Coca Rica - When Drug Experimentation Goes Terribly Wrong

"You want marijuana?" said the man who stood at the edge of the dirt road, selling fresh coconuts to tourists, "My friend here can take you." I was on the beach in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, a major surfing destination. Costa Rica is also a major destination for drug culture.

Similar to places like Amsterdam, Costa Rica is gaining some fame as being a good country to partake in recreational drugs (Drug Tourism in Costa Rica: 2013).

The man selling coconuts called over to another guy who'd been leaning against the wall of the convenience store. The other man sauntered over, smiling, wheeling his rusty bicycle alongside his body. He led me down the dirt path over a dried up creek. There was a house, surrounded by clucking chickens, and behind the house was a shack into the jungle. The man with the bicycle motioned for me to step inside then headed back to the road.

I looked in before entering.It looked like a typical drug dealer's bedroom. Next to an unmade bed was a nightstand, with a digital alarm clock displaying the current time. The dealer sat at desk across from his bed, where he had a scale, baggies, and rolling papers. At the foot of the bed sat a friend of the drug dealer's. They had been previously talking and laughing, but both raised their eyebrows in surprise when they saw me. The dealer welcomed me inside and motioned for me to have a seat on the bed not far from his seat. Based on the whole desktop paraphernalia scenario, I figured it was about as legit as a drug deal could be.

"What are you looking for?" he asked.

"An eighth, please" I replied.

"Of marijuana?" he continued, "Don't you want some cocaine? Most people who come to Costa Rica want cocaine." It is Costa Rica's geographical location, and tourist friendly reputation, that leads to this demand.

While its tropical beaches, cloud forests and proximity to the U.S. are selling points to millions of tourists, Costa Rica's location has also attracted traffickers hauling cocaine from Andean nations northward (Josephs: 2013).

"Alright, give me a gram," I said. Bad, Kat, Bad! Hadn't I learned anything about local drug experimentation from my experience in Laos, as discussed in my book "Around the World in 80 J's"? When in Rome, I figured, but already I knew it was a terrible idea. As the dealer weighed out my drugs, I saw him glance over at his friend as they chuckled mischievously. I felt the brush of air created by a hand caressing my hair, and turned around to find his friend jokingly holding a pair of scissors against my long locks. My ghetto alter ego, which only emerges in scenarios where I feel threatened, set off more intensely than ever before. It was even more extreme than when I'd been faced with the Filipino gambling scammers back in Saigon. The words,

"I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU!" exploded from my mouth. I am really overprotective when it comes to my hair. Like every person who has been unfortunate enough to come across my alter ego, the drug dealer's friend's mouth hung open and his expression conveyed a sense of shock for the unexpected.

"Okay, okay, okay…" he said, slowly placing the scissors on the floor and putting his hands up in the air in a motion of concession. I stared him down for a moment, reiterating the fact that I was entirely serious. Looking back, I'm almost positive this guy was kidding and making a joke. I don't think he planned on actually cutting my hair. However, had he done so, there is a good chance that my uber defensive alter ego might have grabbed those scissors from right out of his hands and stabbed him in the chest. Just saying. Thank goodness he backed off, and this particular drug purchase did not end in violence.

Unfortunately, a lot of drug deals do end in violence, especially when there is cocaine involved. This is why it is important to legalize and regulate marijuana the world over. That way, it can be sold in a safe and professional setting, and not in the sketchy back jungle sheds of questionable drug dealers. Once marijuana is blended in with the sale of hard drugs, the situation bakes into a recipe for disaster. The criminalization of marijuana sales often leads otherwise peaceful potheads into potentially dangerous situations. This is a predicament that could be avoided in a legally regulated setting. David Nathan of CNN writes,

Those who believe cannabis to be a gateway to opioids and other highly dangerous drugs fail to appreciate that the illegal purchase of marijuana exposes consumers to dealers who push the hard stuff…Pot prohibition has also greatly increased illegal activity and violence. Otherwise law-abiding private users became criminals, and criminals became rich through the untaxed, bloody and highly lucrative illicit drug trade (Nathan: 2013).

The dealer charged me twenty dollars for the pot, and another ten for the cocaine. He apologized for his friend and invited me to stay and smoke a blunt, but I definitely wasn't interested. I wanted to get the fuck out of there as quickly as possible. I walked briskly back to my hostel and went into my room. There, I inspected my purchase. The weed was super dank. It was bright green and white with fluffy crystallization. It was much better than that nasty shwag I saw the crazy Swedes at my hostel had scored. I must have been extra lucky with my purchase because most people I've talked to found really low end weed when traveling in Costa Rica. I dipped my room key into the bag of cocaine to take a little bump.

