Bolivian Indians believe coca leaves hold the future

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EL ALTO, Bolivia, Sep 21 (Reuters) Inside her booth, as small and dingy as a garden shed, gold-toothed soothsayer Felipa Quispe places a handful of coca leaves on an intricately patterned Tari cloth.

''So what would you like the coca leaves to tell you? Love, money, career?'' she asks.

I had come up the steep hill from the city of La Paz high in the Andes to the sprawling El Alto slum to have an Aymara shaman read my future in coca leaves, a plant central to Bolivian indigenous culture and religion.

''Love,'' I say.

She places two coca leaves on the Tari and scatters a dozen more leaves around. ''I can see someone in your life. It'll go alright between you two, although she's grumpy sometimes. But you can be too full of yourself. It all depends,'' she says.

We move on to my career. Quispe throws more leaves over the Tari and says, ''I can see a pay rise coming up for you. But it all depends.'' I wonder what it all depends on, and suspect it will mean shelling out more money. I am right. ''If you really want the future to swing your way, you need to make an offering to the Pachamama (earth goddess),'' she says.

So we buy ingredients for my offering: sugary candies shaped like a couple holding hands, dollar signs and airplanes as well as herbs, sulphur, coca leaves, llama wool, silver glitter and feathers.

Quispe arranges them neatly on a saucer, pours alcohol over it and takes it outside before lighting it up.

She starts swaying and chanting in Aymara, but I can make out a few phrases in Spanish: ''Everything will go well with Senor Eduardo's loved one. Senor Eduardo's bosses will give him a raise. Fortune will come to Senor Eduardo.'' She charges 20 dollars for the offering plus 2 dollars for the fortune telling, a lot in the poorest country in South America, where most families struggle on just a few dollars a day.

But the dozen or more saucers already burning in the morning air suggest many are willing to pay the price.

SACRED LEAF Most Bolivians are of indigenous descent and even in urban areas such as El Alto -- 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level -- people preserve pre-Christian beliefs in witchdoctors who perform spells and heal people with traditional medicines.

Indians used coca as an anaesthetic centuries before Western scientists developed the leaf into cocaine, and they still chew it to ward off hunger and fight altitude sickness.

Coca leaves are revered as sacred and are present at important moments from marriage proposals to funerals.

''With the coca leaf, Indians know their past, know their present, know their future and know about death,'' says Sdenka Silva, director of the Coca Museum in La Paz. ''A Bolivian shaman must know how to read coca leaves.'' The fortune tellers' booths advertise the ability to bring back a loved one, heal disease or reverse a curse. Nearby stores offer bags of coca leaves, dried llama fetuses, amulets, owl feathers and medicinal plants.

Coca is also a symbol of political struggle in Bolivia, the world's third largest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Growers defend traditional uses of the plant and have fought previous US-backed campaigns to wipe out their crops.

They led street protests that ousted two presidents in 2003 and 2005, paving the way for former coca farmer Evo Morales' election as the country's first Indian president.

Under Morales, government officials ostentatiously chew coca in public and last year he famously brandished a coca leaf at a UN forum while decrying the leaf's ''criminalization''.

Quispe says that an offering like the one she just made for me contributed to Morales' rise to power.

''We did a ritual for Evo Morales and see, now he's president,'' says Quispe. ''If you have faith, it can work.'' REUTERS JK RAI0902

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