Beware of Coca Leaves

I was never into drugs, but I can’t say I’m a virgin either.  When I was a senior in high school, I smoked an illicit substance with some friends, which on that first occasion happened to be hashish.  After that, while still in high school, and then in my first semester of college before dropping out, I smoked marijuana six or seven times, only when I happened to be in a room where other people were smoking and passing a joint around.  I never rolled a joint and never bought the stuff.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale, but pot never had any effect on me other than burning my throat.  That all happened in 1971 and I’ve never used any narcotic drug in the fifty years since.  In college I was invited to try mescaline, a natural hallucinogenic substance, but I declined.  Too scary.  I never did “speed,” an amphetamine that was fairly common in the seventies, especially among college students studying all night for an exam the next day.  Heroin?  Don’t even ask.  I was always curious about cocaine, but not curious enough to try it.  I drew the line at marijuana.

Fast forward to 1985, when I traveled for three and half months around six countries in South America.  I knew I’d be dealing with some high altitudes in the Andean countries, and in perusing my guidebook I learned that chewing coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, or drinking tea made from the leaves, has a beneficial effect on altitude sickness, a condition I’d never experienced but which didn’t sound like much fun.  In my mind this made it legitimate and safe.  I don’t know what the situation is today, but back then it was legal to buy and sell coca leaves in Peru and Bolivia, but illegal everywhere else.  In those two countries Indian women sold them on the street from burlap sacks.  Well, I thought, if they’re legal, and my handbook recommends them, maybe I’ll give them a try, just for the experience.

I was on my own in South America, but I booked a four-day trek with a small group on the Inca Trail, which ends at Machu Picchu.  I’ll never forget coming around a bend on the last day, and there it was – the lost city of the ancient Incas.  What a magical sight, and what a great experience, including our Inca porters who were always ahead of us and had our tents pitched and dinner cooking by the time we made camp each night.  The trail is mostly in the 10,000 foot range, but gets as high as 13,000 feet with a lot of steep ups and downs.  But we had acclimatized and walked at a gentle pace, some people walking very slowly and lagging way behind, but doing it.  I didn’t have any problems, nor did anyone else.  But on the way back to Cuzco in a passenger van I had an event I’ll never forget.  On a remote mountain road the van got stuck in sand and some of us got out to push it free.  We were at about 12,000 feet.  Just that little exertion at that oxygen-depleted altitude hit me like a sledgehammer.  I felt like I was losing consciousness and hallucinating at the same time, but I was aware of what was happening.  It was terrifying.  I slowly sat down on a rock, hoping this would subside, which it did in about a minute.  But I tell you, it scared the life out of me.  Days later it happened again, though not as acutely, in the town of Galera, which at the time was the highest railway station in the world at 15,681 feet (it’s now #2).  I got out to take a quick photo on the platform, and the exertion of merely climbing up three steps to get back on the train, that tiny demand on my heart, made my consciousness flicker.

Cuzco (or Cusco) is a gem, a beautiful little city where ancient Inca ruins meet graceful Spanish baroque architecture from the colonial era.  As the gateway to Machu Picchu, it sees a lot of tourists, or at least it used to before Covid, and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from.  In a quiet alley I found a place that charged $4 a night, figuring I’d stay two or three nights, and explore the city on foot before moving on to Bolivia.  And Cuzco was as good a place as any to buy coca leaves.  Sooner or later you’d pass a woman sitting by the curb with her sack of leaves.  For the equivalent of 30 cents she’d grab a bunch and stuff them into a small plastic bag.  For the same price you could also buy llipta, a caustic lime and ash substance sold in the form of a large marble, which, I’d read, is necessary to chew with the leaves to activate the alkaloids.  Without it the leaves have no effect.  About a third of the marble is good for one mouthful of leaves.   So at the end of the day, after having dinner, I bought some coca leaves and llipta, headed back to my hotel room, and began chomping.

I once read that a heroin high is more pleasurable than sex.  If heroin is anything like coca leaves, I can attest to that.  Within five minutes I was feeling what can only be described as euphoria.  It was pleasure beyond words, pure bliss.  I remember thinking that ordinary consciousness is a total waste, not worth living compared to this.  I didn’t want it to end; I wanted it to last forever.  After chewing the leaves to a green pulp, I spat them out on a paper bag and began a second round, stuffing the remaining leaves in my mouth and breaking off another piece of llipta.  The pleasure remained intense, but eventually there was nothing left to chew, so again I emptied the contents of my mouth.  Within minutes I could feel the euphoria wearing off, but I didn’t want to lose that feeling.  I got frantic.  There was still plenty of llipta from the original chunk, so I picked up what I had spat out earlier, put the whole mess in my mouth, and started chewing again, hoping the llipta would do its magic.  But it didn’t, and I came back down to earth again.  Damn.

