Posted inHenry's Messages

Far from Home: Not-knowing is most intimate, Part 2 of 3

May 16, 2016



Maybe this was what “relativity” meant, I thought to myself: there was no final, objectively correct perspective, just different ways of seeing things.


Apart from reading Prescott’s magisterial History of the Conquest of Peru, at that age I was looking at the Andes through a lens formed mostly by my schooling: Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, and maybe a little too much D. H. Lawrence. In the early 1980s Lawrence’s reputation was still riding high, and as English schoolkids we were required to imbibe a lot of his prose. It was easy to peel a filter of his romanticization of the “elemental” life, as Lawrence had called it, from his work, and color the lens with it.

When the Andean boys ushered us toward the door of their home and we stooped into a darkness filled with woodsmoke, with one slanting beam of light athwart it from the chimney-hole, I saw an atavistic, immemorial life, a life that predated modernity and its severance of the soul from the land. This was the kind of life I had read about in Lawrence’s travel writing—his ruminations on the Mediterranean hills and Mexican mountains, in which peasantry moved slowly across the face of the earth, half-wading through it, so bound were they to the soil they plowed. These people were “of the earth,” their minds part-turned into the very sod by the blades of their adzes, as Lawrence had somewhere suggested.

We were offered the kind of hospitality that has ever been and is today common in premodern society. They let us sit near the earthen hearth in which wood coals were winking, and put on a pan for a strange and delicious drink, a kind of warm corn porridge. The wife whispered to herself constantly as she did things. It was a reassuring sound. Meanwhile a cloud of guinea pigs floated to and fro across the floor, drifting between our boots. She poked some potatoes from the ashes and we ate them with our fingers, scaldingly hot but achingly delicious, dipped in a bowl of salty gray sauce.

When the woman leaned forward into the beam of light that bisected the hut, I saw that her eyes gazed alertly into mine, irises shining clear as a river. It was hard to imagine that she had one of those “sod-bound minds” Lawrence had talked of. She seemed right on the ball.

At the same time, I began to sense how strange we ourselves must have seemed to these people. We were flouting several of the axia by which they lived. We were far from home and family, for a start. To them, that might have seemed near-hellish. Therefore, we could only have been in search of treasure. Often in the remote Andes we were told we were clearly seeking treasure, as if the age-old quest of the conquistadors had not yet ended. We stood before their doors pale-skinned, clad in strange fabrics that weren’t wool or cotton, taller than anyone with whom they had regular contact, yet shivering and incompetent, hopelessly unfamiliar with these lands, incapable of communicating with them on any reasonable level. What but the search for treasure could have brought us so far from home? We probably made sense only when we slurped from our hot drinks or munched greedily on the waxy little potatoes. Only then did we act as people should. Otherwise, we probably seemed lost souls.

Perhaps we were. Gradually during that most welcome of meals my own mind began to seem less and less certain a thing. If these people’s experience even of something so apparently nonnegotiable as extremes of temperature could be so different from mine, that meant that my experience surely wasn’t as absolute as I took it to be. It wasn’t the only way of seeing things.

That nightlong drop into unfamiliar fragility and vulnerability, from which our gear couldn’t protect us, followed by this immersion in an ancient human home: I wondered if both the exposure and the recovery from it were not after all a momentary straying out of normal human bounds but instead a kind of return to something. But, then, would our striding off in our nylon clothes and gear back to our perceived norm, when we left here, in fact be a reinhabiting of some kind of aberrant life? What was normal?

Maybe this was what “relativity” meant, I thought to myself: there was no final, objectively correct perspective, just different ways of seeing things.

The idea brought a quiet and unfamiliar joy. In these alien circumstances I felt curiously at home all of a sudden, and a warm gratitude welled up—for the kind family, for their dark home, and for the sun that I knew would be radiating its brilliance onto the fields and slopes outside.

When I heard the murmuring of the woman in the dark, and the scintillating aural quilt of the guinea pigs, and smelled the sweet, acrid smoke of the fire, and heard a rooster crow somewhere among the huts, for a moment it seemed that no one knew, and no one could know, how things really were, and there was no need to know. Instead, everything was just arising the way it was, and the certainty of a fixed center of things was briefly gone.

Presumably that fixed center would have been me—my ordinary sense of who I was. But I wasn’t even sure of that just then. What if there was no normal, no right, and what mattered was the sliding away of certainty, of any knowledge of how things really were? Just then I didn’t know, and it didn’t seem to matter. Somehow, it was a blessed relief.

The food, the shelter, the warm adobe walls, the fleeces on which they made us sit, the quiet susurrus of the Quechua tongue in the warm dark: slowly we revived. Our night of exposure out on the bare planet receded, covered by a new tide of human connection. We finished up the food. We made inarticulate small talk composed of smiles and exaggerated sounds of appreciation, and offered some meager gifts in exchange for the hospitality.

But the most memorable thing about that encounter was that somehow, against the odds, I felt we truly met these people. Somehow, in the condition of uncertainty that had swept over me, it was easier to be present and to feel their presence. The father had kind, bright eyes too, and in spite of our inarticulacy and youthful foreigners’ shyness, when he looked at me as I nudged the little bowl of gray sauce toward him, I felt recognized.

When we shook hands and left, I felt an unexpected pang in my heart.

Click here for Part 3 of Far From Home.


Written by Henry Shukman. Far from Home: Not-knowing is most intimate was originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2016.

Image: Machu Picchu, by Danielle Pereira, CC by 2.0, from
Featured Image: Bluewhite Against Brownwhite, by Paul Alexander, CC by ND 2.0, from

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