The first time I tried Kava was in Niue, Cook Islands. We bought a small bag for $20NZ and headed over to our buddy boat Ghost. Having no idea what to do we poured the powder in a cup, mixed it with some water, and stared at the murky brown mixture with chunks of weird things floating around in it. It looked like very dirty dishwater. It smelled slightly of pepper and dirt and wood. No bowl, no filter, no straining cloth, no coconut shells. It was amateur hour and we had no idea what to do or expect. Sure, we’d read about it in some books but until you experience something for yourself you really have no idea.
Finally Brady got up some courage (peer pressure) and took a big gulp of the mixture. We sat around like kids trying alcohol for the first time watching to see what would happen to him. Would he fall over? Would he get really drunk? How potent was this stuff and how long did it take to effect you? Brady survived his gulp so we all took cups and started putting the mixture down. At the end of the night we had nothing more than a bunch of ground up root pieces stuck in our teeth and a slight numbing sensation on our tongues. We must not be doing this right we thought.
A week later we were in Tonga, where we saw how the locals prepared Kava there. The powder was strained with water through a cloth into a huge bowl to remove the chunks. We started using a dish towel to strain the Kava. We were making progress but still not getting much out of it, at least nothing like what we read about. We would put down 15 coconut shells or more, get really relaxed, and fall asleep. It gave us the most vivid, colorful dreams. We got some awesome nights of sleep.
In Fiji some 7 months later we got our own custom carved wooden bowl and a real straining cloth. We were moving up in the Kava world. We drank substantial amounts for hours on end on Delos and with the locals. We would drink 10 cups or so and start to feel the effects. Our mouths would get a little numb and we would get even more relaxed. There was a bit of euphoria and the world seemed like a happy, rosy place. One night it seemed like it was a little harder to walk back to the dinghy but certainly no different than having a few beers. The locals would get completely “drunk” as they would call it and barely be able to sit upright, much less walk a straight line. We still weren’t there yet.
What was the deal? Why did it effect the locals so differently than us? We heard that Kava needed to build up in your system and since these guys had been drinking all their lives had a bit of a head start on us. Still though, you would think we’d feel something more. Maybe our lifestyle of indulging in alcohol had given us a tolerance of sorts. Maybe we could hold our Kava better.
Kava is primarily drunk in Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu. As you move West it gets stronger. The Fijian’s laugh at the Tongan’s kava, much like we would at a non-alcoholic beer. The Ni-Vanuatu laugh at the Fijian Kava, comparing it to maybe a light beer. Nobody makes fun of the Vanuatu Kava. It is the strongest in the world and everybody knows it. It is the 180 proof Everclear of the Kava world. Within Vanuatu there are something like 9 different types of Kava. Of all the islands in Vanuatu Tanna has the strongest. Of all the villages in Tanna Sulfur Bay has the strongest. So, one could reasonably say that Sulfur Bay has the strongest brew in the world.
“Brian, have you drank Kava before?” asked Videl as we left the village and started our descent down the hill towards an immense banyan tree that marked the village Nakamal.
Yes, of course I have. We drank Kava in Tonga and Fiji. “How much you drink?” asked another villager Erick, who spoke passable English. Oh, sometimes we’ll drink 10 bowls or so. Erick and Videl both smiled at me. “Brian, I think you drink 2 bowls tonight. Maybe 2 and half but no more. The Kava is very strong here” said Erick. So I’ve heard. How many bowls do you guys drink? “Sometimes 4 or 5” replied Videl.
We walked down a steep hill and into the darkness. A few minutes of winding our way through the forest brought us to a huge Banyan tree, maybe 30 or so feet across. There was a small fire lit next to a open-sided hut. About 15 men were milling about in total darkness. Some around the camp fire, some simply squatting in the dirt or sitting on logs. Everyone was dead quiet. There was no talking, no whispering. A solo man was strumming a few chords on a guitar. A sliver of moon filtering through the jungle canopy and fire embers provided the only light. Occasionally you could see the artificial light from an mobile phone flicker, some native sending a text message about who knows what to who knows who.
