Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Fictional Conversation

For about a year, I've wanted to share and write about my newfound interest in religion, nature, animals, science, and all sorts of things that never interested me before. I tried the essay format, but so far I haven't quite succeeded in writing anything interesting. It takes time, I guess, to find the appropriate language, words and tone. It's always a work in progress. But here is an initial attempt to discuss religion and science, using two individuals. The two individuals are merely puppets to get some points across; it's very artificial for sure, but still felt better than an essay. Not sure how this is going to read -- but how does one know unless one tries?

“… but you still believe there is no conflict between religion and science?”

“It’s all about how you interpret it. It just depends on what you call ‘religion’.”

“To me, religion is belief in God, and that’s pretty clear cut.”

“Well, alright, let that be our definition of religion then: belief in God. It’s a problematic definition, but we can work with it.”

“Good. Now tell me how you can reconcile science with religion. To me science is about evidence and cultivating doubt, whereas belief in God is not.”

“Yes, that’s true. Science certainly provides more evidence than religion and also – if the scientists are honest – allows doubts and failures. You turn on the switch on and there is light – that’s proof that science works. The evidence is there in virtually all aspects of life, which we now take for granted…” 

“Whereas religion gets away with unverifiable claims: the presence of a soul, someone was enlightened thousands of years ago, or someone walked on water, or someone lifted a mountain…”

“But you cannot disprove these claims; these things could have happened. It would be unscientific to negate these possibilities outright, even if our current laws of physics suggest otherwise. A more apt way to phrase it would be to say that religious miracles, unlike everyday scientific miracles, cannot be demonstrated on a regular basis. You just take them on faith, which is really a blind faith, rather than saying: It could have happened but I cannot say anything for sure; there is no evidence.”

“Exactly! In science you have the burden of proof, whereas the burden of proof is not there in religion. One promotes skepticism, the other asks for blind belief no matter what. And then exploits that belief to create wars, divisions, ideologies. To me that’s an irreconcilable difference.”

“Well, science, if not practiced well, can also divide, create wars, ideologies and destruction. We humans are the problem, though we like to play the secular/scientific versus religious game. I have a more moderate view on the debate between science and religion. I think of it in terms of degrees of objectivity. In a relative sense, yes, science is more objective than religion, and there is no disputing that. But it would be incorrect to call science the ultimate truth or theory. We can instead call it the most objective truth we have, or what humans have collectively and gradually come up with, using the tools of logic and mathematics.”

“So there is something over and above?”

“I don’t know. Good science represents the limit – and it’s an ever expanding limit – of what humans can think of and explain. Beyond it, who knows what’s there. I simply don’t know. And that’s important: I don’t know – that space of not knowing is very important. Socrates said something about not knowing....” 

“I think he said: I know only that I know nothing…”

“Right. In my view, not knowing is where religion begins. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but not knowing and being sincere and honest in accepting that you do not know is humility. This is the same humility that most of the world’s religions ask us to cultivate. But in general – and almost no one is immune from this – the more you know the more you think you can control, and you become egocentric and protective of your knowledge. In this aspect, science has a serious downside: the ability to know the laws of nature and exploit the natural world to suit human needs makes us feel supremely confident; we feel can achieve anything. We look only at what we have achieved, and feel tremendously proud as a species, but we ignore what we do not know at all.”

“But our lives are better…”

 “Materially better, yes, for now, but sooner or later, you run into a wall. Reality doesn’t quite function the way humans want. No amount of knowledge can capture the ever changing nature of reality. What the future has in store we have absolutely no idea. The universe and even events in our solar system may have some unpleasant surprises in store for us. Science is the effort to find answers, but no matter how deep you go, quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory and what not, you always reach a point where you do not know anymore. So you stop for a moment there and acknowledge, ‘Wow, this is too vast, too big and too complex, for my puny mind to understand.’ It’s the Great Unknown.”

“I understand that. But that’s still very different from belief in God…”

“Is it really? That’s why I said it is all in the interpretation. For me, the Great Unknown is what you can label, for the purposes of convenience, as God. I believe in this Great Unknown; I don’t know what it is, but it is there…”

“Well you know, you are sounding very mystical now!”

 “Why not! A scientific pursuit is really a mystical pursuit. I start with the feeling, ‘I want to know’ and you do get to know more, and you are able to explain more. It is a great feeling – you can compare it to the religious joy that a pilgrim or a monk or a yogi might feel. Einstein’s theories of relativity are aesthetically beautiful theories – they say it is the most elegant use of mathematics to show the intertwined nature of space and time. Darwin’s ideas make you feel connected to every living creature in earth – by his thesis, the animals and birds you see around you are your cousins! That promotes a wonderful feeling of unity! At the same time, there still are unanswered questions and new questions, and you realize you can’t know everything. That does not mean you stop – you can be thankful for the knowledge you have and you can keep the search going – but the illusion that you will know all begins to go away.”

