October 2014 ISSUE

 

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Mister Chris
Biting insects, burrowing parasites, deadly diseases, treacherous terrain, sketchy transportation and remote locations—all in a day’s work for renowned medicine hunter, Chris Kilham, who travels the obscure world in search of traditional healing remedies.
Chris Kilham once received career counseling from an elderly shaman woman while living among natives along the Amazon River.

“We were looking for shamans to talk with about herbal secrets and we wound up getting together with this woman who was a hundred and three years old, and she was amazing. These shamans are very powerful people, they convey something extraordinary about the wellspring of knowledge, wisdom and energy that
they draw from and this woman, Maria, pointed to me and she said, ‘You bridge the worlds. You tell people about each other. This is important for you to do. The times require this.’ And it was as if her words became branded into my mind…so really I think of myself as a bridge fostering understanding.”

Author and educator, Kilham, (www.medicinehunter.com) popularly known as the medicine hunter, is explorer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches ethnobotany—except when he’s traveling to the world’s most remote outposts searching for traditional medicines, which he develops, popularizes and successfully markets. His research has taken him to exotic locations in India, China, Siberia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Thailand, Malaysia, Lebanon, Syria, Ghana and Vanuatu.

He’s largely responsible for making kava, maca, horny goat weed, catuabla, tamanu oil and tongkat ali familiar to westerners anxious to know what traditional medicine has to offer.

The former honorary consul to the US for the republic of Vanuatu, Kilham grew up in the suburbs outside of Boston to parents with careers in broadcasting. The most dangerous flora and fauna he encountered as a kid at home were the local and regional personalities that floated in and out for dinner parties and poker games.

There was little to suggest the future adventurer—unless you count an obsessive early desire to become a private detective or FBI agent—young Chris pestered postal clerks for wanted posters, kept jars of bullets that he had dug out of sand pits and pored over his finger-printing kits.

“I think if there’s a kernel of that (early ambition) that carried over… what I do now involves a great deal of investigating, checking things out, digging into circumstances …It was a largely unformed spirit of adventure I had. I really enjoyed programs like Wild Kingdom. I never tired of watching Jim Fowler put his head in an alligator’s mouth or wrestle with a Burmese python…I spent an enormous amount of time outdoors, playing in the woods. Although I was not in any way especially familiar with local and regional plants and oddly enough to this day that’s still so.”

He experienced a kind of epiphany when he was 15 and went to central Puerto Rico on a school trip.

“I went completely insane. Travel drove me mad. After high school I went out to California and bummed around the Sierras… Heading back east, I remember going into the San Francisco airport, walking up to the counter and handing money to someone and getting an airplane ticket and it sounds so idiotic now, but I stood there thinking, ‘I could do this anytime, go anywhere.’ From that point on, I just determined to travel until I drop.”

Encouraged by his parents to follow his heart, Kilham’s natural tendency toward self-expression was reinforced by the times in which he grew up.

“As a teenager growing up in the sixties there was a whole huge cultural kind of shift in which many of us, as if by magic, became somewhat instantaneously impressed with the notion that things that were natural were just plain better. And we were not wrong about that intuition. We lacked a great deal of specific knowledge and information but we were correct. In 1970 I became a vegetarian, which I’m not now because I travel to places where they serve me all kinds of things. I got involved with yoga, which I maintain as a daily practice to this day and I started using and reading about herbs.”

Another pivotal event occurred under seemingly ordinary circumstances when Kilham went on an herb walk at a local organic farm and listened to the guide talk about the healing capacities of certain plants. Steadily and assiduously, he began to study plants, traditional cultures and their healing practices.

“At a certain point, probably 25 years ago, I actively began to muse over the question—how could I travel the world, do something worthwhile and get paid for it? I was already in the natural products industry, because it seemed from a lifestyle standpoint to be where I fit.”

In 1994 he acted as an herbal expert to a small group interested in importing Chinese herbs and led an expedition to North Eastern china. The deal fell through but it eventually led to Kilham becoming involved with an investment company who funded his trip to the South Pacific.

“I put together a project, which subsequently turned into a book, and a highly visible media campaign that wound up with me on ABC’s 20/20 and in The Wall St. Journal and USA Today, CNN, name it I was there, and that very well-conceived and fortunate project launched my career. After that I was in demand.”

That’s when the real work began. Kilham had to know his way around the planet. He had to develop the skills to be able to speak intelligently with chemists and with medical doctors, to understand the economics of trade, to learn about the import-export business, and to know all of the basics as well as the subtleties of conducting field research in foreign cultures.

“I had to learn a lot of the disciplines with enough depth so that now I can meet a brilliant chemist in Siberia or Malaysia and sit with him and talk with him about compound plants or go mucking about in the field. I have a real love and commitment to safer and more natural methods of health care—it’s the work with medicinal plants, which serves as premise for my travel. I’m interested in three outcomes: delivering health products to people to enhance their wellbeing, helping to protect the natural environment through different projects that happen with this work and facilitating understanding between people and better enhancing the livelihood and the future for traditional cultures.”

