Escaping police custody and experiencing ayahuasca with Emerant.

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I first met Emerant Barclay in an undergraduate university course on the intersection of religion and human rights. After just a few exchanges in class, she invited me to go to her favourite vegan restaurant in Montreal, chatted to me about energies, and imparted this permanent warmth upon me. She was a breath of fresh air after the usual conversations I had with fellow business majors. It came as little surprise to me that after finishing her first degree she went on to work as a consultant for UN-Habitat in Ecuador, live in Zambia (in a room full of cockroaches and be held in police custody), try ayahuasca in Peru (and not throw up), and live with a family who didn’t speak a lick of English (on an organic farm, of course). When I asked her what items she couldn’t live without when she travelled, she laughed and told me she was the world’s most impractical traveller; she wouldn’t leave home without her twinkle lights (so she feels at home wherever she goes), Bengal Spice tea, and a yoga mat in her backpack.

If I’ve ever met an Explorer who marches to the beat of her own authentic drum, this is her. Settle in with your own cup of Bengal Spice tea and prepare to be inspired by this one-of-a-kind woman’s journey.

Growing up in beautiful Montreal, Canada, as the grandchild of Air Canada employees, her young life was made up of trips to Scotland. Perhaps it was the haggis or maybe the kilts that sparked a passion for the unknown and the different, but whatever it was, Emerant developed a passion for the unknown. From adventuring around Italy for a month to traveling to Ecuador as a consultant with UN-Habitat, Emerant’s real perspective shift came when she was offered a coveted internship through Global Affairs Canada to work as a youth engagement officer in Chipata, Zambia.

Cozying up with a co-worker and cockroaches.

“The day that I arrived in Chipata it was pitch dark. There was a power outage. So I had no idea what the surrounding area looked like whatsoever. My colleague (who I was sharing an apartment with) and I were taken to our apartment. We had our flashlights out and were trekking up three flights of stairs with our massive backpacks. There were two bedrooms and I beelined it to one of them. I put my stuff down and started unpacking my pillowcase, when what do I hear on the ground but “click click click click” everywhere. I was like, “what is that?” So we turn on our flashlights and there were cockroaches. Everywhere.

We killed like 14 of them maybe. It was insane. I didn’t have a mosquito net on my bed and I was like what is going on here, these cockroaches are everywhere. So I ended up sleeping with my colleague in a single bed just so we could be close with one another, trying to forget where we were. When we woke up the next morning we were like, “wow, this place is very special”. We had this beautiful balcony that looked out on the mountains. It was absolutely stunning.”

Cross cultural experiences in Zambia.

After the initial cockroach greeting party, she settled into her new life in Zambia, working as a youth engagement coordinator for Chipata’s YWCA branch.

“Working cross culturally it’s very different. My position was very open-ended. I was supposed to be facilitating workshops, but there was just no funding whatsoever. I would go into the office and try to keep myself busy, try to learn as much as possible. I learned how to make a lot of the local dishes while I was there. I learned how to make Nshima. It’s a maize-based dish which is the staple food of Zambia. It’s a lump of porridge essentially, it’s very hard, you use your hands to eat it. You pick it up and roll it into your palm and use it to scoop up whatever you’re eating it with. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite meal… because it made me extremely constipated, but I learned how to make it anyways. You would make it with tomatoes and onions in a pan with a ton of salt. And if you’re lucky some sausage or chicken. It’s the national food of Zambia, so if you ask anyone “what’s your favourite food,” they’ll respond, “Oh, Nshima, Nshima!”. But it has very little nutritional value, it really just sits in your stomach and fills you up.”

Escaping police custody.

Alongside the cooking adventures and gastro-intestinal challenges, Emerant also had a run-in with the authorities in Zambia.

“I was visiting some friends in the capital of Lusaka and I was alone. On my way back, I was traveling with just my backpack and an official stopped the bus. I was sleeping when the official came on the bus. I was the only white girl, or person. And he’s going around checking papers. And I didn’t have any kind of ID on me, so he was like “get off the bus”. So I take my backpack and get off the bus. The bus leaves. I’m in the car with the cops and they’re like “you have to be traveling with your identification”. So I was freaking out and called my roommate, saying I need my passport and all my documents. In the end he just wanted a bribe but I didn’t have any money on me either, so they kept me there for an hour.

