Yesterday I entered a small curio shop in Entre Rios — a village in southern Bolivia. I was thirsty and wanted a break in the day. I asked a girl working behind the counter for a ¬¥¬¥coca¬¥¬¥ and in any other Hispanic country I¬¥ve visted, I would have received a tall, icy glass bottle of sugary refreshment. While I¬¥d nearly kicked my soda habit state-side, in Bolivia the water is parasite ridden and I¬¥ve already gone through too many Immodiums on this short adventure. Instead of handing me the expected Coca Cola, she passed over a small green bag full of leaves. I looked at them for a second before I realized she¬¥d handed me coca leaves — the plant from which cocaine is produced.
It is cuturally acceptable here to chew a large wad of these leaves as though it were chewing tobacco in the big leagues of baseball in the mid 1980s. Yet to get the full effect, you also need alkaline. I¬¥m no chemist and didn¬¥t ask any more questions than I had to, but I nearly fell over from shock when I watched one of the Bolivian surgeons this week stick a handful of leaves and then a small gray stone in his cheek before entering the surgery suite.
According to the Bolivians, coca leaves cure everything from headache to heartache to diabetes and cancer. They love to tell detailed stories of how their coca plantations still send large amounts of ¬¥¬¥legal¬¥¬¥ cocaine to the Americans to be put in Coca Cola. I just nod and smile and keep my thoughts to myself. (These coca leaf thoughts are filed right next to my Evo Morales thoughts — both of which are better expressed with both feet fully planted on tierra firma/Americana.) This trip has been eye-opening and fantastic in so many ways. We accomplished 27 sugeries in three days, helping people who would otherwise have lived in pain for the rest of their days. The patients were young and old, fat and skinny, dark and light skinned, but all exceptionally poor. These are rural farmers who plant what their families can eat and what they hope to sell in the market for a few Bolivianos. You can imagine what an abdominal hernia would do to put a kink in that routine. Gall bladders, hernias and varicose veins were the surgeries du jour. It was shocking at first to be standing next to the surgeons, watching them perform a choreographed dance of elegance that I couldn¬¥t have previously imagined. The blood and gore of it all took a bit to stomach, but by the end I was handing off suture and smiling when the patients came too, gurgling and gasping for breath. This work is awesome.
On a personal note, this trip has already brought me back to earth. Yesterday I met two 26-year-old Bolivian women who were in the hospital maternity ward. One had just given birth to her fourth child, a girl. The other had given birth to her third child, a boy. I looked at these women and their children and couldn¬¥t believe that we were the same age. We couldn¬¥t be any more different. And yet, I bent down and asked one of them if she was a little bit scared and with dark eyes shining, she admitted she was. Even though she¬¥d done this several times before, this wee one at her breast has us both amazed. Sometimes we are all more alike than we immediately see.
Bolivians are a kind, generous people with true national pride. I am enjoying my time in their country.
In a few days I head out to a different rural province to see our public health projects at work. We are fighting Chagas disease in this country. If you haven¬¥t heard of it, I hope you¬¥ll take a second to look it up. It is a horrible parasitic disease that preys on the poor and is endemic in Bolivia. More than 60% of the population is infected and there is no cure. The treatment is too expensive (at just $30) for most.
It will be great to see how we are preventing this disease and helping a few families along the way.
Hasta luego amigos,