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My first paan

April 25, 2011

“I’ll have one, too!”, I shouted above the din of traffic. Pravhdeep had already had one paan today and this would be his second. I had seen men chew wads of this stuff throughout India and was curious, but never enough to try one. For some reason I had a thought that it was briefly intoxicating, or maybe like a strong caffeine hit. I was feeling a bit adventurous, but also asked Pravhdeep about any affect on the mind. He just looked at me with confusion.

The man in the small makeshift stall took two betel leaves out of a bowl of water, patting them once with a rag. First good reason to not put this mess in my mouth. On the leaves he spread some kind of white paste, then some brown paste. Then a sprinkling of nuts, a spoonful of fennel seed, a finger glop of what looked like dark red preserved fruit, then he folded it up and handed it to me.

“What do I do? Eat it, or just chew it?”
“Eat.” said Pravhdeep, as he waited for his.

I looked back at the jeep.

“If this goes wrong, will you guys take me to the hospital?” I yelled, half serious.
“You gonna eat that thing? You’re in trouble.” Ross called from the front seat.

Something mostly clear was dripping out from inside the leafy wad and I kind of froze.

“Put in!” Pravhdeep demanded.

I took a breath and stuck the thing in my mouth but couldn’t quite get it all in. Pravhdeep reached over and shoved it fully in my mouth with his fingers. I started to chew and laugh at the same time and first noticed that some of the nuts were not giving in to the pressure of my teeth. Those were the first to come out, dropping to the ground. I kept chewing and my attention wandered to all the different flavors; sweet, sour, tangy, earthy, green, rich, brown and red. My salivary glands kicked in and soon my mouth was full of watery, leafy, nutty, fruity something. Rather strong aromas worked their way up the back of my sinuses, which was pleasant and somewhat comforting. I was kind of enjoying it. I chewed for a long time to try to get the pieces, mostly the leaf, into bits small enough to swallow.

This was one of several stops along the busy road back to Derha Dun. We had done a morning workshop in a small public school in the village of Vikas Nagar, 40km from Derha Dun. The workshop had gone well, although the number of students was much smaller than previous mornings and the timing was off, so there was less time for art. The students in this tiny rural school were incredibly shy and at first seemed to not believe that they were actually allowed to have fun at this. I’m traveling with my good friend Ross as he does the Peace Exchange part of his Create Peace Project. This was my fourth workshop and I’m enthralled and totally in love with this project. There are always several moments that steal my heart, usually somewhere around the time the kids ‘get’ that they are going to make art on a card and send a message of peace to kids in the US, all the way on the other side of the planet. In exchange for their efforts they will receive a card with art and a message from their unseen contemporaries in California. Their eyes get big and they get excited and my little heart melts. I love this.

The chewing continued, but the mouthful of chunky mush never got to the place where I wanted to actually swallow. I couldn’t stop thinking about that bowl of water and the dirty rag, not to mention that I was not at all sure about swallowing those leaves. I crossed the road and spit out as much as I could, hacking my way back to the jeep and continuing to let fly pieces of leaf and fennel out the back window as we drove.

“Your tongue is red!” Pravhdeep shouted as the jeep rumbled down the road. OK, I tried paan. Sort of. Close enough.


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  1. laurahwald permalink

    Jeff, this paints such a lush, vivid picture. Your writing, as always, just blows me away. Tell us more!!

  2. I ate goat face from the side of the road in a South African township … but your account feels braver to me. I’m glad there was no hallucinogen effect to those garnished leaves. That we know of. Yet.

    I’m so glad you’re posting here now!

  3. laurahwald permalink

    Oh my God. Goat face…

  4. Suzy Piluso permalink

    Jeff, LOVE this, was curious what that paan was like. Please keep sharing your journey with us through your beautiful writing.

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