Coca, the South American wonder leaf

When we were in Cusco, first experiencing altitude-related headaches, the coca leaf was my saviour. I drank several cups of tea a day and it balanced out my headache so well, better than any medicine. Just the smell of the leaves felt soothing. This was completely ruined by a certain bus ride through the jungle.

We had been warned that many of the people on the bus would be carrying illegal amounts of coca and the bus would likely be drug searched. (The coca leaf is legal to chew and drink, but is still a controlled substance because of its potential to be made into very not-legal cocaine.) This did not prepare us for the sheer volume of leaves we would encounter.

We step onto the bus and it is the strongest, foulest smell I have ever experienced: 50kg of raw coca leaves. Every man, woman, and child is weighed down with multiple garbage sacks of leaves. As soon as we sit, women are trying to pawn off sacks to us, so they can smuggle more than their allotment through the checkpoint. The woman next to me is in a fit, shoving leaves down her shirt and up her skirt, hollering and frantically looking out the window to check for officers.

Eventually, we are stopped and much of the coca is seized off the smugglers, though I am astounded by how cavalier the officers are being about the whole thing. The woman next to me tug-of-wars her bag from the officer, begging to keep more, and all he does is laugh to himself. It is obvious why so many people try to smuggle, when the officers seem not to care much at all.

The smuggling is alarming, but the smell is what really sticks with me and I am having trouble even walking around the streets because the smell is haunting my dreams and threatening to bring my breakfast up.

This doesn’t actually last too long, though, because I’m back into the coca leaves by the time we get to La Paz, dizzy from the elevation once again. All the locals are chewing on the leaves, and I know from Cusco that they definitely help with altitude sickness, so I buy myself a bag from a lady on the street and start nibbling away. No one tells me that I’m not supposed to eat them. In the end, I’m 10x sicker than I began and I’m vomiting green for a week. My fault.