Four seasons in one day

Puno, Peru

When we planned this trip, part of the thrill was the thought of stringing the whole thing together – overland from one place to another being so much more intriguing than just flying.

Last week we got to experience the whole thing in one go.

We hiked over the edge of the Bolivian Cordillera Real starting at 4800m altitude and finishing at 1200m. It was quite incredible – from bare rock at the top of the mountains we descended into first grassland then trees and cloud forest and finally down into rampant vegetation at the edge of the Amazon basin.

It really brings home the shape of this continent – the Andes and the Amazon between them define all its major features.

In the process we went from Urban and relatively developed La Paz through tiny (one family) Aymara villages several days from the nearest road. Again the contrast was remarkable – and sums up South America brilliantly.

So Bolivia has proved a reflective point within the trip – time to look back as well as forwards.


One thing I really puzzled over when I lived in Zimbabwe was the confused attitude to Cannabis. It is of course illegal there, yet widespread, and everyone turns a blind eye – even the police smoke it. I’ve always thought since that Western attitudes seem really hypocritical – exporting our own cultural standards as though they are universal norms, to places where Cannabis is the historic drug of the culture.

But I’ve found in South America a far more malign version of this behaviour.

A brief history of coca: It has been part of Andean society for thousands of years, forming an integral part of celebrations and religious ceremony. To understand what it might mean here, try to imagine weddings without wine, or indeed communion.

90+% of rural Bolivians chew coca.

When Europeans arrived the Catholic church deemed it ‘diabolical’ – as they did with most parts of indigenous culture. But this stance was reversed when they found it to be very useful in giving indigenous people the energy to live lives down the silver mines that were to make Spain so rich. 8,000,000 people died in those mines.

As coca became known to the outside world it gained popularity elsewhere – most famously as an ingredient in Coca Cola – which (coincidentally?) rose to prominence during prohibition.

But during the 20th century Western countries criminalised cocaine, and eventually coca was condemned in the 1961 Geneva Convention of the UN – cited as causing the ‘mental slowness’ responsible for Andean poverty. The UN proposes the eradication of coca for the good of mankind.

(To me, the exploitation of all the Andes natural resources by Europeans strikes me as a far likelier cause of Andean poverty).

The result is an eradication programme imposed on countries like Colombia and Bolivia, with stark results.

Unwilling governments are bought with aid, so that Colombia is the 3rd biggest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt (what a shameful list!). In the process the concept of aid is debased.

Local culture is corrupted – someone recently tried to explain to me the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ coca to justify local consumption of ‘good’ coca. ‘Good’ coca apparently reduces hunger, makes you indifferent to discomfort and enables you to function for long periods of time. (Very useful for a forced labour miner!) ‘Bad’ coca… is used by narcos. But it’s all the same thing.

Human rights are undermined. In 1988 Bolivia passed draconian drugs laws to meet the conditions of a 1987 agreement with the USA. Drugs suspects can be held for long periods without trial. Now 80% of Bolivia’s prison population is not convicted of anything. This would not be accepted in a Western country.

In the end countries are destabilised – it would be wrong to blame Colombia’s disintegration as a state on coca, (for that, read a history of the appalling La Violencia – as depressing as human history gets). But the constant source of illicit income has sustained Colombia’s woe. And Bolivia, where 30% of the population are estimated to work in coca production, takes slow steps in the same direction.

And finally, it reinforces terrible perceptions of cultural imperialism. However well George Bush’s exhortations against coca, or Tony Blair’s against Afghan opium (cited as justification for war) are received at home, the ensuing eradication programmes are as well appreciated and understood on the ground as if the Saudis started napalming French vineyards.

Whatever we conclude for our own cultures, the West would do well not to export our ‘problems’ (and they are fundamentally our problems, 50% of cocaine consumption is in the US, and most of the rest in Europe). Nor should we use our wealth to impose our culture on others.

Apart from being ineffective (cocaine production and consumption is increasing), it does massive harm.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the UN doesn’t completely prohibit cocaine production. 30 countries – the ‘legal cocaine club’ – can produce specific quotas. The UK can produce 365kg a year (a kilo a day!). Even New Zealand can produce 17kg. The USA can produce over a tonne. Neither Bolivia nor Peru is in the legal cocaine club.

And wherever you go in Bolivia, you can, of course, buy Coca Cola – trading on the name and the heritage, long after all the coca is gone.}

Next time your government proposes tackling a problem ‘at source’ – be it drugs or immigration – ponder the consequences.

Alex Bicknell Ha Ha Ha.

Its important to be able to laugh at your own misfortune, and more pleasant to laugh at those of others. On that basis, I’d like to share with you my experience last week when some particularly vile insects subjected my ankles to over 150 bites. My ankles ballooned in size and I spent a day in bed, with swollen ankles, feeling drowsy with antihistamine and rather sorry for myself. Still, it’s probably the nearest experience I’ll ever have to being pregnant. Girls – my sympathies!

Ever onward

Reached Peru today. Puno is wrapped in Candlemas – an amazing festival. Crazy costumes and bands throng the streets day and night, rain or shine. More soon…

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