Updated: Apr 25
In late 2019 I had the privilege of going on an archaeological project in Assam, a state in Northeastern India. In total, I spent over a month there, and every day came with its own unique experiences. The photo below was taken sometime during my time there; dates and time seemed continuous as the days went by. However, the story behind the photo, I do remember.
As we sat around the table after dinner one evening, discussing, as we did every evening, the hottest new textile stores we had found on or our daily quest, our friend and trip guide, Jimmy, walked into the room. With him was an older man sporting a handmade cream colored button up shirt, smaller rectangle glasses, and a dark black mustache. As Jimmy walked over to our table to introduce the man as the owner of the hotel, they overheard us talking about the betel nut stands we had seen throughout town. You see, throughout India, chewing betel nut is as ingrained into daily life as getting dressed or eating and Assam was no exception. Throughout the small town we were staying in were portable betel nut stands distributed everywhere. These stands were usually just an open, flat table top with some betel nut leaves, betel, or areca nuts, spread out and a couple candles to give light. Immediately the hotel owner joined in our conversation and began to answer all our questions about betel nut. After a couple minutes of talking, he quickly looked over to Jimmy and they exchanged words in Assamese. Once they finished their short conversation, he looked back at us and told us he had something special to show us. Realizing how special his offer was, we all quickly stood up from the table and followed him out of the hotel.
We began walking down the street, past our favorite tea shop, and past all the other shops packed into to the town. Like every night, the streets were bursting with life. People were shopping, eating, and hanging out. After a couple minutes of walking, we arrived at a small store with an open storefront where the attendant sat, ready to sell you whatever you wanted. The hotel owner walked up to the storefront and they spoke in Assamese for a couple minutes. As we were waiting behind him, two guys pulled up on a motorcycle right next to us. They promptly parked, got off their bike, and stood next to us. They had decided that they were now a part of our crew, and who were we to decline their friendship. Throughout our time at the store, we never exchanged any words with them, just smiles and laughter; the universal language. After a couple minutes, the hotel owner turned to us and began to explain that he told the store owner to make a Flaming Paan for all of us that wanted one. Talk about hospitality! But what was a flaming paan? Seeing the confusion on our faces, Jimmy stepped in and began explaining what exactly flaming paan was. Flaming paan, sometimes known as fire paan, is a stimulant that is supposed to be chewed. It starts with a betel nut leaf, the betel, or areca nut, several different fruits and sugars, tobacco if you want, and most importantly, FIRE! That’s right, FIRE! Immediately after hearing fire, a couple of us instantly agreed. Whitten, the Mainer in our crew, was the first up. He walked up to the storefront, and as he stood there, the attendant held up the betel nut leaf with all the different ingredients and proceeded to add the most important ingredient: Fire! Unbelieving that Americans would partake in something so dear to Indian culture, our two new friends stood around in amazement. As they gathered around Whitten, smiling with excitement, he looked at the flaming paan with some obvious reservations. Wanting to capture this unique experience, I quickly pulled out my camera and snapped the picture. As I finished taking the picture, the attendant motioned Whitten to open his mouth. With a flame in his hand, the attendant pushed the flaming paan together and shoved it into Whitten’s mouth. All of us, including our two new friends, cheered and laughed as Whitten began to spit the signature orange colored juice. As other people lined up for their turn, including the hotel owner, we all stood around living in the moment, sharing the universal language of smiles and laughter.
Revised By: Solomon Whitaker