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Post Driving (Most) of the Pan-American Highway
Created by John Eipper on 03/23/21 3:45 AM

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Driving (Most) of the Pan-American Highway (Richard Hancock, USA, 03/23/21 3:45 am)

The Oklahoman has an article today about President Biden's decision to let children, waiting in Mexico, to legally enter the US. Both Republicans and Democrats have strongly criticized this action. The November 2020 National Geographic has an interesting article on page 103 of that issue, "The Price of Pandemic: Poverty Spreads Around the Globe." Looking at the countries of origin of most immigrants to the US, it shows the percentage of people who receive a daily income of less than $5.50 per day: Honduras (21%), Mexico (28%), El Salvador (37%), Nicaragua (38%) and Guatemala (45%).

There are things that could be done to attempt to solve this problem, such as lending them money. In my experience working in Mexico and Central America, this would not be effective. It simply provides opportunities for the rulers of those countries to steal much of that money for personal gain.

After relating this article on a serious matter, I will tell a personal experience. I receive postings from Trivia Genius on Facebook.  Here is one from a few days ago: "The longest highway in the world is the Pan American Highway, with a length of 9,009 miles, it goes from Prudoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost town, located in the southern tip of Argentina."

In August of 2006, Nancy, Jenny, my sister and her husband drove from Oklahoma through the Great Plains in the US and Canada to the Denali National park in Alaska. In December of 1964, Nancy and I, a maid and our two older children drove 3,675 miles from San Salvador to our new home in Norman, Oklahoma. After my retirement I accompanied Nancy on her business trip to Argentina. We flew 12 hours from Oklahoma City to Argentina. We then flew 6 and 1/2 hrs, south to Comodoro Rivadavia and traveled by bus 3 and 1/2 hrs. to Ushuaia at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I have not driven the whole Pan American highway by any means, but I have driven enough of it to the point that I can advise others not to try it.

JE comments: We need to revisit the topic of immigration, given the new US administration and the scourge of Covid, which further complicates an already complicated situation.

Richard, I don't recall if you ever gave us your account of the 1964 San Salvador-Norman trek.  You must have had several unforgettable moments.  For this car nut, I'm burning with curiosity:  what kind of vehicle was it?  For five travelers and their gear, you'd need something roomy and sturdy.  My choice in 1964 would have been the indestructible Dodge Power Wagon.  The 1959 edition is below.

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  • Ramblin' on the Pan-American Highway, 1964 (Richard Hancock, USA 03/24/21 3:05 AM)
    To answer John E's question, the car that we used to return to the US from El Salvador was a Nash Rambler. We purchased a luggage rack on which we placed as much of our household goods as we could. The rest we sent by truck to Norman, Oklahoma.

    I don't recall that we had any great difficulties in route. The only thing that I remember was that our maid Chila, who had never experienced freezing weather before, noticed the frosty breath of a man in El Paso, She said to Nancy, "Señora that man is blowing smoke but he isn't holding a cigarette."

    JE comments:  The Nash Rambler was the WAISly choice, Richard!  Sturdy, no-nonsense, economical, and most of all, independent.  The Rambler got the job done with competence, if not style.  Prof. Hilton was of a similar mindset:  he drove Studebakers until that marque's demise in the mid-1960s.

    My last question on this fascinating experience:  did your Salvadoran helper Chila stay with your family in Norman?  Did she remain in the US permanently?

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    • Amblin' on the Pan-American Highway: Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 03/25/21 3:27 AM)
      Gary Moore writes:

      Richard Hancock (March 24) opens an evocative memory trove on the old Pan-American Highway down through Mexico and Central America.

      I barely missed the opportunity to wave at Richard et al. passing in their Rambler in 1964--barely by a bit more than a decade--for I walked long stretches of that highway in 1978, when I gave definitive disproof of my mental stability by going on foot from the US border to Panama, ten months, only on foot--and a studied look from the Associated Press reporter who met me at the end on the Panama Canal bridge, as if to say, "How in the world could anybody crazy enough to do such a thing have managed to survive it?" I wondered too.

