At the end of the garden the land dropped off steeply, down 2,000 feet to the Paucartambo River below, flowing from Apu Ausangate to the jungle. Its distant roar rose up the side of the mountain to the garden. There were no motorized sounds; the occasional trucks passing up the road past Mollamarka were too far away to be heard, and no jets fly over the area. I could only hear the distant river, the wind through the trees, the birds calling to each other, and the occasional braying of a donkey. On one of my trips to Salka Wasi I made a short video of the view from that spot. It can be seen at

View from the Gardens of Salka Wasi

The view was amazing. The scale of the mountains was staggering. A village, on the mountainside across the river from Salka Wasi (and a little higher up) was so far away that it could barely be seen. And everywhere was salka.

After meditating for a while, sitting on a large fallen tree trunk at the edge of the abyss, I headed back to the house. Soon it got dark, and Gayle and Arilu went around lighting candles for us; on the dinning room table, in the living room, on a stool in the hallway leading to the bathroom, and in the bathroom. We all also had candles next to our beds, but we didn’t light them until we needed them. Salka Wasi is somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, it got cold at night, and there was no heating, so we kept putting on layers of clothing until we were warm enough.


I hadn’t seen Américo for a while, and I wondered where he was, and I also wanted to go out into the evening, so I ventured forth to see if I could find him. Standing on the porch in the dark, I heard quiet conversation and saw some fire light. I headed in that direction and approached a covered veranda. There the family who cooks for Salka Wasi were working on our dinner. I saw that Américo was sitting there with them. The veranda was lit only by the mellow light of the cooking fire in the quncha.

A quncha is a home-made, hollow, dome of hardened clay, with an opening in the side for feeding the fire within, and a couple of holes on top of the dome that are the right size for setting in and heating the pots. In the Andes, houses made of the stuff of Pachamama (i.e. adobe and stone houses), are called Wasi Tira, (literally a ‘house of the earth’), and are extensions of the Pachamama. The quncha is considered to be heart of the house.

Américo sitting there in the fire light, with the family busy making the meal, was an intimate scene, but, I thought, perhaps not an exclusionary one. I hesitated before getting close enough for them to see me, then I girded my loins, overruled my shyness, and stepped forward.

“¿Con permiso?” I asked (“With permission?”).

“Of course!”, replied Américo, and he motioned me to enter the veranda. I found a place to sit on a stone balustrade running along the side of the veranda. The family politely acknowledged my arrival and then went back to work on preparing the meal, talking quietly to each other in Quechua.

Américo was eating a small potato that he had selected from the pile of those that had been cooked for dinner. He offered one to me. I did what I saw him do, and peeled off the outer skin with my fingers before eating it. Then I sat, in the warmth and light flowing out from the concha, listening to the fire crackling and the soft conversations in Quechua, some of which involved Américo, and slowly ate my potato. Just beyond the veranda was the deep darkness and silence of the high Andes, and a sky filled with stars. I had been welcomed into the intimacy of that moment, and I savored it, and my heart quietly sang a beautiful tune.

After a while, Gayle rang a small gong hanging next to the door leading from the house out into the garden, indicating that dinner was ready. We all filed into the dining room and found seats at the long table. The food was delicious, we broke out some of the wine that we had brought, and we slowly sank down into that state of relaxation that comes after a long day’s journey.

The cook at Salka Wasi was Abolino, who was assisted by his wife Maria and their family. Abolino had been cooking at Salka Wasi for many years, during which time Américo had welcomed visitors from around the world, many from Europe, and many who were themselves skilled cooks. Abolino had learned much from them, and had become a very good cook indeed. When Américo had bought Salka Wasi from his aunt, it came with 20 hectors of land. He gave half of that to Abolino and his family, as theirs, to farm and support themselves. We also paid Abolino and his family for their work on our behalf.

After dinner I retired to my bedroom to put on some long-johns, and then came back to the dining room table to perhaps read, or to write in my journal. I found both a little harder to do by candlelight than I had supposed. And I was tired. I soon headed to bed.

Sometime in the early morning hours I awoke. It was dark and completely silent in my room. And I realized that it was not quiet because the house, with its three foot thick adobe walls, was protecting me from the sounds of the outside world, but because the world outside the house was also absolutely silent. If I went outside I would be with Mama Tuta, Mother Night, who holds the stars in her embrace in the deep silence of the Cosmos, and I would be with the stars themselves. And nowhere in the distance would I see an electric light, nor view the glow of lights from a distant town, nor see the blinking lights of a jet plane flying overhead. Just salka stretching out through the night to infinity.


I arose early the next morning. Gayle had put thermoses of hot water on the dining room table, along with a selection of teas (including coca tea), a couple of jars of instant coffee, and canned evaporated milk (for the coffee). I usually can’t stand instant coffee, but this was really good. I don’t know if it was the brand or the setting or both. I know that Américo says that the instant coffee in Peru is better than what is sold in the U.S. I made myself a cup of coffee and stood looking through the living room windows at the sunrise as it flowed across the mountains and up the river valley. Then I went out into the garden to meditate.

Our schedule while we were at Salka Wasi was as follows: breakfast was served around 9:00. From 10:00-11:00 we were requested to be outside while Gayle and some local friends cleaned the house, both physically (with brooms) and energetically (smudging each room with burning sticks of Palo Santo). At 11:00 we would meet with don Américo for a couple of hours in the garden. He would lead us through some energy work and answer our questions about the energy work, the Cosmos, just about anything. Around 1:30 we would have lunch. After lunch Américo would take a break for a siesta and we would do anything we wanted, including resting. Somewhere around 4:30 we would meet with don Américo again for a couple of hours. Finally we would have dinner. Don Américo would then often join us after dinner for a little while, and then head off to bed. Some of the things Américo would reminisce about, by candlelight, with a glass of wine, were deeply touching and part of my favorite memories about my times with him in Peru.

That was more or less the official plan, but the days were often filled with interesting intervening events, and if it involved getting together with the villagers then there was a fair amount of imprecision regarding starting times. One thing I noticed, which concerned me, had to do with Américo’s siestas. He had talked to us about how much he relies upon siestas to recover his energy during the day. Whenever I was out and about during siesta time, however, I found Américo having some earnest conversation from one or more people from the village who had come down to Salka Wasi seeking his help or advice about something. When I expressed concern about his lack of downtime he said he was fine. I believed him, as I have never met a person who was so skilled at taking care of his own energy.

A very earnest looking me, Tom, and Amèrico talking about visions of the future.

That first morning, as I entered the courtyard, I found Miguelito talking with Bob, Américo, and Tom. Américo was translating Quechua to Spanish, and Tom Spanish to English, so that Bob and Miguelito could have a conversation. As I approached, Bob said that Miguelito was just starting to describe something that happened to him the day before. Miguelito then recounted that he was walking down the trail when he saw a rooster ahead of him. Something about the rooster caused Miguelito to want to follow him, so he did. The rooster walked down to a pond and hopped into the water, turning into a swan. The swan glided across the pond to a waterfall, where it turned into a woman, who then disappeared behind the falls. At this point the story seemed to suddenly be over. Américo grinned at us and said that Miguelito must be channeling Bolivia again.

There are two major ways of becoming a paq’o (mystic/shaman) in Peru. One way is to find a teacher, either by going looking for one or by having one find you. The second way is to be hit by lightening, and (of course) survive. Miguelito had come down that second path. He also worked extensively with q’uyas (special stones) that had been hit by lightning.


My memory of the events of the following few days is like a deck of cards whose order has become hopelessly shuffled. I would like to just deal them out to you without having to remember exactly in what order they originally occurred.


One event I remember happened while we were doing energy work one morning with Américo in the garden. We were doing a meditation that involves two people connecting to each other’s heart energy (munay). This meditation is called “Heart to Heart” and instructions on how to do it is are provided in my blog. I had partnered up with Américo to do this meditation. When I was connected to his heart energy and he was connected to mine I suddenly felt the energy in my heart explode outwards like a super nova. At which point Américo said “ouch!”.


