Night of the living kava

A traveler trips out on a magical root in the South Pacific.

Published March 25, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Shortly after sunrise, the morning of my second day on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, I was awakened by the sound of a horn honking. My transportation to the kava gardens had arrived and so I splashed water on my face and dressed quickly. Slamming the truck door closed, I slid onto the front seat where I met Chief Tom's driver -- a man by the name of Moses. After Moses touched two bare wires together, the engine grumbled to life, and for the next hour the vehicle rattled along a rough dirt track that wound its way into thickly forested mountains.

Nestled in the central mountains of Tanna, surrounded by tropical rainforest, was Middle Bush, the jungle stronghold of Chief Samson Kasso. This was our destination. Middle Bush is distinguished from the other villages on the island by the extraordinary amount of garden space set aside for the cultivation of kava. Tannese kava is generally regarded as the most potent in the South Pacific and Middle Bush enjoys a reputation of having the best kava on the island.

I had come to Tanna to learn about kava and it was Chief Tom who became my mentor. He described the tradition of cultivating and drinking kava, but he also made it clear that the best way to understand kava was to drink it with the highland villagers where the best stuff was grown. Chief Tom was the one who had arranged for the driver to pick me up and take me out to the Middle Bush. Kava drinking, he told me, gave men a direct link with the spirit world -- access to spiritual power. There are strict rules governing the ceremonies; women are prohibited from drinking kava or even watching the men partake. The punishment used to be death for the latter, but today a fine of one pig is considered sufficient. In addition, only circumcised, virgin boys were allowed to squeeze the liquid from the masticated kava root, and strictly speaking only married men should drink kava.

As I climbed down from the truck, Moses promised to pick me up at sunset. The truck drove off and I was left standing at the side of the road wondering what to do next. A young man appeared from the forest playing a bamboo pan pipe. He wore nothing but a pandanus fiber penis wrapper -- called a nambas -- that looked like an inverted whisk broom or miniature grass skirt wrapped around an engorged member. I handed the boy my letter of introduction from Chief Tom, and as he read the letter I looked at the chicken feathers stuck into his kinky brown hair.

"Welcome to Middle Bush, sir," he finally said.

"Thank you," I replied, trying to conceal my astonishment at his excellent English.

I followed my young guide into the forest. Myna birds twittered in the branches overhead as we stepped over the buttressed tree roots. The forest floor was carpeted with a russet-colored leaf fall and the smoke of cooking fires hung in the cool morning air. Weak shafts of sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees and I could see the dappled figures of people moving through the undergrowth. With digging sticks carried over their shoulders, they padded silently down foot-worn jungle pathways to the garden plots. We walked for a short while before arriving at the hut of Yallu Kasso, the chief's son. The hut, set at the edge of a clearing, was a rough affair of thick posts supporting a roof of thatch. The walls were left open for ventilation and chickens pecked about the immaculate cooking area. Yallu Kasso spoke English and pidgin as well as the island dialect. He was dressed in a khaki field shirt with a flowered sarong tied around his waist.

Yallu Kasso apologized that his father would be gone for the day, but added that he would be pleased to take me on a tour of the gardens. The village received few visitors and my arrival created a great deal of interest and amusement. We made our way down one of the narrow footpaths and were soon joined by three other men and an entourage of chattering little boys, all dressed in nambas.

Our first stop was the chief's yam hut, where I saw a 50-pound giant yam, and then it was off to the chief's kava garden. Crouched on the ground beneath the cool green shade of the kava plants, Yallu Kasso explained that kava takes approximately five years to grow to maturity. Multiple stalks, 2 inches in diameter, reach a height of about 7 feet, and are crowned with a dense growth of green leaves. Bent over double, we moved farther into the garden as the men pointed out the different types of kava. The climate and soil conditions in Middle Bush are so ideal that three of the 14 types of kava grown there are so strong that after a few sips it is impossible to walk. One type is so powerful that it is no longer taken because of the wild hallucinations that can result from drinking it. Another type still in common use is called Wok-Let, which is pidgin for "work late." It is said that if you drink kava Wok-Let you will arrive at work late the following day.

The chief's kava, known as "Sumarian," is cultivated by raising the young plant above the ground in such a way that the sucker roots at the base cannot develop. This technique of air-pruning produces a central tap root 3 to 4 feet long and 7 inches wide. "Kava Tapunga" is a type of kava also reserved for the chiefs. No one else is allowed to touch the plant. The example I was shown had been planted in a hollowed section of palm stump set into the ground. This was another way of developing a large central root, the most potent section of the plant. Kava roots are sold in the village markets as a cash crop, but are also used as ceremonial gifts and for sharing with friends. Eighty vatu (80 cents US) will buy a kilo of average quality kava. Three kilos is enough for five men.

Before sunset, Yallu Kasso and I wandered back to the nakamal, the dance ground, where a dozen older men had already gathered to cut and clean the kava roots. I met Chief Samson Kasso, a dignified-looking older man dressed in double-pleated blue cotton drill shorts and a plaid dress shirt unbuttoned to the waist. Young boys, wearing nambas, were busy chewing the roots to a soft fibrous mush before disgorging mouthfuls of the stuff onto saucer-sized leaves. It was not an appetizing sight. Each sodden gray pile, consisting of three mouthfuls, equaled one serving.