      I was often off the highway in the back country but there were times when I was too tired or lazy or lost not to take the easiest route, so motorists could see me trudging along. The highway itself was a surprise--so grandly named and yet in many paces barely a two-lane thread of dusty potholes. There is a stretch in Nicaragua that still retains its old name, supposedly given by some droll post-World War II engineers who decided to call that stretch The Slope of Kukamonga. I started the walk by coming into Mexico through Brownsville, so I went down the Gulf coast and didn't join with the Pan-American until south of Mexico City, in the vicinity of Cuautla, where, being intent on learning adventurous lessons, I jumped up too quickly one day at dawn, after a night of sleeping on the ground, and then without eating or drinking anything I walked five miles or so through the heat into town--and then promptly passed out from dehydration. I never knew you could pass out from dehydration. A small lesson, but intense.

      JE comments:  Gary, over the years at WAIS you've shared several vignettes from your Latin American "long march," but one question remains unanswered:  what inspired you to do it?  Just to clarify, this was an earlier trek than the one that landed you in the Sandinista jail cell you shared with a toad?  Your accounts of this experience are the stuff of WAIS legend.

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      • Why Did I Walk to the Panama Canal? Gary Moore Reflects (John Eipper, USA 03/27/21 6:54 AM)

        Gary Moore writes:

        John E asks the "obvious question" about the adventure that I periodically mention: the ten-month foot-journey that I made (no hitchhiking) from the US border to the Panama Canal, in the era of the Central American guerrilla wars (three of which I managed to stumble through--though no, John, in answer to your second question: that other trek, when I wound up in a Nicaraguan jail cell with a large toad, was a different misadventure, some seven years later).

        John's "obvious question" is why: Why did I make the long trans-continental hike? People often asked me that, though it was only the second-most common question. The most common was: What did you eat? To many in the United States it was hard to explain that in all but the deepest jungles (where I came very close to starving to death, having made what the sociologists call poor choices), there was always the muddy trail to the next Indian village only a couple of hours farther on, where people could be asked at which thatch-roofed house I might pay a nice lady to fix me a plate of tortillas and beans, and some of her yard eggs).

        It's been embarrassing, on the larger question--why?--to have often admitted that I didn't quite know why.  Or more exactly, I had a hard time putting it into words, since in my head the thing was very clear--but as a feeling--and was like trying to tell a lover how beautiful she is. The words seem perfectly obvious until one tries to get them out. The short answer is simply adventure--but why should that thrill me so much? The call was so loud--but the results were often so ironically distracting--that I barely stepped back to take a longer view. And when I did, I had only the limited perspective not only of my own inexperience, but the now-quaint naivete of my entire era.

        Still lingering in twilight in those days was the 1960s-1970s age of hitchhiking, saying to wandering counter-culture hordes that adventures don't even require a ticket--or even a car. This was a very dangerous elixir for me, and next thing you knew, I was standing at the Rio Grande bridge in incredibly sweltering morning crowds, barely able to stay upright in a monstrous backpack equipped with every imaginable necessity (many of which I would jettison like a molting moth in the heat), as a local TV crew, sure enough, pointed the shotgun mike and asked me the big question: Why? I could barely choke out any kind of answer at all, because I was scared to death. In a few moments I would be trudging off like Frankenstein under all that weight, into a land of bemused faces that I, admittedly, had seen before--but only through the imprisoning and insulating windows of a car.

        In the ensuing weeks and months, many of the answers to the corollary question (if you just walked off into Latin America, on foot with no comforting insulation, what would you find?), turned out to be so predictably arduous, monotonous, or just absurd, that the simplicity of the original motivation--that high, clear clarion call--came to seem so naive and deluded that I sort of lost track of that original feeling as being any explanation at all. If you're drenched in sweat at a dusty little outpost on the Pan-American Highway, in blinding sun, and a solicitous storekeeper says, "Here, why don't you take these two pesos and go catch a bus?"--there seems to rise a deafening wall of reasons why you can't just explain yourself as being out there for the adventure.

        But of course, that little outpost--and, admittedly, some other more surprising things--were precisely the vindication, because there was no other way in the world to answer the core question: If you were to just walk off from the comforting boundaries of the US, without any of the tourist's shields, what would you find? The alchemy of the environment's response to that absurdly trudging, naively thrilling question was the thing itself. Disguised in however many layers of absurdity or discomfort, this was the satisfaction of the clarion call. Because it was real, because it was the answer to the call, this was adventure.