During lunch Américo asked if we would be interested in having the women of the village come down that afternoon to sell us some of the goods they had made (e.g. sweaters, hat bands, woven necklaces). He emphasized that this was completely optional, he just wanted to know if would be something we would like to do. We all enthusiastically said yes. During siesta time a score of women arrived, along with their babies and younger children. That sat in a large circle on the sparse, dry grass of the courtyard with their wares spread out in front of them on blankets. Américo said he didn’t want to be the middle-person in any of the sales, and that this was between the women and us. He just asked that, if possible, we buy from as many different women as we could, rather than all of us buying from just a few. Then he left us to it. It was a chance for us to interact with the women of the village, and start to get to know them…and their energy. And, it was a way for us to support both them and the continuation of their traditional crafts.

Speaking of the energy of the women…one afternoon a group of women from the village came down to Salka Wasi. They were all wearing their indigenous clothing; sandals, a woven skirt over several petticoats, a sweater or two, and a hat. Their hats were rather like the mortar boards worn at graduation in the U.S., with flat tops, but the tops were circular rather than square, much larger, and very colorful (the color and decoration of such hats indicate which village a woman is from).

They entered the courtyard and sat on the ground. At an earlier time, when talking about how the women of the Andes usually sit on the ground rather than in chairs, Américo had mentioned that this made it possible for their vaginas to be in contact with Pachamama and that this was very important. I entered the courtyard and sat not too far from the women. After a short while I realized that I was slipping into an altered state of consciousness which seemed to be caused by my proximity to the women. I grew up in a culture where femininity was associated with pink frills. What I was experiencing then, however, was something else entirely; a powerful, womanly, energy that felt as strong as the foundations of the Earth. Later, when I was mentioning this to Américo, he concurred that the Andean women had a strong energy. He added that if I spent more time with them then my own energy would never be the same. His tone of voice implied that this would be a worthwhile thing to do.


When we sat down to our meals, Gayle would bring in our food, and when we were finished, he would take our dishes away to be washed by Maria’s children. Imagine that you had a cabin in the mountains and some dear friends were coming to stay with you. But it snows before they get there and their car gets stuck in the snow. They finally arrive at your cabin, hours late, cold, and exhausted from the worry and toil of the road. You have some delicious, hot, soup waiting for them. As they sit at the table, you bring it out. Imagine your feelings, and your demeanor, as you bring them the soup. That is as close as I can describe how Gayle served us, every time. A level of service, impeccable, present centered, as if that moment in the Cosmos was sufficient and worth attending to, but more than that, a service based upon an open heart. His was an impeccable level of Being in service that had no hint of either servitude or condescension, yet not particularly more important than, say, a flower in the garden.

A few years later, when I was again in Peru with Gayle and Américo, Gayle told me that I was his teacher. I didn’t know what he was learning from me, and as I write this now I pause to think of how Gayle and I are different, and what I have of value in my approach to life that he could learn by being with me. We can set off each other’s senses of humor, and that I highly value, but that is something we share. I do know this, however, that Gayle is my teacher as well. The first thing I learned from him was how to be a host, like a breeze coming in through the window from salka meadows beyond.

During a later trip to Peru, my friend Karen asked Gayle about the difference between the two types of paq’os; pampa mesayoqs and alto mesayoqs. Others often describe the difference between the two in terms of their abilities. Gayle responded, however, by saying that pampa mesayoqs dedicate their lives to service to the Pachamama, while alto mesayoq’s dedicate theirs to service to an Apu. It’s all about service, salka, and the heart.


One afternoon Américo approached us and asked if we would be interested in having Miguelito read our fortunes using coca leaves. Reading coca leaves is one of the skills, or paths, that a paq’o can choose to master in his or her life. It is rather like an Andean version of a Tarot reading. Américo added that it would be appropriate to offer Miguelito a small amount of money in ayni (reciprocity) for reading our fortunes. We all said we would be delighted.

That night, after dinner, Miguelito entered the house dressed, for a change, not in Western clothes but in indigenous, Andean, clothes. Again I was struck by how old he looked, moved, and spoke. Américo sat at his side in support, helping him through this long and energy-draining work.

One at a time, we came up to sit next to Miguelito to have our fortunes read. As we sat down we gave him our ayni. He took the money, said something in Quechua to it, and placed it near where he did his work, involving it in the coca reading. Then he took a hand full of coca leaves and placed them in a bag made of animal hide. Speaking in Quechua, he threw the bag onto the table in such a manner that the bag made a big exhalation when it hit, causing the coca leaves to come shooting out of its mouth and onto the table.

He then began to poke around the leaves, noting their position and orientation, and their condition (torn, or bent, or straight and flat) and began to speak. Miguelito spoke in Quechua, and Américo translated that into Spanish, but Américo also did more. Often he and Miguelito would discuss for a bit some interpretation of the leaves, for Américo had also been trained in reading coca leaves.

For many years, as a young man, Américo had traveled through the Andes seeking and studying with venerable paq’os in the area. One of them was don Bonito Qoriwaman, the most renowned paqo of his time. As his “graduation exam” from his studies with don Bonito, Américo was tasked with using coca leaves to find the whereabouts of a llama that belonged to one of don Bonito’s friends, and that had gone missing. When he was telling us about this, Américo said that it took him about 45 minutes of intense work to arrive at the answer. He finally announced that the body of the llama could be found in a specific ravine several miles away. Some of the paq’os headed off toward the ravine, and arrived back a few hours later with the body of the llama. They threw it at don Bonito’s feet. Américo had passed his exam.

When it was my turn for Miguelito to give me a coca leaf reading he told me many things. The one that stands out in my memory is when he said I was an excellent father to my sons, for I walked in the light of the great Cosmic Being. I hadn’t told Miguelito that I had children, but then, Américo knew and he could have told him. In any event, it was meaningful to me.

Miguelito was quite old, and giving all five of us a coca reading tired him greatly. When he was finished, don Américo helped him off to bed.


Something happened during our stay at Salka Wasi that was of significance to my next couple of trips to Peru to work with Américo. Américo really liked Tom (Tom is now deceased), and yet one afternoon when Bob, Gina, Judy and I were with Américo he told us that he had a special name for the four us; he had decided to call us “The Apu Chim”, which refers to those condors that are considered to be the royalty among the condors. If I understood his gestures correctly, the apu chim are the condors who have the white collars around their necks. Américo then said that if we wanted to come to Peru to work with him again that we could arrange that directly with Arilu, and that we didn’t have to rely on Tom to organize the trip for us.


Late one afternoon the people of Mollamarka–women, men, and children–came down to Salka Wasi to dance for us. We all gathered in the courtyard, which was large enough for us to sit along the side–on ledges and benches–and still leave a big enough area in the center for dancing. The villagers brought a small band (drum, guitar, flutes) to provide the music. While some of the villagers had adopted Western clothing for their everyday use, for the dances they were all wearing their traditional clothes. Women, men, and children all had their own dances, and there were some dances where the men and women would dance together in a fashion that suggested ritualistic flirting. In one of the dances by the men they were dressed in costumes that reminded me of the statues in the fountain in the main square of Paucartambo. In another dance the women and men paired up, and while they were dancing they whipped each other about the legs using their warakas (slings). In some of the dances the women came over and pulled Bob, Tom, and I into the dance, while the men pulled Gina and Judy into the dance.

The various dances went on for about an hour. I was getting exhausted from being pulled into some of them, as we were at around 12,000 feet. About the time it looked like they might wrap things up, Tom gave some money to the band. They shouted with delight and played for another half an hour. When it was finally all over, Tom turned to us with a wry grin and said, “Lesson to be learned…don’t tip the band.”

I have been to other places where the indigenous people have demonstrated their dances for tourist, but in those circumstances the dances seemed to have lost their connection to the culture, and were being done simply as a show. This wasn’t like that, these dances felt like they were still grounded in a living culture.


On our last full day in Salka Wasi we went on a field trip. Américo had arranged for some horses from Mollamarka to be brought down to Salka Wasi. Mollamarka and Salka Wasi are situated about one third of the way up a massive mountain, and we were to ride to the top of that mountain to a sacred site known as Misti Pucari. We were accompanied by the owners of the horses and a few local paq’os. I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of riding a horse, I hadn’t had much experience doing that, but, of course, I wasn’t going to pass on whatever experience Américo had in mind for us.

Getting ready to head up the mountain.

