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Kava in Fiji

With guitars in hand and grins as wide as the setting sun the Fijian band raised their hands and offered a loud welcome to the crowd.

As the flight began to make its descent the first glimpse of the island broke through the clouds revealing the straw shanties and unpaved roads that lined the tropical farming villages below. When the plane arrived in Nandi International Airport the passengers exited into the arid tropical air and were greeted by the sound of foreign harmonious voices and guitar in the distance. With guitars in hand and grins as wide as the setting sun the Fijian band raised their hands and offered a loud welcome to the crowd.

Bula, a Fijian word synonymous with the English words hello, goodbye, nice to meet you, and your welcome, is the first word taught to travelers and a common word of communication on the island. My journey as a Long Island journalism student studying in Australia had somehow led me into the hands of these islanders. Viti Levu, or “Main Land” is the central island of the 500 plus islands within the country of Fiji and home to its two largest cities, Nandi and Suva. The next morning I began my journey to the northwest Yasawa islands by boarding a coach bus from Nandi an hour southwest than two hour ferry ride north.

The small peaceful island of Kuata bared the remnants of a once active volcano that bore large craters into the mountain’s sides. As the ferry’s motor came to a halt a small dingy could be seen in the distance making its way toward the vessel. A man we would all come to know by the name of Moses greeted us with a hearty “Bula” and we made our way to the shore where a small Fijian band could be heard calling us in.

Our homes for the next week were drastically similar to that of the straw shanties that could be seen on the descending flight into Nandi. Every morning on the way to breakfast at the center of the village, villagers and tourists alike would greet each other with a kindly “Bula!” Moses stood beside the two large wooden columns that allowed entry into the make-shift mess hall/bar. Moses was a tall man and always greeted us with a large grin revealing his broken smile. When he wore a shirt it was always a button-down with some sort of floral pattern.

Life on the island was routine. Breakfast at near dawn, a sound of the conch shell foreshadowed dinner, and most were in bed a few hours after sunset. Life was slow and relaxing and before I knew it I had found myself living in Fiji time.

It was not until the third day I had discovered that all the workers on Kuata were some how related to Moses. The island resort was one huge family that had a long history on the island. Moses told me about the hundreds of islands that made Fiji and the many tribes and languages that spun from its long history. That evening he invited me to see his family’s village that happened to be quaintly nestled through the jungle and on the other side of the island.

After emerging out of the jungle I was greeting by children shouting at me in Fijian. A child wearing an oversized T-shirt clung to my left leg giving me a perfect angle to examine the bald patches on his lice-ridden scalp. The village was small in size, between eight and ten straw and wood huts made the heart of the village. Large Fijian women with dark black afros assisted the children from my side back to their respected homes. Most of the homes were one room had no doors. There was no fear of burglary and the weather certainly gave a need for some sort of air-conditioning. The small farming community had a small pink school the size of a New England ranch house with two classrooms and headmasters quarters. Within Moses one room home there was no electricity, a mattress, and an iron stove that seemed slightly out of place. Moses smiled proudly as he showed me his stove, collection of conch shells, and king size mattress. To us they were poor; to themselves the Fijians were the happiest people in the world.

I woke to a blinding red sunrise and Moses standing over my head. I had abandoned my watch the day before and had no recollection of day or time. I was living in Fiji time. The night before I had asked Moses about the popular Fijian drink known as kava and he had ensured me that when the time was right he would show me. The Fijians on the resort never drank any of the beer or liquor at the bar; they preferred kava. After the songs and dances that preceded diner Moses approached me and asked me to follow him. We went behind the bar and he gave me a bag and instructed me to examine the contents. Within the burlap sack was about four pounds of brown roots. Kava is a root found in the Pacific islands; namely Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and a popular drink and medicine to the island people. American scientists have long studied the effects of kava and are working on establishing a trade with the islands to use kava as a replacement to synthetic anti-depressants.

Moses placed the roots in a large mortar and pestle and began to hammer away at the roots. The sun had set, yet the temperature was clearly still over 90F. These conditions drew large beads of sweat from his brow as he continued undauntedly to smash the roots. Once the roots were made to powder he placed them in a small burlap bag. It was late now, the time I could only guess. He placed the bag of smashed kava roots next to a large bowl of water on top of hand-woven read blankets. As he proceeded to dunk the roots in the water until it was brown. Just then four women with large afros appeared from beyond the torches set around the blanket, then an elderly woman, then some more men. Before I could comprehend where they were coming from I found myself surrounded by most of the village elders. It was Moses’ family.

They all sat around the dark brown liquid in a broken circle. Moses led by example grasping a small wooden cup and filling it to the brim. After he consumed the liquid he clapped his hands three times then shouted, “Bula!”

When the bowl was handed to me I said ‘vinaka’, or ‘thank you’, and was asked what size I wanted by one of Moses’ brothers. Before you dunk you must specify whether you are drinking a low tide, high tide, or tsunami. For my first time I had a high tide, pressed the cup to my lips and drank all 4 ounces of the brown liquid. The taste was dark and my tongue sizzled with a slight numbing sensation. It was by far the strongest tasting dirt water I had ever had. As soon as I had chocked down the liquid I clapped three times and managed to spit out a soft ‘bula.’

As the night lingered on and Moses and his family had more and more tsunami’s there English slowly turned into Fijian. His grandmother to left of me smiled with her white beard shinning in the light of the torch as she handed me the cup once again. A state of calmness and clarity began to take over me as the next tsunami washed down my throat. This was a common ritual for Moses and most of the Fijian people across the countless islands. They drank kava every night and claimed it healing properties made them happier and healthier people.

The kava’s effects on me soon took hold as I grew dizzy and blissful all at once. Moses called an end to the ceremony and Fijians made there way back into the darkness.

The next morning I awoke, not hung-over, but awake and aware of all my surroundings. It was the morning of my departure from Kuata. As I boarded the dingy back to the ferry that lay in the distance the sweet melodies of the Fijian band on the shore sung to me. Moses stood ashore and shouted a loud hearty “Bula!”

Justin Calderon