        JE comments:  Gary, in a nutshell, you were channeling Sir Edmund Hillary:  It was there.  Please forgive, but I'll keep peppering you with questions until you cry "uncle":  what was the longest time you spent in any one spot?  Did you ever stay a week or two in a friendly village for some much-needed R and R?

        And finally, I imagine you refused dozens of offers of rides.  Or hundreds:  I have been notorious of late for my underestimations.  Recently I surmised that the stuck cargo ship Ever Given is costing the shipping industry "tens of millions" of dollars per day.  The figure has now been confirmed at $400 million...per hour.

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        • "Because It's There": Hillary or Mallory? (David Duggan, USA 03/28/21 7:04 AM)
          Actually I believe the "Because it's there" quote belongs to another Everest climber, George Mallory.

          His body was discovered in 1999, 75 years after his last attempt on the mountain. Mountaineering experts disagree whether he (and Andrew Irvine) actually made it to the top. Their camera has never been found, but a picture of Mallory's wife, which he intended to leave at the top, was not among his effects when the bleached, frozen and mummified body was discovered at 26,760 feet on the North Face.

          JE comments:  By Jove, David, you are correct.  The Hillary quote I've always assumed to be there, is not there. Mallory said it, and he paid for his curiosity with his life in 1924. Every article on Everest ascents mentions the dizzying amount of detritus along the way:  gear, human waste, and the frozen cadavers of those who didn't make it.  The estimated body count on the mountain now stands at 150.

          Why would anyone choose to risk adding to this total?

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    • What Happened to Chila, Our Salvadoran Nanny? (Richard Hancock, USA 03/25/21 4:00 AM)
      John E asked about our Salvadoran criada, Chila, who accompanied us on our 1964 drive from El Salvador to Norman, Oklahoma.

      With our two small children, Chila was very helpful to us, but she had considerable trouble adjusting to life in the US. Nancy noticed that Chila was sending monthly letters to a person in El Salvador with whom we were not acquainted. When Nancy asked her who this person was, she became quite nervous and finally admitted that the person in question was a witch who specialized in taking care of servant girls in the US.

      When Chila decided to go with us to Oklahoma, she sought this woman out for advice and was paying her $20 per month for protection. After Nancy requested that she stop making these payments, Chila became quite nervous and unstable. Finally, Nancy obtained the services of a Spanish-speaking Catholic priest. He gave Chila his own rosary and told her it would protect her from all danger. He assigned her to a prayer schedule and requested that she come see him on a regular basis.

      When Chila came to the end of her contract, we sent her home. Seven or eight years after Chila left us, her wrote us, saying that she now had five children and no husband and was living in hard circumstances. We had made a $300 deposit with the Embassy and wrote them to give our deposit to Chila. After several months, we received a letter thanking us for our generosity.

      JE comments:  One topic we've never explored in relation to immigration:  the role of "spiritual advisers," "cleansers," or what have you, in the process.  We can be certain they still exist, although their methods have changed in the Internet age.

      Chila must be a great-grandmother by now.  Richard, did you and Nancy ever hear from her or her children in later years?

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      • Immigration, Witchcraft, and the Hancock Nanny (Paul Pitlick, USA 03/26/21 10:16 AM)
        Richard Hancock didn't mention his Salvadoran nanny Chila's ethnicity, although perhaps I'm venturing into the land of political incorrectness here.

        Is it fair to assume that Chila's background is primarily indigenous (is that the correct word?) vs. a descendant of Spaniards? Does that make a difference in terms of belief in witchery?

        JE comments: Richard did send a quick answer to my question about Chila--no, she never again contacted the Hancock family after that first letter.  Paul Pitlick's followup question is far more intriguing.  We tend to associate "brujería" with the traditional (read, indigenous) cultures, but this might be an oversimplification.

        Textbooks on Latin America describe El Salvador as a "mestizo" (mixed ancestry) country--unlike, say, Guatemala, which is primarily indigenous.  But as Paul suggests above, such blanket statements about an entire nation may no longer be politically acceptable.