The horses were small but with barrel-like chests to handle the altitude. My feet didn’t quite drag on the ground as we rode, but I did have to lift my feet occasionally as we rode past rocks and shrubs. We rode to the top of the mountain and then over its crest. There, not very far away, rose the majestic peaks of Apu Ausangate. As we got off our horses and stood there taking in the sight, Americo told us that he “saw” that on our next visit to Peru that we would travel together to Apu Ausangate. We then walked a short distance to a circle of stones.. This was Misti Pucari. The local paq’os informed us that this was a nodal point where lines of energy (ley lines) from Apu Ausangate and other powerful spots in the area meet. We meditated there for a while and then two of the paqos from Mollamarka gave us each two q’uya’s. The mountain side was too steep to ride the horses back down (they can carry people up slopes more easily than they can carry them down) so we walked most of the way back. There I was, with a healthy body, walking down the side of a mountain, breathing in the clean air, soaking in the salka, with my friends and don Américo and the men from Mollamarka, still vibrating from the meditations, in the high Andes of Peru.

Misti Pucari

During our stay at Salka Wasi, I began to come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of what don Américo was up to. As a young man he had studied under many Andean teachers representing a variety of paths leading into the Andean Cosmovision, and he had reached a high level of mastery. While Cusco is now rife with people offering Andean energy work, when don Américo hung up his plaque there many years ago he was about the only one. He told me once that his fee schedule when he first started was 50 soles if the client was rich, 10 soles if the client was not, and for clients who were very poor Américo would give them 5 soles to work on them. He added that his list of clientele grew rapidly.

But the point I am heading toward here, is that Américo could have given us the karpays himself rather than having us work with the Q’ero. Indeed, in earlier years he had helped the Q’ero to recover some of the elements of the path that they had lost. Instead of giving us the karpays, he arranged for us to work with the Q’ero. This delivered to the Q’ero the clear message that what they have to offer is something of value to the West, so valuable that we traveled thousands of miles to receive it. This is important for them to know as they face increasing pressure to be integrated into the Western worldview, that it does not have to be an all or none proposition, that they may want to hold on to aspects of their Andean worldview.

We pay them for their work with us, which gives them a way to improve their standard of living (which they want) while maintaining their connection to the Andean Cosmovision. The money is ayni, the energy of reciprocity, which in this case brings individuals from the two worlds, the Andean world and the Western world, into closer relationship, a relationship based upon the munay (the energy of the heart). The same thing applies to Miguelito reading our coca leaves, and the paqos of Mollamarka giving us a ceremony at Misti Pucari. Américo could have done those himself, but he arranged for us to work with and pay others instead. He arranged for us to give the dancers of Mollamarka some money as ayni for their coming to Salka Wasi to share their traditional dances. He arranged for the women of Mollamarka to sell us their traditional hand-made goods. All of these actions nourished within the Andean community the view that their traditional ways have value and that they can obtain the increased income they desire without giving up the culture.

Américo has never stated any of this explicitly to me, being explicit is not how he walks through the world. Artists are rarely if ever explicit about their work, they can’t be, or it is no longer art. Don Américo approaches his life as a work of art. As a student of his, all I can or need do if I want to learn from him, is to be in harmony with this way of being.


Our time with don Américo wasn’t quite over yet. After several days in Salka Wasi we drove back to Cusco and then the next day we all (including Américo) caught a ridiculously early train for a day trip to Machu Piccu.

Machu Picchu is the creme de la creme of Inca ruins. It is situated on the peak of a mountain, above a river gorge, several miles downstream from Ollantaytambo. It is a truly impressive site, the location is awesome and the architecture amazing, and frankly, I found it disappointing. I had just spent a week in isolated reaches of the Andes, in a world of salka (undomesticated energy) and munay (heart). At Machu Picchu I was elbow to elbow with hordes of distracted and impatient tourists. What beautiful energy the place no doubt had, was overwhelmed by the energy of the thousands of people who walked through the site every day, each person leaving a whirlpool of society-flavored Western energy with every step. Américo estimated that if Machu Picchu were given a break from tourism, that it would take about seven years for it to return to its essential energy.

Me at Machu Picchu

Still, while I was disappointed by the lack of mysticism in the experience, it was a cool place, and we had Américo as our guide. In those days, after you handed in your ticket at the gate, you were free to just freely wander around the site. Américo said that the last time he had been there was many years earlier, when he went there with an Andean teacher whom he revered. His teacher was quite old, and had informed Américo that he would soon be dying. Américo followed him around Machu Picchu in tears.

Américo shared with us some of the things his teacher had told him about the place. The structures in Machu Picchu are made of stone, but their roofs have not survived. His teacher told him that when Machu Picchu was inhabited that all of the roofs were covered in colorful bird feathers from the jungle (which is not very far downstream). He also told Américo that paqos from all around, including some from far away lands, used to meet through astral projection once a year at Machu Picchu. Let me note that in general I have found the indigenous people’s accounts of Inca and pre-Inca ruins to be much more interesting than those provided by anthropologists.

In addition to the various, famous, sites in Machu Picchu (e.g. the temple that has a hitching post for the sun), Américo showed us a place where the stone balustrade had been shaped to match the distant peaks on the other side of the river, allowing the paqos to connect with those peaks by touching their closer replicas; and a face, cut into the stone, of an Inca sporting the large ear disks that were the symbol of status. Américo, apparently, also found the energy of the tourists to be too much, for he told us that he thought that that would be his last visit to Machu Picchu. As far as I know, it was.

While my fascination with Machu Picchu had to battle it out with my disappointment at its crowd of tourists, I did very much enjoy our lunch, and a beer, at Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is a tourist town at the foot of the mountain below Machu Picchu where the railway station is located. Sometimes, having a relaxing meal with friends or family after a day of being a tourist is my favorite part of the day. After lunch we took a late afternoon train back to Cusco.

Beer and lunch with waikis at Aguas Calientes.

Machu Picchu had not been discovered (and subsequently) destroyed by the Spanish. It was simply abandoned by the Incas. It was brought to the attention of the Western world by Hiram Bingham, who was shown the ruins by a local campesino in 1911. As a fun note, there are several similarities between Bingham and Indiana Jones, and a fair amount of speculation that the Jones character was inspired by Bingham. In any event, the untouched (except by time) and spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu leads me to wonder what the world lost when the Spanish destroyed every Inca temple and site that they found.

The Inca, however, while constructors of a huge empire, were simply an imperialistic expression of older civilizations and cultures that emerged within Peru. I would like to semi-close this chapter with some words from one of my favorite guidebooks to Cusco. “So what are we to make of the Incas? This book proposes no answer, except to note that they, and the continuum of cultures that preceded them, represent a significant event in human history. It is true that their civilization was brought to an abrupt end, and little of what they created has entered the mainstream of human culture. They were overwhelmed by a race that was blind to all but the most obvious material aspects of their world. But much of what sustained Andean civilization was not external, and the spirit of the ancient way lives on in the hearts and customs of the millions of native inhabitants of the Andes. In this sense it is possible, after all, that we have not heard the last of the Incas.” Exploring Cusco, by Peter Frost.


The next day, Bob and I were scheduled to take the same flight out of Cusco on our separate journeys back home. I realized that I was suddenly going to be kicked out of the cocoon of love and safety in which I had been immersed for the past two weeks. I was faced with making my way through a third-world country where few people, including those who ran ticket counters, spoke English. I was going to have to leave the heart-centered reality of the Andean Cosmovision and enter the cold reality of the Western world. Fear and anxiety hit me like a bucket of cold water.

Bob and I needed to leave the hostal at 4:00 AM to catch our flight. Arilu, bless her heart, offered to pick us up and take us to the airport and make sure we got safely on our flight. We gratefully accepted her offer. Tom couldn’t believe it. He harangued and shamed us for accepting Arilu’s offer, and we eventually gave in and said we would take a taxi instead.

The next morning we took a taxi to the airport. When we arrived there, and were standing in line at the ticket counter, I heard a sweet voice call out “Oakley! Bob!”. We turned around and there were Arilu and Américo. Arilu stepped forward and talked to the ticket person and made sure our tickets were correct. Then, when we arrived at the security checkpoint where only people with tickets can go any further, Américo talked to the security guy, who let him enter, and he walked with us to the gate. He gave both Bob and I a hug and a q’uya (briefly blowing on and talking to each q’uya before handing them over). Then with a friendly wave he strode off.


