‘La hoja de coca no es droga’ – The coca leaf is not a drug.
Emblazoned on t-shirts in Bolivian markets.
As the poppy is to heroin, the grape to wine, or hops and barley to beer so is the correlation between the coca leaf and cocaine.
This article will focus on this raw material of a destructive drug.
Coca leaves have been used in the highland Andean countries of South America for thousands of years. Today the coca leaf continues to be widely available and used in several South American nations most prevalently in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia but also to a lesser extent in the highlands of Argentina and Chile.
A mild stimulant, the leaf is used for a variety of purposes including; to stave off hunger, alleviate thirst, combat fatigue and even to mildly anaesthetize.
The mostly-indigenous, exploited miners in Potosi’s infamous ‘Cerro Rico’, which with copious extractions of silver in the early days of Spanish colonialism bankrolled much of the early viceregal rule, have been using the leaf for hundreds of years to make their abhorrent working environs ever so slightly bearable.
However, the motive of use for most travellers (along with pure curiosity or a mistaken belief that it will get you high) is to counter adverse effects of altitude sickness.
Let’s say, for example, that you have flown from Lima, Peru into Bolivia’s (administrative) capital La Paz which, sitting at 3,650 metres above sea level, happens to be the world’s highest capital city.
While if you experience severe problems it would be wise to seek professional medical treatment, if you encounter milder and more common symptoms such as shortness of breath, lethargy, headache and nausea it probably won’t be long before someone (local or traveller) suggests that you try out the traditional remedial counteraction – coca leaves.
So you’re already in the region, on your way, about to go or have vague plans for the future and want some kind of user’s guide, right?
Well, here it is.
CHEWING COCA LEAVES: A USER’S GUIDE
- Of course, first you need to get yourself some leaves. If you are in a region where coca is used you shouldn’t have too much problem finding a vendor. Look out for elderly indigenous folks in markets or streets often sitting down with a huge hessian sack or plastic bags overflowing with coca leaves. Make a decision on quantity and negotiate the price. This, however, may be difficult. A French friend of mine told me that her Spanish was stuck at level two. Level three is the ability to understand the Quechuan grandfather with a gob full of coca leaves!
- While you could just chew the leaves au naturel, to really get the effect you need a reacting agent. People told me that you can actually use cigarette ash but I’d probably advise against that. Stores sell circular globs of something or other that look like Chocolate to do the job. An American friend thought it was chocolate and bought a couple. Biting into it was a great shock and a great mistake. Not recommended. What you really need is to get hold of some bicarbonate of soda- sold all over for the purpose.
- Now that you have the essentials you’re ready to go. Start placing leaves in your mouth, moisten them with your saliva and manipulate them with your tongue into a semi-soggy ball. Once you’ve created a ball to the size of your liking, store it in the interior of your left or right cheek – it’s totally up to you!
- Add bicarbonate of soda to your masterly masticated plump lump of coca clump and roll it around your mouth. Revel in the bitterness. Repeat.
* WARNING: The side of your mouth may go numb
- Enjoy the mild stimulation of awareness. Spit out whenever you want. Repeat process if desired.
Once you are feeling better in La Paz I would highly recommend a visit to the informative and interesting ‘el museo de la coca’ – chock-a-block full of all manner of coca-related memorabilia and paraphernalia. You will no doubt come to understand and appreciate the reverence many hold for this unassuming leaf.
This is a country where the people elected former coca farmer Evo Morales to the highest job in the land. Check out the museum website for a decent overview.
I was particularly taken by the pure, simple beauty of a poem there ‘Oda a la hoja de coca’ so I took a photograph of it and later sat down to translate it into English.
Ode to the Coca Leaf
The purity of your heart has moved me
And for this,
To fight against the utter darkness
That lies in the depths of Pachamama
To endure the cold,
Of the hearts separated from your father
I’ll give you a gift for your brothers
Ascend that high hill
Where you will find a small plant
But of great strength
Store with love her leaves and when you feel
Pain in your heart
Hunger in your flesh
And darkness in your mind
Take them to your mouth
And with gentleness
They will draw out your spirit
That is part of mine
You will attain love for your sorrow
Nourishment for your body
And light for your mind.