I’m glad we approached Bolivia after traveling through Ecuador and Peru first. I think it lessened the inevitable culture shock. On the other hand, when we arrived in Chile (a post for another day), it felt almost like we were returning to the United States, the quality of living (and prices!) were so much higher. Below are the things that occurred to me as we traveled through Bolivia.
What’s the first thing you think about when someone mentioned Bolivia. It’s “cocaine,” isn’t it? The whole time I was there, I didn’t see or hear anything about the white powder. Not that I was running in those circles or anything, but no one even offered it to me. I found it surprising, considering that it happened more than once in Peru.
What Bolivia does have, though, is coca leaves. You can buy them by the bag-full at any outdoor market and, if you ask for the activator (a sticky, bitter substance made of ash, sap, bananas and/or who knows what else), you can get “high” with them in a perfectly legal, even morally acceptable way.
Oksana and I tried them a couple times and the effects, for me, were on par with drinking a venti-sized cup of coffee from Starbucks (assuming, of course, your coffee tastes like freshly-cut grass and completely numbs your cheek and tongue!) Oksana really liked chewing coca leaves while hiking – they allowed her to completely ignore any pain she was feeling on the long, steep hike up Colca Canyon.
(In Potosí, it was almost comical the way the miners kept stuffing the leaves into their mouths. Plucking each stem, they’d add them one at a time, over the course of hours, until their cheeks were bulging like a greedy hamster!)
After seeing the widespread use of coca leaves in both Peru and Bolivia, I’d guess it’s about as addictive as marijuana and about as socially acceptable as smoking cigarettes. I wonder if that’s why the two countries have relatively few smokers…