Ever heard of the drink “kava”? We hadn’t either, until my friend George told me to “be careful with the kava” before we arrived in Fiji. Kava is a drink made from the root of the kava plant. The plant grows to about 2-3m in height over 3 to 4 years, then is cut off and the root pulled up. The root is peeled and chopped into small pieces. Some varieties are then dried into “chips” then pounded into a powder, while others are pounded fresh into a fine pulp. The powder or pulp is put into a fine mesh bag (like a big tea bag) and massaged in water (rain water is best) in the large wooden kava bowl. After about 30 minutes, kava is ready to drink.
In Fiji, kava is a very social activity. Traditionally it was only a drink for men, but women are now included around many (but not all) kava bowls. Kava actually looks like mud water. And its taste is unique. You feel like you’re drinking part mud part something else that is hard to describe. Many Fijians, even those who drink it regularly, don’t really like the taste. So why do they work so hard to grow, prepare it, and then drink something not so yummy? Kava root has sedative properties. It gives a warm, relaxed feeling, and helps one fall asleep and stay asleep. Henry and cousin Conrad explained to me that it also had the advantage over alcohol that it does not make anyone aggressive (no brawling!) and leaves no ill feelings the next morning. Kava is an important ingredient in western pharmaceuticals in anti depressants and sedatives (I’d give more details here but I have no internet right now and I can’t recall what Rhonda shared with me.)
Kava is served usually around 6PM – always before eating. All participating in the kava sit on a bamboo mat in a circle. The host or some other man is responsible for mixing and serving the kava. He passes a coconut shell full of kava to the eldest man first, who drinks then returns the cup. The next eldest is served next, then down the line. The host drinks last. Relaxed conversation unfolds. After some time (10 minutes?) anyone who is ready for another cup claps their hands once and says: “Taki!” to signal the kava host. Another round is served. After finishing the cup (it has to go down in one go … no sipping!) you clap two or three times to indicate your appreciation of the kava. The evening unfolds slowly; conversation and comraderie are the key ingredients. You don’t have to take part in every “round” of kava, but it is considered a bit rude to leave before the bowl is empty (nobody explained this to me the 1st night … so after a couple hours my legs were a little sore so I said thanks for the kava then went for a swim. oops …). The second time we drank kava at Henry’s we sat for about 3 hours. Conrad entertained us with his ukelele. After the bowl is empty, participants say a few words to honour the kava, then eat a late dinner. Then off to bed.
Jake wrote about our evening with mom’s cruise as it anchored in Blue Lagoon across the bay from Henry’s. As part of that evening, the crew prepared and served kava on the beach. It was lovely as many of the crew were musical and they sang while guitars and ukuleles strummed out some local and some well known songs. All this while the sun was setting. Then followed up by that amazing lovo feast that Jake described.
Kava is grown and enjoyed all through the South Pacific. It is almost always included as the gift or part of the gift to the chief when visiting a village. We stopped at a little village near the fantastic caves (Jake mentioned them … more on them in a later entry) we journeyed to, and Henry presented kava to the chief’s representative. This gift was considered appropriate even though the past chief was Henry’s 1st cousin and Henry knew most in the town quite well. The receiver of the kava gift spoke at some length (in Fijian) about how much they appreciated the gift and our friendship.
Any time I mentioned to a Fijian that we were going next to Vanuatu, they emphasized that the kava there was not the same, and that it was much much stronger. In Fiji I may have had 10-15 cups over an evening, and actually felt virtually no effect (not even sleepiness, actually). And I recalled friend George’s warning “careful with the kava”. Well … we’ve been in Vanuatu for a while … and drank their kava. More on that in a Vanuatu blog entry!
Oh, and if you’re curious about the title of this blog entry … Fijians refer affectionately to kava as their “grog”. And I, for one, quite like the taste.