Remi was born in a small village in the south of France in August 1978. He has a PhD in Philosophy, a Masters in Theology with a minor focus in Ancient Sacred Musicology. After living in a monastery and teaching Philosophy for nearly a decade, he was called to explore and study the world of traditional plant medicine. That is why he went to Peru to study under Maestro Ricardo Amaringo for two years straight, dieting in complete isolation several Amazonian master plants. Since his apprenticeship, he has dieted other Amazonian and Western plants and trees and has held many ceremonies. Remi is now recognized as a talented vegetalista and ayahuasquero.
Ashley, his wife, was born in Central Illinois in September 1978. She has a PhD in Literature, a Masters in World Literature with a minor in Theory. Likewise, she has taught for her entire professional life and became interested in yoga, which led her to the foothills of the Himalayas. Yet, her search for traditional practices also led her to plant medicine and South America. Under the tutelage of Maestro Ricardo Amaringo, Ashley started to learn the Shipibo traditional plant medicines as well.
Remi and Ashley met in Peru and were united in a spiritual marriage in May 2017. Since then, Remi and Ashley have been holding frequent ceremonies to help people.
In 2018, they founded the Kumankaya project, and this is their story.
Everything Begins with a Vision
We were living a life of compromise in the States: We couldn't hold ceremonies as regularly as we wanted, and we couldn't work with the medicine as freely as we wanted. Our diets were a constant mitigation between the demands of the plants, the medicine, and the growing concerns of our family, friends and colleagues. Not to mention, if we wanted to walk the traditional path of dieta (the spiritual practice of learning from a plant or a tree through a certain kind of asceticism) it would have to be done socially. As a result of this, we felt divided. As we grew more committed to the medicine and to each other, this fragmentation became central to our lives and identity. We struggled, ultimately, with who we were, who we wanted to be as individuals and as a couple, and how we could be helpful to others. Our dream has been to have our own place where we could live freely, devote ourselves to the medicine and others with integrity. Over time, this vision became a foreign memory to the ever-increasing demands of our daily lives.
The turning point really came with the onset of the new year. We knew we didn't want to compromise our hearts any longer, to walk two paths at the same time: it was a need for coherence. This is when the Kumankaya Project began. The first big step was to quit everything. We resigned from our jobs, we put our house on the market, and with no job, no house for the future, we were finally forced into a forward momentum. Most importantly, or rather the greatest impetus of change was that we found ourselves growing spiritually complacent and stagnated in our lives. We felt a pressing need for integrity and transparency, something beyond our current level of exposure and experience. We wanted a future that would force us to grow, to change, to know ourselves on a whole new and different level. We desired to discover truly ourselves in a foreign landscape. Once this demand was acknowledged openly, we could no longer accept lying to ourselves and living happily in our present states with a forest of possibility waiting for us. In the meantime, spring brought an invite to hold ceremonies in Acapulco. There, we met a group of progressive-minded individuals, who dropped the U.S. and lived happily in Mexico. These free thinkers actually made a stand against the growing, unethical political mechanism of America. We recognized ourselves in their courage. This frontier never crossed our minds, but now we considered the possibility of actualizing our dream in the Yucatan where the jungle was plentiful and affordable. The best part is that our medicinal plants would grow there. Thus, we sold everything, bought a camper and packed it full with the little belongings we had left (including our sweet 13-year old dog, Daisy) and headed south of the border.
After visiting our dearest friends, we headed south and what was supposed to be a ten-day voyage turned into a three-week odyssey full of tests, failures (especially coming from our 1985 Chevy Mallard), uncertainty, and excitement all at the same time. Crossing the entire length of Mexico was an abstraction (by the way, luckily, we didn't see any wall). To be honest, initially, we couldn’t even see past the trip because the drive itself was so transformative, as we were faced with many delays, tests of faith, corrupt police and other interesting experiences. I must acknowledge here too that our trip was also colored with comedy, beautiful people (for instance, one time when our camper broke down, a man and his horse named Bonito stopped to help us) and some providential occurrences. Additionally, we had to drive separately, so Remi and I had long hours of meditation on the vast changing horizons. The trip quickly became a pilgrimage. As we were driving, we thought about all the choices we made and all the people whom we met that led us to this very moment driving to the land of the Mayans. Dreams and visions of the past started to make sense here. Even though we felt a bit lost, strangely, we began to breathe again.
