Drinking with the Locals: Kava Ceremony, Fiji

Should you ever find yourself visiting Fiji, you may be invited to a Kava ceremony. They’re considered a bit of a must-do for tourists in the South Pacific. So much so, that 5-star hotels often offer them to their guests as part of their “Fijian experience”.

Kava is a mildly narcotic beverage made from the from the root of the kava shrub  (or Piper methysticum if you want to get technical.) Known to reduce anxiety and promote a feeling of well-being, kava has been used in Fiji as a social lubricant in welcome ceremonies and communal gatherings for centuries.

I had my first sip of kava as part of a Fijian village homestay. As is custom, we purchased the Kava root from an outdoor market before we arrived at the village.

The kava root.

We also bought Sulus to wear, which are basically large, colourful rectangles of fabric worn like a sarong. On top its common just to wear a t-shirt or even a blouse as long as its not showing too much skin. Locals don’t do that. Fijian culture was heavily influenced by the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800. They are religious and dress modestly. So, if you’re going to attend any ceremonies or visit any villages, it’s best you cover up too.

Once in the village and properly attired, we presented the chief with the kava root and were shown through to the community hall.

Taking our seats on the straw-matted floor, the males of the village prepared the kava by crushing it to powder, wrapping it in cloth and pouring water through it.

Once the water had turned a very particular brown…

man sitting on blue boat on water
pretty close…
(pic by Maarten van den Heuvel @ unsplash)

the Kava is served in a wooden four legged bowl called a tanoa.

Our hosts sang to us in Fijian, there was a formal welcome in English and then the kava was scooped up in a lacquered coconut shell cup (bilo).

(poor quality photo courtesy of me)

As is custom, the villagers imbibed first, in order of seniority. And then it was our turn. As our hosts clapped out a slow rhythm we were offered the choice of high tide (full cup) or low tide (half cup).

Before we drank, we had to follow a particular ritual: clap your hands once, shout “Bula!” accept the cup, down it in one go and, after handing it back, clap three more times and say “Maca” (pronounced Ma-tha).

This process is repeated until the kava is gone.

Kava is referred to as a depressant drug. A narcotic that produces a euphoric and relaxing effect. One writer described herself as “bonelessly relaxed” after trying it.

I wondered what she’d mixed in her kava, because I felt nothing.

gray concrete surface
My brain on kava.

Actually, that’s not true. I did feel relaxed, but it wasn’t the drink. I felt mellow before I’d had my first sip of the bitter, brown beverage.

What calmed me was the hypnotic, repetitive ritual of the ceremony. The low, soft singing, the clapping, the pouring of the liquid, the passing of the bilo back and forth. The atmosphere was utterly tranquilizing.

It was an atmosphere that repeated itself a week later on a tiny Fijian island.

Again, I drank with the locals and a few travel buddies and again the ritual was the same. The bowl, the bilo, the ‘bula’ were all there, as was the clapping, only this time it was accompanied by the soft strum of a guitar and the lapping of waves on the shore.

Oh, did I mention we were sitting under the stars?

It was pure travel ASMR. Total tingle town. And the drink had very little to do with it.

So I was surprised to discover there are kava bars popping up around the world. Bars in places like New York’s East Village where bright young things can (or could until the pandemic) sip kava prepared by qualified mixologists amidst Polynesian themed décor.

Personally, I don’t get it.

Kava is ceremonial. It’s effects are minimal (I’ve had more of a buzz from half a glass of champagne.) and it tastes like dirty sock water.

So, it makes me wonder, when you remove the cultural and ritualistic aspect of kava from the equation, why would anyone drink it?

Especially when Pina Coladas are so much tastier.

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