Drugs and travel don’t mix (in most places)

Flying out of Madrid’s Barajas airport last week I spotted this curious poster. Sorry for the crappy photo, but there was a light right in front of it. The poster asks, “Do you seriously believe that being around drugs overseas would be fun?”

The message is one to think about. Most recreational drugs are illegal in most places, and going to jail isn’t fun anywhere, yet I have to wonder about the subtext of this poster. It seems to be saying, “Stay away from drugs, son, or scary dark people with bad teeth will beat you up, steal your right shoe, and use you like a woman.”

In reality, the main dangers of using drugs overseas are being ripped off by the dealer or getting framed. This is especially common in Morocco and India, where a friendly guy will offer you drugs and when you buy them, call the cops on you. He and the cops will then take you for everything you got, and you better hope you’re not a woman in this situation.

So kids, be sensible. Take the legal drugs. Drink real ale in England. Smoke dope in The Netherlands. Chew qat in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Drink coffee and smoke tobacco just about anywhere. If it’s legal, it couldn’t be bad for you!

Qat culture in Harar: East Africa’s favorite legal high

Every afternoon in Harar, you see men walking along carrying plastic bags filled with leaves. Hararis aren’t big fans of salads; they’re chewing these leaves for a completely different reason. It gets them high.

Qat (pronounced “chat” in Harari, Amharic, and Somali) is a narcotic leaf from a fast-growing bush found all over the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It’s legal and hugely popular in this region.
In Harari culture it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha (qat-chewing session) where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work.

I’m not going to be coy like some travel writers and talk about drugs in foreign countries while pretending I haven’t used them. When I’m in Harar I chew qat regularly. I attend a birtcha at the home of a man who works in one of the government bureaus. Birtchas usually attract people who have similar jobs, political views, or who are friends from childhood. My birtcha includes dictionary writers, government workers, and a public prosecutor. A birtcha gives people a chance to while away the afternoon in conversation.

Visitors to Harar will be invited to several birtchas. Going to them allows you to see the inside of Harari homes and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been to birthcas in more than a dozen homes.

%Gallery-120576%When I mentioned I was writing this article, my birtcha got into a debate over whether qat is a drug or not. Some said that because it’s legal it’s not a drug, similar to some Americans I’ve known who insist alcohol and caffeine aren’t drugs. I don’t agree. Qat is a drug like alcohol, caffeine, or marijuana. Qat is a mild drug, though. Chewing a large bundle has less of an effect on my mind than three pints of beer.

In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby describes having wild psychotic trips from some of the qat he chewed. Perhaps he chewed more or was more susceptible, but I’ve had nothing like the results he had. The effects on me, like most people, are slow in coming. You usually don’t feel anything for almost an hour, although by this time you’ve been having a nice conversation with friends in a traditional Harari home and feel relaxed anyway. Then you notice a deeper relaxation, mingled with a feeling of goodwill that can become euphoric if you chew enough. Food tastes better, cigarettes taste sweet (or so I’m told) and at least for me colors appear more vibrant.

The best effect of qat is that you end up in long, enthusiastic conversations that can last for hours. Unlike with booze or pot, you’ll actually remember these conversations later! After a time many people quieten down and start to work. Qat helps concentration and often people in a birtcha drop out of the conversation one by one and start writing or working on their laptops. Others return to their offices. Some students use it to help them study for exams. Manual laborers say it’s good for physical work too.

Like all substances, qat has side effects. Chewing too much can lead to sleeplessness and constipation. Long-term use can also lead to mental instability. In qat-chewing regions you’ll always see a few older guys with ragged clothes and wild eyes wandering the streets collecting discarded qat leaves that people have dropped onto the ground. Another downside is that farmers are growing qat instead of food. Most crops can only be harvested once or twice a year. A field of qat plants can be harvested every day by taking shoots from a few plants one day and different ones the next. Farmers like having the constant source of income but its lowering the region’s food production, a really bad idea in a country that sees periodic droughts.

All in all, I think the social effects of qat in Ethiopia are no worse than alcohol in Western countries. The number of qat addicts in Ethiopia’s streets is no greater than the number of winos on Western streets. Qat is a social lubricant that has bad effects for those who use it too much, but for the casual user it’s harmless.

I’m a bit worried about this article. It’s impossible to talk about Harari culture without talking about qat but I don’t want Harar to become a destination for drug tourism. Right now there’s a relaxed, friendly relationship between foreigners and Hararis. A bunch of wasted tourists would spoil that really quickly. I don’t think drug tourists would like Harar, though. Qat’s effects are mild and slow to start. Most drug tourists want to get blasted, and qat doesn’t do that. They also want other drugs, and all of them are illegal in Ethiopia. Despite being considered the Holy Land by Rastafaris, getting caught with marijuana in Ethiopia can get you two years in jail.

So please, if you come to Ethiopia, feel free to chew chat, but don’t try anything else. You don’t want to mess with the Ethiopian justice system. The public prosecutor at my birtcha opens Coke bottles with her teeth.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Visiting the Argobba, a little-known African tribe!

Dutch coffee shops face crackdown

Is it the beginning of the end for Dutch tolerance of weed? The recently elected conservative coalition has promised a number of controversial measures, including curbs on immigration, banning Islamic face covering, and of more interest to travelers, cracking down on legal marijuana smoking.

