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The Higher We Went, The Higher We Got
By Carol L. Bowman
A plastic bag filled with oval shaped, dried, green leaves made the rounds among the ten of us in the van. We were instructed to take four, crumple them up into a small ball, place the wad between our back molars and bite down hard. A piece of lime added to the bundle hastened the release of active ingredients, including alkaloids containing cocaine.
A pungent, tangy fluid oozed from the clump and the inside of my cheek felt tingly and numbed, like a shot of Novocain. I remembered chewing coca leaves, a process called mambear in the Quechua language, on my last trip to the Andean Highlands. Fellow travelers, newbies to this mastication ritual, struggled with the process. We resembled a bunch of Guernsey cows, learning how to chew cud, with bulging cheeks on one side.
For those not adept at manipulating a mouthful of leaves, thermos jugs of hot tea from steeped coca leaves, called mate de coca, provided our oxygen starved systems with a mildly powerful stimulant that suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue.
Flying from Lima, Peru, which lies at sea level to Cuzco, Peru, situated at a height of 11,000 feet, altitude sickness, with screaming headaches, nausea, exhaustion and shortness of breath can kick in quickly. The only cure for this ailment is to descend to a lower elevation or for periodic respites, inhale pure oxygen available in hotels. The trick is to treat the symptoms before the sickness takes over. For the next 15 days, the only direction we were going was ‘up,’ so we obeyed our trip leader without hesitation. He lives at this level of thin air and urged us to “chew coca leaves and drink mate de coca.”
“Bring it on,” we thought, “lots of it.”
The coca plant, which resembles the blackthorn bush and grows 7-10 feet tall on the eastern slopes of the Andes, has played a traditional role in Andean culture for thousands of years. With only 0.3-1.5% cocaine in fresh leaves, chewing coca or drinking the tea doesn’t cause the euphoria of the concentrated drug, but it regulates carbohydrate metabolism, helps gastrointestinal disorders and eases the effects of high altitudes. Traces of cocaine show up in the bloodstream as a false positive after consuming just one cup of tea; ah, the joys of being retired without fear of work-related random drug tests.
We noticed a calmer tolerance of each other’s quirks, as the days went on, as we edged upward to Bolivia and Lake Titicaca at elevations of 12,000 to 14,000 feet and as the drinking and chewing increased. We weren’t exactly high, but higher in intellectual conversation and alertness. We blossomed into a fascinating bunch. Just ask us.
Every restaurant, hotel lobby and tienda offered urns of mate de coca for patrons to drink and bowls of fresh leaves to chew. It became the first order of business; we abandoned coffee and downed multiple cups of tea at every opportunity. With physiological effects similar to tobacco, we noticed a strange affinity for this stuff. It kept us going, gave us energy, eased the pounding headaches, curbed our appetites and made us coo.
Communal chewing of coca leaves by the High Andean peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador dates back 8,000 years and traces of coca have been found in mummies 3,000 years old. Paintings on ceramics from Pre-Inca Moche show the cheek bulge of the coca chewer. The plant was viewed as having divine origin and present tribes consider it a vital part of their religious practice.
Shamans read coca leaves to tell fortunes and make ceremonial coca offerings to the mountains (opus), the sun (inti) and the earth (Pachamama). When we visited Copamaya, an Aymara Indian village over two miles high near the Bolivian border, we gifted the residents with bags of coca leaves. The coca plant cannot grow at this elevation; the people cannot thrive without it. Daily personal consumption measures about two ounces per person, from infant to elder.
Following the invasion by conquistador, Francisco Pizzarro, King Phillip II of Spain demanded that all Andean captives chew coca leaves several times per day. He expected the Indians could double their labor output and tolerate imposed starvation as a result.
Coca leaves became illegal outside of South America in the early 20th century after the recognition of cocaine addiction in 1859. At the 1961 UN Single Convention, no distinctions between the coca leaf and cocaine or heroin were made. The eradication of coca leaf chewing was ordered worldwide within 25 years and drinking mate de coca was considered an illegal activity. The United States classified the coca leaf as a Schedule II narcotic drug, despite the minimal amount of cocaine alkaloids contained within.
Realizing the coca leaf’s benefit to the well being of High Andean peoples, the governments of Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina legalized its use. The Stepan Company in New Jersey remains the only US facility with authorization to import coca leaves, decocainized leaves at that, for extract used in the production of Coca Cola.
No wonder our guide advised the group’s US citizens NOT to buy mate de coca tea bags to take home. But wait, I live in Mexico and my adopted country couldn’t have such a silly law. I developed a fondness for my daily pick-me-up, so I bought 100 tea bags. After all I live at 5600 feet and need it, right? On the overnight flight home from Lima to Mexico City, the announcement interrupted my fitful sleep: “All baggage on flights originating in South America is subject to canine inspection.”
OMG. Would drug sniffing doggies detect my coveted tea bags? I packed them in my husband’s luggage. Should I tell him or wait until the federales drag him away to a Mexico City carcel? As we waited at the baggage carousel, with a 6 AM pallor, suitcases that had successfully passed by sensitive snouts, dribbled onto the circular path in spurts. My duffel showed-up alone, about mid-point of the full plane load of checked luggage.
After one hour, we were the only two desperate looking passengers left. I started composing ‘Confessions of a 65 Year Old Tea Smuggler’ in my mind. The mouth of the baggage flap opened and spit out the last piece. My husband’s yellow and black bumblebee bag looked like it barely survived a scrappy encounter with an unhappy German Shepherd.
We grabbed it and headed for the final obstacle, the customs official and that dreaded Mexican game, ‘Red Light, Green Light’. Red, we’re dead, Green, me and my tea would be home free. With my anxiety drenched, sweaty palm, I closed my eyes, said a prayer and pushed the button.