Through The Lens Of Perception
Hal Zena Bennett
Shaman's Drum, A Journal Of Experiential Shamanism: Fall, 1987
"For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then
face to face:
now I know in part; but then shall I know even
as also I am known."
Nearly thirty years ago, I spent a summer in Mexico, much of
it in a small village two hours by bus up the coast from
Acapulco. As far as I know, the village had no name but was
referred to as "the turnaround" (in Spanish, of course)
because it was here that the third-class bus turned around and
headed back over the mountain to Acapulco. I had gone there on
the recommendation of a friend to escape the modern hotels and
the tourist crowd. But I was not entirely prepared for the
primitive conditions I met, or for a certain adventure that came
to me. Instead of a modern hotel room, I found myself sleeping on
a cot, covered only by a light sheet, just one of seven other
rugged souls who had chosen this thatched roof dormitory over the
more elegant accommodations available two hours south.
We always arose at sunrise, helped fold the cots, then
stashed them away in one corner of the room. That done, we sat
around and sipped coffee from crude, terra-cotta cups as we
waited for breakfast to be served by the proprietor and his wife.
Eating and sleeping under these conditions, created a bond
between strangers, in spite of the language barriers. I knew
enough Spanish to ask for basic life essentials, and the others,
mostly Mexican students from the City, knew enough English to
One afternoon I met a man on the beach who said he was a
tourist guide. He offered to take me up to the top of the
mountainI do not think I ever heard the name of itwhere he
promised to show me the most spectacular view imaginable. The fee
for this jaunt was reasonable, and having nothing better to do I
agreed to go with him.
The man's name was "Sen", and he was a wiry but
strong looking little man who appeared to be in his early
sixties. He wore only faded khaki pants and a red T-shirt with a
flying hawk emblazoned across the chest. Underneath the bird,
written in Spanish, was the name of a local beer. Sen was
dark-skinned and had long black hair that reached nearly to his
shoulders. His face had sharp Indian features, and when he smiled
he revealed two front teeth capped in gold. Just after noon, Sen
packed a small knapsack with staples that he purchased from a groceria
a short ways from our camp. Then we set out on foot in the most
casual way imaginable. He pointed to the mountain peak where we
were going. It looked to me to be miles and miles away. He
assured me, however, that it was a much shorter distance than it
looked, and I was not to worry.
We traveled on foot for most of the afternoon, taking what he
called "El Sombre"the shaded trail on the
eastern slopes of the mountain, which protected us from the
torturous rays of the afternoon sun. The trail was difficult,
very steep at times, and not well maintained. I failed to keep
track of the time, but we must have traveled for at least four
hours before we stopped.
Finally Sen announced that we had arrived at our destination,
and he led me to the mouth of a large cave, where we sat down to
rest. I would guess that the cave was approximately two thousand
feet above the sea. Less than a mile to the west, and seemingly
straight down, was the ocean.
As Sen had promised me, it was a most spectacular view. The
steep walls of the mountain amplified the sounds of the waves far
below, giving the illusion that the sea might have been only a
stone's throw away. From this aerial view, somewhat magnified by
a peculiar atmospheric distortion, one could watch the waves
rolling gently in upon the beautiful white beach, appearing as
they might through binoculars.
I was aware of Sen squatting down on the ledge a few feet off
to my left and a foot or two behind me. I turned and watched as
he took a small package from his day-pack. He had something
wrapped up in newspapers, which he set down in front of him.
He carefully unfolded the papers, smoothing the edges out
over the ground. At the center of the square of newspaper were
six objects that looked like green cactus apples with flattened
tops. Each one had a feathery white tuft growing out of its top.
With a small, razor-sharp, stag handled jackknife, Sen
removed the tufts and sliced the cactus apples pie-like into
narrow wedges. "What is it?" I asked, in Spanish.
"It is medicine for fixing your eyes," Sen said. He
looked up and grinned mischievously, making a peculiar fanning
gesture with his hands around the area of his eyes.
"Peyote," I said. He nodded, inviting me to share
the peyote with him.
I would have been reluctant except that back in the States, I
had taken peyote three times. Each time had been under controlled
conditions, and in the name of medical research. We had taken our
peyote as a dried powder inside gelatin capsules. I had only seen
pictures of it in its raw form.
I had experienced a pleasant, mildly altered state of
consciousness in these experiments. So, naturally, I had no
particular anxiety about taking the peyote with my guide.
Sen showed me how to eat the narrow slices from the buttons.
