Betel nuts are a popular snack throughout Asia
Taiwan is trying to kick the addictive habit, which causes cancer
They are usually sold by scantily clad young women
Ling Ling, 20, stands by the side of a highway on the outskirts of Taipei.
The top she wears is tight, and the transparent miniskirt she’s wearing reveals a tattoo on her hip. She’s waiting for truck drivers or working men to stop and buy her goods.
In most other cities, it might be assumed those “goods” were sexual services.
But not here.
Ling Ling sells betel nuts, an addictive snack that is hugely popular in Taiwan, India, Myanmar and other parts of Asia.
“The more beautiful you are, the more money you can make,” she says. “That’s why I dress like this.”
Deadly and addictive
Chewed by almost a tenth of the world’s population, betel nuts – or quids as they are sometimes referred to – are the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance after tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated drinks, according to World Health Organization.
Along the streets and highways in Taiwan, neon-lit booths with scantily clad “betel nut beauties” serve customers who pull up in their cars or trucks.
Often wrapped in betel leaves, or paan, and chewed like a large fibrous chewing-gum, the betel nut gives a buzz on a par with several shots of espresso or, some say, amphetamine.
But, unlike a daily cup of coffee, the buzz can also be deadly – giving users mouth cancer.
Shockingly, in Taiwan, around nine out of 10 oral cancer patients have a habit of chewing betel nut.
Chen Wen, a taxi driver, says it helps him work long hours as he spits the red juice from a nut into a plastic cup.
“When I chew betel nuts I can work much longer. It’s great!”
Some of the girls tell me that chewing betel nuts will give me a “spiritual lift.” Others say it cures a hangover in no time. They come in different flavors, prepared with tobacco, lime or spices. Sweet and bitter are the most popular tastes.
Later, I spot a man leaning against his motorbike while casually munching away on a “binlang,” which is the Mandarin for betel nut. He asks if I want to try and gives me a nut from his bag. It’s wrapped in a paan leaf and prepared with drops of a bitter paste that he claims is a sort of Chinese medicinal alcohol.
The taste is explosive.
Just a few seconds after popping it in my mouth and starting chewing an instant shock hits my body. My body temperature soars and I feel sweat breaking out in my face. My heartbeat quickly goes up. The strangest feeling is a tingling on my forearms and I can see the hair on my arms rising. And yes, I feel a massive buzz.
At the same time, my mouth quickly fills up with saliva and I have to spit. It’s then I notice puddles of red juice all over the pavement.
The female hawkers and fellow chewers standing close by all break out in giggles.