I was in Peru in the 1980s with some friends. We spent a few months hiking and climbing around at some higher elevations in the Andes Mountains. We started off in the north, around Huaraz in the Cajon de Huaylache Mountains, and did some climbing and camping on the slopes of 20,000-foot Mt. Jirishanca. After that we went south to Cusco. People know Cusco because that’s where you go to get to Machu Picchu, the famous Inca ruins. We didn’t go there, but instead went south and climbed to the top of Nevado Ausangate. I had been to Peru before, but never to these particular mountains.
I’m bragging about my mountain climbing accomplishments because they explain why, when we eventually returned to Cusco, we were all very tired, had lost a lot of weight, and needed some good R & R in this lovely town in the Andes mountains. One day, I was walking around and looking in the shops, thinking I might buy a flute. I had only been playing the flute for a short while. It was the most recent of my musical instrument explorations—explorations that began with the violin when I was three years old, and went on to include saxophone, piano, drums, harmonica, guitar, and now flute. I actually learned to play the flute from Linda, a friend who was on this trip. She played the silver flute. I had made a flute some years before, but had never really played it. I guess it wasn’t time yet.
One day I borrowed Linda’s silver flute and made some sounds that I really liked. I was walking around the streets of Cusco and saw a little shop belonging to a guy who made flutes. Flutes are very basic to Andean music. If you’ve heard some of that outrageously wonderful music, you know that the basic instruments are panpipes, drums, flutes and little mandolin-like instruments. Most of the flutes made and played in the Andes are called quenas. They have a slot you blow across the top of, instead of sideways, like a silver flute. A traditional flute was difficult enough for me, but I found making any sound (other than air) out of a quena impossible. This guy had probably fifty quenas in his window that he had made, plus one wooden flute that blew sideways like a silver flute.
I’m going to digress a bit, for those of you who have traveled in third world countries and know something about bargaining. The creed of the hip, world traveler is, you are always supposed to bargain. If they say, “Two dollars,” you say, “One dollar,” and you feel great satisfaction from depriving this person of a day’s worth of food because you bargained successfully. In more affluent countries, bargaining is verboten, at least we have been told that it isn’t done, so we have gotten into the habit of either paying what it says on the price tag, or walking out.
We had already been in Peru for three months—that adds up to a lot of bargaining—like every time you go into town . . . vegetables, you bargain, eggs, you bargain. You’re always bargaining. At the end of each of my trips to Peru, I have come back with alpaca ponchos and rugs. When you buy tourist-oriented stuff, bargaining is probably indicated, but when you’re buying fruit and vegetables, stuff like that, it’s probably not, but those of us who have gotten the bargaining bug in third world countries—we do it anyway.
So, I went into this store and pointed out the flute that I was interested in. The man handed it to me to play, and I proceeded to make some lovely sounds on my first try. Next step, ask the price. He asked for the equivalent of eight dollars in Peruvian Soles. Of course, in the true spirit of an arrogant American, I responded with whatever the equivalent was in Soles of five dollars. He smiled, shook his head, and said, “No.” Then I parried with the equivalent of six dollars in Soles. Once again he smiled, shook his head, and said, “No.”
Of course at that point I saw him as breaking the must bargain convention. Instead, he suggested I play the flute some more. Once again I tried it, and made some even prettier sounds than I had before. Once again I repeated my offer, and once again he refused. He clearly was not going to bargain. So somewhat self-righteously, I walked out of the shop—proving to myself, later, that I am capable of doing something really foolish.
I walked out and went back to the place where we were staying. That night we went out to eat and listen to some music. Walking around afterward, I started thinking how stupid it was to walk away from that flute. Where would I ever find a handmade instrument like that? It wasn’t one of those cheap bamboo flutes—it was quality. So I decided to go back the next day—maybe offer him the equivalent of seven dollars. Even if I had to pay full price, I’d get the flute. When we got back to our room, we drank some pisco, and I told everybody the story, and we all had a good laugh out of it.
The next day I had things to do, so I didn’t get to the shop till the afternoon. I went in and reminded him that I was the guy who was looking at that flute there yesterday, and was still interested in it. He told me that someone had come in earlier and bought it. I felt even more dimwitted than I had before. I asked him if he had any others like that one, and he told me that he rarely made them, because people play quenas. I asked him if he could make one for me, and he told me that he would have to find a special kind of wood, but if I came back early next year (it was then November), he might be able to have one for me. I walked out with an awesome feeling of regret, and an equally awesome lesson. I was really disappointed.
I went back and told my friends what had happened. We had a good discussion about lessons and learning, and how sometimes pain is a good teacher. Soon afterward, we flew back to California. By then the pain of my blunder had somewhat left me, and I was left with the lesson.
We got back about a week or so before Thanksgiving, and my birthday. A few of my friends threw a birthday party for me; there were about a dozen people there—the people who had gone to Peru and a few others. The flute was long gone, and the pain was less gone, but I wasn’t thinking about that much anymore.
We had the candles in the cake, and the Happy Birthday to You song, after which people were handing me boxes and things. After reading one of the cards—it was from Linda—I started unwrapping the present that went with it. She asked me to guess what it was before I opened it. I didn’t have a clue what it was. I tore off the paper and opened the long narrow box. It was the flute. I don’t think I could describe how happy seeing that flute made me. Not only did I learn an important lesson, but I didn’t have to suffer for very long after it, thanks to a remarkable gesture from a remarkable friend.
I don’t want to tarnish this love story with a lengthy moral, so here’s a short one: We all have habits and ways we have done things in the past. Many of them are useful practices that have developed out of necessity and can be applied to our benefit. But if our actions are repeated unconsciously, that is, without asking ourselves whether they are appropriate for the moment, we will sometimes cause ourselves unnecessary suffering.
Editor’s note: Excerpted from Justin Time, Autobiographical Stories from an American Spiritual Master, By J. Jaye Gold. Published 2016 by Peradam Press.
J. Jaye Gold, in his younger years, studied at a 500-year-old experimental Naqshbandi Sufi school in northeastern Afghanistan. He now lives in Northern California and has authored four published books: Another Heart in his Hand, Highway of Diamonds, The Roca Group, and Justin Time. He is the founding director of the Center for Cultural & Naturalist Studies, a charitable organization that focuses on relief building projects worldwide. For more information, visit justingold.net.