Alternate Title: Ayahuasca is Not the Safest Game in Town
Note: this article is speculation. I have independently verified almost nothing from my theory. The facts I’ve used have been taken from newspaper accounts and personal experience. And here are the facts.
Canadian-citizen Sebastian Woodroffe was killed in Ucayali department after allegedly murdering the village’s spiritual leader, Olivia Arevalo. The villagers lynched him as seen below (graphic images).
- Woodroffe first came to Peru over four years ago after setting up a crowdfunding campaign.
- Woodroffe originally went to Iquitos to study the hallucinogenic drug, ayahuasca. He ended up in Ucayali.
- Arevalo’s son owed Woodroffe over $4,000.
- Woodroffe was reported to police for drinking in the village in the days before Arevalo’s murder.
- Police have the receipt showing Woodroffe bought the gun a few days before Arevalo’s murder.
- Ballistic tests show that gun fired the bullets that killed Arevalo.
- Woodroffe’s clothes had gunpowder on them.
The comments from the Spanish-language coverage mostly attacked the villagers for being savages and an embarrassment to Peru, while comments on the English-language stories attacked the villagers for being savages and lynching the wrong guy. The gringos reading from Canada, the U.S. or Europe couldn’t get their head around the possibility that this Canadian do-gooder would kill an 80-year-old woman.
Reading Between the Lines
But reading between the lines and venturing into unverified speculation, I can see it.
Woodroffe first came to Peru five years ago to learn about ayahuasca’s healing properties, which I’ll translate as a starry-eyed gringo setting himself up for disappointment. From his crowdfunding campaign to pay for his trip:
I have the opportunity to study for three months with a Shipibo Plant Healer, at a healing centre in Iquitos, Peru. This man comes from a long line of healers going far back into the mists of time. He has over 40 years of experience utilising native plants’ potent capacity for healing. His culture has worked with plants as medicines for the last 5000 years! …
I cannot stress how important it can be to retain old knowledge [that] these people have harboured … It is a far more valuable resource than all the trees, minerals, and oil in the whole Amazon. Cultural knowledge cannot be restored once it is wiped out … I feel responsible trying to support this culture and retain some of their treasure in me and my family, and share it with those that wish to learn.
You may not see anything objectionable in that passage if you don’t live in Latin America. But those who do live here see the seeds of profound disappointment. He’s setting his hopes too high, and reality is going to whack him upside the head.
There is an anecdote I like to tell. It didn’t happen just once, it happens fairly often to social-justice warriors, feminists and just regular gringos who arrive in Latin America with dreams of becoming a part of this noble culture. The newly arrived gringo or gringa gets set up in an apartment and, within a couple months, has their sleep disturbed by the neighbor beating his wife. And the police don’t come. And after the neighbor finishes beating her, the gringo still can’t sleep because then they have audible sex.
That’s a typical “Welcome to Latin America” moment, but it’s more than one moment. The gringo’s dreams of a noble Latin America begin to evaporate the second, third and 15th night they lose sleep to the same performance.
I imagine something like that happened to Woodroffe. Not the neighbor beating his wife, although that may have been part of it. But one disappointment would have certainly come via the $6,800 tuition for the “Shipibo healing centre” he describes in his Indiegogo.
That is more than the annual per-capita income in Peru, and twice the annual minimum wage. You can get a four-year degree for that at a university in Lima. From Canada you might not see how absurd that is, but once you arrive in the jungle it’s just a matter of time. If Woodroffe paid that, it would have created a resentment for years. Ad if he didn’t pay it, it would have been his wake-up call to how cynical some operators in Peru and greater Latin America can be.
That would have been the first disappointment. He originally went to Iquitos, which is a gringo hotbed and ground zero for ayahuasca tourism. He would have seen all the competing services, including the gringo operators who came before him. He would have seen the pub crawls and the long history of gringos who arrived in Iquitos for over 100 years.
