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August 7th, 2003
Coca and the Congressman
Filmmaker Notes by Jon Alper

People make a big deal about Denver being the Mile High City – well, La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, is more than two miles high.

If you are a tough old buzzard like me – too insensitive and stupid to notice – the elevation might not affect you. But when we got off the plane, most of our team was gasping for air. One member of our crew got a very serious case of altitude sickness.

While we were huffing and puffing, elderly women were practically jogging by with 100 pound packs on their backs. The locals have had years to acclimate, and many also stuff wads of coca (the source of cocaine) leaves in their mouths to give them strength and to ward off sickness.

They weren’t collapsing and throwing up like our sea-level New Yorkers. When the doctor came to our hotel he ordered bed rest and coca tea, which is legal and widely used in La Paz.

Coca is a central component of Bolivia’s culture and economy. The indigenous population (80 percent of the country) has been growing, selling and consuming coca for centuries.

I may have ducked out on the elevation sickness, but my stomach pains played a role in our documentary. When I arrived in Bolivia, I had just finished working in Iraq where I had suffered through a terrible case of food poisoning. For five days I hadn’t been able to eat, drink or stay out of the bathroom.

I met up with Evo Morales at a rally in the coca growing region. We had heard he tends not to like gringos but he seemed to think I was O.K. – until lunch time.

When Evo offered me a muddy-looking bowl of mystery meat I pointed to my already abused stomach and declined.

He was insulted. For the rest of the trip he sneered at the reporter (me) who had been unwilling to share a peasant’s meal.

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