On Being Open or The Curse of the Seeker

“Do you want to see an ancient Inca ceremony?”

The young native man asks me this question in Spanish as we stand on a rocky ridge on a windswept mountain in Peru. We’re at the start of the trail winding down through the ruins of Pisac and into the modern market town of the same name in the Sacred Valley of the Incas outside Cuzco. The van that dropped my little group off has just pulled away, wheezing off down the winding mountain road. The rest of my party is already slipping away down the trail ahead. Mr. Inca Tourist Vulture was lurking near the drop-off point before we got here, as so often happens near tourist sites in Peru. Usually folks like him gather at such spots to hawk trinkets or postcards, or to offer their services as ad hoc tour guides. Only this trail is not very popular with the tourist set. There he stands, though, all the same. The young man catches me because I am last in line, a little behind and apart from the remainder of my herd. A lingerer. Easy mark.

“Sure,” I answer enthusiastically.

“Do you have to pee?” he asks.

What the hell? I’m thinking. Pee?! “Um, yeah—I guess,” I answer with diffidence. I really did have to go, but the jarring non sequitur had me more than a little suspicious of this fellow.

“Stand here,” he says, motioning to a small rocky ledge on the side of the large outcropping we’re perched atop. He takes a position beside me.

“Urinate here.” He points to the empty air in front of where we stand. “As you’re doing it, close your eyes, pull up your shirt, and rub your stomach, then turn from side to side. Offer your water and a prayer to Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata.”

Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata are modern Quechua ways of referring to Mother Earth and Father Sky, respectively. Quechua is the indigenous language descended from the speech of the Incas. It remains the first language of plenty of people in the Cuzco region. And along with Quechua the language comes modern, Inca-descended native culture. Even in heavily Catholic Peru, vestiges of the old Incan pantheism remain strong. The intricate volcanic rock facade of La Compañía Church in Arequipa bears carved images of pumas, the ancient Incan power animal whose head is supposedly visible in the design of the sacred site of Saksaywaman in the Sacred Valley, when viewed from the air. In the Cathedral on the main plaza in Cuzco, you can see Marcos Zapata’s eighteenth century painting of The Last Supper, where Jesus and his Disciples dine on cuy (native Andean roast guinea-pig) and drink glasses of chicha morada, the local Incan purple corn beer whose name in Quechua means ‘spit,’ as saliva was traditionally used to kick off the fermentation process. A native Quechua speaker, Marcos Zapata was also known as Marcos Sapata Inca. Throughout Peru, you see images and jewelry marked with the motif of the chakana or Inca Cross, its four symmetrical tripartite stair steps pointing to the cardinal directions and symbolizing the three levels of all existence: the underworld where the serpent reigns as the chief power, the surface that is the puma’s territory, and the sky where the Andean condor, largest flying bird in the world, soars supreme. The hole in the center represents the universal axis along which the Shaman may travel between levels, the center, Qosqo, which is the Quechua name for Cuzco. It means ‘navel, center.’

As my friendly new guide instructs me to bare both cock and tummy while momentarily blinding myself as I urinate in public near an Incan sacred site, I’m beginning to think that this is just a ploy to get me into a compromising position. He’s probably got some co-conspirators hidden just out of sight, and they’re going to pounce on me as soon as I begin, rob me, and then leave me for dead on a Peruvian mountainside. Or maybe they’ll just shoot pictures or video of me with my dick out, patting my paunch and peeing for all the world to see. They’ll use the film to blackmail me or possibly create an especially low-brow underground porn vid for the really hard-up. I hope it sells well around the tourist sites. But come on—there’s nowhere to hide out here, in the open on a sparse ridge: just large rocks and the hovering, cloudy sub-equatorial sky.

