The Red Saliva
"It enlivens the working spirit, and it feels good!" Mama Karmadina said as she pushed the filthy bag towards me. Cringing at first, yet, at the same time, it was a feast to my eyes as I watched them chew betel nut. Seeing them chew for so long, I thought to myself "wah it must taste like candy?" But when I tried it, my eyes instantly winced as tears came out, it was strong, bitter mixed with spicy taste, and definitely not chewy at all (in the beginning). As she laughed in ecstasy whilst looking at my expression, she said "Spit it out, you’ll get drunk." I must admit, after chewing betel nut, my body started to slightly sweat, and my face flushed. I wonder how I was able to talk and laugh with Mama Karmadina that day? And, openly share stories of various things after chewing betel nut together.
Ever since I traveled to East Indonesia, I started to get used to seeing women with dark lips and black teeth. Initially, overcome by shock as I noticed, that after they chewed, they spat and yes! traces of their red saliva was everywhere.
During the day and in the afternoon, they kept chewing. The moment they started chewing, not far from their reach, there needs to be a small filthy woven handbag. The bag, is at times kept on their laps, or passed on to the other afternoon lovers. The bag contains lime (limestone chalk), betel, and betel nut (areca nut).
Betel nut chewing was not just an afternoon activity in Maumere. I noticed they always gave a package of betel nut every time a guest comes to their house, on the procession of ancestral honor, or even during a wedding procession.
Why chewing? This became one of my biggest questions back then. Determined to find an answer as I went to the library, I found this quote which perplexed me :
“According to a sixth-century Indian text: betel is one of the eight enjoyments of life — along with unguents, incense, women, garments, music, beds, food, and flowers named in a Sanskrit verse of the twelfth century.” — based on Betel Chewing Tradition in South East Asia, Dawn F Rooney, Oxford University Press.
After having first hand experience of betel nut chewing, I must say that for me, just like smoking a cigarette or drinking warm coffee, chewing betel nut is a kind of prelude to all conversations for us to mingle together.
The experience gave me insight on the traditions of betel nut chewing and allowed me to embrace this culture that is still coherent in many provinces in Indonesia.