In the US, cocaine is associated with frightening images like addiction and violence, but for Peruvian's indigenous cultures, the coca leaf (the plant from which cocaine is derived) is part of a culture of community unity and religious celebration.
In 1860, a German scientist extracted the cocaine alkaloid from coca leaves. His findings instigated the Western obsession with an Andean cultural staple. At first, cocaine was believed to be a medical wonder as a painkiller and a cure for addiction. Even Coca-Cola used it in their soda, claiming their product relieved headaches. Cocaine's use as a recreational drug dates back to musicians in the 1920's and continued into the 1970's party scene when the US actively tried to stop its exportation out of Peru.
Although the use and misuse of cocaine has sparked many military conflicts and social problems in both Peru and the United States, it's important to remember that the Peruvian ritual use of the coca leaves has a long history which continues today. It is a history that is vastly different from that of cocaine usage in the U.S. It's believed that coca has been used in religious practices including burials as far back as 6000 BC. After colonization the Catholic Church banned its use, but the importance of the coca leaves in religious and social life continues. In modern society, some consider the chewing of the coca leaves to be a nasty habit, not unlike cigarette smoking in the US. Others believe it is an essential part of daily life in the Andes, not unlike a coffee break here.
So what exactly do the indigenous people of Peru do with the coca leaves? Some cultures blow them in a ritual called phukuy. The ritual involves making a bundle of leaves, a k'intu, and blowing it a few inches from the mouth while calling upon the spirits. It's important that your prayer includes the Earth, sacred places, and the name of your neighborhood or community. It could also include a request, for a safe trip or better health, for example. Some describe this invocation as the address of those who will receive the power of the coca leaves.
In addition to blowing rituals, coca chewing (Hallpay) is another common cultural practice in Peru. Inviting someone to chew coca is an important social gesture and the ceremony has many rules that vary from region to region. In a group ceremony, the order in which you receive coca leaf bundles depends on your status, gender and age. Generally guests rank higher than hosts, men rank higher than women, and age ranks higher than youth. If possible, if someone offers a k'intu, you return the favor.
The ritual of Hallpay is done about five times a day, usually after meals and during midmorning and afternoon breaks. Unlike a typical American coffee break, these rituals involve prayer and the performance of social gestures by the participants. Some believe the coca chewing focuses the worker on the tasks of the day. The ritual involves slowly adding leaves into a wad in the cheek, then adding llipt'a, a hard ash used to activate the coca's stimulating power. After a forty-five minute chew, the wad is not spat out, but thrown to the ground.
The communion between people through Hallpay, and the connection to the local land and deities through phukuy reflect important values in Andean culture. The coca leaf is considered sacred with an essence that brings people together as well as a connection between humans and the gods. Its use and cultural significance are worlds away from the problems cocaine causes here in the US. Ironically, a plant historically used to bring communities together is tearing communities apart today.
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