The trip back was an exhausting 40 hours of flights and layovers. I landed at the St. George , Utah airport in the late evening. Betsy was there to pick me up. The drive back to Cedar City took an hour, and I talked nonstop the whole way, recounting all of the amazing and touching experiences of the trip. The next day I didn’t want to face the Western world. I asked Betsy to please intercept all phone calls and to answer the door if anyone dropped by, and to say that I was unavailable. I hid in the house for two days before I gingerly reemerged into a Western society that now seemed so cold and heartless after my experiences in Peru.

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Podcast Episode 4: Love to Pachamama Meditation

This meditation only takes a couple of minutes, and may be done while sitting down or standing up. As usual with the Andean Meditations, this meditation is best done out in the beauty of nature, but it may also be done indoors.

Over time this meditation engenders a beautiful blossoming of our relationship with the Cosmos.

To download the episode click on “Download“, if an audio player appears and begins to play the episode, right click on it and then select “Save Audio”.



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The Path to Faërie: Part 1

Also available as a pdf file  here

This post grew in the writing until it became obvious to me that I needed to write it in two parts. They have their foundation in the earlier post The Other Side of Reality.

I would like to dedicate this post to my late friend Dr. Tom Malloy; for many years my best friend, co-conspirator, companion on the path to the other side of reality, and someone who loved the works of Tolkien as much as I.

Part 1: The Man Who Was Inside Language

O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi' thorns and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not yon braid, braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the road to Heaven.

And see ye not yon boony road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

As spoken by the queen of the Elves to Thomas of Erceldoun,
13th century Scottish poet and seer (On Fairy-Stories, pp. 28-29).


In 1996 the British bookshop chain, Waterstone’s, and the BBC channel Book Choice commissioned a reader’s poll to determine the most important book of the 20th Century. Some 26,000 readers replied, and the winner was J.R.R. Tolkien’s fairy-story, The Lord of the Rings. Professional critics and journalists were horrified by this result, and so the Daily Telegraph repeated the poll among its readers, and The Lord of the Rings came in first again. The television program, Bookworm, then conducted a poll that was responded to by 50,000 readers, and again The Lord of the Rings came in first. When a subsequent poll of English-speaking readers changed the question to ask what book ever written had had the greatest influence on the reader’s life, The Bible came in first (of course), and The Lord of the Rings came in a respectable fourth. How could, the critics bemoaned, a fantasy book be so many people’s selection as the most important book of the century, or the most influential book in their lives?

I can answer that question!

Well, I have an answer to that question. And the answer includes the answers to other, related, questions: Why is this important? What does it have to do with getting us out of our current, sticky, situation on the planet? What does it have to do with salka?

To be of value this answer must travel through both the heart and the intellect. Relying on just the intellect, whether it be our natural intellect or the new, dehumanizing, artificial intelligence, will simply leave us where we are now, with a world that hardly seems capable of supporting human life, let alone otters, lions, bees, whales, healthy forests, clean rivers, and oceans teaming with fish. Intelligence operating without heart got us here in the first place and it now offers a path of least resistance to a future where computer algorithms will be more important than life. But I digress. No, I really don’t.

It is going to take me two, lengthy, posts to weave the thoughts of my answer. The second post, Cracks in Reality that Let the Light Shine Through (adapted from a quote by Tolkien), will present the actual answer. This first post, The Man Who Was Inside Language, is about Tolkien himself. This first post is like a train journey to the second post. You could, potentially, just beam to the second post (when it is completed) and skip the train journey there. But this journey, in my eyes, travels through some beautiful territory. My including it may not be necessary. It is, more than anything, really, a loving tribute to a man whose writings have brought so much to my life.

Before we proceed, I have a few structural things to say. First, when quoting a source I use the practice of indicating with ‘…’ places within the quote where I deleted words, and square brackets ‘[ ]’ to indicate where I am paraphrasing within the quote. Second, I am neither an expert on philology nor am I an expert on the life of Tolkien. I will be sharing in this post primarily what authors who are experts have to say about both. In academia this is called relying on secondary sources, which means that I am relying upon their expertise and knowledge rather than upon my own. From what they have written I have cherry-picked the most delectable fruit. A list of the sources I cite is provided at the end of the post. Third, the things I have to say about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings refer specifically to Tolkien’s books, and not to the movie adaptations of his books. From the perspective of the nature of fairy-stories there are some important differences between the books and the movies. Fourth, and finally, on this train of thought a treat cart will occasionally come down the aisle in the form of links (within curly brackets) which connect to endnotes.


The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are my favorite books. The Lord of the Rings in particular, although it is hard to separate the two books in my heart, has had a major influence on my life and on my view of reality. The latter is an important point. While I know that archaeologists will not one day uncover, beneath the mountains, the ruins of dwarven kingdoms, or find the foundered land of Nümenor beneath the waves, the words Tolkien’s stories are unreal stick in my throat and seem a lie. There is, for me, something about Tolkien’s fairy-stories that lead them to seeming more real than reality itself. This is an experience that I have discovered many other (but by no means all) readers have as well. Rather significantly, it is also the experience that J.R. R. Tolkien had while he was writing his books. How this could be, and what this tells us about the relationship between reality and our perception of it, will be covered in the second post. In this post I would like to talk about how this came to be.

For many, many years, after my first reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and I have read them both many, many times, including aloud to my children) I chose not to delve into Tolkien himself. I was afraid that I would discover things about Tolkien, particularly his own views of his work, that would break the spell of the enchantment of his stories. He was, after all, an academician, as am I. I know very well how academia eschews the magic and beauty of the world, and in doing so, slays it. Then I read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-Stories, based upon a lecture he gave in 1939, where he laid out his views on fairy-stories and their relationship to our experience of being human, and to our relationship with the Cosmos. This essay opened the cellar door in Tolkien’s view of reality to me to reveal mysterious depths from which wafted hints of beauty and meaning. I decided to explore. These two posts are about what lies beyond Tolkien’s cellar door.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was a professor of Philology, and of Old English and Middle English literature, at Oxford University. Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) was the language of Britain from approximately 450 to 1150 AD. It is such an old language that in its early years it was written in runes. Tolkien could read, write, and speak Old English, and he taught the literary works that were written in that language (most notably the epic poem Beowulf). Tolkien also taught the literature of Middle English, which was in use from approximately 1150 to 1500 AD (Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English). Tolkien’s A Middle English Vocabulary and his translation (from Middle English) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were considered to be the definitive editions of their time.

Tolkien approached Old English and Middle English as a philologist, and to understand his path to Faërie we need to know a little about the intellectual side of Tolkien’s work, specifically, we need to know a little bit about philology. For this I will rely heavily upon the writings of Dr. Tom Shippey. Shippey taught at Oxford while Tolkien was there, and they taught some of the same classes. He also held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University, a post that Tolkien had held earlier in his career. According to that convenient font of knowledge, Wikipedia, Shippey is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading academic scholars on the works of Tolkien. His books The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century both approach Tolkien and his works from an academic, philological, perspective. From those books I gleaned a great deal of useful (and interesting) information about philology, and about Tolkien, and about Tolkien’s works. Almost everything I share below about philology I extracted from Shippey’s books.

The Study of Language

The term philology comes from the Greek word philología, which is most commonly translated as the study of language. Philology emerged as an academic discipline in the late 1700’s when scholars realized that Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, the Germanic languages, and the Celtic languages had all evolved from one, ancient, common, tongue; an extinct and previously unknown language that was spoken in the Stone Age, and of which no records exist. Scholars named this language Proto-Indo-European. It has subsequently been determined that 445 languages in use today evolved from that one, ancient, tongue.

The major contribution of philology was the discovery, by the early philologists, of the patterns that underly the evolution of languages. The first of these (known as Grimm’s Law) was discovered by Jacob Grimm who, along with his brother Wilhelm, collected and published the folklore that became known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales. An understanding of how languages evolve may seem like a boring and technical branch of the tree of knowledge. It was. It proved, however, to be an incredible useful tool for understanding the ancient world.

