Street vendor sells betel
Alcohol and cigarettes are widely used in South Asia as in the rest of the world. These vices are well accepted here and the usage of these two substances is tolerated. In this part of the world poisoning one’s organism is as usual as drinking juice. Nevertheless few people know that here in Asia there is another vice the usage of which is even more popular than our favorite cigarettes and alcohol.
The tropical climate in most parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent allows growing the areca palm, a plant that has small nuts mistakenly called betel nuts. The plant betel is from the genus Piper (Piper betle) and its leaves are used for rolling the nuts of the areca palm.
The most common way of use is to spread hydrated lime on the leave (the calcium contained in the lime helps absorbing the alkaloids of the betel and the areca), then pieces of the nut are added and sometimes other additives such as tobacco for chewing or mint paste. The whole mixture is wrapped in the leave and is ready to use. This small package is then put in the cheek and is chewed.
The arecoline, which is the main alkaloid, affects the central nervous system. Its effect is not very strong so the speech and the coordination of the body are not influenced. The chewing provokes the production of saliva and the lips are painted red. This makes the chewer to spit every two-three minutes.
In Myanmar for example, where people cannot live without betel, all the pedestrian walks are covered with red spots left from the spit. Often one can see on the road bottles of mineral water full of red liquid. The more vigilant travelers discover that the bottles are not full of raspberry juice but with the spit of the drivers who cannot show themselves from their windows every 2 minutes while driving, so they use bottles.
A half a liter bottle is filled within an hour of chewing, so you can imagine how much saliva is being produced. You can all consider for yourselves the bad effects this has on the body. People who had chewed betel for years on end often have black teeth and to a westerner the view is repulsive.
Chewing betel is so common in Myanmar that there are several betel shops even in the smallest village. It is strange though that the palm is easy to grow, but prices are high; a package of ten morsels costs 1-1,50 euro.
In Manipur state, India roads are sometimes blocked for political or other reasons and since the climate there doesn’t allow growing the palm, at this moment betel deliveries stop and prices skyrocket.
Chewing betel is widely spread regardless of gender, age or social status. Men, women, old people, young people, poor and rich chew betel and their eyes sparkle. It is interesting to us that the repulsive view of red lips and black teeth is not seen as something ugly by the people here. For a westerner a kiss with someone who has chewed betel is unthinkable.
There are several mountain tribes in Shan state, Myanmar, especially the Enn tribe, where black teeth are considered to be the ultimate beauty and everyone chews betel or even uses another tricks for blackening the teeth. Obviously these doesn’t stop them from kissing each other 🙂
Betel has also a symbolic meaning – it is present at all types of negotiations here and in Vietnam is important for the wedding ceremonies. In ancient times even kings chewed betel and had their own boxes of nuts and leaves. Today one can even see monks who do this – often seated in lotus pose with a pile of nuts next to him, a special metal spittoon and a handkerchief for the excess saliva.
Obviously the society here doesn’t consider this practice as a vice though it is addictive and has stimulating effect. There is not even one country in the world that prohibits using betel.
For the foreigner the whole betel stuff looks strange, unpleasant, ugly and hard to grasp. Why millions of people do this?
Maybe though for people from other cultures seeing a women with a cigarette in the mouth or a very drunk man provokes the same feelings?!