Chewing Coca in La Paz
La Paz really knocked me around.
Although we’d been in and out of altitude for several weeks, working our way up, La Paz was where it hit me. I talked a little bit about my baby lungs in Potosí, but that was nothing compared to La Paz, the world’s highest de facto capital (3650m above sea level).
I can’t work out why Potosí, which is at a higher altitude, didn’t affect me the way La Paz did. Walking up a flight of stairs left me breathless for several minutes. Not just breathless, but literally gasping for air. When we explored the city, I walked slowly, taking tiny, grandmotherly steps.
It didn’t affect Jared the same way.
“It feels like I’m taking an old dog for a walk,” he said. “I always have to look back to make sure it’s still there.”
“Imagine how it feels to be the old dog,” I said.
Slowly but surely, we explored the city. We meandered to the Witches’ Market, a street famous for its dried llama fetuses and medicinal herbs. Apparently the llama fetuses (feti?) are buried under the four corners of a house’s foundation, for luck. I don’t know how true that is, but somebody’s obviously buying them.
We shopped at the many markets of La Paz, picking up souvenirs for people back home.
We plodded to an incredible Cuban restaurant, Sabor Cubano, where we had the most delicious sandwiches of the trip and Jared smoked a Cuban cigar (neither of us smokes, but when would the opportunity arise again?). No photos as I’d left the camera behind.
We made the long journey downtown to visit an archeology museum.
It was closed.
So we went to the Coca Museum instead. It’s a tiny space hidden in an alleyway, full of photos and information about the much-maligned coca leaf. The leaf gets a bad rap because, yes, you can make cocaine out of it.
But in its natural form, people across South America chew it for a variety of beneficial reasons: it helps your lungs absorb oxygen, thus making the altitudes more bearable. It also curbs hunger, increases your energy levels (albeit temporarily), and is said to be good for your stomach.
Although coca is illegal in the United States, most of you have probably tasted it because there is one company that’s allowed to import it – Coca-cola. The de-cocainized coca leaf is one of the primary flavorings in Coca-cola to this day.
“Do you want to try some?” Jared asked. A bag of ‘organic’ coca leaves was only 10 bolivianos, less than $2.
“Okay,” I said. “It can’t hurt.”
Jared had tried some before, both in the mine tour at Potosí and during our hike in Tarija. He gave me a tutorial.
1. Take out a handful of coca leaves. (Optional: de-vein them manually)
2. Put a couple in your mouth and chew them gently.
3. When they are adequately mushed up, move them between your gum and the inside of your cheek, forming an unsightly bulge.
4. Add more leaves. Repeat steps 2 -4.
5. Add sweet lye substance (purchased with the leaves) – just a pinch! – to activate the alkaloids in the coca. (I do not understand this step, but went with it.)
6. Keep chewed-up coca in your mouth for up to 4 hours.
The leaves tasted like grass, and there were bits of them all over my mouth. It smelled weird. It made the right side of my face go numb, all the way up to my eye.
I didn’t like it. After 15 minutes, I spit it all out and decided to go back to wheezing and clutching my chest.
I think we can all agree that there’s no need for me to ever make this face again.
Looks like La Paz won this round.