What Really Happened When A 32-Year-Old Canadian Died After A Tobacco Purge In The Amazon?
The untimely death of 32-year-old Canadian Jennifer Logan — from an adverse reaction to a tobacco purge medicine taken on January 17, 2015 at a South American retreat center — made international headlines and lit up the blogosphere.
The tragic incident occurred at the non-profit Canto Luz Centre for Research and Cultural Preservation, a retreat center outside the city of Puerto Maldonado in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. I’m acquainted with two of the retreat’s co-founders, Mariya Garnet (whom I interviewed for this article) and Sara Mason (whom I interviewed for an earlier article on Reset).
Mainstream media coverage of the tragedy was even-handed but fairly superficial. Interest in Logan’s death from traditional tobacco medicine seemed stoked by hype around the increasingly popular shamanic brew ayahuasca that, though generally safe, was implicated in the sensational story of the death of 18-year-old American, Kyle Nolan who died during an ayahuasca ritual a few years ago at the Shimbre Shamanic Center — another retreat in Peru. In that incident, the shaman Maestro Mancoluto (real name Jose Piñeda) hid the body, which was only discovered after his mother flew to Peru from the United States and got police to investigate.
Logan died on Saturday, January 17, 2015 on the ninth day of what was supposed to be a two-week stay at the Canto Luz. She had planned to meet up with her mother, who was traveling in Peru with friends, at the end of her stay.
An autopsy suggested the cause of death was a pulmonary edema, likely a result of some kind of nicotine poisoning. Three other women participated in the ceremony with no ill effects. In these ceremonies, a small amount of liquid tobacco is consumed and immediately followed with large amounts of water, which makes the person throw up, essentially to cleanse their stomachs. Unfortunately, Jennifer Logan continued to vomit and became (understandably) panicked, eventually passing out, never to regain consciousness.
The sad news from Canto Luz raises a series of questions. Was Jennifer Logan’s death preventable? Was the tobacco tea offered in a responsible way? Was a prior health issue ignored? Was adequate first aid and CPR administered? Was negligence involved? Or was this simply an unusual reaction to a purgative medicine used routinely at South American retreats?
Media reports never adequately answered these questions. Behind it all, another question loomed: What kind of place is Canto Luz? Is it a credible institution with serious intentions? Or is it — as some bloggers feared — some kind of hastily conceived travel destination designed to make money from naive “ayahuasca tourists”?
Who was Jennifer Logan? Photographs of Jennifer Logan show a beautiful woman who looks younger than her 32 years, and almost waifish thin. Could being of slight build have contributed to Logan’s reaction to the tobacco tea? The photos are deceiving. Logan was of average height, weighed around 120 pounds and was a healthy vegetarian who practiced yoga and meditation.
Logan seems to have been destined for Lonely Planet-style travel since her school days. In Logan’s obituary, her family wrote that after graduating from Saskatoon’s Aden Bowman Collegiate in 2000, she joined the Katimavik volunteer program. At the University of Saskatchewan and then the University of Winnipeg she completed a BA with honors in geography and international development studies. She eventually completed a master’s degree in geography in 2010, focusing on Tibetan households in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto for her research. After graduation, Logan traveled the world, tutoring sex-trafficked women and girls in Nepal and working on educational programs in India. Her wandering included visits to Tibet, Thailand, Europe and Saudi Arabia.
It’s not surprising that in her travels Logan heard of ayahuasca from the travelers she encountered. Given her interest in women’s issues, it’s also unsurprising that she chose to visit Canto Luz that has a reputation for catering to women.
What is Canto Luz?
Canto Luz was the brainchild of Russian-born Canadian citizen Mariya Garnet and fellow Canadian Sara Mason and their Peruvian business partner Juan Zuniga. It was Zuniga who arranged the donation of a 1500-acre parcel of undisturbed rainforest; the funds to build the retreat center came from a successful crowd-funding campaign.
The funds were used not only to pay for construction of the retreat’s beautiful “tree house” guest accommodations, but to kick-start research projects. The mission at Canto Luz has always been to research solutions to environmental challenges and also to help the indigenous people of the area recover their language and culture.
