Approaching Santiago by Plane at Sunrise
Awaking from my cramped semi-sleep, I open the window shade and look out. In the black sky, a line of red-gold is burning along the horizon; above the fiery line hangs the fragile bowl of a perfect crescent moon, and to one side of that, the morning star. As we rush forward, the horizon becomes jagged and diffuse, and I think at first that it is clouds; but as the light grows, I see that it is the black outline of mountains. It is the Andes, the great Cordillera; even from this distance, I can feel their silent power. Little by little as I watch, they come into relief, immense and pointed and fantastic, flooded with pale gold, their outline a filigree of fire. Above them float almond shaped clouds, deep gray and outlined in silver-gold. Far below us, the sea is covered with a luminous fleece that extends all the way to the base of the great mountain chain… Struggling to broaden my embrace of everything, I remember a line from an old Chinese poem, “The joy of blue mountains…”
The girl beside me, maybe 16 years old, has the fresh sweetness of youth, an open smile. She is happy to be going home.
Taxi with Florcita
Emerging from customs, bleary after my 20-hour trajectory, I set out to look for a taxi to take me to Mickey’s house, where I will be staying before riding up to the mountains with him and a few other people. I don’t have any Chilean money, but I find a cluster of men under a sign saying “Taxi” and ask if any of them take Visa. They look at me wonderingly and shuffle me down the line, until a middle aged man in a shiny black leather jacket tells me, “Of course!” He kindly shepherds me toward his vehicle, chucks my suitcase in the trunk, installs me in the back seat, and we take off. Bedraggled with sleeplessness though I am, I am feeling jaunty, and we begin talking. When I tell him I am on my way to Punta de Vacas, he says, “Ah, you must be one of those Humanists! I remember them from the 70s!” He is very jolly. More than anything, he loves Florcita Motuda, and asks if I know who he is. Of course, I say, the crazy singer! Happily, he tells me Florcita is now a deputy in the Chilean Chamber of Deputies. Then he puts one of Florcita’s songs on the stereo. He exults about Florcita all the way to Mickey’s house.
Mickey’s house is in the hills, with the Andes springing up practically in his back yard. When I arrive, his daughter welcomes me and takes me upstairs to a blessed room of my own, where I pass out and dream a little dream of gratitude:
I give an old man
A plate of food
I am helped.
I cannot remember
But the music
Is with me always
The music of helping,
The next morning, Mickey and I load our things into his car, drive downtown to pick up Roberto, Joaquin, and a young man from the Humanist Party downtown, and take off for the mountains. The three-hour drive is jubilant, full of conversation and laughter. With the noise of the motor and the unaccustomed language, I don’t get everything that is said, but I hear Roberto talking about the Day of the Winged Lion. His eye has a gleam in it as he explains his reading of the story, and his proposal that profound and lasting change can happen sooner than later if only enough of us can sustain contact with the Profound…
On the Chilean side of the Andes, 29 switchbacks zigzag up the nearly vertical ascent. Near the top, we stop at the Laguna del Inca, a jewel-like lake whose deep blue-green waters are said to be the tears of an Incan prince in mourning for his beloved.
We cross the border, reach the summit and begin the descent, passing Mt. Aconcagua, vast and mist shrouded, as we near the Park.
Before going to the Park, we stop at the nearby town of Penitentes and check into our hotels. When I come down to the lobby after leaving my bags in my room, I find Nina and Jardel there, just checking in. We are overjoyed at seeing each other; they live in Berlin, and we meet on Skype every week for a Message meeting, but it’s been a long time since we were together in person. We stand talking, and other old friends keep showing up, all of us falling into a happy synchrony.
That evening at the Park the same process continues, so many friends, old and new, greeting each other. More often than not, when someone greets me I have no idea of their name, or where I know them from; but it doesn’t matter – I recognize everyone, even the people I’m meeting for the first time.
In this remote spot so far from my usual habitat (more than 6000 miles south of Portland, almost 10,000 feet up in the air, in an alien culture and in a hemisphere where the seasons are backwards and the moon is upside down), I feel utterly at home, no problems anywhere. That night, in my room alone, I play the little wooden flute Walt gave me with abandon, exploring its sweet wooden hollows with my breath.