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        • Religion, Occultism, and the Notebook of Don Luis (Richard Hancock, USA 04/01/21 3:16 PM)
          Paul Pitlick's recent post (March 26th) brings me to a related topic. I have had much experience with Religion and Occultism throughout all of Latin America and wish to report on a conference that the University of Oklahoma

          hosted at our Mexican conference center, Hacienda El Cóbano near Colima a state just south of Jalisco in Mexico. 

          It was the year that Carlos Castaneda published his book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in which Castaneda described his apprenticeship to a Mexican healer or sorcerer.  This book became so popular that Castaneda appeared on the cover of Time in March of 1973.  The manner of Mexican occultism seemed a natural subject for a conference at the Hacienda.

          I was aware that this conference could be a touchy subject that might generate complaints to the University, so I wanted to put it in a religious context.  With this thought in mind, I contacted Father Dave Penticuff at St. John's Episcopal Church in Norman, Oklahoma.  His reaction was positive and enthusiastic.  Father Dave had attended seminary with the Episcopal Bishop of Western Mexico.  He picked up the telephone and called Bishop Juan in Guadalalara, determined that he would be free for a week in February and the conference was scheduled. Ángel Lara, the director of the Hacienda, and I had visualized this as a sort of "pop" course in Mexican occultism.  Ángel had been raised in a rural village and had a good fund of stories about magic and supernatural happenings.  We felt confident that the Bishop of Western Mexico was a pretty big gun for this conference.

          My first inkling of a problem came when we received several letters and audio tapes which warned us that we were endangering our immortal souls by dabbling in the occult.  I took these letters and tapes to Fr. Dave, who reassured me, stating that this kind of protest could be expected from his more fundamentalist colleagues.  He felt that the presence of  an Episcopal Bishop would be an effective shield against this type of criticism.

          Our enrollment had surpassed the minimum necessary for the program to be an economic success, and Fr. Dave, Ángel, and I were greatly looking forward to the conference.  That was when my level of anxiety was raised another notch because three priests enrolled in our program:  a Catholic from Guatemala, a Jesuit from Mexico City and an Episcopal  priest from Guadalajara.  I called Fr. Dave, saying that I feared that the "students" might be more knowledgeable than the "professors."  Although he reiterated his belief that Bishop Juan in Guadalajara would be a powerful presence at the conference, I could sense that he too was worried.

          We had previously discussed the possibility of his getting a curandero, a healer, to attend our conference.  The Bishop said that he had been unable to get a healer because "they are too shy."  He said that Don Amado, the Director of Indian Affairs for the state of Jalisco, was going to attend.  I was not impressed; I took it that the director was most likely a professor of social studies and I wanted a real "Don Juan" if possible.  I asked the Bishop if he objected to my attempting to obtain the services of a healer, saying that I knew Don Luis in the La Libertad market, whom I deemed to be an impressive personality.  The Bishop agreed with this plan.

          I went immediately to the healers' section of this mammoth market.  The healers' section is about the same size as a large grocery store in the US.  There I found Don Luis with his intelligent eyes and his drooping grey mustache.  I had become acquainted with Don Luis several years earlier when I had bought a small clay dog, an artifact of an ancient Indian tomb, which he said was a fetish for the protection of my home against burglary.  He said that the dog formed a magic circle around your home and that a thief trying to break in would hear the fierce barking and growling of a large dog.  I later bought a clay image of a genuine Aztec "jaguar general," a seated figure with his face appearing through the mouth of a snarling jaguar.  "This is an authority fetish for a man who lives in the city," said Don Luis.

          I recall a program conducted by the OU Medical College in the Hacienda where the Oklahoma medics visited medical installations in Colima.  A psychiatric nurse asked our guide, a Colima doctor, "How many psychiatric patients do you refer per month?"  He said, "We have one about every three months."  Then she asked, "If that is the case, how come we have so many Mexicans interning in psychiatry in the US?" The doctor replied, "Oh, we're getting ready for the future."  The truth of the matter is that many Mexicans seek psychiatric advice from healers.