 “Alright. Your ‘religion’ -- if you can call it that -- is quite different. Something like a poetic impulse with scientific bits thrown in. I don't have an issue with it. My main issue is with the monotheistic faiths that claim that there is a Creator, or that the world has been intelligently designed. I feel these faiths are quite arrogant – they prescribe that there is only one way and no other way, and in doing so cause all sorts of problems.”

 “Saying that there is only one way and no other way implies that the person who is making that very strong claim has complete knowledge – wouldn’t that be the opposite of humility? Is it possible for someone to claim, with tremendous sincerity and honesty and without a trace of doubt, that there is only one way to God and that all other ways lead to hell? And as for the existence of a Creator, one cannot reject the possibility: no one can disprove something that so far not been seen. But it does not matter anyway. Whether a Creator exists or not is irrelevant; the Creation exists – by that I mean this universe, this earth we live in, the sun, the moon, our senses and our thoughts which allow us to experience the world, they all exist, or at least seem to be vivid and real to us. That’s all that matters, and that itself is a miracle of sorts. This is actually an amazing fact: the Creation is everywhere and all around us, this table here that my eyes allow me to see, this chair whose solidity I can feel, this fruit that I can smell and taste! It makes you ask the question: What is all this? That itself can impart a sense of wonder.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Christmas at Machu Picchu

Reflections on a day trip


On December 25th, 2009, I took the early morning train to Machu Picchu, from Cuzco, the Andean city that had once been the capital of the Incas. I had flown in to Cuzco from Lima two days ago. I had only two more days to see the area before I left for La Paz, Bolivia. The bleak, cloudy morning only enhanced the surreal, high-elevation setting of Cuzco. Victor, the taxi driver who took me to the station, had a difficult time negotiating curved roads that disappeared into cloaks of white mist.

Machu Picchu is a major destination on the global tourist circuit. It competes with the pyramids of Giza and Angkor Watt in popularity. For the upwardly mobile in the major metropolises of the world, it is a trophy to be paraded on social occasions and through pictures on Facebook. So I wasn’t surprised, when, at the Poroy train station – where the early morning PeruRail train left for Machu Picchu – I saw faces that I might have seen at a university or a major airport in the United States. The travelers were Europeans, Americans, Australians, Chinese, Indians and Latin Americans (Latin Americans from countries other than Peru). They had come in large groups or with their families, and with hiking gear.

This, I realized, was to going to be a trip very much within the tourist bubble: the people traveling with me, even though they were from different countries, aspired to and engaged with exactly the same things: a secure professional life and career, wealth, fashionable clothes, cars, the latest cellphones and Facebook.

Outside the station – in what seemed like a different world -- local vendors advertised, with rhythmic high pitched songs, ponchos and umbrellas that the tourists would need for the rainy day.


Two women from Bogota sat across from me in the train. They were in their twenties. From their carefully polished red nails, fair complexions, stylish dresses, shawls and sunglasses, I could tell that they were from wealthy Columbian families. Culturally, they were closer to Peru than I was, yet they seemed – except for their familiarity with Spanish – just as new to the place as me. I sensed that their excitement and disorientation had something to do with the strong indigenous presence in Peru. Though Columbia has many ethnic groups and Mestizos form the majority, the original indigenous peoples, in contrast to countries like Peru and Bolivia, are a small percent of the population.

Maria, the more talkative of the two, explained how safe Bogota was these days, a real improvement from the 1990s when kidnappings and murders were rife. “Uribe” – the President of Columbia then – “has to be credited for it,” she said. “He’s ultra-right in his policies but when it comes to making Bogota safe his accomplishments are indisputable. He has used something called the security tax to fund this effort.” She then talked of the corruption that was inevitable when you are power for long (in 2010, Uribe was at the end of his second term, and was eventually replaced by Santos).

She asked whether I had been to Plaza de Armas (the central square) of Cuzco on Christmas eve. A large informal market had been set up in the square. I had walked to the square from my hostel at about 5 in the afternoon. Most of the makeshift stalls had been covered by white tarp since rain was expected. Hundreds of Quechua-speaking locals were selling their wares– food, coca leaves, slippers, clothes. The women were in bowler hats and in multicolored, multilayered skirts. There had been long lines at soup kitchens where children waited with bowls.

Maria and her friend had been surprised most by the fact that the people had slept in the square at night. They found that unusual.

Marcos, the Peruvian tour guide seated next to me, explained that the Christmas market always attracted people from the little towns in the Andes surrounding Cuzco. To the question about children being fed at soup kitchens, he said: “There are still huge pockets of poverty in Peru.”

