Yesterday, an article entitled “The Dark Side of Ayahuasca” appeared in Men’s Journal, a prominent American magazine with a monthly circulation of 700,000. The article focused largely on the death of Kyle Nolan, an 18 year old Californian who died under mysterious circumstances at an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru. The link is here, and well worth a read:
The piece was written by Kelly Hearn, a professional journalist for 15 years, who has written for The Nation, National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others. I first met Kelly this past spring, when he was here in Iquitos doing research for the ayahuasca article. Men’s Journal had sent him to Iquitos to write a feature piece about the overall trend of ayahuasca tourism in Peru, but between its writing and publication, the death of Kyle Nolan occurred. After that, says Hearn, “my editor said, ‘sorry, but we have to ask you to re-write your feature, because it has become a news story now.’”
So the resulting news article, pared down to 1,866 words, bears little resemblance to the article Hearn originally hoped to publish, but these were circumstances beyond his control. Such is the life of a freelance writer. I’ve since become good friends with Kelly, and he happens to be back in Iquitos for the first time since he was here researching the story. I sat down with him this morning at the Amazon Bistro to discuss his thoughts on the article, because I think the story behind the story is even more interesting than what was finally published in Men’s Journal.
“So, this has turned into a news piece about Kyle,” Hearn began. “I originally filed a 4,000 word story that was trying to capture the spirit of ayahuasca, including how it affected me personally. I am obviously disappointed it didn’t get published that way, but that’s the business I am in, I have to accept that.
“It’s frustrating to see the tone and focus of the article change, and I almost feel that I should apologize for the change in tone to all the people who helped me with my research. But, on the other hand, Kyle Nolan’s father was happy about it as a news piece, he said it was ”spot on, good work,” and that makes me feel good, because I wanted people to do their homework about ayahuasca, and if you are looking for a shaman or a retreat center, to find people who are real and honest, like Slocum at Amaru Spirit for example, before they go off with just anyone into the jungle.
“But I met new people, I got a book deal out of it, and the things I didn’t get to say in the article, I hope to communicate in the novel. My original story was that I met really interesting people who went against the grain of the stereotypical ayahuasca seeker. I mean, at first, after everything I heard about ayahuasca, I was telling people to throw up their hands and run backwards from this thing. But in fact it is changing peoples lives. Once I got here and met some of these people, and tried it for myself, I began to see that.”
I should mention that, as a direct result of coming here to research this article, Kelly happened into a set of circumstances that led to a group of private investors financing him to write a novel that features ayahuasca as a major plot point, which they hope to option for a film as well. Now, nearly a year later, he has written a draft and is completing the re-writes. I personally am very excited to read the book, and see the movie too.
So, what, I asked him, was his own ayahuasca experience like? Well, to really appreciate his response, you have to know about a very odd synergy that occurred in Iquitos, three days after Hearn did his ayahuasca ceremony. At the time, Hearn was also researching a story for The Washington Times about the murder of fourteen shamans in the remote town of Balsa Puerto, located outside of Yurimaguas. At the time, the all-time record for flooding in the upper Amazon region was at or near its peak, and the waters had stranded or incapacitated hundred of towns and villages, and made the logistics of travel into these regions into a Herculean task.
After hearing that the road from Yurimaguas to Tarapoto was impassable, he decided to email his editor and tell him that he was giving up on the story. He was facing a four day boat ride, followed by overland passage across uncertain roads, and then having to hire smaller boats to travel into a flooded and fairly lawless area. He was quite rightly worried about traveling into such a remote region, with no guarantee of safe passage, or of encountering the mayor of Balsa Puerto once he got there, which was the reason for the whole trip.
So, on his way to deliver this message to his editor, he passed a local restaurant a block from the hostel where he was staying. He glanced inside and saw a man who looked remarkably like the photographs he had seen of Alfredo Torres, the mayor of Balsa Puerto. He passed by, paused, and turned around and went back to look in again. He could swear it was Torres, a man he had never met but only seen in photos. So he went inside and said, ’excuse me, are you the mayor of Balsa Puerto?” And indeed it was him! The mayor explained that he rarely travels to Iquitos, but was in town for a couple of days to request emergency funds from the regional government to aid the displaced flood victims in his village.
The mayor finished his lunch and then obliged Kelly with the interview he had been seeking, explaining at length his version of the circumstances surrounding the murders of the shamans. The mayor, who like many locals there are fervent evangelical Christians, had come under some scrutiny because of the deep conflict between the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of the town leaders, and the traditional shamanic beliefs and practices of the indigenous Shawi curanderos who were found murdered. Some even alleged that the murders happened on the mayor’s order. But the mayor proclaimed his innocence, disavowed any knowledge of the real perpetrators, and even said to Kelly that “God has led you to me so that I can declare my innocence to the world.”
“My ayahuasca experience was book-ended by running into the mayor,” Hearn explained. “I dealt with those fears of how to encounter him during the experience. I had some anxiety about it– Balsa Puerto was just too far. But before I could inform my editor, I walked by a restaurant and there was the mayor eating lunch! So I got my interview after all, without even having to travel.”
What to make of such an unlikely event?
“The mayor said it was God, and the shamans said it was the plants who led me to him. I put a lot of thought into it during my ceremony, and sure enough, my problem was resolved for me. It led me to question the whole of reality, really. What was it that led me to him? Just a coincidence? I think I’m still trying to figure that out.”
For what it’s worth, I myself also had a very strange synchronicity that day. Kelly wanted more info on a situation where a Polish man in Iquitos had almost died during an ayahuasca ceremony, and had gone into a coma and suffered brain damage. I had never met the guy, but I had some free time that day and I told Kelly I would go out to see what I could learn, although I had no leads to go on. Then, driving by a street festival in San Juan, I saw a lone gringo sitting by himself among hundreds of Peruvians. On a wild impulse I thought, maybe that’s him.
I pulled over, parked the bike and walked over to this guy and started talking to him. I asked him if he knew anything about this Polish guy, and he had a very strange reaction. He didn’t know what to make of me, he thought I was a cop at first. It took us a few minutes for us to sort each other out, talking in both Spanish and English. But it turned out that this guy, who was Dutch, was a good friend of the Polish guy, and had been the one by his side through the ordeal of taking him to the hospital and dealing with all the residual fall-out. He was the best resource, the most reliable person to talk to, to get to the heart of what really happened. Consider this: having set out on my specific information-gathering mission that morning, this Dutch guy was the only person I asked about it the entire day, and I picked him randomly out of a crown on a whim– and, in a city of over 400,000, hit the bullseye on the first shot.
What really happened, as I understand it, is that the Polish guy passed out during the ceremony, wasn’t monitored closely enough, and aspirated on his own vomit. There is a strong suspicion that he was given toé (brugmansia) in the brew, a dangerous plant that Kelly mentions in the Men’s Journal piece.
Finally though, when I got back to tell Kelly about this crazy coincidence, he he trumped my story by a mile! He was incredulous at the day’s apparent coincidences, and so was I. So, to quote my friend, I am still trying to figure that one out.