Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Vanuatu 7 Kava

Monday 26 (evening)
The drum sounds its hollow call again. I hear no difference in the rhythm but everyone knows that this heralds dinner. Its 7:30pm. Paul and I accompany out ni-Vanuatu colleagues once more through the entrance to the Nakamal. This time the building hums with quiet activity. Smoke drifts towards the high roof from the three fires. Women busy themselves over steaming pots and among piles of banana leaves. Groups of men sit on the side benches sharing stories. The kava makers continue grinding.

We sit on the slatted bamboo bench on the right hand side of the building and watch and wait. There are about forty people in the building. Half of us are visitors, the rest, our hosts. Time is not of the essence here. My gaze traverses the scene and I become mesmerised by the slow kava ritual in front of me at the men's end of the building.

Outside two young men with long machetes slice and prepare the thin tubers of the kava plant. Each stroke peels away the earth coloured surface to reveal the pale flesh beneath. Inside four or five men sit on the earth floor, each with an oblong shaped wooden tray before them. A small mound of shaved roots sit beside each tray. The kava preparation continues without interruption. In one hand the craftsman holds a clutch of tubers and in the other a grinding tool. The village proudly follows century old traditions in this ritual. The tool is a shaft of coral about ten centimetres in diameter (a natural handspan) and forty centimetres long. It is tapered at one end. This tapered end sits int the cup of the kava filled hand and, one twist at a time from the right hand, grinds the roots to a pulp. These islands are mountains of volcanic rock and ancient coral deposits. It is slow rhythmic work. If kava is a relaxant this ritual is perfectly suited to the task.

I watch the pulp on the tray slowly grow in size. Then watch as water is added to the tray and kneaded to a wet doughy consistency. Finally the maestro takes a half shell of a small coconut, places it on the ground and, wrapping the kava pulp in a spiral of pandanus leaf, pours another cupful of water through the mixture and directs the filtered juice through the pandanus funnel to the cup.

Kava is drunk every day in these villages. Originally used only for ritual purposes to mark the resolution of a conflict or a significant event (marriage, achievement of chief status, death) it now has a central place in the daily life of the men of the community. It's a relaxant and mild hallucinogen. Pentecost kava is reputed to be the best and strongest. Our colleagues have mixed connections to this ritual, and much of it stems from which missionary group held dominance. The Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) eschew alcohol and intoxicants and decline, others only drink at traditional ceremonies, and others are willing regular partakers. I choose to be SDA for the moment.

I am already in a mild state of shock without the benefit of kava. My experience of travels in India and Indonesia in the seventies with associated stomach and bowel disruptions is still fresh in my mind thirty years later. I have premonitions of medical emergencies and dashes to the latrines and the last thing I need is a gutful of a mind altering substance.

As well as my Indian bowel experiences I am catapulted back to Nepal (on the same trip) where I walked alone to a remote village (having left my now wife to her own devices hovering over a squat toilet for two days - she has only recently begun to forgive me) and foolishly shared a joint being passed around a room full of young overland travellers. Anyone who remembers the streets of Katmandu lined with hashish in those years will understand that this was not a gentle local Australian mix of grass clippings and marijuana. This was a potent brew chipped from a block of refined and condensed chocolate coloured 100% madness. I had succumbed to hippie peer pressure. That night I clung to my straw covered bed, tied my foot to my backpack as I resisted the mad urge to walk out of that hut and traverse the ridges of Pokhara in the pitch black. I was not keen to repeat that episode.

I'm not sure why I'm so fearful. In two days I'll look back on this and wonder why it seemed such a big deal. My colleague Gideon promises to keep tempting me. "you haven't experienced Pentecost until you drink a shell of kava." he says. Tonight I decline.

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