Before I begin to recount what can only be described as a tragic journey into the Amazon, I want the reader to know that my primary concern with this piece is to be utterly respectful as well as honest. As the events I describe are still fresh, and as I am still in complete disbelief over what happened just two weeks ago, my thoughts may not have had sufficient time to become fully realized.
Yet, at this time I feel an urge to write about what happened. Both as a tribute to a beautiful, adventurous, and extremely intelligent cousin who I lost in Peru, and as a cautionary tale to others who embark on shamanic journeys in the awe inspiring and perilous Amazon jungle.
A little over two weeks ago I was in Colombia for a friend's wedding. I had the opportunity to connect with many old friends, see breathtaking scenery, and stuff my face with some damn good food. Then two days before my flight home to Canada I received a phone call from my mother. I could tell that she had been crying, yet she tried to keep her voice strong. She told me that Jennifer, a cousin of mine, had died in Peru while at a shamanic retreat. As I heard this I was unable to believe the horrific news (I still haven't come to terms with it), but I decided almost immediately that I had to go to Peru and help my aunt, cousin, and my cousin's husband bring Jennifer back home. As none of them speak Spanish, and because I greatly admire and love Jennifer, I felt that it was my duty to meet them in Lima and help in any way possible.
The purpose of this backstory is to to give some context, however, out of respect for my family, I don't want to recount all the details of what happened over the next four days. I'll just say that there were countless conversations with police, the organizers of the shamanic retreat, administrators at the morgue, funeral directors, the Canadian Embassy, and the public prosecutor of Lima. In short, it was a huge bureaucratic mess. And while I can say that everyone we met in Peru was genuinely helpful, it was an extremely grating and painful process that I wish no family ever had to experience. If you're interested, the following is a clip from a Peruvian news station and it does a good job of illustrating what happened.
As a result of this experience there are two main ideas I have developed. One has to do with a new type of tourism that I can only describe as 'shamanic drug tourism,' and the other is a more philosophical notion on what it means to live a meaningful life.
The Problem With 'Shamanic Drug Tourism'
As I mentioned at the start of this post, my cousin was a very adventurous and intelligent person. She lived in India for two years, worked in Saudi Arabia for a year, and holds a Masters degree in international development. She was also 32 when she died. This means that she was not new to international travel, and that she was very aware of the world around her and the dangers within it. In addition to being adventurous she also had a strong spiritual side which lead her to seek unique experiences in order to enhance this part of herself. I need to be clear that this spiritual side of her absolutely did not lead her on a drug crazed journey of self discovery. As far as we're aware, this was the first time she took any type of 'drug' to assist in spiritual discovery.
While the word 'drug' may be the best way to describe what was given to her by the shaman, it is also very misleading. A little bit of understanding of shamanism is required in order to understand what she was doing in the Amazon. For the indigenous in the Amazon, shamans are essentially their doctor. Like doctors in developed parts of the world, shamans prescribe drugs to their patients in order to heal them. However, unlike doctors in developed parts of the world, shamans create the drug fresh each time from local plants found in the Amazon, and they are generally administered in sacred ceremonies.
One of the more famous drugs is Ayahuasca. In fact, the retreat she attended called itself an 'Ayahuasca retreat.' From her diary it was clear that she had done Ayahuasca three or four days before she died, and that her experience was very positive. She even wrote that her friends would probably find a lot of benefit from it. Through our conversations with the retreat organizers we learned that she did not die from Ayahuasca, but rather after taking a very strong tobacco tea called Mapacho. Like Ayahuasca, Mapacho induces vomiting as a method for cleansing the body. And according to the retreat organizers, Jennifer took Mapacho for this cleansing effect (it needs to be noted that Jennifer was in excellent health, and that she was not seeking relief from any ailments). The Mapacho was taken with two or three other women, all of whom vomited as expected, but eventually recovered. Tragically, Jennifer had an averse reaction. She went into convulsions, and died a few hours later. Although the staff gave her CPR and rushed her to hospital via boat (she was about an hour down the Amazon river from the nearest town Puerto Maldonado) and motorcycle, it was not enough to save her.
The problem as I see it is not in the practice of shamanism by indigenous people, it is the mixing of ancient traditions with a market economy.
This is a strong statement, but I feel that in this case it has tremendous merit. In our conversations with the retreat organizers we came to learn that the retreat cost was $1,800 USD. It appears to be an incredibly lucrative type of tourism, and my fear is that this may make organizers and shamans alike less willing to turn away a paying participant who may be physically or psychologically unready to undertake such a strenuous form of healing. As mentioned, Jennifer was very healthy and psychologically stable. And the retreat did conduct a verbal health assessment before giving Jennifer Ayahuasca and Mapacho. However, as was suggested to me by an indigenous man who worked in the hotel where we stayed in Lima, they should have conducted a blood test to better understand if her body was ready. One of the underlying assumptions of a market based economy is that if a person pays for a service, then they are due the service for which they paid. And I fear that the monetary reward for retreat organizers and shamans may jeopardize their ability to heal, and put people in danger.
There is one more point that seems to be particularly relevant. When we met with the top public prosecutor in Lima, she made it very clear that the Peruvian state was committed to carrying out a full investigation, and to prosecuting the shaman who administered Mapacho to Jennifer. Of course, this is absolutely the right thing to do. However, my fear is that if this starts to happen on a more regular basis then indigenous shamanic practices could become more litigious, and possibly even illegal. This would be a large step for any modern government to legally condemn practices of their indigenous people, but there could be increased legal repercussions each time an event such as this occurs so as to hinder the practices of shamans for fear of legal retribution. I realize it is a leap for me to say this, but I do fear that in the long term, after a series of well documented and high profile deaths at the hands of shamans, that this sacred indigenous practice could come under attack from state governments.
"The Trouble Is You Think You Have Time"
After returning home from Peru I found this quote. It is a little ambiguous (time for what?), but it deeply resonated with me in light of what my family and I had just gone through. My interpretation is basically that life is much shorter than we think it is, and that it is of the utmost importance to do things that are meaningful to you. Jennifer only lived for 32 years, which by any measure is a short amount of time for a life. However, during those 32 years she did so many things that were meaningful to her. Her life was one of exploration, passion, and of giving back. Although I never had the opportunity to have this conversation with her, her actions convince me that she never took her time on earth for granted.
Ultimately, this was probably a fundamental reason why she sought out a shamanic retreat in Peru. It was a way for her to do something that was meaningful to her and make the most out of her time on earth. Both in life and in death, Jennifer has been a person I wish to emulate. Her death only reaffirms my belief that life is not meant to be lived with regrets or based on social norms that suppress ones personal well being or happiness. I am truly grateful to have known her. Like very few other people I have met, she epitomized a life well lived.
Cover photo from CIFOR