They said “oh don’t worry, you’re in police custody now, everything is fine!”. I was balling my eyes out. I was scared. Then he realized I didn’t have any money so he was telling me I needed to invite him to this festival. He was weirdly flirting with me. But he eventually got me on the next bus and gave the bus driver the equivalent of 10 dollars to get me home. But I was in the middle of nowhere. Middle of fricken’ nowhere, three hours away from anywhere. I was freaking out but at the same time, so much shit had happened it was just part of the course now. I can handle anything – just another day in Zambia!”

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How an injury abroad shaped her understanding of community.

This motto served her well when the next hurdle of her adventurous life struck. In an unfortunate hiking accident she ended up with what was suspected to be a torn meniscus.

“I went to the hospital in Chipata with what I think was a torn meniscus, but I was really just put on bed rest for a good month. My neighbour took me to the hospital and they did a X-ray but I really needed a MRI to see what was wrong.

That was the toughest thing for me because I knew there was nothing I could really do about it in terms of being proactive. I feel like there is always a solution here in North America – like I have a plan for how I’ll get out of this or deal with this – but there it was just like ride it out, be in the moment, settle in and learn what it has to teach you. That was the biggest challenge and that’s something I often forget now. Nothing needs to be done right away. Trust in the process of allowing for things to be and allowing for healing to happen. It was completely uncomfortable but so much learning can happen when that’s the approach you take.”

Dealing with a month of bedrest in a different country gave this Explorer entirely new insight into what it means to be part of the community in Chipata.

“You realize what it means culturally to be there for someone. What it means here [in Canada] is really different than what it means in Zambia. If someone is sick, for example, in Zambia you go and check up on them. You don’t even call. You just show up at their house and bring food and you say let’s hang out, let’s watch a movie. There’s no kind of pressure wondering if you should call or not. There’s no second guessing. I think it’s because there’s a feeling of community. There’s a feeling of faith, of gratitude for everything there is in this life because you don’t know the moment that it’s going to be taken away: that you’re going to get hurt, or that sickness is going to strike, or you won’t have water, you won’t have food or you’re going to be thrust into abject poverty because a family member is sick, or you don’t have the kind of resources to provide for yourself. So all there is is just be there for each other and be good.

It’s something so very different to be immersed in this community where people have your back. It was very beautiful. There’s a lot of faith, a lot of belief in God, a lot of belief in a higher power, a lot of worship, a lot of singing, a lot of rejoicing. I loved going to church there. It was very, very different. I think it did spark some kind of spirituality in me, to think about what does it mean to be a good person, how do you live that way without necessarily needing to go to church. But it is really about community at the end of the day. That place where the community is brought together is through the church.

The Zambian motto is “feel free”. Don’t worry about anything, just feel free. With all the things that went wrong; I didn’t leave the house at night, I was afraid to walk home at night, the two times I went out to a bar people are very aggressive, it’s easy to harp on those things, but the pros so outweighed the cons. Hands down Zambia changed me the most.

Learning Spanish by true immersion.

Zambia was just the start of Emerant’s desire to push herself outside of her comfort zone. As she was working on her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development, her passion for organic farming pushed her to want to see how this looked in practice not only in Canada but also in Peru.

“My idea before going down there was to work on an organic farm, to live with a family, and to learn Spanish. I was in the central jungle of Peru in a place called Pichanaki. I was essentially just like part of the family for three weeks. They taught me the process of being a coffee farmer – you go around and pick the beans, you take the bean out of the pod, you let it dry, after it’s dried you roast it in this little kiln (little oven you put on your stovetop), then you lay them on the table, pick out the ones that don’t look very good and then you grind the coffee. It’s an extremely labour intensive process.

