Friday, August 17, 2007
When I first arrived at Mama Rosa's house on the outskirts of Cusco, she handed me a cup of coca tea and demanded that I drink it. She claimed it would help me with the altitude. I did. It did. It was delicious. I drank more.
A few hours later, I realized that all my fantasies of arriving home with a suitcase full of coca leaves were not to be. I had consumed the raw product of the coca plant that some people use to produce cocaine. And I could not consumer it again after I left Peru.
Days later when Mischa and I started the Inca trail, I awoke each morning to the sight of a tin cup pushed through the netting of our tent. Around the cup were the brown, coarse, dirty fingers of a Peruvian porter, a man named Pancho who had been carrying mine and Mischa's gear throughout the trek. He considered it so vital that we start our day - and this would be before arising to brush our teeth or ANYTHING else - with a strong cup of coca that he was willing to get up an hour early and stick his hands into the tent of two female gringos at 6am in order to see it done.
On day two, Pancho handed a single leaf of coca me to and several others and instructed us (wordlessly) to house it between our cheek and gums, tobacco style. No chewing. No sucking... just housing.
On dead woman pass, I felt just great. By the top, 4200 meters, I was flying - not high, mind you, but sharp, competent, full of energy. By nightfall, I was stone cold sober, and yet also somehow euphoric. And it was legal.
The United States Government has waged a "war on drugs" that has hurt Peruvian coca producers. One can hardly blame the U.S. government for trying - no one I know would dispute that cocaine is a heartbreaking derivative of coca, nor would anyone I know try to suggest that Peruvian producers, who earned $6 a pound for coca vs. 50 cents a pound for mint, are unaware of the market they are supporting.
Spending four days trailing Peruvian guides and porters who routinely chew (and drink) so much of the stuff that they literally smell of burning coca made me wonder not whether something was wrong with coca, but whether the something that was wrong had more to do with America.
Without further elaboration, I do. I am not saying no one uses cocaine in Peru. Nor am I saying that the U.S. Government is 100% wrong for trying to prevent production and sale of the leaves.
I am saying that when thousands of Peruvians drink the tea and chew the leaves with no ill effects - and the U.S. Government burns acres of coca fields - plants never intended or destined for the U.S. - that there is, at the very least, something unfair happening.
There is much more I could say about Peruvian culture (and I probably will) - but the fact that Peruvians use coca KNOWING it can be sold for high profits for far more dangerous purposes AND DON'T DO IT is a fact I find really striking.
Am I feeling perceptive and astute enough to define it further? No. Would I like some coca tea right now?