Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kava in Fiji

Kava is a mild liquid intoxicant and a large element in Fijian culture.  And it’s legal. This is the liquid drug or beverage of choice in most of Melanesia and Polynesia. Kava or kava-kava’s scientific name is (Piper methysticum) (Piper: Latin for 'pepper', methysticum: (Latinized) Greek for 'intoxicating'). The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties. Kava is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia (including Hawaii), Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia. Kava is sedating and is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. Its active ingredients are called kavalactones
This variety of pepper tree takes five to seven years to reach harvest maturity.  When the stems and roots are dried, and then manually beaten or mechanically ground into a flour, cold water is added to create what looks like a mud puddle; it resembles the taste of a freshly ground cedar pencil. One island I visited didn’t dry the roots at all, but beat them green into a split pea soup looking drink, that was much stronger by far. Drying seems to be the way to go for most island folk, however. With my addictive personality, I had a love/hate relationship with this grog or yaqona, as it is commonly called in Fiji.  It seems to be consumed daily there- as a ritualistic ceremony, a “grog break” at a city bank or socially in the villages and towns. And don’t forget the tourists, who consume their share too, be it ever so small.  Both native Fijians and domestic East Indians partake of this narcotic beverage, which seems to be basically a man’s drink. Women partake at weddings and funerals, it seems. I out drank the chief of another village one night and became a living legend- something they would talk about for a long time.  When asked if I was stoned yet, I replied, “You don’t even know the meaning of the word.” You are dealing with one of the original hippies here.  To me, the high was like one beer combined with a mediocre joint.  But when drinking mass quantities, I developed what the Fijians called coni coni or second skin.  This is an intense nerve itch that can’t be scratched- like a snake shedding its skin.  I swore I’d never drink grog again. However, when tomorrow arrived, there was nothing else to do but to drink it again. My thinking was that it made me feel more at one with the natives, myself and this hot environment, despite the consequences. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. This rational and pattern would be repeated with alcohol by me later- that damn addictive personality at work. At night in the villages, I often heard what sounded like drums pounding away. However, these were not drums but the beating of kava or yaqona root into powder. The beat goes on, even in Fiji.
And years later, when I returned to Fiji with the lady who would become the mother of my son, that story of me out drinking the chief came back to haunt me there; here I was in the same village again and drinking that mud puddle again, called kava. But this time I learned my lesson and drank less, so I wouldn’t get that irritating coni coni itch!

Singer/songwriter Rob Rideout is the author of “Still Singing, Somehow” and is still singing, somehow on a farm overlooking Colville, WA with his three cats Baba, Maya and Olive. He recently published a second book of poetry, based on his song lyrics. The release of his CD of original songs is scheduled for spring 2011.
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