I am not a Quechua native and I did not grow up in the cultural context in which it is common to chew or, better said, do the hallpa of coca leaves. Nevertheless in every moment of my life coca leaves have been present.
Now that I think about it, my mother grew up in the valleys of Paucartambo Province, in Kosñipata. These valleys along the Tono and Toayma rivers are famous in Cusco’s history for their production of coca. I also learned to appreciate and respect coca leaves thanks to my step-father. He stayed very close to the principles of the k’intu (three leaves placed on top of each other). These are munay, yachay, and llankay, which mean feeling, wisdom, and work.
Despite this background, I never had the habit of chewing coca. But at some moment it became part of my way of life. I now chew coca all the time, despite my wife’s complaints–she does not like the idea that I walk around smiling with bits of green leaf stuck to my teeth.
Now that I chew coca I have become aware of several things. There are people who do not like to see you with a wad of coca on the side of your mouth. Of course there are also people who think it is cool, since every one in Cusco knows about the coca leaf. There are people who speak to me in Quechua when they see me chewing the leaf even though, if truth be said, I know nothing of that language. I can only tell them in passing that not every person who chews coca is a Quechua speaker.
I just remembered where my passion for chewing coca was born. It was in my trip to the jungle, to the native communities located in the upper jungle, what we call the eyebrow of the jungle. There people chew coca while working in the fields, during their breaks, after lunch, and after dinner, at dawn, and so on. They chew anytime they have a bit of free time, during work, or conversation. There is no ritual there like in the highlands where you blow on the coca leaves to the mountains, or give coca leaves to the earth mother, the Pachamama. No. They grow it and consume it without any ritual concern. Their only worry is to have enough coca for the day. They say “May you not lack coca, nor llipta, nor chamiro”. Llipta is ball made from ash you chew with the coca leaver and chamiro is a strip of bark. Both ingredients, from my perspective, make the experience of hallpa gourmet.
Another interesting thing I learned as a new hallpador, chewer of coca, is that coca is shared. Let me tell you three stories.
I was sitting on a bench waiting for my bus when a woman came close and said “will you share some coca with me?” “Of course”, I said and she took a hand-full of leaves. She thanked me and we exchanged a few more words before she left.
Another time an elderly woman begged from me on a Cusco street. She saw me walking with my coca and said “coca, coca”. I thought she was asking me for money. As a result I walked by quickly saying the classic words of denial in Quechua “manan kanchu qolqe” (I don’t have any money). Then I realized that she was asking me for coca. So I turned back and gave her a large handful, along with some tobacco. She thanked me. We spoke a little bit and I left.
My third anecdote. I was on a native community of the lower Urubamba River. While we hallpared coca in the door of a home, a Matsiguenka youth who was not from the community came up to me and asked if I could give him some. This was the first time a Matsiguenka had asked me for coca in the lower Urubamba since they do not have the custom of hallparing. I was surprised and later learned that he worked for the oil company and coca leaves had become an important part of his life as a trochero, someone who opens new troches, or dirt roads. He had developed this habit that they call a “vice”. He could not resist, as a result, the temptation of asking me to share mine with him. Of course I gave him some and we spent a long time talking. He even came back the next day to ask for more.
These three stories allow me to pose again that when one has coca he has the moral obligation of offering it to others, of sharing it. He should not sell it, he cannot sell it. He also cannot deny a request for coca leaves. It does not matter who asks. Anyone can ask you for coca leaves.
A close friend of mine and I used to say “I would never ask a stranger to share his coca cola with me but if I see him with coca leaves I would not hesitate.” There is an implicit agreement in Cusco that coca leaves are for sharing.
Of course as a city dweller, without any land on which to grow coca, I have to buy these important leaves in the market. They represent an important part of my weekly budget. But that does not motivate me to stop sharing them with other people who ask me for some. I think the principle is that you buy material goods so that they can become ritual goods available for open (generalized) reciprocity, as we say in sociological terms.
In terms of the philosophy of reciprocity, I think the principle is that the more you give the more, you receive. In reality you are not giving the leaves to the person who asks but to the universe so that it can return an increase to you later through other hallpadores, coca chewers.
I think that this principle is applicable to the Island of Taquile in Puno, Peru. There the men carry their ch’uspa, their small bag, for coca leaves. Whenever they encounter others along their way they share coca with them and vice a versa. It is a form of greeting. On that island no one grows coca, it is too high in altitude and is in the middle of Lake Titicaca. There is no doubt they have to buy coca, and still they share it.
I am not sure, but I continue to walk around with my bag of coca in Cusco. Perhaps I will meet more people or maybe some will look at me badly. Maybe they will speak to me in Quechua, or maybe they will think I am a long-haired hippy. Or maybe my new vice just comforts me on lots of levels.
N.B. This article was published originally on the blog Relatos desde Cusco and is published here in translation with permission from its author.