From Alabama to Colombia: On Coke

Travel Features Alabama
Share Tweet Submit

Here in Colombia, anywhere I go, I am more than a McNair.

I’m a millionaire.

The number of pesos per dollar—2,240 as I write—raises a black column of smoke over my calculator. Monthly rent for my apartment? I pay 2,200,000 pesos. A U.S. day trader forced to confront so many zeroes would rip off his Armani suit and go live under a viaduct.

Many strange things, some small like this, some large, surprised me on my way from Atlanta to a new life in Bogota.

One thing really stood out.

When you get to Colombia, one friend told me, I’m not going to buy my cocaine from anybody but you.

What?

Maybe I don’t watch enough television. Is this really the first impression that Americans in the North have of Americans in the South?

I heard something like this over and over again. McNair’s starting his own cartel. McNair’s gonna be a drug mule. McNair’s gonna snort so much cocaine he ends up with one big nostril where he used to have two.

I’m not naïve about these things. Yes, they grow the coca leaf here in Colombia. Yes, it’s a base of revenue for insurgents in areas of the country … and a flash point in peace talks with them. But in my own media-molded perception, you find more cocaine up the noses of Wall Street wonders in New York and rappers in L.A. and visitors in Vegas than here in Bogota.

I write for a living. I’d like to reassure all the friends in Atlanta—and all those folks in cyberspace, who sent emails expressing their concern on this matter—that I much prefer writing to swallowing fat condoms filled with 100-percent pure cocaine and smuggling these in my colon to Miami, depositing them noisily in a hotel commode, then exchanging them for billions of pesos.

I would do that, I suppose, if it could potentially head off (sorry) an ISIS execution or somehow prevent measles.

Otherwise, folks will have to get their nose candy without my help.

I tried cocaine once, back in my college days at the University of Alabama. I paid some guy, a little Izod alligator on his shirt and a haircut that looked like every other haircut in the Kappa Alpha house, five dollars for a tightly folded piece of aluminum foil. Something inside looked and smelled like that soft powder you sprinkle in a baby diaper.

The next morning, my breath smelled like a baby diaper.

I bet that frat boy is still laughing out there somewhere. I bet he’s sitting around with his pot-bellied sixty-something BFFs in a country club. I bet they’re drinking shots and bragging about ole Bear Bryant … and remembering that red-haired stooge who swapped Honest Abe for their pure cocaine.

I hope when KA gets a few years older he needs some talcum powder for the untreatable rash under his giant-sized adult diaper.

Cocaine got to be the talk of the town in the 1980s in Birmingham, where I lived, and also in a lot of other places. In that decade, a wonderful friend of mine got into trouble with the stuff, and his experience ended any further curiosity for me. It came as no surprise when Len Bias, the promising All-American basketball star at Maryland, dropped dead after his first and only experiment with coke. Finally, the AIDS plague swept away a lifestyle where cocaine and other drugs often fueled sexual adventures.

Wikipedia gets pretty serious describing coke:
Cocaine is a tropane alkaloid that is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant. Biologically, cocaine acts as a serotonin—norepinephrine—dopamine reuptake inhibitor, also known as a triple reuptake inhibitor. It is addictive due to its effect on the mesolimbic reward pathway. At high doses, it is markedly more dangerous than other CNS stimulants, including the entire amphetamine drug class, due to its effect on sodium channels, since blockade of Nav1.5 can cause sudden cardiac death.

Got that? Nobody really wants Nav1.5 blockaded. Seriously.

But still.

I dimly remember something from some college class. Our professor spoke about an experiment that showed the addictive power of cocaine. In this study, certain rats raised in isolation were offered the opportunity to press one of two levers in their cages. One lever delivered food. The other delivered cocaine.

The lonely rats pressed the cocaine lever again and again and again. Eventually, some starved to death.

The purest cocaine on earth, according to coke mythology, comes from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain on earth. At 18,000 feet, this bulwark looms over the Caribbean in the far north of Colombia.

The native people of the area crushed the coca leaf with mother-of-pearl and salt to create a stimulant that enhanced their endurance and physical strength on long treks onto the sierra. They mixed their concoction in a poporo, a container symbolically shaped like a female, rounded and smooth. A tool with a phallic shape, made wet with saliva, crushed the ingredients inside the poporo. As you’d guess, the poporo symbolized sexual union between man and woman.

You’d find nothing recreational about the use of cocaine among those indigenous peoples. Young native Indians ceremoniously received a poporo at age 15 or so, a symbol of entry into the world of men, a totem of respect. Coca represented their connection with the natural world.

The spiritual meaning of that connection persists. Today, I’m told by Bogotanos, the remnants of the Colombian tribes sometimes protest the mass cultivation of coca plants and the commercialization of the drug. They prefer that coca be limited to spiritual practices.

I’ve traveled to Colombia four times in the past 21 months. I live here now.

I have an apartment in Santa Barbara occidental, a middle-class barrio. My well-lit, happy office looks down onto a perpetually green park where dogs play and young professional strivers chatter on smart phones.

My fiancee lives in a building 50 meters away. Adela does front-of-the-eye surgeries. Her mom was a judge. Her dad recently ran for mayor in her old home town. Her brother practices law, her sister works in IT, another sister creates businesses as an entrepreneur.

In my new life, I meet medical professionals, engineers, realtors, logistics managers. Lawyers and teachers and musicians and corporate executives and fellow writers. In the cafes, tables fill in the afternoons not with young hipster virtual workers, but with dignified older men and women who talk politics over café tinto, black coffee. The mall, Unicentro, fills with people on Friday nights, just like malls in the U.S.

In my time here—many weeks in all—not once, in any conversation, not even in jest, have I heard a single soul say the word cocaine.

Yet on my last night as a resident of Atlanta, in a favorite restaurant, an acquaintance slipped up to me at my table.

Can you get me some of that pink cocaine? he whispered. If I come down there, do you think I can get pink cocaine?

I had to look it up.

The Dutch invented it, a synthetic cocaine, no plant cultivation or growing season required. Some reports suggest most pink cocaine is manufactured in—guess where? Colombia, of course.

You’ll find it easy to recognize people who buy this thrill. They have one big nostril.

Just don’t look for them here in middle-class Bogota. Aspen, maybe. Washington, D.C. Miami. Vegas.

Follow the money. And I don’t mean the peso.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

Also in Travel