That is when I was over came with most terrible and overwhelming sensation. It hit me like a heavy brick wall. My pulse began to race; I felt like my heart was about to explode. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states,

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. It produces short-term euphoria, energy, and talkativeness in addition to potentially dangerous physical effects like raising heart rate and blood pressure (DrugFacts: 2013).

I had tried cocaine in Chicago. It had never felt like this. I felt like the blood rushing through every vein of my body in super-fast motion. It didn't feel good. I felt like I was going to die. I just wanted the feeling to go away, it was horrible. This was real cocaine, not that baby powder cut imposter shit we got in the Midwest United States. The rush was unbearable. How could anyone enjoy this? It felt like I was having a panic attack.

I started sweating profusely. I tried my sarong around my head in an effort to absorb the perspiration and lay in the hammock in front of my room in hopes of calming myself down. It didn't work. I found it hard to breathe, as if my airway was closing up. Should I swing on the hammock? Should I remain inactive? I focused on each and every breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. I feared that if I didn't concentrate hard enough I might stop breathing entirely. My chest began to hurt. I was definitely succumbing to the effects of this powerful drug.

People who use cocaine can suffer heart attacks or strokes, which may cause sudden death. Cocaine-related deaths are often a result of the heart stopping, or cardiac arrest, followed by an arrest of breathing (DrugFacts: 2013).

What if I needed to go to the hospital? In the isolation of the Nicoya Peninsula, I was separated from civilization by miles upon miles of bumpy dirt paths. I would surely die en route. I took gulps from my water bottle, making an extra effort not to choke on the liquid, until there was nothing left. My body shook and I ground my teeth around my seemingly swollen mouth. I needed more water to flush out my system. I knew that was the only way to feel human once more.

I compelled myself to rise up from my sweat soaked hammock and walk down to the convenience store. I felt so fucked up. It felt like everyone was staring at me because I was so fucked up. I worried I was going to die. The guy at the convenience store looked at me with a perplexed expression. I stood in front of him, sweating and shaking, with my damp sarong still wrapped around my head. He asked if I was okay. How could anyone possibly find this sensation enjoyable?

By now, it was dark. The Swedes at my hostel had come out to party. I went back to my room and lay in my bed, praying that the horrible feeling would go away. I started to cry. I wanted to go home. I wanted to call a taxi, drive to the nearest airport, and fly home immediately. Maybe I could be airlifted out of there. I knew these weren't viable options. Even if I left immediately, and spent every penny I had, it would probably take at least twenty-four hours to find my way out of the isolated jungle and back to my apartment in Chicago. My female roommate came in to the room and saw I was upset. I told her what had happened. She said that the cocaine was pure in Costa Rica. She expressed concern for the whole throat swelling part of my story. She told me that was not a typical reaction to cocaine usage.

I concluded that perhaps I am allergic to some kind of anesthetic property, particularly the kind contained within pure cocaine. I can't know for sure, though. That one bump of pure cocaine could have well been enough for an overdose. What would urge me to me to mess around with that stuff in the first place? Just because everyone else was doing it; did that make me cool? While almost seventeen percent of Americans experiment with cocaine in their lifetimes (DrugFacts: 2013), it seemed to be all the rage among my Swedish roommates in Costa Rica.

Just before I went around the world, someone I'd known from high school was found dead in the forest preserve with cocaine on his dashboard. In fact, most of the people I've known in my life who have left this world prematurely did so as a result of drug and/or alcohol overdoses and adverse reactions.

Cocaine is the most frequently reported illicit substance associated with drug abuse fatalities and causes three times more deaths than any other illegal drug (Cocaine Statistics: 2006).

So why would I toy with a drug like cocaine? It was dangerous decision, and I suffered the consequences. I encourage everyone, especially travelers, to become well informed before experimenting with drug culture. Take responsibility for you actions, and own up to your decisions. You have the right to say "no", just as much as you have the right to say "yes". These choices are in your hands, but please, understand what you're getting yourself into. Do what makes you happy by treating yourself and your body however you feel is appropriate.

