Cracking the Mystery of the Little Red Packets
After three days of a stomach bug, I was eager to leave the room in which I had been making close friends with the toilet bowl. My partner Lachlan and I had one day left in Pokhara, a quaint lakeside town in Nepal, and I was eager to see the renowned bat caves.
Our cab jostled its way up the hill and I imagined cartoon stars circling my head as I hit the roof for the billionth time. Between jolts, I couldn’t help but notice people eating along the street out of small red packets.
“What is that?” exclaimed Lachlan as we were being led through the caves. The red packet he gestured at stuck out amongst the dirt and rocks on the ground. It was the only piece of litter we could see.
“Ahh, that’s what some of the guides chew,” a local next to us piped up. “They spit it out and drop the packet on the ground. It causes bad memory, so they forget. They come back in and clean it up a few hours later.”
After seeing more than enough snuggly bats taking naps, we bought lemonades, needing a pick-me-up after crawling through small spaces to get a closer glimpse of the hundreds of winged creatures while attempting to avoid their poo from overhead. The local we had spoken to earlier ran over to us; out of all the stores, we had chosen the one he owned. At the forefront of his shop were at least 50 red packets hanging down.
“So it’s called gutkha?” Lachlan asked, reading from a label.
“Yes, gutkha. I don’t chew it, but they buy it.”
So began the curiosity and research. What were these packets and why were they lining the sides of every road we walked in Nepal? Once you see them you can’t un-see them: hanging down in rows out the front of every corner store, and covered in dust choking the gutters.
Gutkha is a potent mix of tobacco that is often flavoured to make its taste more appealing. Like most things in life that are fun and delicious, the health ramifications of chewing gutkha are extensive, with early onset of throat and mouth cancer being one of the major concerns. The increased likelihood of cancer is primarily due to the fact that tobacco and areca nut (both of which pose similar health risks) are placed directly onto ultra absorbant gums.
Two weeks later, we were being guided through the mountains on a trek to Poon Hill by a man named Kaji. The experience was incredible: valleys stretched into the distance filled with farmland and compact wood houses with tin rooves. As we trekked up a set of stairs, we were greeted by oxen, donkeys and horses, many eager to make our acquaintance. But still, we were curious about gutkha, so bombarded Kaji with questions.
“You know, when people are boring at parties, I’ll chew gutkha to make them more interesting,” he chuckled.
Gutkha is chewed all over Nepal and India, and comes in a variety of flavours, making its taste a lot more bearable than cigarettes, and therefore more popular with a younger demographic. The addiction and rush that comes from gutkha is partially due to its areca and betel nut components. The nut is the fourth most popular psychotropic substances worldwide, and is also the cause of the bright, blood-like stains left on people’s teeth, on the side of streets, on the external walls of buildings and even inside hotel rooms.
Other than spicing up a dull situation, the other drawcard of gutkha is its price. One packet is only 5 Nepalese rupees; convert that to Australian dollars, and you’re looking at 5 cents a pop. This is a stark contrast to cigarettes, which, though they’re a lot cheaper than they are in most western countries, are still considerably more expensive. This makes gutkha super appealing to those with a lower income.
In some parts of India, the product cannot be specifically advertised, but according to our mate Kaji, manufacturers and salespeople find a way to slip in illegitimate ads. Some Indian states have attempted to ban the product altogether, but it still remains readily available across the country; a fact that was confirmed after I travelled there and once again saw gutkha hanging at nearly every storefront.
On Kaji’s cigarette break, he was very proud to tell us he had actually quit his gutkha addiction and now relies solely on durries. Except, of course, the occasional party situation when he needs a stimulant to make boring people more bearable.
Cover by Cookiesound