Kava. If you’ve ever spent time exploring the Polynesian islands such as Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, or even Hawaii, chances are you’ve probably come across this exotic root-spice.
Kava is a plant which naturally grows on many Pacific islands. It is famous for its roots, which are ground up, mixed with water, and drunk by locals just as we drink tea or coffee. The most interesting thing about the Kava root is the anesthetic effect it has on the body – it numbs the tongue, relaxes the body and mildly sedates the mind. In the words of one of our drivers in Fiji, “every day I go home and drink Kava”. To pacific islanders, it’s the perfect wind-down drink.
In the town of Nadi, Fiji, we were exploring the famous handicraft market, when one of the shopkeepers invited us in. Anyone who has been abroad knows that being invited in to a shop almost always results in parting with a large sum of money in return for a rug or a vase or an untreated wood-carving.So we were naturally very hesitant to follow. But thankfully this shop-owner simply wanted to introduce us to his village’s own Kava ceremony!
The three of us sat down cross-legged, around a large bowl with four wooden legs. The shop-owner handed us two empty half-coconuts – traditionally used as cups. In a Kava ceremony, the eldest male is elected chief of the ceremony, but since we were special guests, Sam was elected chief. The shop-owner poured the Kava powder into a woven muslin sack, placed it in the bowl and covered it in cool water. The Kava steeped into the water, much like a teabag – turning it a sandy-brown colour. Following this, the shop owner recited a blessing, which sounded like this.
“Sam and Emily, thank you for coming to my village. Thank you for this Kava ceremony and for the time we are about to spend drinking the Kava. I wish you safe travels and I hope you enjoy your time here in Fiji. God bless you. Vinaka”
After this, we drank the Kava – Sam first, then Em, then the shop-owner. After each round, we were required to clap three times together and say Vinaka, which means Thank You. Let’s put this bluntly- Kava tastes bad! To the Westerner, it’s like drinking bitter muddy water. We pretended (unsuccessfully) we enjoyed it, thanked the shop owner, and said goodbye. But not without some pictures first!
And if you’re wondering, its sedative effects are real! We didn’t drink much, but our tongues were numb and tingly for an hour or so afterwards. It really makes you wonder what Fijians feel when they drink litres of it!