"La Hoyada" (the hole)—as locals call La Paz—is almost entirely constructed of unsteady brick and adobe houses clinging to cliffs at the most unexpected and wild places, especially on the remote edges of the rim. Every year, houses fell down during the rainy season. Under these steep conditions, denizens tried walking around as little as possible. This was true also due to the violent reality; walking meant providing opportunities for an attack. I liked walking, and wasn’t ready to give up my daily exercise routines; yet, finding an easily accessible market where I would be able to eat near the dormitory was a sensible step.
That wasn’t a difficult task. Central La Paz was one giant market with stalls occupying most sidewalks. As in medieval cities, people and vehicles share the streets, seldom peacefully. Once in the market, I immediately noticed a sweetish smell, with leafy qualities in it. A sweetish lettuce? Its source was in large bags. Elder ladies strangely dressed, later I learned they call themselves "cholitas," sat behind them with a strange solemnity. Their felt hats belonged to a long gone London; several thick skirts dressed one atop the other gave them an unnatural width. The bags were covered with a small cloth called "tari" which is a small version of the colorful "awayo." The last is used for carrying children, and other weights, around on the mothers’ backs. Atop the tari were a few leaves, hinting what was the content of the whole structure. The leaves look like citrus, slightly rounded and with a deep, dark green upper side. "What’s that," I asked. "Coca" was the answer. Shocked, I left the market running.
Later, I found locals often drink "mate de coca," an infusion prepared out of the leaves, without any other treatment. This last point was fundamental; without further chemical treatment, the leaves do not contain drugs. In Bolivia, the consumption of coca tea and the chewing of the leaves are perfectly legal; my scare in the market was undeserved. The low amounts of alkaloids in the blood after the consumption of coca tea were not high enough to cause addiction or any other of the effects caused by the dangerous chemicals derived from it. Since ancient times, the coca was chewed in the Andean Highlands, most notoriously by Inca messengers running up and down the mountains, since it suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. The last occurred when coca leaves were chewed together with "lejia" (quinoa ashes; many variations exist). The last promote a chemical reaction in the mouth that turns the alkaloids in the leaves active. However, the tea is inoffensive and sweetish even without adding sugar.
However, I wanted a coffee. The type served in the market was of the "destilado" type. It means there was a bottle with coffee extract prepared beforehand; once a coffee was requested, some of the extract was added to a cup and water poured over it. The result was consumed with extraordinary amounts of sugar, apparently to disguise its stunning acidity. Another popular variation was called "sultana," it was prepared by infusing coffee bean husks; the coffee of the poor, those who couldn’t buy even a few coffee beans.
"Mates" were the most popular drinks; these were different from the drink of the same name in Argentina. Here, it referred to herbal infusions. At the stall, there were bunches of herbs the customer can choose from. The most popular options were manzanilla (chamomile), coca, cedron (lemon-like leaves), toronjil (a variety of mint) and others, depending on the season and the creativity of the stall owner. The customer was invited to create his own combinations; tri-mate was a popular mix containing chamomile, coca and anis.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.