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Bolivia’s Coca Culture

How influential is the coca leaf in the Andean cultures of South America?

May 8, 2006

How influential is the coca leaf in the Andean cultures of South America?

In La Paz, the first thing that hits you is that you are high. Too high. As high, probably, as you have ever been before. Higher, certainly, than is proper for any human body to come in the course of a single day.

Your plane curves in over the low-wattage slumscape of the highest shantytown in the world, you touch down at the highest international airport in the world — and you go through passport control 1,500 feet above the highest capital city in the world.

Waiting at the luggage carousel for your backpack to drop onto the rubber, you are 13,000 feet above sea level, at the same altitude as the mountaineers who summit the Eiger after two days of hard climbing.

Heaped atop the other violent dislocations of intercontinental jet travel — latitudinal, cultural, temporal — the change in altitude elicits groans of protest from your body.

Soroche, or mountain sickness, is a kind of intoxication that afflicts those who come too high, too fast — the Andean bends, if you will.

For most people, soroche involves a couple of days of tingling fingers, fatigue, faintness, and mild headaches, though in extreme cases fluid can collect in the brain and lead to cerebral edema, coma — and death.

The day I flew south, my father called to tell me about the son of a friend, a man younger than I was, who was found dead in his La Paz hotel after retiring to his room complaining of a migraine and shortness of breath.

Changing planes in the low-lying eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, I'd met a young woman from the American embassy in Uruguay, who'd offered me a blister pack of acetazolamide pills, which she said would help me metabolize oxygen better.

The drug's side effects seemed almost as severe as soroche itself — the box recommended you call a doctor if you experienced unusual bleeding or bruising, tremors in your hands, a pain in your groin, fever or rash. It sounded like a typically technocratic treatment. I decided to hold out for a more natural remedy.

The Bolivians, not surprisingly, have long since mastered their soroche. In the cab from the airport, I watched awestruck from the bubble of my fatigue as barrel-chested men in long-sleeved dress shirts jogged up the switchbacks we were driving down, bearing heavy backpacks.

The people of the Andes owe their endurance to generations and lifetimes spent adapting to these mountains, but they also have a secret weapon in their folk arsenal.

After dropping my backpack in my hotel room, I went to lounge in the lobby, picked a tea bag from the basket of chamomile, tutti-frutti, and anise-flavored infusions — and poured hot water over the sachet labeled "maté de coca."

After letting the bag steep for five minutes, I had my first sip of coca-leaf tea. It was mildly herbal, more reminiscent of Sleepytime than grassy-tasting yerba maté, the bitter national infusion of Argentina.

More interesting than its flavor was its effect. After my second cup, the tingling in my fingers stopped and a tightness that had been flickering around my temples relaxed. After my third, I was suffused with a perceptible, if subtle, sense of relaxation and clearheadedness.

Coca leaves contain fourteen different alkaloids, one of which is cocaine. A single cup of maté contains a little over four milligrams, enough to make a midsize house cat slightly more skittish than usual, though it's no more stimulating than a regular cup of coffee.

There is just enough cocaine, however — as there is just enough morphine in two poppy-seed bagels — to produce a positive result on a drug test.

Bolivian soccer player Luis Cristaldo got caught in a urine test after a World Cup qualifier, as did a Chicago woman who drank some coca tea she’d brought back after a vacation in Peru in 2001.

Cristaldo was subsequently exonerated, but the woman lost her job at the Cook County sheriff's office.

In Bolivia, visiting dignitaries are typically offered a cup of maté de coca when they step off the plane. John Paul II accepted one, as did the King and Queen of Spain, and Princess Anne, who reportedly enjoyed Bolivia's leading brand, Windsor.

Perhaps less surprisingly, Fidel Castro pointedly requested a cup on a 1993 visit, provoking cheers across the nation.

In a poor continent's poorest country — where the average income is $72 a month — coca provides a living for tens of thousands of peasant farmers.

You can buy coca tea in the duty-free shop at the airport. Local markets sell coca biscuits and toothpaste and the new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is a past coca grower and former head of the coca-growers' union.

Eradicating coca in South America, an anthropologist told me, would be akin to ridding the northern hemisphere of coffee, tobacco — and Communion wafers.

I took my cup of maté de coca to my room, had a few sips as I watched the children in the street below dueling with discarded cardboard tubes and wondered if the son of my father's friend would have survived his stay in La Paz if he'd drunk enough coca tea.

Thanks to decades of U.S. pressure on the United Nations, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru are now the only places on earth where you can legally enjoy this beverage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is sworn to a war whose tools include Black Hawk helicopters, chemical defoliants and biological arms, and whose goal seems to be the utter elimination of the coca plant from the face of the earth.

If there was any way out of the international prohibition of drugs, that nine-decade-long sinkhole of corruption, constantly eroding civil liberties, and wasted lives, I suspected it might lie in the contents of the soggy tea bag at the bottom of my cup.

I turned off the light and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. Unlike a café au lait or an Earl Grey tea, maté de coca is one stimulant that doesn't keep you awake at night.