Marcos was from Cuzco. He was in a uniform that marked him out as a guide. He had a faint moustache and a friendly smile that revealed decaying teeth. On this trip, he was guiding two German women. Now and then, he would speak to them in German. He was one of many multilingual Peruvian and Bolivian guides I met during my travels who had degrees in tourism management from local universities.

I asked what Marcos thought of Evo Morales, the popular, left-leaning Bolivian president. A startling fact about Bolivia is that, like South Africa for the most of the 20th century, it had been never had a leader from the majority community (in Bolivia’s case the indigenous Aymara) – until Evo Morales in 2005. Morales had recently been re-elected in December 2009 with a comfortable majority. This was one reason I was drawn to La Paz. Here was something rare in the Americas: a entire country that had an indigenous majority and was ruled, after centuries of subjugation, by a person who did not have a privileged upbringing but had come up from the working class.

But Marcos wasn’t too enthusiastic about the socialist movements of Latin America. “I don’t know where they are heading. They seem to be all going the Chavez way. That route has no future.”


The glass windows of the train were only slightly tinted and I liked it that way. Never had I traveled through such a green and intensely mountainous landscape. We passed by hamlets, terraced farms; the Urubamba River was almost always in sight. The slopes were steepest I had ever seen and it brought to mind the descriptions I had read of Inca routes that went vertically up rather than the gradual switchback style of ascent I was familiar with in the US.

The train reached Aguas Calientes at 11 am. This was the little town at the base of the saddle mountain atop which the ruins of Machu Picchu are located. The rain was more persistent now. I bought an umbrella after some tame bargaining with a woman who seemed to know that I would cave in easily to the inflated price. The buses to Machu Picchu left every twenty minutes. By the time the bus reached the entrance of Machu Picchu – after a memorable short ascent – it was already noon.

I wasn’t as eager to see the ruins. My drive to visit famous archaeological sites was already on the wane. The previous year, with great excitement, I had visited the pyramids in Teotihuacan, near Mexico City and Mayan ruins in Palenque and the Lacandon rainforest, near the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Those visits had satisfied the curiosity I’d had about the grandeur of Mesoamerican empires. What interested me more was how that past influenced – if at all – modern realities.

I was nevertheless blown away by the view that surrounded Machu Picchu. A number of very steep – almost tower-like -- mountains surrounded the ruins. At the base of the tallest of these mountains, I could see the thin winding strip that was the turbulent Urubamba River, and the insignificant cluster of buildings that was Aguas Calientes, where I had been less than an hour ago. Machu Picchu is at an elevation lower than Cuzco. It is on the eastern side of the Andes, where the high mountains gradually give way to the tropical jungle of the Amazonian basin. There was something grand in that: that Machu Picchu lay in the middle zone between a famous mountain range and a famous river basin.

The trails through the ruins were dotted with clusters of tourists in colorful ponchos. I met an Indian couple from London. Peru was the first stop in a long journey through South America (they planned to visit Chile and Argentina later on). Most tourists had their own local Quechua guide who interpreted the ceremonial utility of the Inca structures and how resistant they were to earthquakes. The guides were understandably sentimental about what was their cultural heritage. One of them, a man in his thirties, attributed mystical qualities to the Incas. Some Western tourists, tired from the long 4-day hike that had finally brought them to Machu Picchu, groaned as their guides waxed eloquent. “What is he talking about?” one of them said, shaking his head. I remember feeling offended at these reactions.

The most interesting visitors were a family of four from Quito, Ecuador: a middle aged couple and their two teenage children. They looked and were dressed very much like the Quechua-speaking locals. Here, among the foreign tourists they – paradoxically – looked out of place. I had a short conversation with them. The wife helped me take pictures. I never managed to ask what had drawn them to Machu Picchu. If I visited an ancient Hindu or Buddhist temple in north India for the first time, I'd perhaps feel the same way as them: despite visiting for the first time, I'd nonetheless have an intuitive familiarity with the place because of my cultural upbringing.

Quito had once been the northern capital of the Incas. In the decades before the arrival of the Spanish, the Incas had expanded their empire by force into new northern regions and made enemies along the way. The Spaniards would later exploit these rifts. Just before the Spanish arrived in Peru, Atahualpa, the son of the famous Inca emperor Huayna Capac, had battled his way southward from Quito, fighting with his brother for control of the empire after his father had succumbed to disease. It was during this southward march from Quito – circa 1533 – that he first encountered Francisco Pizarro, his nemesis, at Cajamarca, the site of the famous battle in which hopelessly outnumbered Spaniards overwhelmed the Inca army.


