Chapter 21


1991-04-24, Bogota

I like leaf. I'm a confirmed Cocalero. I've even stopped drinking coffee in the mornings, opting instead to chew leaves. I'm not addicted, I think. I'm just a Cocaholic.

So, this is the story of my fall from grace. My two-month-long rumble, tumble, skip and roll down the treacherous path in the Coca fields of Bolivia.

I had been in Bolivia for three days before tasting the traditional leaf. Flying into La Paz from Brazil, arriving late in the evening to a cold dark high altitude city. The first thing to do after checking into a hotel was drinking a warm cup of tea, Mate de Coca.

By the third day, on a bus to Lake Titicaca, at four thousand meters, the world's highest lake, I meet Marco.

We are sitting at the back of the bus, gazing out the window at the passing scenery, Marco has his mouth full, and he just keeps packing more in. Every once in a while leaning his head out to spit.

I ask naively what it is that he's eating, and he just hands me the bag.

A little apprehensive, I take it and indulge myself for the next two hours, till we reach Titicaca. By the time the bus arrives I am energetic and wide awake, and after finding a hotel and a little food, I go immediately in search of the Coca sellers.

It's the altitude, you know!

So that's where it started, I guess. Up there on Lago Titicaca. Up among the indigenous Aymara, who have been using it, God knows, for hundreds of years, under Catholic Church and Spanish domination. Mostly to 'get the work out'. Even before that, it was considered sacred leaf, a holy plant.

And that damned leaf followed me all through Bolivia. Down south through the Cordilleras in the high Altiplano and northward.

From a small town named Oruru where I bought the world's best two ounces of leaf for about 25 cents, to Desperationville, a failing mining town called "Llallagua" where the leaf helped me maintain a peaceful attitude in the face of doomed existence.

To colonial Sucre where the white-washed buildings sparkle bright in the sun, and the deep dark mines at Potosi, and of course, the streets of La Paz.

I won't deny it. The streets of La Paz are hilly. They are mountains of snaking cobblestone to climb. Every step covered with vendors all over the city. And, of course, the oxygen is thin up here.

It's an exciting town to walk in, if you have the energy. All those cobblestones and alleys. All those locals with their little bowler hats set askew like crowns, a leftover from Spanish domination where they were forced to wear the hats to identify them as Indians.

From the valley down in the center of La Paz up to the ridges, La Ceja, the Eyebrow, or El Alto, the Crest. Way up there where I am constantly warned to be careful and alert. It's a jungle up there. Not the kind I am used to. People disappear regularly up in El Alto.

"No-one knows where, Señor!"

Mercados for every desire inbetween. Vegetables, fruits, plumbing supplies, and of course, the Calle de los Brujos, the Witch's Market.

You can always find a small contingent of Coca vendors, surrounded by the ubiquitous green and red bags of leaves. Wherever there is a vegetable market, the leaf vendors are always present, usually in groups of three to five. They all have bushels of fresh produce, scales and of course, Lehia, that soda-ash-like substance that in other places is called Cal.

When I began my journey in Bolivia I was looking for the use of mind-altering plants, psychoactive medicines among the Indigenous.

While I found Datura and San Pedro growing in places like Copacabana and Sorata, the actual use eluded me. There were no stories of much Indigenous use of these plants anywhere throughout the Cordilleras.

There was only Premero Oja, the main plant! These natives prefer Mama Coca.

However, Coca was everywhere throughout the country. So, by the time I reached Sucre, in southern Bolivia, a tranquilo colonial town, I had decided to explore my own use of this oft-maligned plant.

This came as quite a surprise. I had wanted to avoid it at first. Too much association with cocaine. That powder I had come to know intimately many years ago, and fortunately walked away from. I had no desire to return to that deluded state. Seemed more like a big ego trip than an exploration.

And the plant's use was so much a part of the everyday mundane world that I imagined it was either a dietary supplement or the national narcotic.

The Head Curator of the Anthropological Museum in Sucre tells me how she often chews Coca on her walks between Tarabuco and the other surrounding villages to gather information.

We sat one day and compared our preferences on the classes and qualities of leaves.

The names of the classes of leaves are also the names of the growing regions. Some broad, some particular. At first I became fond of the Pacentas. Especially the Pacenta Pequinia Verdes, a small green young leaf.

Now I prefer Coripata, a Yunguanian leaf grown in the Yungas region. It is larger when fresh and fairly moist. Then there is the common La Paz variety, and a poor quality leaf used more to manufacture cocaine, called Cochabamba.

