Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Until about a month ago, I had never even heard of kava. It sounds like a fruit to me, but of course that's guava. Kava Pacific Island drug of sorts, more or less. They drink it on most Pacific Islands, but Vanuatu kava is the good stuff and is way mroe potent than what you'd find elsewhere. It's made from ground up root of a pepper plant (supposedly it's best made when it's chewed by pre-pubescent boys instead of ground with a rock), and then strained (usually through a sock). It's the color of grayish mud and smells horrible. It's not even that it's an acquired taste--everyone thinks it's disgusting. This is not some social thing you sip on; when you drink it you go hide in a dark corner and basically take it like a shot, then rinse your mouth out to get rid of the taste and try not to vomit.

So of course I had to try it immediately.

We decided to try it our first night in Port Vila. The first challenge was finding the nakamal (the kava bar). We asked at the hotel and the owner told us that there was one just 100 metres down the road that all the ex-pats go to. If the big light by the road was on, it was open. We wandered down and, yes, the light was on, but the light was in between two different buildings, and we didn't know which was the right one. Both looked like people's houses, but we could see inside one and there were a bunch of people sitting around on the floor. We figured that was it, but didn't want to go down there if it was the wrong place. After a good 10 minutes of standing in the street arguing about how to approach, we chickened out and went back to the hotel. The security guard who had seen us leave asked why we were back so soon--did the smell drive us away? We told him we couldn't find the place, so he offered to walk us down there. Thank god he did, because it turned out to be neither of the buildings we saw. It was down some windy path that we never would have found on our own.

We each ordered a half-shell (about 3/4 of cup worth of kava), and since we didn't know about the whole "hide in the corner to drink it" thing, we sat down at a table. Fortunately, an Australian girl who had overheard us filled us in on the protocol. We found a dark corner and chugged. It actually didn't taste quite as horrible as I expected, but was definitely pretty gross. Then we joined Michelle, the Australian girl, and her friends and waited for it to kick in. Nothing happened. We went to get some more, but it was the end of the night and they had run out, so we spilt the last half shell and gave up. Michelle said it didn't do anything to her the first time either, so we figured we'd just try again another night. If this stuff worked, it was a huge bargain--50 vatu (approx. 50 US cents) for a half shell of kava, versus 500 vatu for a beer or 700+ for a cocktail.

On Monday night we went back to the kava bar, and this time went early to make sure there was enough. After four half shells, we still didn't feel anything. But the smell/taste was getting a little much, so we went off to dinner and figured we'd give it another go on Tuesday.

Then at dinner I started to feel something. But it wasn't a good something, or a relaxing something, or any kind of something that I imagine you'd seek out from a drug. Instead it was a horrible, horrible stomach ache. Eating just made it worse. Candida mentioned she wasn't feeling too well either, pretty nauseous, in fact.

It was a race back to the hotel room and to the bathroom. Luckily Candida fell asleep pretty quickly, but I spent a good portion of the night in and out of the bathroom. I'm a little bitter about the whole thing. Not so much that I got sick--that's bound to happen when you go on vacation to a developing nation--but that the kava never had any positive effects. At least if I had to go through that, I could have gotten high out of the deal.

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