While subjective and unthinking troll-like comments will continue to drive traffic towards hastily composed and hysterical articles in Britain’s tabloid press, we must all unconditionally lament the passing of student and backpacker Henry Miller whose lifeless body was found strewn in the Putumayo countryside when a yagé ceremony turned into tragedy.
My heart goes out to his family and friends, but it’s time to give the topic some balance and appeal to reason. Once the Daily Mail and others had run with the story creating a certain paroxysm – as is their wont – I started receiving phone calls from the BBC to organize interviews. Any rudimentary search will reveal that I have written on my blog of my experience with yajé or ayahuasca as it is known in the Peruvian Amazon.
Rather than detail the intensely personal and deeply introspective experience to which I was subjected in Iquitos, Peru all those years ago, perhaps we should be opening a debate about yajé and the commercialization of an ancient and sacred indigenous ceremony.
The debate has to go much further than who is guilty, who is at fault, whether the taitas or shamans were legitimate and knew what they were doing, if the measures of yajé imbibed by Henry were excessive, if the hostel in question did actively promote the ceremony and whether school leavers should in fact embark on Gap Year adventures. These are both immediate and subsequently long term discussions, but, the damage is done, a family in Bristol is grieving and the traditional and legitimate indigenous tribes practicing these rituals are now coming under intense scrutiny.
Friends of mine always expressed their surprise that I should have participated in an ayahuasca ceremony since I am a particularly neurotic about things like this. It came about that I was asked to accompany a friend from the Loreto region of Peru to a ceremony since there was a worry that whilst under the influence she may be raped. Apparently this was purported to have happened in other regions.
I was initially against the whole exercise and then started researching the ritual. It was easy to find convincing texts from “experts” all over the world and references to the works to Huxley, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Finally, I decided that trying this and accompanying my friend couldn’t do me any harm. But it wasn’t as simple as paying a fee and slugging back a supposed hallucinogen. The whole process involved in the creation of the ayahuasca potion is sacred, knowing and respecting the shaman is important too, as well as feeling comfortable with those who will be in the ceremony with you. The shaman has the final say if he feels that you are an appropriate candidate for the ceremony. And then, you must follow a strict diet in the days leading up to your experience.
When asked by the BBC journalist whether I would participate a second time, my response was flatly negative. There are people who swear by it, and that’s fine, this is my decision and who am I to judge an ancient practice?
So, why was Henry Miller here in Putumayo? As the newspapers try to plot out the tragically short life story of a 19 year old adventurer, we must remember that one of the reasons why people backpack in this style is to experience and understand different cultures. Why did Henry decide to engage in another yagé ceremony so soon after his first one, who knows what chemical imbalance this may have created?
Inevitably the conversation will engage a philosophical tone and suggest that this is a fateful tale of a young man from a post religious society seeking spiritual enlightenment. I suppose we’ll never know and none of this will ever ease the grief and suffering of his parents.
Yagé represents pre-Columbian and ancient values in Colombia and I am aware that there are “retreats” to be found in towns surrounding Bogotá. This is not a tourist activity and it should never be seen as this. That tourists, such as myself in the past, seek out this experience puts into jeopardy the autonomy of the indigenous people and their practices. Quite simply the people of the Amazon are conditioned to this and the resulting effects.
I received a comment on my blog from an anonymous poster: “There are too many people thinking this is like LSD or marijuana trips, but it far exceeds those experiences and I truly thought I was going to die the first time. Later, after the second phase kicked in, I wished I had. The second imbibing was milder and I have been told since then that the shaman can alter the combinations for this purpose. But if you don’t know the shaman or his true experience with the ‘herbs’ you can get a killer dose and if the shaman is inexperienced, he will not know how to bring you around.”
Rest in peace Henry Miller.