NYTimes Peru N-Word, Part Four: What Happened in Peru?

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
23 min readMar 1, 2021


As has been described elsewhere, this was a Times “Student Journey” arranged by Putney Student Travel in Vermont. They’re expensive, and most of the students are from private schools. Some go to Oxford or Florence. The Peru trip’s theme is rural public health, and included towns in the Sacred Valley, a couple of mountain villages, a day of first aid training, visits to salt-making ponds and ancient farming terraces and a full day of hiking in and around Machu Picchu.

My job was to deliver three talks about global health and also make myself available to the students as much as possible, including during meals. No drinking was allowed, including by me. We slept in modest hostels, sometimes with no hot water. I was paid $300 a day.

I had done the exact same trip in 2018. I was a hit, so Putney invited me back. This time, I was less eager to go — hiking at altitude in 2018 had been pretty exhausting, and I didn’t need to see Machu Picchu again.

I’d also had a big struggle with the Putney head office in 2018. They had initially said all medical expenses were up to me and had refused to add me to the medevac insurance they carried on the students and leaders. Apparently, no other Times expert had previously questioned this in the contract. But since a medevac home from someplace like Peru can cost up to $250,000, I said I couldn’t go unless they put me on their policy. They finally relented; but then their contract language was vague and self-contradictory. I had to ask them to rewrite it twice and I finally had to spell out exactly what it should say. It wasn’t pleasant, but my advocacy meant that all other Times experts routinely got medevac insurance too. However, the arguments created some bad feelings.

Ultimately, I went mostly as a favor to Jan Benzel, the retired Times editor and friend whose job was to recruit experts.

From day one, the 2019 trip was very different from the 2018 one. The three leaders — who were with the students for a week before I joined — were different from the more apolitical “adventure tourism” leaders of the 2018 trip. The tone felt more like a big lesson in how to be an anti-colonialist and to romanticize indigenous medicine. Almost from our first conversation, I felt some tension with Leader 1. The other two were quite easy to get along with.

The students were nice — about 20 young women and two young men. Since everyone asks: most were white, none were black, one was Asian, a couple might have been Hispanic but I didn’t ask, and the guy from Spain was Basque because we talked about it.

Leader 3 was Colombian; 1 and 2 were a couple or former couple from Reed College; I think she was part Asian and he was part or all Hispanic. I never asked about anyone’s ethnic identities because it didn’t seem important.

The other element that was very different was that a few students intensely wanted to talk politics. Maybe they hoped I was Nick Kristof. I’m not. I rarely talk politics with anyone. I’m a science reporter, not an opinion columnist. My friends tell me off for describing Ebola victims at lunch; my lunch buddy John Schwartz forbids anyone asking me “What are you working on?” while he’s eating.

My political views are eclectic and mostly private. I also don’t usually try to change other people’s minds. I know what I think and I don’t care if anyone agrees with me. I do make a lot of jokes — and I sometimes needle my friends about their dogmatic liberal or conservative beliefs. But if someone wants to argue with me, I usually explain my position once and then, if they still want to argue, shrug and say “De gustibus non disputandum” — matters of taste aren’t worth disputing — and try to change the subject. My kids will tell you I said “de gustibus” a lot when they were little.

I also don’t vote or even register to vote because I don’t ever want to be accused of partisanship. That’s not required by Times ethical standards, it’s just my own attitude. I did once break down and vote against a candidate I despised, but I regretted it and never voted again.

But the Putney contract says Times experts should be available to talk to the students, including during meals. So I did. In 2018, some students and I spent hours trying to top each others’ bad puns. On the 2019 trip, talk at the table constantly turned to politics. The “heated argument” described in Ben Smith’s article about the trip (He said “a series of heated arguments,” I only remember one I’d even tentatively describe as heated) was mostly between me and Leader 2, who was sitting next to me, but with several students vigorously participating. It did turn confrontational, in that they didn’t like my views. But I saw it as answering everyone’s questions as frankly as I could. I felt I was trying to show them that the world is a more nuanced place than they assumed. It ended with Leader 2 and me sitting alone afterwards, talking in a friendly way. Even she said I’d given her a different perspective on some issues.

