Kava, the Mellow Drug

I don't like people who take drugs...  Customs men for example.

- Mick Miller

Tanoa bowl carved from a single piece of wood

Taken from my journal on Friday, 4 August 1994 (we were in Suva on the boat).  It's a description of our first visit to a grog shop:

Joeli [who was painting our hull for us] paid for Jeff's cab round-trip when Jeff went to see (and photograph) the house Joeli is building.  At the site, Joeli served Jeff kava.  Jeff said it was so strong, one bilo caused his whole face to go numb.  Joeli's new house is small and the building techniques primitive, but it's as nice as his neighbours' houses.  His wife is as pleased as can be with it.  (I soon read a book on Fijian culture at the Suva Public Library that informs me that kava may "properly" - according to tradition - be made at a higher strength if it's drunk in connection with a house-building.)

Saturday, Joeli brought his 10-year-old daughter, Eta, to work with him.  She played with Wolfy a little, but spent most of her time with her father.  Joeli demonstrated to Eta what each of his tasks were on the boat; she listened intently.  When Joeli left for the day, we agreed to meet him around 6pm, at the kava shop in Lami.  We decided to take Wolf and Cody.

Six pm found us having difficulty locating the kava shop.  That's because we were looking for the wrong thing.  I had expected something that looked like a bar: a counter where you placed and picked up orders, tables and chairs where you could sit, drink, talk, and observe others.  It wasn't exactly like that.  The "shop" was a big shed in an industrial area; it had a giant roll-up door.  (It is improper, we learned, to ever drink kava indoors.)  Inside the shed was a ratty, sloping pool table, constantly in use.  Players all took turns using the single remaining pool cue.  (We were told the other cue sticks got broken back when the shed was used to sell alcohol years ago.)  The floor was cement, covered in spots by worn linoleum.  Furnishings consisted of benches and a tv suspended from the ceiling in one corner.  There was a counter all right, manned by a large, old man.  It was partitioned off from the rest of the room by a metal grid, with only a small opening for handing goods and money in and out.

Our entrance created quite a stir.  There were about 10 men sitting around drinking kava and playing pool.  (Absolutely NO alcohol is allowed.  A notice to that effect - in Fijian - is suspended from the ceiling.)  Jeff went to the counter and ordered kava.  The man behind the counter said it was "being made."  We sat down on one of the benches.  In a minute or two, a really friendly Fijian named Alfred came over and introduced himself.  From then on, he regularly served us kava from his own bowl.  We were never brought any kava of our own (and it seemed tacky to insist).  Jeff drank a full bilo of yaqona (Fijian for kava drink) five times while I drank five that were roughly half full.  Alfred said the man is always served kava first because he is head of the household.  Apparently the man is usually served more, too.

Jeff ended up playing a game of pool with one of the younger Fijians.  (Jeff lost.)  We had a surprisingly good time.  (Wolf and Cody spent the time watching The Simpsons on the tv in the corner.)  Joeli never showed up.  (He told us later he arrived right after we left.)

Why is there only one kava shop in the Suva area?  A steady stream of people came in to buy powdered kava to take home to prepare.  The shop stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The men were all relaxed and friendly, all having a good time.

One older Fijian came by who had had quite a bit of alcohol to drink.  While the men were nice to him, they looked down on him.  He was repeatedly urged to leave, to go home until he sobered up.  It was gratifying to learn that there exists not the slightest racial prejudice among the patrons of the grog shop - at least not while they're drinking kava together.  Some drugs are cohesive in moderation.  Kava seems that way at any concentration.

Kava is not only legal, its use is encouraged and even forced, in some cases, on cruisers visiting the smaller islands.  Alfred said he thought kava was legal in the US, but I don't think there's any way the US government would let a mood-altering drug go unregulated.  I know kava is legal - and popular - in Germany.  And I've seen kava kava capsules for sale in health food stores here in New Zealand.