He tipped back his head, opened his mouth wide, and placed a
single slice far back on his tongue. Then he rocked his head
forward and swallowed. On my first try, I failed to get the
peyote far enough back on my tongue, and the foul, earthy taste
made me wretch.
Sen repeated his instructions, and this time I got it right.
Together we consumed five ripe buttons in about a half an hour.
Then we sat quietly, breathing slowly and deeply in a way that
Sen said he had been taught to do. I recall feeling nauseous at
first, but had no trouble with it when I followed Sen's breathing
It was late evening. The sun was setting, and the sky had
turned a deep scarlet. At the horizon, sea and sky blended as one
in a symphony of reds and yellows.
Spread out between the ocean and the cave where we sat, I saw
a strip of tropical jungle. Here was a world of lush greens,
ferns and palms in varying tone, now wearing an aura of pink
created by the fading sun.
Blowing in from the ocean, the evening air was cool, heavy
with the earthy fragrance of the jungle, of naturally composting
vegetation and moist soil, and of flowers which I could not see.
"It is like I told you it would be," Sen said.
"Do you agree?"
I nodded, agreeing that indeed it was very beautiful.
Minutes passed; then Sen announced, "Darkness will be
It took a moment for these words to sink in. And then the
horror of it struck me. We had just spent the entire afternoon
hiking up an extremely precipitous trail, along which we
encountered many hazards. Several times I had clung to the rock
face of the mountain to traverse a section of the trail washed
out by storms, risking a fall of several hundred feet. Another
time a large snake blocked the trail. Sen chased it off with a
stick, all the while assuring me that the snake was not
poisonous, though its bite could be harmful.
The realization that I might have to go down this same trail
in the darkness startled me. How could I have been so stupid! Why
had it not occurred to me, until now, that it would be dark when
I was furious with Sen. What sort of person would guide me to
such a place, heedless of the threat to my well-being. Surely he
realized it would be dark before we returned.
I then became aware of a deep, groaning roar coming from deep
within the cave behind me, and I leapt to my feet with visions of
being attacked at any moment by a wild animal whose peace we had
disturbed. I began swearing and jumping around, unable to decide
which way to turn. I knew there was a washout less than a hundred
yards down the trail, and it was already too dark to safely cross
Sen continued to sit at the mouth of the cave, completely
unperturbed. In fact, he was wearing a toothy grin that did
nothing for my sense of security.
Again I heard the groaning roar within the cave. "What
the hell is that?" I cried. "Don't you think we should
get out of here?"
"Is it such a bad sound?" Sen asked. "I find
it rather pleasant."
"Pleasant!" I said, still searching for an escape.
"How can you sit there so calmly? Do you know what it
"It is a sound."
Sen shrugged. "Who knows?"
At that moment, I sensed that he knew something which I
didn't. He'd been here before. Or at least he claimed that he had
been. He obviously knew that the sound wasn't a threat to our
safety. Or did he? I knew nothing about the man, other than what
I saw. He had told me nothing about himself. Where had he come
from? For all I knew he cold be a complete fool, or a
madmansome sort of murderer who lured people out into the
wilds where he slaughtered them. After all, who would ever find
me out here? Who even knewor for that matter caredwhere
"Sit down," he said sternly, pointing to the empty
boulder at the mouth of the cave where moments before I had been
"Not on your life," I said.
He looked at me incredulously. "No? Then, where are you
going to go?"
"I'm leaving," I said. "I'll go back down the
"Surely you're joking."
"I'm not joking at all," I said. "I've had
plenty of trail experience back in California.
"Suit yourself," he said. "But you'll miss the
best part of the sunset. Look." He pointed over the horizon.
Against my better judgment I turned to find out what he
thought could possibly be so important. At the edge of the
horizon the sky was ablaze with a bright pattern of red and
yellow light, twisting slowly into a shape that resembled a
spiral galaxy. My breath was literally taken away by the beauty
of it, and for a moment I completely forgot my plight. "My
god, what is it?" I asked.
"It is what I promised you," Sen said. "I have
kept my word."
In spite of myself I sat down and stared out over the
horizon. For an hour or more I watched as the spiraling colors
played at the end of the ocean. The galaxy of colors was huge,
awesome in its proportions, and seemed to have a life of its own,
twisting and turning almost playfully, as though it had an
intelligence and was performing a dance with the Earth. Then
suddenly it was gone, and we were plunged into darkness.