          I tried to recruit to Don Luis to participate in our conference.  He replied, "I am just a simple man who sells the products of Mexico that we all know."  I said, "That's just the point, we Gringos don't know these products and we would be most interested in learning about them."  He finally agreed to attend the conference and I said that I would pick him up at the market at 2:00 PM on Monday. When I arrived at his booth, there were several customers waiting to see him.  When I caught his eye, he said, "I'm sorry, amigo, I can't go to your conference.  As you can see, I am too busy."  He must have seen the disappointment in my face. He handed me what appeared to be a school child's notebook.  I opened it and saw and that it was filled with crude drawings which appeared as symbols of some sort.  He said, "I had a vision of your conference on Saturday night.  I saw all of you standing in  a square patio surrounded by the heavy adobe walls of an old building." (I was struck by the coincidence of this description with that of Hacienda el Cóbano.) "There was a priest standing in your midst and I want you to give him this message," he said, pointing to the crude little notebook.

          Somewhat downcast by Don Luis's rejection of my invitation, I went to the airport to pick up our "students."  Soon, all 19 of us were loaded on the bus headed south to Colima.  I became acquainted with Fr. Andres Lionnet, the Jesuit from Mexico City.  I learned that he was a Frenchman who had spent 10 years with the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua.  I thought to myself, "And we are supposed to teach him about native magic!"

          When we arrived at the Hacienda, the Bishop was already there and introduced me to Don Amado.  My professor of social studies turned out to be a full-blooded Huichol Indian from the mountains of northern Jalisco.  I said to the Bishop, "It is urgent that we have some time to plan this conference. "  He replied, "Send the people down to get acquainted with Colima tomorrow morning and you and I will stay home and organize this conference."  "By the way," I added, laughing, "Don Luis from the Guadalajara market sent you this message," and I handed him the small notebook.

          When I met the Bishop for breakfast the next morning, he said, "That was some message you laid on me last night."  "Do you understand it? "I  asked.  He replied,"No, but Don Amado does.  He says that these symbols are magic and that he has never seen them written down before."  "Can Don Amado interpret the message?"  I asked. The Bishop replied, "I am sure that he can."  I said, "Then we have our conference. Don Amado can interpret the message from Don Luis!"

          We copied the message on a flip chart, and that afternoon our sessions with Don Amado began.  "That scary old man," as Ángel called him, was a perfect stand-in for Castaneda's Don Juan. He told us of white and black magic, of the ability of sorcerers to project their image in two places at the same time.  A skilled sorcerer could assume the shape of an owl to guard his field of ripening corn, while at the same time he was conducting his affairs in human form in downtown Colima.  It chanced that I took a walk that evening just at sundown and chanced upon an owl sitting on a stump. 

          Don Amado seemed steeped in the wisdom of both Christianity and Indian lore and saw no conflict between them.  When one of our four priests asked a question, he answered with simplicity and confidence.  For three days, he held us in the palm of his hand, quoting freely both from the Bible and from his large storehouse of native tradition.  Space will not permit a discussion of Don Luis's message.  Suffice it to say that it conveyed a whole different philosophy of life and, as the days passed, the absent Don Luis became an almost palpable presence among us.

          Ángel had arranged for a spiritualist from the Pacific coast to give us a lecture.  I had the responsibility of translating his words into English.  This speaker was a man of immense eloquence, well-informed on his subject.  I was almost immediately overwhelmed by his rush of unfamiliar names, terms and almost poetic style.  I stopped him and asked him to speak in short phrases interspersed with frequent pauses to give me an opportunity to translate.  After that, we got along quite well and I was able to do an effective job of translating. Afterwards, during dinner, I couldn't help commenting on how well the translation had gone.  He replied, "Oh, yes, the spirits will frequently assist one in translating."

          The spiritualist was very well informed; he mentioned books by several spiritualists in Argentina and also those of Edward Cayce, the famous American spiritualist.  He said that almost all people are senders of psychic messages, but that only a gifted few are receivers.  These few have no control over their psychic powers. They cannot turn them off and on at will.  Those that claim to do this are charlatans.  All our priests were unanimous in praising this man's lecture.

