Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.


Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)


An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.


Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:


Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?


Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!


British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Hainan Island

Hainan is a fairly large island off of the southern coast of China, between Hong Kong and the Vietnam border. Known as something of a remote hinterland through much of Chinese history (the kind of place to which one gets exiled), Hainan has been aggressively developed for tourism, including especially resorts near the city of Sanya on the southern coast, as China’s Hawaii. I’m told that Hainan even advertises on U.S. CNN!

When my employer announced that we would have our office retreat at a resort on Hainan, I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled. I thought that somewhere like Chengde would be far more exciting (somebody had even suggested Pingyao, an old walled city, by train). I thought the greatest benefit of the trip would be having another Traveler’s Century Club country under my belt. (Why Hainan is considered a separate country, I’m not too sure.) But, I must admit, even if Hainan isn’t quite Hawaii, Sanya’s resorts are well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable, and the natural environment clean and beautiful.

Sanya is a bit over an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, and flights are fairly plentiful. Flights are also available from Shenzhen Airport. We stayed at the Marriott Sanya Resort & Spa, which is not the newest upscale resort (the Hilton is newer and other hotels are opening soon, including a Ritz-Carlton), but tastefully designed along a wide stretch of pristine beach. The rooms and beds were quite comfortable, and the pool fun. The beach is sufficiently large, the sand soft and the water clear. The weather was glorious and warm (though we are told that there were some cloudier, cooler days before we arrived). All above expectations, though the resort experience was predictably totally isolated from any sense of being in China.

We also went on a couple tours. Of course, staying in resort hotels and going on group tours are not our usual travel M.O. at all, but at least the resort was comfortable and enjoyable. The tours were depressing. Monkey Island, as it turns out, is a thoroughly landscaped amusement park. The gondola ride to the park is beautiful, and there are indeed plenty of monkeys, but not at all in a natural setting. We did see one totally surreal “animal circus” performance, however.

The other tour was to a Li and Miao minority village. The Li and Miao are two of the “native” ethnic groups of Hainan, to be distinguished from the Han majority that now dominates the island (and the rest of China). While I believe that some original Li and Miao villages exist on Hainan, and I by no means expected to see anything really authentic on a group tour, the place to which we were taken was a full-fledged amusement park, complete with fire-breathing little people. While some displays (of traditional homes, weavings, etc.) were not bad, the overall experience was dispiriting.

But the hotel, the beach and the weather were great! A solid choice for a quick beach getaway if you don’t mind staying at your hotel.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Kaiping Diaolou

I first ran into the Kaiping diaolou while surfing the UNESCO site for World Heritage Sites. Little did I know that a World Heritage Site had been recently designated so close to Hong Kong! Some google searches led to some promising pictures, along with an interesting back story.

The diaolou, which means watchtower, historically were communal castles in small Chinese southern villages. They were built and owned communally, and the residents of a village would seek refuge in times of conflict or flood. In the early twentieth century, wealthy individuals, principally individuals who had left China to earn money abroad (in the United States, Southeast Asia or even Hong Kong) returned to Kaiping to build a different kind of diaolou—an elaborate multistory mansion. What makes them so interesting is that these individuals built these towers not only to show off their new wealth but incorporated foreign architectural styles, ranging from European to South Asian. There are over a thousand of these towers near the city of Kaiping in Guangdong Province (to the southwest of Guangzhou).

We had read that there were direct ferries to Sanbu Port in Kaiping from Hong Kong, so we headed to the HK-China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui early Saturday morning. (Chu Kong Ferries website) The direct boats weren’t running, but the ferry company had arranged a direct shuttle from Zhongshan Port to Kaiping. The whole ride (ferry to Zhongshan, the bus shuttle) took about four hours. An alternate route, which we had also considered, was to take the train to Guangzhou, and then a bus to Kaiping. This of course would have taken longer, although we would have had the option of staying overnight in Guangzhou.

At Sanbu port in Kaiping were several minibus taxis. After some tough negotiations, we arranged one of the drivers to take us around to three different sets of diaolou for RMB 280 (about USD 35). We went to San Men Li, which has the oldest diaolou (built in the Ming dynasty), Li Yuan, which has an unremarkable collection of diaolou all built by one individual, and Zili Cun, which is probably the best set of diaolou (including the watchtower of Deng Lou just outside the town). Many of the diaolou are furnished in period furniture and can be climbed to the top for views. Almost all of the sites were well labeled with historical details in English. Despite leisurely visits to these sites, we had a few hours before sundown, and so we asked our driver to take us to Jin Jiang Li, which contained two beautiful diaolou in another rustic setting.

