Some Catholics might have got the shock of their lives when they opened the Metro newspaper recently and saw this headline: “The Pope plans to ‘do cocaine’ during his trip to South America”.
That, of course, is very far from the truth. When Francis drank coca tea on his flight to Bolivia yesterday he wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, “doing cocaine”.
Coca is, of course, the plant that is used in the manufacture of cocaine. But it has been part of indigenous South American culture since the first century. Inca mummies (sometimes sacrificed young girls) would be buried with coca leaves. The British Museum’s 2014 exhibition, Beyond Eldorado, contained gourds for lime, the catalyst used to activate the leaves when you chew them.
The curative properties of the coca leaf have no commonalities with cocaine. I can personally attest that if you had a cup of mate de coca (coca leaf infusion) right now, it would be about as stimulating as an Americano.
When I spent two months in Peru I came across many native Peruvians with fist-sized bolos – parcels of coca leaves that are often left in the mouth for hours, broken down with saliva and bicarbonate (an alternative to lime). They took it to help them go about their daily work, rest and play.
Pope Francis will be aware that the coca leaf was considered sacred in indigenous culture. In Arequipa, Peru, I met a professional mountaineer who allowed me to rest in his house, where he had two tents (assembled indoors) so he could sleep protected from the wintry cold.
He told me that he had been the one to discover Inca mummies buried on the El Misti volcano, which glowers over the town of Arequipa. The mummies were people who had been sacrificed to Apu, the god of the mountain, with a blow to the head after anaesthesia brought on by chewing the coca leaf.