“I knew you were better as soon as your laugh woke me up,” declares Javier.
Indeed, while my mental facilitates napped through a 13-hour siesta, my body, with the assistance of the antibiotics, regained control of my gut, stomach, head and mind territories. And when I am healthy, everyone knows it for I am a sensitive little creature, who is especially happy when she is healthy. So the sound of my echoing laugh wakes camp to its simultaneous relief and annoyance.
The tips of tents, noses and fingers are all nipped by the frost of 6am at 4,400 meters (14,520 ft), so as soon as the sun steps a foot in our valley, everyone in our party makes a dash for the growing gold streak that graces itself upon one of the rocky walls enclosing our camp. We’re all shifting our feet, stretching our fingers and otherwise encouraging blood to run its warming course when Javier raises his arm and voice to ask, “Would anyone like to learn how coca leaves are traditionally used here?”
This invitation is enough to coax me from the warm rock on which I sun towards the circle surrounding Feliciano, our head porter. I volunteer without hesitation, “Yes! Please. I would like to try!”
Feliciano pulls out a plastic bag full of muted-green and brittle looking leaves. He shows me the contents and then rifles through to find a choice few. I learn later that this process, of selecting the best leaves, is part of the ritual. But I am, as typical, still ignorant at this point, and so after he has carefully selected a few and then offers me the bag, I clumsily grab an ugly pinch full of small leaves and stems, which I now, looking back, realize must have been slightly insulting. Sometimes I have no choice but to forgive myself my clumsy, cultural fopaux.
Feliciano instructs me to put the little layered bundle into my mouth, chew just enough to put my saliva to the task of breaking down the leaves, and then push the little package for safe keeping to the side of my mouth. He then carefully selects another choice leaf and, with it between his two fingers, pinches off a small edge of a little black rock of tar-like substance. He sandwiches this scrape of black paste within the coca leaf and then hands it to me with the instruction to add it that which I have already amassed, like a chipmunk, in my cheek.
By now there is a very distinctive flavor being juiced by my teeth from the leaves. Unfortunately, because I do not have a refined leaf-eating or -distinguishing palette, I’m unable to classify this flavor as anything other than, “leaf.” I do, however, have experience in the dentist’s chair, and as an unmistakable numbness spreads from my cheek to my lips and chin and I begin to wonder if I’m drooling, I recognize the sensation as a sister of Novocain. Then my stomach starts to churn to the same tune as a shot of espresso and I’m overcome by that slightly jittery and attention-deficit symptom of caffeine overdose. Whew! Even a little heat flash passes over and I look around and ask if any the others participating in the experiment are feeling the same effects. They grimace at the flavor and shake their heads, “no,” which is not abnormal: I also get drunk off one glass of wine; as proof to the aforementioned: a sensitive little creature.
Bu the effects of the coca leaves don’t last long. Technically, the chewing process involves constantly selecting and adding perfect leaves and precise pinches of the catalyst (which, in this case, I learn, is the ash of burned quinoa) to keep this yanatin (sacred pair) effectively secreting the stimulant. But I’m still entertained by the buzz which seems quite equivalent to that which the average North American gets from sipping on coffee through a day in an office cube. The difference, I suppose, being that Peruvians don’t have desperate addictions to a drug whose base ingredient happens to be our normally harmless crop. And that Peruvians don’t, then, point the finger at us for being responsible for the bad habits that plague their social elite. And in response, Peruvians don’t declare a “war” and shadow our lowlands with warplanes that drop highly toxic pesticides on the innocent bushes that naturally grow like weeds around our gardens, houses and animals. Yes. I guess that would be the difference between the United States’ and Peruvian buzzes.
My shame and anger at my country make excellent fuel for my ascent up to the 4,672-meter (15,417 foot) pass. On my way, I overhear one woman exclaim that the climb is more difficult than childbirth. Another participant says it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done. The air is thin, but I still manage an unbelieving sigh when I realize there is a 15-year old girl walking in front of me, a 72-year old man on my heels, and a shared goal that has managed to trump that 57 years of age difference with ease. Equally shocking is the fact that our ageless Peruvian porters are carrying twice our haul, yet climbing twice as fast, and doing all this in simple, leather, open-toed sandals. I laugh when I imagine the big mountain retailer brands shuddering at the sight of such tech-less efficiency.
At the top of the pass, I remove the wad of chewed coca leaves and deposit them, delicately and with respect (as I’ve been instructed), on the ground. Javier and Jairo (another one our guides) wave me over to a cairn that the group has constructed by having each person carry and contribute one stone to the rock formation. Jairo hands me a small bunch of perfect coca leaves and says, “Raise it first to Veronica,” and I follow his instructions and raise the leaves into the air in the direction of the mountain Veronica. Jairo then rotates my arms about 40 degrees and says, “and now raise the offering to the Apus.”
At this I turn to him and ask, “What is Apu?”
And he answers, “The Apus are the mountain spirits. We’re asking for their blessing of good weather for our journey.”
I’m intrigued, but don’t ask questions.
Instead I just hold up the coca leaf offering and hope it will appease these mysterious Apus…