A Home in the World first appeared in Medium.
I had been listening to this young man for the past hour recounting significant aspects of his life’s story — a pilgrimage really — moving over the past decade. We were sitting in the upper level of Xapiri, his gallery a couple of blocks off Cusco’s main square, with Amazonian art all around us. He was winding down.
I’d been enthralled. “That’s incredible, you know.”
He offered a sardonic smile and said in decidedly Oxford English, “Yeah, that’s the brief story. There was a lot of randomness in-between.” Jack had a delightful way of laughing at himself that was attractive. But there were elements beyond his charm that spoke to greater substance and make-up.
Earlier that morning I was having breakfast in the tiny café of the family hotel El Balcón where I had long lodged my spiritual travel groups to Peru. A young North American woman, interning in hospitality services there, sat down across from me. We’d talked several times about what we were both doing in Cusco. This time she said, “I think you should meet Jack Wheeler. He’s got quite a story.” She gave me just enough to pique my interest and directions on where to find Xapiri. I took a chance that Jack would be there during my free time, and he’d be open to telling a complete stranger his personal history on a moment’s notice.
For a limited few, the trajectory of their life is laid out with certainty — and they’re quite satisfied with that. Satisfaction is key in this distinction, being bred in the bone to the extent they wouldn’t have it any other way. For the rest of us, conscious of it or not, we must seek our grounding. We know we’re not there when there’s an underlying feeling of discomfort, the rumblings of angst, a sense of just passing time, filling a slot, or waiting for something to happen. The tragedy of settling for the uneventful life is not discovering who you are. That’s not much of a legacy to pass down.
Jack had led into his tale, “When I left college, I wanted to follow one of the normal careers. I started working in a bank in my home city of Birmingham. It’s called the second city, London being the first. I’d worked there for two years. Although I was successful with promotions and really good money for my age, I definitely wasn’t happy. So, I started to travel. I took three months off and went to Peru, the first place I visited. I was twenty years old. At that point, I had no idea what I wanted. I was lost. I was traveling just because I wasn’t happy in England.
“But still I went back there. After a few years in the bank, I started a business with my older brother Tom. We worked hard, and it took off within six months. For many people it would appear to be a dream come true, creating something and being your own boss. But again, even though I was making money, I had no fulfillment — like it was at the bank. It wasn’t feeding my soul. So again, I decided to travel,” Jack punctuated his story with chuckles.
“That was about 6 years ago. I had a big, big trip where I traveled for a year…from New York all the way across the Americas…Central and South America, all the way to Patagonia. Big, big travel. Amazing travel. But looking back now, it was ticking boxes. I was going from place to place, spending a week in each place. It was enjoyable but not getting deep. It was more a standard backpacking trip.”
I pointed out to him a lot of people stuff their discontent instead of doing something about it. So much depends on outside influences and belief in what’s possible. There’s also the question of risk, stepping outside what’s familiar. Typically, if someone is going to answer what Joseph Campbell spoke of as a Calling, it’s after they’ve got more years on them, and the sacrifices have mounted up. I was speaking from experience.
“I think I was lucky to realize it at a young age. I put it all down to the traveling. At the beginning, the traveling wasn’t so deep. I wasn’t yet involved with Indigenous cultures. It still opened my eyes! When I came to Cusco the first time, I stayed in an orphanage volunteering for three months. I saw humanity, and it woke me up a little bit. The idea for Xapiri didn’t come at that point. I didn’t yet understand what I needed for fulfillment. It was a slow process. But I realized I couldn’t handle all the money and success back home.
“After the three months? I went back to England. Yeah, the story’s crazy!” With this last admission he produced a subdued bark, a commentary perhaps at the expense of his not-so-much younger self.
It’s seldom understood in the moment. But wandering is rarely aimless if we’re engaged, alert and open to possibility. A sorting process occurs beneath the surface, a recognition of what fits and what doesn’t. It takes putting ourselves into new, sometimes off the charts, experiences. In this way, we get hits over time, self-correcting so that when the full unveiling comes, it’s like we knew our passion all along. It’s no stranger to us. What at first may seem accidental, becomes the realization of personal destiny.
“My brother had relocated to Sweden. I went and spent the summer. I got back involved with the business in a different role with the idea I’d get more connected. But again…I didn’t. Yeah, I traveled again.
“This was a common theme. I was always traveling as an escape looking for something, I guess. It was on this travel when things began to click. I was in Venezuela and then Brazil where I had contact with the first Indigenous communities. I suddenly realized this is the work I wanted to do — to be involved with Indigenous people.
