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7) The Golden Paste

Base is a street drug found in much of South America, though its origins are in the Andes. Called basuco in the Spanish Andes--derived from the word basura--literally meaning "trash." Base is the paste left at the bottom of the barrel after cocaine production. The resin of cocaine, one might say. It is highly stigmatized and used by the poorest subsections of Ecuador's population and runs rampant throughout the country's prisons. It has similar effects as crack cocaine in the United States and faces similar marginalization. The yellow paste is smoked in a glass pipe and produces a very powerful, fleeting high, making the user continually smoke more and more. It is much cheaper than cocaine, (which is already dirt cheap in Ecuador, according to North American standards), with just a dollar or two guaranteeing users a steady high for several hours. Base was everywhere on the streets in my fieldwork. A small proportion of the sex workers I worked with were supporting base habits and it was always easy to spot them--gaunt, wiry bodies, with sunken faces and hollow eyes. The forefinger of base smokers' dominant hand would turn yellow, stained by the base while smoking. With enough use, it actually turned neon, looking like it glowed in the dark. This prominent feature was the easiest way to identify a base consumer. Someone under the influence of base was called triqueada/o. "Tricked up." They were jumpy, talkative, at times aggressive or anxious, with dilated pupils and staccato movements. I could spot when Santiago (all names have been changed), my unofficial bodyguard, was on base a mile away. Even the way he walked changed--an irregular cadence with short/twitchy gestures. His eyes always darted about, looking wild and dark, not focusing on anything in particular. It scared me when he was on base, as he would wear a grimace and his kind, friendly, and easy demeanor would evaporate. He turned aggressive sometimes, though never towards me, and would grunt a brief hello, if that, to me. When he was triqueado, he was on an eternal mission to score more. His impulsive, unpredictable nature made me nervous and I always felt sad and helpless as he pushed his son, Francisco, in his stroller to the nearest trap house or the open air drug market, a corner near where the sex workers solicited. I was always baffled seeing Santiago triqueado because he looked like he was having a miserable time. He was clearly agitated. How naive I was back then, how little I understood about late stage addiction, and how surprised I would have been to know that I, too, years later, would also use cocaine despite it making me feel like hell. I had no idea that Santiago simply could not stop--he had far passed the stage of "having fun" on base, it was simply a necessity that he had to have.

People on the street simply did not have the money to use cocaine. Plus, base was a more intense high, albeit more short-lived. Many Afro-Ecuadorian women from the coast sold base on the streets--it always surprised me that it was women who sold base, not men. But surely, it was men controlling these sales behind these female facades. These women did not look like they used. They probably didn't. Sometimes base dealers would pretend to be sex workers, camouflaging themselves amongst the other women. But everyone knew who the base dealers were, just as everyone knew who the base users were. Some base dealers worked all day, while others worked only at night. In other parts of Quito, especially in La Mariscal (the neighborhood known as Gringolandia due its high volume of international tourists), the base dealers only came out at night. Many of the sex workers addicted to base worked at night, even though it was more dangerous. Often they solicited clients who also smoked base and they would go on benders all night (or for days). The base smokers were always trying to prove that they had "cut down" or had even "stopped" completely, by pinching their waists, trying to show that they had more fat there than before. But their efforts were futile. We all knew that they hadn't cut down or quit, it was too obvious, as they showed up triqueada day after day. So, one might ask, if my days on the streets were surrounded by drugs, how did that affect my own drug use? It's a tricky one....let's take a look...

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