The Heart of WhitenessOn Spiritual Tourism and the Colonization of Ayahuasca

The Heart of Whiteness header illustration by Shyama Golden

Illustration by Shyama Golden

This article was published in Travel Issue #79 | Summer 2018

Some things never change. Each generation tends to revisit old spiritual-awakening rituals, with the current wave of radical witches, the self-care movement, and a new era of people of color reclaiming the traditions of their ancestors all emerging as progressive examples. But what definitely isn’t new is white Westerners appropriating spiritual practices from other cultures and commodifying them for their personal enlightenment—and often, for their personal gain. One such recent “discovery” is ayahuasca, a ritual brew native to the Amazon, and the latest trendy tonic for White People Problems.

Only under late capitalism is wellness considered a luxury, something that can be purchased from the great Western mall of New Age nothingness (or Etsy). And like many goods pawned off in a structure that favors settlers, it’s been stolen from Natives. One need only look at how spiritual tourists are rapidly commodifying and consuming ayahuasca, a plant-based drink with hallucinogenic properties that Amazonian healers have used for centuries, to understand how little this market is concerned with the concept of healing—and that it ultimately doesn’t want to care because there’s money to be made. But beyond this, I wonder how whiteness can heal itself from the violence in which it was forged, and if it’s possible to keep that violence from spreading wherever white people go. Because in the wake of every used and abused wellness trend is an endangered plant, a knockoff shaman, an exploited Native community, and an unregulated economy of spiritual hustling in which the sacred is reborn as obscene.

So what happens to a people whose traditional healing rituals become solely performed for tourists? What happens to a practice such as ayahuasca ceremonies in the hands of uninvited guests? And in a world where colonization is still in progress, how can we take part in ancestral traditions that aren’t ours without taking them apart or taking them over?

Guidebook of Revelations

The term “spiritual tourism” has yet to be defined by any overarching authority. Even the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, which hosted the first-ever International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development in 2013 in Vietnam, doesn’t define it. That’s because no one can really pin down the vague moniker that is “spiritual,” a word that’s been crucial to this marketplace. But I’ll take a stab at it: Spiritual tourism is what happens when you take cultural appropriation on the road and call it a self-care journey. It’s been a staple of Western hippie scenes for decades, but now has gone mainstream once again.

In his aspirational advertorial titled “How Spiritual Tourism Might Change the World,” Ben Bowler, CEO of the spiritual travel agency Monk for a Month, which hooks up “Buddish” travelers with a host monastery in Thailand, writes, “In an age of soulless materialism and endless consumption, taking time out to explore the depths of the world’s wisdom traditions is probably a good idea.” (You had me at “probably,” Ben!)

Everyone wants to travel, but no one wants to be a tourist. Herein lies the Machiavellian magic of tourism marketing: convincing a consumer to purchase an “experience” (read: a package tour) that makes them feel special. “Be the experience—not the tourist!” proclaims Spirit Tours in its Costa Rican “Spirit of Nature” ad, while its South African tour is called “Spirit of Africa,” because Africa, y’all. Another agency, Divine Travels, sells “spiritual cruises” that are “not associated with any particular spiritual path or religious beliefs” to target the fastest-growing religious demographic in the United States—“nones,” or nonreligious people, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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Spiritual Settlers

You’ve heard it before: I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. It’s a valid statement, but it’s also a way to take advantage of Native cultures whose beliefs predate colonization and don’t fit the definition of organized religion. For those who stand to profit, “spirituality” is an easy way to do business in a marketplace that isn’t regulated the way faith-based missions are. But even this godlessness is false, because all settler states of the West bow to capital, and that’s the only god that tourism—an industry that raked in $7.6 trillion (10.2 percent of global gdp) in 2016 alone—knows. As New Zealand writer Scott Hamilton stated in his lecture “Ripping Off the Brands: A Rough Guide to Anti-Travel,” “Tourism is about the consumption of place. Like every other form of consumption, it is dependent upon brands.” So Bowler’s insistence that spiritual tourism offers a detour from the day-to-day workings of capitalism is business as usual. What is essentially being trafficked in this enterprise is a vacation from privilege, or the temporary relief white Westerners might experience when distanced from the material manifestations of the privilege they view as burdensome. Hamilton adds that “Majorca and Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levi’s or Calvin Klein.”

When I realized that ayahuasca was trending in the global tourism market, shit got personal. As an Ecuadorian in the diaspora who was raised mad spiritual in that other jungle, the city of New York, reverence for La Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a spirit was synchronized into many aspects of my culture and drilled into my head by my mom so that assimilation wouldn’t get the best of me. I began developing multiple disabilities and chronic illnesses while living in Ecuador in my 20s, and my Native friends would often nudge me to try ayahuasca. But it was something I felt I needed to earn, to prepare for, and to respect, because at that time I saw tons of tourists who just wanted to get high on the brew for the cheapest price, or who would shame me for taking medication and seeing “Western” practitioners, while assuring me that ayahuasca would cure me overnight.

