The Betel Nut (Buu)

If you do some research on the title of this post, you would find that the way most people describe this part of Yapese island life is wrong. Because betel is a leaf that grows on a betel vine. This special leaf is then chewed along with the Areca nut which is the seed of the Areca palm tree found in tropical areas such as Yap.

The reason why this betel nut combination is so interesting is not only because of its symbolic meaning in Yapese rituals but also because it is a psychoactive drug. In small quantities, it has the effect a cup of coffee would normally have. But since the Yapese may mix in tobacco with the betel leaves, it quickly becomes addictive.

According to Wikipedia, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen. And it has indeed proven to be cancerous. Another powerful quality that the nut has is that it can stain your teeth for life should you become a heavy user. The Yapese start chewing betel and areca at a very early age and thus their teeth are permanently colored red or orange which in ancient civilizations was considered attractive.  But the nut is also believed to be a good remedy for bad breath and cavities as well as a natural stimulant and a medicinal source.

Even after reading what the betel nut combo can do to you, there is one thing you should know: If you are lucky enough to visit Yap, and the hospitable islanders offer you the nut, you should take it, relax and have a chew. This is how you will be welcome to the island, it will show you that you are accepted and esteemed.

The Habele Outer Island Education Fund explains that since the buu is hard to grow, it is cherished by the Yapese as treasure. The same source also tells that most people keep it hidden, because there is an obligation to share it if you have it so people stash some of it in their homes. So if someone asks “fang halai buu” (give me betel nut to eat) or “fang haluch buu” which means give us betel nut, you should think fast! The one who is not willing to share it is called a “moegloech” or stingy person, “while those who give away their buu too readily, are labeled “hachperang” for their efforts to win favor or approval by showing off.”

Yapese people chew betel nut as a way to socialize or when they need to focus and think before speaking at meetings. They offer betel nut as a sign of goodwill to guests and the core message is to slow down. Your best bet as a newcomer is to share what you have and enjoy the buzz which is an essential part of the true island experience.


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