I glance ahead to see the rest of my party all but vanished down the trail in the distance. I’m here as a part-time chaperon with some friends who are high-school Spanish teachers. They spent a year living and working together in Peru during their undergraduate days and have decided to lug the high schoolers they now teach along for an eye-opening adventure through the real darkest Peru. They asked me along to help out. No stowaway bears or jam and tea on this trip—just plenty of cooked guinea pigs, beef-heart kabobs, 13,000 foot mountain passes, coca leaves to ward off altitude sickness, and a country grown unnervingly skilled in the tourist trade. When we got off the plane at the Cuzco airport and trekked across the tarmac to our waiting tour-bus, an enterprising native fellow snapped a photo of me carrying all my gear and looking for all the world with my detachable-leg cargo pants, compression shirt, fleece jacket, and sunglasses like a real mountaineer (read: wealthy American tool). I wasn’t even aware he had done it until, almost a week later, the same man finds me as our tour van is pulling away from the ruins of Saksaywaman in the Urubamba Valley. He sprints up as the van’s just beginning to back away and thrusts the photo he snapped through an open window. He has clipped and pasted it into the center of a montage of images of the best Peruvian highland tourist sites, all arranged on thick, post-card-quality paper. Of course I had to buy it from him. How could I not? All the sheer effort the man had gone to alone was more than worth the price. If servicing the tourist trade was an Olympic sport in Peru, this man was the all time supreme gold medalist in my book.

Anyway, there was no one else on the ridge high above Pisac that day: just me, the loner tourist, and the pervert lurking around the rocks, waiting for a mark to dupe into the “ancient Incan pee ceremony.” But after morning coffee and the long, poking van ride up the mountain, the pressure on my bladder really did feel acute. What if this actually is some venerable native tradition? What do I know from Incan folk beliefs? I’m open. Religion’s always been fascinating to me. Ancient ceremony? Yes! Pagan gods and goddesses on a South American mountainside? I’m game.

I pull out my penis, yank up my shirt-tail, and make water, offering myself, my gullibility, my fear to whatever spirits linger in these enchanting mountains. No one emerges to rape, rob, or murder me. I finish unmolested, thank my “host” for the lesson, and continue on down the trail. Maybe somewhere out there you can still buy a bootleg video of the stupid American tourist holding his cock and showing off his non-six-pack in the mountains above Pisac. But maybe, just maybe, I did honor the spirit of the place.

My time in the Peruvian Andes proved uniquely propitious. When we spent three days on the Inca trail, hiking our way up and then down again into Machu Picchu, I made fast friends with our native Quechua-speaking guide Mario. He introduced me to his family at one point as we passed through a small mountain village and encouraged me to set off alone on a long side trail as we neared the Inti Punku or Sun Gate about a mile outside of Machu Picchu. The trail led to the ruins of Wiñay Wayna built in stair-stepped terraces right into the steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba river. At the foot of the hill where the ruins perch, you can find a pretty little waterfall before the trail descends all the way to the river valley. I met not a single other person for the hour or so that I spent there and on the trail back to join our party. Wiñay Wayna means ‘forever young’ in Quechua, and the time I had to myself amid the ruins seemed truly outside of normal chronology, light as the thin mountain air but heavy with the magic of a place suspended in both space and time.

The next day, after the usual splendor of Machu Picchu and the smaller Huayna Picchu that hovers above the site, I struck out alone at 5am on another of Mario’s recommendations: to follow the train tracks leading out of the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu in order to find the hidden trail-head for the path toward the summit of Mount Putucusi. Putucusi—or Phutuq k’usi in Quechua, meaning ‘budding zucchini’—is a slender mountain standing erect like the eponymous vegetable thrust vertical into the earth across the valley from Machu Picchu. Its crest offers spectacular views of both the valley floor and the famous Machu Picchu complex across the way. The path up, though, is steep and narrow and features several vertiginous wooden ladders laid against almost vertical rock faces at various points. I scraped and sprinted my way to the top just before sunrise. As Machu Picchu got its golden morning bath, I snapped a shot with the ol’ digital camera I kept strapped in a holster at my waist: the dawning light clustered at the top of the frame into a winking corona like some mystical halo hovering over the ancient Incan city. Propitious indeed.

Perhaps you wouldn’t have done as I did, there on the mountain ridge above Pisac. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who regards folk beliefs as pure superstition, and you wouldn’t have given the young man who “seduced” me the time of day. Or maybe you’re a committed practitioner of a major world religion and regard such things as demonic. You too would have walked disdainfully on, deaf to the fellow’s pitch, however ingenious or intriguing. Maybe you’re just uncomfortable whipping out your manhood in front of another man. Me? I listened to what he had to say. Maybe it was out of politeness or maybe because I felt trapped in the situation. Or maybe there’s just something in me that’s always been interested in and open to religious ideas, homoerotic overtones and threat of dire harm or loss to my person and possessions be damned!

