When in Fiji, one of the most unique Fijian experiences you can have is to visit a local village, where if you’re lucky you can attend a traditional Kava Ceremony where you meet the village chief and drink kava (Fiji’s unofficial national drink) together. So what is kava? It’s a plant native to the Pacific that is consumed throughout Polynesia. The roots are used to produce a brown watery drink similar to tea that packs a punch, numbs your tongue, and has both sedative and anesthetic properties.
On Viti Levu (Fiji’s largest island), we boarded a rickety bus for a trip deep into the interior, where we planned to visit a local village, and while all the way out there do some whitewater kayaking on the Luva river too. Along the way the tour bus picked up random local passengers, acting like a local bus of sorts. The countryside was full of sweeping cliffs and lush tropical valleys. Half way there, we stopped for fruit juice and banana bread. Then it began to rain off and on. As we came closer to the village, children would pop up from the bushes here and there and wave. As the kids got more bold, they emerged and chased the bus.
We pulled up to Nakabika Village, a fairly large village of roughly 300 inhabitants all watched over by one chief. The village was colorful—surrounded by greenery and peppered with clotheslines filled with multi-colored fabrics and lots of brightly painted buildings with curious heads peeking out. Shy kids giggled and smiled from doorless entryways and windowless windows. We were to take an audience with the chief of the village in order to ask for permission to use the nearby river for kayaking.
Our guide had brought an offering of powdered kava for the occasion. We all donned sarongs to cover our knees and women had to cover our shoulders as well. No hats or sunglasses were allowed, and bags and camera straps also had to be removed. In the chief’s open doorway, we all took off our shoes and left them on the cement steps. Inside, the room was bare except for a shrine on one wall and straw mats covering the floor. On one side of the room, hidden by curtains, was the women’s quarter where ladies were busy working and occasionally peeked out.
The chief sat barefoot with this daughter against one wall, and he shook all of our hands as we came in. We in turn each had to sit a certain way—men with legs crossed and women with legs folded at our sides. The chief had a representative with him, and our guide acted as our official representative, presenting our gift of kava powder to the chief. The chief’s representative began to mix it with water, straining it through a washcloth, and wiping down the sides of the bowl with the cloth. The kava, served from a big 3-legged wooden bowl, looked a bit like muddy water. After a short exchange of words in Fijian, it was time to drink.
The procedure was to clap 3 times, say “bula!” (meaning good health in Fijian) then down a big cup of kava in one go from a communal wooden bowl. The chief was first to drink of course, then his right hand man. Next our guide, followed by the oldest member of our group, then the rest of us, passing the bowl around in a circle.
The kava tasted a little like bitter tea, and once it left the mouth, a numb tingling sensation remained on the tongue and throughout the mouth. On second drinks, the numbness even began to tickle the throat a bit. Most of the others in our group couldn’t help making a face when the kava hit their tastebuds. Personally, kava just reminded me of some of the bitter teas I used to drink in Japan. Between each drink, the chief’s aid would retrieve the kava cup, swish it around in the big kava bowl, then fill it and empty it back into the bowl several times in quick succession. The kava gets passed around for as many rounds as it lasts or that people want to keep drinking, and from there you settle in for lively conversation.
To read more about Fiji, including Fijian village visit etiquette, fire-walking, Fijian dance, slow-cooked lovo fare, and Indo-Fijian culture, check out our feature on Cultural Fiji here. Next join us as we continue our journey westward along Fiji’s Coral Coast.