‘There is a giant python slithering across the foot of my hospital bed. It’s at least eight feetlong and it’s looking right at me.’ My father, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, is recovering fromCovid-19 at Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital so it’s highly unlikely that there are any giantreptiles in his acute ward. He’s been there for over six weeks now and has been consciousfor the last two and able to speak with his family on video calls.
At first, this was just theoccasional rasped sentence as he struggled to push words out through his tracheotomy andthe nurses held the telephone for him, but we have watched with joy and relief as he hasgained in strength with every day that passes. Now he is almost in full control of his body andmind. The tracheotomy has gone, he can call us rather than us having to call the nursesstation and he’s back to his old verbosity where it’s hard to get a word in edgeways.
At the start, he would slide from lucidity back into delirium frequently and often didn’t makemuch sense. One minute he would be asking how the dogs were and whether I wasremembering to feed the chickens and then suddenly a vacant look would enter his eyes andhe’d be rambling about the Borneo rainforest and the indigenous people that he thought hewas surrounded by. As an 83-year-old explorer who’s spent a great deal of his life travellingand living with tribes across the world, this wasn’t as strange as it might seem. We wouldgently try to bring him back to the present and the hospital but often it would be difficult topull him out of the clouds. It was almost as if he was seeing into a different plane.
Last year I travelled with him deep into the Brazilian Amazon, to Acre District, near thePeruvian border. The journey was long and arduous and the final stretch up the Rio Gregoriotook many hours in a small boat driven by a member of the tribe we were visiting. This wasYawanawa country and every member of the tribe has a close connection to the spirit world.The whole village holds a ceremony twice a week where their shaman administers the psychedelic drug ayahuascarather like communion wine being passed out during mass. After drinking this bile-likesubstance the community dance and sing together into the small hours and one by one theyare transported into another dimension where they can have their questions answered anddiscover their true purpose. It’s most certainly not a recreational experience and forms acentral pillar of their culture and identity. While we stayed with them we watched with hugeinterest as these ceremonies were conducted.
In 1990 my father was one of the first people to travel to visit the Koryak people of Kamchatkain northern Siberia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Koryak are predominantly reindeerherders and live a necessarily itinerant lifestyle. He speaks with fond memories of helping atribal elder to gather the amanita muscaria mushroom from around their camp. He knewthat this was a potently poisonous fungus and asked the elder why they gathered it in suchquantities. The elder sagely told him that the mushroom was a gift from the gods and that itwas their gateway to the spirit world. The tribe knew that it was poisonous so they fed it totheir reindeer, who were unaffected. By drinking the reindeer’s urine the tribal leaders wouldthen be transported to an astral plane where they could meet their forebears and hold councilmeetings with the gods. My father always claims that the efficacious powers of thismushroom are why Father Christmas’s reindeer fly.
A few years after this the old explorer spent 40 days and nights in the Ténéré desert in Nigerwith the Tuareg people. They traversed the foothills of the Aïr mountains, a desolate, silentand empty place where he didn’t see a soul aside from his three companions for the duration.
The Tuareg are a deeply spiritual people who spend their life in the desert and feel out ofplace in towns and cities. The leader of their group told my father that once they left thetown of Iferouane, the desert would envelop them and they would pass from this world intoone of peace and tranquillity in amongst the dunes. After a few days the noise in the mindstops and a truly religious experience can be grasped without the need for any herbaladditives.
My father has always been fascinated by the ease with which indigenous peoples slip betweendifferent realities. Through all of his travels he has always been a respectful observer and hasnever tried to partake. Until now. As his clarity returns day by day, he is convinced that hehas been stepping between spiritual realms similar to those that tribes across the world havea deep and fervent connection with. The medical world is beginning to understand Covid-19better and it seems that it affects more than just the lungs and can have a profound impacton the liver, heart and brain as well. In Robin’s case, all of his organs appear to have returnedto rude health but his mind has been altered by the experience. He still sees strange thingsthat aren’t there, like pythons and burrowing owls, and describes being able to pass througha white wicket gate from our reality into an alternative one at will.
Has coronavirus unlocked new and untapped psychic potential in its sufferers or will all of uswith loved ones returning who have been stricken low need to be patient as they slowly re-anchor themselves to reality? Whatever the truth, my father has certainly been on theexpedition of a lifetime, all from the confines of a hospital bed.
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