At a Well-Being Ceremony the week before I left, Jorge whispered in my inner ear that he was planning to come along with me on this trip. He did come, and I wrote this for him…
You came with me
All this way
Smuggled in my heart
Being with you
Is different now than before
And deeply more the same
Ourselves perfectly us
How sweet to be
In the sparkling center
All shadow-fears cast aside
The whole sun
Opens inside me
And when we meet
It is as two suns shining
Four Strong Young People
On Saturday, the day of the celebration, the Wind takes over everything, and setting up takes way longer than planned. It comes in immense, heroic blasts that take hold and shake everything in their teeth for several minutes. When that happens, everything stops, because there is nothing anyone can do but hold on.
Over the loudspeaker someone keeps calling for “quatro jovenes fuertes” – four strong young people – to stand with their backs to the large video screen to keep it from blowing over. Four young people go up and stand stalwartly there, but still the Wind overpowers everything, and we never do get to see the images on the screen.
Even without the visual aspect, getting everything ready takes forever, but it doesn’t matter. It is joyful waiting here in the flying wind, embracing so many old and new friends, so joyful that I keep weeping. I have covered my head with my wool shawl to protect my eyes from the flying grit, which is convenient, because under it I can let my tears flow freely. I don’t know why I am still loath to appear emotional in front of people; emotion is my middle name! Nevertheless, I hide under my shawl and weep with the crushing gladness of being here. I cannot believe my luck.
Finally Antonio gives his talk, and all during it I keep weeping. It is beautiful and sincere, a fitting commemoration of fifty years of Silo’s work.
At dinner that evening we order a celebratory Malbec, choosing the most auspicious brand, “la Escuela, Tinto Negro.”
I am not the same as before – or better said, I am more myself. The breathless altitude, the wild, rough-housing winds, and the tempest of love from my friends have stripped and melted away layers and layers of the fear I’ve always worn like armor, and my inhibitions are dying from malnutrition. Here everything happens without resistance, smooth as butter, as if I were nothing, falling through the kaleidoscope of time and space, no wind resistance… Newly unencumbered, I find myself looking around with curiosity, exploring the world like a babe.
Thank you dear Guide,
But are you not me?
Indeed, he replies
With a complicit wink
This is how you can live forever
The young man from Mozambique wants to buy my book about Silo; I have a copy, but I don’t want to sell it to him. Instead, I decide I will just give it to him. Then he can give me a gift of money in return, however much he chooses. That way there is no obligation and no objectification.
I’m sure many others have discovered this marvelous solution to the devilry of money, but I think I’m pretty smart. I jot in my notebook:
How do I manage
To inflate myself so much
With the nothingness
That I am?
I long ago resigned myself to the embarrassment of being alive. Egos are by nature controlling, inept, and fragile, always making fools of themselves and being crushed into squirming nothings. Mine has been embarrassed plenty of times before. Why not here?
Sure enough, we’ve been at the Park less than two days when I get so comfortable that I let down my guard and end up making a fool of myself, not just once, but twice.
The first time is when I see an old friend I haven’t seen for a long time, and think I will ask him about his daughter, since I’ve heard she is ill. I go up to him and hug him and ask, “How is your child?”
He looks at me for a moment in puzzlement and then says, “I have no child!”
Oops… I realize in a flash that I have mixed him up with a mutual friend, whom I also haven’t seen in a long time – clearly way too long! Awash in embarrassment, I stand there grinning and fumbling…
The second embarrassment happens when Nina asks me if she can invite a friend of hers to play flute with me. She knows I’ve brought a flute along, and her friend plays flute, and it would be fun to have us play together. Sure, why not, I say. So she invites him.
We meet in one of the study rooms, and sit down and take out our flutes. He is a tall, soft-spoken young man, and it turns out we both have the same kind of flute, a quena.
That is mildly surprising to me. I’m not a quenaplayer, Walt recently gave me mine, and all I know about it is that it is a traditional Andean flute. I can get a fairly pleasant sound out of it most of the time, but I really have no idea how to play it. I brought it with me because it’s small, and I thought I might have a chance to play around on it sometime when no one was listening.