About a ton of leaves is used to produce one ounce of cocaine! I was only chewing close to two ounces of the plant a day.

In Tarabuco where the black-helmeted Quechua make those beautiful mantas, a cape-like blanket, and other fabrics, I sat chewing with the old men, as they would dig into their Ch'uspas, antique square hand-woven colorful leaf pouches, for a wad. An old man sitting next to me is informative:

"Mama Coca gave us this plant. It is our right and obligation to remember how it benefits our lives. Not just with ceremony, but everyday. Coca is a part of our lives!"

This seems to be common and ritualistic in many parts of the country. During the day, time is taken by men and women to indulge. This is more like a meal than a coffee break!

In Potosi, at the mines I began to understand the plant as food. The miners, after breakfast, sit around the mine entrances with their bags of leaf.

Slowly taking a leaf at a time, carefully folding the corners or stripping away the stringy part, they chew for an hour every morning before entering the mines. They drink little or no water and eat nothing for eight to ten hours down in the mines.

Occasionally they will take Coca breaks, finally coming out for dinner. Some miners go back in for another eight-hour shift.

Sure, the mines are antiquated, only handtools and dynamite is used. The conditions are almost slave-like, as families are born and die as miners, many becoming afflicted with Black Lung after years of working many kilometers underground.

After spending six hours crawling around the tunnels deep underground, witnessing distressing work conditions and feeling the physical pressures of heat and cold, darkness, thin air full of mineral dust, bending and squeezing my body through narrow holes lined with jagged rocks, I am relieved to return to the surface world.

Even with so much difficulty down those shafts I could understand why the miners depend on their Coca. Without it, their lives would be even worse. I could feel the effects myself. Less appetite and thirst and a constant, stable source of vitality.

The Spanish recognized the benefit of the leaf as a means to maximize labor. They took advantage of a revered food for their material greed. The abuse is shocking.

Yet the miners are not undernourished. The Coca is more than just a mere stimulant. I was told by one well-educated Bolivian as we chewed walking the streets of La Paz:

"There are at least fourteen different alkaloids and many nutrients in the leaf. Only one of these alkaloids is used to make cocaine. Combined with the other nutrients the Coca plant is healthy for our bodies."

I decide to increase my consumption.

As regards physical effects, I notice a slight depression of appetite and thirst which I compensate for. I have no trouble eating, yet do not need to eat as much. I chew every morning before breakfast and feel a wakefulness less nervous than coffee.

I feel energetic and well fed most of the time. Occasionally I chew too much and get slightly wired. Not often.

After finishing, that energetic feeling begins to wane gradually over an hour or so. My digestion has improved and at four thousand meters, I don't get tired until I'm ready to sleep. Then, no problem.

I have stayed up a number of nights till 4 or 5 in the morning, and then slept. Once, in a ceremony with a Yatiri, an Aymara Curandero. He was reading the leaves as we chewed.

Cut leaves mean money and good luck. Folded on one side, illness. Folded on two sides, death! The leaves tell the proper day and time for offering food to the Atichallas or gods. They also predict the future.

From longtime Cocaleros I learn how to strip the stems from the leaves so as not to abrade my gums. This helps me as I chew an ounce and a half or more a day.

And I have become rather selective. I don't take wilted leaves. Also, as much as possible, I don't swallow the juice or leaf. Just holding it between my gums, then eventually spitting it out. Another art!

Lehia is one of my favorite subjects. Called Cal in Columbia, it is like a bicarbonate of soda generally. All the Coca sellers supply Lehia. It is known as Lethe in the South.

There are many different varieties. A hard black circular variety like stone, softer flat gray and softer round gray. The Lehia, taken just a little bit mixed with already chewed leaves helps release the alkaloids, making the plant more potent.

It is made from baked quinua, a grain, or potato. Sometimes with anise added for flavor. My favorite is Lehia dulce, a sweet soft black tar. Each variety adds its own taste to the leaf.

Even the Mates (pronounced "mah-tays"), or teas made with Coca, provide a slight lift. But I still prefer a good wad in my mouth!

So, there you have it. As I traveled from north to south in Bolivia, from Sucre through high mountain passes, into the lush valleys of Coroico, and walked Inca-ruin-filled Islands on Lago Titicaca, I always carried my pouch filled.

Except the final chapter. I've left Bolivia, and am now stranded without! I have not felt any insatiable urge since running out. Yet .... Has anyone got an ounce to spare?

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

[Email] [Next] [Contents] [Home]