I like those stories in which adventurers go off into the Mexican desert in search of Indian shamans and ancient peyote rituals. Unfortunately, I was staying in Taipei at the time and so my foray into an indigenous drug culture lacked a wilderness.
Betel nut was my chosen narcotic, but finding it was hardly an adventure—it was everywhere, and I could have bought myself a box in any of the city’s grocery stores, or from a nearby roadside vendor. But I chose to head to the outskirts in search of seedier retailing, beyond the control of a new and self-righteous mayor who had recently banished smut from his streets.
What can’t be sold without the help of a nubile girl in a short skirt? Coffins, perhaps, but little else. Sex sells, and manipulating a customer’s base instincts to push betel nut seems as obvious as using busty models to sell sports cars. Made-up and under-dressed teenaged girls perch on high stools in glass boxes along all the major roadways flogging the stimulant, an enterprise not hidden away down some dark, dangerous back alley—it is right out there in the open, everywhere. Passing drivers are lured by leggy girls whose skinny tattooed calves extend up to bony knees; whose exposed thighs run up beneath flapping skirts to flashed panties; whose skin stretched over tight-stomachs glistens in the lamplight; whose slender arms and long necks beckon. Why go to Bangkok? It’s all right here on this little island.
I set out on my quest, venturing beyond the city limits, and soon found a row of kiosks on the edge of town, set up on the ground floor of a tall apartment building. The neighbourhood was more third world than economic tiger: it smelt dank from a nearby river; litter and parked vehicles were strewn over streets and pavements, amongst food stands and street vendors; and the poor-country din of horns, yells, and motorcycles jarred my ears. And betel nut was for sale.
Passing drivers dart their eyes over to the neon-lit glass kiosks, gawking for a second too long as they search out the naked flesh; their vehicles veer before the victim drags his eyes back to the traffic in front of him. Some succumb and the veer continues to the curb, whereupon the temptress uncrosses her legs and, as elegantly as possible, lowers herself down to the tiles, steps out on her high-heels, and exchanges a box of betel nut for a crumpled banknote. She might even smile.
I too was captivated and walked along the street, looking into the open-fronted glass boxes, trying not to leer at the proprietors. Each kiosk competed in gaudiness: bright pink or orange walls; multi-coloured, neon-tube lighting; and a painted, near-naked girl sitting on a tall stool near the front of the tacky premises.
I was determined to make a purchase and cautiously chose a booth. I’m not too sure of the criteria I used in my selection, but I did check for both the absence of male security in the background and a minimum of hygiene—after all, you do have to put the nuts in your mouth. A shapely Chinese girl, with pulled-back, ebony hair presided over the kiosk—sophisticated might be stretching the truth but the slinky red dress was less revealing than most of the attire I’d seen up to then and she did have fewer tattoos than some of the others.
“Call me Mavis”, I think she said and she suggested that I buy the “red paste nuts—better for a beginner.” She went on to explain that they don’t have the normal betel-vine leaf wrapped around them and include red lime instead of the usual white. I paid the cheap price for a box of ten nuts and left, feeling as if I had just done something wrong. Walking away with my prize clutched in a sweaty palm, I looked down at the photograph of a naked girl emblazoned on its glossy surface and then turned my head back to check for any resemblances.
As soon as I got home, I popped one of the nuts into my mouth and jumped into the shower. I was sticky and tired after my betel hunt and hoped the cool water and the stimulant would refresh me. Salivation began as soon as the nut hit my palate, my salivary glands pumping away as if they were hydrants providing water for a blaze. As the cold water poured down over my head, my mouth filled with a hot, sweet, liquorice-tasting fluid. I gulped back a mouthful before remembering that you aren’t supposed to swallow. Spit, spit you fool. I spat and covered my bathroom floor with a pool of red saliva and gunk. Norman Bates appeared in my jumpy mind, the floor looking like a crime scene. As my salivary glands gushed, my mouth warmed and my face flushed. I slipped the nut into my left cheek, squeezing it between my teeth, and waited for the effect to continue to wash over me.
Betel nut, it turns out, isn’t that kind of a narcotic and the expected high didn’t hit. Rather, it felt as if I had just knocked back an espresso, a small one at that.
I cleaned up the bathroom, dried myself, and looked at the remaining nine nuts sitting in the open box.