Travel Drugs

Stimulating Chaw: Coca, Khat, Betel

I’ll start with the obvious omission: tobacco. Of all the world’s leaves that one can chew for stimulating effect, this one is the most aggrandized. Even if no tobacco grows in our country, we’ve still likely seen some Hollywood images of someone vile spitting the juice from tobacco chewing. Usually in the Wild West. Usually the bad guys. 

Or maybe we’ve been exposed to the negative propaganda designed at curbing a public health menace. Tobacco chewing probably carries the highest risk of any of the majorly chewed leaves around the world. It also carries the weight of a robust, regulated industry with market power, meaning that these leaves are a part of the commercial process. When one buys chewing tobacco, one is buying a whole other host of chemistry intended to make the product sell better, last longer on the shelf, and interact with the production machinery more smoothly.

This is not the case with other chaw, which is mostly produced too cheaply to be anything but organic.

I’m starting here with tobacco because it, hopefully, shows the extensive commercial network, and the vigorous social narrative that can exist around something as simple as a handful of leaves.

I’m also not actually including tobacco – because guess what? I’ve never chewed it.


Coca Leaf
Coca leaves with llipt’a

Coca. The incas revered this plant so dearly that they referred to it as Mama Coca. It is the mother of all medicinal plants. 

I’ll actually not start with chewing it, because that was not my first encounter with coca. Nor was it through the lines of cocaine. My first coca experience was thanks to Coca-Cola. After all, I am a USAmerican. I can’t quite remember when my first taste of Coke was, but I think it was around the age of 4.

To this day, the flavor of Coca-Cola contains coca leaves. We all know the origin story I am sure, Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, trying to find a cure for morphine addiction. The mixture of soda, alcohol, kola nut, and coca – served warm – was the key. It takes alkaline substances to release the cocaine from coca to be consumed orally. Or, you know, alcohol also can help get that cocaine into the bloodstream, which was Pemberton’s solution. Whiskey was one of the original ingredients of Coca-Cola. ‘Merica. Built on booze.

Pemberton, like Freud, addicted many to cocaine in the name of kicking opiates. He also died of stomach cancer.

The recipe for coca-cola has changed significantly over the years, but the one thing that has remained is their use of coca. In the 1980’s, Coke introduced “New Coke”, which was a formula that did not include coca. People wouldn’t have it. They not only wouldn’t buy it, they PROTESTED. And so Classic Coke was brought back immediately and has stayed ever since.

Coca-Cola has the only legal import license of coca into the United States. They import tons of it per year, de-cocainize it, sell the cocaine to the pharmaceutical industry, and use the leaves in their flavoring. No, I am not kidding. This is true. 

You can imagine the games that Coke’s union has to play to secure its supply. They’re no different from any other narco, bloodily fighting to exploit farmers growing a crop that has been declared illegal by many of the world’s powers.

Coca in Cusco
Coffee, tea, or coca?

My second experience of coca was of course through cocaine. Luckily, I’m not a big fan of cocaine, and only will do it if it has a chance of being pure.

The first time I chewed coca was in the United States. I order it online from one of the many grey area sources that will pretend that it’s de-cocainized but send real coca leaves, intact. These vary in quality and potency. The best effect comes from dried coca leaves, not too old. There’s four different kinds of coca, and the official story is that these don’t matter. But I think they do, and that novogranatense is where it’s at.

To chew coca, it’s best to use something alkaline in the little bundle of leaves you chew. This is usually referred to by South Americans as llipt’a. I like the chunks of limestone that I ordered with the coca leaves, and think they work the best. But in a pinch: baking soda does the trick. So does playa dust.

I chew coca until I figure it out, at home. It doesn’t take me long to realize that it’s possible to get hundreds of times more cocaine in one’s system by chewing rather than snorting pure cocaine or smoking crack.

The danger involved in most drugs lives in the same place as the high. It’s the speed at which the drug crosses the blood-brain barrier that determines both. Chewing is a slow delivery mechanism. A dose that would cause someone serious issues snorted won’t have the same damage slowly administered via chaw.

I also learn that it’s possible to go to far. Jitters, itches, and a racing heart means a rough road. You can take the coca out of your mouth, but by the time you’ve gotten to that point you’re still on your way up before you’ll go down. It leaves the system slowly as well, when administered orally. 

I don’t chew much coca after this initial period – outside of Burning Man. A few years at Burning Man I chew the entire time. Every day, most of the day. It makes backbreaking work easier. Hunger, thirst, extreme environments.

Hay Coca
We have ice, we have coca

Mama Coca soothes all.

And of course, there is cocaethylene. The drug that can only be created in the human bloodstream. It’s what happens when you mix cocaine and alcohol. They aren’t synergistic as much as ingredients in a meal. A true third drug is created by taking these two. It is more toxic than either alcohol or cocaine. And I love it.

