Saturday, September 25, 2010

Drugs, soup and witches

During breakfast, at the vegetarian restaurant across the street from our hostel (!) in Chiclayo, Ross noticed that there were bags of "coca" for sale behind the counter. We were surprised at first, but then remembered the guidebook mentioning that coca leaves are a legal and, in fact, important part of the culture in South America. (Which may explain the way people drive down here.) Natives chew the leaves or brew them into a tea to alleviate headaches, altitude sickness, hunger, fatigue, stomach pains, Kinda-Bored-Itis, and Not-Having-Enough-Fun-at-this-Party Syndrome. When we expressed interest in buying a bag, the waitress spent about 10 minutes offering advice and chatting with us about it. She spoke at great length about how she went to Cajamarca, had a headache because of the altitude, had a cup of coca tea, and BOOM! No headache. Had a stomach pain... Hey presto! Gone. (Incidentally, not a single person in Ecuador ever gave us advice or chatted with us. People here have been about 300 times friendlier than in Ecuador. They actually smile! And make jokes! And don't make me feel like I've raped their babies! Always a plus.)

To my parents and others who may worry: Unprocessed coca is about 100 times less potent than cocaine. It has roughly the same effect as a cup of coffee. So no worries, we probably won't turn up dead in a dumpster several days from now with an equally dead hooker and a donkey. (Although, somewhat relatedly, yesterday does mark the first day that I actually saw a man riding a donkey. Amazing!)

So we bought a bag of ground coca and took it back to our room to make a tea. Of course, because we have no way to boil water in our hotel room, we just mixed the coca with some bottled water and stirred it as vigorously as possible (which was not very vigorously). The result was a dark green, grainy, cold brew of disgustingness. We downed it anyway, just to see what it would be like, and eventually felt... absolutely nothing. Hmmmm. Not impressed.

Our main plan for today was to go explore La Mercada de los Brujos, or The Witches' Market. Because the next thing you want to do after trying coca for the first time is go haggle with some witches. (Un)fortunately, we had a hard time finding it because the guidebook's only 'guide' was that it was 'next to' the city's sprawling central market. And indeed, there is no other way to describe it except sprawling. Walking into this market was like what I'd imagine walking into the center of Delhi would be like. Local vendors had booths filled to the brim with every imagineable item, from bras and children's clothes, to pineapples and fish, to a metallurgy booth. The smells were, at times, overwhelming. People called out "Hola gringa! Gringa!!" trying to get my attention. Naturally. That is how I'd call a potential customer too. We even walked through a section of.... and here words fail me. Raw meat? Dead animals with flies buzzing all around them? Chickens cut open sideways so you could see all their organs? And that is when I had chicken blood squirted on my skirt as we walked. Mmm, yummy.

The "witch" part of the market was nowhere to be found (until we found it). Here people (or were they?) were selling herbs, candles, sacred shells, and shouting "Coca!" at us whenever we walked past. Now that is a better way to get a customer than "Gringa!!!!" (South Americans have a terrible affinity for shouting everything. On every corner there are people shouting what items they're selling. At the bus station there's guys shouting to advertise bus destinations. It's like, when I want strawberries I will come inquire about them. Likewise, shouting "QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO QUITO" will not make me buy a bus ticket to Quito, it will just make me hate you a little bit more with each passing minute.)

Either way, we decided to buy some coca leaves to chew, since the ground coca that we'd made "tea" with earlier was such a disappointment that we were still curious. We read online that to chew coca leaves, you have to mix them with an alkaloid called "llipta" (pronounced YIP-tah) to release the coca more readily. When we asked for some, the lady selling it just poured some out into a bottle cap and handed it for us to try. Uh, no thanks. I'll take your word that it's good stuff.

The witches are my favorite people in South America so far.

One of the other herbs we decided to buy from the witches was San Pedro, a ground cactus that gives you mild hallucinations for about an hour. Hey, when in Rome, right? The man invited us into the secret back section of his booth to show us the product. We haggled him down to about $5, because if you pay any more than that for your hallucinogenic cactus then you're a sucker.

