Maybe you’ve forgotten that I said that there were two important things to know about Vanuatu. So, though not necessarily in this order, the second one is Kava; a mildly narcotic root grown in many pacific islands. It’s been used in ceremonies for centuries and so is not just a bit of a buzz but is deeply entrenched in Vanuatu’s identity. Traditionally it is only the men who drink the Kava and sometimes only the chiefs in times of trouble or if there was a problem to be sorted out. The effects are meant to be physically relaxing, whilst producing mental clarity, making it useful when important decisions needed to be made.
The root is very hard and needs to be broken down before being mixed with water. In the villages, this is usually done by young boys or girls chewing the Kava and then spitting the softened roots onto leaves, which are then wrung out. The resulting liquid watered down and drunk. The Kava of Vanuatu is said to be the strongest and that of Tanna Island the strongest of all.
However, in towns such as Port Vila, it was produced by grinding it up and adding it to water. Women were allowed to drink it and did so in the Kava bars you could easily find at night by walking up a back street till you saw the dim light outside them. In the nature of research and this story, I nobly went to find out what it was like.
We caught a minivan back from the city centre and the driver and passengers were very happy to discuss which was the best one and dropped us off just up the hill from where we were staying. There were a few small buildings huddled together and the dim lights in one showed us where to go. Outside was a table with people eating and some food for sale – it was too dark to see what it was, but probably chicken. I’d been told that it was better to have Kava on an empty stomach and eat afterwards, but we didn’t try any.
We walked in and ordered some kava, which came in two sizes in a coconut shell and took it out to the back. This was a small open area with some seating, silent except for the sound of men hawking; I never found out why they do this, except that men love to hawk on the slightest pretext. The silence is one of respect for the ceremonial role that kava plays in these islands.
My son had tried Kava before, but of a weaker, Fijian type and I’m always cautious when trying something obscure for the first time, so I persuaded him to share a first small shell to see what it was like. It tastes quite bad and so you have to down it in one, there’s probably some “kastom” reason for this too, but the taste did it for me! After that you are left with a numb mouth and throat and an intense desire for a cigarette. I waited for my body to relax but although I felt great and my mind was clear, there was no great soporific effect; time for another bigger shell, then. Now my mouth was numb it was easier to drink it. I’m not sure how many I had, but I noticed the kava lady looking at me with new respect when I went back for more. I felt quite good but had no trouble walking around. The quietness and the dark imbued the kava bar with a feeling of slight seediness and although everyone was very friendly, I was glad I hadn’t gone there by myself.
We walked the short distance back and I looked forward to the promised relaxed night’s sleep that kava is meant to induce. No such luck! Apparently I’m one of a very small percentage for whom it has the opposite effect and I spent quite a long time happily reading, into the small, quiet hours, which were disturbed only by a minor earthquake, which made my bed wobble in a most disconcerting manner.
After my kava and earthquake induced lack of sleep, I was glad to have an afternoon flight to Tana Island.
At the, even smaller, domestic part of the airport, we met the couple from Latvia again, and not only were they going to Tanna, they were also staying in the same place for the first night. The large camera fixed around her neck was a slight clue to her profession. I wondered if it had to be surgically removed every evening, or if she slept with it on; but with good reason, as she was writing a commissioned book about Vanuatu and couldn’t miss a shot. She showed us hundreds of photos of the islands they had already travelled around and I was especially interested in the ones of Pentecost Island, where the land-diving takes place for 2 months of the year when the vines are at their most elastic. Her photos were quite similar to the book illustrations that had inspired me as a child and their stories and photos of remote villages and jungle treks were fascinating. They were both tall and well-proportioned, sported nifty looking pirate headscarves, singlets and jungle trousers and had similar pleasant blond looks; no wonder that they would later be christened “The Twins” by our future hostess.