For whatever reason, which I assume was to get closer to the original tribes which used ayahuasca, Woodroffe went off the beaten path. He left Iquitos, the provincial capital of Loreto department, for Ucayali, home to the Shipibo-Conibo tribe. He would have first arrived in Ucayali’s capital city of Pucallpa, which I’ve heard described as a frontier town in the Wild West. I describe it as “ground zero for illegal logging.” One veteran expat told me you’ll see in Pucallpa barges full of contraband cars or motorcycles or whatever, smuggled in broad daylight, moving upriver through the city without being stopped. And the next barge will be hauling illegally-logged mahogany from a national reserve.
But Woodroffe didn’t stay in the city. He left the provincial capital for an indigenous village miles into the jungle. If Pucallpa is a lawless place, at least they have police. He went to a place where there was effectively no government. It might feel safe because these jungle Indians are friendly and peaceful, but there is no formal law. There is an unwritten, tribal law.
We don’t know how long Woodroffe spent in Iquitos or Pucallpa before finding his way to the Shipibo village. But we know he was in the jungle on and off for over four years. That’s enough time not only to have all his dreams ruined, but to acclimate to the backwardness. To embrace it. For the Upside Down to get inside.
Illegal logging is a big business in Ucayali. In fact some gringos have floated theories with no evidence that Arevalo was killed by illegal loggers, and Woodroffe was innocent. But his glorification of the Amazon tribes would have partly been ruined by seeing that the Amazon is not being chopped down by multinational corporations from America or Europe, but in fact by Amazon natives. It’s a big business employing Amazon natives from top to bottom, from those cutting down the trees to the provincial politicians and police taking bribes to turn a blind eye.
Another feature of the jungle culture that would have given Woodroffe a shock is the sex industry. Iquitos is Peru’s biggest problem for sex tourism with underage girls. Peru has a consensual age of just 14, which can be attributed to the jungle tribes’ custom of marrying their girls off once they’ve hit puberty. I’ve heard that once a girl turns 18 in the jungle, she’s an old maid. Woodroffe would have seen this in Iquitos, and again, he may have seen a gringo tourist or two engaging these girls. But the vast majority of customers, pimps and madams would have been Peruvians.
Little by little his idea of Peru was shattered. Like every other gringo down here, you dump any ideas of these people being downtrodden. You come to see them as being poor for a reason. Because they don’t try. They don’t read. They lie, cheat and steal. Whether they’re illiterate Indians in the jungle or inept Creoles on the coast, they all want easy money.
I don’t necessarily believe those things, but it’s inevitable for those thoughts to enter your mind once or twice when you live here for years.
And that brings us to what would have hurt Woodroffe the most: treachery. Did he pay $6,800 to the healing center? We don’t know, but a slew of reports indicate that Olivia Arevalo’s son owed him over $4,000. And given Woodroffe launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance his initial trip to Peru, we can safely assume that $4,000 was not an insignificant amount of money for him.
Prosecutors believe that was the motive for her murder.
Woodroffe got swindled by none other than the son of the Shipibos’ spiritual leader. If he was maintaining a high opinion of the Indians by blaming all the moral imperfections on Creoles or whichever cultures outside of the Shipibos, this had to hurt. The only thing I don’t understand is why he killed the 80-year-old mother instead of the guy who swindled him, and that brings us to ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca, Hallucinogenic Drug
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drug traditionally taken in spiritual ceremonies by the indigenous tribes of Peru’s Amazon jungle. It has recently attracted attention in over-educated circles of Gringolandia for being effective in treating PTSD and addiction. And given it is legal, gringos ranging from Silicon Valley geeks to gap-year teens have been flocking to Peru to participate in “ceremonies,” spawning a drug-tourism industry completely distinct from the traditional brand of drug tourism in Latin America.
I took ayahuasca, known as “yaje” in Colombia, back in my Bogota days. It was great. I had fun. I had profound insights, as I usually do when I trip balls. I first tripped balls back in high school, when LSD a.k.a. “acid” was popular. But I also ate shrooms several times and once even some tablets that I was told were mescaline, but in hindsight I have no idea. But I tripped balls.
