“Wisdom in a Basket”

Everyone here carries a beautiful, intricately woven basket, containing pepper leaves, lime, and — betelnuts.

Everyone chews betelnut here, and I mean – *every*one. Receptionists in government offices, clerks in the post office, policemen, store clerks, computer programmers, educational curriculum designers, people on the street, children – nearly everyone.

Except Lorenzo. Lorenzo has beautiful dentition, something that betelnut will ensure you *will not have* if you chew regularly. A chemical reaction of the pepper, lime, and betelnut causes the chew to go red. Chew it enough, and it stains your teeth. And unfortunately, habitual use slowly rots your teeth. Add tobacco and alcohol as an additional garnish (and others use garlic or ginger instead of tobacco and alcohol) and the combination can be more powerful or flavorful. Lorenzo doesn't chew, nor does he want his children to chew. He offers no explanation why, and I don't press him. I think I know why. But very few people here do not chew.

Lorenzo, and later Rosa, who does chew and offered me my first chew, answered the curious questions I had about this ubiquitious nut.

It's simply “Wisdom in a Basket.” Preparing and chewing a betelnut provides the time needed to think about something before responding. Rather than put your foot in your mouth prematurely in reaction to a situation, people here pull out their betelnut from these beautiful baskets, and arrange the pepper leaf, lime and cracked nut in a sandwich like roll. They insert it into their mouth, and begin chewing.

While chewing, the effect of the nut is felt, contemplation begins, and later, words flow. People also chew during a conversation. I'm learning how to listen to someone talk to me with their mouth full of betelnut. If a person has a strong Yapese (or Ulithian, Satawalese, or Woleaian) accent, it's a challenge to understand them, but I'm a linguist after all.

Anthropologists can't be judgmental…nor should linguists. We report what we see as accurately as we can.

One tour book I read said that the sidewalks of Colonia were stained with betelnut, leading the reader to believe that s/he would be stepping on betelnut remains everywhere. I'm here to tell you that observation is dead wrong. You might see a little red splat here and there, but certainly its not like a paint job. And there is no gum on the sidewalks here – noone to my knowledge chews that stuff.

Eventually, the remains of the spent betelnut must be spat out. I have seen just a few (and believe me, I've done a lot of people-watching here) spit in my presence, but they're polite and discreet, and aim it expertly into a nearby receptacle. Mind you, there are spitoons everywhere – outside and inside.

I can count on one hand with three fingers missing the number of people I've seen here who smoke. It's almost non-existent. People chew instead.

Yap is known for its high quality betelnut, and it is the number one agricultural export. Sudal hurt production for awhile, but everyone is chewing again, I suspect the betelnut trees have all recovered and are producing like mad.

Rosa described what a first experience might be like, so I declined when I was offered some in the computer room of the Department of Education, where she is the Director. I have a pretty strong constitution, but I didn't want to get red-faced and dizzy in front of her colleagues. Though I was tempted.

I will try it, but preferably in someone's back yard. 

I will say one thing – between living in a society of smokers, where I have walked through too many choking clouds of smoke in my life, or betelnut chewers, where I've navigated through spitoons that are very similar to plastic mounted rubbish cans on city streets, I'll take the chewers any day.

[the above photo is a betelnut tree just after sunset, with the waxing moon]


About kevinmroddy

I am a freelance musician
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