It was time for bed.  I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.  My tongue burned slightly.  When I was done brushing I opened my mouth wide and looked in the mirror.  My tongue was covered in blood.  I freaked out.  I rinsed my mouth with water again, and again looked in the mirror.  I saw blood slowly oozing out of every pore until my tongue was totally red.  Dear God, what was happening?  As a test, wondering if I was doing something foolish, I unpeeled an orange I’d bought and bit into it.  It burned so bad I immediately spat it out and took another swig of water.  I sat on the edge of my bed in this seedy little den feeling ashamed of myself, feeling like a wasted dope fiend, like a piece of trash, and thinking my God, what have I done to myself?  Is my tongue permanently damaged?  Will I ever eat normally again?   Is my life over?

The next day I ate lightly, avoiding anything that might irritate my tongue.  It still hurt, but not as badly.  At least I could eat.  Within days I could tell it was getting better, and it was completely healed in a week.

Indian woman selling coca leaves on the sidewalk – a common sight in Peru and Bolivia.

As I said, Bolivia is, or was, the only other country in South America where you could legally buy coca leaves, and there were plenty of Indian women, in their frilly dresses and quaint bowler hats, selling them on the streets of LaPaz, but I was done with coca.  Incidentally, at 11,942 feet LaPaz is the world’s highest capital city, and Quito, Ecuador, where I’d started my trip after flying in from New York, is the second highest at 9,350 feet.  In both places I did a fair amount of walking at a gentle pace but I didn’t have any symptoms.  Nor, for that matter, did I have any problems in Cuzco, which sits at 11,152 feet.  I might add that in 2019, while in Colorado, at a little over 10,000 feet, I had another frightening attack after climbing a flight of stairs while carrying two heavy bags.  It subsided soon after I laid down in bed, thank God.  Yet I’d gotten out of my car at about 12,000 to read one of those history marker signs and nothing happened.  I guess it’s all in the exertion – for me, at least.

There’s no way I would’ve tried coca leaves had it not been legal, so let me say a few things about illicit drug use here.   Back in the day, hundreds of travelers from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, were thrown into prison for violating local drug laws.  The great majority of independent travelers I met over the years were clean, but I came across a dozen or so who screwed around with illegal drugs, usually just pot, but they seemed to have no idea what a serious crime it was just to possess a small amount of marijuana.  Actually, laws and penalties involving narcotic drugs vary widely from country to country.  What can get you a slap on the wrist in one country can get you the rope right next door.  This applies to Asia in particular.

One country that offers the rope is Malaysia.  I was in Malaysia for nine days in August 1983.  Pleasant country, not terribly interesting, but worth seeing once.  I got around by bus and train, stayed in the usual cheap hotels, and had no problems.  Three months after my visit two young Australians named Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow were caught at the airport in Penang trying to smuggle out six ounces of heroin in their luggage.  They were arrested, put on trial for drug trafficking, found guilty and sentenced to death.  I subscribed to one or two travel newsletters back then, and there was a fair amount of discussion of this case among Australians, who considered the sentence barbaric.  For a few years the wheels of the Malaysian judicial system slowly turned, what with hearings and appeals, along with pleas for clemency from the convicted men’s mothers and some Australian politicians, but in the end the sentence stood.  Chambers and Barlow were hanged at Pudu Prison in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on July 7, 1986.  (Note: While double-checking these details, I learned that since then, four other Australians have been executed on drug trafficking charges: one more in Malaysia, one in Singapore, and two in Indonesia.  An unknown number are currently sitting on death row in several Asian countries.  Most of the convicted are of Asian origin.  The laws of all countries distinguish between possession and trafficking, but that line can be blurry, and in some even possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use can result in life imprisonment.)

I have no sympathy for anyone who knowingly breaks the law in a foreign country, especially when it comes to drugs.  In my opinion, anyone who regularly uses narcotic drugs is a loser to begin with, but to carry this habit into another country you have to be incredibly foolish besides.

But if you want to try coca leaves once in a country where it’s legal, just for the experience, that’s fine with me.  Just go easy on the llipta.