The sky was a clear, the air was chill and thin – pretty typical weather being so high up in the Andes. It must have been in our third week working, staffing clinics in indigenous communities high up in the mountains where llamas would perch on peaks like pigeons would here in Los Angeles. The ride was always long getting to these remote locations, and there were many instances when I thought the van would slip off the narrow mountain paths. The constant swerving around the mountain didn’t help us – motion sickness was something that each of us just had to deal with. Matters were made worse, of course, by the more than 15,000 ft worth of altitude sickness.
But each time we arrived at our chosen destination, our spirits lightened up as we typically were welcomed with a swarm of smiling children all wearing their characteristic red ponchos. But on this particular day, there was something else to lighten our spirits. An elderly lady comes out with a tray of plastic cups with a light green tea. Not green tea, but coca tea.
I was a little taken aback at the offer, to be quite honest. She smiled as she gave us the tea, with a face of assurance than any grandmother would give. She told us it would make us feel better after the long ride and a long day of work. The messages we receive stateside about anything remotely cocaine-related makes the thing sound like the sin of all sins. The “Devil’s leaf,” as it was known by early Spanish clergy in Central and South America a few centuries back, still has that foreboding allure. But what the hell, I was in a different country with different laws and attitudes. And what can I say? It hit the spot. It was nice and hot, and warmed the body to the bones. And it was just the right amount of sweet. Not sugary sweet, but a subtle and enticing sweet. Later I found that the amount of tea I had can accrue as much as 4 - 5 mg of cocaine.
This leaf comes from the coca shrub family Erythroxylum spp. There are more than 30 species within this family, but most of the commercial exchange of coca involve two: E. coca and E. novogranatense. I won’t go into detail about how this plant has made its way into Western culture. Instead, what is the history behind coca? How is this plant being still being used by indigenous communities not only for medicinal purposes, but as a source of cultural identity?
First, lets go through the science-y part of coca before getting into anything else. The active ingredients of interest in coca are called alkaloids; the main ones are cocaine and cinnamoylcocaine. The plant contains other alkaloids as well, and anecdotally, different concentrations of these, in combination with different compositions of other essential oils produce different flavors and aromas. Some people claim that much like fine wine, there are subtle but important differences in taste. And in spite of the fact that cocaine can lead to malnutrition as it suppresses appetite, chewing the leaf can satisfy daily nutritional requirements for calcium, phosphorous, riboflavin, and vitamin A. But don’t start taking this stuff as your daily multivitamin.
The coca plant is pervasive in South and Central America. It obviously is involved with the drug trade that is plaguing many Latin American countries, but also has its veins deeply rooted in the history and culture of the region. The plant was used for its medicinal properties, most identifiable among these is its stimulating effects. But this plant was also gold. Much in the way coffee has been described as black gold, coca was their black gold. Much more than black gold, in fact.
Thousand year old mummified remains have been found all throughout Latin America along side bags of coca leaves. A lot of these mummies were found with periodontitis – tooth loss from long term chewing. This leaf, which is and has been so entrenched in society, was used as a suitable offering to the gods. Some civilizations would offer the best and freshest leaves of the coca to the gods before allowing themselves to enjoy it. And the plant was a sign of privilege. It was for the rich and elite, and was meant to be just for men, although women did a bit here and there, too.
Coca was a staple in the Incan economy, and the spread of the empire was partially financed through coca plantations. The Incan royalty would give away bags of coca as awards for accomplishments, priests would throw the leaf into rivers in hopes that the gods would ban illness and would smoke the leaf in hopes of achieving divine inspiration. Sure, divine inspiration. Have you upset the mother of the earth pachamama or her daugter cocamama? Bring a bag of coca with you. Have a reason to appease the wamanis – the mountain gods? Same procedure, unless of course you’re a woman. In that case, you may run the risk of being “swallowed by the mountain.” Not sure how that works.
White llamas, the representative beast for the royal Incan families, were trained to chew on coca leaves. The Inca would exhume bodies and make offerings of coca leaves to honor the dead. And when the Europeans arrived in modern-day Peru to conquer the Inca in 1532, tributes of coca were paid to Francisco Pizarro and to other conquistadores. The Spanish increased production of coca and made it available to peasants so that they would work harder and longer in silver and gold mines. Coca flowed through the veins of the Inca, and then in the veins of the Spanish colonists, and it made them powerful.
Soon wines and beverages would be made with coca, and were immensely popular in the Western world. Coca-cola was first a kola nut extract with coca. Pope Leo XIII endorsed Vin Coca Mariani, a wine with coca, with a Vatican medal of achievement as it made him feel less fatigued. Through the efforts of drug wars, policies, and public health advocates, the rage of coca was snuffed, but it still remains a vital component of the modern day descendants of the Inca. One of these tribes are the Quechua. These are the people I interacted with during my days in the Andes.
As I have already mentioned, chewing the leaf is a sign of cultural identity, and hence is governed by a complex list of etiquette rules, including one that states if you refuse offered coca tea, it could be taken as a sign of your asocial nature. It’s a cultural identifier for these people, much like the ponchos and the braided hair. Coca has also been used as a measurement of time and distance. One cocada gives you either 45 min of walking or 2 km on steep terrain.
Typically, when the leaves are chewed, the dried leaves are placed between the cheek and gum and moistened with saliva. A bit of lime is usually put in the center. The alkali in the lime helps separate the alkaloids (the active ingredients I mentioned earlier, including cocaine) and promotes faster and stronger release, much like tea in hot water. Chewing is not the only way to appreciate coca. There’s tea, as I’ve already mentioned, but there’s also snorting and smoking, which are more commonly seen among priests and medicine men. The carved out gourd used to hold the limes, ishku, is called a ishkupuru. And the wistalla is a small bag used to hold the leaves. And now I feel like the DEA will be after me for blogging about this.
Still today, coca serves its divination purposes. Instead of asking an 8-ball for help, you might consider approaching a chrajchrakuj – one who knows how to chew. There’s a belief that kuka willan (coca tells). One example of this practice is by observing sides of the coca leaf as it is released by the chrajchrakuj’s hands. If the dark upper side of the leaf faces you, then you have a kara, a good omen. Conversely, if the underside of the leaf faces you, you have a chapa, a bad omen.
You may be asking yourself how prevalent this practice still is? While I can’t say how wide spread approaching a chrajchrakuj is today, but it is estimated that upwards of 80% of rural communities in the Andes still rely on coca in order to meet their health needs. So yes, coca and cocaine are still integral components of tropical medicine, especially if your interests lay in the South. And yes, after that cup of coca tea, I did start to feel much better.
Picture source: Flickr © narcotraficantex