The groaning roar rose from the cave behind us, and this time
I was able to study it, to listen with a calmer mind. Rather than
like an animal, it sounded this time like two gigantic boulders
being ground slowly together, emitting a voice from somewhere
deep down in the earth beneath our feet. I had visions of two
continental plates scraping against one another, their sound
amplified and made more resonant by a long tunnel in the cave.
"Listen," Sen said. "Listen."
I did, and the sound varied, not like a voice so much as like
music made by a gigantic instrument whose shape and mechanics I
could barely imagine.
"Didn't I tell you?" Sen said excitedly.
"Didn't I tell you I would show you a wonderful place?"
He leaned down and picked up his knapsack. Reaching inside,
he produced a round object which he handed to me. It was too dark
to see what it was, but from the size and texture I guessed it
was an orange.
"Supper," Sen said, announcing this in a completely
Was he kidding? Was this really his idea of an adequate
supper after our arduous climb to this place? Without comment, I
sullenly peeled and sectioned the orange, determining that I
would eat it slowly, savoring every bite.
I was aware of Sen rolling his orange between his palms, the
peeling still in place. He was doing this in a very studied, very
methodical way, and I grew curious. As I watched him, I also
became aware that the mountain was growing brighter and brighter,
almost as though a huge spotlight was being pointed at us. I
looked up and saw the edge of a full moon just emerging from
behind the top of the mountain, another five hundred feet above
us. This was providing us with enough light to safely make our
way down the path, if that is what we chose to do.
I looked at Sen, meaning to suggest this to him. But now he
was ripping into the orange like a starving ape, tearing off
great chunks and burying his face in his hands as he sucked and
chewed at the fruit. I was disgusted by his behavior, and
wondered if he always ate like this. He finished, reached into
his knapsack for a bandanna, and wiped off his face and hands,
licking his fingers now and then to get rid of the sticky juice.
This done, he lay down, arranged the knapsack under his head, and
appeared for all the world to be getting ready to take a nap.
"Shouldn't we be getting back while we still have some
light from the moon?" I asked.
"What's the hurry? Have you got an appointment with the
doctor or something?" To this he chuckled stupidly, like a
man unaware of the fact that no one else thought his joke funny.
"When are we going back?"
"Why don't you just enjoy yourself," he said.
"Take it easy."
I don't know whether I was more angry than anxious, but I
could see that there was no sense in trying to budge him. He had
his own plans for us, and he was obviously not going to let me in
on them. I was completely at his mercy.
I leaned back and started picking at the orange that I had
sectioned so carefully. I picked up the first section and was
about to put it in my mouth when I felt something moving across
my hand. I looked down at the orange section. A tiny lizard,
about the length of my little finger, clung to the fruit. I
grabbed it by the tail and flung it out into space, disgusted by
the thought that had I not felt it moving in time, I would have
bitten into H. and might at this very moment be spitting out its
I was careful after that, brushing off each section of fruit
and inspecting it in the moonlight before popping it into my
mouth. By the time I had finished eating, Sen was sound asleep.
His rasping snores indicated to me that it would be no use trying
to awaken him, at least not for an hour or more.
I felt restless and uneasy. From far below us I could hear
waves lapping against the beach, and this was soothing. Then,
every few minutes, the cave made that peculiar groaning sound, a
sound to which I had now become accustomed. To pass the time, I
decided that I would try to plot how long were the silences
between the cave's groans, but after an hour or more I could
determine no apparent pattern, and eventually gave it up.
The moonlight slowly faded, and again I became anxious as
darkness closed in around me. Now, every sound seemed amplified,
and I became aware of live things all around me. High-pitched
whistles from inside the cave suggested the presence of bats.
Rustling in the trees suggested night birds, or perhaps nocturnal
animals. None of these things particularly disturbed me, though
they didn't exactly put me at ease, either. I had spent many
nights under the stars back in the States, hiking in the Sierras.
But I have to admit that these sounds were not familiar to me,
and my inability to identify them put my nerves on edge.
The sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way like a great
sea of light. Several times I saw meteorites trailing across the
sky. In spite of my nervousness, I caught myself dozing, jerking
to attention when by body relaxed, and I almost lost the balance
of my sitting position. At last I gave into H and lay down,
staring up at the sky until I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew there was a shriek, and I sat bolt
upright, not knowing what to expect. The shriek shattered the
stillness once more and I looked up, having determined that the
sound had come from above and to my left. As I searched the
darkness, the shriek came again and a huge bird, with a wingspan
of at least six feet, swooped down, coming right for me. I leapt
behind Sen's rockwhere he continued to sleep soundlyjust
as the great bird shot by.
