this will be the century of chaos

We’ve known about blowback at least since “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” was written. But a vast, entire, astonishing empire of glittering cities, speeding cars, shiny restaurants, metal music, and digital devices has been constructed over the pliant land by pretending that we do not know.

Oh, what a paradise it seemed!

tiwanaku – weeds

Outside the ruins of Tiwanaku, a hundred school children run about in a dusty, trash-strewn field, chasing balls and one another. There is almost nothing to play with but they are playing.

The builders of Tiwanaku built their city like a mountain. “If we build our cities like mountains it is because they are meant to endure as long as mountains,” they thought. “Our realm is eternal. We must have the favor of the great gods, because we take care to honor them so well. We have built effigies five times the height of a man out of a single block of stone hauled arduously over the plain from quarries many miles away. Only gods can give this kind of skill and power, and they give it to us, so that we may honor them. On occasion, we sacrifice our best men and women to them, to please them and earn our continuance, our place in their eternity. The world is forever, and we were meant to live and rule forever in it.”

Now their city is a crumbled pile of jumbled monoliths that later men and women have come to reconstruct, like children playing with giant wooden blocks. No one conquered the old ones, who ruled over as many as three million for two thousand years. Their kingdom stretched far beyond the crooked colonial boundaries a later empire drew on the vast landscape.

They simply fell. They were and then were not powerful. They dispersed.

And today we know, and are always forgetting that we know, that the mountains are not eternal either. The whole exalted plain lay deep under the sea a long time past; the great original lake, highest of its size in the world, which may have once been sea too has risen and fallen, swallowing other monuments; the earth’s crust cracks and shifts; our perfect alignments with the eternal heavens become imperfect, because we are always moving through heavens that are not eternal, but in motion themselves everywhere and always. Everything moves. Everything scatters and regathers and scatters again, like the children playing in the stubble field. There is no such thing as stillness – it is an hallucination we have come to believe in by staring too long at stones, admiring the dead stillness first of stone and then of steel and plastic. Stop. Time. Stop it, we beg. If we can think beyond it then we must be able to live beyond it. Yes, we must.

But today we have in fact forgotten to beg or negotiate for continuance and instead demand it, making more and more and more of ourselves, like weeds that colonize an empty (but not truly – never truly empty) plain, covering the great wide spaces of the old world with our undecaying flocons of plastic trash, our pocked roads, and the rubble of our frenzied construction. With drafty structures that won’t last two dozen years much less two thousand, grasping in our hands tiny tools to collapse time into nanoseconds, freeze-dry it into data bits, transform eternity into the zero point of nownownownownow.

The children on the dusty plain will live in houses that are half-finished, ride in buses that are always breaking down, talk to each other on phones that work intermittently and get thrown away every two or three years. Their lives will be happy or sad, successful or frustrated, marked by health or illness, joy, hope, accomplishment, boredom. But like the rest of us, each one will leave behind a legacy of net increase of local entropy – energy lost to heat, material converted into waste. Which may be the only epoch-enduring sign that we were here.

A great cracked Door, the Gateway of the Sun, ten tons of stone carved from a single block, may once have marked a temple entrance but was found on the site collapsed, broken, and covered in mud. It has been raised again and made to stand upright, marking nothing now. A gateway to blue air. At the center of its lintel the Sun God appears to weep as he holds the upside down figures of a condor and a jaguar like scepters in his hands. Both creatures are nowhere to be seen in these windswept spaces. To conquer all nature is to weep, because it is to understand perhaps that after all the killing, all the paving and carving and digging and fighting and poisoning and torturing and buying and selling and planting of stones and flags, the unquiet living world keeps on shifting under your feet. Why would the sun, without which there would be no life here, need all this death as tribute?

We have misunderstood; we have gravely misunderstood.

Are the playing children our hope or a kind of weed or virus or nothing but playing children? Does what I can see now matter at all?

The mysteries of Tiwanaku are not really the mysteries of how the past was but of why the present is as it is. And the future?

Is only temporary.

Tiwanaku stella

disappearing act – kathputli

They had never been able to kill all the artists with poverty, war or even drugs. Some always survived. They wandered through the towns, dancing and juggling on the streets, living in disrespectful squalor, performing slight-of-hand tricks and small cons that separated the gullible from their coin.

