Drinking Kava in the Jungle

Outside the shelter I can see a six-foot iron spear being rhythmically raised and stabbed downwards. It strikes an iron crucible, ringing loudly in the jungle, throwing sparks into the night.

I’m seated at the back of the small a-frame tent made of sticks, rope, and palm fronds. Also in the shelter are my boyfriend Bobby, our traveling companion Sorin, and a dozen Fijian men. We are sitting crosslegged, thigh to thigh, watching the next batch of kava being mixed in front of us. Everyone smiles, even the men who are half-sleeping. We are all brothers.

I’m on the island of Nanuya Balavu in the Fijian Yasawa group of islands. I’ve been reading J. Maarten Troost’s wonderful book Getting Stoned with Savages, in which Troost describes doing large amounts of kava while living in the neighboring island nation of Vanuatu. I’ve had a shell or two of kava on previous visits to Fiji, but they were a demonstration for tourists. Other than a little tingling on my tongue, I might as well have been drinking dirty water. After reading Troost’s experiences on Vanuatu, I decide the goal of this trip is to have a more authentic kava experience.

Kava is an intoxicant unique to the islands of the South Pacific. It tastes like mud and calms your mind like Xanax. If you do enough kava, it will calm you right to sleep, and you might spend the next few days doing little more than napping. As drugs go, it’s just slightly edgier than warm milk.

Aussie Joe is the dive master on Nanuya Balavu. On my first night I mention to him that I am looking to partake in some serious kava. “Ahh yes, looking to get a little grog, mate? No worries, Fiji Joe can fix you right up.” Aussie Joe goes off and shortly comes back with a large muscular man. Fiji Joe is a man that you might see in a tourism ad, chest and muscles oiled behind a tagline telling you to “Come taste all that Fiji has to offer.”

Fiji Joe tells me that he can get fresh kava root from a neighbor island for Fj$50 a kilogram. The conversation is surreptitious, and I get the feeling that my request lay some distance outside the rules. I give Fiji Joe a fifty-dollar bill, and he tells me he will come for me the next night.

The next day passes quickly. We go scuba diving, drifting along a wall splattered with corals and sea fans. The current rips us along at a steady 5 knots. We grab onto a piece of rock, stopping to watch sharks hunt. A giant Napoleon Wrasse appears out of the deep blue, a chunky hundred-pound fish in deep iridescent green and blue, the largest member of the wrasse family.

That night the villagers dance for us, oiled black skin and grass skirts moving in the humid night. This group is the best that I have seen in Fiji. The music is beautiful and the dances energetic. Men and women each have their own dances. The woman’s dance is gentle, a palm fan in one hand, hips sliding side to side with slow steps. The women smile and sway, gestures welcoming, fans beckoning.

The men dance war, clubs in hand, movements hard, leaping, thrusting, threatening. Bobby cowers under a pillow, only bringing more attention to himself. Fiji Joe leaps towards where we sit, his war club hitting the wooden deck hard and angry. He looms over Bobby, springs into the air shouting, and comes down swinging his club down towards Bobby’s head but stopping at the last second. He gently pokes Bobby in the side with his club, and Bobby screams. Joe laughs, and the dance ends.

A half hour later Joe comes to find me. “We go to other side o’ da island” he tells me. “Get your chasers and come down to da beach.” A ‘chaser’ is intended to get the taste out of your mouth. Apparently not even Fijians like the taste of kava. A chaser can be beer, a lollipop, or a cola. Tonight we bring a dozen cans of beer.

We walk along the beach in a group, Fiji Joe, Atu, Bobby, Sorin, and I. At the end of the beach we walk along the base of lava sea cliffs on a path that is only passable at low tide. The rock is still wet, slippery, and scuttling with crabs.

After the rocks we come to another beach and climb up into the jungle. A hundred meters in we find the shelter, glowing with the light of two kerosene lanterns.

There are many men already sitting around the circle within the tent. While the other men sit on a blue tarp laid on the dirt, I am given the honored seat on a foam mattress at the back. Bobby sits beside me.

Opposite where I sit Sam Cool the Bearded Fijian is somberly mixing the kava. He massages a sock containing the mashed kava root, then swirls it around in the water of the kava bowl. After this he kneads the sock some more, movements learned and repeated, the water growing brown and opaque.

The kava plant is a small shrub that only grows in the South Pacific at higher altitudes. In Fiji, it’s called ‘yaqona’ and comes from the mountains of the main island of Viti Levu. “Once we pull da plant, da roots are dried for seven sunny days” Sam tells me.