“Brian, this is our Nakamal” whispered Videl, barely audible. “There are some rules that you should know when you are here. First of all there are no cameras allowed. That is why the Chief had your bag put in the hut. No women are allowed either. This is a men’s place only, where men are free to openly discuss anything. This is a place where men can talk to spirits and where men can pray. We also are very quiet and only talk in whispers, so that people can pray. Now we will sit and wait for the Kava to be prepared.” So we sat down in the darkness and silence for a few minutes. Then a man with a stick banged on a huge tom-tom three times, making the sound of thunder resonate through the jungle. The guitar immediately stopped playing.
What was that Videl? "That was the signal to start preparing the Kava. It also tells the women to bring food from the village and leave it on the other side of that small hill over there. After the women leave the food they will signal on another tom-tom and we will send a boy to pick it up. This is because the women are not even allowed to look at the Nakamal.” Well that’s interesting. They could have texted each other but the tom-tom method is so much cooler. So what happens if a women breaks the rule and enters the Nakamal? “Oh, it is a very bad thing. The women’s family has to give their best pig to the Chief, and also their best and oldest Kava root. It is very shameful. Pigs are a sign of wealth and power.” So does it ever happen? “No, never” was his reply.
“So Brian, now the boys are chewing the Kava root for everyone. In Tanna we chew the Kava. Other islands grind it to a powder but here we still prepare it in the Kastom way.” whispered Videl, barely audible. So quietly he had to put his lips right up to my ear for me to make out his whisper. I looked up to see a half dozen or so boys squatting on their legs in a semi-circle. Their Kava stuffed cheeks making them look like overly stuffed chipmunks. Even when their cheeks were impossibly full they somehow found a way to stuff another root in and chew. They chewed the Kava for ages, until it was a finely ground mixture of pulverized root and saliva. I had read that the composition of saliva did something to break down the root even further, making it stronger then ground powder. They are not allowed to swallow anything during this process. When a batch was done the boys would spit the contents onto a banana leaf, making an impossibly huge and long line of this disgusting mixture.
So Videl, is everyone allowed to chew the Kava? “Yes, anyone can chew the Kava.” and he pointed to a few older men outside the circle happily chewing their roots and spitting it into leaves. One thing I have to mention here is the silence is now broken. Not with words, but with the sound of clearing throats and hawking loogies. You know, that disgusting sound you hear that means someone has something nasty in the back of their throat and is trying to get it into their mouth to spit out. That awful sound resonates from over a dozen men and the thought crosses your mind that at some point you’re going to be asked to drink this. Your stomach turns and you doubt in your ability to do such a thing.
“It is not important who chews the Kava” Videl continued, “but it is very important who prepares the Kava. The person that strains it in the leaf is the most important.” So who is allowed to do that Videl? “Only circumcised boys that have never touched a women.” was his reply. Ok, so only circumcised virgin boys can prepare the Kava. How old are they when circumcised? At this point an older man was squatting next to us. A hushed conversation between him and Videl happened. He looked at me and motioned a height above ground. "The age is not important” was his answer “You can tell when they are ready to become men. It is different for everyone. Maybe 7, maybe 9, maybe 12. It is always different.” So where does the ceremony take place? The older man pointed to a small hut at the edge of the Nakamal.
“Brian, the Kava is now ready. Walk up to where the boys are straining the Kava and they will give you a coconut shell. Take the shell into the jungle and say your prayer. Drink the entire shell and come back.” Ok, game time decision. Can I go through with this? I’ve never had a strong stomach. Even the slightest bad smell or disgusting sight can set off my gag reflex. I walked up to the boys and watched them pour water from a jug and into a leaf. The leaf was bound at both ends by sticks, and when the Kava was saturated with water both sticks where turned in an expert manner just enough to squeeze the water through the Kava\Saliva mixture and into the coconut shell. A shell filled to the brim was handed to me. I walked off into the jungle to ponder my situation and think of a prayer to the spirits. All I could really think of was how do get this mixture down. I had to do this, I decided. So I pictured flowing streams, clear water, bottled water, and imagined that is what filled the cup. Was the cup warm? Was it warm because just a few moments ago this mixture I’m supposed to drink was being chewed then spit out by a bunch of random Ni-Vanuatu villagers? No, impossible. I breathed in a deep long breath through my nose, exhaled through my mouth, tilted my head back, and did nothing put picture the clear, clean water that I was sure filled my shell. The sounds of loogie hawking filled my ears. No, don’t think about that. It has nothing to do with you.
