I wanted khat—and I wanted it now.
So naturally I called a cab. One cab company was recently fined $35,860 because their drivers were working more than 14 hours a day (among other things). It was just a hunch, but with stamina like that, I figured immigrant drivers must prefer some strong, exotic, and drug-test-proof stimulant to be putting in those long hours. And that's khat.
The cab pulled up, I jumped in out of the rain. I wasted no time with the how-long've-you-been-driving pleasantries. My unsubtle inquiry about khat was rewarded with a matter-of-fact reply in his thick accent.
"Khat, you know, it's a bit like kavajava, but sometimes with little dancing monkeys too."
It dawned on me that maybe this wasn't something I wanted to hear from a kava-drinking cabbie at 65 MPH. His elixir was in a beaten-up Slurpee cup wedged between the seat cushions.
Why not ask?
"Can I have some?" I asked the driver.
He only allowed me a little sip, saying it was "too special to waste on nonbelievers." Hmm, sweet and sour tea without any convenience-store aftertaste. Warmth almost instantly percolated through my body, erasing any perception of the rain drying on my shoulders.
"Wait... I want to be a believer."
He wasted no time in giving me the address of a khat-using church in Southeast.
Wikipedia tells us that khat "is a flowering plant that is native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It also "contains the alkaloid cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant," and its "fresh leaves and tops are chewed... in order to achieve a state of euphoria."
Unsurprisingly, khat is illegal in the United States. In the past year, the feds have busted several major khat rings in Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, and Boston, confiscating more than $10 million's worth of the imported leaf. Although PDX has no direct connection to khat-producing areas, last year Portland's cops caught someone with 90 bundles, each with an estimated street value of $40. If khat is like any other drug, I thought optimistically, they catch only a small percentage of the total imported amount.
Since Sunday would be the first chance to visit the church suggested by my cabbie, I decided to try my luck and start my khat search locally—at a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. The owner was reluctant to talk.
"It's not available here," he said, brushing me off. "You might want to ask young people who might know more."
So I asked his teenage daughter at the cash register on my way out. It took a while to get the question across because I was pronouncing it with more of the guttural "k" of the Middle East, whereas Ethiopians use more of a "ch" sound.
When I finally said it correctly, a raptured look of recognition lit up her face.
"Oh yeah, many people would chew that out in the street in Ethiopia. Do you want to know where you can find it here?"
As I blurted out, "YES," her mom annoyingly intervened. They exchanged a few heated sentences in their native language; I said I was sorry for disturbing the customers. After that, all they would say was, "We don't know anything about it."
Let's Go To Church
That Sunday, I headed out past Felony Flats to the church in question for what I hoped would be a khat-induced ecstatic experience. The churchgoers would see my genuine fervor for their chosen method of communing with God and want me to share in their glory.
Turns out it was a Tongan Methodist church—okay... I wasn't quite expecting that. No matter, I thought, as I walked up confidently to the pastor, affectionately known to his congregants as "King." Bad idea. I've never been shown the door faster than when I asked him about the role khat plays in his services.
Nevermind. The people in the church didn't seem to be chewing khat anyway.
As I sulked outside, I noticed some young Tongan-looking guys across the street who obviously weren't going to be attending church either. They chained Marlboros in the driveway as they customized a Honda sports car.
One of them shook his head and made himself scarce at the mere mention of khat—but Jimmy was happy to talk. I quickly learned that, apparently, Tongans have given up the practice for the most part—but he claimed to have seen groups of Laotians chewing khat at a Northeast apartment complex. Laotians, huh? The search continues!
Khat in the Box
Disappointingly, this complex lacked the scores of happily masticating immigrants that Jimmy promised—but I was able to find a nearby grocery store advertising "specialties from Laos." It seemed like a long shot, but at this point I had nothing to lose. My spiel was well rehearsed, and I asked the owner if I could buy some khat. He must have seen the desperation in my eyes, because he pulled out a cardboard box from underneath the counter.
My heart jumped as I saw him lift up the wet Asian newspapers—the same packaging described in police and customs officers' confiscation reports. Underneath were piles of shapely, juicy leaves, much larger than I had imagined them from photos. For a mere dollar, he gave me a generous handful of leaves that he said would last me for a day.
"When you come here, you just ask for beda leaf," he said, wanting to assure me he would always have a fresh supply.
Elated, I rushed out of the store and illegally stuffed a leaf into my mouth, despite the fact that busy traffic was passing by. I had the source, I thought triumphantly, and I made such a good impression on him that he gave me some special codeword in case he had someone else working there. The leaf tasted of Red Bull, keeping me quite alert for several hours. Or maybe I was just damn happy.
A Rose by Any Other Name
As I came down, I came to a depressing realization—the leaf I had so happily gobbled wasn't khat. It was the betel leaf. I gloomingly recalled Christopher Moore's Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Moore's carefully researched book had Pacific Islander characters chewing areca or "betel" nuts (sounds like: "just ask for beda leaf"). The nuts are used to aid in the absorption of the betel leaf's active ingredient, which is completely legal in the US even though it produces effects similar to khat.
However, I refused to be disappointed. The betel leaf worked, didn't it? A quick trip back to my new favorite store rewarded me with an amazingly cheap month's supply of betel nuts, conveniently located next to the ice-cream sandwiches in a Good Humor freezer case. With nut and leaf at last united in my mouth, I produced a tart juice that worked like marijuana-laced Red Bull, with a serious confidence-boosting agent thrown in at no extra charge.
After chewing the leaf-and-nut combo for the duration of a movie, I had the sudden urge to go for a walk. The stars shone a hundred times their normal brilliance, and everything had more contrast, making me feel like I could see every detail. All the stiffness I had in my legs disappeared, allowing my limbs to flow free as if I were a child.
As I walked past a downtown club, I had the overwhelming urge to check out whatever was going on inside. This was weird, since these people normally exist outside my social circle. Since I behaved so nonchalantly, or so I thought, I walked right past the bouncer without paying a cent.
I remember nothing about the music, only that it fit perfectly with the scene. I spoke easily with complete strangers that would normally annoy me, and everything we said seemed right on. Not the "right on" of nervous embarrassment associated with marijuana, more like just "on."
Feeling the need to keep walking to achieve more stimuli, I headed deeper downtown, lured by the flickering lights of buildings and, potentially, the flickering pixels of Ground Kontrol. The arcade was closed, but boy, were there lots of interesting people to talk to! When everyone else had already lazily slipped off to their beds, I found myself joining an unorganized predawn jog along the Vera Katz Memorial Esplanade. I didn't even feel out of place with my jeans and Converse amid a sea of Spandex.
I even got my first chance to wave at the newspaper delivery guy before sinking into bed. I wasn't exhausted; I was just too weightless to fully control my movements. There weren't any betel-induced dreams. I only remember a strange series of cinematic vignettes merging into one another before being overtaken by sleep.
The girl from the Ethiopian restaurant was hanging out in a parking lot, chewing khat with her friends and some off-duty cops. The people at the club were crossing me with burning, rolled-up bunches of betel as I held up my arms saying, "I do believe!" I ended up thinking about how much I like Tongan Methodists for no particular reason. All in all, not a bad trip.
I say the feds can keep their confiscated khat as long as they keep my betel legal. As for me, I'm happy with my discovery, and the next time I catch a cab, I can proudly look that driver in the eye and say, "Yes, sir. I'm a believer."