The point is I have a good bit of experience with psychedelic drugs. And while they do give you these profound insights to the point where an experienced user could believe how they’d be useful in psychological treatment, it’s not always profound insights. It affects everybody differently, but I’ve found in my case that hallucinogens make me more aggressive. One night I wound up in jail (not fun on acid). Another time I almost got into what would have been a nasty fight with a group of Bogota panhandlers. And by “nasty fight” I mean me knocking out filthy crackheads who may have had knives a couple blocks from where I lived. Not a good idea to say the least.
Hallucinogens yield insights, but if you take them regularly you will ultimately live in a warped reality. It will change you, just like living in Latin America changes you. If you’re taking ayahuasca on a regular basis while living in the Amazon jungle (the Upside Down even for Peruvians) for four years, you’re going to become a different person.
Again, this is pure speculation. But in that context, it is not unbelievable that a Canadian who was a good dude back home could come to put the responsibility of his outstanding debt on the mother of the guy who swindled him. And while four years is enough to learn the score in Latin America and even get a hold of a gun, you don’t really know these women and their sons until you marry into a family. Woodroffe could have been laying her and her son could be a complete degenerate loser, there is simply no way she would ever give him up. Love them or hate them, Latinas are ride-or-die for their sons.
And so it looks like Woodroffe killed her. That’s what the village, in accordance with their unwritten law and having the most knowledge of the situation, determined. And that’s what prosecutors determined.
Not the Safest Game in Town
First of all, get it out of your head that because ayahuasca is a natural plant, that it is “medicine.” It is a DRUG. It gets you high. It’s a lovely high, but it’s a drug nonetheless. People don’t take ayahuasca because they’re sick. They take it to get high. If it didn’t get you high, people wouldn’t take it.
As with any drug that gets you high, ayahuasca attracts a motley crew of customers and vendors. Of course there are good people taking ayahuasca in Peru just to get high and go about their lives, as there are good people (Indians, Creoles and even gringos) who want to make a living by providing a safe ayahuasca experience to drug tourists. But there are also dodgy customers and dodgy vendors. That makes for a potentially dodgy scene …
Then throw hallucinogenic drugs into the mix!
Take a dodgy cast of characters and have them all tripping balls. Obviously, some things are going to go wrong. People are going to die. It could be you, so be careful.
Aside from the Woodroffe-Arevalo case in Ucayali, there are a few overdoses every year. They don’t overdose on ayahuasca itself, but the nicotine in the tobacco tea used in ceremonies to “cleanse” the system.
My big ayahuasca advice is don’t drink the tobacco tea. Politely decline. Tell them you’re allergic or a recovering nonsmoker. Hell, tell them tobacco is against your religion but ayahuasca isn’t. Trust me, I’ve gotten high on all kinds of hallucinogens. You don’t have to cleanse anything. All you have to do is consume the ayahuasca, and you’ll get high.
In one incident, an American 18-year-old overdosed and the shaman tried to hide his body by burying it and telling people the gringo walked off into the jungle. Other shamans have been accused of using the drugs to sexually assault gringas once they’re tripping.
Another curious case was the killing of British citizen Unais Gomes by fellow tourist, Canadian Joshua Freeman-Stevens. Freeman was cleared of wrongdoing as all the other tourists at the ayahuasca retreat corroborated his account that Gomes attacked him with a knife. His ayahuasca reality led him to fight a friend to the death, and he lost. Even if he had won, he would be in a Peruvian prison today.
Again it’s not unbelievable at all given my experience.
Not a year passes in Peru without a gringo or two being killed in incidents related to ayahuasca. Mostly from the tobacco tea but also bizarre situations like these. The continuous negative press is leading to calls within Peru to regulate the industry.
So be careful when booking your ayahuasca trip. My second piece of advice, in addition to not drinking the tobacco tea, would be not to stray too far from the beaten path. Find a place near the capitals (Lima, Bogota) if you can. Or go with an established provider with plenty of reviews and experience dealing with gringos. Their price may be a ripoff, but as I said this isn’t the safest game in town. When you buy cocaine, do you go to the slums to get the best price, the most authentic experience?
At the end of the day, ayahuasca tourism sees more dead gringos than cocaine tourism!
Did you enjoy this article? Check out these similar stories:
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