One of the boys mixed a pile of the masticated kava with water, then twisted it in a mat of coconut fiber. The resulting brown beverage filtered through the mat and dripped into a coconut shell cup. Chief Samson Kasso did the honors. He drained the cup in one quick motion then, turning his back to the rest of us, strode to the edge of the dance ground and blew a spray of liquid into the bushes. He uttered an invocation to the agricultural deity Mwatiktik for good luck and good crops. The chief made a loud, clear cry into the jungle to complete the ritual. The cup was touched to the ground to ensure the strength of the kava stayed with the drinker. The cup was refilled and then handed to me.

I looked into the cup and held my breath. I started drinking and the taste was shocking -- like muddy water and garden compost. Distinctly earthy. During the second gulp my mouth and tongue went numb, followed by my throat and stomach. I felt the strength go out of my knees. I mumbled a few reverent sounding noises in pathetic imitation of Chief Samson Kasso, and then faced the jungle and let out the best Tarzan yell I could manage. I returned the cup for the next drinker, but already I was feeling funny. The other men drank, yelled into the jungle and within a very short while the conversation faded until the last whispered comments and the sounds of the chirping cicadas blended into one.

Flowering bushes and aromatic shrubs sent a fragrance across the now-hushed dance ground. My eyes had difficulty shifting from near to far focus and my body shuddered with each heartbeat. I felt an overwhelming affinity for my fellow drinkers, but in the gathering darkness the men wandered off separately to the edges of the dance ground to abandon themselves to their kava dreams. The sensation of sitting perfectly still in the jungle twilight was utterly euphoric. "Drinking kava," the Tannese say, "is like shaking hands in farewell." This was true. We never spoke again.

At the first sound of the truck, I lost my sense of timelessness and fell into a panic. I wasn't ready to leave but, in typical Western fashion, I didn't want to deviate from the original game plan by making the driver wait. I forgot that we were on Melanesian Standard Time. As Moses quietly approached, I staggered to my feet and mumbled, "We can go now if you wish." He took one look at me and replied gently, "You should sit down and listen to the kava."

The jungle began to spin and the next moment I dropped to the ground as if felled by a pig club. I lay on the cool dirt for the next 30 minutes, unable to speak. During that time it became abundantly clear why kava had been used as a peace offering. I also realized why missionary opposition to kava drinking had been so strong: It was pure bliss. Sometime later, assisted by three phantom shapes, I managed to walk to the truck in the darkness. It didn't take long to figure out that high-speed driving on the winding island roads and kava do not mix. Half way back to the coast I had Moses stop the truck, and I lurched toward the jungle, fell into a ditch and vomited all over myself. I thought this would make me feel better, but it didn't, and resignation set in when I realized the night was still young and that the kava was just starting to kick in.

Standing in front of my bungalow, I fumbled for my key and, from a prudent 10 feet, lined it up with the door lock. My driver, allowing me an opportunity to regain some dignity, let me cover this last stretch unsupported. I carefully walked into the side of the bamboo hut more than a yard to the right of the keyhole. I can vaguely remember the sound of Moses laughing before he drove into the night.

Four hours later the kava was still speaking. Geckos chirped loudly on the ceiling of the bungalow as I lay flat on my back laughing and covered in perspiration. Adrift in a sea of mad visions I saw myself wandering the jungle trails of Mount Tukosmira with my buttocks bared and my dick wrapped up in pandanus fibers. Glistening bodies danced by campfire light. There was the swishing sound of grass skirts and everywhere I looked, there were firm brown breasts and clapping hands as the intoxicating scent of a warm jungle night swirled about me. I thought I heard the sound of conch shells being blown on the beach, but I didn't have the will or the strength to get up to investigate. It was all I could do to keep pace with the hallucinations of giant geckos fucking upside down on the ceiling and eating mosquitoes the size of seagulls. Moments of darkness mingled with dreams of wandering across a forest clearing bathed in silvery moonlight. People were laughing or screaming and at some point I passed out.

A rooster's crow announced the unwelcome dawn and hours later, Chief Tom found me on the veranda of my bungalow gazing blankly into a cup of cold tea. I hadn't brushed my teeth or changed my clothes from the night before. With feigned innocence, he asked me how the tour of the Middle Bush kava gardens had gone the previous day.

"Mummmgnph ..." I managed to reply. Thumbing through my crumpled and mud stained notebook, I located my last entry, cleared my throat and read aloud:

"Tonight we drank kava Do-Dey."

Chief Tom laughed with delight and replied: "Not 'Do-Dey,' what you drank is called kava 'Two-Day.' If you took that one you will not recover for two days."

Chief Tom spoke the truth.

By Eric Hansen

Eric Hansen is the author of "Stranger in the Forest," "Motoring with Mohammed" and "The Traveler." This piece is from a book in progress, "Forbidden Flowers: The Orchid Wars," to be published by Pantheon.

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