Coca Comrades

Thurs 1/14/11, 2:18am
Alta Florida, outside Samaipata, Bolivia

As always, I begin this with the intention for it to be a quickie, but both you and I know there’s never a quickie, with so much ground to cover and so much time elapsed since the last installment.

I’m moving slowly in Bolivia, traveling a bit less than a typical traveler, and living a bit more than usual, meaning I’m finding home (temporarily) and staying a while between jumps. It’s nice not to feel in any rush, and to make and keep some friends for a week or two instead of a day or two. It’s also nice to start really knowing my way around a place, see familiar faces, have favorite spots, make conversation with anyone I’ve met, anytime we cross paths.

It’s beginning to feel the norm for a week to fly by in any given place, followed by the familiar debate “should I go, or stay another week?” Whenever that word should is weighing on my mind, my innate guidance system steers me to the truth: I should never do anything.

At the moment, I’m feeling pressed to make my way up towards lovely Lake Titicaca, with it’s gorgeously camp-able Isla del Sol, floating villages, and nearby Copacabana, not to mention loads of volunteer opportunities in eco-communities and national parks. But here I am, with only a month left on my visa, still in the south (where I came from), and I just began to feel found again, so why go?

My usual style and outlook towards covering the bases of a country, which I pride myself on, is that I like to go slowly, savoring the trip as well as my more thorough pace, getting to know an area well, developing a real connection and appreciation for the mundane, and leaving much mystery to return for. Is it because Bolivia is small that I feel compelled to take in it’s greatest hits on the first go?

By found I mean I’ve landed in a choice spot, Samaipata, a village of 3,000, with 1 bar, 1 discotec, 1 karaoke club, 1 yoga instructor, 1 (overpriced) cyber cafe, and a boatload of charm. I’ve spent a week camping out, doing yoga and meditation daily, camping out in a lush garden community with awesome people, hiking in Yungas (cloud forest), and not even thinking about using the internet until yesterday (as I might as well before heading out into the country today).

And by night…

And today I made my way 6km out of town, up up and up an undulating dirt road (as they all are in Bolivia) to the farm of some acquaintances I met in town, an adorable English hippie couple named Danny and Rachel, who bought a plot of 13acres and are farming and building it out it with aim of self-sufficiency. What they’ve accomplished in a year is impressive. The whole property is beautiful, the view from any point on the hillside to the mountains beyond stunning, my own gurgling waterfall tranquil, and the organic strawberries and tomatoes burst with flavor in my mouth more than any I’ve known. And the piggy lets me pet him.

They chew coca out here like it’s going out of style. When I met Danny in town, and he was chewing away, with green all in his teeth a black ring around his mouth, I thought he was crazy. When Rachel told me that there’s one rule out here, that anything you say before the third cup of coffee doesn’t count, I though she was crazy. Now that I’m here, I understand it all so clearly: they are crazy, and I adore it.

It’s their own little paradise, with its own quirky culture. I loved it and them before I even got our here, but now that I am here (on my first real farm in South America) I’m reminded of perhaps my favorite farm in New Zealand (oh I know it’s so unfair to choose!), that of Mike and Jocelyn in Paparoa, who live passionately and beautifully, practicing permaculture and self-sustainability in their loving teepee home on their own lovely plot. Likewise, this place is nuts. Ruth, another volunteer, is in on the quirk, masticating the coca like sport and drinking (magic) coffee well until bedtime (with a bit o alcohol), and I reckon this is normal up here. I did the same tonight, and look at me, up and perky, writing in my tent at 3am. Yeah we’ll get to digging drop toilets at 8am, but we’ll also be chewing coca and drink coffee by the gallon. Midday is usually reserved for, well I don’t know yet, but not working in the hot sun, and I gather it’s not uncommon to work well into the night with head-torches. Like I said, I like these people.

A note about the coca, my dear concerned readers: while in North America the coca leaf is often confused with cocaine, it is not the same. As our President Evo Morales championed, “Coca sí, cocaína no”, it’s quite a different animal, the backbone of the working-class, buzz-less but quietly keeping the bees at work for long hours, reducing appetite, dulling fatigue and pain, and keeping you higher the harder you work. Hmmm, it doesn’t sound quite as innocuous as it is when I describe it here, but believe me, it’s cool.

Random factoid: Rachel lost 40 kilos – that’s 90 pounds – in 6 months of moving here and working on the farm. They work a lot, and with the long hours, coca for lunch, and lots of fresh air and organic produce, she looks and emanates amazing. Thought you might find that interesting. And yes, they eat well, with chips twice a day (she loves chips) and the most amazing salads in South America. Tangent: The markets here are filled with the most amazing produce, yet as far as I know most typical Bolivian dishes consist of meat and rice. Where’s the salad, man?

For the moment I’m happy to still be in Samaipata, enjoying and making paradise in the loveliest of circumstances. Whether I’ll make it out in time to see it all before I run for the border remains unimportant.

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