I thought about taking a Benadryl, but decided against it at first. I was afraid to mix uppers and downers. After some time had passed and I still felt that my lungs were swollen, I finally settled on taking an antihistamine. I felt calm and better shortly thereafter, vowing to never touch that formidable white powder ever again. Relaxed and content with the fact that not only would I be walking away from Santa Teresa alive, but I would be walking away having learned a valuable lesson. Some people like coke, but it's just not for me. I'll stick to weed from now on, thank you very much!

A few days later, I went hiking with a Canadian girl named Adia through the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve at the very tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Entering the preserve, we encountered a trio of large black birds accompanied by a sickeningly putrid odor. As we passed the birds, we realized that they were in fact vultures feeding upon a decaying animal carcass. We held our noses, and I pulled my shirt over my face, to avoid the repulsive stench. That could have been me, I thought. Not literally, of course, but the stench of death was a mortal reminder to be more aware of my life and of my decisions.

Once inside the reserve, our olfactory organs found relief as we stroll along a tropical jungle path lined with big red blossoms and hanging yellow flowers. These smelled sweet and ambrosial against our senses in comparison. We observed plant species like I'd never encountered, surrounded by giant palms, strange drooping woven petals, and mysterious hanging pods. There were tiny monkeys crawling through the tallest trees. I considered my brush with death the night before, and how I could have easily missed out on all of this beauty.It felt good to be alive.

We came upon the ocean, where jagged hunks of igneous rocks lay exposed in the low lapping tide. The sun hung low as we climbed out on the rocks, observing the tiny stripped fish that fluttered about in the shallow, sandy pools. The sun reflected upon the neritic pools in a specter so bright, we had no choice but to squint our eyes against the glistening rays as we further explored the rocky oasis.

It was getting late. We digressed through the reserve, along the canopied green trail, when we heard buzzing sound in our ears and a large insect flitted across the dirt path. Adia released a short yelp, and then held her hand in pain.

"I have been stung!" she cried.

"What was it?" I asked, "Did you see it?"

"I don't know, it was bigger than a bee," she complained, "It hurts! It hurts!" The lifeguard in me shuffled through my bag in search of first aid supplies. I had brought plenty of band aids, alcohol wipes, and Benadryl to Costa Rica, however, these supplies were still in my backpack. My backpack was at the hostel. Adia continued to whimper as she inspected her hand. I pulled out my water bottle and suggested that we rinse the affected area. After we did so, I saw the raised area about the size of a dime located atop the thin skin between her thumb and index finger. It was red and swollen; highly irritated by the sting.

"I don't know what else I can do," I said, feeling incredibly unhelpful as I continued to sort through my bag. Wasn't I trained to take appropriate action in exactly this type of situation? I was a girl scout once; there was no reason why I shouldn't be able to improvise in a wilderness setting. I looked into the same inner pocket to discover the leftover bag of pure cocaine. I hadn't touched it since the incident at the hostel. I put my first aide knowledge plus innovative nature survival instincts to use.

"It hurts so badly," Adia lamented.

"Here!" I exclaimed, incredibly proud of my ingenuity, "Try a little of this!" I handed her the bag of cocaine.

"I've never done cocaine in my life," Adia replied, a little annoyed by the suggestion while her eyes welled up with tears from the pain.

"Don't snort it!" I explained, "Cocaine is an anesthetic, like lidocaine. It's like the stuff they use to numb your gums at the dentist."

"Really?" she asked.

"Sure! You know, most recreational drugs have legitimate medical uses," I directed, "Try rubbing a little into your wound." Adia looked at me skeptically, but the pain was so bad she conceded to test out my theory. She took the bag from my hands and rubbed the cocaine over her insect sting. Almost immediately, the swelling went down. The redness disappeared, and Adia's hand went back to normal.

Cocaine can be used as a topical anesthetic for surgical procedures due to its rapid-acting numbing properties...Cocaine can also treat minor skin lacerations, since the drug is an effective vasoconstrictor and narrows blood vessels (Lallanilla: 2013).

"Wow," she remarked, "I can't believe that worked! My hand feels totally better!" We continued on with our hike, discussing the irony of being able to plug the medicinal properties of a dangerous illegal narcotic, something that had nearly killed me a few nights prior, into an emergency curative scenario. There's nothing I enjoy more than turning bad things into good. It was proof drugs aren't all bad - it was a cocaine miracle.

-Kat Vallera, creator of NomadiKat Travel Media, author of "Around the World in 80 J's"

Coca Rica - When Drug Experimentation Goes Terribly Wrong

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