What Border Patrol Doesn’t Know Won’t Hurt Them
Coca tea in Peru
Excuse my language, but soroche is a bitch.
Not everybody experiences soroche—the Quechua word for altitude sickness—but apparently, I am a weenie when it comes to living above sea level. During my 12-odd weeks in Peru, soroche kicked my butt on many occasions.
It made me run out of a press conference, hopelessly sick, in a tiny Andean village, where I was covering the tourism industry for a local newspaper. It made me miss the Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco, when I simply could not complete the one and a quarter-mile walk uphill to reach them and had to sit down halfway, panting for oxygen. It made me pass out cold in the middle of a rock concert in Oxapampa, in the Peruvian high jungle, where I woke up minutes later to the roaring laughter of my slightly inebriated friends.
Soroche thus entered my daily life in Peru, and with it, so did mate de coca. Andeans chew coca to scare off soroche, but a less intimidating version of the miracle cure is the wildly popular hot beverage made off coca leaves.
I was introduced to the slightly bitter taste of coca tea on a red-eye flight from Arequipa to Cusco, after much insistence from the traveler sharing my armrest. I hesitatingly took the paper cup the flight attendant handed me, which contained a single tea bag that turned the water a pale green. To my slight surprise, it did not taste half bad, and made me feel better than I had in the previous two weeks.
I landed in Cusco, and even though I felt the familiar invisible crown pressing my forehead—first symptom of soroche tightening its grip on me—I did not feel dizzy, nor nauseated, nor weak. It was a definite improvement.
From that moment on, I had coca tea every morning in an effort to keep soroche at bay. I had it with lúcuma pancakes in a high-end brunch place in Lima overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I sipped it out of a traveling thermos on the top of Huaynapicchu, watching the sun rise over the sacred city of Machu Picchu.
I had it in handmade mugs with my host lady on the island of Amantaní,on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, while nursing the worst sunburn of my life. I drank it out of a plastic cup in a party hostel in Arequipa, while nursing—I then thought—the worst hangover of my life.
Coca tea became a staple of my mornings and an integral part of my life in Peru. I did not want to give it up when I left, so I bought several boxes of teabags to bring back to the Northern hemisphere. As I was shutting my suitcase, my roommate pointed out the unlikelihood of airport security letting through coca leaves in any shape, size or bagged form. We checked with border protection: she was right.
I decided to be a maverick and risk it. It worked.