Kilham, who describes himself as “almost unendurably persistent,” learned something about himself along the way. He found out that he was willing to take a long-term approach to effecting wholesale cultural change in terms of how the environment is managed, and how people take care of their health, because these things occur slowly.

The boy from the suburbs also discovered that he’s willing to suffer endless discomfort in the service of a greater purpose.

“I love people. My idea of a really wonderful time and I mean this in the most heartwarming way, is being in the back of some beaten-to-crap pickup truck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of native guys who haven’t bathed in weeks going someplace way-out-in-the-hell nowhere. If people actually knew how much fun this is…

Kilham has developed a unique philosophy for coping with hazards—what doesn’t kill him will make a great story at parties where he’s much in demand.

“One time we left our landing gear on the runway when we took off in our jet and I assure you it was a very bolloxed-up situation. You name it, when it comes to transportation, short of a vehicle bursting into flames, I’ve been in it and it’s happened.”

If you’re going to get hurt, he says, the odds are excellent it’s not going to be some deadly snake—it’s going to be an automobile, a bus, a boat, something going wrong with transportation because it’s all so sketchy out there.

His most terrifying memory concerns a boat ride in a storm off the coast of Vanuatu where he was staying in a remote village with no electricity, no plumbing.

“The village had a boat with a small 15 or 20 horsepower outboard engine and we needed to go way up the coast of this long island. The seas were very bad and we determined that we couldn’t go out in that stuff. And then about half an hour later one of the chiefs came up to me and said, ‘Okay we go.’ It didn’t look okay to me but six guys were getting into this boat, this fiberglass shell, no seats, no safety equipment, nothing to hang on to and a guy with his butt perched on the back hand-maneuvering a little outboard engine. All hell breaks loose out there. We start going up the coast, which is a whole series of little points—there are hideously awful tides at all of these points.

“We get hit by eight-foot, ten-foot, twelve-foot, then fourteen-foot, sixteen-foot waves that are crashing over our faces, one after another, after another. The guys who are with me are black. They look like pillars of salt; their hair makes them look like Don King with white hair. The sides of the island all the way up were cliffs so there was no way out—if the engine had cut out or the boat capsized we would have died. At one point I turn to the chief and I say, ‘You come out in this often?’ And he looks up at me with this alarmed expression and says, ‘No.’”

Despite being labeled the “Indiana Jones of natural medicine” by the media, Kilham rejects the image of himself as swashbuckling macho adventurer.

“I’m not fearless. I don’t think that being brave is about being fearless. I think fearless people are stupid. You have good reason to be afraid of poisonous snakes and fire and guys with guns. Every year in the South Pacific I participate in a gigantic fire walk and I mean it’s immense, like forty tons of burning timber and red hot stones and you walk across this immense pit, this raging furnace, barefoot. It’s completely insane. And every single time, every year, I am truly terrified. I think it’s just prudent to be scared.

“I don’t ever deliberately put myself in a situation that I know to be unduly hazardous. I try to be careful and yeah, I get afraid but I think that it’s about going after objectives…very sound, intelligent, non-crazy goals and the accomplishment of them requires some stretching of my own definitions of comfort and what’s okay and I’m all right with that.”

Warmly received wherever he goes, Kilham craves an authentic experience of the world. Wherever he goes, among indigenous peoples, he eats what they eat, plays with their kids, fishes with them, if they’re barefoot, he’s barefoot, if they swim with piranha then so does he.

“I’m going to these cultures to help promote plants that are part of their tradition and most traditional peoples have a very strong reverential relationship with plants. So the idea that I’m saying, ‘You’ve got this plant and I think we can do good things and make this an economic benefit to you and maybe help to preserve some of your land—it’s very thrilling and honoring to them, which only enhances the reception I get.”

Everywhere he goes, people, including his own friends, call him Mister Chris—it’s like being called Lord Jim, he says laughing, a term of affection and appreciation for the optimism and fun that he brings to what he does.

And what he does has made him horribly sick and uncomfortable—it’s not always easy being Mister Chris.

“I was brought up in the suburbs. I have to admit I like comfort. I don’t actually prefer being eaten by bugs 24 hours a day in the Amazon. I don’t really get any pleasure, except the humor of the story later, from parasitic things that burrow into my skin for weeks. I don’t enjoy being cold and having diarrhea…or getting tropical sicknesses, sleeping in crappy places…When I come home, gee, I’m happy for a flush toilet and hot shower and I like doing yoga on my oriental rug…”

Ever the optimist, Kilham is accepting of hardship because of his determination to meet and understand the world on his terms.

“While my personality remains largely the same, my work has shaped a whole different understanding of life. Life is not this privileged, little, socio-economic, ecological inch that I live in, life is this great, big, messy, human stew, everything from joys to tremendous suffering. The travel itself has made me more accepting of all of the conditions of life—death included. This is a messy world. It’s wicked messy—in good ways and bad ways. It’s fun and friendly and sexy and desperate and rich and poor and everything you can think of—it’s all of it.”
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