The Netherlands has been a destination for pot smokers ever since marijuana was made legal in the 1970s. The experiment intended to allow the use of soft drugs like pot while clamping down on hard drugs like heroin. It has had mixed success and as the political pendulum has swung to the right in recent years, more and more curbs have been put on the coffee shops where customers can buy and smoke pot. Magic mushrooms were banned recently, and some towns are restricting coffee shops or even closing them all down. There are currently about 700 coffee shops in The Netherlands, compared with 1,200 at their peak.

Now the coalition government wants to make all coffee shops into private clubs, effectively getting rid of the drug tourists. The question is, will this work? Common sense dictates that where there’s a demand, there will be a supply. Coffee shops might get around the law by offering temporary memberships or international memberships, or allowing members to bring guests. The measure would also not stop illegal sales of drugs. What it will do, however, is reduce the number of people coming to The Netherlands specifically to smoke their vacation away. While some of the bigger and more established coffee shops will no doubt survive, it looks like the industry is in for a bad trip.

[Image courtesy Tyson Williams via Gadling’s flickr pool]


“Narco cinema” offers B-movie depiction of “life” in Mexico

Mexico is famous for many things: tequila, a glorious cuisine, gracious people, beautiful beaches, puking spring breakers. Unfortunately, in the last year, the beleaguered nation is getting more attention than usual for its vicious drug cartels. Although the violence isn’t directed at tourists, fear is a powerful thing. Tourism– especially in Baja-has dropped drastically, further devastating an already impoverished country.

But. In the last decade, talented Mexican filmmakers such as Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”) and Alfonso Cuarón (“Y tu mamá también”) have made a major impact worldwide, proving that new Mexican cinema is a force to be reckoned with. Unbeknownst to most of the global market, however, Mexico is importing something way more awesome than Gael Garcia Bernal flicks (you’re still my boy, Gael) and coke: narco cinema.

VBS.TV broadband television co-founder Shane Smith visited Texas, Tijuana, and Mexico City to explore the films inspired, and often funded by, Mexico’s drug cartels, a genre known as narco cinema. Smith went so far as to talk himself into a role as an extra in one film, after outfitting himself in the requisite endangered animal-skin cowboy boots, Western-style suit, and cowboy hat. Fledgling narcos might want to consider investing in designer Miguel Caballero’s bullet-proof clothing line.

Smith also explored the musical equivalent of narco cinema. “Narcocorridos” are often the basis for the films. They’re reworked versions of traditional Mexican Revolutionary songs, but if musicians get careless and sing in the wrong territory or about the wrong person, they get whacked. According to a source interviewed by Smith, there have been 25 musicians murdered in Mexico since 2007, most of them narcocorridos.

According to VBS, Mexico is considered the superhighway of drugs entering North America. It supplies most of the coke, meth, marijuana, and poppy derivatives consumed in the United States, and today the Mexican drug trade is a $100-billion-a-year industry. Approximately 30 percent of that is reportedly repurposed to bribe government officials and law enforcement.

Smith explains that drug culture has infiltrated Mexican society, from religion (there’s a patron saint of drug trafficking) and music, to film. Narco cinema came about in the 1980s, inspired by the B-movie tradition of the Mexican cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. The genre is Quentin Tarantino meets Sergio Leon: extreme carnage, guns, big trucks and hats, explosions, slutty women, and drugs. Because 82 percent of the Mexican population can’t afford to see mainstream theater releases, cheap, straight-to-video accessibility have helped narco cinema become increasingly popular. Mexicans of all ages now watch these films, as something of a national pastime. Better that than DWTS, I say.

Drug tourism and cocaine bars

What fun is travel without a little excitement? Rest and relaxation is a given, but excitement? That you have to look for, and it appears excitement for many is found in drugs.

I came across an article yesterday that made me cringe. The world’s first cocaine bar, it read. And while I have to admit it picqued my interest, I must also say the thought of sitting in a bar with nearly everyone high on cocaine scares me — beyond belief. I wonder, though, whether this cocaine bar in La Paz, Bolivia is on to something. There are heaps of traveling hedonists, eager for a new high, and while I don’t find that high in drugs, I’m almost positive many travelers in Latin America — and all over the world, for that matter — do.

If you think about it, drug tourism has been around for decades. It was no secret that drugs came easy at Studio 54, and it wasn’t really a surprise to me when I heard recently of Kokie’s, a bar in Manhattan that sold cocaine on the down low. I guess the name gave Kokie’s away, because it’s now closed.

And cocaine’s not the only thing people travel for in the world. Consider all the cheap prescription drugs you can get in Tijuana. I even took advantage of that and bought a bottle of Cipro. Or what about the opium dens in Laos. There were all kinds of “special” pizzas on the menu in Vang Vieng. In a lot of ways, drugs and travel mix perfectly, and in a lot of ways, it’s not wrong to mix them unless you’re over-using and forgetting about reality — or not even bothering to understand the place you’re in.

Nevertheless, could this cocaine bar in La Paz be a sign of the times, and will drugs be the new draw for certain destinations abroad? Only time will tell…