The Tao of Puu July 20, 2012

Why not go out on a limb?  Isn’t that where the fruit is?  -Frank Scully

Ahhh, Friday night in Sapuk what to do?  The clubs are all closed.  Actually, there never were any clubs to close in the first place.  Maybe take in a movie at the…that’s right…no movie theater.  There was one years ago for the U.S. military, but that left with the last aircraft carrier.  I hear there’s a band playing at…..oh yeah, their power shuts off about a half an hour ago.  What to do?

The path to puu

“Hey Chris, you want to chew?”






“Do you want to chew some puu?”

The Seussian back and forth banter between me and a coworker was beginning to sound just a little too nonsensical for me. But basically he was asking if I cared to step out on the deck and chew some puu, or as the rest of the world knows it–beetle nut. Beetle nut? As in “Bloody Mary’s chewing beetle nuts now ain’t that too damn bad.”? I’ve never chewed beetle nut before.

In India, everyone’s teeth were stained red and speckled with chunks of fibrous material.  “Beetle nut,” The cabbie in Varanasi had told me.  “Everyone chews it.  It’s good.  Makes you dizzy,” and he grinned a reddish brown grin. Twelve years later, I still can’t believe I got in his cab.

But beetle nut, you say?  Like India, beetle nut is prevalent here.  The maintenance staff, people in and about town, villagers in Sapuk, almost every local adult I encounter chews. I ruminated. Well since our conversation started off sounding like Green Eggs and Ham, and  since the central theme of that masterwork of western philosophy is the importance of trying new things, and since there is absolutely nothing else to do, let’s go chew the puu.

Now the first thing we had to do was get some. That’s no problem the ramshackle shops all over the place aroud here have torn cardboard and magic marker signs for it in their window.  Puu is relatively cheap. Two dollars gets you 20 nuts, some chili leaves, and fine white powder that looks like cocaine (or so I’m told) but is actually ground lime coral.   My cohort also asked to pick up a pack of cigarettes.  There’s a crumbling little shop just through the jungle a little bit away, where the path meets the road.  “Mei wor puu and cigarettes?” I asked nervously. I felt like a high school kid trying to get served at a liquor store.  This of course was foolish since beetle nut is legal and culturally acceptable in this part of the world.  That probably explains why the man behind the counter looked at me oddly–either that or my pidgin Chuukese.

I walked back  up the path back, being careful not to slip on the putrefying breadfruit along and holding breath against the smell; it’s nasty–somewhere between old bannas and new manure. When I got back, my colleague explained to me the procedure.  You see, you don’t jut pop puu in your mouth and start to chew; you need to prepare it.

Step one: Get your beetle nut, chili leaf and coral out.

Step two: Prepare the nut.  It is kind of like an acorn in that there is a leafy stem cap on it. Remove the cap, split the nut in half lengthwise and scoop out the middle, fleshy part.

Step  Three: Put a pinch of coral into the hollowed out part of the nut. (The purpose of the coral is to scrape and cut your cheek slightly so to as to allow whatever it is that causes the effect to get into the bloodstream.)

Step five: Put the two halves of the nut back together and wrap it in the chili leaf.

Step six: Put it in your mouth between your cheek and gum and, you guessed it, chew.

Thinking back on my trip to India, I did not try beetle nut, but I did try boung.  This was a brown paste that some people used in devotions and religious meditations.  Others just used it.  It was perfectly legal, and I remember the wonderful serene day I had on the banks of the Ganges.  I watched the Sadhus pray and meditate.  I watched the orange flowers float down the river.  I watched the people from the neighborhood come down to the ghat to bathe. I watched the Buddhist monk as he talked to me–he wanted to practice his English so he just talked while I stared. George Harrison finally made sense to me that day.

I chewed, hoping for and bracing for a similar experience.  After all, the guys in India said it made you dizzy.  Peterson from the village in Sapuk said it made you dizzy.  I waited for dizzy.

My first reaction was that it was kind of tasty.  Citrus with a touch of heat from the chili leaf.  My second reaction was that my mouth was filling with saliva.  I spit.  A reaction between the leaf and the coral turns your spit red.  That explained all the red teeth. I spit some more…and more…and more. I waited for dizzy.  Dizzy never came. I might as well have been waiting for Godot.

I asked my friend, “Um, when does dizzy get here.”

“Right away. Didn’t you feel it?”

I felt something–I remembered that song  from a Chorus Line–

They all felt something,
But I felt nothing
Except the feeling
That this bullshit was absurd!

My buddy asked, “Did you put the cigarette in?”

Cigarette?  What cigarette?–

“You break off half of the cigarette and put that in the nut before you chew it. That’s how you get the buzz.”

Cigarette?  You want me to chew on a cigarette.  But, Sam I Am, I do not like…the idea of chewing on a cigarette.  But this is an experiment in exploring cultural practices.  And remember what happened at the end of Green Eggs and Ham.  So I jiggered up another nut, this time with the cigarette, and I…..chewed.

Same thing…citrusy (mmm), spicy (mmm),…cigarettey (ack), and I waited for dizzy.  Just when I was about to take the whole spit drenched masticated concoction out of my mouth, guess what?  Dizzy showed up.  My head got light, a tingly body buzz worked its way out to my fingers.  “Ganges,” I thought, “I’m coming back home.”  But before that thought was complete, I was back in A Chorus Line, feeling nothing.

That’s it?  A five second nicotine rush from cutting my mouth open with shaved rocks and eating a cigarette?  I was all set to be  Dr. Thompson and I barely got to be Mr. Rogers?!?!  They’ve written songs about this stuff.  Every cabbie and musician in Varanasi swears by this, and it’s little more than Polynesian Copenhagen or Skoal?  What a rip.

But the breeze is nice.  The rain feels cool as its mist blows in on the porch. I’ll fix me up another nut sans cigarette.  It tastes kind of good.  It’s sort of relaxing here on the balcony and hmmmmmm.

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