“At this point there were still no projects, no idea to work with the arts. Only later, I stumbled into this art gallery called CANOA in the town of Paraty. It was founded by Nina Taterka who was doing amazing work with over fifty ethnic groups in Brazil. A few months later I met her son Tui Anandi who became an important part of Xapiri from the beginning. He had all his experience having grown up surrounded by his mum’s work. Now Tui is a great friend, Xapiri partner and photographer for when we visit the communities.
“The moment I walked into Nina’s gallery, I knew I needed to be involved,” He nodded emphatically. “Somehow I persuaded her to listen to me. We had some meetings. The initial idea when meeting her was to show this Indigenous art to a European market. We made the shipments, sending the art work from Brazil to England…and that’s how Xapiri was born six years ago now.”
There’s an interesting thing that happens once the seeker finds life purpose. The traveler comes to rest in the comfort of self-knowledge. Seeking goes to the wayside, and they find solid ground, even if it’s invisible in the moment. Having sought outside the box, all manner of potentials will become apparent that heretofore were hidden. The more clarity existing within your intent, the more those elements will naturally come to fulfill it. Synchronicity becomes a common occurrence. It’s not that blocks don’t appear, but we recognize alternatives to skirt them, an important part of the learning process. In this initiation, a foundation is built.
I was curious how Jack gained entry into the Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. I knew he had some help initially from Nina when he was in Brazil. Beyond that, he would definitely enter foreign territory where some remote ethnic communities would have had little to no contact with Westerners. It could be sketchy to just show up — without invitation. Even with an invite, it was a fearless move. Jack had to harbor such strong intent that he was on the right track. At any rate, a lot of people want to do things but don’t have the how-to, especially given the unusual path he had chosen.
“I can give a few examples. The way these relationships start are always different with each community. You’re right. In the beginning, I had this connection with Nina in Brazil. She was the first person to introduce me to some communities. The first expedition we went on was to visit the Asurini people of the Xingu river six years ago with Nina and her photographer friend, Alice Kohler. It was because of their relationships we had the invitation to go in.
“Since then it’s been Xapiri — the team and me — creating the connections in many different ways. The Matsés are the most remote community we work with, as an example. For sure, they had very little contact with outsiders coming into their territory. A number attempt to get into their land but don’t succeed. Once they get to the military outpost on the border of their lands, they get no farther. You really need to have connections and invitations. How it happened with the Matsés was through a nonprofit called Acaté Amazon Conservation. They’ve been working with the Matsés for about ten years and have created many amazing projects with them.
“Acaté is a nonprofit that does super work. Their cofounder Christopher Herndon sent me an email at the beginning of Xapiri five years ago saying we’ve had some meetings with the Matsés women, and they want help selling their arts. Chris and I connected on our first conversation, and we agreed to begin with sending a few bracelets created by the Matsés women to Xapiri. That’s how the relationship started — very slowly. I think we had ten bracelets in the beginning. They started to sell. We asked for fifty bracelets, a hundred bracelets and so on. I would say over the first year that we were building this trust, with both Acaté and the Matsés, from repeat orders. Soon, it developed by asking Matsés men to make many lances and arrows, to keep it fair with the women.”
“We started to hear stories. There were still some elder women making ceramics in the remote villages. Slowly, more of their arts appeared, their baskets, bags and so on. On that trip we also made direct contact ourselves. It became this beautiful project where we were selling through Acaté. After a year when this trust had been established, we had the invitation to go visit the Matsés. It was from the Matsés leaders and the nonprofit. The first time we went in was three years ago. We started having a direct relationship with the Matsés creating media documenting how they live, telling the stories of their lands. With the Matsés, it happened slowly with the help of the nonprofit. Now I’d say we’re really close with the Matsés. We were there again in 2019. Every time we go, we present our work to different villages and communicate what we’re doing.
“With other communities, we’ve made contact through recommendations from friends. Tui and I have done long expeditions into the jungle. We’ve gone exploring. Three years ago, we went from Manaus in Brazil to Peru to the Colombian border to Pucallpa. This was a three-month trip where we stopped off and visited different communities and made contact with different nonprofits. We were working out which nonprofits we could partner with on the ground to help us. That’s how we made contact with the Shipibo in Pucallpa through the nonprofit Alianza Arkana. On that trip we made contacts ourselves with the Ticuna on the border with Colombia. Along with that, a lot is happening in communities near Cusco through direct contact and through friends we meet in the gallery.
“Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region, is considered the entrance into the southern Amazon jungle. In this region, you have the Yine. By visiting that city, we’ve had contact with some of the leaders and had invitations to some of the villages. It’s lots of trial and error. Lots of the connections we make never materialize. The communications are very difficult. Lots of times there are no phone signals. It’s really face-to-face relationships and building trust in person before anything develops. We try to make many relationships and a few stick. So now we’re working with ten different ethnics. That’s how it is.”