It’s these “esoteric settlers,” as cultural anthropologist Gijs Cremers puts it, who fetishize Indigenous cultures as wise and ancient in a process of dehumanizing mystification. When I knew I was ready to take Ayahuasca, I questioned the ethics of doing so as someone who isn’t from the culture that practices this ritual—in particular the Shuar, of which my curandera (a healer, or the feminine equivalent of a shaman) was a member.

Ayahuasca, which goes by many names in the 75 Indigenous communities that use it, is concocted using the banisteriopsis caapi vine mixed with chacruna (psychotria viridis) leaves, and has been used in the Amazon for thousands of years. Both its own communities and Western proponents attest that the brew allows its drinker to dialogue with the rainforest, that the blend is its very voice. Shamans use it as an aid in guiding others; answering difficult questions; or communicating with their ancestors and the rainforest—or what many view as both. Jesuit missionaries were among the first foreigners to witness these rituals in the 1600s, referring to ayahuasca as a “hellish brew,” but it wasn’t until the early-to-mid-1900s that spiritual tourists began making trips to the jungle to experience its effects firsthand. Its popularity soared when the white dudes of the Beat Generation got hip to it: With William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg coauthoring a book of letters to each other on their respective “trips,” and with the advent of the hippie obsession with psychedelics, there was no turning back.

Dennis and Terence McKenna, the brothers who popularized ’shrooms and other hallucinogens at the time, traveled to Peru in the 1970s in pursuit of ayahuasca “in our long hair, beards, bells, and beads,” wrote McKenna in his book True Hallucinations. The brothers identified themselves as “refugees from a society that we thought was poisoned by its own self-hatred and inner contradictions.” The back-to-the-land movement and fashion trends of the time have long been criticized by the Indigenous folks of Turtle Island for appropriating Native cultures: Its settlers have held contemptuous attitudes toward the American society they flee without analyzing their own complicity in creating and disseminating the values of that society. These days, with ayahuasca parties thrown by the hundreds from Silicon Valley to Williamsburg, it looks like the McKennas have only spread the poison of the society they were running from.

Instant Karma

In her condescending 2016 New Yorker piece about the popularity of ayahuasca in the Global North, Ariel Levy wrote, “If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the 1980s, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.” Beyond the offensive parallel being made here between sacred medicine and a drug, the production of cocaine spiraled out of control in the hands of foreigners, creating a sweeping demand that ruins communities across hemispheres to this day. The past few years have seen a ton of lay reporting on the ayahuasca “trend,” with headlines such as “Ayahuasca, Hollywood’s Hip, Heavy Hallucinogen”; “Explore Bengaluru’s Drug and Party Scene”; and “Silicon Valley’s New Craze Is Flying to Peru to Take a Psychedelic You Can’t Legally Get in America.”

Tourists arrive in the Amazon by the thousands each year and pay up to $4,000 per person to white, foreign-owned retreats where yoga, saunas, and Wi-Fi are all available. Meanwhile, the popular vine and shrub are disappearing from parts of Peru, with opportunists wandering through the jungle cutting off vines and leaving the rest to rot, as VICE reported in 2016; the price of ayahuasca has tripled in the past nine years, to $250 a liter at minimum. The company Soul Herbs ships $370 10-minute diy ayahuasca kits from Mexico, Holland, and Spain; and some IBM bankers even created a cryptocurrency called “AyaCoin” so investors can cash in on this boom.

“I’ve seen white tourists haggle over a $20 ayahuasca ceremony,” says Eli Farinango, a Kichwa researcher of healing plants native to Andean Ecuador and a descendant of Indigenous healers. “One time I passed a market where some women from the Amazon were selling $20 bottles of ayahuasca, saying that it was good for 20 people,” she recalls. While consumers are purchasing ayahuasca tea via Facebook Marketplace for hundreds of dollars and paying thousands more to go to retreats run by knockoff mystics with moldy dreads, spiritual tourists come to Ecuador and refuse to pay fair prices in the local economy for the real deal.

