Betel is a kind of nut which gets wrapped in some kind of leaves. You stick the whole packet in your mouth and kind of chew. Then you spit out the red juice. It gives you a high mild high, turns your whole mouth red, and wrecks the teeth of long-time betel chewers.
It’s not exactly socially acceptable for a woman to chew betel in Burma. I mean, it’s not illegal for women to do it, but it’s just not done. So it goes without saying that I tried betel exactly once while I lived in Burma. I have just three thoughts to share about betel. Here they are:
Thought #1: Is everyone spitting up blood?
The abundance of betel chewers in Burma means that the streets are riddled with blotches of bright red spittle. It’s unsettling and unnerving if you don’t know what it is. It almost looks like blood, like the place is a fucking war zone (actually, depending on the point in Burma’s history, even up until now, it very well truly may be a war zone). Then you discover the sources of the red blood-like blotches on the ground, and you wonder, “Is TB that prevalent here?” And finally someone helpfully explains to the hapless newcomer the true meaning and origin of those red spittle droplets all over the country.
The first time I experience a monsoon in Burma, I couldn’t help marveling at how all the rain diluted the betel spit which was all over everything. I couldn’t get it out of my head that the streets actually ran red with… betel spit!
Thought #2: The time I actually tried betel
I was dating this guy, and I had promised him that on this specific night, I would try betel nut. But instead, we went out and drank much too much Myanmar beer at a local pub. Well, I drank much too much Myanmar beer. My boyfriend was fine. I had almost forgotten all about the lighthearted promise that, “Tonight’s the night I try betel” and then I got absolutely obliviated just on beer. It was the kind of drunk where you just know that even one more sip or swallow of anything means that You. Are. Going. To. Puke.
Well. As I had reached that point of drunken oblivion, my boyfriend suddenly remembered that I was meant to try betel. I protested saying that I would surely vomit if I tried betel. He persisted saying that betel didn’t make people sick. I tried it. I got so sick that one of the waiters at the bar had to stand over me holding an umbrella while I puked beside the outhouse (we were in the middle of a monsoon season). When I was well enough to move, my boyfriend took me home, where I ended up dry-heaving outside of his apartment while he fumbled to open the padlock on the big iron gate and the deadbolt on his door to get me into his apartment so I could be sick in a proper bathroom.
To this day, the smell of betel makes me feel sick to my stomach.
Thought #3: It was bound to happen sooner or later.
Yup, I’ve been betel spat on. In the three years I lived in Burma, it actually happened twice, the first time less than a month after I arrived in the country and the second time with less than a month remaining in the country. The first time was not that bad in hindsight, as the guy who spat it only just grazed my feet, and I believe it truly was an accident. Also, I hadn’t yet developed my aversion to the smell of betel. The second time it happened, though, I could only conclude that it was planned and on purpose. A man drove past me and spat a heroic quantity of betel that ran down all of my arm and the length of my dress. I had been debating that morning whether to wear a white dress or a purple dress. I’m glad I went with purple. But I was a far way from home, and this meant that I had to fight the gag reflex while I made my way home, as evrything about me smelled strongly of betel.