Junkie steals 100-year-old morphine, doesn’t get high

morphine, junkie
There’s nobody quite as determined or stupid as a junkie.

Maybe it’s hard to buy a hit on the streets of Cashmere, Washington, or maybe this particular junkie was short of cash. In any case, someone with a craving for drugs broke into the Cashmere Historic Museum and Pioneer Village and made off with a bottle of morphine pills dating back to World War One.

A doctor interviewed by the Wenatchee World newspaper said that the century-old pills would have long since lost their potency and wouldn’t have any effect at all, good or bad.

The intruder left a trail of destruction in his or her wake, as junkies usually do. Museum officials found a broken fence, a broken door, and a trashed display case. The case was a rare original from a period doctor’s office dating to 1890. Volunteers are now cleaning up the office so they can reopen it to the public.

This isn’t the first time the museum has been broken into. Its historic saloon has been burgled a couple of times by drunks looking for booze. There’s no alcohol in the saloon, and the folks at the Cashmere Historic Museum and Pioneer Village may want to rethink having real medication on display in their doctor’s office, even if it hasn’t been able to get anyone high since Burroughs was in short pants.

[Morphine cure ad c.1900 courtesy Mike Cline via Wikimedia Commons]

Visiting the Brontë sisters in Yorkshire

People say literary genius is a rare thing, something seen only once in a thousand or a million people. Maybe so, but the Brontës had three (and maybe five) literary geniuses in the same family.

From their father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, in northern England, the three Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne produced some of the most popular books in the English language. Works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still read more than 150 years after they were published. They’ve survived the test of time. The ebook edition of Wuthering Heights is currently ranked number 457 at Amazon’s Kindle store, and number 5 in the fiction classics category. Their work has been made into numerous movies and another version of Jane Eyre is coming out next year.

The sisters also prompted literary tourism to Haworth. It started not long after they died and has steadily grown ever since. While everyone comes to Haworth to see the Brontë home and related sights, they also enjoy a beautiful and well-preserved nineteenth century village full of shops and fine restaurants.

Now I have to be honest here and admit that until I went on this trip I had never read a Brontë novel. They were the classics I never got assigned in school and I figured I’d get around to whenever. Before I left for Yorkshire I read Jane Eyre and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The rich prose and sedate pacing definitely belong to the nineteenth century, but the smartass, independent female protagonist belongs to the modern world.

Much of Haworth remains as the Brontës knew it. The Brontë Parsonage Museum preserves their home and tells their story. House museums are tricky to do well. Despite being a museum junkie, some historic homes bore me to death. This one, however, gripped my attention. Besides the usual stuff like the desks they wrote at and the sofas they sat on (and Emily may have died on), there are the little details that make it stick in your memory. In the nursery where they spent their childhood faint pencil drawings can be seen on the wall. While it’s impossible to say if these literary giants doodled these when they were small, it makes you wonder.

There’s also the story of Branwell Brontë. Who? Yeah, that was always his problem. He was their brother, a failed artist and struggling writer living in the shadow of his superstar sisters. He fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and opium addiction before dying at 31. The above painting of his sisters is Branwell’s work. He originally included himself in the portrait, then unsuccessfully erased himself. He doodled constantly, illustrating letters he sent to friends. One at the museum shows himself in two images. The first is labeled “Paradise” shows him drunk off his ass and shouting, “I am the lord of the manor!” The other is labeled “Purgatory” and shows him hunched over an opium pipe.

%Gallery-104264%The museum also tells the story of their father Patrick, the local pastor who was also a published author. Many a young woman’s ambitions were crushed in those days by domineering fathers who wanted them to get married and get pregnant. Patrick Brontë was progressive enough not to feel threatened by his daughters’ talent and encouraged them in their careers.

Beyond the Brontë parsonage you can see traces of their life everywhere. Patrick Brontë’s church stands nearby and houses the family’s memorial chapel. The pub where Branwell got drunk is just a short stagger away from the apothecary where he bought his opium. The Black Bull Inn still serves up fine Yorkshire ales, but the apothecary shop stopped carrying opiates when they started requiring a prescription. Otherwise it’s a good replica of an early apothecary and still sells traditional cures.