I remember Sophie vividly. The only answer I gave Ben Smith when he sent me quotes from her asking for comment was to ask him to consider not printing her name, even if she went on the record, and even if she was legally an adult. My ouster from the Times has inflamed people across the political spectrum and I was afraid she would be doxxed or her social media accounts or credit scores hacked, and she might not realize how ugly being a target can be. I have no social media presence, and I’m not young with a whole life ahead of me in which one incident can loom large.

Sophie did approach me as soon as the trip started. I was flattered that she wanted to talk. She was smart and serious and clearly had a good heart. Also, she could have been the twin of my older daughter at 17, her name is my daughter’s middle name, and I had watched my daughter get married only a week before. [Sentence deleted]

She did ask me about “Guns, Germs and Steel” and said she felt it presented a Eurocentric colonialist view.

But I remember my answer differently than she does. I said I’d suggested it for two reasons: much of it is about how germs changed history, which I would be talking about. And its opening scene is set in Peru, with Pizarro capturing the Incan emperor, Atahualpa. Jared Diamond’s thesis, I argued, was not a racist one saying European culture was inherently superior. He was showing why 10,000 years of Eurasian and Pan-American history had made it possible for Pizarro to sail to Peru and capture Atahualpa, rather than Atahualpa sailing to Europe to capture the King of Spain.

Eurasians had geographical luck on their side, simply because their continent was oriented east-west with wide temperate zones, rather than north-south with deserts and jungles: inventions like gunpowder could spread from China to Spain. Unlike Africa and the Americas, it had many docile, easily domesticated animals. Eurasians got diseases like proto-measles from those animals and became immune, while the Incas never did. As far as I could tell, I said, Diamond was no racist. His book has a scene in which one of the New Guinea guides on his bird-watching trip asks: “Why do white people have all the cargo?” Diamond said the guide was just as smart as he was, but he and all his ancestors grew up on an isolated, mountainous island and so their civilization advanced more slowly.

Sophie is quoted as saying she “backed down, apologized and “felt terribly guilty.”

That is not how I remember it. I remember the conversation continuing, with her asking me how I felt about Medicare for All, charter schools and standardized tests. I said I had just become eligible for Medicare but had stayed on my Guild-Times insurance because I liked it. I was — and am — very much in favor of universal health care, but not necessarily solely through the Medicare bureaucracy because I like having choices. On the second question, I said my kids had gone to local schools in South Africa and France that were the equivalent of “charter schools” and had gotten very good educations; it all depended on how the schools were run.

My answer about standardized tests seemed to bother her the most. I understood her to be against ever using them, because they have cultural biases. I first answered with a joke: when I took the SAT in 1970, I said, one question was “What is this house made of?” The correct answer was “clapboard.” But I was from California and had never heard of clapboard, so I lost points — so the test was clearly biased against Californians, I said. I don’t remember her laughing. But I added that I thought such tests were still necessary, even if they were flawed. If you had 10,000 students applying to a school with 500 spots, how would you screen so many? I remember her suggesting that applicants should write essays and be interviewed. I said that was impossible, no school had enough money or time for that, so I thought at least some testing was inevitable.

I very soon had the feeling that I was somehow disappointing Sophie.

Later, in Ben Smith’s article, Sophie quotes me as saying: “It’s frustrating because Black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over, there’s nothing against them any more — they can get out of the ghetto if they want to. They need to stop blaming the system and do something for themselves.”

I don’t like the expression “fake news,” but parts of that quote are just ridiculously inaccurate. I certainly never said “racism is over.” Where in the world would I have gotten that absurd idea? I would also be very surprised if I used the word “ghetto” unless I was doing it ironically or within air quotes. I think I stopped using that word soon after Elvis released “In the Ghetto” in 1969.