Cocaine changes the way that alcohol is metabolized, meaning that one can usually drink a lot more alcohol without getting drunk, and without hangover or ill effect. It’s detoxing via a different pathway.

Word to the wise: Do not stop chewing coca when you’ve been drinking more than your body can tolerate without it. Stop drinking long before you stop chewing. Otherwise you might end up puking your guts out in the middle of the desert with kind, bipolar, Russian osteopaths that got you piss drunk in the first place, then put you to bed, take off all your bling and jewelry and collars for you, and leave you sparkling water to drink when you wake up the next day. Or maybe that’s just me.

Also – do not run out of coca after chewing coca for a week straight, or else you may potentially find yourself crawling on your hands and knees in a tight vehicle picking pieces of leaves and other debris out of a dusty RV carpet while you could be outside at Burning Man. Or maybe that’s just me.

A friend of mine visits Peru to see shamans and, on my off the cuff request, brings me back a grocery bag full of fresh coca.

The conversation when they are seized at customs because he declares them goes something like this.

“Give them back to him.”

“But they are a controlled substance.”

“I know, but he declared them.”

Amazingly, these leaves make it through US customs and into my hands, where I learn that chewing them fresh doesn’t do it. I make a drying rack and use calcium chloride and they’re fine once dry.

Coffee, tea, or coca?
Coca Tea

The phase of coca for Burning Man wanes after a few years and I forget about the practice until the plane sets down at 4500 meters in El Alto, Bolivia. Here I meet Mama Coca in tea form in the cloak of altitude relief the moment I leave the plane. 

Coca leaves

It isn’t long before I visit the wholesale coca market and come away with a bag of coca of my own. I still have leaves when I depart Bolivia, because after I adjust to the altitude they no longer appeal to me. I leave them with some grateful Bolivians.

Coca Machucada
Coca Machucada

My second trip to Bolivia I experiment with different preparations of coca, but again quickly lose interest. These days I will only chew coca if I have medicinal reason.

The Bolivians say that Mama Coca isn’t for the white man. That it was a gift from the gods to the Bolivian people. That white people’s hearts are too brittle to take it. Considering that cocaine causes tachycardia and Coca-Cola causes heart disease: they’re not wrong.


What does Khat do to you?

I have only chewed khat once, thus far, in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I don’t so much like the city. Not so much khat either. Just not into anything Ethiopian, really, except, of course, the food.


Buying khat I am almost pickpocketed, but my partner puts one of the teens in a choke-hold and I elbow the other in the throat. Undaunted, I come away with khat.

Khat seller, Addis Ababa
Khat seller, Addis Ababa

It’s a leaf that has to be chewed fresh. The fresher the better, but 48 hours is ultimately the shelf life for good khat. It has to be consumed within two days of it being picked. Due to this, khat has one of the most robust, complicated distribution networks of any crop in the world. It’s Ethiopia’s second largest foreign exchange earner, after coffee, of course. Coffee originated in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is made of stimulants. Khat and coffee are essential to the culture. The vast majority of the world’s khat is grown in Ethiopia, but there is demand for it all over Northeastern Africa, and in Yemen. Even throughout all the strife and wars in Yemen, the khat channels continue flowing. They have to. These cultures are powered by massive stimulant use.

Even during Covid, the supply is uninterrupted. Khat is declared essential.

The market in Addis Ababa is the largest open air market in the world. Much of it is devoted to the distribution of Khat. These days there are increasing amounts of khat that are grown with the use of DDT. One has to be careful what one gets.

Khat market
Khat market

Ethiopia is land-locked, in an ever more complicated struggle over water with Egypt and its own people. It’s currently, while I am in Addis, the middle of the Tigray genocide. I’m made sick by being in Ethiopia during it.

The khat doesn’t help. What does khat do you you? It’s a tense, buzzy high. It’s supposed to be mixed with caffeine for a synergistic boost, but I don’t have the stomach for it. I chew until I feel it, my heart racing, senses heightened, but in the end – I’d rather be sober so that I can be hungry and eat Ethiopian food. It is the best of Ethiopia.

I don’t like the taste of khat. It is too vegetal for me, and the euphoric elements of the high are too mild compared to the stimulant effects and so it just isn’t my bag.

My Ethiopian friend tells me stories of getting shot at while driving a van full of khat into Somalia, avoiding official routes and skimming a good chunk of money out of the stream by pouring their hometown crop into the overall sluice of khat that runs through Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, Yemen, and even Israel

Perhaps that’s it, it is the water of these places. Like coca, khat suppresses thirst. Makes any water that one has go farther. Slower absorption, more retention. Stimulated but not sweaty. A calm buzz. In land-locked Ethiopia, khat is the water that flows from the source through human channels of back-breaking transport across five countries to slake the thirst of both the workers and the indolent.

