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Recovering with Coca in La Paz

Written on: Friday December 14th, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: La Paz, Bolivia

Author: Julie


Well, after spending two days inside our new hostel Arthy?s Guesthouse we finally venture out on the packed streets of La Paz. We had spent one night at the Adventure Brew Hostel but with Kevin?s chest cold keeping him up all night with a deep cough, we elected to find a private room somewhere else. A block down from where we were was Arthy?s, so before check-out time we visited and found a really nice place with great private rooms so we booked up for the next five nights. It has a self-serve kitchen, internet, a large living room with a great DVD collection, and small storage with basic food items sold at street prices. We moved our stuff to find out we were in a giant 4 bed room that was all ours for the price of a two bed room. We settled in and Kevin spent the afternoon catching up on the sleep he had missed the night before. Being in a dorm room, you?re always conscious of the other sleeping near you, so he spent the whole night holding in his cough as to not wake the others. We were sad to leave the hostel since it seemed to have so many cool activities but we really need some privacy for Kevin to get better. The second day, he was feeling a bit better but he we stayed in planning the next few months of our trip in South America. The owners have an extensive travel guide and map library so we sat down with a few books and spent the afternoon reading as much as we could. We?re debating on two itineraries. We can either travel around Bolivia to finally end at the Salt Flats of Uyuni and exit to Chile or we can exit through the north of Bolivia into the Amazon jungle of Brazil where we would take a 6 day slow boat down the Amazon River to the coast. The first option would keep us within our budget and schedule but we would miss the Amazon completely, while the second option would add an extra unbudgeted month. We?re undecided on which one we want to do. We have to come to term that we can?t see and do everything we want or we would never leave South America without blowing the whole budget and would miss out on so many other wonderful things. Decisions, decisions! That evening of the second day, Kevin was definitely feeling better so we stepped out onto the mad streets of La Paz. Although there is only 1 million people living in this city while Lima had almost 8 million, there is definitely more of a crushing, non-stop feeling of life in La Paz. From our hotel window, traffic never stops with cars honking, traffic attendants direction the flow, and thousands of people walking up and down or into the middle of the streets. From up here it looks like mayhem. We walked down (actually, pushed our way since the sidewalks are so crowded) towards the Lanza Market where we could possibly find fruits and vegetables to cook in the hostel kitchen. The market was much bigger than we thought it would be and was spread out over 4 blocks, onto San Francisco square where we were supposed to meet Mark and Maxine at 7 PM that night. There was no way we were ever going to find them in this crush of people and stalls. The square was invaded by Christmas decoration sellers with row upon row of Christmas lights, nativity scenes, candles, baby jesus dolls, and multiple outfits to dress the jesus doll. It was the first time I felt we were in the festive season when I saw the lights and heard Christmas music being played. It?s almost Christmas, wow time sure flies! Although the market was large, we didn?t find any food to bring back with us to the hostel, so we returned to a hearty meal of instant noodle soups and fresh popped popcorn. We settled into bed with the movies License to Wed and Die Hard 4.

The next day, Kevin was feeling strong enough to walk around for a few hours so headed towards the neighbourhood of Rosario where most of the travel operators, crafts stalls, and restaurants are located. We had to pass through the Lanza market to get to the neighbourhood. Even at this hour of the morning it was packed with stalls selling sunglasses, bathroom products, Music and DVD movies, clothes, stuffed animals, children?s toys, bread, natural health products, silver jewellery. There were also little food stalls selling sausages, empanadas, and fruit juices. We stopped at one stall where we drank a smoothie made from oranges, apples, carrots and strawberries for 2 BS.

Out of the market, we walked up and down hilly streets looking at knitted products, tour operator signs, and clothing shops. We were getting hungry so we stopped in a restaurant called 100% Natural for great chicken sandwiches. Next we headed towards called Linares to see the price of shipping stuff home from Bolivia. The prices were cheaper at 17$ USD per kilo so we may send home some stuff we feel we over-packed and maybe a few pieces of knitwear sold on the streets.

Beside the post office was the Coca Museum which had been recommended in the visitors book at Arthy?s. We paid the 8 BS entry fee and did the English tour. Below are some of the interesting facts we learned during our visit:

Coca leaves have been chewed in the Andean mountains for the 4000 years and is an important part of their culture, traditions, and religion. It was considered a sacred plant and a god named Mamacoca. During religious ceremonies, where gods, demons, the dead, passion, desires and fears exist, the coca leaf was used by priests to connect with the gods, much like the sacred host and ritual wine share of Christian ceremonies. The Incas believed the birth of their civilisation was created during the union of Mamacoca and the first Inca king. During matrimonial engagement ceremonies, a gift of coca leaves was given to both the groom?s and bride?s father.

