In my Christmas mailer, I informed quite a few people what kava was like, but I figured I would, with photos this time, record it here on my website as well. This post is going to be a doozy, so strap in, and we're off!
Kava is unlike any other substance I have come into contact with. Wikipedia
lists it as plant with "sedative and anesthetic properties", and I would tend to agree. Here are some photos of a root from neighboring Ambae. They are about a week old, so they have lost a bit of their potency, but still very easy to get drunk with.
, my training village, had some of the best connections with getting kava roots from exotic parts of Vanuatu. Most of the peoples on Efate either drink kava they grew in their back yards, or stuff purchased from Vila that is more akin to water than a mind altering drug. Tanoliu however had some sort of in with the boat captains and always had something from Santo, Pentecost, Ambae, or even Epi that would knock you flat. Taowi Stan's was the Nakamal of choice primarily because he had a great attittude, and that he gave a lot away for free. It was also the favorite because it usually opened first, as it was physically closest to the one man of Tanoliu who turned the unsuspecting roots into a semi drinkable substance that almost everyone here enjoys.
Before the Peace Corps chose Tanoliu as a training village for the education volunteers of group 24, there were roughly six Nakamals, but the day we arrived there were over 12. They barely take any time to construct, and are only open 2-3 nights a week, so it isn't a terrible investment. Even so, we certainly didn't drink enough as guests to this town to support the doubling of their bars. Most of the time the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) hung out at Taowi Stan's.
So how does Taowi Stan get his kava from the root above into the dirt drink we all know and love? Follow along and I will show you the method preferred in Tanoliu, but as you will soon find out, it is by no means the
method for making kava.
First you need to cut away the excess bark or skin from around the roots. Knives seem to be an abundance in this culture, and this part can also be a communal activity.
Next up we need to chop or dice the roots to create little bite sized chunks. This was a particularly festive night (as is every Friday) so there is a lot of kava to be made.
After we have our chucks in buckets, it is time to run them through a meat grinder. The generator started, we are ready to go. Several members of the family take turns running all the pieces through.
Once this is complete, we run them all through again to make something almost the consistency of powder.
Then it is time to mix the ground kava roots with water, and of course, this is done in another bucket.
Now, one does not want to have to drink the actual kava root, what we are after is the kavalactones
. So this needs to be run through a mesh cloth several times to remove the root, but squeeze out the contents.
And presto! We have kava. The dirt drink is this transported in yet another bucket to the nakamals. It isn't uncommon to see someone with one or two buckets get onto a bus in Vila on his way to open his nakamal in the afternoons/early evenings. In Tanoliu, every nakamal is within walking distance so the men will just lug their buckets to their respective establishments.
Kava is then served in shells. Traditionally these were in fact halved coconut shells, but today they can be a variety of cups and containers similar in shape to a half dome. Kava is purchased in multiples of 50 vatu, with the most common measurement being 100 vatu. The volume of kava for 50 vatu is about the same for every nakamal, but some choose to water down their product more, while others pad profits by purchasing sub par roots. The picture below is about a 50 shell.
When asking a Ni-Vanuatu or PCV how much kava they consumed last night, make sure you don't stop when they offer X number of shells. You then have to ask them how big they were. Four 50s is a long way from four 150s.
Now when consuming kava, it isn't a social activity (the consumption part alone). You don't toast, you don't face each other, and you don't sip on it like tea. It is taken like a shot, usually in a dark corner of the nakamal or just outside of it. What usually follows is spitting, and I mean a lot of spitting. Your first couple nights you may even enjoy the flavor, but as time goes on, it will only remind you of vomit. The spitting helps to get the flavor out of your mouth. It is difficult for me to take a 100 shell without vomiting the last bit up each time, a lot of discipline and focus are required.
Now you can either hang out at the nakamal with friends, or take it in a togo cup called a "plastic" and drink it at home. I usually do the latter at site because the walk is about 25 minutes, in the dark, and I would hate to try that drunk. Below is a plastic with about 150 vatu of kava left in it, and below that is the same plastic after a couple days of separation. It reeks to high heaven too once it starts to ferment.
Now, onto the more fun stuff, what does it do? There are a myriad of effects kava can have, here is a shorten list I have compiled. These are things that have happened to me, or friends of mine:
Mild to extreme sensitivity to light (for many lights get very intense, so much so that in certain regions of towns, cars that pass know to turn off their headlights... at night...)
Mild to extreme sensitivity to sound
Talkers get more talkative, introverts get quieter
Everyone talks quietly, for if you make to much noise in a nakamal, you will get kicked out (goes with the sensitivity to sound above)
Mellow, or extreme relaxation
Loss of labido (very common)
Heightened labido (rare)
Loss of motor functions such as walking or speaking without slurring
Loss of vocabulary (thoughts are complete in your head, but communicating them becomes more difficult)
Loss of equilibrium
Appetite suppressant (known as the kava diet)
There are two main effects of kava when you drink it. The first is a numb mouth and tongue. This effect is more pronounced for newcomers, but I rarely experience it strongly anymore. Usually this is where most people not from Vanuatu will stop drinking, but those who press on and down a few more shells are greeted with the second effect, a "kick". I have said many a times in a nakamal "kava i harem kik noia" and I get four of five silent nods of approval. The kick is different for everyone, different for every different type of kava (of which there are 40), and different still for different ways of preparation. Kava can be chewed, ground with a grinder (automatic or hand driven), ground with a stone, rammed with a stone, and generally pulverized in countless additional ways.
Kava "kick" is unlike any other feeling I have had. First of all, you are aware of how drunk you are. Second, your mind works more or less about the same pace as it does sober, it is just your senses, limbs, and speech that are stunted. You would think this would make the experience much worse than alcohol or some other illicit substance, but you are so content with your situation, that you just don't care. It is this contentedness that kava drinkers crave, and keeps them coming back to the dirt drink. They have used the substance for hundreds and hundreds of years here to solve all kinds of disputes. Chiefs will get together, drink kava, and discuss their differences. After, almost always the problem is solved. There is no such thing as a bar fight in a nakamal. Because of this, the PC practically begs all volunteers to spend copious amounts of time in nakamals, as it is a great way to integrate into one's community. I meet all kinds of people and talk about all kinds of subjects you wouldn't dare broach at a bar or on the street. I highly recommend the experience to everyone, but it is difficult to get outside of Vanuatu. You can buy powdered kava from the internet or from "kavasutra" bars in the states, but it takes a lot to get the kick everywhere but here. 1 shell lo Vanuatu i olsem 9 shell lo US, so make sure to drink a lot of it if you want this feeling (otherwise you are just drinking dirt for no reason). Another trick is to buy the powder, but halve the amount of water you are mixing in. Whatever you do, do not mix it with any sort of mixed drink, it will ruin the flavor of everything it touches.
I am sure in a future post I can explain how the kava hangover is also different from any hangover prior. Make sure to eat a fair amount after
you finish kava for the night, and drink copious amounts of water after
you finish your kava as well. This will make sure you don't dehydrate, and for some reason the food also mitigates the strength of the hangover. Thanks for reading