As the bird passed, less than a foot from my face, I saw its
talons extended as though for a kill. But that was not the worst
of it. Just a few feet past me, it stopped in mid-flight, seemed
to gather itself into a ball, and suddenly changed directions,
facing me once again as thought preparing for another attack. I
shielded my face with both arms, fully expecting to feel its
sharp talons dig into me at any moment. But then it stopped.
Facing me directly, flapping its wings gently, hanging in the air
like a feathery helicopter, I thought I heard it make a sound.
Surely I was dreaming. But I knew I wasn't. I looked directly
at the bird and saw that it had a human face. I rubbed my eyes,
certain that what I was seeing couldn't possibly be true. But it
was. The bird had a human face. Moreover, it was a face I
recognized. It was Sen's face! Sen had taken the form of a giant
night-hunter. I glanced down on the ground where he had been
sleeping. Indeed, he was gone. And there, as clear as the paper
on which these words are printed, was the birdSen in the form
of a bird, hovering before my eyes, flapping his wings gently,
evenly, as he held his space in the air.
"What are you doing?" I asked, at the moment not
thinking how indescribably unbelievable it was to be talking to a
bird who had taken the face of my companion.
"Coo! Coo! Coo!" the bird said. This was followed
by laughterlaughter that I knew was Sen's. The laughter ended
and was followed by his stupid chuckling. Did he somehow expect
me to share in his little joke? I didn't think it was funny. In
fact, I was shaking like a leaf, still unable to give a rational
explanation for what I'd seen. Besides, the bird was still there,
still hovering within an arm's length me.
I decided to treat it as an everyday occurrence. After all,
maybe it was a dream. I had heard that the best way to stop a
person or situation that you don't like in a dream was to rein in
your rational self and tell it to go away. I did this, and heard
the bird reply, "Go away to where? You said yourself, it
wasn't safe to go down the trail in the dark."
"But you're a bird," I said. "You can
"Oh, right. That's right," I heard Sen say.
And with this, he disappeared. By the light of the stars I
watched him gather his wings under him and plunge off the cliff
where I was sitting. I watched as he circled gracefully, changed
direction, and disappeared, skimming the treetops in the jungle
below, apparently continuing his night hunt.
Then, startled, I suddenly realized that I was all alone at
the mouth of the cave. Could this have actually happened? Had Sen
been transformed, somehow, into the body of a bird, a giant owl
or whatever it was? In any case, it was very clear to me now that
I was left alone on the mountainside.
I heard the crunch of gravel on the path a hundred feet away,
off to my right. I called out, "Sen, is that you?"
Much to my relief, my companion came into view, hooking up
"Where were you?" I asked.
"I went to take a crap," he said. "What's
wrong? Are you late for your appointment again?" This was
followed by his usual stupid chuckle. Then he went back over to
his rock and stretched out, arranging the knapsack under his head
"I've had enough of this," I said. "Stop
fooling around with my head."
"I'm going back to sleep," he said. "Wake me
when the movie's over."
I could not believe his audacity or his incredible coolness.
Within seconds he was sound asleep again, apparently oblivious to
everything going on around him. I lay brooding, angry, thoroughly
shaken by everything I had been through that night. I wanted to
grab Sen by the shoulders and shake him awake. I wanted to scream
at him, to tell him how much I resented the games he was playing
with me. I didn't know how he was accomplishing what he was
doing, and I didn't care. I just wanted it to stop.
I huddled close to my rock like an animal guarding its
territory. I myself began to feel like an animal, destined to
live out its life in the wild. I felt a warming sensation
throughout my body, a rippling of muscle. Perhaps it was due to a
warm breeze emitted from the mouth of the cave. It was certainly
possible that there were hot springs somewhere below that
occasionally emitted heat which escaped to the outer vestibules.
I found myself staring steadily and angrily at the sleeping
Sen. I had never felt such hatred for another man. But as I
stared at him I could not identify my anger. I felt a strange
fear, like nothing I'd ever felt before. It was as though this
man was an intruder in my life, that he was threatening me or
something that belonged to me.
I watched him cautiously, waiting for him to make the
slightest move in my direction, a move that would indicate that I
would have to fight with himperhaps until one or the other of
us was dead. I determined that I would be the victor. After all,
I was larger, more powerful than he.
