Basic Bolivia

Basic Bolivia
"Welcome to Coca Country" could well be the most fitting name for the Bolivian exhibition hall at the next World's Fair or maybe for some future installation at Six Flags over South America. Admittedly provocative (unless the soft-drink giant underwrites its construction), nevertheless the hall might tell a very different story from the tales of torment so often lived in the fast circles and inner cities of the U.S. and elsewhere.

Not to worry, I won't bore you with another lengthy lecture about illegal drugs. Most of the bad things heard about them are true. But in Bolivia, where one comes across the plant (not cocaine) almost everywhere, other facets of the coca chronicle don't shine forth quite so clearly as the black-and-white conclusions that drug experts have drawn. And isn't it interesting to learn that the favorite pastime of Bolivia's most prominent citizen, Evo Morales, is coca cultivation? Elected in 2005 with an unprecedented majority of votes, this leader of the cocaleros (coca farmers) is the country's first indigenous president.

Vital to a tradition over 4,000 years old, the coca plant's "sacred leaves" are as much a part of Bolivian life as our daily bread. Once reserved solely for use by Incan nobles, the leaves were not distributed among the hoi polloi until colonial times, when the Spanish conquistadors noticed the salutary effects the mild narcotic had on the native workforce. Production increased and the slaves could endure the crushing brutality of the working conditions in the mines, their hunger pangs and the cold much better.

Hot steam rises from the geyser Sol de Mañana at 15,800 feet.

All over Bolivia the dried leaves are chewed, infused in teas or ignited in rituals honoring Pachamama (mother earth). The cholas, market women wearing bowler hats and aprons, dig them out of huge bags to sell them. In the tropical regions of the Chapare and Yungas (between 1,500 and 4,500 feet), the lush green bushes cover the hillsides like sample carpets on a showroom floor. Scientifically proven to be nutritious (3.5 ounces comprises a daily dose of essential vitamins and minerals) and curative, coca leaves have long been used by Bolivians as effective treatments for a long list of ailments, including altitude sickness, stomach pains and headaches.

Yes, the leaf is turned into cocaine  -  but it takes an enormous amount, 200 pounds of dried leaves, to produce one pound of cocaine, which more often than not winds up in First World noses and needles. The leaves are legal in Bolivia; the white powder is not. Oddly enough, while walking the fringes of a dodgy neighborhood in San Francisco, we were offered drugs at almost every corner, but never once when we ventured down any Bolivian street. Sadly, absent the unlikely prospects of eradication and replacement with a more "satisfactory" crop or a precipitous drop in demand, the outlook for the poorest country in South America  -  with a yearly per capita gross domestic product of only $ 2,400  -  will remain inextricably linked to coca production.

Certainly, creative global partnerships would help to minimize this dependency and alleviate the destitution. In the spirit of paying down a significant debt owed to a name (and the "life" supposedly added by a one-time ingredient), here's one such charitable thought for the carbonated hierarchy in a very grand Atlanta office building to consider: How much economic assistance do you think your co-co-company could provide by donating a meager percentage of the deposit monies proffered for all those recycled and returned cans and bottles to Bolivian (and Colombian) trusts?

Riding on Snow and Salt

Before reaching the tropical, coca-growing areas of northern Bolivia, we had to survive a snowstorm in the southern Altiplano. Winding its way from the Chilean Atacama Desert (at 8,000 feet), the gravel road crosses the Bolivian border in harsh and desolate surroundings, at an elevation of more than 16,500 feet. Within a stretch of only 25 miles, the hot and arid desert climate had turned arctic cold. The terrain was blanketed beneath a half-foot of snow and a freezing wind whistled and swirled snow about our heads.