Exhausted, nearly 3,000 miles later, we finally arrived July 13th, 2018 on our land, which is less than an hour from Tulum in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Now, it got real. We were overwhelmed immediately by the scope of our task. The 25 acres of pristine Mayan jungle we just bought were impenetrable, not to mention the venomous snakes, scorpions, jaguars, panthers, and tigrillos (small tigers) that call it home. We realized that if we were going to build Kumankaya, we had to change our approach, which meant a complete renovation of the expectations of our western minds. That's when we discovered that the jungle has her own rhythm and wisdom, and that she is “psychoactive” in her own way. Even the work here functions according to her whims and demands. Slowly, we began to listen. We silenced our fears and timelines and opened our ears and eyes to the dormant wonders of this place. In that matter, Don Wilberth and Dona Consuelo (the sellers and our current hosts, see picture below) have been real mentors, with thirty years’ experience living happily and safely here. With such humble hearts we can honestly say that none of this would have been possible without their constant encouragement and cheerful guidance. This is when the true work started.
Outer Work, Inner Work
As we began penetrating the jungle, we first had to clear a path to the place where we would create Kumankaya. We found that the exterior work that needed to be done matched precisely the interior one. Armed with machete and rudimentary tools made from branches, we began entering the jungle and discovered a cenote (an underground cave approximately 120-foot diameter filled with the purest, most crystalline water). That discovery determined the site where we were going to build. We wanted to help the local community around, so we employed a father and son, Don Jorgelio and Don Arsenio, and three members of a Mayan family, who have worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk six days a week. After weeks of clearing the path and space, Don Joel, our builder who comes from a Mayan village of carpenters, has begun to lay the foundation of the first structure. Vertical construction begins Monday. Here we are now, happily sweating and exhausted, with a clearer picture of what is possible, looking back on our first month working our land.
There is plenty to learn if one is looking for teachings; they are everywhere. Remi’s grandfather always said, “if you know how to listen, even your old, grumpy neighbor can turn into a teacher.” During the most ordinary conversations and working our land, we discovered there is a true natural wisdom present. The first thing, Dona Consuelo told us was, “Don't look for snakes, just watch where you walk.” As we meditated on her simple aphorism, it took on a completely different level of understanding. Simply, her advice means when one keeps looking around for snakes, he/she probably won’t see the small one on the path. More globally, this simple expression harbors an entire life philosophy. What is most important is to just watch oneself, here and now, where and how one is walking this earth without worrying about everything else. If one is distracted by everything going on in the world, he/she will forget to pay attention to oneself: one’s intentions, one’s actions, one’s words. Most importantly, if one keeps judging what’s happening around, he/she will neglect to watch one’s own heart. For example, if one keeps complaining about the imperfections and injustices of others and the world, he/she is no longer conscientious of one’s own flaws and biases. Instead of wanting to change the things around, it is better to just improve ourselves.
If one is critical of the world, doing so doesn’t help. If one always tries one’s best, he/she is actually enriching everything.
We also realized that quickly “If you are afraid of snakes, everything will become a snake.” If a person looks for snakes, he/she might see them everywhere in everything. A benign twig will appear to be a snake if the light or one’s mood is right. In the same vain, if one just looks for the bad aspects of the world, that is all one will discover whether it is accurate or not. Our feelings, good or bad, shape our perceptions of reality and others. There is a story of a man, who lost his ax. As he was looking at the strange face of his neighbor, he became more and more convinced that the neighbor stole his ax. Meanwhile, every time the man would meet his neighbor, he would find more evidence to support his thoughts—in the strange words, or behaviors or expressions of the neighbor. After weeks of ruminating, the man decided to confront his neighbor and while running through his garden, tripped and hurt himself on something. When he looked back, he found his ax. Another saying by an Egyptian monk, Abba Poemen gets more directly to the point, “you cannot see the bad in others if you don’t have it inside you.” Our desires and fears create a narrative of our interaction with the outside world. It is almost impossible to perceive the world in a neutral context because the world is filtered through our senses and the personality we are. If one is driven by fear, his/her entire perception of reality is colored by this fear.