When lifework comes together bit by bit over time, especially when focused on the everyday process, there can be a tendency to take the journey for granted. I asked, “Do you ever look back and wonder how in the world you got here?“
“Of course. There are often these moments in Matsés land, and you’re spending the whole day in the canoe. These are the times you reflect. I look at Tui. It’s five years ago we were just dreaming. We were just following our passion, and now we’re doing this really important work. We have to pinch ourselves! It’s emotional these moments. It really is — all this hard work coming together. Spending time with the communities, this is what it’s all about. Back from these expeditions you feel like different people. We’re ready to put all this energy into the work back in Cusco and what we do day-to-day. Waiting for the next expedition and time with the Indigenous… It’s the cycle. It’s beautiful.”
I wondered about the effect Xapiri has had on the Indigenous peoples within their focal point.
“The sheer number of people we’re supporting now is well over one hundred artists. These artists are normally the only people bringing money into their families. I can’t tell you how many phone calls Xapiri gets from Indigenous people asking us for support. For instance, someone is asking for two hundred Peruvian soles for medication because a family member is sick. We send this money and know within a month they’ll send art as a return. There are these examples where we’re supporting these individuals who have no other option when they get sick or want to send their grandson to university. Without Xapiri’s platform, it really wouldn’t be possible. They call on Xapiri as the trusted people they know who will help. On a very simple level, we’re supporting many people now.
“What’s so important now is engaging the Indigenous youth with our work. It’s the grandmother making her art and selling. Then it’s the granddaughter seeing this, and she wants to know how to make the basket or the bracelet. She gets connected again to her culture and this can bring a sense of restored pride. If we can keep doing this — getting the young people engaged in the culture — that’s the biggest thing Xapiri can do is connect with the youth.
“It’s proving to be one of the hardest things. But when it’s working, this is one of the most important things. These traditions will continue…the art, language, medicinal plant knowledge. It’s all connected. If the Indigenous are strong and connected to their culture, they will continue these aspects. That’s presently one of Xapiri’s biggest missions. It’s for these pieces of wisdom to continue. If we can help support that…that’s our mission.”
One of the important aspects of finding our place in the world has to do with recognizing resources and undertaking subsequent strategies as a result. Frequently, people overlook the most preeminent resource of all. Acknowledging their own capabilities, whether innate or learned, creates a stronger foundation. It’s something to count on. Self-acknowledgment builds baseline confidence to move ahead — even in the dark days.
I wanted to explore this with Jack. “I love your story. Also, I recognize there’s something within you. You possess capacities that allow you to put things in place and be so successful. Starting out, even when you were back in England, everything worked like clockwork for you. I think that’s an important point because some people will stay in a job because it’s lucrative, and they’re able to do it. For you, that wasn’t enough. You’re adept at creating relationships as well.”
Jack considered the past. “I agree. One of my greatest strengths is in relationship-building and the small steps we’ve taken to get to this point. Those first years in England where Xapiri was born, that was the foundation. I read book after book on history and different Indigenous matters. You’ve got to make connections with different activists, nonprofits and anthropologists. That was the base, doing my research. Without that time, Xapiri never would have taken off in Cusco. Throughout these past years, there have been these careful steps. Very slowly, but building it in a careful and really deep way. Every relationship we make is sincere. It’s aimed to be super long-term and sustainable. It’s not something we’re doing for a few years. I know it’s long-term because it’s such a passion. That’s why I’m happy to move slowly and do it right. I know that if I keep taking these steps for ten, twenty, thirty years…we can do some amazing things.”
In such a way spiritual identity is developed. It’s more than a public face. Like Indigenous peoples who maintain their traditions, connections to their communities and ancestral lands, roots run deep. Everyday life is lived through deeply held beliefs. There’s no compartmentalization. Any task or direction is reinforced through sacred threads they hold as generative. One thing is woven into the other, creating wholeness.
That morning I introduced myself to Jack, there was a specific prompting I received in my early morning conversation with the young woman who suggested I meet him. Not knowing his story exactly, I was quite familiar on a personal level of the elements it might contain. I was curious as to what compelled Jack specifically to undertake this venture. It could even be considered a holy one. Such rites of passage always involve risk, unfamiliar territory, uncertainties and potential failure.
All who submit to the journey will have their own details within the elements just as Jack did. One thing is certain. If the intrepid explorer follows their intent all the way through to its true and logical destination, they will experience a quickening. It will allow them to find — not merely footing — but grounding within their own finely tuned home in the world.