The young man wastes no time, and begins to play, starting with a few simple, wandering notes. After listening for a moment, I join in, groping for notes that will fit with his melody. We improvise together for a while, exploring melodies and harmonies together. Improvising music is something I love to do, and except for a few bungles on my part, I think we sound pretty good. At last we finish on the same note, in unspoken agreement that we are done.
Then, in the silence, he reaches over and touches my arm, and kindly tells me, “That was very good.” Why do I want to play the quena, he asks, and I tell him I just love flutes, and this one was small enough to bring along. Ah, he says.
Then Nina asks him to play something else for us. He assents, and after a moment’s reflective pause, plunges into an extremely fast, complex classical piece. It is quite long, and he plays it beautifully, executing it without a single mistake.
Only then does it dawn on me that all unawares, I have been improvising with a professional performing artist, a world class quenaplayer. I didn’t even know there was such a thing!
That is my second embarrassment.
Formerly, I would have kicked myself on both occasions, blushing in chagrin for hours afterward.
This time, however, something different happens.
When I realize I’ve asked the wrong person about his non-existent child, I do briefly consider the option of wallowing in embarrassment – but before I can even begin, I reject the idea. Why on earth would I do that, when have so many other, more interesting options?
And after the distinguished flute player so kindly tells me “very good” and then demonstrates his own amazing prowess, it blips briefly in my mind that I might want to feel embarrassed. But this time I don’t even go there. I have no regrets. The young man is a gentle person, and I really enjoyed our time together; if Nina had told me ahead of time who he was, I would certainly have backed out in a fluster of modesty, and would have missed out on something lovely.
Unexpected Good Fortune
All of a sudden
My garden is blooming
With hundreds of new plants
Poking their green noses up
Flaunting their bawdy blooms
What can I do but run around
With my watering can?
Walk to the Chorro
Today Nina and Jardel and I take a long afternoon and hike to the place Silo built his stone hut fifty years ago.
To get there we walk to the Hermitage where it has been rebuilt at the edge of the Park, and from there clamber down a steep gravelly slope to the barbed wire fence that marks the Park boundary. Walking along the fence, we find a wide spot between the barbed wires and climb through. On the other side we follow some old train tracks until we come to a path leading on down the slope to the bridge over the river. We cross the bridge over the swift little river, and climb up the dusty, rock-strewn track on the other side.
When the track levels out at the top, we find ourselves standing in a vast, flat valley that extends between the sweeping mountainsides. Far away at the end of the valley is Mt. Tupungato, the 22,000 foot high peak where Silo’s teachers brought him and his classmates to play and climb when they were children.
We walk through the scrubland toward that distant peak for what seems like miles; the sky stretches vast and intense blue above us, and all around us golden tufts of a grass my phone tells me might be Stipa Speciosaburst among the rocks, glowing with their own light. At last, after around two hours of walking, we come to a second river, running fierce and turquoise between its gravel banks. Far up the slope on the other side, we can see the place Silo built his stone hut. The site is marked by the chorro, a jet of water shooting up into the air from a pipe in the ground. From here it looks like a white feather…
We stand and look, the river below us rushing and tumbling and frothing over rocks and boulders shrugged off the shoulders of the stone giants that guard this stark valley. Jardel wants badly to find a way to cross the river, but we discourage him, having been told it is too dangerous. They say even pack horses have been swept off their feet crossing it.
But this is a good place to be. Everything has its own light, rocks and shrubs etched clearly against the sand. In the wind and the silence, I can imagine the young man sitting up there in his stone hut, in the enormity of this place, setting out to meditate. He goes inside himself, deep inside, so deep that he stops shivering and worrying about the foxes stealing his crackers, and at last the words of The Inner Lookcome to him, and he begins to write…
We cannot cross the river, but we sit beside it and read from the book Silo wrote here in the silence of these peaks.