To Live within the Mystery
Plato wrote, “Time is a moving image of eternity” and never before have we understood fully that quote. In the jungle, one easily succumbs to the rhythms of nature. Here, we wake up when the sun rises and go to bed when the sun sets. We work when the sky is clear but stop when clouds dump torrential rains on us. Our dreams become more active as the moon waxes, and they are multifarious and vivid during the full moon then quieter during its wane cycle. It is a different sense of time here, forcing our bodies to go back to their own undistracted cadences. Interestingly, Quintana Roo is the only state in Mexico that doesn't acknowledge time change, so there is a permanence even in the evanescence. As our bodies adjust to the different rhythms, our western minds are shedding their demarcations and expanding to encompass the potentialities of the unknown as well. Over lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day served around midday, our hosts and workers tell stories where the frontier between myth, spirituality, reality and history are blurred. We discuss the presence of cenote spirits, or the way selva (jungle) spirits revolt if disrespected. For instance, one of our Mayan workers told us that he used to live on a piece of land with a cenote. One night in a dream, an abuelo (an elder) came to him and told him that someone would want to buy his land, but this potential buyer would disrespect the cenote, so the owner was not to sell the land to this person. Weeks passed, the man completely forgot about his dream until one day someone approached him wanting to buy his land. Remembering the dream, the landowner refused. In the most natural way, he explained that he just knew because the spirit of the cenote informed him in his dream. Everyone at the table nodded in agreement. We were told another story where our host, Don Willi, and two of his companions went hunting. One of the men was an avid hunter who overhunted in the jungle, disrespecting the space and its animals. Each man went his own way until one man saw a beautiful deer, aimed his rifle and fired, but what happened was the jungle spirits tricked his visions and instead of killing a deer, he actually shot the man who abused the jungle. These stories are numerous, and the possibilities seem endless. We have discussed the presence of elves in the jungle, where our lunch companions would contribute various details, in agreement, as to their appearances. We don’t interrogate the validity of others’ experiences because they are exclusively their own. They don’t question the Mystery, they simply live within it. We are discovering here in the jungle that our rational pertinence limits us and, in fact, we have been looking at the world through a keyhole.
Even as we build, this process takes on such significance. Particularly, as academics, we reflect of the development of our land and recognize its contribution to a historia (story/history) of the original peoples. In the jungle, one sees an entire ocean of trees, vines, undergrowth, plants, etc. It is difficult to have an orientation. That was one of the difficulties I explained above: how could we possibly orient ourselves in the vast directionless jungle? Where do we even begin to clear, let alone to build? Without fully understanding, we were looking for precisely what Mircea Eliade calls in The Sacred and the Profane an axis mundi—a natural, yet unusual land singularity to orient our vision. In our case, the cenote was the discovery of this center, our axis mundi. Let me explain a bit more here what I mean by the axis mundi. In Eliade’s theory primitive people looked for something naturally out of the ordinary, such as a mountain, cave, waterfall or big tree, to establish their settlement. These exceptional sites, by breaking the mono-tonal perception of reality, acted as an axis, a center of the world for them. These un-ordinary sites were the navel around which the world seemed to make sense, to be focused. In addition, early man believed these places were where the upper and lower worlds connected. Eliade explains in the ancient cosmovision of the first man, the earth is the middle realm and there is an upper one and a lower one. In our western, moral dichotomy, we have been taught that the upper is spiritual-- good, and the lower is related to darkness-- bad. But this wasn't the case for these people; this wasn’t how they felt. Instead, these realms were just different worlds deeply marked by fundamental ambiguities. In these realms, everything can be either good or bad depending on the heart that experiences the alter-reality. Access to the other worlds was the only way to give sense and depth to this 3-D ordinary world. These natural phenomena, which act as bridges to other worlds, gave meaning and orientation to this world. And usually, these primitive people built their habitations around these sites. So, once we discovered the cenote, we knew it would be the place where we were going to build. Keep in mind, we have 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of pristine chaos, so to find an unusual landmark that would define a focal point was a blessing. Immediately, we had direction.