There were always violent and dirty places where no one else wanted to live, and there the artists would congregate, and share cheap liquor and food, and tell funny stories of how they cheated this one, and escaped death at the hands of that one, and practice their tricks. But they also took care to have children and care for them and school them in their colorful arts: puppetry and mask making, music, dance – as well as rope and nail tricks, snake charming, and acrobatics, all that was left of the ancient magic of the yoginis, who once could fly, or the swamis of the Indus Valley princes whose superbly trained, godlike bodies contained the whole universe, from hell to heaven.

This went on for perhaps a thousand years.

But then we came and taught them a new and better way to deal with artists: offer them money, offer them townhouse apartments, offer (some of) them a steady job in the shopping mall we’re going to build on this filthy spot where their slum once stood. Decent people live inside four walls, and so must they, not camp in a stinking concrete and tin warren like animals. Decent people perform work, not clever tricks to fool others into giving up their money. You don’t need to drag around a smelly, moth-eaten bear skin to perform a play – you can learn how to make videos to post on YouTube, or get a job as an actor in Bollywood, or maybe work for the Americans who make those funny cartoons. The country is changing, and you must change too. Think of your children.

They will go to school, and sit in rows, and wear uniforms, instead of practicing contortionist skills or dance steps or running like rabbits through the painted alleys thick with smoke and slick with shit and rotting fruit.

When they are no longer poor, everyone else will be poorer, but we won’t even realize it. This is the best of all possible worlds.




three golf courses

1. Nigeria

Among all the greens of the tropics, this particular green is found nowhere, except for one expanse of tightly clipped, oddly gleaming grass. Pale aging figures move tranquilly upon its surface, watching the little white orbs that arc through the air as they strike them. On the verge, beyond a line of swaying, whispering palms, runs a steel fence topped with razor wire. On the other side of the fence, black waves, thick and shining with oil, lap at an empty beach. Dead fish, like tarnished silver coins, glimmer on the slick, tar-stained sand.

2. Baja California, Mexico

At the foot of the red mountains, in one of the driest places on earth, there is another sward of tightly clipped, oddly gleaming, bright green grass. Pale, aging figures move about its surface; clean little carts hum contentedly on the white paths.

Down the highway a half-mile, a rutted road cuts off to a bald circle of dirt. On it sits a one-room house made of loosely joined planks topped with tin sheeting. A small child stands outside in a ragged tee shirt, flinging stones and watching them arc through the air and drop into the dust.

3. Luzon, The Philippines

The crown of the mountain will be shaved, and covered with a haze of clipped, gleaming, bright green grass that follows its sinuous contours. The valley below, where wide plains of rice bow to the breezes off the inlet, and water buffalo graze, will be dredged, and flooded, so that cruise ships may dock there. There is a scale model of the project in a glassine tower in Manila.

It does not show the scale model corpse of a local fisherman, found face down in the road, who argued because he did not want to give up his nets for a caddie’s job.

Now the village women, whose great-grandmothers tended these fields and cattle, are leaving their tasks. They march silently to the top of the mountain, where they form a line across an open dirt track. They are waiting there, an unbending line, as the earthmoving machines rumble toward them.


In the bus station heading out to Teotihuacán, the City of the Sun, the great citadel of an unknown prehistoric people, alone, with my pack at my feet, crowds pushing by me, I loved the sensation of stillness in the middle of life, of being in a place that was foreign but not strange.

Teotihuacán is the greatest city of ancient Mexico, and nobody knows who built it, or what happened to them.  Archaeologists differ by thousands of years on its founding date.  Nor can they agree on what caused its destruction.  The stones are silent.

Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun (211 feet) I was surrounded by an upward-moving flood of uniformed school children who paused to ask me solicitous questions: “Where are you from?”  “Can you make it?” “Are you going all the way to the top?”  Yes, all the way to the top.  And we made it and took pictures of one another up there, and the kids, heedless of history, swarmed down again as if it were just a gym exercise (there are lots of other pyramids to climb) and I sat for a while longer till the sun started to go to my head, imagining the Mesoamerican priests two thousand years ago their fierce god-sun beating down seeing the crowds of ant-sized people reverently massing at the foot of the pyramid and gazing out over the broad avenues and rows of houses on the crowded (now empty) plain, thinking: we are the most powerful people in the whole world…

Shelley’s poem, which my father used to recite in mock-tragic tones, shaking his beard and lowering his voice to a doomful rumble, came into my mind:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

On the bus going back into Mexico City, two women got on and began to sing in sad, powerful, beautiful voices, Te Nombro Libertad (I Name You Freedom). It is a Chilean protest song about oppression and the yearning for its end.  Their faces stoic as stone carvings, the women asked for pesos from the passengers and then disappeared at the next stop.

climbing pacaya

Scrabbling for an hour at sunset up the rubbly, near-vertical incline of Pacaya’s volcanic cone was hard. Hunkering on still-warm igneous rock, seated like a spectator at an outdoor concert, listening to the deep crater rumble and roar, and watching it fling hundreds of flaming newly-formed rocks into the velvet night sky again and again from no more than a hundred yards away was beyond description. The air at the summit was deeply clean and cold, the dark valley below filled with clouds. Pacaya, home of the watchful Mayan fire-god, stands as a monument in my travels, all that have been and all that will be. Above all the fields where human beings struggle, fight and fail, where we torture and disappoint one another, where we have our small, transitory victories, it is a place where the earth itself is being recreated, where the rock that will still exist when all our descendants are dead is being born.

Imagine taking a boulder’s eye-view. An individual human lifespan becomes an unnoticed microsecond of its immense existence, like the life of one of your own bacteria would be for you. As if in time-lapse you would see buildings collapse and others be built around you, tens of thousands of lives flash by like swarms of may-flies, civilizations rise and disintegrate to their archaeological remains. Then abandonment, silence; a coastline disappears under the sea. You would sink with it, softly, unceasingly eroded by the waters to a single grain of sand. There you would rest, waiting to return to the molten core and be reborn—how many times?—before the single spinning rock out of which you are fashioned vaporizes into the expanding frame of a dying star.

a bus in the guatemalan highlands, 1988

In the market town of Huehuetenango I jammed myself into a gaudily painted Blue Bird school bus crammed three to a seat with Mayan Indians heading to the village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán. This village was well known even outside Guatemala; it was a center of Mayan culture that was particularly strong and defiant of assimilation. A sign of this was that the Todos Santero men had not adopted modern Western dress but still wore their distinctive woven clothing. In most Guatemalan communities, only women and young children still wore the traje.

Todos Santos had been the subject of a famous portrait in the 1960s by Maud Oakes, an artist and mythographer who lived there for over a year and came to love and respect its culture. And, in April 1982, it had been the site of a horrifying massacre in the campaign to eradicate the 20-year old guerilla insurgency. In 1988, the guerrilla war still continued, fought in skirmishes in the remotest parts of the country, but the villages and towns were uneasily quiet.

The bus traveled farther and farther up in to the Cuchumatanes, the highest mountains in Central America. We wound excruciatingly slowly up the ever-narrower roads, until at last we hit a high plateau. It was a strange, flat, colorless, no-man’s land, treeless and featureless, the dead grass tinged with winter frost, the air thick with icy fog. Somewhere along this open plain the bus halted. A small group of men stood by the side of the road. Two of them mounted, but the bus did not move. Instead, the men, who wore no identifying uniforms or badges, went down the aisle looking from side to side at the faces of the passengers. They stopped in front of a seat in which a young man and woman were sitting. No words were exchanged. The man stood up and they walked behind him back out of the bus. For some minutes the three of them stood there, in conversation, as it seemed, and still the bus did not leave. Then one of the men outside must have gestured it on, because it started up all at once, although the young man had not returned to his seat.  I looked back and saw that he was being escorted down the empty road in the middle of that nothingness, that gray, open plain, towards no stopping place I could see. I was staring into a sea of enigmatic faces: no one else turned around at all.

It was a strange atmosphere inside the bus then. When the two men had boarded, there was a split second of dead silence, then loud, high-pitched talking and raucous laughter erupted from the passengers. As the bus took off down the road the young woman (no more than a girl, really) sitting with the man who had been taken gave a short, strangled, but clearly audible sob of fear and pain. For a single moment all the faces froze. Someone made an intense, unsympathetic shushing noise, as if she had woken a child. Then the desperate laughter rose up again, harsh and forced and loud.