Drug Tourism in the Amazon: Why Westerners Are Desperate To Find the Vanishing Primitive

Tourists from the US and Europe are travelling to cities in the Amazon River Region to participate in religious ceremonies and ingest medicinal potions. Many of these tourists are seeking self-actualization and are sometimes exploited by fake healers.

A number of upscale, well-to-do, prominent Americans and Europeans are touring Amazonian cities. Interested neither in parrots nor piranhas, they revel in special all-night religious ceremonies, presided over by a powerful shaman, drinking a foul-smelling brew – a woody vine called ayahuasca. Unlike the jungle denizens who for the last several thousand years have drunk the potion to see the vine’s mother spirit – a boa constrictor – in order to protect themselves from enemies, to divine the future, or heal their emotional and physical disorders, the urban tourist is on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth. In this postmodern period, where people no longer produce their own food, where the family has broken down, where there is a significant absence of community tradition and shared meanings, individuals are racked with feelings of low self-esteem and confusion about values. They are compelled to fill the emptiness with the experience of receiving something from the world. Why not a mystical experience with divinity? From travels, they bring home outrageous stories of their journeys, of the fabulous witch doctor encountered, of the vomiting and diarrhea, of the fast-moving kaleidoscopic visions, of the sounds and the smells of the jungle – Wow! What a trip.Unscrupulous practitioners who exploit the tourists abound, and they are conscious of the farce they perpetrate. In Amazonian cities, middle-class men become instant traditional healers without undergoing an apprenticeship period, without any teachers, and without any control. They give tourists mixtures of 12 or more different psychedelic plants to help them mystically become embedded in the universe. Many are witchcraft plants that affect neurotransmitters, decrease certain brain chemicals, and even make it impossible toread or write for an entire year. These so-called shamans fight among themselves, and all have their champions abroad who functionas travel agents and tour guides. A few make money, seduce women, and obtain personal power and control over others. Agents abroad often earn as much as $8,000 to $10,000 from a three-week trip. Drug tourism is like international mass tourism, where millions of temporary travelers from industrialized nations seek in the margins of the Third World a figment of their imagination, a fantasy of Western consciousness – the exotic, erotic primitive or happy savage. The drug dilettantism has a special rhetoric, and travel literature includes terms like “advanced shamanic training.” Expensive brochures, in color-separated glory costing thousands of dollars, tout spiritual-transformation techniques of jungle shamans. The Amazon is the last remaining sanctuary on Earth, and by paying the cost of the trip, one becomes an impeccable warrior. The phenomenon has become so flagrant since the mid 1980s that native peoples are in danger of extinction as New Age magazines invite readers to take guided tours to remote villages or sacred places of power. This is a deadly, contemporary weapon to hasten the demise of native cultures, as international drug enforcement treats this type of tourism as one more illegal activity and persecutes native peoples involved with tourists. These tourists see exotic people of color, untouched by civilization, close to nature. They will not see the civilizing influences in these areas of Catholic and Protestant missionary activity. Little do they know that the Amazonian city dweller gets better TV reception than I do in Southern California because of the major telecommunications satellites on the outskirts of their cities. There is little hope for dialogue between the drug tourists and the Amazonians whose traditions of ayahuasca use are linked in a matrix dealing with the moral order, with good and evil, with animals and humans, and with health and illness. This has little to do withthe experiences and needs of people in industrial societies. There is an evil, exploitive aspect of this ecotouristic enterprise. These “native healers” are common drug dealers, dressed for deception. They provide the exotic setting and prep the tourist to have an “authentic personal experience.” The drug tourism often leaves psychotic depression and confusion in its wake.

Modernization and cultural change over the last century have destroyed the material base of many Amazonian traditional cultures. Must we now allow this final spiritual denudation? Must the fifteenth-century Conquest still continue? Only the boa knows….


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