Family of gap-year student who died in Colombia after local tribal ritual speak of their grief


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The Independent Online

The family of a British gap-year student who died after drinking a hallucinatory concoction as part of a shamanistic ritual in Colombia have spoken of their grief at the loss of the “adventurous, polite and humorous” teenager.

The body of Henry Miller, 19, was found dumped by the side of a road in the remote Amazonian town of Mocoa near the border with Ecuador.

He died after apparently having a strong reaction to taking ayahuasca, the effects of which were shown when it was consumed by explorer Bruce Parry for his BBC programme Amazon in 2008.

The substance, also known as yagé, has been taken for centuries by local people as part of a traditional tribal ritual, but has recently become a popular part of the backpacker tourist experience in the region, which is famed for its shamans.

Mr Miller’s parents Elizabeth and David, of Bristol, confirmed yesterday that they had received “the exceptionally sad news that our son Henry has died whilst travelling in Colombia”.

“We understand that he took part in a local tribal ritual recommended by the hostel that he was staying at,” they said in a statement. “The ritual involves a drink made from local plant infusions. We are awaiting further information from the Foreign Office but it is likely that a reaction to this drink was the cause.”

His brother Freddie added: “Henry was an adventurous person who travelled extensively. He was polite, popular with a great sense of humour and was very much loved by his family and his many friends.”

The Bristol Post reported that he had accepted an offer to study at Brighton University.

Police in the area are investigating Mr Miller’s death and are awaiting the results of a post mortem. Ricardo Suarez, a regional police commander, said when Mr Miller’s became ill, the shaman had sent him to a hospital on a motorcycle with two young men, but Miller “died on the way. Everything indicates that the two young men panicked and left him on the side of the road,” Mr Suarez said.

The hostel where Mr Miller stayed in Mocoa, the Casa del Rio, had listed taking ayahuasca as one of the activities for tourists in the area. “Experience yagé, Indian tradition taking a medicinal plant which purifies and can make you hallucinate,” it said. The reference was removed following Mr Miller’s death.

Filip Goemaere, owner of the hostel, insisted yesterday: “I’m not involved in drugs, I hate drugs and don’t permit drugs. Here they are talking about an indigenous ritual that’s existed for hundreds of years and is legal here.”

However he added: “You feel guilty without being guilty.”

Mr Goemaere said about a third of the tourists staying at the hostel came to the area to take ayahuasca, but Mr Miller had not.

“He was a very decent, polite, young man, innocent because of his age,” he said. “My female employees, some of them are still crying about it. He was a good guy.

“There were other clients who talked about it [ayahuasca] and maybe they motivated him to do it.”

He said Mr Miller had taken part in an ayahuasca ritual without unduly adverse effects and had been planning to leave Mocoa, but changed his mind at the last moment. He then went back to the same shaman to take ayahuasca again with a group of other European tourists.

“Apparently from the French people he had a very strong reaction … I don’t know at which point he died, in the night or early next morning,” he said.

“I cannot say for sure [but] for my personal opinion they didn’t do enough to save him.

“I know these people believe a lot in traditional medicine, but if somebody is almost dying, it won’t help putting some leaf of a plant on him or talking about some spirit, you have to get an ambulance but they didn’t … I’m really angry about that.”

Mr Goemaere said there were suggestions that Mr Miller had been put on a motorbike, possibly so he could be taken to hospital, but his body was later found by the side of the road.

“I’ve no words for it. I’m so angry with those people. The authorities are checking out now if they really tried to get to hospital or not,” Mr Goemaere said. “They dumped him as if he was garbage.”

Mr Goemaere said he had called Mr Miller’s father to break the news that his son was dead.

“They were devastated, it was horrible,” he said. “It was a big surprise [to him] but if I wait until the officials do it, I wait two days, I think. He had a right to know.”

In a blog entitled, Mother Ayahuasca versus Bruce Parry, Mr Parry recounted his experience of ayahuasca, describing it as “one of the more humbling nights of my life”.

He wrote that the ayahuasca was “as thick as molten glass and as acrid as battery acid”.

“There is no doubt that for many, taking ayahuasca is a religious experience,” he wrote. “For me, it was at once disappointing, telling and humbling … almost instantly it all went wrong and I felt a wretched sickness welling up inside.

“For a short while, my rationality had become irrational and I could not shut myself up. Whenever I was able to let go for a second, my nausea subsided and I was presented with a myriad of spiralling colours and possible wormholes and intriguing places to explore, but as soon as my mind tried to reason with them or think about what they were, they receded to a black and white untuned-TV-signal and I would feel wretched with sickness again, often reaching for the bucket.”