Sen's snoring stopped. He took a deep breath, then suddenly
began to tremble all over as though he was having some sort of
fit. The light changed and I saw a giant cat, a mountain lion or
a panther standing between me and him, teeth bared.
"Sen," I cried, wanting to warn him. But a strange
sound came from my throat, a hissing that I could barely identify
Sen sat bolt upright and looked calmly past the cat. In fact,
his gaze was piercing, looking right through the cat into my
eyes. "Stop this nonsense right now," he said.
"You need your sleep. You'll be exhausted in the
"The cat," I said. "Don't you see it?" At
that moment I wasn't certain of anything. I could not clearly see
the cat myself. It was too close for me to see. I was terribly
confused. Why couldn't he see it? I was aware only of its
threatening posture, baring its teeth, ready to pounce.
"Of course I see it," Sen said. "It's your
cat. It's not going to hurt me."
My cat, I thought to myself. Mine? And then I
asked, "What makes you so sure?"
"I am just sure. I am just sure." He waved his hand
in front of my face. Suddenly I was calm. I felt spellbound.
"You see?" Sen said.
Sen lay back down, and in seconds he was sound asleep again.
I drew back away from him, toward the mouth of the cave. The cat
came back into focus for me. It was just me and the cat now. The
cat turned, gazed into my face, and appeared to grin.
Was all this truly my own creation? I stared back at the cat.
Its face lit up, glowing, as though it had been a plastic mask;
now someone had turned on a light behind the cat mask, exposing
the illusion. The body of the cat vanished and I was looking just
at its face, at that backlit mask. Then the mask of the cat began
to dissolve, as though the heat of the light behind it was
causing it to melt. Soon it was nothing more than a molten blob
turning in space like a star. As I watched, it began to reshape
itself into a much more geometric form.
After a few moments its transformation was complete. Round,
saucer-shaped, it turned slowly in the space before my eyes. The
light still shown within it, as though it possessed its own
source of illumination. It turned again and again, revealing its
full configuration, thin and elliptical from the side, round and
perfectly symmetrical from the front. It was a lens, like the
lens from a telescope or a magnifying glass. But this lens had an
organic appearancenot unlike a living cell, translucent and
soft, definitely alivea geometric jellyfish.
I moved closer to the lens. Deep inside it I saw movement.
What were these shapes? I saw many images from my childhoodmy
brothers, the house where I'd lived during my high school years
in Michigan, my parents, my first lover. I thought about how
people often reported seeing their lives flash before their eyes
when they were faced with death. Could this be the case? Was I
near death? I looked deeper into the lens, as though I might find
the answer there. I saw a cat, a powerful mountain lion. There
was also a giant bird. There was a groaning cave, and a beautiful
sunset over the ocean. There was a rugged trail up a mountain,
and a man. I looked more closely. It was Sen. He was sleeping by
the rock, his head on his knapsack. I could not figure out where
he wasin the lens, or beyond it, or both?
The lens turned in the air. I closed my eyes, trying to block
it out, trying to see around it, or to see a clear place through
it where the world beyond would not be distorted by the images
inside the lens. But I could not escape the lens' influence, and
now I was aware that it was turning deep in my consciousness, in
the same space out of which dream and imagination are created. I
had never before noticed how large this mental space I called
imagination could be. It had no limits, no beginning or middle or
end. It seemed to stretch out in all directions, a vast landscape
whose borders were as unlimited as space itself.
At one moment I could be on the mountainside with Sen, in
Mexico. A second later I was back in Michigan, many years before,
a boy of twelve riding his bicycle on a rain-slick asphalt
street. A second after that I was driving across the Arizona
desert in January, with a carload of friends, all in our early
twenties, heading back to California after a Christmas holiday
with our families in Michigan. Now I shifted to a backpacking
trip in the high Sierras, where I fished for trout on the bank of
a mountain lake.
Where was the lens now? I couldn't find it. It seemed to have
merged with all the rest, lost in the jumble of everything I held
in my consciousness. I felt panic. Losing the image of the lens
was like losing a treasure I had dreamed of discovering all my
life. Then there was a long moment of perfect clarity when I
realized what had happened to the lens. I saw that it hadn't
disappeared at all; the lens was my consciousness, not simply a
piece of it.
For a long time I just sat quietly and thought about this. It
seemed to me that the lens was like a vehicle for my awareness,
giving me an identity separate from the rest of the world. This
was the image I had been seeking since I was a child. A thousand
questions and speculations that I had entertained along the way
now focused on this lens image.