The students and I had a 90 minute discussion about racism, affirmative action, crime, incarceration, global warming, imperialism and a dozen other issues, which I’ll detail more of below. I did say “colonialism is over” and “apartheid is over” — perhaps Sophie misheard me.

In the same article, an anonymous 17-year-old student is quoted saying she or he “corrected me” during the infamous “n-word conversation” just as she was used to correcting her grandparents and her friends’ parents. And that I had refused to apologize to her.

“You correct them,” she said. “You tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to talk like that,’ and usually people are pretty apologetic and responsive to being corrected. And he was not.”

I do not remember anyone stopping that conversation to “correct” me. I remember simply going on, after I understood what was on the video, to say that I felt the school had overreacted by punishing a student for something she had done as a 12-year-old.

Had a student tried to “correct” me, I probably would have pointed out that I’m a Times reporter and we print the real grownup versions of bad words when we have to (or at least we did in 2019.) I probably would have described the internal Times debate over Richard Pryor’s obit. But I believe I never did that because I don’t recall that conversation ever happening.

I do remember a student saying she “felt obligated to speak up for brown and black people who can’t speak for themselves.”

My response was: “Careful — that sounds like ‘pick up the white man’s burden’ language.”

She reacted sharply, saying, “What?!” She clearly thought I had said something racist.

I explained: “It’s Kipling. ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ It’s a poem saying white people are obligated to civilize the world. When you say that, you’re sounding like one of those Victorian ladies who felt it was their job to speak for the poor benighted natives. In my experience, black and brown Americans are perfectly capable of speaking up for themselves.”

So if that was the student who thinks she was “correcting” me and did not get an apology — well, she’s right. She did not.

Almost every conversation I engaged in during the trip was after my lectures or during meals with a trip leader present or nearby. Nobody stopped me from talking. No trip leader took me aside to say I’d been offensive. The Putney contract says that if your behavior as an expert “jeopardizes the success of a trip,” you can be asked to go home. I was neither spoken to nor asked to go home.

The one somewhat heated discussion I remember was at a restaurant near a train station in Ollantaytambo. Some of the assertions Charlotte asked me about came from it.

During the August 2019 investigation, I wrote a long email to my union rep, Barbara Davis, recreating as much of that conversation as I could remember. I’m quoting it here, slightly edited to remove names and some issues I’ve already explained.


I’ve spent hours trying to piece back together that whole conversation in my mind. It was very wide-ranging: We got into African history, colonialism, Rwanda, Latin American history, the United Fruit Company, the CIA, affirmative action, whether black Americans had opportunities or not, what my translator in Zambia once asked me about America, and lots of other stuff.

Much of the conversation was between me and [Leader 2], who was sitting next to me. She is an adult in her 30’s, a Reed College graduate and a grad student at Hopkins. The table was full of students when it began, and some participated, some more vigorously than others. By the end it was just [Leader 2] and me talking. I did not have the feeling that any students walked out because of anything I said. Our group was so big that we had to eat in two rooms, so people went back and forth, and also had to go collect their stuff to walk back to the hotel.

To me, it wasn’t an angry discussion. People, including me, were emphatic, but no one was shouting or upset. Certainly nobody cried. But I’ve been told that arguing with me can be pretty overwhelming — I talk really fast, and I let out a barrage of arguments, details, asides, etc.

I can’t recall all of it, of course, but the parts connected to the questions you asked went something like this:

Basically, [Leader 2] and some of the students were taking a standard left-wing view of the world. We got onto colonialism. There was a lot of criticism of the U.S.

