Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Goes In, Eventually Must Come Out






Grandmother Placing Betel Nut In Her Mouth

Most people have undoubtedly heard the adage of "What goes up must come down".  This statement refers to gravity and indicates that whatever is thrown up or placed in an elevated position will eventually succumb to gravity and return to the ground.  Here in Isaan, or for a matter of fact any where, there should be another adage just as valid - "What goes in, eventually must come out."

We all are knowledgeable regarding the consumption of food or feed and how eventually the waste products of digestion are eliminated.  Well here in Isaan there is another biological process or rather habit where what goes in must eventually come out - betel nut chewing or betelnut chewing.

I have written about this tradition a couple of times in this blog:

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Yesterday, 12 August, was Mother's Day here in Thailand.  Duang and I drove out to Tahsang Village to pay our respects to her mother and one of her aunts.  There always seems to be something interesting for me to photograph so I brought along my camera backpack.

Sure enough there was plenty to photograph - children paying respect to their mothers, children playing, road side produce stands, peanut harvesting, and saht weaving.

 A grandmother and her grand-daughter were set up in the community building(?) of Tahsang Village to weave locally harvested reeds into sahts.  The community building is an open sided corrugated metal structure with a full concrete block wall on one end and three three foot high walls on the remaining perimeter.  There are opening in two of the low walls to allow the passage of people, dogs, chickens, and children in and out of the sheltered area.  The structure is used for village meetings, local as well as national voting, government sponsored instructional programs, Songkran celebrations, occasional marketplace for traveling kitchenware or household goods vendors and most of all as a  play area for children.  It has a roof and a concrete floor so the children frequent the area to play out from the sun and/or rain; besides the low walls are great for climbing on and jumping off.

Yesterday besides being an area where our grandson and other village children were playing, the area was being used by the grandmother and her grand-daughter to weave the ubiquitous Lao Loum floor and ground covering - the saht.

When I arrived the grandmother and grand daughter were engaged in stringing the loom that had been placed on old sahts placed over the concrete floor.  After working together to get the loom fifty percent restrung, they took a break.  The grand daughter went off to visit friends next door to the community area and the grandmother retired to one of the plastic chairs kept in the area for events.  As she walked across the floor the chair she was carrying a small woven basket with her; a small woven basket that you often see being carried by older Lao Loum women here in Isaan.  The basket does not contain food (far from it!).  The basket does not contain needlepoint or embroidery supplies.  The basket contains her accouterments for chewing betel nut!

Grandmother Getting Some Lime (Chemical not Fruit) for Betel Nut Chewing
I am not a fan or proponent of betel nut chewing which I find akin to chewing tobacco or "dipping".  I was traumatized by my introduction to chewing tobacco many years ago.  I was born and raised in New England and never played baseball so I was not accustomed to chewing tobacco or even "dipping".  After I had graduated from university and joined a large engineering/construction company, I was assigned to a project in Lake Charles, Louisiana where many of the men chewed tobacco.

One of the subcontractors had a very colorful superintendent, I believe by the name of Hub or Hoke Meadows.  He constantly chewed tobacco and therefore was frequently spitting out tobacco juice wherever and whenever he chose to.  He was involved in the site preparation of the site in an area that I was responsible for.  One day there was a problem and he drove me over to the site in order that I could assist in the resolution of the problem.  It was terrifying for me sitting in the front passenger seat of his company pickup truck.  It was not his driving that bothered me.  It was not exactly the rough and bumpy terrain that we were driving over.  What bothered me immensely, was the rocking back and forth of the coke can that he kept on the dashboard of the truck,  the coke can that was about half filled with his spittle and tobacco juice!  As he drove, he would reach for the open topped container and add to its contents.  I lived in fear that the can would topple over and spill its contents on to me.


Here in Isaan I do not have that fear because the people spit the red juices from betel nut chewing into a plastic lined small bucket.  However I find the practice just as revolting as tobacco chewing.  My mother-in-law chews betel nut as well as most of her friends.  I tease her in Thai about if there is "red water in the truck" I will not let her ride in our pickup truck ever again.

Chewing betel nut involves a process involving a tree leaf, betel nut slices or chips, and chemical lime.  These ingredients are combines to produce a plug or packet that is placed in the mouth.  I have witnessed two distinct rituals to prepare the ingredients.  One method is to use small mortar and pestle to grind everything together and then pack it into a metal tube to make a small plug to place in the mouth.


My mother-in-law just like the woman whom I photographed yesterday use a less labor method to prepare their "chew".  They take a leaf or two in their hand, sprinkle some betel nut slices or chips on to the leaf, smear some chemical lime paste on to the betel nut and then fold up the leaf or leaves much as people fold up a chimichangas (Mexican food), and place it in the side of their mouth.  After a while the packet or plugs produce copious amounts of red spittle that they discharge from their mouth into their little buckets.

What Went In Is Now Coming Out
Yes, what goes in, eventually must come out but I often wonder why it was even necessary for it to go in. However, I am a guest.  This is their culture and it is not mind so I will keep my mouth shut ... just like I did in Louisiana.

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