With their understanding of how languages evolve, philologists could arrive at educated guesses about what a language was like in earlier stages of its evolution before its first appearance in writing. An example of this is the English word dwarf. Philologists have determined that dwarf is the ‘same’ word as the German word zwerg, and the Old Norse word dvergr. All three words refer to a mythological race of diminutive, human-like, beings who are skilled in smithing and mining. Philologists have also determined that this word did not travel from one of those languages to the others, but that instead the origin of the word lies in the much older language from which all three languages have evolved. While there is no known writing from that language, given the laws of how words evolve, the original word was probably *dvairgs. In philology, the use of an “*” denotes a word or concept that has never been recorded but must surely have existed or the word would not have the meaning and form it has today. That the origin of the word dwarf lies back in that ancient tongue also told philologists that a mythology containing dwarves goes back at least to that time as well.

Here is where things get interesting. Philology could not only make educated guesses about “*words” and “*concepts” that existed in earlier times, they could also make educated guesses about “*reality”, aspects of the world that must have existed for languages to be the way they are. Philology shone light for the first time into the Dark Ages of Europe. Philologists could, for example, determine that two cultures must have come in contact with each other in prehistory, and roughly when that occurred. They determined that the English word “daughter” comes from the ancient Sanskrit duhitar, which means “little milker”, which sheds light on what family life was like in that prehistoric society. From a language that was almost extinct philologists deduced the existence of a hitherto unknown, and now vanished, civilization in Siberia. A study of Germanic languages led to the realization that there must have been early trade routes across the great forest of Northern Europe, Myrkviðr inn ókunni (the pathless Mirkwood). That these findings could then be verified by evidence gathered from other disciplines led to philology becoming the Crown Jewel of the humanities. In its heyday in the late 1800’s philology served as the cutting edge of literature, history, sociology and anthropology all at once.

Philology also opened the door to understanding dead languages. An example of this can be found in one of Tolkien’s academic papers. The word hós in the Old English epic poem Beowulf was not found elsewhere in the Old English literature, and scholars would have been forced to guess its meaning from context, had not philology been able to show that it was the ‘same’ word as Old High German hansa which philologists had already established meant ‘band of people connected by mutual oaths.’ The ability of one dead language to help in the understanding of another dead language suddenly made the old languages much more useful and interesting. Ancient languages that were up until then largely ignored by academia suddenly became relevant, and philologists became spectacularly better at reading and understanding them. Philologists could now understand what the words in the ancient manuscripts meant to the authors who wrote them.

So, what happened to philology? You might have noticed that I refer to it in the past-tense, although it has not completely disappeared. My answer to that is a bit long and a bit dry and I have decided to put it at the end of this essay (just in case you are interested).

Tolkien and Beowulf

This, then, takes us to J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a professor of Old English literature. The most famous work in Old English is Beowulf, an epic poem consisting of 3,182 lines of alliterative verse. The earliest extant written copy of the poem dates from around 1000 AD, but the poem itself was probably written much earlier (Tolkien dated it to the 8th Century). The poem describes events that took place in the 6th Century in Scandinavia, and archeologists have since determined that the people and places recounted in the poem actually did exist at that time and place (minus, perhaps, the monsters and the dragon).

Before Tolkien, the only value academicians saw in Beowulf was as a source for Old English vocabulary. The actual content of Beowulf was a disappointment to them. As they viewed it, the poem could have been a window into the ancient world, but instead the author wrote a story about monsters and dragons. The poem was essentially dismissed by academia as being a poor excuse for history.

When Tolkien read Beowulf, however, he found it to be one of the most extraordinary poems of all time. In 1936 he delivered a lecture about the poem, which was later published as an essay. The lecture and essay were entitled Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics. This essay by Tolkien is generally considered to be the most significant and influential of the thousands of essays that have been written about Beowulf. In the essay Tolkien argued that most scholars had missed the main point about Beowulf, that it was not poor history, that it was, instead, literature, in fact it was a great work of art, addressing in a most powerful way the human condition. This led to a major shift in academia’s view of the poem. It is mainly because of Tolkien that Beowulf is now a landmark work in English Literature.

Tolkien thought that one of the reasons that Beowulf had been under appreciated as a work of art was that most of its critics were monoglots and had to rely on translations of the poem from Old English to Modern English (Old English is unintelligible to Modern English speakers). As the anthropologist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “It is the folly of the deaf linguist to believe that translation is commonly possible” (Bateson, p. 292). Something is almost always lost, or fundamentally altered, when a word is translated from one language to another, and this is particularly true of poetry. Tolkien, as a philologist and expert in Old English, could, of course, read and appreciate the poem in its original language.


Philology is a particularly (actually…mindbogglingly) intellectual pursuit. Tolkien said that he liked philology because it appealed to his historical and scientific side. He also stressed that all of his work, including his created mythology, was rooted in philology. But, he added, that while he was a philologist by nature and trade, he was always primarily interested in the aesthetic rather than the functional aspects of language (Letters, pp. 213, 219, 231). Tolkien brought his heart into his intellectual pursuits.

One of the reasons that Tolkien was so effective as a teacher was that in addition to being a philologist he was a writer and a poet. In the words of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend, this led to Tolkien’s “unique insight at once into the language of poetry and the poetry of language” (cited in Carpenter, p. 138). As a result, when Tolkien taught classes on Beowulf, he could show his students not only what the Old English words meant, but “why the author had chosen that particular form of expression and how it fitted into his scheme of imagery” (Carpenter, p. 138).

When Tolkien would begin a series of lectures on Beowulf, “He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon…It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that Beowulf was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of examination, but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry.” Decades later, the famous poet W.H. Auden wrote to his former professor, “I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf” (Carpenter, pp. 137-138).


In addition to being translated as the study of language, philología can also be translated as the study of words, the study of meaning, and the study of knowledge. For Tolkien, Beowulf was not just a data point in the study of language, the poem was a doorway into understanding how the poem’s author perceived and understood reality. Tolkien wrote that he felt a very special affinity, even a sense of identity, with the author of Beowulf. For Tolkien, Beowulf was a portal for entering into the worldview of 8th Century Europe. There he found much beauty and meaning.

I would like to pause and say a little more about worldviews. In my book The Andean Cosmovision: A Path for Exploring Profound Aspects of Ourselves, Nature, and the Cosmos, and in this Salka Wind Blog, I have written extensively about the worldview of the indigenous people who live in the high Andes of Peru. One of the more important points I have tried to convey in my writings is that the Andean worldview (the Andean Cosmovision) is not a primitive version of our modern, Western, worldview. It is, instead, fundamentally different, and as such it cannot be translated into, nor understood from, the perspective of our Western view of reality.

When I contemplated that Tolkien had entered the worldview of the author of Beowulf, I had an “Aha!” moment. I realized that I had assumed that older Western worldviews were primitive versions of our modern worldview, that they were essentially the same worldview we have now but filled with a lot more superstitions and a lot less accurate knowledge about reality. In retrospect it appears obvious to me that this might not be the case, that the worldview of Beowulf’s time may have been fundamentally, qualitatively, different than our modern worldview, not just a less sophisticated version of our own.

Consider that our modern, Western, worldview has been greatly influenced by Christianity. When the author of Beowulf wrote the poem, the older European, pre-Christian, beliefs were still prevalent in society. That worldview would have given the people a very different way of perceiving, understanding, and interacting with reality–particularly with Nature–than we have now. It was a worldview with which Tolkien could deeply identify, and I believe that it informed his later, fantasy, writings.


The Love of Language

The term philología can be translated in yet another way as the love of language. Tolkien loved languages. He knew English, Latin, French, German, Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse (Old Icelandic), Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh. He was also familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, and Swedish. Tolkien’s path to Faerie had its origins in his love of languages, and we will turn to that now.

By the time Tolkien reached high school he knew Greek, Latin, German, French and a smattering of Old English. At that time he purchased from a friend a primer on the Gothic language. He was immediately enchanted. With Gothic he experienced “for the first time the study of language out of mere love: I mean for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake, not only free from being useful but free even from being the ‘vehicle of literature’” (Letters, p. 213).

