Hooked on Cocaine

Last week I arrived at the highest international airport in the world – – serving the highest capital city in the world: La Paz, Bolivia. The airport sits high in the Andes, 13,000 feet above sea level…so high, that in the thin air, airplanes need a runway 2.5 miles long.

I had arrived from sea-level Boston and within 30 minutes I began to feel the effects of SOROCHE, altitude sickness. One gets a sort of low grade flu feeling. The passage of time will eventually cure SOROCHE, but if one must go to work the next day it is necessary to speed up the acclimatization process. For this, one can take a mild stimulant. When one´s heart beats faster, it will pump more oxygen-bearing blood through the body, speeding recovery time. The stimulant of choice high in the Andes is MATE de COCA, made from the leaves of the coca plant, which you may know can be refined into illegal cocaine. In Bolivia, growing coca and chewing the leaves or brewing in tea (MATE de COCA) is perfectly legal.

So, I followed the lead of the Bolivians and drank coca tea for several consecutive meals. Now before you think I have become a coke addict let me point out that the cocaine impact of coca leaves is tantamount to becoming a heroin addict from a morning poppy seed muffin. Or a wino by eating grapes. Or a crystal meth addict by watching two seasons of Breaking Bad. But I digress.

Time and coca tea cured me of altitude sickness and I went to work.

Walisuma is an upmarket retail store offering traditional, but refined, Andean crafts. Think alpaca sweaters and pure silver necklaces. The sweaters are so upmarket and refined that they sell for as much as $500. In fact, in the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages, Walisuma means ¨Best of the Best.¨

Now you may wonder, how in the world could a poor Bolivian, living on less than $2 per day afford such a sweater? The idea, dear reader, is that you, not the poor Bolivian, will be able to afford the butter soft, stylish, natural tone alpaca sweater. And the $500 that you (and other wealthy tourists) cough up for the product will go to a poor Bolivian artisan. Though not yet in the product line, Walisuma may someday even offer a sweater from the rarest of all wools: vicuña. A vicuña sweater can cost $5,000. I only mention this in the event you are at a loss for an appropriate Christmas gift idea for me.

My assignment is to help Walisuma grow so that it can help more craftsmen make more than $2 per day. I will work with my client to develop a growth strategy – – inside Bolivia and internationally – – so that more and more poor, but talented artisans can find outlets for their products. Artisenal products offered by Walisuma include woven fabrics (sweaters, shawls, dresses, wall hangings, table cloths), wooden ítems, leather goods, silver jewelry, home furnishings, and specialty foods (coffee, chocolate, wine)…all 100% products of Bolivia.

I have already been introduced to the team behind Walisuma, evaluated their business results, been given a workspace in the back of the store, visited competing retail shops, and toured a local crafts fair. Tomorrow I am scheduled to visit and interview several of the 40 or so artisans who supply product to Walisuma. Armed with this background, we will begin a series of strategic planning discussions that will lead to a Best of the Best growth strategy.

So until my next blog post, I leave you with this final thought: my favorite fabric color is natural coffee-colored vicuña wool. Size: medium.

4 thoughts on “Hooked on Cocaine”

  1. Cousin, you are The Man! I never know where you will turn up next. You are doing a world of good. I’m so proud of you!


  2. I love looking into the worlds you visit, Bill. You have a unique blend of cultural appreciation, business acumen–and humor. Can you set up a virtual store, so readers of your blog could make Walisuma purchases?

  3. Whenever I drive by your house to visit my family, the first thought that enters my mind is, “Hmmm. Wonder where Bill is now.” And you just answered my question. Keep it all together!

  4. Another great clip and this from the heights of the Bolivian Andes. Our son and his wife honeymooned in La Paz, but soon retreated to lower elevations because of soroche! If only they had known the Mate’de Coca + patience remedy. Blessings on you the wonderful work you do!

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