THE COCA KIDS

Over the next few days I would meet three individuals who each had a direct line with that insatiable pile of white powder that both fed and fed-off humans. Grady was an American man about twenty eight years old. He was a thick set dark man, who I befriended through casual conversation. His occupation was childrens' playground builder; although he was someone who could have fooled you as a lawyer or engineer. An educated man. A confident and forthright talker,who would spend up to ten hours a day sitting in his dog-box room by the light of an undernourished bulb. It was there that his workshop had been set up. "Simple tools and materials, maximum profit" would be the way I'd have advertised it in the Sunday rag.

He would sit there slicing postcards in half with a razor blade. Second job was to measure half a gram, give or take a few grams, of pure cocaine and sprinkle it around the middle few inches of the postcard. Perfect coat of glue and accurate rejoining would mean that an outlay of five cents for a postcard, forty cents postage back to one of a hundred odd post boxes spread around the US, plus half a gram of cocaine costing around five dollars in Bolivia meant a total outlay of five dollars and forty-five cents. About five minutes work per card! Once back in the US he would cut that half gram with something else, usually bi-carb, and then present it on the streets to be sold for about three hundred dollars US.

My simple maths told me that any ten hour day of his postage days would present around thirty thousand dollars of cocaine back in the US. Hence the name "white gold". My thoughts turned to whether he'd eventually get caught, whether he'd done it before, and why wouldn't people try such innovative money making scams when there was such incredible amounts to be made at the end.

How much had his vision and reality been blurred by endless snorting and smoking of marijuana that he seemed to do while we chatted. And there it was sitting on his table .... the small scale Siberian salt pile of convertible cash. He seemed quite surprised at the point that he offered me "a line" and I refused. He seemed amazed that anyone could knock back an offer like "a line of pure gold", as he called it. In fact, he was taken aback every time I managed to reject his offers. I had my sense of intrigue, the all revealing deep conversations, but an intuitive scepticism of characters such as this. I wanted to know "where they came from", but didn't actually want to visit them "there".

On the other side of my room was Jean, a Canadian girl who was also on the big slide. She showed me her "wad". A large plastic bag of about a foot long by four inches wide by about one inch deep. Quite a few thousand dollars of "pura", as the street vendors denoted it. Pura cocaine. The big ticket out. Her dream to escape having to work as a cook in minus forty degree conditions in the far northern oilfields of Canada. Her life in my hands as I picked up her spoils. I felt like someone enlisting in fantasy, as I surveyed her goods. We chatted. Why had she even bothered to tell me that she planned to place it in her crotch and travel overland, all the way back to Canada. It was a disastrous plan, doomed and almost pitiful. But, like Grady, she was not outwardly stupid or lacking, but purely immersed in some dreamscape of dollar-bound freedom. She too could not understand why I didn't want to have a little "snort" with her. I suspected that she had evil designs towards my body and quickly lost myself on market wanderings and tourist traps.

The "character du resistance" availed himself out of room number six. An American. He had ventured to South America as a searching hippie of the sixties and "never quite made it back". He had evaded efforts to kick him out of the country many times, and had mainly lived in small villages up in the mountains. He was scrawny and showed the signs of his stories. Shooster had survived by selling earrings, selling "dope" and working in and around the drug trade. In fact, he had become quite famous as one of those reusable, but disposable, people who trudged through the coca and kero pits to make the coca paste. He was famous for the stories and songs he had raised along the way.

I couldn't imagine spending twenty hours, day upon day, walking around in circles in a stinking coca sludge. They would only survive by smoking "crack" and marijuana and wiping out their senses, their reality. Whitewashed minds. And what of reality?

But he was energetic and talkative, and I was consuming his every story with the vitality of a child at bedtime. He had a fascinating grasp of the workings of world politics, which came via his eternal listening to world news services on his makeshift short wave radio. In fact, he said he hadn't slept for five days. And you could, indeed, be up to go to the toilet at three or four in the morning and hear the BBC News Service beaming out above the sounds of his senseless shuffling. He was spending countless hours making jewellery to sell on the streets, and his "coke" was negating the need for any sleep at all. He ate bananas, biscuits and drank wells of coffee.

He'd stop me and try to engage me in some conversation about the Falklands War, or Hawke as a Prime Minister. His concept of political positioning, heads of State, the UN, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, as well as who was winning at Wimbledon, would all fight for prominence in the space of a ten minute whirlwind conversation.