Admission to the diaolou is predictably expensive, it being China. A ticket permitting entrance to most of the major sites costs RMB 120 per person.

We returned home by bus from Kaiping to Zhuhai’s Gongbei bus station on the border with Macau. We could have taken the ferry from Zhuhai but chose to overnight in Zhuhai so that we could spend part of the day in Macau before heading home.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Shenzhen

Shenzhen is, along with Macau, the quickest, easiest QuickTrip from Hong Kong (if you don’t count worthy destinations within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region). Shenzhen is close enough to go for a day or even part of a day but has enough to entertain a visitor for many repeat trips (by population, Shenzhen is actually bigger than Hong Kong, and so it makes sense that it has a lot to offer). A border crossing and a significant difference in environment add to the feeling of adventure.

The logistics. First, you need a visa (assuming you are not a PRC passport or travel document holder), which is pretty easy, especially in Hong Kong. You can go directly to the China visa office located near the convention center in Wan Chai, or you can go through an agent such as CTS or Swire. As a tourist, you are unlikely to get a multiple entry visa, but you should be able to get a multiple entry visa if you have the right credentials for a business visa or if you have a Hong Kong ID Card. The process will likely cost you over USD 100 if you are an American citizen (thanks to reciprocity), or somewhat less if you are from elsewhere. Citizens of countries other than the United States and the United Kingdom, I was told once, are able to get a special Shenzhen-only visa at the border crossing, although I am not familiar with the process.

To get to Shenzhen, you have two principal options: train or bus. The KCRC East Rail starts at Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST) East Station, goes through Hung Hom, Mong Kok and Kowloon Tong stations in Kowloon and heads up to either the Lo Wu or newly opened Lok Ma Chau stations, which are connected to border crossings (Luohu and Huanggang, respectively). The train runs every few minutes from around 6:00 AM to midnight and costs about HKD 35 (USD 4) for the run. The bus leaves from a few different locations throughout Hong Kong, including the CTS office on Hennessey Road in Wan Chai, and goes to the Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang border. Which you choose can depend on where in Shenzhen you want to go. The Lo Wu border offers the main Shenzhen train station as well as a down-and-dirty mall featuring all your immediate needs, such as counterfeit goods and tailors, while the Lok Ma Chau border is closer to other parts of central Shenzhen, Shenzhen airport and the amusement parks in Shenzhen. The bus costs a bit more but can be convenient, especially at times when the train isn’t running or on the way back from the airport (the guaranteed seat on the bus can be a little more comfortable than a potentially crowded train requiring a change of transportation in TST).

Attractions. What is there to do in Shenzhen? A lot. I am by no means an expert on Shenzhen, having only been up a handful of times during my years in Hong Kong, but below is a short list. None of them may be world-class attractions, but they’re good diversions for all or part of a weekend.

Restaurants. Food in Shenzhen is outstanding, and cheap. Shenzhen, perhaps because it is a city of immigrants from other parts of China, offers an outstanding array of restaurants featuring all Chinese cuisines. Many of these restaurants include outposts of famous Chinese restaurants based in other parts of China, including restaurants that have not yet made it across the border to Hong Kong. On our last trip, we went to Mao Jia, featuring food from Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan province. Restaurants are well-decorated and spacious, offer a high level of service and cost about a third to a half of Hong Kong prices.

Shopping. I haven’t done too much shopping in Shenzhen, but right at the Lo Wu/Luohu border is a multistory mall featuring countless shops selling cheap but creatively designed clothes, jewelry, tailors, counterfeit goods (watches, handbags, DVDs), souvenirs, cheap electronics, etc. Quality can vary, but the prices are good. Shopping for genuine brand name goods is generally much more expensive in Shenzhen than in Hong Kong.

Spas. Shenzhen (like many other big Chinese cities) has many huge spa complexes (the one we’ve been to is called Pacific (not too far from the Luohu train station)). The best description of these spas is a Las Vegas casino, but with spa services instead of gambling. Pacific (the neon sign says “Pacific Lay Fallow Agora”) features large dressing rooms with huge jacuzzis, sauna and steamroom (and attendants who help you undress and dress), comfortable chairs with personal televisions in which you can sit eating fruit while getting foot massages, a restaurant, massage rooms, small sleeping quarters, karaoke, a computer room and many other facilities. Massages are quite affordable, of course, and use of the sleeping chambers (to nap or to save on lodging) is included if your bill exceeds RMB 138 (about USD 18).

