Drinking Kava 101
In Fiji and Vanuatu kava is a critical piece of local culture. A broad leafed plant grown on hillsides in places with high rainfall, the Melanesian islanders in this part of the world grind kava roots into an inebriating drink. They call kava their beer, and its key role in binding together (mostly male) society helps to solidify the comparison.
I drank a boatload of kava when we sailed through Fiji three years ago. For one, whenever we arrived in a new village we were expected to bring the local chief a bundle of kava. But, also, this is what the men did all day in many of the places we visited. We would rock up in a place and Lani and the girls would go off with the women to cook and basically do all the work in the village, while I would crawl into a kava hut with the men and drink the stuff all day.
Kava plays a key role in Vanuatu society, also. It's a part of everyday ritual—usually at the end of the day the men sit around a fire, drink kava, and sit in silence. (It doesn't make one loquacious.) When there's a big ceremony, in addition to killing a cow for the feast, people will bring their oldest kava plants (4-5 years), which reputedly have the best kava roots.
Fijian kava is pretty weak. There they dry the roots, grind it into a tan powder, and mix it with water to make a muddy tasting slop that, at most, made my lips tingle. Vanuatu is another story.
I tried kava here for the first time yesterday when we went on a hike up into the hills above Asanvari, on the southern tip of Maewo. During our walk with a local named Barry he showed us his cousin's impressive kava plantation; and when he learned that I'd only ever had kava in Fiji immediately insisted that when we returned to his village we try some. "We drink it fresh," he explained. Though, at the time, I had no idea why that would matter.
Barry had a pretty cool technique for grinding the root. After cleaning it and plucking off the green shoots, he'd hold three pieces in his left hand, and then with his right he'd scrape it with a sharp piece of coral salvaged from the reef at the bottom of the waterfall down below. It's a tricky technique that garnered lots of laughs from Barry, his wife, and kids when I gave it a go. Once ground Barry put the paste into a sock, added water, and strained the liquid into a small half coconut. "Here," he said, passing me my first nut.
In Fiji you have to clap your hands together twice, chant "bula," and drink the kava in one go. In Vanuatu they've dispensed with the ritual of clapping and chanting. But, you're still expected to drink the glass in one shot.
The first thing you notice is your lips going numb. This happens a little bit in Fiji after two or three cups. But, with Vanuatu kava it's instantaneous. Next, you start to feel a little numb all over. Then, a lot numb. Barry poured me a second cup; and, out of politeness I drank that down too. However, in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have. It was tricky walking home, and the path down the waterfall made it especially challenging.
So, yes, there's a difference between Fijian and Ni-Vanuatu kava. A big difference. Which makes the Ni-Vanuatu chuckle and shake their heads when you admit that you've only had the former. "Ah, you have to try the real kava!"