These containers have been decorated with scrimshaw using the simplest of tools in the highlands of central West Timor and house the lime powder [au], tobacco, siri leaf or asparagus and betel nut [pua].
Betel Nut chewing has reached ritual like proportions in the West Timor. Chewing of Betel has huge social and physical significance placed upon it. Betel to the Timorese is as the coco leaf is to the South American Indians. It puts extra oxygen into the bloodstream enabling the chewer to work longer and harder in the fields with less food [with a buzz]. This is important in a society where most of the people are subsistence level farmers and food is not an easy or regular thing.
Most Timorese men and many women enjoy a chew any time of night or day especially when visiting and greeting each other. Timor has created a spectacular range of paraphernalia surrounding this well-loved pastime and much to our collective joy these treasures are still made and used daily.
Betel nut accessories range from plainer containers for the betel [tiba], the asparagus like fruit or leaves and tobacco Then there are to more elaborately carved lime powder containers [kal au] whose motifs tell of the carvers clan and totemic guardian spirits both made from a variety of materials.
There are boxes to store your stash in at home [tempat siri], hand-made cutters and crushers for when your teeth are too eaten away from the lime to be able to break open your betel. Beautiful hand-woven man bags [aluk] and for the women hand-woven [mama tas] for everything to be carried about in.
Betel nut containers are hand crafted using bamboo, wood, bone, metal/silver, coconut, gourds or buffalo horn and more recently pvc piping. The containers are quite specific in use. No two are ever the same.
LIME POWDER AND THE ART OF CHEWING BETEL IN TIMOR
Yes it is chalk powder but it is not as neutral as the chalk that we use on our blackboards.
Lime powder in Timor is in fact the fossil coral which is gathered then crushed then stewed in a pot, then put into the sun to bake in caked then rerushed then strained so as to remove the dirt and grit and other impurities. It is fine balance of just how much lime powder to add to your betel mix because even just a little too much can burn your mouth.
When chewing betel nut [Areca Palm], firstly the nut is prepared by peeling the skin off and cutting the seed in to quarters, sometimes eights, and placing it in the cheek pouch in the mouth. Then out comes the lime powder container. A small amount (be very careful as too much burns the mouth) is tapped out into the palm of the left hand and tossed into the mouth. Mastication begins. Next (out of the betel/tobacco container) comes the sirih leaf or asparagus-like spear from the sirih vine. A whole leaf or about one sixth of a spear is tossed into the mouth. Mastication continues and the well chewed result is a bright orange salivary mix the excess of which is spat onto the ground retaining the bulk of the solids in the mouth and continuing to chew. If tobacco is going to be added it is about now that the chewer takes a small wad of chewing tobacco and slips it under the upper lip to moisten it prior to combining it with the rest of the mixture held in the mouth.
All in all a fine art indeed. Imagine yourself squatted under a tree with your friends sharing conversation and chewing betel nut until your mouth is numb and your head is spinning…..
Copyright Julie Emery 12/03/2018