The first thing I noticed was the think consistency. Much thinker than water, much thicker than any of the other Kava we had drank. This stuff had some substance to it. The taste was powerful and peppery. It tasted like earth and volcano and dirty feet. I could see why you have to finish it in one go. Once you stop you’ll never get started again. I drained the shell, right down to the last bits floating in the bottom of the bowl. I suppressed my gag reflex and wandered out of the jungle, setting my empty shell next to the boys again. I sat down next to the fire for a few minutes, absent mindedly poking at the embers with a stick.
This stuff was different for sure. I could immediately feel the effects. My mouth was numb, my mind was floating. My limbs felt a little heavy. I felt at peace and relaxed. I was completely content to sit by the fire and stare into the red-hot coals. Some time passed by. I’m not sure how long but I was tapped on the shoulder and signaled that my second bowl was ready. I got up, grabbed my shell, walked into the jungle, said my bit to the spirits, and drank it down. It went down easier than the first one. I barely noticed the sounds of loogie hawking in the background.
I eagerly returned to the fire to continue contemplation of nothing and found myself sitting next to one of the village elders. He really didn’t speak English but for some reason I could understand him enough to have a conversation. He mentioned that he lived here all his life. “Countem years blong you” I murmured. He surprisingly understood my crude attempt at Bislamic which was supposed to say "Count the years that belong to you”, or “How old are you?” He shrugged his shoulders and said maybe 1937. Age is not a big deal around here but at least he knew when he was born. He was 74 years old. Videl returned from his trip to the jungle and sat down next to us.
“Brian, this is the Chief of Kastom for the village. Chief Issak is the Chief of John Frum but Chief Philimon is the Chief of Kastom. He is the Chief of our culture.” I looked into the depths of the man’s eyes and instantly felt a connection. He had the kindest, most understanding eyes you could ever imagine. I instantly felt at ease and we talked for a bit. We talked about sailing, we talked about America, we talked about Kastom. Some amazing things this man must have witnessed in his lifetime.
At this point I was definitely feeling the effects of my second shell. I felt like a tree root. I was in touch with the ground and the jungle around me. My body was heavily sedated but my mind was increasingly alert and lucid. I felt a oneness with those around me and a warm feeling of euphoria permeated my chest. The sounds of the jungle were intense. My arms and legs were heavy and it seemed like a lot of effort to move. I noticed that I was grinding my jaw a bit. That makes sense, Kava is the only legal narcotic in the world.
I talked with Chief Philimon and Videl for quite a while. I asked about their Kastom stones, the special ones that ensured good crops and fishing. “We have stones for everything. There is a fishing stone, a banana stone, a stone for breadfruit and taro. When the time is right you take your stone and pray to it. You think about the good crops that will grow or the fish you will catch. You think about this for a long time. The stone should be special and represent what you are praying for. You then wrap the stone in leaves and hide it in a special place, a place that only you know about. That is another reason why women are not allowed in the Nakamal. We can talk about our stones here, where we have hidden them. If the women hear about it they are curious and will try to find them. If they find them the crops will not grow.” Can I see a special stone? “No, it is not the right time yet.”
We ate a little food that the women had brought. Some baked cassava, taro, and some local beef. All pretty typical villager cuisine. Some time had passed and I thought about Brady, Paul, and Josje. I wondered if they had made it over and what they were up to. I suddenly got an impulse to walk to the other village and told my villager friends I wanted to look for them. “Ok Brian, we will walk to the other village but first we must drink one more shell.” was Videl’s answer. I attempted to stand up but it was very, very difficult. My legs didn’t want to listen to my brain. I somehow wandered over, grabbed my shell, and went to the jungle. About half way through it I hit a wall. NO MORE is what my body said. I belched and almost lost my cookies when a acidic, peppery gas cloud came out. I apologetically gave my half full shell back and it was used to make a special brew for someone- a double strong brew of sorts using my left over Kava instead of water for the next bowl. No thanks! I had enough. Erick’s guess of 2 and a half shells was spot on.
