The local brew in Vanuatu: I drink, therefore I am

Kava is brewed from crushed roots on the idyllic islands of Vanuatu and it will bring you closer to the spirits, if you sink it in one gulp. All you then have to do is 'listen'... Just don't try to stand up

Jerry Callow
Saturday 19 August 2000 00:00 BST

Ten thousand miles is a long way to go for a drink, but kava is no ordinary drink and Vanuatu's is no ordinary kava. A chain of remote islands floating between the Solomon Islands and Fiji, Vanuatu is the great secret of the South Pacific. It boasts palm-fringed lagoons, pristine coral reefs and the "absinthe" of the South Pacific.

Ten thousand miles is a long way to go for a drink, but kava is no ordinary drink and Vanuatu's is no ordinary kava. A chain of remote islands floating between the Solomon Islands and Fiji, Vanuatu is the great secret of the South Pacific. It boasts palm-fringed lagoons, pristine coral reefs and the "absinthe" of the South Pacific.

At its most potent, kava is thought to possess sacred powers, and allow communion with gods. Consequently, kava is often the focal point of Oceanian social gatherings. It is made from the crushed roots of the "piper methysticum" shrub, which is known locally as kava root. Their psychoactive properties were first documented by Captain Cook when he visited the chain of islands in the late 18th-century, and arrived home talking about a "strange intoxicating pepper".

Both the preparation and consumption of "island beer", as it is sometimes known, are treated with great reverence. Traditionally, young boys prepare the kava by chewing the roots and straining the masticated mush into a coconut shell. Although the practice still exists on some of the outer islands, in the capital Port Vila, young mouths have been replaced by mechanical grinders and even food processors.

Little else has changed. The ritual and etiquette remain and since Vanuatan independence in the early 1980s, kava drinking has been encouraged as a way of reinforcing the islands' ancient traditions. As a result, commercial kava bars or "nakamals" have sprung up around Port Vila. These are usually no more than spartan, wooden shacks, and since one of kava's side-effects is to make your eyes sensitive to light, the nakamals are barely illuminated.

Shadowy figures sit slumped on rough, wooden benches and, as people drift in, a murky looking liquid is scooped out of a bucket from behind a makeshift counter in the corner. A "shell" of kava costs less than a dollar and there is little or no conversation, so the atmosphere is sombre. Fortunately, tradition dictates that the shell is consumed in one go, outside and with your back turned to the nakamal.

Having fumbled around outside trying not to be sick, you then fumble around inside looking for somewhere to sit. It is time, as the locals say, to "listen" to the kava. After a while your mouth and throat go numb and then you start to feel pretty good about everything. Unless you've had the "one-eyed" kava, that is - a variety that disrupts your vision so badly you have to cover up one eye just to get out of the nakamal.

With other blends, life is good. Kava is good. You even think it tastes good. You try to stand up. You can't. You sit down again, crumpled against a wall, with a dreamy sense of euphoria washing over you, and legs that don't quite work. The best bit is that it's not addictive. There are no hangovers and it doesn't seem to make anyone aggressive.

The nakamals in Port Vila may be a good introduction to kava but to really appreciate the drink you have to visit one of the outer islands. Tanna is reputedly home to the most powerful kava in Vanuatu and was therefore the obvious choice.

Mount Yasur, the island's active volcano, leaves thick plumes of black, sulphurous smoke over the island and its bubbling, spitting crater is thought to be home to the island's gods and spirits. In the thickly forested mountains of the interior, villagers tend their gardens of yams, and every night local boys chew the kava. Legend has it that some types of Tannan kava produce hallucinations so uncontrollable that it is "tabu" to drink them.

Kava is a symbol of friendship and respect and I had brought a root of it with me from Port Vila. Because of that, I was guaranteed a warm welcome from Chief Jack and the rest of his village and spent the afternoon sitting under the buttressed roots of an enormous banyan tree, with old men sleeping in its shade.

Smoke drifted through the thatched roofs of the small forest huts and giggling, bare-chested women passed by with their babies. In front of us was a large clearing that was used for dancing and the kava ceremony. This was the traditional nakamal.

As the afternoon wore on, the women disappeared, in a blur of swishing skirts. Drinking kava on Tanna is a serious, manly business and custom forbids women from even witnessing its preparation.

Half a dozen young boys congregated at the far end of the nakamal and started chewing noisily and enthusiastically on kava root. In the gathering gloom, they gradually spat out large wads of the chewed root. The fibrous mass was mixed with water and strained through a coconut-fibre "cloth" into an ancient wooden bowl. No one spoke.

In the twilight, the first shell was scooped out and handed to Chief Jack. Back towards us, he raised the shell and slowly drank. As he finished he blew a thin spray of the liquid into the air, muttered an invocation to the gods and let out a final cry for the spirits. Then he laid the empty shell at my feet. As their guest, I was next.

This, the biggest coconut shell I'd ever seen, was brimming with at least a pint-and-a-half of spit and kava. Holding it in two hands I walked out into the clearing, said a little prayer and downed the foul mixture as quickly as I could. It took an almighty effort to keep it down and almost immediately my mouth went numb.

In silence, the other men then took their turns until the bowl was empty. Everyone then drifted off separately into the night to sit alone in quiet reflection under the enormous trees surrounding the nakamal. They would listen to the kava alone. This was the old way.

Hampered by an alarming bout of quadruple vision, I collapsed in a heap next to the fire. It was bliss. Beneath a blanket of stars, I shut my eyes and listened to the kava. Face down. In the forests of Tanna.

Vanuatu is difficult and expensive to reach. Air Vanuatu has a virtual monopoly on flights. The best connections are from Brisbane and Sydney in Australia, cities most easily reached on Japan Airlines for as little as £ 500 return through discount agents. The final leg to Vanuatu costs a further £ 250-£ 400

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