Environmental protection is a serious matter in the Amazon, and especially in the Madre de Dios area where illegal gold mining operations have contaminated rivers and large areas of jungle with mercury.
“Mercury is used to precipitate the gold from the mud in the river banks and swampy areas that abound here,” says Mariya Garnet. “There are large projects with heavy equipment and also many small operations in which a couple of guys can make $500 in just a day or two with renegade processing techniques.”
Garnet says these people have traded short-term profit for long-term health because of the mercury.
“They’re all going to have Parkinson’s and other illnesses in a decade or so,” she says, adding that she herself is receiving treatment for mercury poisoning acquired from eating fish in the nearby city before she understood the extent of the pollution.
Garnet and the other Canto Luz staff have had to fend off bands of miners and would-be loggers in tense standoffs, and deal with government officials claiming to have lost the center’s approvals.
“Fortunately we have copies of all our documents,” Garnet says. Canto Luz’s non-profit research activities are funded in large part by hosting shamanic ceremonies that use traditional medicines. The center receives small groups of six or seven tourists for only four months of the year, offering vegetarian food and various healing and spiritual programs.
What happened on January 17
Saturday, January 17, 2015 was a sunny day — a day of veranillo (“little summer”) — the term for an unusually dry and sunny two-week period that sometimes occurs during the rainy season.
On that day, seven permanent staff members were working at Canto Luz along with one volunteer. Seven guests were onsite, of which four participated in the tobacco purge. All these guests had been at Canto Luz since January 12 and had partaken in two ayahuasca ceremonies.
The guests included two couples (who were there for one week) and three single women who shared the treehouse. Nationalities included Canadians, Americans and French, with ages ranging between 30 and 50.
The three single women were in Canto Luz for two-week dietas. (A dieta involves consuming a special plant in order to experience its healing power, augmented with only simple food such as water and plantain.) They were not primarily there to drink ayahuasca but, instead, were going to diet immune system-supporting plants like chuchuhuasi and uña de gato. One woman was going to diet mucura (anamu) for its specific tumor shrinking abilities (which has been confirmed by medical research, according to Garnet).
The dietas were recommended and supervised by mestizo ayahuasquera Reyna Luz Edery Flores, trained in the Shipibo tradition. Flores has more than 20 years experience as what Peruvians call being a curandero (healer, their word for “shaman”) after years of apprenticeship learning not only how to serve up ayahuasca but to learn the healing properties of hundreds of plants in the jungle (nature’s pharmacy).
The three women chose to undergo a tobacco purge in order to mentally and physically prepare for their dietas in isolated tambos (huts). Another woman, the fourth, asked for the tobacco purge in order to develop a healthy relationship with tobacco, in an effort to quit smoking commercial cigarettes.
Logan, and the three other women, gathered in the maloca (roundhouse or a temple) around 7 am. Garnet arrived shortly thereafter with Flores (the curandero) who brought the tobacco medicine and delivered a talk about the procedure and what to expect.
The medicine was placed in front of the altar and an icaro (medicine song) was whistled into the medicine while sacred mapacho tobacco was blown on the medicine and participants. When I spoke with her, Garnet took pains to underscore both the practical and shamanic steps she and her staff take to keep guests safe at the facility.
“The maloca has always been maintained with regular smudging before or after any event takes place (including tobacco purges),” Garnet said, adding that no recording or picture taking is allowed. “Protective plants grow on the perimeter of the ‘safe zone’ that reinforces the arcanas (protection).”
“In addition to the first aid training we have, one of our two Canadian staff members has additional wilderness survival training and the other is a trained paramedic,” Garnet said. “Despachos (offerings) are done regularly at Canto Luz to keep the land clear and protected [from dark energies].
“Two big ones are usually done before and after each season of retreats start. Some of the work is done by Reyna Flores and some by an Andean curandero from Q’eros lineage.” (The Q’eros are profiled in one of two films by Seti Gershberg that comprise his Path of the Sun documentary series.)
