Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Kava Queen and The Unfortunate Kava Incident

“You like kava?” my host-mom Kathy asked me early one Sunday morning, kneading a mixture of bananas and coconut milk in preparation for our lunch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my host brother eagerly waiting for my response. I quickly realized that this wasn’t a question-- it was an accusation.

“Only a little bit,” I told them, lying through my teeth.

Erin trying kava for the first time in Port Vila. She wasn't impressed.

My mom began kneading the mixture in front of her harder. She was not impressed. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of Bislama, I had no trouble understanding my host mother’s words. “I don’t like kava,” she told me in the pidgin language. “It’s no good. Women shouldn’t drink kava.”

Kathy’s words didn’t come as a shock to me. When I became involved with this international development project in Vanuatu, kava had been a key subject of my group’s pre-departure sessions. We warned that although in recent years it has become permissible for women to partake in the substance in the urban centres, it’s still considered inappropriate in the outer communities.

On the island of Tanna, which reportedly has the strongest kava in the South Pacific, the drink is so sacred that women are not allowed to witness even the preparation of it, a process that traditionally involves prepubescent boys chewing the local root before mixing it with water. While this is an extreme, most traditional communities frown upon women entering the nakamals (kava bars), which are exclusively male domains.

Zach, Tim and Curtis, enjoying the kava small moa.

I had tasted kava for the first time in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, only three weeks earlier. The peppery mud-like substance was vile to smell, but I chugged it back with ease. Immediately, my entire mouth felt strangely numb and Zach, a fellow volunteer, grinned at me. “You want another shell?” he asked.

While the rest of our predominantly female group declared their vehement dislike of the stuff, Zach and I downed our second full shells under the dimmed lights of the kava bar. As we walked back to our housing, the drug started to kick in. A calm, peaceful state settled over me. Zach, who was on cooking duty that night, later told me, “I’ve never been so fascinated while cutting vegetables before.”

We were hooked. When I left for the outlying community where I would be involved in a school construction project, I ignored all the advice I had received and eagerly accepted kava whenever the opportunity presented itself, even going so far as to sneak into the local nakamal with Rose, hoping that we wouldn’t be noticed in the dark. But someone did notice and within a matter of days, my host-mom heard about it.

Over the following weeks in the community, I felt the repercussions of my actions. When I fell over out of sheer clumsiness on the construction site the men would tease, “Too much kava.” The local teenage girls were not as eager to befriend me, and the local women were a little less likely to strike up a conversation.

Jo and I outside a booth during Independance Day (which is actually more like Independance Week). The soccer field was surrounded by booths that families had built and were selling fruits, cakes, lap-lap and some woven goods. Every day people would sit in the field watching the soccer and volleyball tournaments. At night, many of the huts turned into nakamals, some even had contraband TV and at one point there was black market beer. It didn't last long, though--Liesa bought the last of it.

I wasn't originally going to put this story on my blog due to a recommendation from my mom (my Canadian mom, just to clarify). She said I probably should stay away from talking about my tryst with kava, but since I know a lot of future YCI participants are using this as a reference guide for their upcoming trip in December, I feel it's a story that needs to be told. It has come to be known as:

The Unfortunate Kava Incident

I swore to keep away from the nakamal until we left Lambubu, but by the time Independance Day/Week rolled around, I couldn't help myself. We had successfully executed our workshops, the school had a roof and we were going home--it was time to celebrate. (Okay, and I admit I had other reasons too. Tension in the group hit an all-time high at the end of our time in Lambubu, and I found myself caught in the middle of the two camps that were causing the dispute. I was being pulled in either direction, and was unduly stressed out emotionally. Additionally, I couldn't stand stringband music* and were forced to dance to it since we were sort of like special guests all week at the celebrations, because we were supposed to have left the community before the celebrations even started.)

Jo taking a nap in the field between soccer games.

Frustrated with my situation, I just wanted to relax. So on our second last night, I got Becca and Jo on board, and we gave Iven some vatu and formulated a plan at the Rat Hall. Discretion was of the utmost importance, because we didn't want to shame our host-families before leaving for Port Vila. After all, I was already in some community members' bad books. So Iven would take our vatu, purchase the kava for us, and put it into spare water bottles and then into a plastic bag. When our host-mothers left the field for the night to go back to Laravet, we would give the boys a secret signal, and go into the cocoa trees to have ourselves a bush-party.

