Thursday , December 7 2023
Chewing coca in an indigenous ceremony with tax collectors in Bolivia.

Coca is Not Cocaine

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.

First you nip off the stems and put the leaves in your left cheek and you let them sit there for about five minutes. You think good thoughts for the happiness and wishes of everyone around you in the ceremony. Then you give it a couple of little chews and tuck it into your right cheek, and think good thoughts for your own desires and happiness. Then you split the wad and put half in one cheek and half in the other and think good thoughts for the happiness and desires of yourself and everyone with you, and contemplate how we are all one. Then after 15 or 20 minutes you spit the wad out. And you put some more in.

The feeling of chewing coca was very subtle. A big cup of strong coffee gives me way more of a jolt. I hardly noticed anything, except that hours went by and I was still not tired.

As we sat at the conference table consuming our ritualistic three handfuls of coca leaves, three glasses of beer, and smoking three cigarettes (the ritual cigarette with the smoke carrying our prayers into the invisible realm) over the course of five hours – we talked.

At first people just chatted and told jokes. The boss joked in Quechua. Very informal. After about three hours or so, slowly the talk came round to the concerns and uncomfortablenesses of the last month of being a tax collector. It came out in such an accepting environment of warmth and loving oneness. I thought, "O my gosh! This is healing!"

When the time felt right, the boss and his right hand man carefully lifted the mesa and moved it over to the floor next to the fire. We stood around in a circle. Starting with the boss and ending with me, we each sprinkled alcohol in the four corners of the mesa, offering our prayers for the happiness of everyone in the group. 

Then they placed the mesa on the glowing coals of palo santo. Holy Wood. It has a beautiful scent like sandalwood. It is so resinous you just hold a lit match to it and it will ignite and burn down to ashes. It's amazing.

We stood around in the circle, watching the mesa burn. The fire was transforming our prayers – our hopes and desires – into scent and smoke that rose and entered another realm. It felt like a type of purification.

Whether your prayer is answered depends on how the fire burns. If the fire goes out before it has consumed everything, well, better luck next time. 

But if it burns nice and even and all the way down, you gave a good prayer, you made a good determination. You are going to accomplish your goals.

To me this is analogous to making a firm decision and taking considered action with all the details each moment along the way. In the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin there is a related concept called "simultaneity from beginning to end." In other words, how you do the process is reflected in the outcome.

At midnight, after the ceremony was over, I told my friend, "You know, I've attended a lot of meetings in my life and this meeting was the most amazing meeting of all."

There was no Robert's Rules of Order. But everything got talked about. Everything got decided. And everyone was at peace. 

This is what the tax collectors in Oruro do every month.

In this Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, pictured, received a traditional ceremonial staff from an Indian wise man at the sacred place of Tiwanaku.

For more information on coca, you can view a video of an unedited interview with Bolivian President Evo Morales, declared “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the General Assembly of the United Nations. There he shares some of his thoughts (in Spanish) on the sacred coca leaf and First World cocaine demand.

About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.

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