Simply put, lack of shamanic safeguards doesn’t appear to have been a factor in Logan’s death. Garnet clarifies that tobacco is not offered to everyone. Tobacco has been done there as a dieta a number of times. In those cases, the dose is stronger than in the purge ceremony. It’s a powerful medicine that’s usually undertaken by experienced drinkers. For purge ceremonies, the tobacco liquid is a lighter version, the dose smaller.
Asked about any ill effects guests have experienced from the tobacco purge, Garnet says some people have had stronger reactions than usual.
“When it’s happened it usually manifested through longer lasting dizziness or an inability to hold down food until the afternoon,” Garnet said. “But usually everyone feels 100 per cent by about 11 am. They wash — often with a flower bath — and have a light lunch at noontime.”
This is typical of comments I received speaking with operators of some other retreats in Peru. The immediate effect of vomiting is usually over within about 15 minutes, with some people feeling dizzy or nauseous a bit longer. Accounts of more serious reactions are rare and anecdotal. (One retreat operator with whom I spoke told me his facility doesn’t offer tobacco purge anymore simply because foreign guests find it uncomfortable, not because it’s dangerous.)
An online search reveals only one documented case, in Ontario ironically, where, in 2003, a Native American woman died from nicotine poisoning during a three-day ayahuasca ceremony outside of North Bay. That ceremony was supervised the Ecuadorian curandero Ukunkar. In that case, however, there were complicating factors. The woman was a 71-year-old diabetic who went off her medication in order to participate.
At 7:45 am on the day of the incident everyone drank their shot of tobacco medicine, gulped down large amounts of water, and began purging.
Somewhere between 8 am and 8:15 am everyone had finished purging, except for Logan, who (understandably) began to look stressed.
Within five minutes (8:20 am) two male staff in the adjacent kitchen were summoned to help Logan walk outside to get some fresh air. During the 30 seconds or less it took for the two men to walk from the kitchen to the maloca, Logan passed out.
Garnet says during the next 10 minutes staff performed CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The trained staff made sure her air passages were cleared. It remains unclear whether Logan’s death was purely a pulmonary edema from nicotine or if choking on some of her own vomit was a contributing factor. (We may never know.)
When no conscious response was achieved, the next step in Canto Luz’s First Response Protocol and Evacuation Procedure went into effect. Logan was put on a motorcycle between two staff members. They, and two other staff on another motorcycle, sped down to the river (a 10-minute trip on a bicycle).
At the river Logan was loaded into the Canto Luz boat (which Garnet says is always maintained and has a fast engine). During the boat ride into town CPR and mouth-to-mouth continued in an effort to revive the woman.
“She still had vital signs,” Garnet said. The boat arrived at the river port of Puerto Arturo 50 minutes after departing, where a taxi (ordered ahead of time) stood waiting.
Unfortunately, this was the jungle and Logan was still far from a hospital. The car had to navigate flooded, muddy jungle roads to get to the Santa Rosa Hospital in Puerto Maldonado. By the time it arrived there, Logan had been in transit for just over 90 minutes. (This was considerably faster than it normally takes, Garnet says, noting that the retreat center’s contract and consent form states the distance to the nearest hospital is “three hours” and that Canto Luz is not a medical facility.)
After being admitted, at around 10:40 am Logan was pronounced deceased at the hospital.
In speaking with Mariya Garnet a couple of months after the incident I sensed an attempt to remain sanguine, but it’s clear Logan’s death has devastated her.
“Our grief can’t compare to that of the family,” she said. “I’ve taken some time away from Canto Luz to reflect on things.”
Most email correspondence has been supportive, she says, although there have been critical emails too.
“People have to realize there are no emergency vehicles in Puerto Maldonado,” Garnet said, in answer to emails that asked why staff didn’t simply “call emergency.”
“The deplorable state of hospitals is absolutely unimaginable to anyone unfamiliar with the poor Amazonian regions of South America,” she adds, noting that the hospital may not have been able to save Logan in any case.
As soon as the doctor proclaimed Logan dead, Garnet and her staff sought out the police and, after steeling herself, Garnet contacted Logan’s family.