Water into Wine
Back at the Center of Studies, a friend asks me for advice, and I surprise myself with how coherently I respond…
When people come to me
Complaining of the behavior of the world
As they tend to do
Because I’m advanced in years
And often smiling,
I sometimes surprise myself
By opening the proper cupboard
In my mind
And finding there, laid out in rows
Like jars of liniment,
All my most coherent thoughts
Blended from past failures
Lovingly harvested and carefully aged
Until their essence ripens
Into the most marvelous
Today I note with surprise that my joy is somehow deflated. The Park is emptying out, and Nina and Jardel and I are here with only a few others. I should not be feeling this way, I tell myself, but everything I do has a shadow to it. Even going to the Hall and playing my flute is only half-heartedly lovely. I feel like a migrating bird who has strayed from her flock, and is coasting down exhausted out of the high altitudes, seeking a place to rest.
I had not realized how much my joy fed on the energy of those thousands of people! Such intoxication is delightful, but not exactly practical as an expectation for daily life. I remember the Buddhists and their “equanimity” – being able to be ok no matter what. I think that makes more sense.
So I make an effort to just settle into the beauty of being here in the silence of these sweeping distances.
Of course even with most of the people gone, there are still many warm moments of connection with those who are still here. Now that only a few of us are eating in the Multiuse Room, we have the opportunity to talk with the caretaker and his wife, who runs the kitchen. Dedicated to taking care of the Park and the people who come here, they are rock bottom kind people. They seem particularly solid and unflappable, qualities that I imagine stand them in good stead, living here alone with themselves…
At last it is time to go. Nina and Jardel have reserved bus tickets for us, so we go out to wait by the road. Standing there with our suitcases, we wait for an hour, bus after bus passing as we grow increasingly nervous – you never know what is really going to happen in a country where you don’t know the way things work – but at last the bus arrives, the driver jolly and reassuring, and we are on our way.
Five hours later we arrive in Santiago and check into our “boutique hotel.” In contrast to the monks’ cells at the Center of Studies where we have been staying, our rooms are lavish and elegant. It is a charming place, and being here is delightful and sad, our last night together before we all fly home.
At the restaurant this evening a young woman from Venezuela serves us. She is a sunny person, very warm and friendly, and tells us all about her country with great pride. I ask her how she feels about the current crisis there, and she says with feeling that she is worried about her grandparents. The rest of her family has fled, but the old people are unable to leave. I ask if she would like to do a ceremony of wellbeing for them with us, and she agrees without hesitation, and comes to sit at our table.
We do the ceremony quietly, and I can feel how moved she is. Once more I give thanks. In a world where we are by definition powerless to change anything tangible, this little thing that we can do together, this invisible, quiet thing that seems like nothing, has such immense power. The young woman’s gratitude is radiant.
After Jorge’s death ten years ago I set out to find a center of gravity that I could not lose. By the time my trip rolled around, I’d made some headway, and was feeling fairly well-rooted in my interiority.
What I didn’t realize when I got on the plane was that I’d unknowingly packed some extra heavy baggage: the memory of myself the last time I was in Punta de Vacas, utterly lost in confusion at Jorge’s disappearance, everything collapsing around me like a house of cards.
That memory so colored my expectations that I was astonished by what actually happened. Instead of feeling lost and alone in a hostile world, I found myself at ease, wide awake and filled with gratitude, surrounded by friends, all of us falling through a sparkling emptiness without limits, full of every possibility in the world and more.
No limits! This, I knew, was what it is to humanize the earth, to end pain and suffering, to learn without limits, to love the reality you build…
That was the first five days.
On the sixth day, I was surprised by the let down I felt at the departure of the festive multitude. Then I had to admit that despite my fond hopes, I was still dependent on my surroundings for my wellbeing.
So it was that the empty Park, with its stark, ravishing beauty, its solitude, its history, put me smack up against the next frontier: imagining myself here alone, seeking contact with the inner depths that lie beyond all personal conditioning…
I’ve been meaning to go on a solitary retreat for a long time – it’s something I need to do. If I am lucky enough to do it in Punta de Vacas, I know those stark slopes will echo with the great questions: Who am I? Where am I going?
And then I will have to let go everything, including my fear of loneliness and abandonment, and meditate profoundly and without haste, and see what reality I find within.
- Trudi Lee Richards