Thanksgiving this year was spent in the jungle. Silvia and I had taken a flight to Cochabamba in order to catch a bus for a three-hour trek over the mountains to Chapare. A long way to go just to sit by a pool, but what the hell it was a holiday.
Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city was hot and humid, and noticeably more green than Sucre’s dry landscape. The presence flowers and lush gardens was a welcome change, but nothing else about the city impressed me. It was dirty and industrial. The next day we arrange for three seats in a Toyota minivan. The third seat was my idea of upgrading ourselves to first class. At $3 a seat for the three-hour journey, $9 secured the whole row for us.
The van did not have air conditioning, and the air coming in from the windows was thick and sticky. In the row of seats in front of us were a young mother and her two kids, and a young girl of about 12-years old traveling by herself. Her mother had sent her off with a couple of bags of flowers that were stowed in the back, and she sat with a floral table setting in a plastic bag in her lap. I suspected that someone was getting married.
Thirty minutes out of town we started to climb. The higher altitude meant cooler temperatures, and once in the clouds, we were closing all the windows due to the chill. I thought of the movie Scarface, because these were the mountains where Tony’s Bolivian connection lived. I caught myself looking out the window for the mansion compound in the dense mountainside, but reminded myself that the drug lord was a fictional character, besides, “the house would not have been visible from the road you dummy”.
The road was terrible, and it was impossible to relax or sleep. The constant switchbacks, road construction and our driver’s obsession of passing trucks on blind corners were anything but relaxing. Our driver did redeem himself when he handed a lone construction flagman his bag of coca leaves, which was a very nice gesture. He then opened his glove box and pulled out one of two other plastic bags of the leaves.
I offered to place the young girls flower on our floor space to get it off her lap, and let her read Curious George (in Spanish) on my Kindle. You could tell that she was not used to traveling alone, but I think the extra attention helped.
What goes up must come down, and what I thought was hot weather before in Cochabamba now seemed like sweater weather. We had dropped down into a completely different ecosystem and it was now 100-degrees with equal humidity. Palm trees, giant ferns, banana and papaya trees, everything tropical and dense. This was also one of the main coca growing areas of Bolivia, or at least the beginning of it. The area is known for its cocaine production, but also as the childhood home of the country’s current president, Evo Morales. He made news about five years ago when he became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Before his political career began, he was a coca farmer in Chapare.
Part of our two-day stay included a two-hour jungle hike, which took me away from the pool and I could have done without, but what I did find interesting were all the homes that we passed along the way that had coca leaves drying out in front of the house. We also passed many coca plants alongside the road, which were pointed out by the taxi driver, and then came across many small coca fields during our hike in the national park. All of which was on the up-and-up because it was for personal use.
Coca is completely and totally ubiquitous outside the cities in Bolivia, and commonplace enough within the cities. It is used on a daily basis by many people. It is used in almost every religious ceremony, both by chewing it and by using it as an offering. It is used as a medicinal remedy, and to alleviate fatigue and the effects of high altitude. Historically, the Incan elite chewed it, and to chew was to be Incan. It many ways, it was, and still is, the cornerstone of their cultural identity. Recently, a team of international researchers discovered that coca leaves have been chewed by inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia for over 8,000-years!
I have chewed coca leaves many times, and always have some coca tea on the shelf in my apartment. I like it. The stimulating effect is very mild without the jitters you get with caffeine, and I do think it has helped me at altitude. The only noticeable side effect is that your cheek can go slightly numb after awhile. Many people include a pinch off a calcium rich stone that helps release more of the leaves active chemicals. The leaves contain several alkaloids, but only one is extracted to make cocaine, and that is a very complex and difficult process to complete. The everyday indigenous person has zero interest in cocaine.
The point is that the leaves represent so much more here than just the production of cocaine. It is a major part of people’s daily existence, so when a UN agency on drugs reports that Peru and Bolivia should “abolish or prohibit activities … such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea”, it is absolutely and utterly impractical. The UN list coca leaves as a dangerous controlled substance, along with cocaine and opium. That is like putting poppy seeds on that same list.
Now I don’t like the current president here. He is a “Chavez high-fiving, want-to-be dictator”, but he has been able to stand up the US and DEA regarding the eradication of coca leaves. Bolivia refused to follow the US’s demand of spraying herbicide over coca fields. The US cut off funding, and subsequently the DEA and US ambassador were kicked out of the country (there was other finger pointing going on as well).
When I was in Colombia, a country that does spray herbicide from low flying planes, I read in the newspaper several times about indigenous people coming out of the jungles with untreatable skin lesions and dying of respiratory disorders. People in loin clothes with sticks through their noses who have been living peacefully on their own for who knows how long, but now are getting dump on with toxic herbicides, not to mention the animals and everything else that lives in the jungle.
Of course this is an incredibly complex issue, and there are a lot of problems here associated with the drug trade, and wherever the drugs end up, but you cannot eradicate an entire culture and way of life during your quest for a remedy. There is nothing in the American culture that you can compare it to. We have plenty of vices that would be hard to give up, but nothing that connects us to who we are and where we came from like coca does here.