mate

My First Illegal Tea

There is an unassuming leaf from a high-altitude South American country that turned 1970s America upside-down. It wasn’t the leaf itself that was the problem, but rather what was in the leaf. At first, this principle alkaloid was extracted for medicinal purposes. That is, until it was determined – like everything else – it was habit forming. While the leaf itself was “mostly harmless”, what could be extracted from several leaves ruined lives. But try telling that to the upper half of an entire continent.

The consumption of the coca leaf in and around the Andes region dates back nearly three thousand years. Earliest reported case of consumption was around 500 A.D. Exhumed mummies even had traces of the leaves on them. Its primary function was to alleviate altitude sickness and promote alertness. By the 16th century, coca was introduced to Europe as a cognitive supplement, popularly in the form of cocawine. That spearheaded further extraction of the primary alkaloid – cocaine – into other related products in later centuries; including a certain beloved soft drink.

Of course, the rest is history. Cocaine – or fancifully known in scientific circles as benzoylmethylecgonine (I can’t even say it right) – was made illegal and with good reason. In its raw form, it was addictive and damaging. The coca leaf was banned in the U.S. and other United Nations countries. Aside from portions South America that generally didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Which brings us to the present…or rather…to me…

In an unassuming hotel on an unassuming May day, a cheaply-vested curmudgeon (me) was working the front desk. Occasionally, a friendly – and by all MILF regulations, “hawt!” – woman in her late thirties would come down to get her mail. She sometimes regaled the poor-seeming staff with her recent globetrotting excursions. Her latest was a stint in Guatamala to build a hospital. Such a humanitarian.

While I was speaking with her, the subject of Machu Picchu, Peru came up. She mentioned that she visited there at one point. I drilled her with a few questions. (But honestly, that wasn’t the only “drilling” I was thinking of. Sue me, I’m male.) She said it was breathtaking.

I said, “I would love to go there and drink mate de coca [coca leaf tea]. Y’know, for ‘altitude sickness’.” I exaggerated with douche-y air-quotes.

“Oh, I have some of that,” she replied.

“Wait, wha-?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve got a few bags of it,” she continued. “Would you like some?”

I nodded an emphatic “Hell YES!”

The next day, two teabags of Guatamalan-packaged mate de coca and three of some black tea were in my possession.

It took me about a month, though, to muster up the nerve to try it. There never seemed to be a good reason or rhyme. Plus, I wanted to photograph the momentous occasion; my first “illegal” tea. No, I wasn’t worried about getting high off the stuff. After all, I knew it took almost a garbage bag-worth of coca leaf to produce one gram of cocaine. Frankly, I just didn’t know what to expect. The time finally arrived after – of all things – a bedbug scare.

I am the unfortunate owner of a very loving, very cuddly, but very hairy cat. The two disadvantages to this are thus: (1) She is always shedding. Always. Regardless of season. (2) She is prone to visitors of the insectoid kind.

My brother/roommate called me one night while I was at work claiming he found a bedbug on my fuzzy missus. He also relayed what I had to do to secure my room, since she always slept there. Instructions included doing laundry, taking a steam iron to all mattresses, delousing my comforter in the dryer, and vacuuming thoroughly. It was going to be a long night.

When I got off shift, I told him I’d get started right after a warm cup of tea. At first, I aimed to imbibe something caffeinated, but – while I love my tea – it didn’t pack the necessary wallop I would need for the task ahead. Then my eyes darted to the teabags. It was as good a time as any to find out how much of a punch coca packed.

Coca leaf is loaded with alkaloids. Two fo the principle ones are the titular cocaine (as mentioned above), and another interesting stimulant – nicotine. If anything was going to keep me awake, it would be this tea. I brewed it up.

For the purposes of examination, I tore open the bag to get a better look at the contents. Par for course for a teabag-cut herbal, the leaves were mere fannings. Color-wise, they resembled yerba mate, sort of a sandy green.

On splashdown, the steam that emanated from the fannings was most abbhorrent. It smelled like bongwater. I sincerely hoped this wasn’t a sign of the beverage to come. Er…not that I know what bongwater tastes like or anything. Heh…heh…

I had no real brewing instructions to go on with the coca, so I went with a typical default for any herbal tea; boiling water, six-minute steep. It colored up rather quickly to a soupy green that looked very close to a stinging nettle or yerba mate infusion. To an innocent bystander, the beverage resembled a relaxing herbal “tea” like chamomile.

At first, I thought as much. I sat down in a couch and took my first dreaded sip. I didn’t die, break out into hives or shakes, nor did I start chewing at my clothing. The liquor tasted almost exactly like yerba mate by way of a lemony herb with an unusually sweet finish. On the forefront, it was bitter and leafy, but it settled into what – for all intense and purposes – seemed like a perfectly cozy cup of tea.

Then there was a shift…

My thought process exactly: Hrm, this isn’t so bad. It’s a bit vegetal but sweet. It’s also kind of relaxieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHEHEHEHEHEEEEE!

I didn’t see it coming. The experience is hard to describe, so I’ll merely hold up this poorly-drawn, poorly-photographed representation to give you a better idea.

That’s how I felt. To say I was awake would be like comparing a comatose monkey with a three-toed sloth. Does that make sense? Not really. But that echoes my feelings on the matter. I didn’t feel caffeinated, alert or high. I felt like I could seamlessly walk through walls, vibrating the entire way.

Until five in the morning

In that period of time, I vacuumed and steamed both mattresses, washed all blankets and clothes, swept, and straightened. The biggest achievement was my closet. I reorganized it. All of it. It went from a pile of clothes to categorized and itemized stacks. Given more time, I probably could’ve cataloged them by purchase year. I didn’t just feel awesome. I was Awesome-personified!

Except for the inevitable crash. The surge of productivity downgraded to something I hadn’t expected – rampant paranoia. Once the basic de-bedbugging was done, I sat down at the computer and began looking up more information on coca leaf. Big mistake.

In my digging, I learned that the benzoylmethylecgonine not only stayed in your system, but it could produce a positive reading on drug tests. And remained that way for up to ninety days. The leaf only contained trace amounts of the controversial component, but – like poppy seed muffins – it could change a life. I read testimonials about soldiers discharged for positive urinalyses after consuming the drink. I started freaking out.

An hour later, I quelled my fears with a cup of chamomile. The neurotic inner monologue receded to a dull hum, and I settled into an (albeit fitful) sleep. My dreams were also something else…too bad I don’t remember them. I think one involved sentient cheeseburgers.

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

I tried mate de coca one other time, and the stimulant results were less erratic. In the end, while the cognitive alertness aspect was indeed badass, I determined that acquiring more wasn’t worth the risk. Even the taste didn’t warrant future pursuit. I’m sure it’s beneficial in many ways, but there are better (tasting) herbals out there. And that’s all I have to say about that…

…Uh…Yer Honor.

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Friday, November 12th, 2010 Steep Stories 5 Comments

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