I argued that one had to draw a distinction: the United States was never an imperial colonialist power in the way that Britain and France and Portugal were. Because we started off as a colony, we had a protective — or you can call it paternalistic — attitude toward the New World and warned Europe to stay away: ie. the Monroe Doctrine. Yes, we had some colonies we inherited in the Spanish-American War, and yes, we sometimes conquered other countries, like Mexico, but we didn’t keep them and rule them as England or France did. After World War II, I said, we changed our attitude and started propping up the dying colonial system. Mostly because our enemy, the Soviet Union, was supporting the liberation movements. I said I thought that was a huge mistake: people seeking liberation from colonial powers should have been natural allies for us. In Vietnam, for example, I said, we stepped into the place of France, the former colonial power, while our natural inclination should have been to side with Ho Chi Minh. He initially was very pro-American, the O.S.S. had supplied him with weapons to fight the Japanese, and he based the constitution of Vietnam, which I read in college, on the American constitution.

At some point, a student took issue with my having said the U.S. wasn’t a colonial power, saying something like: “Don’t you realize what the CIA has done? Don’t you realize that the United Fruit Company interfered in central America to protect its banana monopoly? (This was the same student who had said she thought the book I recommended, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” was “written from a white, Eurocentric perspective.” This student herself was white, from Greenwich, CT and went to Andover but mentioned multiple times over the week that she had a Latino boyfriend and he had opened her eyes to a different view of the world.)

I got exasperated and said something like: “Look, I don’t accept the far-leftie notion that there’s this Manichean split: all the evil in the world is done by white men, Americans, the US government, the CIA, colonialism or whatever, and all the rest of the world — brown and black people, women, Latin America, Africa, etc. — are their victims. That was the line I heard at Berkeley 40 years ago when everyone read Max Weber and socialist countries actually existed and everyone was trying to prove they were more radical, more Communist, more Trotskyist, more Spartacist than each other.

Yes, I said, Latin Americans drown in the Rio Grande — but they’re swimming north, trying to get into this country, not trying to get out. They don’t think we’re the Evil Empire. They think we’re a land of opportunity. of democracy, of relatively low crime compared to theirs…

Yes, I know what United Fruit did. And it was bad. But that was 100 years ago. And colonialism is over. Most colonies freed themselves 50 years ago, in the 60’s.

Apartheid is over too, though in the 1990’s.

When I covered Africa, none of the countries were colonies. They were all self-governing.

The world is a different place from that Berkeley stereotype, I said. But I get the feeling that that stereotype is still the norm on college campuses.

And, yes, the CIA has done some terrible things — torturing people in Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran, etc. But don’t assume it’s this omnipotent agency that rules the world. Actually, it’s pretty incompetent — it didn’t predict 9/11 for example, it took 10 years to find bin Laden.

Latin American and African countries, I said, have to take some responsibility for their own futures. They can’t just say “It’s all America’s fault” or “it’s all because of colonialism.” They have to elect decent presidents, they have to fight corruption and straighten out their economies, they have to fight crime… And I said this isn’t just me that thinks this. Even Nelson Mandela went to Rwanda and Burundi and made a very harsh speech warning Hutus and Tutsis that they had to stop killing each other because they were giving bigoted whites an excuse to say Africans acted like animals.

[Leader 2] said something like “Well, maybe people do have to take more agency over their lives.”

Eventually, the discussion came around to domestic stuff — I don’t remember how, exactly.

I said the same principle applies in the U.S. People have to take some responsibility for their own destiny. For example, yes, a disproportionate amount of the prisoners in U.S. prisons are black. And, yes, some of them are there because of ridiculously unfair drug laws and arrests for petty crimes like turnstile-jumping and because of institutional racism. But some of them are there because they actually committed violent crimes. You can’t blame it all on institutional racism. [Sentence deleted] And, I added, in my opinion, black teenagers don’t do themselves any favors by adopting the gangsta ethic — dressing like thugs, glorifying violence, beating up women. Nobody will hire you if you look like a thug — even Obama said “pull your pants up — there are grandmothers here.” It practically taunts the cops to target you. And once you’ve got a prison record, it’s really, really hard to get a decent job.

