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Ayahuasca Tourism a Cautionary Tale

Ayahuasca Tourism a Cautionary Tale

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Published by Jonathan

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Published by: Jonathan on Mar 16, 2010
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m a p s • v o l u m e x i i n u m b e r 2 s u m m e r 2 0 0 2
esterners discontent with their Judeo-Christian heritage havelong sought alternative spiritual traditions. In the 1950s, the Beats dabbledin Zen. In the 1960s, the hippies flocked to Hindu swamis. In the 1970s,the Reverend Moon and other cult leaders swayed large followings. In the1980s, the New Agers embraced Tibetan lamas. In the 1990s, shamanismcame into vogue. Perhaps within a few years, the avant-garde of the UnitedStates will undergo a mass conversion to Islam in order to assimilate thisestranged manifestation of the Other. But at the present time, many NorthAmericans and Europeans are still seeking enlightenment through explor-ing shamanism, some traveling to South America to findthe wisdom, and the brews, of other traditions.Ayahuasca tourists are often bewildered by the factthat almost every shaman claims to be the only person inall of Amazonia who knows how to properly brew the magicpotion. So the question foremost in many peoples’ mindsis, “How do I find a good ayahuasquero?”In November 2001, I observed ayahuasca tourismwhile visiting Ucayali, Peru as part of a cactus identifica-tion research project supported by a grant from Bob Wallaceto MAPS (an article about this project will appear in thenext issue of Entheogen Review). In Peru, the drug war isin full force. Television shows portray marijuana as a killerweed — although hemp leaf patches adorn the clothingof many adolescents. Cocaine traffickers regularly closeoff the only road connecting Lima to several outlying provinces for weeks –no doubt abetted by corrupt politicians and military officials. In contrastto US drug policy, however, Peruvians regard ayahuasca as an herbal tonicrather than an illegal drug. Although a few years ago the Americanayahuasquero Alan Shoemaker was imprisoned in Peru for distributingayahuasca, this appears to be an isolated incident.
A Religion and an Industry
Ayahuasca is popular among the indigenous people and among manymestizos. Pentecostal, Adventist, and (to a lesser extent) Catholic mission-aries have gained many converts in the indigenous communities. Whilethese Christians publicly disavow shamanism, I met some who still pri-vately consume ayahuasca and continued other native religious practices.
Ayahuasca Tourism: A Cautionary Tale
Ayahuasca tourists areoften bewildered by thefact that almost everyshaman claims to be theonly person in all of Amazonia who knowshow to properly brewthe magic potion.”
m a p s • v o l u m e x i i n u m b e r 2 s u m m e r 2 0 0 2
Overall, ayahuasca is a valued part of Peruvianspiritual and economic life. The government tour-ist agencies sponsor ayahuasca festivals, thebrew and the raw materials for its manufactureare openly sold in markets, and even Peru’s cur-rent president Alejandro Toledo participated inan ayahuasca ceremony.Ayahuasca tourism is popular elsewhere inSouth America as well. Some tourists visit Bra-zilian ayahuasca churches such as the SantoDaime. Others go on the more expensive Ameri-can-led retreats. While the four-star ayahuascaresorts may feel overly contrived, any tour ledby Peter Gorman is almost certainly going to beinteresting.For the past decade, many ayahuasca tour-ists in Peru have flocked to Iquitos. Anotherpopular location, although it lacks a hotel, isthe Shipibo town of San Francisco, which canbe reached by a taxi ride from Yarina. In fact,the enormous sign at the entrance of San Fran-cisco proclaims that the town is the “Centro Cer-emonial del Ayahuasca.” There are at least acouple of ayahuasqueros in almost every Shipibofamily. Many of these practitioners are willingto host services both for other Peruvians andalso for foreign visitors.
A Medical Caution
Most shamans are unfamiliar with Westernpharmaceuticals, so it is the tourist’s responsi-bility to be aware that ayahuasca can have ad-verse interactions with various prescription medi-cines, particularly some medications used to treatAIDS, depression and psychiatric disorders. Forinstance, one AIDS patient died during a cer-emony in Bolivia, although he was sufficientlyhealthy to dance at the beginning of the ser-vice.
About The Ceremony
Unless a tourist spent a long while gettingto know a practitioner, the character of a com-mercialized ayahuasca ceremony would probablybe shallower than a ritual conducted solely forthe benefit of the shaman’s relatives and com-munity. In a commercialized ceremony, one couldobserve the ritual procedures and enjoy listen-ing to the chanting of icaros. Probably the doseof ayahuasca would be mild, as the shaman wouldusually rather err on the side of caution, prefer-ring to give too little rather than too much.Given the linguistic barriers and cultural misun-derstandings that are likely to confound com-munication even in the ordinary state of con-sciousness, it is only prudent for the shaman totake reasonable precautions to prevent problemswith foreigners.
The Ayahuasqueros
I had the opportunity to spend time get-ting to know several ayahuasqueros who per-form ceremonies for tourists. “B” is an elderlyshaman in Yarina, a town near the city of Pucallpa. I lived in the ceremonial hut in hisback yard for a week, observing the nightlyayahuasca ceremonies that attract up to a coupledozen visitors. I became familiar with B’s lead-ership style because his son, the director of thefamily religious practice, was giving workshopsin the United States. I discovered that B is afrequent liar, a shoplifter, and that he soon asks
“Unless a tourist spent a longwhile getting to know apractitioner, the character of a commercialized ayahuascaceremony would probably beshallower than a ritualconducted solely for thebenefit of the shaman’srelatives and community.”

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