During the conquest, the coca leaf was considered diabolic by the church that saw it as obstacle in their conquest of the indigenous culture. Although, once King Felipe of Spain saw how it increased the output from the silver mines, he abolished the law forbidding it and put the charge of it in the hands of the conquistador who imposed a 10 % tax on its consumption. The slaves who worked the silver mines of Potosi would consume it to increase their energy levels and suppress their appetites during their 48 hour shifts in the dangerous, cold mines. At the height of the silver production in Bolivia, slave workers were consuming 380 grams of leaves per week which accounted for 12% of their lowly salaries. The leaves effectively superseded the value of the gold and silver from the mines and the value consumed annually was equivalent to 450 kg of gold.

The chewing method (?Acullico?) of consuming the leaves is to remove the central stem from the leaf, slowly added them to the side of the cheek into a ball while letting the saliva break it down. After 10 to 15 minutes, the alkaloid properties from the leaf is released and provided an anaesthetic effect with light euphoria and a sensation of increased awareness and energy. It is to be consumed two or three times daily like coffee in the West, while working or after a meal.

Numerous studies have been done on the nutritional properties of the coca leaf and the findings report that it has similar nutritional values as walnuts, legumes and ceremonies. Although it does reduce the appetite, it has been found that the nutrient intake between chewers and non-chewers are quite the same. Interestingly, a 100 grams of leafs has 1540 mg of calcium and 45,8 mg of iron. Also, by chewing, there is not an increased tolerance to hard work but it did allow for longer hours of works before exhaustion, it increases the respiratory centers by dilating the bronchioles, therefore increasing oxygen absorption, it inhibits the build up of platelets which cause thrombosis, it helps regulate glucose levels and does not inhibit nutrition intake like previously thought. It became illegal around the world in 1950, when American banker Howard Fonda campaigned that ?? the chewing of coca is responsible for (mental slowness) and poverty in the Andean countries?. In the 1980s, the Bolivia government ignored the United Nations drug law act prohibiting its growth and consumption it had been forced to sign in 1950 to continue receiving monetary aid from western country. It re-instated the right to grow the plant legally within the country, except in a few regions where the cocaine industry is predominantly located. Since then, with the aid of drug enforcement units from various western countries it has actively waged a war on cocaine producers within its borders.

Of course, we can?t speak of coca leaves without address it?s by-product of cocaine. There are 200 species of coca plant in the Americas. In the Chapare region where most of the Bolivian cocaine is produced, there are approximately 9000 bases where cocaine paste is processed. Seven men in a base can process 328 kg of leaves in 12 hours producing about 1 kg of basic cocaine paste. It is estimated in 1993, 197 tonnes of leaves were processed in this region. The cost of producing cocaine paste is about 350$ for the ?legwork? by the workers, plus the 1600$ cost of the leaves themselves, plus 200$ for various other costs for a total of 2150$ per kilo of cocaine paste. The next stage involves the paste being mixed in laboratories located in large cities due to their proximity to raw chemicals and distribution networks. The chemists add a mixture of sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, acetone and ether to 1 kilogram of paste to create kilo of crystal or chlorohydrate cocaine. The total processing cost of 1 kilogram of crystal is 10000$ and it is sold on the streets for 10 times that cost.

Although, cocaine was not always illegal. In the 1800s it was added to wines and most famously, it was used in Coca-Cola which was created when the wines were prohibited during the prohibition of the early 1900s. Although, cocaine was removed from the Coca-Cola recipe in the 1920s, coca leafs are still used in its production to this day. In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company purchased 204 tonnes of coca leaves from Bolivia. It is used as flavour agent. Cocaine was considered a miracle drug in 1800s when its properties were found to be a powerful and safe anaesthetic during surgeries.

It certainly was an informative tour and was worth the couple of hours we spent in the museum. By the end, Kevin was starting to get a little tired so we started to head back to our hostel when we heard a whistle. Looking around but who do we see, Maxine standing at her hostel balcony waving to us. We met her and Mark for coffee and spent a few hours catching up. They too had been to the San Francisco market but when they saw the hustle and bustle of the Christmas stalls they had given up on trying to find us. We made plans for the next day to take a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of the city.