Armed with all our new goodies, we finally made it out of the market and went back home to try the loot. We watched several YouTube videos of people mixing coca leaves with llipta and chewing the mixture, just to make sure we weren't about to kill ourselves trying to do this. (God, I love the internet.) Finally we gathered the nerve to try it ourselves. The coca leaves had a nice, leafy taste to them, but mixed with the llipta, the whole thing tasted bitter and unpleasant. You chew the mixture a few times and then keep it in a ball in your cheek like a squirrel. After a few minutes, my cheek and throat started to go a bit numb. Ross felt nothing. After 20 minutes, Ross still felt nothing, and I felt nothing more than a mild deja-vu of being at the dentist. I have a suspicion the whole coca thing is a vast South American conspiracy on the gringos. Now I'm worried that the San Pedro we bought is going to turn out to be just ground basil. Damn Peruvians.

To finally switch gears from talking about drugs: for dinner we went to a restaurant where I was served cream of cream soup. I had asked for cream of asparagus, but I think they forgot to put in the asparagus. We decided to spice it up by adding some black pepper to it, since, hey, it doesn't get much worse than just cream for dinner. We added a normal amount of pepper, only to find that the soup tasted exactly as before. So then I added more. And more. We added what I conservatively estimate to be about 3 tablespoons of pepper and gingerly did a taste test, with absolutely no discernible difference. How is this possible? Is this soup another South American conspiracy on the white people? Does it actually have super-powers of creaminess? Is the pepper actually fake pepper, placed there to watch us squirm? (Travelling in places where we're the only white people for miles has started to make us quite paranoid. It seems like everyone is ripping us off or deliberately messing with our heads. Stop it, South Americans.)

Eventually the soup went from white to a dull grey color, but I still tasted nothing but cream. So the next logical thing was to chip off pieces of fried plantain (their version of potato chips) and make a little happy face in the soup. Sadly, the waitress did not appreciate our art and walked away with a scowl. We left money on the table and fled.

Dissatisfied with my dinner of 4 sips of soup, we decided to buy some fruit on the way back home. I was delighted to see that, among the apples, bananas, and oranges, there were also 2 fruits for sale that were new to me. Trying foreign fruit is one of my favorite things to do. It's so exciting having no idea what a food is going to look like when you open it, not knowing what texture it will have (usually it's fucking weird) or what it will smell or taste like. It's like a gustatorial adventure. I have never been disappointed doing this and tonight was no exception. Ross was just as excited, if not more so, because we were finally going to be getting to use the sporks that we bought specifically for this trip.

Overall a highly satisfying day in Peru, especially once I washed the chicken blood off my skirt.


  1. Well, damn it, what was the fruit ? You liked ?

    And I will need a report on the San Pedro cactus by morning. As for coca leaves... It's true they should help with high altitude. Or so I've been told ;) When you go hiking they will probably hand them out to you or something something.

    Anyway, glad your mood has improved. Must be the chicken blood.

    Have fun !

  2. I can't remember the name of either fruits, unfortunately. They were both good. The one in the picture tasted a bit like crunchy pineapple mixed with peach, except it was green and slimy on the inside. The second one (you can see a pic of it on picasa) turned out to be very similar to regular melon.

    Hmm, perhaps the problem is that we're not at high altitude now. We'll have to try them again when we get to La Paz or something.

    San Pedro will have to wait til tomorrow. Today we're going on a tour of inca ruins in the area! :D

  3. Nice to see things are looking up in Peru! Weather's well and truely broken in Vancouver... well and truely back to winter mode.

    When driving through northern argentina we were quite high up for a fair bit of it, and the coca leaves certainly helped with the light headiness and slight nausea we experienced but aside from a numb mouth there's really nothing exciting that happens- they are far more medicinal than recreational :-) I think I chewed my way through a fair bit of it one afternoon over the course of a couple hours and it just felt like I'd had an especially nice cup of tea that morning.

    Speaking of tea, have you tried the mate down there yet? I met a peruvian chap on a bus near Salta who was mixing it with mint and drinking it with ice- which was very tasty. Mate is definitely an acquired taste but I love the idea of basically an endless cup of tea that you rebrew all day long and never stop drinking.