Haworth’s main street is down a steep hill lined with little shops. You can find delicious local cheeses and preserves, a couple of fine tearooms, some excellent secondhand bookshops, and more gift shops than you can shake a copy of Wuthering Heights at. Several historic inns offer beers and beds. At the train station a traditional steam railway offers rides.

But Haworth isn’t all tea and scones and twee little shops. There’s a dark side to the town’s history, full of ghosts, death, and despair. On my second day I discovered I was all too close to the supernatural. . .

This is the first of my new series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Three nights in a haunted hotel room!


This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

[Photo courtesy user Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons]

Somaliland adventure: Bumbling in Berbera

Besides the painted caves of Laas Geel, the most promising road trip from Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa is to Berbera, 160 km north of Hargeisa and the country’s main port on the Red Sea. Nobody knows how old Berbera is, but it’s been an important port since ancient times and is mentioned in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek sailor’s guidebook from the first century AD. It boasts beautiful coral reefs, a lighthouse with a sweeping view, and a historic synagogue.

We got to see none of these things, but our trip was educational to say the least.

I and my travel companions, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe and a Somali expat who doesn’t wish to be named, hired a driver through my friends’ hotel. Since we did it on short notice the hotel owner couldn’t get one of his regulars and had to hire someone he didn’t know. He explained to the driver that we wanted to see everything and we’d be out all day. He also told him that if he did a good job he could expect more work in the future.

The driver seemed friendly enough. He spoke decent English and was in good spirits as we left. He was in even better spirits when he stopped to pick up a large bundle of khat, a narcotic plant. I noticed he spent a lot of money to get a choice bundle with lots of young shoots and leaves that would guarantee a strong effect.

First stop was the shrine of Sheikh Yusuf al-Kownin Aw-Barkhadle, on the highway north of Hargeisa. Aw-Barkhadle was a devoted Muslim who came from Harar to defeat a false holy man who was fooling the people with his magic and sleeping with their daughters. When Aw-Barkhadle told the charlatan to renounce his evil ways, the man challenged him to a magical duel. Aw-Barkhadle let him go first, and the man waved his hand and opened up a tunnel through a mountain on the outskirts of Hargeisa.

Aw-Barkhadle shrugged and said, “That’s simple. What’s difficult is passing through.”

Enraged, the false holy man arrogantly walked into the tunnel. Aw-Barkhadle ordered the mountain to close by the power of Allah and the evil one was entombed inside. To this day when Somalis pass by this mountain they throw rocks at it or slap it with their sandals. Its stone is never used to build houses.

The shrine is a simple affair of whitewashed walls trimmed with green, the color of paradise. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but I still felt a strange atmosphere to this building, shining brilliantly in the sun amidst a stony plain of thorn bushes and unmarked graves.

%Gallery-93452%The road to Berbera had a dozen police checkpoints. Since our route took us only along the main highway we had permission from the police in Hargeisa to travel without a bodyguard and we experienced no trouble at the checkpoints. Soon we could smell the sea air and we drove through the busy port. Past Ottoman mosques and colonial-era bungalows we could see giant freighters moored in the glittering water. We stopped at the Maansoor Hotel, which has an excellent restaurant with a view of the sea, and the added bonus of the only dive shop in Somaliland. Our driver had been chewing khat constantly for almost two hours, but didn’t seem to be affected by a loss of appetite the drug usually gives and we all enjoyed some wonderful fried fish. We rented some gear from the dive shop, checked the map to see how to get to the coral reefs, and headed out.

Then the trouble started.

The coral reefs are three kilometers outside of town. A coastal road leads there, but we found the road blocked by soldiers in a “technical”, a pickup truck with a weapon mounted on the hood, in this case a heavy recoilless rifle capable of punching a hole through our engine block. The soldiers politely but firmly told us we couldn’t pass. Luckily I remembered the map showed a more roundabout road that would get us around the military zone and to the coral reefs.

The driver didn’t want to go and refused to ask anyone for directions. Luckily our Somali friend managed to get someone to tell us which way to go. The driver grumbled all the way out of town, saying this wasn’t part of the deal, that we only said we wanted to go to the beach, etc., etc. Our Somali friend tried to reason with him, reminding him that he had been hired to take us all around, but to no avail. After a few minutes of obviously not trying to find the alternate road, he turned the car back towards Berbera.

