Drinking Kava in Fiji
by Christina Lake
On my second day in the village, I was invited up to drink kava. The wooden deck was pleasantly shady and high enough up the hill to catch the breeze from the surrounding mountains. I began to understand why the men spent most of the day there. There were about ten of them now, some in trousers, some in sulas, the traditional wrap-around skirt of the Fijian islands, all watching intently. Two men held the muslin over the earthenware pot while another poured in the water, and rubbed it through with his hands, like squeezing desiccated coconut through a sieve. Soon there was a large quantity of mud-coloured water in the bottom of the pot. The men continued to pour and rub until they had used up all the water. Then they wrung out the last drops from the muslin and the kava was ready. The man who had been pouring the water said a few words in Fijian; the others responded with a series of claps and shouts. Then it was time to drink.
The kava was scooped out of the pot using shiny black bowls. Coconut shells, I later discovered, which had been buried in mud for several months to give them the dark shiny glaze. The larger scoop was filled with kava and handed out to the oldest man there. Everyone clapped ritualistically as he drained it, then shook out the last few drops on the grass behind to show it was empty. Each man in turn was handed one scoop of kava. For us, the foreign visitors, they used the smaller coconut shell. Full for the Danish boys, Soren and his pale-headed friend with the dragon tatoos. Half full for me, I was relieved to see. I hoped I would be able to drink it, this cup of what looked like dirty water, otherwise I would mortally offend my hosts. No sipping, I knew. All the liquid had to be drained in one go. "Bula," I said as I took the shell. "Bula," replied the Fijian in return. I put the shell to my lips and began to drink, to the accompaniment of clapping. It tasted slightly liquoricy, not very strong, but not unpleasant. I swallowed, then swallowed again, tipping it down my throat till it was all gone. I shook the bowl behind me, to show there was none left, and the men clapped again, this time in appreciation. I had passed the test. Joined in their ritual. After that, the mood on the deck was mellow. People chatted in a mixture of Fijian and English. The kava bowls went round a couple more times. I felt happy. Relaxed. More ready to talk than before.
Later, in the evening, I went up to the kava deck again, this time with Jennie, an English woman who had come to the village for four nights and was still there after two and a half months. "What do you do here?" I had asked, when I first met her. "Nothing much," she said. "Just read and drink kava. I have a bit of a kava habit," she admitted.
This time there were only three men on the deck and a shallow pool of kava left in the pot. They helped us both to a scoop which I drank with no difficulty. Maybe I was getting a bit of a kava habit too. When it was finished, they asked Jennie if she had any more powder. She didn't, but she gave them $5 to run down to the village to buy some. A plump young man, with an enthusiasm reminiscent of Tom Springer, came back with a handful of paper packets. This time they simply dumped the powder in the water, without ceremony, and mixed it around a bit. Jennie was given a full bowl, despite of her protests of "lai-lai" (small) and so was I. After that we judged it better to retreat. If you don't want to drink the kava, you don't stay in the kava zone.
I liked going to drink kava, I decided. It had a lot of the attributes I enjoy about smoking dope. The same intimacy, the same sense of communal experience, the same sometimes elaborate preparations. Kava doesn't get you high, per se. Its effects are described as mild euphoria; but for the men in the village it was clearly a ruling passion. Drinking kava seemed to bind their lives together. According to Jennie, the women drink it too, but I never saw them. They had their own intense community life, centered round the house, the children and foreign videos (including the blue movie they showed one meal time, much to everyone's disbelief), but no sign of kava.
Kava isn't illegal. You can buy packets of the powdered root at the market in Nadi. Some people say it should be banned, because it encourages the men to sit around drinking it all day instead of working. But then, imagine what it would be like if they sat round drinking beer instead. Kava might make them belch, but it never seemed to make anyone violent. And no doubt most of the village business is settled over a bowl of kava.
I left the next afternoon, exhausted and muddy, after a long trek through jungle bush to a nearby waterfall. As I set off back to Nadi in the van with the "Indian driver" and the videos, the men were still sitting up on the deck. I couldn't see if they had a kava pot mixed up yet, but some of them waved as I left, as if drinking kava with them had made me in some small way part of their world.
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