Friday, September 28, 2012


Before we left Mexico, our friends, Ross and Julie McDonald, gave us t-shirts from their boat, Boppy's Star. "Wear this when you drink kava with a Fijian chief," Ross instructed me, "And take a picture." It didn't happen in Fiji but I did wear it this evening when three of us visited the local nakamal, what the locals in Vanuatu call a place where kava is drunk.

Kava is the root of a certain species of pepper tree and it seems as though each island group in the southwest Pacific has a slightly different method of preparing it. It wasn't out in the open in Samoa though we did see people drink it. We saw no evidence of it in Tonga (we assume it was still there) but Fiji was Kava Central, with large sections of the markets dedicated to selling kava - both the whole root and in powder form. Fijians also made a ceremony of drinking kava, with much hand-clapping and shouts of 'bula!'. Kava produces a mild euphoria and a numbness in the mouth. We tried it a couple of times in Fiji and thought it tasted terrible (some say it tastes like drinking dirty dishwater except it isn't soapy - to me, it tastes like bitter, muddy water) but we had been told that the best kava was in Vanuatu.

When we were in Anatom, some of the locals put on a 'cultural event' for the cruising fleet that include demonstrations of dance, costumes and culture. They also offered us kava, which again tasted terrible but was much stronger than the Fijian kava. I really liked the buzz - I had to be very careful when I spoke as I felt as though each word was a challenge to enunciate but it was also a pleasant, peaceful feeling. Corie and our friend, Mark, went to a nakamal at the village in Anelghowhat, where men lined up to purchase bowls of kava, much like a bar anywhere in the world - except that the nakamal was no more than a thatched hut with a dirt floor. Corie was the only woman there and the two of them were the only white people.

Today, as Ruthie and I were walking home from the White Sand Beach, we passed by the local nakamal (in this village, women are not allowed anywhere near the nakamal and there's a path that gives it a wide berth for them to use - nor is a woman allowed to watch a man drink kava. We're not sure what would happen to a tourist but if a local woman was to walk through the nakamal, she would be beaten with sticks or so we were told.). I stopped by to ask if there would be enough kava for my friends and me to have some. The man I talked to said there would and that they start making kava at 5pm.

Once back on the boat, I asked my friend, Norm, if he wanted to attend. "They make kava here the old fashioned way," Norm said. Yuck. That means they chew the kava root and then spit it out and make the kava from that. Yuck. When I told my friend, Mark, he said, "Oh, well . . . " and then asked if I was still interested in going. "I'll go if you go," I said. "Crazy fucker," was Mark's reply, but at a few minutes before 5, Mark showed up in his dinghy, ready to go. We picked up Randy from the sloop, Mystic, and made our way into the village.

The nakamal is just on the edge of the village and is nothing more than a clearing in the jungle with a few small thatched roofs around the edges. The dirt is packed hard from the thousands of feet that have attended the kava sessions there. There were a few men off in one corner and we approached them, asking if they had kava available. One man, who we would later learn is Thomas, was silent at first and then got up and extended his hand. We introduced ourselves and shook hands all around. A large pile of kava root was on a mat woven of palm frond and a large knife was being used to cut the root into pieces about the size of a fist. Several of the men had their mouths stuffed full of the kava root and were chewing away. They looked like chipmunks or Louis Armstrong while playing his trumpet except these men had drool coming out of the corners of their mouths. Once they had the root chewed to the consistency that they preferred, they would spit out the chewed root onto a round leaf and place it neatly on the woven mat. It looked like neat piles of vomit. We were invited to sit on a log and wait for the kava to finish being prepared. "Can I chew kava?" I asked of Thomas. He gave me a blank look and then handed me a small piece of root and a couple of leaves for me to spit the chewed kava onto. Different parts of the root had different textures - one part might be like a very tough carrot while other parts where so stringy that no matter how much I chewed I couldn't break it down to the fine vomit-like mash of our hosts. Besides, it tasted awful. Several times I had to stop chewing altogether and breath through my nose as I fought to control my gag reflex. Rather than stuff my mouth like everyone else, I chewed much more dainty portions and would pause in between chews. Sometimes we would talk with our hosts. Simon, one of the kava chewers, asked me something that I couldn't understand. "I can't understand you," I said, "Your mouth is full of kava." My pile of chewed kava was pathetically small and at one point Simon generously offered to supplant it with some of the kava that he was chewing. I quickly but politely refused his gracious offer.

Even though my pile of chewed kava was ridiculously small, I could nor force myself to chew anymore. I approached Thomas and asked if he could make me a bowl of kava from my chewed pieces. Thomas was sitting on a small stone facing another man who was also sitting on a small stone. There was a bucket of water to the side and between the two men were two coconut shell bowls. Putting the chewed kava in a long cloth, they would pour water over the chewed kava, letting it drain into the coconut shell bowls. Then they would twist the cloth, wringing out the liquid. Simon handed the bowl with the cloudy liquid kava to me and said, "Go stand over there and drink it all at once." I did as I was told and I could tell that my small pile of poorly-chewed kava had made a very weak bowl of drink.

Mark and Randy did not chew their own kava. They had bowls of kava that had been chewed for them but I don't know that it was that much stronger than what I had. It wasn't nearly as strong as the kava we had in Anelghowhat but that kava had been made by putting the root through a meat grinder. Regardless, our hosts here in Port Resolution were very hospitable and after we had drunk our kava they offered us baked taro root, bananas, papaya and coconut. As we were leaving, I offered to pay for our kava but they refused. Thomas and Simon invited us to come back tomorrow night.
At 9/27/2012 9:29 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 19°31.48'S 169°29.79'E

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