“It was the hardest phone call I’ve ever made,” Garnet said, while mentioning that she felt blessed at the attitude of the family, given the circumstances. “They visited us in order to understand what happened,” Garnet said. “Once they were assured it wasn’t negligence they had a very compassionate attitude.”
The preliminary autopsy labeled the death as “pulmonary edema.” A full report is expected to emerge from an autopsy in Lima, Garnet says, after which the results are to be sent to the Canadian embassy that will forward them to Logan’s family.
“It would be good to have a better sense of closure,” Garnet says, “but I’m not terribly hopeful the final report will provide more certainty than we already have.”
On the day of the accident all the activity at Canto Luz stopped and an ayahuasca ceremony scheduled for that night was canceled. The remaining guests departed the next morning for town where a meeting was held in which everything that had happened was explained. The group held a prayer circle for Logan.
The next several days were spent with the police, who were taken to Canto Luz to inspect the site. Statements were taken from Garnet, Flores and Zuniga, as well as everyone who was present at the tobacco purge ceremony.
(Garnet mentions another odd detail of life in the Peruvian Amazon. Since there’s little funding for police inquiries, the retreat center had to pay to bring the police investigators out to the site.)
“We’ve been in non-stop communication with the family since the moment of the accident,” Garnet says. This included spending almost two days with Logan’s mother and sister, translating and answering questions, and helping them with their banking and communications with the funeral services company, plus the cost and logistics of transporting Logan’s body to Lima for cremation.
Garnet says Logan’s mother wanted to meet Garnet and the other staff in person and see “that they are good people.”
“Jennifer’s mother told me, ‘I don’t want to be angry for the rest of my life,’” Garnet says. “When we said goodbye we all gave each other a big hug.”
I asked Garnet to communicate on my behalf with Logan’s sister Amy, and ask her if there’s anything the family wishes readers of this article to know.
“I just hope the article doesn’t imply that Jennifer was unprepared or had made some fatal mistake, or that she was seeking treatment for a problem. She wanted to participate in the indigenous rituals and
traditions, like you said, and not be healed of something. Of course she was hoping to make personal gains, but I don’t think that’s the same as treating a problem.
While we don’t yet have the medical results of what happened to her, whatever did happen was made much worse by her distance from the hospital. This could happen to anyone camping or hiking in their own country, not just to people jumping into another culture.
Media seem focused on the ‘cautionary tale,’ and so these are the thoughts that come to my mind.”
Garnet says she’s been contacted several times by the guests who were at Canto Luz during the tragedy, sending their support, and some even offering to work as staff or volunteers. Canto Luz was closed at the time of this writing, and I asked Garnet if she knew yet whether or not the center would re-open.
“We have taken time to process and integrate what happened,” Garnet replied. “With so much support pouring in and reminders of all the good that we have done and are doing, I feel we are meant to continue — with changes — with even more attention and deeper understanding of the Amazon realities. But we intend to keep on walking, turning suffering into strength.”
In conversation Mariya Garnet seems genuine, and — barring some unexpected revelation — the death of Jennifer Logan appears to have been unforeseeable. Every effort appears to have been made to save her when she experienced what was likely a freak reaction to a traditional medicine that hundreds of people drink each year with minimal side-effects.
Garnet has enough self-awareness not to state a couple of other things that give perspective. First — from a risk perspective, the most dangerous part of any ayahuasca retreat experience is likely the drive from the airport to the retreat center. It’s hard to imagine what an Amazon city emergency ward looks like, but this is after all a region where whole families ride about on motorcycles — without helmets — on the back of which women can be seen breast-feeding babies, and shaky mototaxis zip over bridges where most of the wooden boards are missing.
Second, it’s well established that legal pharmaceutical drugs in North America and the rest of the world are far more dangerous than most people realize, with literally hundreds of thousands of people dying each year from their side effects. While it’s perfectly acceptable that the unfortunate death of Logan was reported in the media, a sense of proportion needs to be maintained. It would be interesting if every death from prescription medications was covered in the media. Indeed, if they were, there wouldn’t be space to cover much else.