A student interrupted to say something like: “Don’t you realize that they don’t have any choice? The system is rigged against them.”

No, I answered, I really disagree with you. People DO have choices. We’re not still living in the age of slavery, we’re not still in Jim Crow, it’s not all rigged. We’ve had a black President, two black Supreme Court justices, many black members of Congress, governors, mayors. There are scholarship programs, there’s affirmative action. People need to take advantage of those things. (That’s where I gave the example we talked about. I said some conservative whites think affirmative action has gone on long enough, but I disagree. Slavery lasted 300 years.* You need more than a generation or two to make up for that damage, so affirmative action should last 300 years at a minimum. And that’s when I said affirmative action wouldn’t have succeeded when a super-smart black kid got into Harvard, it would have succeeded when a dumb black kid got into Harvard because his black grandfather had gone there, gotten rich and left Harvard a lot of money. Because that’s how people like George Bush got into college.)

(An aside: an anonymous student told the Washington Post that I had said: “nepotism is affirmative action for white people.” I no doubt said it at this point in the conversation — to point out that white people who thought the world was a pure meritocracy before affirmative action programs were created were lying to themselves.

(I may have mentioned to the students that I found my own job at The New York Times through nepotism. When I was 22, I had just moved to New York, was applying for journalism jobs and having no luck. I had some older cousins who had a neighbor who was a Times editor. He agreed to meet me and read my college clips. He said I didn’t have enough experience to be a Times reporter, but he would put my name in for a copy boy job. I worked my way up from there, but without that first foot in the door, I wouldn’t be at the Times.)

*(I underestimated. This conversation took place two months before the 1619 Project was published.)

To get back to my email to Barbara:

Then we shifted to talking about poverty. I don’t remember what student questions or statements led to that.

I said: Look, Americans don’t really understand what poverty is. Probably nobody at this table, and nobody they know, has dealt with real poverty by world standards. Poverty under the U.N. definition means living on less than $2 a day. The world’s bottom billion live like that. Lots of people in Africa and Asia do, some people in Peru do. But no one in the U.S. does — you can make a lot more than $2 begging on the subway, there are soup kitchens and food pantries. Poor people in the US don’t die of starvation, whereas I’ve been in villages in Cameroon, for example, where kids died because they lacked 50 cents worth of deworming medicine.

To make the point, I told a story about Bonaventure Salongo. He was assigned as my driver when I rented an Avis car in Zambia. I originally said I didn’t need a driver, but they said insurance became mandatory without a driver, and the insurance was $15 a day while the driver was $5 a day. So I met Bonaventure. He was great — he was a former English teacher, but Avis paid better even at $5 a day. He ultimately became my fixer/translator, so I would pay him $100 a day for that, which the going New York Times rate, so he loved it when I showed up.

At one point, Bonaventure asked me if there were poor people in the U.S. I said yes, there were, but probably not what he meant by poor people. Poor people in the U.S. had hot and cold running water. He said nobody had that in the Zambian townships, the water came from a spigot at the end of the street. I said you could be poor in America — poor enough so that the government gave you money — and still own a TV set. He said “But if you own a TV, you can make money. You can invite your friends over to watch it and sell them beer.” Not only that, I said, but you could be poor enough in America so that the government gave you money — and still own a car. “Now I know you’re lying,” he said. “Because a man who owns a car IS a rich man. He uses it to give people rides.”

That’s when [Leader 2] mentioned her Malawian friend at Hopkins who criticized black Americans in the Baltimore neighborhoods nearby. She said something like: “Now I see where he might be coming from.”

I said, yeah, in my experience there was often tension between African or Caribbean immigrants and some black American because the former came from countries where everyone was black — the cops and the robbers, the rich and the poor, the corrupt pols and the honest ones, etc — and they saw America as a place full of opportunities and didn’t agree with the “I’m a victim, the system is rigged” viewpoint of some black Americans.

That’s as much as I can remember of that conversation.