Having the sense of separateness which the lens provided
seemed to me both exciting and frightening. It meant that I was
not like an ant, with instinctsthat is, pre-programmed
responses built indictating my every action. It meant that I
was capable of creating my own program, or even of overriding
whatever biological or God-given programs might be built in.
My decisions, my fears, my dreams, my acquired knowledge, all
could come into play. In my present situation, up on the
mountain, I could make a decision, based on my fears or on other
factors contained in my lens, to leave my guide sleeping by the
mouth of the cave and make my way down the mountain trail alone.
Or I could choose to trust him, and wait for morning. Regardless
of which decision I made, because of my awareness of my
separatenessachieved through the lensit was now very clear
to me that I alone was responsible for my destiny. I was terribly
excited about being able to see all this. This vision of the lens
provided me with a symbol for making sense of knowledge I hadn't
even been aware that I was collecting over the years. I wanted to
awaken Sen and discuss it all with him.
"Sen," I said. "Sen, are you asleep?" I
went over to him and gently shook his shoulder.
"What do you want?" he asked, turning his head to
face me. "Have you created another cat? A bird?"
I started to look for the words to explain what I was seeing.
But then I backed away. I realized that Sen already knew about
everything I had seen. To him it was common knowledge, and he had
no time for it. "Never mind," I said, deeply hurt by
the realization that I had no one with whom to share my
discovery. "I'm sorry to disturb you."
Sen mumbled something I couldn't understand and went back to
I sat down and watched the world beyond the lens, and saw it
all merge with memories, images, ideas and feelings that I knew
belonged only to me.
As my companion slept, the shadows shortened on the ledge
where I sat and I saw that the lens was not something new in my
life. I saw it far more clearly than ever before, and that part
was new and unfamiliar, but the subtle mergings of external
sights, sounds, sensations, all seemed normal, automatic, even
familiar to me. I realized that these things had always
occurredand the only difference was that now I could see them,
could feel their shifts and mergings, their constant
metamorphoses from one form to another.
I remembered many times in the past, all through my life,
when I had also had brief glimpses into these basic truths about
our ways of processing reality, glimpses never more substantial
than the sun's reflection from a bright chrome strip on a passing
car. I now saw why life really was not all it appeared to be.
Rather, it took on meaning only as it merged with our images
inside the lens.
Later that afternoon, as we made our way back down the
mountain, Sen listened patiently as I related the story of what
had happened to me up on the mountain. I wanted to know if he had
experienced any of it. Were the things I had seen a shared
reality? Had he seen any of it?
Sen shrugged. He was vague and elusive. He told me that the
Indians believed that the place where we spent the night was a
sacred spot, and that people often had visions there that changed
their lives. I asked if he had ever had visions there.
"Oh, yes," he said. "That is why I sleep when
I go there. When I sleep it does what it must do and I am not
always jumping up and down thinking I have to do something about
it." He laughed. "Unlike you, I am a very lazy
When I tried to get him to explain this to me, he said it
wasn't important. He told me my Spanish wasn't good enough to
understand him if he really tried to go into it. And his English
wasn't good enough for him to even attempt it in my language.
He dismissed me with that phrase the Mexicans have for
stopping all further conversation on a subject: "No me
importa"it is not important to me. "You went to
the mountain and you saw what I promised you. I am a very good
guide. I hope you will tell your friends about me."
I promised him I would.
When I got back to the camp where I was staying, Sen
disappeared down the beach and I never saw him again. I asked the
owner of the hostel about him, and he told me that Sen was an
Indian, and that I was lucky to have come back from the trek at
all. Sen belonged to a tribe that still lived in the mountains,
and they were not known for their friendliness toward Anglos.
They had no respect at all for the laws of the Government, and
they lived their lives completely cut off from the rest of the
I always took this warning with a grain of salt. After all,
if Sen's people were so isolated from the rest of civilization,
how had he learned English? He knew my language far better than I
knew his. Moreover, when I thought back on it I could not think
of a single incident in which Sen had acted in any way that I
considered directly harmful. Any harm that could have come to me
would have come from my own lens distorting reality in ways that
could have caused me to use bad judgment and perhaps bring me to
harm through my own actions.
The experience has stayed with me throughout my life and
become something far more than an unusual memory. The lens has
become a reference point for me, a kind of metaphor over which I
have puzzled for many years. Only in the past couple years has it
become comfortable for me to write about it, to relate the story
to others so that I might share the revelations that have come