Hari Simran Singh Khalsa, a 25-year-old New Yorker with a wispy red beard and a contagious smile, was visiting Mexico for a yoga retreat.
He arrived with his wife, Ad Purkh Kaur, in Tepoztlan, central Mexico; a mysterious, elegant village overlooked by a mountain, at the top of which sits an ancient Aztec pyramid.
Like many visitors, the practicing Sikh couple was drawn to the region as a center of spirituality. A healing, creative energy is attributed to the town owing to the legend that it is the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. As a result, Tepoztlan has become a focal point for Amerindian and Eastern spirituality. Its cobbled streets are lined with shops selling crystals, yoga mats and New Age books.
At 11 a.m, on day four in Mexico, Singh Khalsa set out on a hike, taking only a bottle of water, some trail mix and a knife.
The yoga instructor sent his wife a selfie from his phone. “Looking down on you,” he wrote from the top of a nearby mountain.
At around 2.30 p.m., he sent another: “I accidentally summited another mountain. Looks like I’ll be a little later coming back. Save me some lunch if you can.”
It was the last his wife heard from him. Three days later, a search team found his lifeless body at the bottom of a cliff. He had apparently died from a head injury sustained during a fall.
Stories like this are all too familiar in Mexico. Every year, newspapers run reports of foreigners on spiritual or artistic pilgrimages that ultimately end in tragedy.
The Beat Generation presented some disturbing examples. Joan Vollmer, the wife of writer William Burroughs, was shot dead by her husband in a Mexico City game of William Tell. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” froze to death while walking along the railway tracks on a winter night in Guanajuato.
French psychiatrist Regis Airault has studied the phenomenon of “India syndrome,” when westerners lose their bearings in their search for truth on the subcontinent.
“India syndrome hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved,” he explains. “It’s as if we’re trying to go back in time.”
Yet U.S. adventurers have shown similar symptoms just south of the border, with a “Mexico syndrome” that can be just as consuming. And just as the relationship between the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought Indian spirituality to the attention of the western mainstream, anthropologist Carlos Castaneda was instrumental in bringing indigenous Mexican cultures to a wide U.S. audience.
Known as the godfather of the New Age, Castaneda inspired a generation to seek enlightenment through “mind enhancing” drugs like peyote and jimson weed. The UCLA anthropology student ventured into Mexico in 1960 and met a mysterious Yacqui seer called Don Juan. It was an encounter that changed his life, prompting him to leave his family and embark on a four-year apprenticeship under the shaman’s guidance. Castaneda recalled his experiences in the 1968 book “The teachings of Don Juan.” International acclaim followed, along with a Time Magazine cover and royalties in excess of US$1 million.
Yet several researchers found that Castaneda had copied quotes from hundreds of other sources and attributed them to the shaman. Anthropologist Jay Fikes discovered that the Yacqui Don Juan was actually based on a Huichol elder. Fikes recorded testimony from Huicholes who had met Castaneda and denied that he had become a shaman’s apprentice.
“He took bits and pieces of reality and fused them with fabricated things and put it out as if it were true,” Fikes said. “He’s up there among the best con-artists in history.”
Castaneda also projected his own interests and desires onto the culture he was studying. In Mexico, Fikes saw that shamans performed “rituals to prevent illness, to bring rain, to get the corn to grow, to bring fish, to get deer and to guarantee the things that they need to survive as a people. Don Juan was doing none of these things. He was more concerned with personal enlightenment.”
Castaneda’s fabrications inflicted lasting damage on Huichol peoples.
Inspired by his writings on peyote, hippies flooded into their lands, desperately seeking the cactus for their own psychedelic experiences.
Former Guadalajara Reporter publisher and editor Allyn Hunt was a close observer of this first wave of peyote seekers.
“The problem with foreigners coming down is they had a naive concept that everything was wonderful and they would get into trouble and have things stolen from them. They rarely spoke Spanish, and although they expected to be embraced by the people around them, they were actually viewed as intruders. Often they were abrupt and very eager to get hold of peyote.”
As a result of this invasion, the Mexican government cracked down on peyote, resulting in decades of police persecution, such as the recent arrest of two Huichol representatives in Guadalajara airport. The men were held for six days in a maximum security jail after trying to take the plant with them to a conference on preserving cultural traditions.
So quixotic foreign adventurers can be damaging both to themselves, and to the communities they come into contact with. Both were the case in 1998, when journalist Philip True set out on a solo trek through Huichol mountain-lands, to research an article on the reclusive tribe.
True’s body was found in a shallow grave at the bottom of a ravine. Neither his watch nor his wedding ring had been stolen, suggesting robbery was not the motive for his killing.
Ten days later, two Huichol men, Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and Miguel Hernandez de la Cruz, confessed to murdering True because he had taken photographs without their consent. The journalist’s backpack, containing his camera, was found at the suspect’s homes.
After the accused pair recanted their confession, U.S. businessman Miguel Gatins intervened on their behalf. Pointing to the high concentration of alcohol in True’s blood, Gatins was convinced he had died from a fall.
As a result of the campaign, the two men were acquitted and returned to the mountains.
Yet two years later, Gatins withdrew his support, saying that both men had privately offered “a detailed account of their participation in the murder.”
The reputation of the tribe was unfairly tarnished by the news that two Huicholes were responsible for the murder of a foreign national.
So while True set out to celebrate indigenous peoples, like Castaneda, he inadvertently contributed to their further marginalization.
True, Castaneda, Singh Khalea and the Beats were drawn to Mexico by a desire to escape modernity and experience communal living.
Yet despite this obsession with community and cooperation, what really defined these explorers was their reckless individualism.
While “Mexico syndrome” inspires an idealized view of a “more spiritual” culture, these adventurers were also gripped the “American alone in the wilderness” myth.
This romantic notion, of “finding oneself in nature” can be seen everywhere from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, to the misguided adventures of Christopher McCandless, who died in 1992 trying to live off the land in Alaska.
Like Thoreau and McCandless, these lone figures in the Mexico wilderness were as interested in exploring themselves as their surroundings. Yet in this pursuit of their higher selves, they willfully attracted danger and left a trail of destruction in their wake.