My Spanish was not great when I went into it and, truth be told, I don’t think it really got better those three weeks. I think it was amazing that I was just surrounded by it because it puts you in the mindset of “if I need to be heard, I have to speak up and use my Spanish”. That being said, the Spanish was not very clear, they spoke very quickly, it was colloquial Spanish and I wasn’t taking any classes. A real learning experience but I felt very isolated. Very lonely. The family was amazing and they were very warm, very welcoming, and just beautiful people, so I felt very blessed for that. At the same time, it’s very hard to feel misunderstood or to not feel you have a language, or you don’t have a voice. So when I did get back to speaking English, I was like, “wow, I know how to speak a language! I’m not just a five year old with a language!”

Ayahuasca: The experience and the insights.

After this plunge into the deep-end of cultural immersion, Emerant had a moment of doubt, which led to a twist in her adventures and towards the trending, yet elusive ayahuasca experience. A mixture of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of the chacruna bush, ayahuasca is an ancient Peruvian plant medicine used for both healing and spiritual purposes. Commonly consumed as a tea, ayahuasca brings about deep personal reflection, but frequently induces a violent vomiting attack (or purge).

“So there came a moment when I was just lying in bed one night, like what the hell am I doing here, what was my purpose for coming to Peru? And all of a sudden it came to me – I’ve always had an interest in doing a yoga teacher training, I’d had a consistent practice for around a year, what better time would there be to do this? So I looked up yoga teacher trainings in Peru and I found one that was happening in Cusco. I found it 5 days before the training actually began but it all came together. The training was a total of 21 days. It was a very healing experience and I want to credit a lot of that to the ayahuasca as well.

They offered the ayahuasca experience through the yoga teacher training. It was by no means mandatory. They offered it because you’re in Peru, you’re in this sacred location, this is a traditional medicine they have here, if you’re interested in it they offered it as an option. So I decided to do it the day before but I was on the fence about it for a little while. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right headspace but I figured you know what, when in Peru, might as well.

As for the experience itself, it was led by this woman, she was our guide. And it was held in a yoga shala – a circular structure with a domed roof that can fit about 15 people inside in a circle. So we had beds set up for ourselves and a small bucket in case you had to expel anything. It’s essentially a purging ceremony and it evokes the spirit of the grandmother. The spirit of the grandmother leads you in the right direction. So if you’re having any type of mental health issues, apparently Mother Ayahuasca will show you the path to getting over it and kind of slaying your own dragons. But things do come up for people during the experience itself that can be quite violent, quite scary, and quite jarring.

For myself, I didn’t have any of the symptoms to purge – I wasn’t ill during the experience. I felt very light and just kind of happy during it. I only did it once – there are people who go on an ayahuasca experience that can be a week-long. So they give you different strains on those retreats. The one strain we did on the yoga teacher training affected certain people in a violent way, but it didn’t affect others. I think when you actually go on an ayahuasca experience you get a different array of ayahuasca. I don’t want to say if it was good or bad but I didn’t purge when I did ayahuasca. But a lot of people did. They had like violent bowel movements and puking. There was a point where I did cry. I had a vision of having a family and I just felt a lot while doing it. Mainly I felt the feeling of unconditional love of having a family and what that would mean.”

When I asked her if this experience stayed with her after the ayahuasca was out of her system she told me it did have some lasting effects.

“It was really interesting because I did the ayahuasca and then the next day we went on an excursion to thermal baths. So it was really fascinating because we were in the car and we were passing through this beautiful, ethereal mountainous area that was parallel to Machu Picchu so all of the same energy was there and I came back from that day just feeling like, wow, I need to get my life together! It’s an eye-opening experience in a lot of ways to sort of go deeply within yourself and kind of see things you wouldn’t necessarily see in your everyday experience. It activates DMT which is really only available to you when you sleep, or when you’re being born, or when you die. But you’re not sleeping when you’re on ayahuasca, you’re actively being engaged with this chemical in your brain. It’s very fascinating and kind of opens you up to a different realm.”

As for what’s in store next for this free-spirited Explorer, only time will tell. But it’s certain to involve unique food, changed perspectives, and, of course, Bengal Spice tea and twinkle lights.

You can follow along with Emerant’s adventures on her Instagram

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