The curse of the seeker is to be doomed to a life of perpetual curiosity, somewhat like an itch in need of a good scratching, but without the surety that you can ever really find relief. It’s an existence of some semblance of reverence paid out of limited respect for (or at least interest in) others’ beliefs, but without real fear, for fear of others’ externalized gods and demons is itself a kind of surety (or at least firm suspicion) of their power and efficacy. It’s a day-to-day struggle of very much wanting to see meaning in the chance synchronicities—or what occult author Mitch Horowitz calls instances of “time collapse”—that pepper and spice up daily life, but being fundamentally and constitutionally incapable of doing so with a straight face, firm conviction, or untroubled mind.

Whatever it was that kept me from getting mugged, molested, mauled, or murdered that day above the ruins of Pisac, Peru, I’m fairly convinced it had nothing to do with cosmic justice, metaphysical machinations, or the powers of a positive mindset. My time in Peru might well have gone completely other than it did, turning from neat little quirk-filled jaunt to outright nightmare faster than you can say “Hail Satan!” But it didn’t. And while I’m grateful for that fact, I attach no more ultimate significance to it than I do to the eery way a cold, pre-winter wind kept knocking hard against the front door and windows of my house yesterday shortly after I performed a personal ritual including mock blood sacrifice and personal dedication to Satan.

According to the Relevance Theoretic Cognitive Principle of Relevance, human cognition tends to be geared toward maximizing the relevance of stimuli, meaning that, all things being equal, we’re more likely to view incoming information as being directed at us personally than to simply write it off as irrelevant. This principle aids our innate ability to share intention with others of our own, and even non-human, species, as when we see another person waving her arms and shouting, only to assume that she wants to gain our attention and convey an urgent message on which we’re meant to act. Sometimes, though, the person being gesticulated and shouted at is actually standing behind us, unbeknownst, of course, to ourselves. Other times, the apparent communicator is not actually sending an outwardly directed message at all, but merely dancing about with unseen earbuds, or maybe they’re just mentally disturbed and “communicating” with entirely interior populations and entities. There’s a lot of information out there in the wide world, and we’re cognitively predisposed to seeing within and behind it patterns and intentions, presuming they’re meant for us. Sometimes such patterns really are intentional and directed our way, but plenty of times, it’s all just a chimera of our own relevance-optimizing minds.

The gratitude I feel for my time in Peru isn’t of the usual sort, aimed at an intentional moral agent in exchange for a conscious gift or favor. “The universe” didn’t perform any service for me in the Andean highlands so many years ago. Rather, it’s simply that the impersonal, gaping maw of chaos didn’t swallow me whole and spit me back out broken and bleeding, and, for that, I’m glad.

I tried on many different sets of religious clothing before finally deciding the Emperor was naked and “taking the black” as an atheistic Satanist. My circuitous path encompassed academic degrees in aspects of religious studies; confessional stints as a Mormon (those “sacred underwear” really are magnificent! SO comfy!), as “Catholic-adjacent,” and a Neo-Pagan; years of intensive reading and study of Buddhism in all its varieties, numerous forms of mysticism, and Wicca/Paganism; and at least one whack (detailed above) at Peruvian piss piety. It’s all enriched my life in one way or another, but all ultimately felt more like study, play, or theater than anything “serious” or seriously connected to any source other than my own internal drive to learn, experience, and grow. My seeker’s curse has meant that I’ve cultivated relationships over the years with many different religious individuals of vastly differing stripes and ultimately disappointed them all, proving myself in their eyes more interested tourist than ardent teammate.

Seek and ye shall find? Only if you’ve grown tired of the search, weary of “playing the field,” and willing to trade a wild and rambling rummage for the taming effects of telos. Being a seeker is like the experience of my bladder that day high in the Andes mountains: filling to the point of brimming discomfort; finding temporary relief in release where, when, and how another presumedly more adept in “the practice” directed; but then filling right back up again as I departed soon thereafter, shaking my head over what had just transpired, wondering why anyone would do such things even as I just had.

Forget faith like a mustard seed. How ‘bout the metaphor of religious experience like the muscular bladder, filling with the detritus from the trash collectors of human belief, controlled by the tight sphincters of doubt that opens and closes when it needs to, when it just can’t take it all and hold it in anymore? Seekers see faith like a bladder, and we tend to view those with strong, evangelizing religious commitments as suffering from embarrassing incontinence that only seems to worsen with age, infirmity, or while in the throws of ailment.

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