Riverdave Owen

February 18, 2015


     It was 1993 in the city of Cusco, Peru, the Pre-Columbian capital of the Inca Nation, that I drank my first cup of coca tea.  I was amazed how effective it was at reducing the dizziness and nausea I experienced as I walked those steep cobblestone streets at altitudes in excess of two miles.   This was my second successful encounter with New World botanical medicine.  Two years before I was initiated into this arena in my hometown of Durham after watching cups of sassafras tea quickly dispel inflammation in my leg after being bitten by a copperhead.


     "Plants really are amazing medicines," I thought to myself as I stood before several heaps of coca leaves in the public market of Cusco.  It was the last afternoon before the departure of my ecotour group at the end of a two week adventure in Peru.  I had been drinking coca tea and chewing leaves regularly for the past several days.  Now I was determined to purchase a kilogram of leaves to bring back home, hoping this traditional remedy might prove to be good medicine for my windy constitution.  


     I squatted in front of an elderly woman in brightly colored Andean dress, smiled, held up my right index finger and requested "kilo por favor!"  With teeth full of gold, she smiled back, picked up a clear plastic bag and began to scoop up the dried green leaves with her hands from the burlap mat on the ground. 


     It was a special moment for me as I was actually purchasing on site what I had previously known only as an infamous and forbidden substance.  Oh how satisfying it felt to openly and flagrantly flaunt my own American culture's disdain for this plant!  Reaching for that brimming bag of leaves that this daughter of Eve was now offering me, I felt like Adam in the Garden of Eden. In exchange I placed several dollars in her hand and had myself a deal of a lifetime!


     But I quickly noted that my deal was actually bigger than I had counted on.  A kilogram of dried leaves is a lot of plant material!  I was determined to return home with a sufficient amount for personal use and to share with family and friends, so I double wrapped it with another larger plastic bag.  That volume just barely compressed into the corner of my travel luggage and the next morning I was off with my prize of traditional Andean medicine.


     My next concern was how to explain my controversial cargo to U.S. customs officials at the Miami Airport.  I had heard that the  possession of a small amount of coca leaves is usually not an issue. The ratio of of plant material needed to produce the illegal cocaine alkaloid is 330 to 1.  If fully processed, my kilogram of leaves might produce 3 grams of cocaine.  


     But of course I had no experience in using the harsh chemical solvents necessary to extract the alkaloid, much less the desire to ever use such an unnatural concentrated chemical extract. I hoped that if I just openly declared my tea leaves in Miami, the worst that would happen would be to have them tossed into the plant recycle bin while I just walked on through.  


     At the Miami airport my small band of ecotourists was quickly directed by custom officials into the "green" line that did not include an option for declarations.  I think it was the gracious, smiling presence of our travel companion Margaret Nygard that made the difference. She seemed to always step forward and win the immediate favor of border officials wherever we traveled.  On an even deeper level, Margaret herself consistently embodied the gracious and lively spirit of the coca plant, whom the indigenous peoples of the Andes honor as Mama Coca.  


     I had learned from our Peruvian guides that coca leaves, besides being used in teas for altitude sickness (sorojche), are chewed by Andeans as a stimulant to combat hunger, thirst and fatigue.  This provides a huge benefit for natives as they trek across the highest mountain range in the New World.  


     Modern science has also confirmed the nutritional benefits of coca for the limited diet of these potato-loving indigenous people who live at the upper elevation limits of human habitation. So how was I to use this herb in my hometown along the Eno River?


     Back home I quickly discovered that chewing the mildly bitter leaf of the coca shrub was a very pleasant experience.  Unlike coffee, the effects of the coca leaf rise very gently, appearing as what I can only describe as a "sunny spot" in my brain.  During extended outdoor walks I feel an alertness that is not forcibly driven, but simply "brightening."  And unlike coffee's roughly one hour high and then subsequent depressive hangover, Mama Coca leaves my body so gently that I never even noticed her departure.  This new herb is indeed proving to be an enlightening addition to my local outdoors experience.


     I kept my kilogram of coca leaves in two clear one gallon jars.  I placed them prominently on my kitchen table to remind me of the beauty of my Andean experience.  The leaves retained their flavor and potency quite well.  We are often reminded to dispose of herbs after one year to insure their freshness.  But as long as they waft a fresh aroma, I may keep my plant material indefinitely.  


     Despite sharing my leaves generously with friends in the years that followed, I noticed that my coca leaves replenished themselves in their jars spontaneously.  This curious phenomenon began to puzzle me to no end and became an amusement to my friends who often inquired about the state of my coca leaves.  


     One day while speaking publicly about my bottomless coca jars, a stranger asked me afterwards if I would share some leaves for him to work with.  I decided to oblige and gave him half my stash.  I was curious to see if my coca leaves could rebound from such a sudden depletion.  They did not, but as I began to work through my last jar, it became harder and harder to reach the bottom! 


     In 2013, twenty years after I brought home my first coca leaves, I met someone who was soon to travel to Peru.  I asked her if she would be so kind as to bring me back one pound of coca leaves.  Not wanting her to risk the hassle of U.S. customs agents upon her arrival, I encouraged her to just declare the leaves when she arrived in Miami and hope for the best.  To my surprise she showed up in Durham with a pound of dried coca leaves.  


     Wow, was I excited!  Even though my twenty year old leaves were still viable, I decided to present them as an offering to the Eno River that passes behind my house and just start over and refill my jar with the fresh ones.   


     In 1999 I spent a month in Bolivia studying with a local shaman trained in the Andean tradition.  He showed me how to pray with coca leaves, placing them whole among stones or in the bark of trees. In my own experience along the Eno River, I have discovered that as I chew the leaves on a walk I often formulate a prayer.  Then I begin to look for a tree along my path that has a crack in the bark where I can deposit my quid of coca.  I then repeat my prayer under the tree, leaving the masticated coca leaves inside the tree and walk on.  


     Some may rightfully question how an herbal tradition from such a distant land could possibly have significance here in Durham.  My reply is that we live in an age of remarkable interchange of both ideas and goods.  I travel primarily to learn from other cultures of ways for enhancing my own experience of life on this fair planet.  


     Coca is not a tropical herb, but one that grows in South America's temperate climate zones similar to mine. I welcome Mama Coca in her natural leafy form as an important plant teacher.  From her new abode deep inside my bottomless jar, she continues to teach me ways to align myself with the natural world …