An article about the use of coca (as opposed to cocaine) in the Andes. (BTW, I was looking through the Coca sub-forum the other day, and Benga has posted some most excellent stuff there.)
Confessions of a coca fiend
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The story of my 10-day coca binge is short and, I'm afraid, not terribly sordid. Just the same, if I'm asked to take a drug test anytime soon I'm probably going to have a bit of explaining to do.
When I arrived in the old Inca capital of Cuzco, Peru, recently, the very first thing I was offered was a cup of coca tea. (Well, actually, the very first thing I was offered, at a stand next to baggage claim, was a little aerosol can of oxygen for $10. Being as Cuzco sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet in the Peruvian Andes, it was tempting.)
Even before I'd reached the front desk of my hotel they sat me down in the lobby and placed a steaming mug of coca tea in front of me. It was just a cup of hot water with a handful of leaves floating in it.
"Drink," said the manager. "It will help you with the altitude."
The first one's always free, right?
The taste took some getting used to. Earthy, grassy, astringent - it wasn't gag-inducing, but neither was it something you'd crave for the flavor alone.
When I finished, he poured me another cup and stood over me watching as I dutifully gulped it down. Then he showed me to the little station where I could help myself to as much coca tea as I wanted, any time of day or night, free of charge.
Or, if I preferred, he said, I could just grab a handful of leaves out of the bowl and stuff them in my mouth.
Coca leaves, in case you were unaware, are where cocaine comes from. And therein lies the rub.
If you listen to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which would like very much to eradicate the plant, it sounds as if coca is used only in rare and obscure religious rituals by the native peoples of the Andes, much like other indigenous groups use peyote or ayahuasca.
It kind of makes you wonder what the folks at the DEA have been smoking. Coca, as anyone who's ever been to the Andes will attest, is as central to life and culture there as coffee is to the U.S. In the cities and in the countryside, people chew it or brew it every day.
"It is a complete, perfect food," a tour guide named Puma Songo told me as he handed me yet another a cup of coca tea. "It helps you with mal de altura (altitude sickness), it keeps you from getting hungry, it gives you energy and it makes you think more clearly."
This, it turns out, is only a brief resume of coca's reputed wonders. It is also said to reduce stress, to aid digestion, to alleviate vertigo, to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates and to work as an aphrodisiac. It supposedly cures attention deficit disorder, morphine addiction, dyspepsia, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, bipolar symptoms, vocal chord irritation, headaches, impotence and even irritable bowel syndrome.
If even a tiny fraction of this is true, it explains why the people of the Andes are so fond of the stuff, and have been for thousands of years.
In Inca times, only royalty was allowed to chew coca, and there is some evidence Machu Picchu was used in part to harvest and distribute the plant. Among some Andean peoples, distance was measured in units called cocadas - the number of mouthfuls of coca one would chew while walking it. The Spanish conquistadors tried to eradicate it, but changed their minds when they found the people they enslaved couldn't work as hard without it.
To this day, Peruvians never seem to run out of new ways to use coca. In shops around Cuzco I saw coca chocolate, coca hard candies, coca liqueur, coca soap, coca cookies, coca energy bars, coca-infused honey, powdered coca in capsule form and coca skin cream.
And, of course, Coca-Cola. The folks who make the world's most popular soft drink are famously secretive about its formula, which they keep locked in a bank vault. But apparently they still use coca leaves. Invented by a former Confederate officer named John Stith Pemberton in 1885, Coca-Cola originally contained about 9 milligrams of cocaine per glass - a heady dose indeed. Since 1904, though, they have used only "spent" leaves from which all (or almost all) the cocaine has been extracted.
(Ironically, Peru is one of the few places in the world where Coca-Cola is regularly outsold by a local alternative - Inca Kola, a yellowish, cloyingly sweet soft drink. Doubly ironically, as far as I can tell, Inca Kola has no coca in it.)
In answer to the question you've been patiently waiting to ask: No, I never got any kind of buzz. Once, when I spent a morning chewing on a mouthful of leaves while hiking, my cheeks went numb. But it's hard to say if it helped me acclimate, because I was also taking a prescription altitude drug. Nor was I ever aware of the subtle, generalized sense of well-being that coca is said to produce. As to everything from dyspepsia to irritable bowel syndrome - sorry, can't help you there.
Coca leaves contain only about 0.2 percent of the alkaloid cocaine, hardly enough to send you out looking for an ATM at 2 in the morning. By contrast, coca paste, from which powdered cocaine is derived, is 60 to 80 percent pure.
Even with that tiny concentration, though, several sources have told me I can expect to test positive for cocaine for a little while. Hmmm.
It's ironic: That man coming down from the Andes with a burro loaded with a crop that produces a mild - and, OK, slightly addictive - uplift for millions of people is considered a threat to the public welfare in the United States.
Unless, of course, he's named Juan Valdez.