Two days later, I wrote this in my journal:

I read the following in the Fiji Times "Letters" column (6 August 94), written by Kaliova Nakai of Lautoka:

The effect of yaqona pervades the whole social, religious and political decision-making process of this little paradise.  Kava has a place of great importance among the Fijian and Indian communities.  At the meetings of the Great Council of Chiefs, important decisions affecting the whole nation are made by grog-doped chiefs.

The same holds true for Parliament which is around the tanoa.  After partaking of a few bowls, with throats lubricated and itchy, and brains numbed, they threaten each other with coups, call each other cheeky and spend time trying to enact monumentally foolish laws like the Fraud Bill.  The influence of kava in these deliberations and decision-making is indeed great.

Kava percolates down to the government offices and officers - including the Central Police Station.  It allows our overpaid and underworked civil servants an opportunity to look busy.  Kava gives them the courage to live through another dismal day doing nothing.

It is difficult to recognise these Kava-addicted civil servants because they oil their exposed skin parts very diligently, twice daily.

Kava is now a favourite drink in schools and hospitals also.  The importance of kava at births, marriages, and death ceremonies, both to Fijian and Indians, is not to be underestimated.  As much as $500 to $1000 can be spent by the "host" family to quench the thirst of "well wishers" who turn up like clockwork every evening for 16 days at Indian funerals and 100 days for Fijian funerals.

The money in "grog" keeps the wheels of economy rolling.  This, of course, leads to hangovers and missed work the next day - one of the causes of malua fever.

On the medical side kava causes acute gastritis, ulcers, bronchitis, kidney diseases, liver damage, recurrent eye infections and kani kani on the skin.  Kani kani saves money in that we do not have to tattoo ourselves like the Samoans.  It also helps the oil industry because kani kani requires a lot of oil to hide.

Kava in any decent quantity makes the drinker impotent.  This is an important form of family planning to keep the population down.  If this impotence persists, it leads to divorces, and keeps our lawyers and the judiciary busy.  Most of these terribly kani kani guys sitting around the tanoa and bragging about their sexual prowess are lying through their teeth.  There is nothing wrong with kava.  It is a wonderful drug which is turning a whole generation into layabouts, full of lassitude, fatigue, and lack of ambition.

Our Queen drank it, our chiefs drink it, our PM drinks it, our civil servants swipe it and our religious leaders consider it divine nectar.  I believe there are moves afoot to give kava as a milk substitute to our small babies.  It would save us a lot of money that is spent on importing baby milk!

So how can kava be bad?

From my journal, Wednesday 7 September 94, in Vanuatu:

We had lunch at a restaurant called Madeleine's.  The service was what you'd call downright slow, but the food was great.  I asked one of the other customers, a man named Matthew, if there was a nakamal (equivalent to Fiji's grog shop) in town and, if so, where it was.  He said it would be hard to tell us how to get there, but he'd be glad to show us.  He said he worked at the hardware store a couple of doors down, and for us to meet him there when he got off work at five.

Matthew finally finished up about 5:15pm.  He got a cab and we all squeezed in.  He directed the driver to three different nakamals (so we could take our pick).  The nakamals don't open until 6pm, even on Saturday, so we didn't drink any kava today.

We learned that ni-Vanuatu use a coconut shell as a cup from which to drink kava, but they don't call the cup a bilo.  They don't mix their kava in a tanoa, and there's no ceremony, except that you turn your back to the proprietor when you drink your cupful.  One cup is all it takes as this stuff is strong enough to lift weights!  You can also bring in a jug to be filled and take the kava home with you.  (Fijians would be horrified at the idea.)

Two days later, I wrote:

Jeff went out to the market and got some fruit and by the nakamal for a jug of kava.  We all played cards and Jeff and I drank kava.  It was nothing like the kava in Fiji.  It's about six times stronger.  It engenders a very pleasant feeling which I liked a lot, but it made my stomach feel bad.  Very bad.  It affected Jeff the same way.  We threw out what we had left and decided not to drink it again.  But it was potent enough that Cody won every game of cards we played.

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