The U.S. government is trying to eradicate coca plantations as part of its ongoing "War on Drugs." Of course I'd heard of cocaine and crack and all these different things that Western Industrialized society has figured out how to make out of the coca leaf—but the coca plant itself, I had no idea. So my friends in Bolivia are teaching me. Did you know that for thousands of years coca has been the sacred leaf of the Andean Cosmovision?
Coca is not cocaine.
Coca are little green leaves that elderly grandmothers in traditional dress and never-cut braids moisten with their saliva then stick on their temples to treat headaches. (Works great for me! Sucks the pain right out.)
Coca leaves are what Machu Picchu tourists in five-star hotels are served steeping in boiling water to help alleviate their altitude sickness.
Coca are sacred leaves that Kallawayas, herbal healers in the highlands of Bolivia, use for diagnosing physical ailments. (There is a great story of a Kallawaya and coca leaves in chapter four of my novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, so I won't tell it again, here.)
Coca are leaves that people chew in ceremonies called "ch'alla" or "pago a la Pachamama" (offering for the Pachamama – mother earth and the space-time continuum). And some people call the ceremony a "q'oa."
One of my favorite q'oas was in Oruro, Bolivia with a bunch of tax collectors in their office in city hall.
When a friend invited me to attend, she explained that on the first Friday of every month just about everyone in town has a q'oa in their home. But she and all her coworkers wanted to have one together at work. So they have two a month. One for the family on the first Friday and another on the last Friday at work.
That night at 7 PM I met her at her office. She and her coworkers were all in office attire – nylons, red painted nails, business suits – and sitting around a large wooden conference table. Off to the side, a man was lighting a fire in a small brazier on the office floor. The smoke rose past the computers and telephones and danced around the fluorescent light fixtures hanging from the high adobe colonial-style ceiling.
(I had my camcorder with me, so you can see some of the tax collectors fanning the flames of the fire and chewing coca leaves in my music video, Nam myoho renge kyo).
In the center of the table lay the mesa. "Mesa" literally means "table" in Spanish, but in these ceremonies the "mesa" means the grouping of offerings. The mesa is a piece of paper that holds objects that represent your hopes and desires. Little sugar sculptures – brightly colored – symbols of your home, your work, your health, your love, and family. Little bits of llama wool, dyed in brilliant colors, encircle the offerings. Little bits of confetti sprinkled on. And, of course, coca leaves.
The workers from other departments were leaving, casually saying "See ya Monday!" as they walked by our conference table and smoky fire.
"Yeah, see ya!"
The boss portioned out the coca leaves, cigarettes, and beer.
They taught me that over the course of the evening we would each consume three small glasses of beer, three cigarettes and three handfuls of coca leaves. Well, you don't consume the coca leaves, you chew them. Well, you don't really chew them, you pixcha. Pixcha is a Quechua word, an Inka word. It might also be an Aymara word. My friend taught me her way to pixchar coca.