02 diciembre 2006

la coca no es la cocaina

I realize my sense of time in these posts is choppy. I'm trying to make up for lost time. I should remind you that Erica is, in some ways, keeping a better record of our day to day happenings, and that I myself use her blog occasionally to remind me of what I've been doing these past few months.

For instance, it's true that our first bus in Bolivia (yesterday) slid off the road and got bogged down in a ditch, more than once. It was pretty funny. There were three collegiate gringas on the bus with us who put things in perspective by losing their pink flip flops in the mud, and sing-songing their oh-my-gods about how close they had been to mor-ee-en-do.

It's also true that the Bolivian bus wasn't so luxurious as its Argentine counterparts have been. Though, in all frankness, I think this whole continent needs to be instructed as to the meaning of lumbar support. Can I really be the only person for whom this is an issue? I don't think I've spent a single, solitary comfortable minute-- be it by chair, couch or bed-- since September. Enough with the complaints.

I made an eight year-old friend on the bus, with whom I shared a seat and some bread, and who ogled me throughout the conversation as though I were a talking sack of coca leaves. His mother, seated across the aisle, was among the Andeans wearing a comically-undersized bowler hat and a lampshade as a skirt. When the family got off at Potosi (the last stop before Sucre, and the highest city in the world, supposedly), I was treated to a personal demonstration of their packing methods, which include no fewer than seven wool blankets per person, each of which is wrapped specifically to form a sort of backpack/food sling/baby carrier. Each of the children slept with one of these blankets during the bus ride.

* * *

As a method for trying to engage the culture(s) on some level, on this trip I've kept my focus on (1) the language, and (2) the drugs. The meat fixation in Argentina was too much for me, and while I didn't completely abstain, neither was I able to make any friends by way of a common enthusiasm. I am convinced, however, that I have been drinking as much if not more yerba mate than do many well-seasoned Porteños, and drinking mate in public is a pleasant invitation to share company.

Yesterday, we discovered coca. We arrived in Bolivia at about 9 am, and spent the better part of the day in the border town of Villason before our bus left for Sucre at about 7:30 in the evening (we should be in Lapaz by Thurs).

I was struck immediately upon walking down the main drag of the town by the large baskets-- the size of urban garbarge cans-- all overflowing with leaves. I don´t know exactly what the legalities are, but I saw no coca in my time in Argentina. Here everyone seems to be using it, and it´s being sold everywhere-- including shops that otherwise respectively sell only woolen items, electronics, juices, etc.

I bought a bag (probably about a pound) for roughy 30 cents. I haven´t been given any formal instruction as of yet, but rolling the leaves into a ball about the size of three pieces of bubblicious, and chewing for a few minutes gives a numbing effect, and after another few minutes of holding the wad in my mouth and chewing occasionally, I can feel my heart pounding, and an accompanying light-headedness.

They sell it here to help with altitude sickness, and I´m sure my headiness is due in part to the rapid altitude change we´ve experienced inthe last day. Here in the Andes, "los coqueros" have been using coca for time out of mind, and that there is speculation that the word "coca" at one point simply meant "plant". They still sell coca pouches here, which are used to carry the leaves while paseando (wandering about), and are still sized to fit specific quantities of coca, which, in turn, are measured by how much time and distance the coca will last the wanderer. One "cocada" is the amount of time and/or distance it takes one to travel on one wad of coca. Apparently Andean people actually used these measurements of distance until relatively recently.

Here's a good, short account from another couple travellers. They deal peripherally with the issue of legality, North American influence (i.e. the "war on drugs") and the truth of coca's relation to cocaine, but I'd like to do some more research. Incidentally, I was nearly forced into buying a t-shirt this morning which read, "La coca no es la cocaina," but thought better than to make myself a gringo statementist (as though simply being a gringo weren't enough of a statement in this country).