Khat carrier
Khat carrier

So what is the active ingredient in khat? Cathine and cathinone. In some places, these are derogatorily known as:

“Bath Salts.” 

Having gotten this nickname from being extracted and sold, legally, out of head shops in the United States under the legal guise of being bath salts. A strange market loophole, that was closed, eventually, due to press hysteria and misattribution of violent crimes to the cathinones.

They are no more violence-inducing than any other stimulant. After all, a giant swath of the world lives on them. Daily. 


Betel Nut

My first time chewing betel is not in Southeast Asia. It’s at Fruit and Spice Park in South Florida. This is a private collection of exotic fruit and spice from around the world, growing happily in the subtropical climate. The park is “eat at your own risk”, so when the guide mentions that the plant we have just passed is betel, I jump off the back of the cart and stuff leaves into my mouth.

It is a steely high. Feels intrusive and penetrating. I think a lot about the wars in Southeast Asia and how this drug fueled so many wins. My opinions on stimulants begin to coalesce.

But these are just the leaves. This is not the full picture, which is the areca nut plus the betel leaves. For this, I have to go to Southeast Asia.

I have been to almost every country in Southeast Asia, and the story of betel chewing that hits me hardest is that of a Vietnamese woman that the US forces called “Apache”.

During the Vietnam/American War, there were many female platoon leaders on the Vietnamese side. It’s part of their win. It’s part of what people mean by “guerilla warfare”. Women weren’t expected in combat. These naive US GI Joes didn’t know what to make of a woman holding a baby in one arm and an M-16 in the other.

Apache was known for sexual torture. She would find the youngest American soldiers she could, and string them up upside-down as close to enemy lines as possible. She’d blame them for being in Vietnam to rape women. And then, she would torture them, so that their screams would be heard by the American soldiers

All the while, she would be chewing betel. Her whole platoon, all male, also chewing. Hopped up and salivating, with teeth black from the chaw – she would take a machete and castrate the US soldier, only to immediately cut him down and send him running back to his regiment. The game was to see if he would bleed out before he arrived.

And so, quite frequently, thanks to the betel-fueled terrorism of Apache, the US forces would see one of their men frantically running towards them with a gaping wound where his penis should be.

50,000 American lives. 2.3 million Vietnamese lives.

Betel Seller
Betel Seller on the Yangon Circular Train

The next time, and really the first time, I chew betel: I am in Myanmar. It is January, 2020, and it is lucky timing. The country seems flourishing and opening, with no hint of what is to come just a year later. Myanmar is rife with betel chewers. Every street is stained red from the spit.

Betel stains
Betel Stains

Here the areca nut is mixed with slaked lime and placed in a betel leaf. It creates a little parcel to chew on. Often tobacco is added in, but I specifically request it omitted when I buy my chaw.

I’ve never been anywhere with more people chewing as in Yangon. There are betel sellers on every corner, and on the Yangon Circular Train, which is truly the best of Yangon. An achingly slow train that circles the city in three hours and costs pennies to ride.

The active ingredient in betel/areca is arecoline, which is similar to nicotine, and is carcinogenic. Betel chewing carries the same risk as tobacco chewing. It also has a long history of use in many regions of the world. It’s not going anywhere.

I don’t like it. It’s difficult to chew and the taste is peppery and irritating when swallowed accidentally. I find the need to spit more often than with any other leaf, which explains the sidewalk stains of Myanmar.

Betel stains
More Betel Stains

All of these leaves aren’t really chewed as much as sucked. Sure you give them an occasional chew, but it’s mostly about holding them in your cheek and allowing the active ingredients to slowly leech into your system via your mouth tissue.

I’m in Myanmar during the Rohingya genocide, just as I am in Ethiopia during the Tigray genocide. 

My heart is with Myanmar

But it is one year later, after leaving Myanmar, when there is a military coup that ends the brief gust of freedom for all those that live there, that I put together the ties between all stimulants: they are tools of war. The areas where people regularly use stimulating chaw are all areas of massive and particularly gruesome bloodshed.

Every war in the last 100 years was fought under the influence of stimulants on all sides involved.

Coca, khat, and betel enhance the senses, but not all of our senses. With each swallow of stimulant-filled juice it quenches some bit of basic humanity. We become for them but killing machines. Chewing on and up life.

The well of life doesn’t allow us to borrow on the future. Stimulants drain the aquifer. When we pour more energy into our senses, we’re taking debit on life itself. We are using up more of our life energy in a shorter period of time. Or maybe it’s just me.

What goes up must come down.

My trip to the wholesale coca market in La Paz, Bolivia

Another country torn by genocide

Another place where betel is chewed


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