Over the past forty-eight hours, I have consumed more tea than I ever knew existed. There’s té de coca (coca tea), té pura (pure tea), té de anís (anise flower tea), té de hierba Luisa (lemon beebrush tea)… The only type that I have yet to sample is té de manzanilla (chamomile tea). And I’m 99.9% certain that I will get around to that too.
So why are you being treated to the Tale of the Ten Teas – the Chamomile Chronicles – the Legend of the Stewed Leaves? Well, in my continuing quest for cultural immersion, I’ve found that tea is an essential component of Peruvian culture. Coca tea, in particular, is famous as a remedy for altitude sickness. It was actually the first sign of welcome that we received upon arriving in Cusco. Around 5:00 am yesterday, we stepped off a red-eye flight from Lima, collected our luggage, and boarded a bus designated for the Peru-SIT students. Shortly after we had gotten settled, Mily (the program coordinator) passed around white styrofoam cups of some steaming liquid. “Es mate de coca (It’s coca tea),” she explained. I examined the contents of my cup suspiciously. The liquid inside was clear and tinged with yellow. “Coca,” I mentally reminded myself, “is different from cocoa. One’s leaves are made into tea; the other’s beans are made into chocolate.” I had just decided to take a sip when the bus’ wheels jerked over the uneven pavement. My té de coca splashed all over me. “Well, that’s one way to get warmed up,” I thought sullenly.
The tea itself was satisfying in its warmth, though relatively tasteless. I didn’t venture to sample it again until just after 1:00 pm, when we went out for lunch. I was standing in line for the buffet when – suddenly – altitude sickness hit me like a tidal wave. The world grew blurry, my mind went numb, and I could barely muster the energy to direct my legs towards the table. Mily caught me before I fell. She guided me back to my seat, where I promptly blacked out.
When I regained consciousness, Mily and Alex (the program director) were standing over me looking concerned. Panic pervaded the faces of my friends at the table. A waitress placed a mug of coca tea in front of me. “Fue la altitud (It was the altitude),” Mily explained. “Toma el mate de coca. Te va a ayudar (Drink the coca tea. It will help you),” Alex added. I nodded shakily and brought the mug to my lips. The tea was warm, watery, and still completely tasteless – but it helped me come back to reality. There’s something to be said for traditional remedies – and helpful people in moments of crisis. Alex and Mily, in case I haven’t said it enough, thank you.
I haven’t experienced another fainting spell since yesterday. Regardless, I’ve continued the habit of drinking tea. Each break between information sessions inevitably turns into a mini tea party – minus the Victorian lace doilies and angry American revolutionaries.
Now, this isn’t a sermon on the “supernatural healing powers” of coca tea. Nor is it an ominous warning about altitude sickness. It’s a story about how the effectiveness of some ancient traditions can carry over into modern times. Coca leaves have been used to remedy altitude sickness for ages – and they continue to serve the same purpose today, arguably just as well as the tiny white pills that I was prescribed back in North Carolina. Modern medicine, meet ancient remedy.