The dried root is then mashed in a mortar before being mixed with water. While you can buy dried kava powder, everyone agrees that it is inferior to the freshly-mashed roots.

Sam uses a coconut shell to stir the kava, then scoops out a portion. The shell is passed from man to man until it reaches me. I clap once, take the shell in both hands, and say “Bula!”1The Fijian word for ‘Hello!’, very similar to ‘Aloha!’. I then drink the kava without stopping. It is very good, muddy but not harsh, and leaves an immediate tingle on my tongue. I hand back the empty shell and clap three times, smiling. Sam smiles back, nods, and starts passing kava to each of the other men, starting with Bobby.

Solo is seated behind me. He’s middle-aged, solid of build with a chiseled face. He is only wearing a sulu2A man’s sarong. wrapped around his waist. He looks like an Easter Island statue made flesh.

He carefully places a white plastic box in the center of the kava circle. He then pulls out an iPad. I do a double-take. Yes, it’s an iPad. Here in the woods, on an island, in a crude palm hut.

A few swipes, a few taps, and the little box starts singing. For the rest of the evening Solo is our DJ, bent over his pad selecting the night’s playlist. His music selections mostly consist of Fijian pop & Jamaican reggae, both perfectly suited to drinking kava. He only looks up from his playlist when he is drinking kava.

Captain Jack has a can of salted peanuts, and parsimoniously shares them with the other men, two peanuts at a time. There is another empty nut can that acts as an ashtray. Some of the guys are smoking a single cigarette, passing it from man to man.

About halfway through the evening one of the guys stubs the cigarette into the container of nuts. The mistake is noticed and a Fiji-level panic ensues. There is some excited babbling in Fijian for a few moments, and Jack picks out the larger pieces of cigarette & ash. He then takes a peanut and pops it into his mouth. I ask him if he likes his nuts smoked. Everyone laughs and we continue drinking.

Sorin asks “How often do you take tourists from the resort out here to have kava?” Joe looks up from the kava bowl, seems surprised by the question, and then says “You are the first.” He passes Sorin another shell.

Almost the entire time that we are there, the men take turns mashing the kava. From where I sit in the back of the shelter, I can not see who is working the mortar. I can only see them from the neck down, strong arms lifting the 40-pound rod and then thrusting it downward, perfect calves rising then crouching, black skin covered in sweat reflecting the light from the lanterns. It is a spear dance for the kava gods, a dance that men dance for other men.

I go to pee in the jungle. Sam Cool the Bearded Fijian follows me. We stand side-by-side, peeing into the bush. “Maybe when you come back you could bring me a speaker like Solo has?” he asks. “But with more boom boom boom.” “Bass?” I ask. “Yes”, he says, “Boom boom boom!”

Around the time our fourth batch of kava is being mixed, Bobby asks “How do you guys stay so muscular? Do you go to the gym?” Everyone, even the dozing men, look up at Bobby. “You have such beautiful bodies!” Bobby continues, “Where do you go to work out?”

The men stare at Bobby in silence.

Fiji Joe, without looking up from mixing the kava, says “We go to da gym o’ carrying your heavy bags with all your things up to your rooms.”

Everyone laughs. We drink another round.

Eventually we are drinking the last of the kava. Midnight came and went an hour ago. Solo is now showing us viral videos… cute kids dancing on “America’s Got Talent”, hilarious things that can happen on a ladder, etc. He shows us video after video with the same lack of expression that he has shown all night long. He’s a curator at the Museum of Humanity, matter-of-factly presenting works from the collection.

And then we are done. We stand, stretch out legs, and walk down to the sea. While we drank the tide came in, and warm water washes our feet as we make our way back to the resort. We walked in silence, our steps slow and deliberate on submerged rocks.

I’m honored to have men I’ve just met share this experience. They trusted me and brought me and my friends into their life. Before we left for the evening, they asked me to come back, to return in a year to share another night with them, to talk stories and drink kava.

I’ll return to Nanuya Balavu. But not only to see my new friends, or to share kava with them. Not only for the amazing diving, or the sapphire seas.

I’ll return because Sam Cool needs some boom boom boom.

  • 1
    The Fijian word for ‘Hello!’, very similar to ‘Aloha!’.
  • 2
    A man’s sarong.

3 thoughts on “Drinking Kava in the Jungle

    • Peter, I do expect we will be returning in a year or so. It might be difficult though… flights seem to take 20 hours from BKK and cost US$1500.

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