I think I also told Leader 2 about my kids’ babysitter. She was from Grenada and a single mom. She really pushed her kids to excel, and they got into scholarship programs that sent them to Eastern prep schools. Her daughter was even the hockey team goalie. But when they came back to Brooklyn, their friends would accuse them of “acting white.” That depressed them and made them want to drop out. I thought that was incredibly destructive, I told her.

I’m sure many Americans of many political stripes will take offense at one or another — or maybe lots — of the things I said that night. I’m not trying to appease either liberals or conservatives here. I’m trying to simply be as truthful as I can about what I actually said in Peru, since it has received such a ridiculously disproportionate amount of attention from the American media.

The portrait the Daily Beast paints of a dyspeptic old man abusing students by spouting “wildly racist and offensive comments” is inaccurate. I was trying to engage them in a serious conversation that opened their eyes. Which is what, as a Times Expert, I had been assigned to do.

I did notice that Sophie looked upset during the evening — perhaps close to tears. The next morning, I sought her out after breakfast, and we had a conversation that I remember this way:

I said: “Sophie, I’m sorry things got heated last night. I understand your point of view. A lot of it used to be mine, too. Like I said, I went to U.C. Santa Cruz and Berkeley back in the 1970’s, when everything was about socialism. But 40 years of life and reporting in 60 countries has taught me that life is more nuanced than that. These issues aren’t that simple. They’re more complicated.”

She replied, sounding a little distressed and a little bitter, I thought: “When did you begin thinking like that?”

I said: “Piece by piece, not all at once. Over 40 years. Look, I’d love to talk to you again 40 years from now and see if your thinking has changed at all. But I can’t — I’ll be dead.”

She did laugh ruefully at that.

As I described in part 3, Charlotte at first asked me some questions I couldn’t answer. Slowly, as I thought about them over the next few days, I remembered other moments from the trip. I wrote another email to Barbara and we arranged a second hearing so I could answer them. It says:

I was asked: “Did you make fun of a student’s hometown?”

I remembered this: At some point, some student mentioned that she was from Boston. I said something kiddingly like: “Nice town…except for that baseball team.” She retorted with something like: “Oh, yeah? How long has it been since the Yankees won the Series?”

I laughed and said “OK, you win. I’m not really a Yankees fan anyway. I’m from San Francisco, so, to the extent that I’m a baseball fan at all, I like the Giants.”

She certainly didn’t seem offended. She understood it as NY-Boston/Yankees-RedSox kidding. Maybe someone else didn’t.

I was also asked: “Did you make a joke about doctors and Jewish mothers?

Yes — now I remember that I did. It was NOT that “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” episode with Peter Sagal joking with Michael Bloomberg about whether his mother was disappointed that he didn’t become a doctor.

It’s from a bit of one of the three lectures I gave, the one about me: how I grew up, how I became a journalist, how I became a health writer, what it’s like to work at The New York Times, etc. (It know that sounds egotistical, but the Putney people actually ask us to do it: to talk about our own careers because students are interested. Last year, I made it the third of my three lectures. This year, I was asked to make it the first.)

Parts of it come from the bio bit in the stock speech I give at medical conferences and at med schools.

I explain that, no, I’m not a doctor. My degree is in Rhetoric. That I was pre-med for a year, but when I told my mother what I was thinking, she laughed and said: “Donald, you’re never going to be a doctor. You don’t have the patience to get through medical school.”

And then I always make the same joke: “So, if any of you are wondering what it’s like to NOT be raised by a Jewish mother, that’s pretty much it: you say you want to be a doctor, she laughs at you and says ‘It’ll never happen.’”

In front of medical audiences, that usually gets a laugh. In Peru, it didn’t.

I later remembered that I actually did sing a bit of a song about Boy Scouts during a shaman ceremony, so I wrote another email to Barbara about that:

I’ve been lying awake wracking my brain trying to figure out what the hell the students were talking about. Just now, at 5:30 AM, I suddenly remembered when I did sing a bit of Boy Scout song.