Having known about ayahuasca since I was a kid, I feel as if I’m living in a parallel universe, where the Brooklyn of my birth is now home to ayahuasca raves and the Ecuador of my ancestry is being overrun by globalization. “Accessing these lessons, this medicine, is a process that requires respect,” says Letty Lu, a budding Coahuiltecan herbalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. “It is in danger of being overused, and those of us to whom this spiritual medicine belongs may never have access to it because of these tourists.” While ayahuasca isn’t part of Lu’s tradition, peyote is, and she sees the same process happening with that plant. “I’m finding barriers prevalent in Portland, where white herbalists dominate and gatekeep and exploit these medicines for their own financial gain.”

I wonder how whiteness can heal itself from the violence from which it was forged, and if it is even possible to keep that violence from spreading wherever white people go, because in the wake of every used and abused New Age trend is an endangered plant, a knock-off shaman, an exploited Native community, and an unregulated economy of spiritual hustling in which the sacred is reborn as obscene.

The Heart of Whiteness snake illustration by Shyama Golden

The Shaman’s Burden

No Indigenous community in the Amazon owns a patent for ayahuasca, because ownership of such a thing would be truly ridiculous. But that’s usually where white Westerners come in. “The work that needs to be done is reclaiming these medicines in our own communities and killing the taboo [that they can’t be sold],” says Farinango. “Because if we don’t start owning and even marketing them properly, things like AyaCoin happen.” She gets a headache when I tell her about the upcoming Festival of Ancestral Medicine in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. With a flyer covered in images of random Native people in traditional dress, it almost seems like a legit gathering. But a closer look reveals that there will be body painting, belly dancing, reiki, and yoga—none of which are ancestral to Ecuador—all for the price of $157, an obscene rate for locals.

“These spaces are exclusively for the wealthy and marketed toward Anglophone foreigners,” says Farinango. An extra $60 gets you an ayahuasca, peyote, or San Pedro ceremony. (The latter is a hallucinogenic cactus brew, also from Ecuador). “Here, it’s abnormal to drink medicine at festivals like these,” says Farinango about her hometown, the Andean city of Otavalo. “That ayahuasca is in vogue for the global elite is sign enough of a new normal that these communities are struggling to adjust to.”

Like many other sacred things that have been Columbused by colonizers, be it hip hop, sage, or the very lands we live on, the act of taking ayahuasca is an attempt to flee toxic whiteness, to heal the splintering of the self that occurred when the project of white supremacy was set in motion through atrocities like genocide and chattel slavery. The level to which white Westerners and settlers in developed countries have distanced themselves from natural phenomena like trees and vines makes finding out about them downright revelatory, and it’s part of the project to ruin what they want and move onto the next thing. People of color want to reclaim their traditions so that they might communicate with and honor their ancestors; white people consume these substances to get away from theirs.

In effect, ayahuasca is nothing more than a Band-Aid for the symptoms of first-world problems: boredom, loneliness, and a lack of real community. It’s no different than the pharmaceutical drugs white people so often turn their noses up at, meds that many people of color struggling to access basic healthcare cannot afford. The heart of whiteness is nothingness, and its function is to consume and destroy. It can never heal so long as it exists.

At the crack of dawn in a small cabin that’s home to my curandera and her husband, children, dogs, chickens, and many spiders, I prepare for my first natem ceremony (“natem” is the Shuar word for ayahuasca). The sweet and grassy smell of guayusa, yet another trending plant native to this region, is overwhelmingly thick in the air; the curandera has prepared gallons of it for me to chug, triggering projectile vomiting in the dark garden surrounding her home, followed by an almost ecclesiastical state of alertness, as guayusa is filled with caffeine. After weeks of ayunas, which involves not only physical fasting but also a spiritual lifestyle fast (no sex, tons of meditating), the tea cleans out what might be left deep in my gut, leaving it empty to receive the fullness of the natem.

“I turn away tourists all the time,” my curandera says, “because we do not do natem to drug ourselves, to get high, or to ‘fix’ all our problems. We do natem so that we may stand in solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters, to know ourselves so that we may know them, to love ourselves so that we can love them.” My three ceremonies over the course of two months were nothing like the ones tourists describe: I’m still disabled, and I wouldn’t describe the experiences as “epic,” but I can get down with solidarity, and that has nothing to do with spiritual supermarkets, cryptocurrencies, and full-moon raves in Bali. It most certainly has nothing to do with capitalism. This call for solidarity direct from the forest was foreign to colonizers centuries ago just as it is now, and no matter what the future holds for this sacred medicine, likely always will be. Some things just never change.


Bani Amor, a genderqueer person with short black hair and glasses, wears a black leather jacket as they pose outside
by Bani Amor
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Bani Amor is a genderqueer travel writer who explores the relationships between race, place, and power. They’re a four-time Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation fellow with work in CNN Travel, Fodor’s, and AFAR, among others, and in the anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity. Follow them on Instagram at @baniamor.