Iven, me, Jo and Samuel and the bag of kava. Please take note I'm actually wearing a different skirt in this picture for once.

After Becca put her little sister Nandia to bed for the night in her stall, and Kathy and Tulsi headed back to Laravet, we eagerly gave the boys our signal (for all those curious it was "the guns." Yup, we're class all the way).

We went back into the bush, turning off our flashlights so that onlookers couldn't see us as clearly, before chugging back the kava the boys had scored for us.

Now, just to clarify, during my time in Vanuatu, I had become somewhat of a kava expert (frequenting the nakamal will do that to you). My fellow residents at the Rat Hall had dubbed me the "kava queen" and came to me for all their kava-related queries. (Yes, this was my claim to fame. Everyone's gotta have one.) Anyway, I knew my kava limits. After 2 shells I was just feeling the effects of the drink perfectly, but I could handle a third shell most of the time and sometimes liked to partake in one. On this particular night, I only drank about about 2 shells of kava.

Becs and Jo with the "discreet" kava

We left the bush, planning to go back and dance. Immediatly, Becca told us she was feeling weird. It hit me too. It felt good, but the good feeling gave way about 30 seconds later. Becca was having trouble walking, and my motor skills were deteriorating quickly. Mentally I was fine. I thought the feeling would pass, and went to sit on one of the benches outside the stalls. A wave of nauseau came over me. It was followed by another. And then another. And then they didn't stop.

"I'll be right back,"I told Jo and Becca. Becca was leaning against Jo. She wasn't with it, physically or mentally any longer. But I didn't care. I didn't notice.

Discretion no longer mattered. I groped my way behind one of the stalls and into the bush. I walked far enough back that I figured none of the ladies could really see me, and I started puking.

And I didn't stop for at least 10 minutes.

Dave with some of the supervisors from the construction site, who also loved their kava.

When my body was finally purged of all the kava, I started to try to walk back to the group. But I couldn't walk-- I was like Gumby. I felt completely lucid (my group members later agreed with me in this assessment of my mental sobriety) but physically I couldn't function. My legs wouldn't co-operate. Straight lines were circles and I couldn't get through the thick plants to the field. I felt terrible, and just wanted to go to bed. And surely, some of the women at seen me being sick. The situation couldn't get any worse.

And then I fell in a yam hole.

And then I lost my sandle.

So here I was, trapped in a yam hole*** on Independance Day, one shoe missing, and no flashlight. I couldn't leave the hole without my shoes because 1) I didn't have the strength or manuel dexterity to get up and 2) my toe had a massive, infected cut on it and walking without a sandle wasn't an option. I started groping around in the dark for my thong and my hands became covered with my own vomit. The situation couldn't get any worse.

And then I remembered about the bushmen.

For Independance Week, most of the surrounding communities had travelled to Lambubu to celebrate, including several outer communities who had never seen white people before, and thought white women were promiscuous. Throughout the week, and earlier in the night, we had been approached by men asking for sex (I accidentally said yes once, too--that's what the language barrier will do to you) and men had been grabbing us. It had been agreed as a group that the girls (with the exception of Rose) were to always travel in groups of three, and on the road between the house and the field Samuel, Morsen or Iven had to accompany us. By running into the bush to puke, I had sacrificed my own safety.

I looked up from my hole, and noticed that in a semi-circle around me, about 10 yards away. There were men staring at me.

So there I was, sitting in a yam hole, covered in my own vomit, with the possibility of being raped. Great. Way to go me. Definitely not my proudest moment. Trust me, I spent a good 20 minutes in this hole, reflecting on the situation. But then again, it wasn't entirely within my control. I hadn't exceeded my kava limit. What I didn't take into consideration is that kava can be made stronger or weaker accordingly, and you can also get a "bad" batch. Judging from the fact that Becca was also sick** it could well have been a bad batch.

Not knowing what to do, after thirty minutes in the hole, I realized all the men surrounding me were holding flashlights. I was at my wits end. They could see me, but hadn't approached me yet. Maybe they didn't have bad intentions? It was worth taking a chance. I need to find my sandle.

"Yu karem torch?" I called out, "Mi wantem help!"

No one responded. Well, I wasn't going to get raped, but it looked like I wasn't going to get help, either.
Ten minutes later, I somehow finally located my thong sandle in the weeds and hauled myself out of the hole. I walked in wavering lines back to the field.

