Heaven Earth – tourism and a herbal drink March 30, 2010

The bench underneath you rattles a bit, somebody blows prayers into a bottle. Through the damp hot darkness of the jungle a distant song can be heard. But suddenly this song takes a visual form and flies towards you in spirals, exploding. It must be a fantasy, you think, but soon you remember that there's a shaman singing this song, and the taste of the bitter reddish brown drink burns your throat.

Icaro fantasies hover in a dark room, hot tobacco adds depth to the grooves of the shaman's face. The shaman blows smoke on your body and whistles you a healing song.

Without showing all this, Rudolf Amaral's film was about precisely that – a culture born around a herbal drink in the forests of Amazon. This was probably the expectation with which many spectators came to see a film about ayahuasca – rituals, songs, visions, etc. But this is not what they saw. Without going deeply into the effect that this plant has on the human body; without going deeply into the ayahuasca rituals, folk stories, icaros or ayahuasca art; without going deeply into shamanism and travelling between worlds, Amaral's approach was from a point of view of a future perspective of ayahuasca culture in the globalisation process.

In the biggest jungle city of Peru, Iquitos (where no road can take you – travel is by boat or aeroplane), ayahuasca tourism is an important source of income to the locals. There are many kinds of ayahuasca tourists, of course. Those who come for another drug trip, as well as those who travel for spiritual reasons. Some of them have even settled and learned this ancient spiritual knowledge and the effects of the plant; now they organise the tourist sessions themselves - like the American shaman Ron who we meet in the film.

Although the situation is somewhat strange – shaman tours, drug tourism or red-neck shamans creating new-age shamanic centers - the phenomenon may have a positive side. As Amaral shows towards the end of his film, it can actually save traditional knowledge from disappearing. The value of this is all the greater because shamanism is mainly based on subjective experience and is therefore more difficult to preserve than something with more widely agreed reference points, for example a disappearing oral tradition. One cannot patent the shaman's knowledge or skills. As the local youngsters’ interest towards this culture has dwindled, spiritual people from the West take the lead. The attention that Western tourists pay to ayahuasca culture can also motivate the locals to renew their interest, and perhaps to learn grandfather's shaman knowledge.

One of the performers in the conference that is shown in the film, talked about paradigmatic conflict in anthropology – to understand even a little bit about a culture so different from one's own, the anthropologist must deconstruct himself. The two worlds – the world of the Western researcher and the world of ayahuasca – are situated in different paradigms, in different systems of understanding and belief. The Western world lives in a dualistic division of body and mind and pays little attention to spirit, whereas in the ayahuasca world the situation is almost the reverse: the spirit is the most important, everything else follows.

One can continue by asking whether it is possible for an anthropologist to study a spiritual experience from the point of view of reason. From my experience with ayahuasca, I recall the shaman's words: “Visions are yours only, and they are yours to interpret”. So the signification must reveal itself in and for you.

Perhaps this is also the reason why Amaral left these aspirations aside and concentrated more on the relationship between ayahuasca culture and tourism. Although this choice made the film more political, the author showed his sensitivity to the issue by combining interviews with poetic passages and beautiful images from nature.

But mainly he wanted to make a difference with his film. Many films have already been made about  rituals, visions and shamans, whereas anthropologists’ attention has focused much less on dealing with where – or rather, what – is the heaven and earth of the tourists and the new age shamans.

Terje Toomistu

Link to film