The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Toothbrushes and Toothpastes

Mastication of edible items is a favourite pastime of our species. Ingesting nutritions primarily happens orally, and, as we are poor at swallowing chunks of food whole, we must engage in chewing. Teeth help in the process.

Teeth would love to rot. They excel at many things, but they are best at developing cavities and rotting. Human kind has been zealous in preventing teeth in engaging in such forms of decay. Contemporary teeth hygiene involves tiny electric engines driving a brush on the surface of the enamel at a high frequency. With little modification, such appliances would easily double as sex toys. I avoid this kind of exuberant decadence of consumerism. I normally opt for kids’ toothbrushes, which have a brush small enough to fit the orifice otherwise known as my mouth, and I complete the methodology with an arbitrary brand of toothpaste. Nevertheless, sometimes I explore alternatives.

Stamping ‘traditional’ on a product will surely boost sales. I purchased a weird ‘traditional’ toothpaste while cycling through Laos. The label referred to its colour as black, but a visual inspection of the product revealed the truth: the paste had the colour and consistency of semi-loose stool.

Traditional toothpaste in Laos. Enjoy.

Traditional toothpaste in Laos. Enjoy.

The taste was not much better either. A generous helping of wormwood was combined with the most foul tasting herbs of Indochina. I would happily use any product with these wondrous properties, provided it achieves its purpose. Unfortunately, after a few days of use, I noticed a distinct yellow discolouring on my main tools of mastication, so I concluded that the product was not worth using.

Myanmar forgoes this whole toothbrush and toothpaste nonsense. Chewing betel is the national way of achieving low standards of oral hygiene. The local version of paan always contains a layer of calcium hydroxide, and the Burmese are convinced that it is good for their teeth. Since nobody above twenty has any left, it is hard to argue with them. They chew the paan throughout the day, spitting the brown muck all over the place. In India, the sides of the buses have streaks of paan as people spit out of the moving vehicle. In Myanmar, you do not see streaks: the spits are so excessive that the side of the bus is one congealed and solidified block of paan spittle. The teeth rejoice.

Spitting the toothpaste, Myanmar style.

Spitting the toothpaste, Myanmar style.

Some African countries also eschew brushes and pastes. In Togo, the traditional way of cleaning teeth is by using chew sticks. Given that even the elderly have a complete row of pearly teeth, I found the system a lot more attractive than the one in Myanmar.

Chew sticks come in small bundles, and they are harvested from a variety of trees. I got the most innocent looking ones. The vendor was surprised that I wanted to buy, and just in case, he explained that it should be chewed. I wondered what else it could have been used for.

The Togolese toothbrush.

The Togolese toothbrush.

I started chewing one after dinner, and an hour later I was still chewing it. The packaging was a piece of string, there were no printed instructions on how to use it. So I chewed and chewed. Initially it was bitter, then it was just uncomfortable to have a wooden stick in my mouth. It is good not only for the teeth, but also to develop enormous jaw muscles. When I left Togo, I accidentally left the remaining sticks in my bathroom. With all the advantages, I do not have several hours a day just to clean my teeth.

The world is still full of alternatives. Apparently, even porcupine quills can be used for cleaning teeth. I also heard about strange nations who use a thing called dental floss. I heard that their teeth are so healthy that your eyes are blinded by the sparkles that emanate from their mouths when they talk. The expectation of seeing such marvels keeps me alive.

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