The kava “tea” ceremony is still a mainstay of any celebration in this region, marking weddings, birthdays, major national holidays, and, apparently, the arrival of a big group of sweaty tourists from a cruise ship. Nearby American Samoa celebrates the sacred tradition of preparing and drinking this tea, but it really seems to be ingrained in life here on Fiji: kava “saloons” selling the drink abound along the road, as do cafes where it is sold jointly alongside coffee.
I’d heard mixed things about kava, but as all Fijians seem to say to us whenever asked about it: “If you haven’t tried kava, you haven’t been to Fiji.” Prepared for centuries from the root of a tree in the pepper family, it was formerly considered a drink of the gods, consumed only by (male) village headmen. Today, anyone can drink it, even me, but it is important to observe good manners before imbibing this sacred tea: an uncovered head, a clap of the hands (only a hollow, loud, ringing clap will do), and a shout of “Bula!” are all advised. I attempted this myself, in my own lame way, so was unable to take a photo of myself drinking the tea or of the tea itself. You can simply trust me that it looks like strong, soapy dishwater.
The preparation of the tea itself takes time. Kava is made by chopping up the plant’s roots, drying them out in the sun for a week, and then grinding them painstakingly into a powder in a mortar and pestle for a few hours. The powder is then wrapped in a cheese cloth and steeped in water in a special bowl made especially for the kava. This large bowl is what everyone drinks from, with hosts scooping out the liquid for their honored guests using hollowed-out coconut shells.
Kava itself is celebrated for its healing effects, said to help with a wide variety of ailments including anxiety, insomnia, headaches, menstrual cramps and arthritis. My own experience on drinking it was … not much flavor at all. After all the cringing and grimaces from fellow travelers who had tried it before, I was expecting something much more repellent. But then the tingling of the tongue and the numbness of the mouth kick in, and after a few minutes, I see why Fijians joke about mistaking rocks for their own babies and taking the rocks home. One passenger in another tour group drank two bowlfuls and ended up unable to locate his own bus on the way back. I am amazed this drink is sold by the roadside.
At least now I can say I’ve been to Fiji.