Historical/Cultural sites. Surprisingly, within Shenzhen city limits or just outside there are several historical/cultural sites worth visiting. To the north in Dongguan city are the Humen fort, an Opium War site, as well as Ming and Qing dynasty villages. On the highway toward Shantou, within city limits, is an interesting fortified village. We have also been to Dapeng fort, which is somewhat far to the East (1.5 hours by bus), but a well preserved quiet old town.

Amusement parks. Shenzhen features several large amusement parks. Splendid China contains miniatures of all of China’s great historical and cultural sites and is adjoined to a folk village containing homes of China’s various minority groups (from Uyghurs to Dong to Koreans, many of whom put on song-and-dance shows). Windows of the World includes scale models of famous world landmarks, some rides and a rather crazy over-the-top show, as well as indoor iceskating and skiing. Minsk World is an old Soviet aircraft carrier that has been turned into something of a Russian military amusement park, and is somewhat less worthwhile than the other two, though there is the novelty of being on a Soviet aircraft carrier.

Beaches. We’ve never been but are told that there are some nice beaches, where you can hang out or rent motorized vehicles.

Nightlife. We are told that there’s great nightlife in Shenzhen. We have been to one gay bar which was surprisingly lively and upbeat.

Travel to other parts of China. As I’ve discussed previously, Shenzhen can act as a gateway to countless travel destinations, mainly in China. The train station is right at the Lo Wu/Luohu border and the airport is a 30 minute drive from the Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang border. Buses leave for destinations in Guangdong province as well as Yangshuo/Guilin. And you can also take the new high-speed train to Guangzhou in about an hour.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Mekong Delta

Corresponding recently with an American traveler who is planning a trip to Vietnam, I was reminded of one of the best short trips we’ve made from Hong Kong: Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Outstanding aspects of this QuickTrip include convenience, price, great food and unbelievable contrast from Hong Kong’s urban bustle. 

For the Hong Kong traveler, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, or Saigon) is one of the cheapest, most convenient flight destinations from Hong Kong. Not only are there twice daily Cathay flights and a daily Vietnam Airlines flight, but most conveniently there is a United Airlines flight, serviced daily by a Boeing 747, that is often sold at cheap fares and has a perfect schedule for QuickTrippers: a nighttime outbound and early morning return. Even for a weekend, you get two full days in Vietnam with a Friday night flight departing 8:45 PM to arrive at 10:05 PM and a Monday morning return at 6:15 AM arriving at 9:50 AM (okay, so you may be a bit late to work). For this QuickTrip to the Mekong Delta, I would recommend a three- or four-day weekend.

Since the flight arrives late at night, it’s probably best to sleep in Saigon the first night (the airport is very convenient to town, with cheap taxis making the short run). My favorite place to stay is in the Indochine Hotel, which runs about USD 20-30 per night. If you’re feeling really energetic, you can go out for a quick bite (say, bahn xeo at the famous Banh Xeo 46A, at 46A Dinh Cong Trang, off of Hai Ba Trung) or a drink at the eclectic and seedy Apocalypse Now.

Early the next morning, catch a bus from the main bus station (near Ben Thanh Market) for Vinh Long. (Before catching the bus, you can do like Bill Clinton and have breakfast at Pho 2000 nearby.) We find that catching a public bus while traveling provides one of the most natural opportunities to interact with local people on an equal basis. For the more comfortable traveler, hiring a car and driver for the weekend would not break the bank.

Vinh Long is about three hours away, and a restful town with a good selection of hotels (around USD 10 for a comfortable room) and restaurants. Food in the Mekong Delta is definitely some of the best we’ve had in Vietnam (your visit will likely take you near places that make shrimp paste, fish sauce, rice paper and other Vietnamese staples). By wandering around the waterside street in Vinh Long, you will likely run into at least a few local women offering boat rides (or, rather, they will run into you and follow you around). Prices are negotiable, of course, but good value even if you aren’t a great negotiator. Depart early the next morning to see the best floating markets at their liveliest. There will be other tourists of course, but they’re dwarfed by the amount of genuine commerce taking place. After Vinh Long, we left for Can Tho, a somewhat bigger city in the Delta that also offers early morning trips to floating markets and beautiful waterways. If you depart Hong Kong on Friday night, you should be able to have a peaceful Saturday arriving in the Delta, take boat rides on Sunday and Monday, and return to Saigon Monday night for your early morning Tuesday flight.