          The final event of the conference was a visit to a healer's residence high up on the slopes of the Colima volcano.  When we arrived, we noted that a group of the healer's adherents were present.  We moved into a sort of chapel which served as a locale for the healer to hold his ceremonies in.  He worked with a medium, who presumably was able to communicate with God.

          The healer went into a sort of chant, telling us that a large black bird was circling around our humble temple and that his wings were shutting out the sunlight. As he spoke, the room darkened perceptibly; did a cloud pass across the sun?  The medium, a person who appeared to be a rural housewife, groaned, stood up and walked unsteadily to seat herself in a raised chair in front of us.  Apparently in a coma, she began to speak in a husky voice in phrases reminiscent of the Old Testament.

          Ángel and I were seated near the front of the room and were rather enjoying the spectacle, thinking what a good show this was for our audience.  Suddenly, a man arose from the audience and asked me if I would like to ask a question of God.  My mind went blank.  I looked at Ángel, whom I knew was equal to almost any occasion, "a cool dude," as the young people would say.  He was staring fixedly at the floor and I knew that he was feeling the same panic that I was.

          Then I had an inspiration; I asked if I might translate what was transpiring to our group. On receiving the healer's assent, I explained to my colleagues in a serious, matter-of-fact manner that God was speaking through the woman on the raised dais, and that now we had an opportunity to speak with God.  No one answered and there was a long, heavy silence.  Finally, I said, "Come on, folks, we need to participate in this ceremony."

          At last, a man from Lawton, Oklahoma, said, "I will ask God something. I have a little dog of whom I am very fond.  He was sick when I left and I am worried that he will die. I wish to ask God to heal him."  I thought, "Out of twenty people in our group, including several priests, the only thing that we can think of is to ask God about a dog?"  With great misgivings, I translated this question for the medium.  She replied in her heavy voice, "Peace be with you; your little dog is healed."  Our informal master of ceremonies said, "It is appropriate that we seek God's assistance for animals, for we are descended from them and even from the stones in the fields."

          It was a privilege to be able to talk with Father Andrés about the 10 years that he had spent with the Tarahumaras in Chihuahua.  He had gone directly to Chihuahua from France and had learned of the Tarahumara view of religion before he went to Mexico City to teach math in the Jesuit University there.  He said that the Tarahumaras prayed to God, Christ and Mary for things pertaining to the hereafter, but to Indian gods for assistance with matters of this life.  He stated that in this they differ little from modern Mexicans, who pray to that holy trinity for things not of this world but to the saints in regard to the here and now. When I asked him about the matter of the unbaptized not being able to enter heaven, he said that there is a holy force in every person that attracts them to God and that, while the ceremony of baptism was important, no precise formula exists for determining whether or not a person has access to heaven.

          He also related a supernatural experience that happened to a group of mestizo teamsters traveling through the Sierra Madre.  As they traveled, one of the group began making fun of a superstition expressed by another member.  Despite the warning of an elder Tarahumara that the spot where they were making camp for the night was haunted, they went ahead and made their camp. In the dark midnight hours, they were awakened by a scream and they saw the man who scoffed at superstition struggling with a dark bulk.  By the time they had lit torches, they found their comrade in a dead faint.  When they were able to rouse him, they found that he had been struck dumb and could not speak.  When he regained his speech, he remembered nothing of his encounter with the supernatural.  Father Andrés had talked personally with the men who had experienced this incident and he was convinced of their truthfulness and reliability as witnesses. He did not attempt to affirm or deny their story, but he did say that man's psychic perceptions are deadened if not destroyed by modern civilization. 

          If one sentence could sum up my experience holding conferences at Hacienda el Cóbano, it would be the expression of the French Jesuit Fr. Andrés who said, at the end of our memorable conference on religion and occultism, "Mexico is a treasure house of spiritual riches." 

          JE comments:  This story, while extraordinary, is no April Fools' prank--promise!  Richard Hancock first brought up this 1974 conference in a WAIS post five years ago.  Click below for a refresher.  (Richard's 2016 post was in the context of a wider discussion on Castaneda.)


          Richard, you never told us if the little dog back home was actually healed.  I assume he was!  And your account inspires me to pose a deep question to everyone in WAISworld.  If you could ask God a question, what would it be?

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