With wide sandy beaches and more shades of blue water than you can count, winding down in Fiji isn’t exactly difficult. But despite the ample opportunities to chill out, there’s one way to relax like the locals do – not at a bar, but around a bowl of kava.
In Fiji, kava is also referred to as yaqona or grog. The kava plant, Piper methysticum, often grows wild in the South Pacific islands. Its use as a relaxation aid is well known in Fiji and beyond; drug companies are even buying kava to use as an additive in medications.
Traditionally, kava is prepared by mashing the root, steeping it in water or coconut milk and then straining the infusion to remove the remaining fibers. The resulting liquid is served from a tanoa – a bowl with legs that is often crafted from a single piece of wood.
If you’re staying at a resort in Fiji, chances are that you'll encounter a kava ceremony at some point, perhaps even every day. The protocol at a resort is often much looser than in a village, but be sure to ask about what's expected. Resort staff are usually more than happy to walk you through what you need to do.
If you visit a Fijian village during your time in the country, it’s customary to bring a gift of kava root, either in root form or powdered, to present to the head of the village. It’s easy to find in nearly any local market. And this isn’t the time to roll in from the beach in your bikini. For women, this often means wearing something that covers the knees and a top that covers your shoulders.
Traditionally, your group’s chief (usually the oldest man) enters first. The rest of the men follow, and then the women enter. This isn’t always the case – there are female chiefs in Fiji – but the men-first protocol is more common. Once everyone is seated, your group’s chief presents the kava to the village chief. Once the kava has been strained into the tanoa, another bowl of kava called a bilo (usually a coconut shell) is offered to your group’s chief and spokesperson. Once the village chief drinks a bowl, kava is then offered to everyone in the room.
You’ll often be offered the option of a “high tide” bowl or a “low tide” bowl. This merely means a full cup or half cup. When the cup is offered to you, clap once with your hands cupped, say “Bula!” (a word that means hello, welcome, and cheers), and drink it down. When you finish, put your bowl down and clap three times.
The effect of kava is not so much intoxicating, in the sense that it dulls and slows your mental process, but mildly narcotic. It induces a state of well-being that eventually leads to a deep sleep. But not if you keep drinking it all night. While I went to sleep after each evening kava session, often well before many of the resort staff, I spied a few of them the next morning who rubbed their eyes as if they hadn’t slept well. When I asked, they said they were up late drinking the rest of the kava.
It may take a few cups of kava to acquire the taste, which many describe as “muddy water,” but to me, it has a slightly bitter, peppery taste. You will experience a numbing sensation in your mouth after drinking kava. The sensation passes after about 10 minutes, depending on the strength of the mixture.