We were getting pissed off. Berbera’s main attraction is the coral reefs, but our khat-chewing driver didn’t care. Not listening to reason in either English or Somali, he drove us straight to the beach and parked the car. He’d gone on strike, and sat glumly staring out the window chomping on more khat.

Leo, being a good travel companion, gave me some solid advice.

“Look, Sean. This is the fourth country you’ve been to that’s on the Red Sea and you’ve never been in the water. Just forget about this guy and let’s go swimming.”

Good plan. The beach was clean, the water as warm as a bath. We swam out and dove under, hoping to find some uncharted coral reefs. We didn’t have any luck but had a great swim anyway. When we finally made it back to the car our driver, teeth stained green with khat, rounded on us.

“Where have you been!? It’s time to go!!!”

We tried to calm him down and said we’d head back to Hargeisa after stopping at the dive shop to return the equipment.

“No!” he declared. “I’ll drop off the equipment next time I’m in Berbera.”

Yeah, sure you will, I thought, but said, “It will only take a minute.”

“We don’t have time! It will be dark soon and I won’t take any more side trips.”

“Side trips? The dive shop is right over there,” I said, pointing. “We have to drive past it to get to the highway.”

Even Mr. Khat couldn’t argue with that logic, so grumbling all the while he stopped at the dive shop and glared at us until we were back in the car.

“Where’s your guard?” he demanded. This was the first time he had mentioned it.

“We have permission from the Hargeisa police to travel without one, we already told you,” Leo said.

“I won’t drive without a guard!” Mr. Khat shouted.

Our Somali friend reasoned with him in their own language. After a minute the driver grunted and headed out.

At the first police checkpoint outside of town, the cops inspected our papers and let us through, but our driver wouldn’t budge. He started shouting to the police that he didn’t want to drive at night without a guard and insisted one of the cops get in the car and that we all go back to the station. The sun was setting and we were headed in the wrong direction.

Our Somali friend muttered, “This is a shit man.” I was tempted to ask how to say that in Somali.

Mr. Khat had really worked himself up into a fever pitch now. He was ranting and raving, obviously suffering a bad trip from the drug he’d been eating all day, and once he got to the police station he vowed he’d leave us there. The police chief stepped in, and a long debate ensued about whether we had to hire a officer or not. A call to higher authorities decided that we would. As that was being arranged our “driver” came up to me.

“Where’s my money?” he demanded.

“The agreement was that you’d be paid when we got back to Hargeisa,” I said as calmly as I could, which wasn’t very calmly at all.

“I WANT MORE MONEY!” he screeched.

“For not taking us anywhere? I don’t think so!”

OK, that’s not what I really said. I can’t print what I really said. In a moment the cops jumped between us and the driver started threatening the police chief. Yes, the police chief. A club brandished over his head shut him up, but only just barely. The police chief told him in no uncertain terms to take us back to Hargeisa, that we’d pay for the police escort, and we’d pay him what we agreed on and not a shilling more.

So it was decided. The drive back was spent in glum silence, except for the smacking of our driver’s lips as he gobbled down more of his ridiculous little leaves.

There’s a lesson in all this. Somaliland doesn’t have a real tourism industry yet, and visitors need to find an experienced driver and make it clear to him from the beginning what they want. Drivers need to understand they’re being hired for the day, not for a certain number of kilometers. Hotel owners need to find reliable drivers. They need people who are relaxed, enjoy their work, and are flexible with international visitors who want to be shown everything.

And they need to find people who aren’t addicted to drugs.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Somaliland, building a nation.

Khat: the legal high of East Africa

East Africa is addicted to leaves.

Khat (also pronounced “chat” or “qat”) is a leafy shrub found in the mountainous areas of East Africa. It’s a major cash crop for Ethiopia and a popular high in the whole region. For the Somalis, as well as the Hararis in Ethiopia, it’s a social drug and a way to relax. It’s also popular in countries further afield such as Yemen. In a Muslim society, khat offers a high not specifically banned by the Koran.