Gothic was spoken by the Goths of ancient Europe. By the 6th Century the use of the language was in decline and by the 8th Century the language had become extinct. What is known of the language now primarily comes from a 4th Century Gothic version of the Bible. Around the time Tolkien was introduced to Gothic he had also scraped up enough money to purchase two books on philology, written in German, which he described as being “dry-as-dust” but still, the topic interested him.

Part of his fascination with Gothic was that while enough of it had survived in the old texts to understand its sentence structure and grammar, there were large gaps in its vocabulary. Using philology, and his ear for language, Tolkien turned to inventing some of the missing Gothic words. He began showing up at his school’s debating society, representing himself as an envoy from Goth, and delivering orations in Gothic. I can imagine his fellow students, after Tolkien had delivered a speech in a language that had been extinct for 1300 years, turning to each other and saying “Now who can argue with that?”

Tolkien continued to work for a while at expanding the Gothic vocabulary, and he composed the only extant poem in that language, Bagme Bloma (Flower of the Trees), later published in the book Songs of the Philologists. The poem, both in Gothic and English, is available online at He eventually tired of working on Gothic and decided to create, from scratch, a whole, new, “undiscovered” Germanic language. He was making progress on that when Finnish happened.

As an undergraduate student in Oxford, when he was supposed to be studying for his honor exams, Tolkien discovered, in the college library, a primer on the Finnish language. Finnish is a “remarkably musical language, composed of long, loping words that sound like a river rushing over rocks” (Jones, p. 31). Tolkien fell in love with it, “It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.” (Letters, p. 214).

Tolkien dropped his work on his Germanic language and turned to creating an entirely different language inspired by what he found so beautiful about Finnish. It was a project that he found to be both intellectually and aesthetically pleasing, and he continued to work on the language for the rest of his life. He eventually named this language Quenya. After he had developed Quenya to a fair degree of sophistication he applied his knowledge of philology to create the earlier version of the language, a proto-Quenya, from which Quenya had evolved.

Shortly thereafter, Tolkien was introduced to the Welsh language. Welsh is a beautiful language that is “in love with its own sounds” (paraphrase of Jones, p. 31). It was the beauty of Welsh that captivated Tolkien, the appearance and sound of the words, more than their meanings. He later wrote, “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent.” (cited in Carpenter, p. 64).

Tolkien began to create another language, this one informed by his love of Welsh. He eventually named this language Sindarin. Like Quenya, Sindarin had also evolved out of proto-Quenya, but the two languages were quite different, and so obviously had been spoken by different ‘people’.

The creation of new, aesthetically satisfying (i.e. beautiful), languages was not particularly part of Tolkien’s “day job”. He had to work these projects into his life as he went off to fight in World War I, graduate from college, get married, pursue a career in academia, and raise a family. He did not, however, consider his creation of languages to be a “hobby”, for as he pointed out, hobbies are things we usually do outside of our work, as a diversion from our work. For Tolkien, his creation of these new languages was the ultimate expression of his deep engagement with philology.

When Tolkien developed a new language, he did not invent words or names at random, he constructed the language based upon his knowledge of philology. Philology, however, could only provide the intellectual framework of the endeavor, specifically the patterns that connected the words into a meaningful language. But Tolkien’s creative endeavors were driven by his love of language, by the aesthetics of certain languages in particular, such as Finnish and Welsh. The languages he created were beautiful, and that was the point.


As he worked on his languages Tolkien began to realize that for his languages to really come to full fruition, for them to come alive, that they needed to have people who had spoken them, and they needed a mythology.

The Emergence of a Mythology

At Oxford, while he was a student in the Honour School of English Language and Literature, Tolkien was introduced to an Old English poem entitled the Crist of Cynewulf. The poem contained the following two lines:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended


Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
above the middle-earth sent unto men.

There was something about these lines that affected Tolkien greatly. “I felt a curious thrill”, he wrote, “as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English” (cited in Carpenter, p. 72).

Tolkien was particularly enchanted by the word Earendel. “I was struck by the great beauty of this word…Its form strongly suggests that it is in origin a proper name and not a common noun…To my mind its Anglo-Saxon uses seem plainly to indicate that it was a star presaging the dawn…that is what we now call Venus: the morning-star as it may be seen shining brilliantly in the dawn, before the actual rising of the Sun” (Letters, p. 385).

The following year…this is all related…he went on holiday to the coast of Cornwall. Tolkien had a great love of nature, and on this trip he had a deeply moving experience of the sea. In a letter he wrote, “We walked over the moor-land on top of the cliffs to Kynance Cove. Nothing I could say in a dull old letter would describe it to you. The sun beats down on you and a huge Atlantic swell smashes and spouts over the snaps and reefs…, and everywhere you see black and red rock and white foam against violet and transparent seagreen” (cited in Carpenter, p. 78).

After leaving Cornwall he spent some quiet time at a relative’s farm. While there he wrote a poem inspired by his experience with the sea, which he titled The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star, or in Old English, Scipfæreld Éarendeles Ǽfensteorran. Over the years Tolkien wrote five versions of the poem. The fifth version, written substantially later than the first, can be found in The Book of Lost Tales – Volume II, one of several books of Tolkien’s work published after his death and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. In the book Christopher indicates the changes that were made from the earlier versions. I used that information to recreate, as well as I could, the first version of the poem, written right after his experience in Cornwall, which I present below. I invite you to read the poem slowly and let its imagery take shape in your mind.

 The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star

Éarendel sprang up from the Ocean's cup
In the gloom of the mid-world's rim;
From the door of Night as a ray of light
Leapt over the twilight brim,
And launching his bark like a silver spark
From the golden-fading sand
Down the sunlit breath of Day's fiery Death
He sped from Westerland.

He threaded his path o'er the aftermath
Of the glory of the Sun,
And went wandering far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
Of the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the Evening star goes by.

But heading he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wandering spirit whirled
On a magic quest through the darkening West
Toward the margent of the world;
And he fares in haste o'er the jewelled waste
To the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.

For the ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel's shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the skiey shores
In his argent-orbéd bark.

And Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth's pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean's dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And hearkened to their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
Of its journey down the years.

Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
And voyaging the skies
Till his splendour was shorn by the birth of Morn
And he died with Dawn in his eyes (Lost Tales, pp. 267-269).

{Beauty of Words}

Tolkien shared the poem with his good friend, G. B. Smith (who died shortly thereafter in World War 1). Smith responded that he liked the poem and asked Tolkien what it was really about. Tolkien said that he didn’t know, but that he would try to find out. As his biographer Humphrey Carpenter emphasizes, Tolkien did not say he would ‘invent’ an answer, he said he would ‘try to find out’. As Tolkien explored the inner world whence the story of Éarendel had arisen he discovered the ‘people’ who spoke Quenya and Sindarin (Éarendel meets them in his journey): they were Elves. This was the beginning of Tolkien’s mythology.

He continued to develop his mythology (published after his death as The Silmarillion) along with Quenya and Sindarin and other languages that arose as the mythology unfolded. Rather than writing his languages to fulfill a need in his mythology, the process usually worked the other way around, the evolution of his languages would lead to new stories in his mythology. The resulting, quite extensive, mythology was unique in that it was centered around the history of the Elven race, rather than being Human-centered. Nothing like it existed in literature…and publishers showed no interest in it.

After working on his mythology for roughly 15 years, one day, while Tolkien was grading exam papers (a very weary task), he opened an exam to see that the student had left one of the pages blank. He picked up a pen and without knowing why, wrote on the page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien didn’t know what a hobbit was, or why it was living in a hole in the ground, or what kind of hole it was. He decided to find out.

So much fantasy writing has emerged since the publication of The Hobbit that it is hard to appreciate just what a revolutionary book it was. It was a story without an existing genre. The chairman of the publishing company to which Tolkien had submitted it, handed the book to his 10-year-old-son to read. When the son gave The Hobbit a positive review it was published.

The Hobbit was a surprising success and Tolkien was encouraged to write a sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings. Both books take place at the end of Tolkien’s mythology, and have that foundation to give them profound depth. It took Tolkien about 15 years to write The Lord of the Rings. When it was submitted the publisher once again gave it to his son to read (who by then was in his twenties). After reading it the son wrote to his father that it would be big gamble to publish the book, that they might very well lose money in doing so, but that it was a work of genius. His father wrote back that if it was a work of genius then they had better well publish it.