By 3 pm, I was back in Aguas Calientes, enjoying a good vegetarian lunch in a narrow street that was full of restaurants and hotels. The train back to Cuzco started at 4:30 pm. The travelers were noticeably tired after the long day. I had chosen a pleasant day trip and was still fresh, but others around me in the train began to doze off.

This time, seated across from me was a couple from Bolivia. The woman, thin and tall, wore black glasses and was leaning against the shoulder of a somewhat stocky, well-built man with thinning hair. They might have slept peacefully had I not pulled them into a conversation. Only later would I realize that this couple that I ended up speaking to for nearly three hours – until the train reached Cuzco – had a perspective on Bolivia that was diametrically opposed to the more working-class perspective that I encountered in La Paz a few days later.

The woman, Ana, had worked as a television journalist in Florida. Her parents, Bolivian immigrants, still lived there. Her fiancĂ©, Antonio, was a businessman who lived in La Paz. He owned a logistics company. His work took him to Europe and North America frequently. They had met a year ago and had fallen in love. Ana had taken a break from work, and for the last six months, she and Antonio had stayed together in La Paz, with the wedding soon to come. They were enjoying each others’ company. “I knew Ana would cook well, but I never expected that she would have such a strong appetite!” Antonio joked. But the evidence of all the eating was only in his own stockiness.

Eagerly, I turned the conversation to the recently concluded Bolivian national elections. I was instantly flooded by their criticism of Evo Morales and disaster that awaited Bolivia after his emphatic reelection. This wasn’t surprising: the rich of Bolivia feel threatened by Morales’ populist policies. But I realized their concern also came from feeling like a minority all of a sudden in Bolivia. They considered themselves not only economically but racially quite different from the majority Aymara-speaking people who now had one of their own, Evo Morales, at the helm.

It brought to fore a question I’d had for a long time. How in Latin America does one decide who is indigenous and who is not? And if one is mixed, where is one’s allegiance likely to be? What did nationalism mean in these countries? Ever since the Spanish had conquered the region in the 16th century, there had been considerable intermixing. So except for a few, no one could claim exclusive Spanish ancestry. Certainly some people with their darker American Indian features looked more indigenous than others. But even among the wealthy, more light-complexioned elite, there was a great deal of variation. Both Ana and Antonio were dark, and I could have easily mistaken Antonio for an Aymara man.

“When you travel go to La Paz,” Ana told me, “make sure, if you need help, you talk to people like us.” She did not explain further what “people like us” meant, but it was clear she meant those who were not Aymara – or at least working class Aymara. A few days later, in La Paz, I found that this advice was totally unnecessary; I found plenty of help from Aymara guides.

“There is a strong mob mentality these days in Bolivia,” Antonio said. “We might be walking down the street, and suddenly groups of people will start mocking and make comments about us, simply because of who we are. Now that the people have a person who is one of their own in power, they feel emboldened. This is not a good culture to be in. It is an aggressive culture.”

“Morales’ ideals are in the right place. In Bolivia, the indigenous people have suffered more than they have in other places, say Peru. The silver mined and stolen from Potosi -- a once prosperous city -- by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries could have been used to build a bridge of silver from Bolivia to Spain! Working conditions were horrid for the indigenous people who mined the silver and many died or lost their health. Bolivia does have a terrible history of oppression. But Morales’ government is not a government that wants to reconcile. It may also be that his people are now more aggressive now that he is in power. A shift seems to have happened ever since his election.”

There were other complaints. The elections, in which Morales had won a comfortable majority, were not really free and fair. “They were clever in deciding what voters they allowed to register”. And the press was no longer free – there was intimidation from the government if a newspaper wrote something against it. An Aymara guide in La Paz, whom I became close to and who like many others, admired Morales and his policies, agreed that that the press was indeed not free anymore. For him, it was a small price for the considerable progress that had been made.

If there was one thing that Ana and Antonio admired about the Morales government, it was his commitment to work and his punctuality. “He doesn’t fool around; he and the vice-president come to work very early in the morning. No late arrivals are tolerated. Alvaro, the vice-president, is the real brain behind the administration.” Alvaro is white – and that made this compliment seem back handed, as if without somebody like Alvaro, an indigenous man couldn’t run a government.

Their political views aside, Ana and Antonio were a friendly couple. They gave me a number of places to visit in La Paz and restaurant recommendations. They said they would have invited me to their New Year celebration had they been in Bolivia; but they were going to be in Lima, still on vacation.

The train reached Poroy station at 7:30 pm. I looked for Victor, the taxi-driver who had promised to come to take me back to Cuzco in the evening. I couldn't find him in the waiting area but soon I heard his earnest and endearing voice calling me from the outside. He dropped off at the main square in Cuzco, and I began to look for a restaurant to have a hearty dinner.