It was during the afternoon/evening with the second shaman, the Incan one. Like I said, it was this endless ceremony that lasted maybe three hours all told from the early singing to the ultimate burning of the sacrifice. But most of it was us sitting on the ground in a circle around him while he built an offering to the gods. I sat so long that I finally had to get up — my butt was killing me, and we were in an abandoned pueblo and I was in the cold draft from the doorway. So I got up and leaned against the wall, out of the wind. Nothing disrespectful. While standing, I also took pictures, but he was clearly fine with that, since others were taking pix too.

At one point, the shaman wanted to open a bottle of red wine he had on his “altar” to pour on his offerings. But he didn’t have a corkscrew. So [Leader 3], one of the three leaders, tried a technique I’d never seen before — he took off his sneaker, put the bottle in the heel, and started pounding the heel against the wall to get the liquid to drive out the cork.

By this point, we were all laughing because it looked like, even if he didn’t smash the bottle and it actually worked, he was going to shoot wine all over us.

After about three whams on the wall, someone said “Wait a minute! I have a corkscrew!” I think it was [deleted], the kid from Spain. And he pulled out a pocket knife with a corkscrew on it and saved the day. And I said: “[deleted], you’re a Boy Scout!” And I sang a bit of Tom Lehrer’s song “Be Prepared” (“Be Prepared — that’s the Boy Scout’s marching song, Be Prepared — as in life you march along, Be Prepared — to hold your liquor pretty well. Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell….”)* Tom Lehrer is a satirist from when I was a teenager and I know bits of a lot of his songs.

So maybe somebody took offense at that.

*(Like a lot of Tom Lehrer songs, that one does have some offensive lyrics, but I never sang those. I believe I only sang the first line or two. I wrote out four lines to show Barbara it was a satire.)

There was also another moment later when I was taking pictures up close as the shaman built his two-sided pile of offerings: He was explaining — at length — which god got sweet gifts and which god got savory ones. One side got crackers and salt and fruit, one side got cookies and candies. And at one point, he solemnly unwrapped a chocolate Easter frog and put it on top of the pile on the left. I was behind him. I smiled — I probably even chuckled silently — and leaned in to get a picture of it. I attach the pic below.

So if one of the teenagers thought I was disrespectful to a shaman by reacting without solemnity to an unexpected chocolate frog, I plead guilty.

But, overall, I was perfectly polite to that shaman, even though I thought the whole thing was hokey. He and his wife came back to our hotel with us with big bundles that turned out to be Incan handicrafts for sale. They sat in the dining area for an hour trying to get the kids to buy. I had the feeling that he does this ceremony for tourists regularly in return for a fee.

I didn’t ask him any questions because there was nothing medical about what he did.

But I did say later to the others — not in his presence — that his ceremony was obviously not strictly Incan, but included stuff from the Catholic mass. [Leader 3], who was sitting next to me, at first seemed shocked said “What are you talking about?” I said, “C’mon, [Leader 3], you’re Colombian. Weren’t you born Catholic? Did you go to Mass? He gave us the coca leaves to eat between two fingers exactly like Holy Communion. Red wine is not an Incan thing — it came from Europe. And that bell he kept ringing is the exact same little bell I rang as an altar boy.” And I think he agreed.

Maybe someone thought that was “making fun” of a shaman but I thought it was a useful observation about cultural exchange.

Obviously, I badly misjudged my audience in Peru that year. I thought I was generally arguing in favor of open-mindedness and tolerance — but it clearly didn’t come across that way. And my bristliness makes me an imperfect pedagogue for sensitive teenagers. Although the students liked me in 2018, some of those in 2019 clearly detested me. I do not see why their complaints should have ended my career at the Times two years later. But they did.

And now I’d like to put this behind me. I had hoped to be remembered as a good science reporter whose work saved lives. Not for this.



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com