The Tapestry of Tolkien’s Work

While Tolkien’s mythology arose out of his creation/discovery of the Elvish languages there were many more threads that were woven into that tapestry. Tolkien reflected on the origins of his mythology in a letter to his former student, W.H. Auden. “To turn, if I may, to…the matter of when I started…It has been always with me: the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me emotionally like colour or music; and the passionate love of growing things; and the deep response to legends (for lack of a better word).” (Letters, p. 212).

We have already looked at Tolkien’s love of language. Regarding the effect of Tolkien’s life-long work at creating languages on the quality of his stories, C. S. Lewis wrote in his obituary of Tolkien, “Strange as it may seem, [his creation of his languages] was undoubtedly the source of that unparalleled richness and concreteness which later distinguished him from all other philologists. He had been inside language.” (emphasis mine, cited in Carpenter, p. 138). Tolkien once wrote that he would have preferred to have written his stories in Elvish (Letters, pg. 219). Language was Tolkien’s path of heart.

His stories were also shaped by his other loves, including his “passionate love of growing things.” Tolkien loved Nature. This is evident in his writing where his stories are as much about the land of Middle Earth–the rivers, the mountains, the trees–as they are about its inhabitants. This love of Nature, I suspect, is the connection, in my own heart, between Tolkien’s writings and the Andean Cosmovision. Perhaps it is impossible to have a path of heart that does not include a love of Nature. It requires an overactive intellect, or a thirst for power over nature, to build a wall between Nature and our hearts.


Tolkien’s mythology was also strongly shaped by his “deep response to legends (for lack of a better word).” I have noticed that Tolkien often put quote signs around the word “legend” when he used it in his writing. I believe this has to do with a belief that legends should not be dismissed as being unreal just because they are fictitious. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in the second essay.

The legends to which Tolkien deeply responded were the old fairy-stories of Europe. This takes us briefly back to the topic of philology. The most noted of all philologists was Jacob Grimm. Jacob and his brother Wilhelm gathered together a collection of German folk tales–some recorded in the field by the brothers and some pulled from other collections–and published these in 1812 in a work that was eventually titled Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

One hundred years later, when Tolkien turned his attention to fairy-tales, all that was available was a relatively small number of stories from a small number of collections (such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales). These fairy tales have two severe limitations. The first is that the stories are all disconnected from each other. “There may be a vague sense that they all take place in something like the same world, a dimly-perceived far past which, as Bilbo says of Gandalf’s stories, is all about ‘dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and unexpected luck of widow’s sons.’ ” (Author of the Century, p. 12). There is, however, no connection between the tales, and they provide only narrow glimpses of the land from which they arose.

The second problem with the extant fairy-tales is “one which Tolkien sensed very keenly. This is that from their very beginning, from the time, that is, when scholars began to take an interest in them and collect them, they seemed already to be in a sense in ruins. The Grimm brothers, in the nineteenth century, quite certainly had as a main motive…the wish to do a kind of literary rescue archaeology. They were convinced that the tales they collected, as brief as they were…still preserved fractions of some older belief, native to Germany but eventually suppressed by foreign missionaries, foreign literacy, and Christianity…What could those old tales have been like, before the whole mythology had been downgraded to children and their nursemaids?” (Author of the Century, pg. 13).

Tolkien believed that it was possible to work backward in time from the existing remnants of fairy-tales and recreate the mythological worldview from which the fairy tales had arisen. “However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think he was entirely making it up. He was ‘reconstructing;’ he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts; sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.’ (Author of Century pp. xiv-xv). It was a task he inherited from Jacob Grimm, and one for which he was uniquely qualified. “Tolkien was very used to scrutinizing old texts and drawing from them surprising but rational conclusions about history and language and ancient belief.” (Road to Middle Earth, p. 48). One of the things that made Tolkien’s work on this mythology so powerful was his mastery of the topic. “On some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world” (Author of Century xiv-xv). His mind was a subtle one, and not without a bit of guile.

{Hey Diddle Diddle}

Tolkien had another consideration, one close to his heart, that came to flavor his mythology. In his early college years he read a paper to a college society on the Kalevala (a compilation of Finnish oral folklore and mythology). In the paper he said, “These mythological ballads are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries….I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English.” (cited in Carpenter, p. 67). Tolkien liked Old English, but he did not find it as ‘delectable’ as Finnish or Welsh. His attraction to Old English was largely that it was the language of his ancestry. Tolkien cared a good deal about his ancestry. As an expert on ancient languages and manuscripts, he felt a keen sense of loss that Britain did not have its own mythology, like the Kalevala, and he set about in his mythology to remedy that.

In a letter to W.H. Auden Tolkien wrote, “In any case if you want to write a tale of this sort you must consult your roots, and a man of the North-west of the Old World will set his heart and the action of his tale…with the Shoreless Sea of his innumerable ancestors to the West, and the endless lands (out of which enemies mostly come) to the East. Though, in addition, his heart may remember, even if he has been cut off from all oral tradition, the rumour all along the coasts of the Men out of the Sea.” (Letters, p. 212).

{The Heart Remembers}

Reality and Truth

What was Tolkien’s own experience of writing the stories that constituted his mythology? Over the years Tolkien increasingly had the feeling that his languages and mythology had some basis in reality, that he was discovering them rather than inventing them.  “They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing'” (Letters, pg 145).

Here is how his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, describes Tolkien’s view of the reality of his creation. “[Tolkien] did not suppose that precisely such peoples as he described, ‘elves’, ‘dwarves’, and malevolent ‘orcs’, had walked the earth and done the deeds that he recorded. But he did feel, or hope, that his stories were in some sense an embodiment of a profound truth.” (Carpenter, p. 99, emphasis mine). This description of Tolkien’s experience with his stories is remarkably similar to how I described my experience with his books at the beginning of this essay, thoughts I had long before I read Carpenter’s biography. There are two concepts here, and both are valid and important: 1) it is not really the case that elves and dwarves once walked on this earth; and 2) Tolkien’s stories seem somehow more real than reality itself. Of the two, the second concept rather overwhelms the first.

An understanding of the second concept can be addressed through an examination of the relationship between fairy stories, our experience of reality, and reality itself. This will be the theme of the second essay. For that I will draw heavily from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”–where he addresses this issue–and work in a liberal amount my own thoughts about the Other Side of Reality (partially expressed in the earlier posts that constitute Thread A of this blog).

But I have strayed a bit from my concluding question, “What was Tolkien’s experience when writing his mythology?” For that I would like to turn again to Tolkien himself. “The Land of Fairy Story is wide and deep and high, and is filled with many kings and all manner of men, and beasts, and birds; its seas are shoreless and its stars uncounted, its beauty an enchantment and its peril every-present; both its joy and sorrow are poignant as a sword. In that land a man may (perhaps) count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very mystery and wealth make dumb the traveller who would report. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates be shut and the keys be lost. The fairy gold (too often) turns to withered leaves when it is brought away. All that I can ask is that you, knowing all these things, will receive my withered leaves, as a token at least that my hand once held a little of the gold.” (On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, p. 207).


For many years I had feared to look into Tolkien’s life and into his own views about his mythology. The enchantments of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings lie so beautifully on me and I was loth to break the spell. I was afraid that, as in the Wizard of Oz, if I looked behind the curtain, I would find the magic was only a man operating a machine. What I found behind the curtain, to my everlasting delight, was a window looking out upon Faërie:

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (Return of the King, p. 1007).

A Promise is as Promise

I did say earlier that I would share some thoughts about “what happened to philology” at the end of this essay for those who might be interested.

{What Happened to Philology?}


Author of the Century. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Bateson. The Case Against the Case for Mind/Body Dualism, in Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson, edited by Rodney Donaldson (HarperCollins, 1991).

Carpenter. J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography, Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Jones. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Leslie Jones (Greenwood, 2003).

Letters. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Lost Tales. The Book of Lost Tales (Part Two), edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

On Fairy-stories. Tolkien on Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyne Flieger & Douglas Anderson (HarperCollins, 2008).

Road to Middle Earth. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, Tom Shippey (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

Return of the King. The Return of the King in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1955).Scatterlings. Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia, Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press).