The fresh young leaves and shoots of the Catha edulis plant contain cathinone and cathine, both of which have chemical similarities to amphetamines. Cathinone is stronger than cathine and only found in the younger shoots, while older leaves, or those been picked more than a couple of days before, only contain cathine. Thus users prefer to eat the softer leaves from the top of the plant and distributors have a rapid, efficient network to get fresh khat from field to market.

Like most drugs, the effect differs for different people, but most users feel a sense of physical relaxation and mental activity. This is unusual since most drugs make the mind and body go in the same direction. Alcohol relaxes the body and dulls the mind, while coca leaves or cocaine stimulate both.

%Gallery-93278%Most people in the region see khat as harmless. People can sit for a couple of hours eating the leaves and socializing, and then go off to their job and be productive. Common side effects such as lack of appetite and sleep loss are actually seen as good things.

In Harar people go to the market at around noon to buy a bundle of khat. Then they head to a friend’s house to sit and chew. Some houses are known as khat houses and a large circle of friends and guests meets there every day. People get into long involved conversations, while others lay down and chill out. Others sit in a corner diligently working. The effect depends on a person’s inclination and mood. Some people stay for only an hour or so, and some won’t leave until evening. Many people lose a sense of time, or at least stop caring. The culture around khat is very tolerant of how individual people want to interact while using the drug. Sometime in the midafternoon a poorer resident of the neighborhood will come and take away the discarded older leaves for his own use.

The usual way to eat khat is to simply chew and swallow the leaves, but some people like to grind it up with a mortar and pestle and eat the paste. This has a quicker, stronger effect, and a bit of added sugar gets rid of khat’s bitter taste.

Both men and women use khat, but men use more and the sexes tend to chew separately. This doesn’t stop the woman of the house from sitting in on a khat chewing session, but she’s more likely to smoke a sheesha (water pipe) filled with tobacco, rather than chew khat.

While khat used to be restricted to Hararis and Somalis, other people in the region are now experimenting with it. A university student from Addis Ababa told me some of her classmates use it to stay up all night studying for exams. They keep it secret from their parents, though, as older people in western and northern Ethiopia have a dim view of khat chewing.

There seem to be more users in Somaliland. Besides private homes, people like to gather in one of the ubiquitous little khat cafes. The plant is sold everywhere and consumption appears to be much higher than in Harar. While men and women chew separately, many khat cafes are run by women, some of whom smear their faces with khat paste as a kind of advertisement.

It’s hard to tell if khat is as harmful to Somaliland as alcohol is to the West, but it’s certainly an economic drain. Khat only grows in relatively moist uplands, so all the khat consumed in the dry, lowland Somali region has to be imported from Ethiopia. Good news for Ethiopian farmers, bad news for Somalis. One NGO worker told me the entire Somali region (Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, Djibouti, and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia) spends $100 million a month on khat. While that sounds like a lot, most men and many women chew it regularly (often daily), and one day’s supply costs at least $2, and there are about 15 million Somalis in East Africa, so that staggering figure could be correct.

The Somalis have done the math too, and this is one of the main objections some have to the plant. They say the money could be used for things like infrastructure and education. They also say khat encourages idleness in a region that needs every worker working hard.

“This plant is pulling down my country,” one Hargeisa shopkeeper complained to me.

Some people don’t react well to khat, getting irritable or zoned out, and heavy users complain of tension, stomach upset, and headaches if they don’t get their leaves. Plus there’s the question of long-term effects. Many Somalis told me they knew older users who had suffered mental damage. I myself met some long-term users who seemed a bit vague even when they weren’t chewing, and the number of older men wandering the streets of Hargeisa babbling incoherently was noticeably greater than in Addis Ababa or even Harar. Plus the addiction makes people focus on getting the plant rather than on more important things. One Somalilander told me that during the worst part of the Somali civil war no airplane was able to land at Mogadishu airport, except one.

That was the khat plane from Ethiopia. All the warring clans agreed to a brief ceasefire when that was flying in.

For those wanting to learn more, Erowid is a good basic source, and the new Khat Research Program at the University of Minnesota plans to produce some definitive studies.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Bumbling in Berbera, a khat comedy of errors!