"Kava!" the women said to one another in hushed, admonishing, shocked tons.

Tara and Jo came running over. "We've been looking all over for you!"

My leg was bloody (I still have a scar on my inner thigh that is about 30 centimeters in length) and my skirt was ripped to the point of being unwearable. They put their arms around me and carried me back to the Rat Hall.

"Bad lap-lap," Tara helpfully lied to onlookers on the road. It was a useless lie, though. Everyone knew the real cause.

Carlo Robbie was a huge fan of kava too.

The next morning, after I woke up from a disturbed sleep, I wandered outside to find out the aftermath of the night. Samuel and Iven were the only ones up, so I sat down beside the morning fire with them and related the story of the Unfortunate Kava Incident to them.

". . . so I spent most of my night in a yam hole," I concluded.

"A yamhole?" Morsen asked. "Where were you?"

After describing my location, Morsen let out a chuckle. "That wasn't a yam hole you were in," he assured me. "It was a garbage hole."****

*Stringband music is indescribable and uncomparable, but let me put it this way- there are only about 8 songs, all of which sound exactly the same. Dave, who studies music in BC, assured me that in fact, the 8 songs were musically speaking essentially the same song. Now picture the same 8 songs, playing for one month straight. . . and then Independence Week rolls around and you hear the same 8 songs for 4 HOURS STRAIGHT for 6 STRAIGHT DAYS. You'd want to drink some kava too. (Although one day in the field they were playing Celine Dion. It's worth noting that she's everywhere).

Dancing to stringband music is also difficult. As my host-mom Kathy told Jo and I, "Everywan danis same long stringband music." In otherwords, everyone is supposed to dance exactly the same to stringband music. Anyone who dances slightly differently will be made fun of, especially if you are white.
**Tara, Iven and everyone else who drank kava that night ended up vomiting. Bad batch, indeed.
***Yams grow in groups of five, are huge, and have to be dug up, leaving huge holes in the ground, just to clarify.
****In Vanuatu, garbage is either burned or buried in shallow holes.
This story is to serve as a warning about kava, but the truth is, I still liked the stuff. Given the opportunity, I would drink it again, and I encourage all participants to try it. The effects are calming and soothing. It is not hallucinogenic, and it is nothing like alcohol. It has been likened to being stoned, but our resident project expert on marijuana [whose name has been witheld for obvious reasons] didn't quite agree with this.

So as a closer, here's some kava etiquette:

1. As a women in a nakamal, play demure. This is a shameful activity. If you acknowledge you know it's shameful (dependant on the community) it's somehow more acceptable.

2. The best part about kava is spitting. After you get your shell, go to a spitting area. In some nakamals they will have a trough that you spit into. You drink your shell in one gulp, sort of like a shot, spitting out the aftertaste and hoarking up anything you want to. You don't talk, it's kind of quiet, personal act.

3. In the nakamal do not shine flashlights (kava makes eyes sensitive) or talk loudly.

4. Bring candies to suck on afterwards, or madarins to get rid of the taste. You can buy these and ciggarettes in some nakamals.

5. Kava is consumed on an empty stomach before dinner. If you drink it afterwards, you may get sick, or it may not have its full effects.

6. Know your limit. Unlike Fiji kava, where you can drink 25+ shells, Vanuatu kava is exceptionally strong and most grown men wouldn't drink more than 4, tops. (Estimation on my part.)

Enjoy it, but just keep in mind you don't want to end up spending a celebratory day in a garbage hole, covered in your own vomit and bleeding.


  1. are you sure you should let your Mom read this

  2. Dad,
    Kava is a root. Therefore, it *has* to be good for me!

  3. this report is fantastic, the infomation you show us is really interesting and is good written. Do you want to see something more? Look: this is a good page, you can visit too:The drinks of kava kava root,that obtain from the dissected roots of the Piper shrub methysticum, have been used in ceremonies and at social level in the regions of the South Pacific during hundreds of years, and in Europe as of 1700 Head Shop, Herbal Grinders
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  4. Oh dear, I am sure that you will probably be used as a warning to anyone else who wants to drink kava. Seriously though, I guess they have their reasons why women are warned not to drink it. after all, you never know when someone might decide to add a little something to a batch and misuse it.

    I have never heard of kava before and am glad you wrote about it. Thanks.


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