Steps. Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson (Chandler, 1972).



{Stalactites} Compared to literary critics, philologists “were much more likely…to consider not only what a word was doing in its immediate contexts, but also its roots, its analogues in other languages, its descendants in modern languages and all the processes of cultural change that might be hinted at by its history. It might be said that to Tolkien a word was not like a brick, a single delimitable unit, but like the top of a stalactite, interesting in itself but more so as part of something growing.” (Road to Middle Earth, p. 28). I believe Shippey meant stalagmite rather than stalactite. {back}

{Dragons} “Tolkien felt more than continuity with the Beowulf-poet, he felt a virtual identity of motive and of technique…But what did the dragon, for instance, mean to the Beowulf-poet? For him, Tolkien argued, dragons might have been very close to the edge of reality; certainly the poet’s pagan ancestors could have thought of dragons as things they might one day have to face…Dragons had to the poet not yet become allegorical, as they would to his [Christian] descendants…[The poet] was phenomenally lucky in his freedom to balance exactly between…pagan and Christian worlds…Tolkien didn’t want dragons to be symbolic, he wanted them to have a claw still planted on fact…Tolkien was very used to scrutinizing old texts and drawing from them surprising but rational conclusions about history and language and ancient belief. In the process he developed very strongly [an] instinct for validity, one which enabled him to say that [some word, like beadurùn] was true, even if unrecorded, meaning by ‘true’ a genuine fragment of older civilisation consistent with the others. All his instincts told him that dragons were like that–widespread in Northern Legend, found in related languages from Italy to Iceland, deeply embedded in ancient story. Could this mean nothing? He was bound to answer ‘No’, and hardly deterred by the thought that ‘intelligent living people’ would disagree with him.” (Road to Middle Earth, pp. 47-48). {back}

{Grace} My favorite 20th Century thinker, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, had this to say about the integration of the intellect and the heart.

“I argue that art is a part of man’s quest for grace; sometimes his ecstasy in partial success, sometimes his rage and agony at failure.

I argue also that there are many species of grace within the major genus; and also that there are many kinds of failure and frustration and departure from grace. No doubt each culture has its characteristic species of grace toward which its artists strive, and its own species of failure.

Some cultures may foster a negative approach to this difficult integration, an avoidance of complexity by crass preference either for total consciousness or total unconsciousness. Their art is unlikely to be “great.”

I shall argue that the problem of grace is fundamentally a problem of integration and that what is to be integrated is the diverse parts of the mind—especially those multiple levels of which one extreme is called ‘consciousness’ and the other the ‘unconscious.’ For the attainment of grace, the reasons of the heart must be integrated with the reasons of the reason.” (Steps, p. 129) {Back}

{Beauty of Words} I found in Tolkien’s letters this little gem that give us a feeling for how he experiences the beauty of words. I inserted it here as the word argent appears in the Éarendelpoem. Tolkien wrote a letter to his aunt about the appearance of the words plenilune and argent in one of his Tom Bombadil poems. They were discussing whether the poems were too advanced for children. Tolkien said, “As for plenilune and argent, they are beautiful words before they are understood – I wish I could have the pleasure of meeting them for the first time again! – and how is one to know them till one does meet them? And surely the first meeting should be in a living context, and not in a dictionary like dried flowers!” (Letters, p. 310) {Back}

{Trees} In a letter Tolkien wrote, “There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. [The ennoblement of what is simple or common I find particularly moving.] I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals” (Letters, p. 220). And in another letter, “Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and live, and not easily tamed or destroyed, though it may clothe itself in pseudo-rational terms)” (Letters, p. 321). {Back}

{Hey Diddle Diddle} In addition to fairy-stories, Tolkien also believed that nursery rhymes were the tattered remnants of older, more complete, and interesting works. He would occasionally apply his talents to the reworking and expansion of a nursery rhyme. His expanded version of Hey Diddle Diddle appears in The Lord of the Rings (Frodo sings it at the Prancing Pony). {Back}

{The Heart Remembers} When Tolkien wrote, “Though, in addition, his heart may remember, even if he has been cut off from all oral tradition, the rumour all along the coasts of the Men out of the Sea,” he was referring to his thought that it might be possible for information to be passed down from generation to generation, not verbally, but heart to heart. He went on to say,

“I say this about the ‘heart’, for I have what some might call an Atlantis complex. Possibly inherited, though my parents died too young for me to know such things about them, and too young to transfer such things by words. Inherited from me (I suppose) by one only of my children, though I did not know that about my son until recently, and he did not know it about me. I mean the terrible recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming ineluctably over the trees and green fields.” (Letters, pp. 212-213).

In writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien (in his words) “bequeathed” this dream to Faramir:

“‘It reminds me of Númenor,’ said Faramir…’of the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it.'” The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 941.

This nightmare had followed Tolkien since his childhood. After writing the dream into his mythology of Middle-Earth, he never had the dream again. {Back}

{What Happened to Philology?} When I first began to read about Tolkien and his life, I had to look up what philology was. Despite my long career in academia I had never heard of it, and I was surprised to discover that it was once the Crown Jewel of the Humanities. By the time Tolkien came along, it was evident (including to Tolkien) that the tide was flowing out on philology in academia. Shippey states that its decline, in the early 1900’s, was as rapid as had been its ascent. I believe that there were three reasons why this occurred.

1) Shippey states that the short answer for why students stopped majoring in philology was that it was such a tremendous slog to study. Students wishing to learn philology were faced with “thousands of pages of dry-as-dust theorems about language-change, sound-shifts and ablaut-gradations” (Road to Middle Earth, p. 13). And that students of philology faced “Grimm’s Law, Verner’s Law, Grasmann’s Law–rising in successive terraces of horror–and then were overwhelmed.” (Road to Middle Earth, p. 21).

With his elan for languages, and his excellence as a teacher, Tolkien was able to stem that tide for a while. As a young professor, he and a colleague (E.V. Gordon) formed the Viking Club for undergraduate students. They would meet weekly at a pub, make up rude verses about their colleagues, translate nursery rhymes into Old English, and sing drinking songs in Old Norse. The number of students majoring in philology, which had been in a steady decline, began to rise under their influence, but in the long run the tide could not be stemmed.

2) Philology reached its peak influence in the late 1880’s, part of its decline in the early 1900’s was due to its identity as a primarily German discipline. Tolkien lamented in 1924 that “Philology is in some quarters treated as though it were one of the things that the late war was fought to end.” Three years before that “the British Board of Education had printed a report that said that philology ought not to be taught to undergraduates, that it was a ‘German-made’ science…that by contributing to German arrogance it had led in a direct way to the outbreak of World War 1.” (Road to Middle Earth, p. 9).

3) In Tolkien’s time philology was housed within an English Studies department, cohabiting with English Literature. The two disciplines did not get on very well, and they competed over resources and students. The problem, I believe, is that philology is a science and English literature is an art, and that science and art go together like oil and water. According to Shippey, English literature viewed philology as an “anti-literary science kept up by pedants (like Professor Tolkien) which ought to be stopped as soon as possible.” (Road to Middle Earth, p.13).

My google search for the role of philology in academia today reveals that, at the least in the United States, philology is usually listed as a sub-discipline of the field of linguistics. Linguistics is a scientific discipline, and thus should provide a good home for philology, but philology appears to play but a minor role in linguistics. The problem here, I believe, is that while philology is scientific (if we define science as a methodical and evidence-based endeavor) what it is studying is meaning. Modern science is simply not interested in, nor equipped to study, meaning. Meaning cannot be measured, thus it lies outside the reach of the primary tool of the sciences, which is statistics. Meaning is also not amenable to being studied through analysis, for meaning is not an attribute of an object that can be studied in isolation. Meaning is a relationship between objects, the very same word may have different meanings to different people, or different meanings to the same person at different times or in different contexts.

I’m afraid that as I write this, I can see myself standing over in the field where I do all of the rest of my writing, using semaphore flags to signal me to head this discussion over there. In that field I speak extensively of worldviews (Western and non-Western), and of the importance of bringing more meaning and beauty and love back into the Western worldview, without abandoning science as our tool. I stand resolute, however, and will wait until the second essay to head in that direction. {Back}

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