The Symbolic House
Once we discovered our center, we cleaned and cleared the space; now, we are starting to assemble the first structure, which will be two little cabins joined by a central common area. As mentioned above, we have hired a group of workers from a Mayan village of carpenters, Noh-Bec. They do astounding work by using the very same wood from the jungle. They select certain logs according to the type of work they want to do: beams, pillars, planks, floor, main structures, etc. What strikes us daily is even though they don't have diplomas we value so much in the West, they are supremely intelligent regarding their trade: the different types of wood, tools that can be made from nothing, various knots that can be done with a rope and so forth. They also have an amazing ability to cut super straight beams just using a chainsaw. It is the difference between culture and knowledge. The former is irrelevant here and the latter is crucial.
As we are watching the workers slowly build our first structure, we are realizing the highly symbolic process of this first step as well. Building a house has come to reflect the very same principles of creation: From nothing, or rather from chaos (the jungle), we are designing an order. Initially, there is a design, and the design informs the raw materials of reality. Eliade articulates how even the house reenacts the creation of the world, “In other words, cosmic symbolism is found in the very structure of the habitation. The house is an imago mundi,” an image of the world (37). Orienting the jungle is an attempt to give the space sense and meaning. When one arrives at the jungle, there is pure potentiality. As we are constructing our house, that is exactly what we are trying to do: instill meaning and order in a place that seemingly lacks both. At the same time, the process of building is instilling both concepts into our very lives as well. We are Gringos, who walked away from very real lives we’ve been building for a decade to actualize a dream in a foreign land. To build our first habitation gives us a center, a formulated physical orientation as well.
The Rain Horse
As our dreams materialize into a physical reality, the people whom we have met help us remember an uncomplicated state of mind as well. While we are here, we are learning that all the worries that occupied so much of our mental space have no place anymore. Instead, one should be happy until given a really serious a reason not to be. We are constantly told: “Enjoy the grace while it is here because it will eventually pass.” In a more common context, when the sun is shining or when one is healthy, make the most of these moments, for they will not last forever. We appreciate the words of advice and stories we are given, and we allow both to help us see the world differently. For example, after work one night Don Jorgelio told us a beautiful Mayan legend, reminding us of that which we already know. Once upon a time, a man owned a piece of land, which apparently never received any rain. His neighbors, on the other hand, received plenty of rain and their crops flourished. Over time, the unfortunate man started to curse the Universe and the Heavens for his bad luck. One day, while walking on the road that goes to his land, he encountered an old man riding his horse. The old man asked him who he was, and after presenting himself, he told the old man about his unfortunate situation. The old man felt sorry for him and offered him a ride back to his land. The next thing the man knew, he was flying on the horse with the old man. When they got close to the unlucky man’s land, the horse stopped abruptly; it was unable to cross because of the heat produced by the land. The man asked the old man why the horse stopped, and the old man responded, “your bad behaviors and curses produce too much heat and the horse cannot cross through it. When the horse passes, the rain falls, but since the horse cannot cross your land, you will not receive any rain.” The man asked the elder how he could change this misfortune, for he didn’t realize his behaviors were actually causing and perpetuating the continual drought. The old man responded, “you must come back to the light, to the good thoughts and the good intentions of life.” The man deeply repented and eventually fell asleep. He woke up days later completely naked and was discovered by his family in a cave deep in the jungle. After his “awakening,” the man’s behavior completely changed, and the rains eventually came back. He lived several more years prosperously. His land brought forth many great harvests. On his deathbed, the man told his family, “I was unable to tell you this before now, but as I am about to die, I am allowed to tell you what happened.” Thus, the man related the story to his family and closed his eyes forever. This Mayan legend speaks to the law of attraction that so many of us already know. We create our reality by our intentions. Good intentions attract good opportunities, good people and good energies. Similarly, bad intentions attract its likeness. While building our place, we aren’t just building structures; it is the process of reconstructing ourselves within the fabric of light.
As you are reading these lines, our first house is about to be finished. Unfortunately, after that, the progress will be slow, as we are starting to run out of funds. Our hope is to be able, in the close future, to erect a ceremonial space (a maloka) and another structure in order to welcome every one of you here.
Thank you so much for your interest and support!
As a gift, here's a short video about our cenote. Enjoy:
For more information, check out our website at: www.kumankaya.org