Built By Betel Nut

By Michael H. Kew

Yapese betel nut. Photo: Kew.

PALAU IS A BOATER'S SURF COUNTRY. The passes are far offshore and fickle and usually flat, but our map displayed a few swell-and-wind-exposed reef rifts where we could park the car and paddle out. Ours was a mission to find something new, someplace William had never surfed, accessible not by boat but with his “4X4 Off-Road Surf” car, as we were again traversing dirt lanes, soon to be paved.

“Palau’s existing 15 miles of paved road are a maintenance disaster,” William said, shifting into four-wheel-drive up a rutted hill. “There’s no reason to think that they can do a better job with 56 more miles of road to maintain.”

For five hours we combed the coast from Airai to Chol, finding nothing but small windswell, foul currents, and onshore wind that strengthened as the day waned. The air temperature increased, too, and by 3 p.m. we were ripe, our bare backs sticking to the upholstery.

Sometime mid-trip we found a bay with two surfy reefs, garnering interest until William mentioned its hidden crew of saltwater crocs. Then we found the Ngatpang Waterfall, one of the known four on Babeldaob, and chose to have a quick rinse near four fat Pohnpeian women wallowing and eating in the pond below the falls. They wore sarongs and bras, and used their fingers to shove food into their mouths from three floating Tupperware containers.

We swam into an empty pool on the fall’s opposite side. The water was cool and murky, mossy-smelling, over a floor of soggy wood and sharp rocks.

“I feel like an alligator,” Craig said.

“There’s probably a lot of eels in here,” William said.

Then we ventured beneath the fall itself for a loud tube-riding rush.

“This is the deepest we’ll get today!” William yelled above the roar.

In the end, it had been a scenic photo trip but a hoax for surf—the passes were ill-formed, or too narrow, or too deep, and they were all too windy. What looked good on the map looked bad in person, and we ended up groveling in chest-high slop back at the place our trip had started.

Downing a cold beer as we set out for Koror, Craig raised the mood: “Well, boys, at least we got some good photos.”

“Hope so,” William said.

“I’m sure we did,” I said. “But you never know.”

“Did you have film in your camera?” Craig asked me.

“Of course.”

“Then we got good photos. You can’t take bad photos of this place. It’s too pretty.”

It was Monday. “The conditions are supposed to be like this for the rest of the week," William said.

“That’s fine, mate, ‘cause I’ve got a bloody shitload of work to do,” Craig said. He was here on business, consulting for something involving Palau’s youth sport teams in their preparation for the next South Pacific Games, Oceania’s version of the Olympics.

“I don’t have anything to do,” I said.

“There’s always beer,” Craig said, crushing an empty Budweiser can.

Photo: Kew.

THERE'S ALWAYS BETEL NUT, too, which is what occupied me late the following rainy afternoon, after a long, idle day indoors. I had been in Palau for two weeks, was leaving for Pohnpei the next morning, and I hadn’t sampled Palau’s fabled natural narcotic. So it was a stroke of luck when I happened upon a stout, betel nut-chewing man sitting on an aluminum chair at a wooden picnic table in front of my hotel. His teeth were red and rotten; he spoke good English. His name was Timmy, and he was calm, pudgy, mustachioed, about 60, wearing a black cap that said USS Peleliu and a dark green shirt that said Samoan Pride.

“Are you Samoan?” I asked.

“Nah. Palauan all the way. But I been to Samoa many times. Many friends there. You from the States? I live in San José for eight years. I study at San José State. Right now my daughter lives in Arizona.”

He pulled a small plastic bag from his shirt pocket.

“You want a chew?”

“I’d love one.”

With dirty fingers he cracked a betel nut, laced it with lime—a white cocaine-esque powder made from cooked coral—then wrapped it in a piece of pepper leaf and handed it to me. This was the second time I'd tried betel nut; the first was in Papua New Guinea, where the stuff was bitter, and I was drunk. This time I was sober.

“Chew for maybe five, 10 minutes,” Timmy said. Then he spat. “But don’t swallow the spit.”

The nut was very mild, almost ineffective, but I did feel a tinge of light-headedness as I stood there. We chewed and spat and talked.

“Yap and Palau were first to chew betel nut,” Timmy said. “Then other places chewed it—Chuuk, Pohnpei, Solomons, New Guinea, Marshalls, Kiribati. All over the Pacific.”

“What about Indonesia?”

“Yes, they have betel nut there.”

“What about Hawai’i?”

He sat upright in his chair. “I know of a Palauan lady on O’ahu who grows betel nut. She sold enough betel nut that she built a house!”

“The house that betel nut built.”

“Yes! So it is in Hawai’i, too.”

“Have you chewed all your life?”

“I started when I was a young man. Then I stopped for maybe two years, but I started again.” He spit then coughed, nearly ejecting the nut from his cheek. “When I have maybe three beers, I have a chew. Then it makes me ready for three more beers!”

Dusk—the humid air was still, punctuated by chirping crickets and an occasional bird. Cold beer sounded good. Timmy popped another nut into his mouth and put his feet on the table.

“Have you heard of Yap Day?” he asked.

Yap is known for its topless women who gather for a two-day celebration of dancing and sporting and feasting and hooting in and around Yap’s capital of Colonia.

Timmy’s bloodshot eyes widened. “Never have I seen so many tits! Even the white Peace Corps girls have to dance topless.” He chuckled and spat. “I go every year. I have already made my reservation for next year.”

“I’m going to Pohnpei tomorrow. Are girls topless there?”

“Oh, Pohnpei. No, not topless. Nice place. I spent lot of time there. The women are beautiful. You surfing there, too?”

“Doubt it.”

My betel nut had grown stale, my spit pink instead of red.

“Have another chew,” Timmy said, pushing the bag at me. I plucked one out and grinned at him.

“Are my teeth red yet?” I asked.

“Nah.”

“I want teeth like yours.”

He chuckled. “You have to chew more. How long you go to Pohnpei for?”

“A week.”

“Okay, so you chew the whole time you in Pohnpei and your teeth will turn red.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I guarantee.”

This coming from an old Palauan, I believed it. Later I learned he was Palau’s secretary of state.

William, Palau. Photo: Kew.