April 4, 2012

The Many Faces of Coca

Since we crossed the border into Bolivia, we haven’t seen a single person drinking mate. It turns out that here, the social common ground of choice is the coca leaf.

In La Paz we paid a visit to the Coca Museum, which documents the spiritual and social role that the coca plant plays in the Bolivian, Argentine, Chilean and Columbian cultures. Through cave drawings and other artifacts, it’s easy to see that coca leaves have been chewed in this area for thousands of years. The leaves have nutritional properties that help suppress hunger, keep the mind alert, and stave off altitude sickness. During the mining era, coca leaves were the only way that the miners – who were subjected to 48-hour workdays – survived.

As we were getting off our bus from Uyuni to La Paz, we found a trail of coca leaves that the bus driver had left behind. Hey, whatever keeps him alert is fine by us.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that a doctor from France extracted one of the alkaloids in the coca leaf and refined it into cocaine. The museum had an interesting timeline that showed how American doctors led the use of cocaine as anesthetic for surgeries.

The museum also demonstrated how makeshift and remote the illegal cocaine refinery shacks are. Without help from Americans who have the knowledge and chemicals to refine the leaves into cocaine, these simple farmers would never be able to do it on their own. In a way, we felt sorry for the countries where the coca leaf is a cultural staple. Developed countries, led by the US, have taken something legal and sacred to them and turned it into a demon.

What we’ve learned from Bolivia is that, unless you’re dealing with the bad guys doing illegal stuff in the remote jungles, coca leaves are nothing to be ashamed of. They can be found and bought from large bins on the street curb of almost any convenience store. A huge bag of leaves might cost $1.

On our bike ride down The Death Road, farmers were drying their coca leaves right on the road and we could see coca plantations on the hillsides.

The leaves are commonly placed in hot water to make a delicious tea. You can find coca-flavored cookies and ice cream. The leaves are placed in baskets at breakfast buffets. Even the Coca-Cola Company purchases coca leaves every year to help flavor your soft drinks.

So the next time you drink a Diet Coke, think for a second about the legal Bolivian farmers and the culture they’re trying to preserve.


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