My future in Coca leaves

We walked past a long row of shops with blue fascades on Panoramica in El Alto.  Past a young woman grilling corn on smoking coals in the middle of the sidewalk. On the other side of the avenue, an elderly man with a llama was coaxing passersbys to take a photo with his bored pet in exchange for a generous tip.

We entered one of the shops, through a narrow blue door. The room was the size of a garage, with no windows. It was dark inside. A desk lamp on a crammed bookshelf illuminated a small table, covered in a red and black striped tablecloth. A middle-aged man sat on the bed, his protruding belly leaning against the small table. He was wearing a pale black shirt and a blanket wrapped around his waist. He didn’t look like the stereotype gypsy fortune teller I was expecting, with a colorful skirt and a wart on her chin, but more like a handy man watching a football game on the couch. I guess even the fortune tellers are different on this side of the Atlantic.

After a brief exchange with the man, my friend Carmen and I sat on a bench across from him. He scattered a handful of coca leaves on the tablecloth, mumbling some mystical chants under his breath in some foreign language. A few minutes later, he turned his attention to us and pointed a chubby finger at me. He spoke in Spanish and claimed he could see my sadness in the leaves. My sorrows would persist for the next couple of years and there will be a drastic change in my career. He continued with some vague predictions about my romantic and family life that brought me to tears.

I should mention at this point that I am a great sceptic when it comes to fortune tellers, but even a sceptic resorts to extreme measures when desperate. The coca leaves were just a disguise for this man’s talent to read people and my curiosity was just a pretext for needing someone to confront me with what I was not willing to face.

The coca leaves not only vocalized the unspoken, but they also relieved the nausea caused by the thin air. My headaches were cured by drinking coca tea and stashing some leaves on the inside of my cheek for the occasional chew.

La Paz is a bustling city at 3600 meters above sea level, amongst the peaks of the Andes. You can avoid the loud traffic on the wide avenues by strolling through the narrow alleys, between the little shops selling tourists souvenirs at horrendous prices. Or you can buy fruit from a corpulent woman with a traditional colorful scarf wrapped around her shoulders and two long black braids dangling down her back, where they meet the wide skirt tightly bound at her waist.

To get around, you can hitch a ride on one of the small white vans that crowd the streets and stop anywhere for a petty fare. Or you can use the La Paz version of a subway, the Teleferico. A network of cable cars hovering over the city. The glass boxes dangling from thick black wires are a great observation deck from which you can admire the skyscrapers and peer into people’s homes and catch a glimpse of their daily life.


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