Before I left for Fiji I heard plenty about kava: that fijians were obsessed with drinking it, that I would make you hallucinate, that it tasted terrible. Some of this was true, some of it was a flat out lie. So I thought I would set the record straight.
Also known as Yaqona, kava plays a huge roll in Fiji’s culture and day to day life. It’s popular across the South Pacific but it is a particularly big deal in Fiji. Here is the down and dirty on Fiji’s “national drink:”
Kava is NOT a Psychedelic Drug
People tend to confuse kava with Ayuhuasca, the hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon. Kava on the other hand, is not intended to give you visions or to put you into a trance. It’s effects are mild: one or two cups will make your face numb, a large amount will make you feel relaxed and sleepy. Drink too much and you might fall asleep, but that is the limits of it’s power.
The majority of Fiji islanders drink kava on a daily basis with no ill effects. It might help to account though, for the slow and relaxed pace of the islands and the popular concept of “fiji time.”
Kava IS a plant
Kava comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) bush, a relative of the pepper plant. The root is ground up and then strained with water into a large wooden communal bowl (or sometimes a plastic bucket, depending on what you have on hand). Simple preparation for a simple drink.
Yaqona is one of fiji’s biggest crops and exports. You are absolutely allowed to bring kava into the US, and can even buy it everywhere, even at the airport!
Drinking Kava Can Be Ceremonial
In Fiji Kava is used as a symbol to bring two groups of people together. When visiting a new village it is essential to bring a gift of kava. The community then gathers and the kava is mixed. There are a lot of words, all in fijian and some clapping . The chiefs partake first (the oldest male in your group can be your makeshift chief) and it is then offered all around in a communal bowl.
My inner anthropologist was buzzing when I was lucky to attend not one, but two kava ceremonies on our trip. When participating in the ceremony it is essential to dress conservatively and sit respectfully. If you are offered the kava it is important to drink the entire cup in one go. Don’t sip it (it’s better to just down it anyways, once you taste it) . Clap once before receiving the cup, drink up and then clap three more times.
Once the ceremony is complete then everyone in the room is now friends and you can get on with the eating and the dancing.
Kava Drinking Can Also Be Very Casual
Similar to how the Argentineans are constantly sipping mate, Kava is a near daily beverage for many fijians. After work, relaxing in the afternoon, pretty much whenever, small groups of friends and family will share kava from a communal bowl.
At our resort it was common to see the boys in the band sitting by the pool, strumming on their guitars and sharing a big bowl of kava.
Kava Does NOT Taste Good
Well, I suppose it does to the Fijians, but I would call it a definite acquired taste. To me, and many of the westerners I spoke to, drinking a bowl of kava feels eerily similar to drinking a bowl of dirty water, In short: it tastes like mud. Bitter, peppery mud.
For me, the ceremony and community surrounding kava is far more powerful than the drink itself. Although it might give germaphobes some pause, I loved the communal and warm aspect of kava culture and the openess and acceptance that goes along with sharing the drink. Even in the quickly modernizing world of Fiji, where you’re more likely to see people hanging out in t-shirts and jeans than traditional garb, this drink holds a powerful and uniting place in society.
Special thanks to Tourism Fiji for inviting us to Fiji and covering our stay.
All opinions are my own.