We started up the hill and I realized just how hard it was to walk. Putting one foot in front of the other was a major chore. My mind was alert and vivid but for some reason my body didn’t want to listen. I seriously tried to walk a straight line, you know like you try when you’ve had a bit of alcohol to drink. I couldn’t even come close. One foot in front of the other turned into staggering overcorrections of 6 inches or more to the side. My balance was off, I was overcompensating, and staggering all over the place like a ridiculous drunk. The locals were having a ball with it, laughing and teasing me the whole way. The walk through the jungle path was intense, or at least seemed so. I think my perception of time was really skewed. I swear the walk took at least an hour. The next morning I found out it’s really about 10 minutes. We walked up and down ravines, across washes, and past immense trees. I could hear the sound of waves competing with the rumbling of the volcano now. We must be close.
We found the Nakamal of the Sulfur Bay village and I immediately recognized the outlines of Brady and Paul silhouetted against a fire. “Your friends are drunk!” said Erick. I saw Paul try to stand up, only to go down on one knee. Brady was simply swaying back and forth, not attempting anything too drastic. I sat down behind them. “Oh man, we were worried about you!” said Paul. Yea, I know guys. I kind of got stuck at Chief Issak’s village. “Oh cool. Man, I really have to pea but I can’t even get up. The kava is wicked strong.” I was immediately forced to drink another shell. It would have been rude to refuse so I got half of it down and smiled. Big mistake. It put me right over that fine line I was walking and I was now over the edge.
How many shells have you guys had? “Three each.” was Brady’s reply. “I puked Bro. It’s really hard to walk. How did you make it here?” His words trailed off and we lost our train of thought. Not important…. We smoked some tobacco with the locals. It turns out that nothing enhances a good Kava drunk like a bit of tobacco. It also turns out the the guys here don’t smoke just tobacco. They always sprinkle a little something special from the fertile volcanic hillsides on top, as if the Kava wasn’t enough to get you going. I was really feeling the effects of that last half bowl and decided it was now or never. It was time to put myself to bed.
Well I’m done guys. My stuff is up at the other village so I’m going to crash there. I’ll catch you guys in the morning. “Cool bro.” was Brady’s reply. I staggered off into the darkness with my little entourage of villagers in tow. It wasn’t long before I was doing more side to side movements than forward progress, especially up the hills. So weird to have a clear, conscious,alert mind and for your body to be the absolute opposite. How to describe it? Sober mind drunk body maybe? We had nearly made it back to the village when I could go no more. Whatever was inside of me was begging to come out and I could no longer hold it back. I staggered to the side of the trail, put one hand on a tree, and started releasing staggering amounts of kava mixed with cassava and taro. It was an unruly mixture. These guys had obviously seen this before. My village friends were kind and thoughtful. No less than four of them rubbed my back and held me up while I emptied my stomach. I’ll never forget looking up between bouts of vomiting only to see an erupting volcano shooting lava into the sky. Very surreal experience.
My friends helped me to the hut where I was to sleep. Before I knew it a tray of rice and food was laid on the floor and they told me to eat. Sorry guys, there’s no way I can keep anything down. I just want to lay my head down and rest. So that was it. With my hosts busily eating the food on the floor next to me I laid down and closed my eyes. I had a wonderful, restful nights sleep. My next memory is of whistles and shuffling feet. It must be 7AM, time for the flag raising ceremony. Best of all, no hangover!
A few days later we were invited to a dinner party on another boat and asked to bring something to entertain. We collectively wrote a little poem about our Kava experience so here it is.
Welcome To Tanna, Where The People Have Much Mana
Mt. Yasur, he rumbles and blows, but no worries it’s here that the Kava grows.
Sit with Chief Issak and also Prophet Fred, then move to the Nakamal and listen to what is said.
Drink 1 or 2, but definitely not 3, either way you’ll stumble most likely right into a tree. Be careful my friends it’s a fine line, so much different than rum, beer, or wine.
But if you over indulge on saliva and Kava there’s nothing quite like vomiting while watching a volcano spit lava.
Yes, yes, yes I know but what else are we supposed to do in our free time?
The Chief’s Son’s hut, where I slept.
The hut where Brady, Paul, and Josje slept.
Paul spewing out of the lovely hut. Check out those villager feet!
Since no cameras are allowed in the Nakamal we also had a less-formal ceremony on the beach where we could get some pics and chew our own Kava.
Brady chewing root.
Tom chewing root.
Yes another random villager’s contribution.
Yummy! Almost ready to strain.
Chipmunk cheeks full of kava!
The straining process.
The finished product.
Our little band of Kava chewers.