One of the most illuminating aspects of offshore cruising in a yacht is the many opportunities sailors get to be at one with the locals; eat their food, dance their dances or imbibe their inebriant of choice (not always necessarily in that order). Not to excess, you understand – just enough to foster that warm feeling of mutual admiration that comes from shared experience.
During the years we spent cruising in our 11.8m cutter, Elkouba, we were fortunate enough to sample ouzo in Greece, wine in France, Spain and Portugal, the inexpensive and smooth rums of the Caribbean, beer in Britain, schnapps in Norway, and whiskey in Scotland.
So, a few days after dropping our anchor in Suva Harbour and clearing customs, I set out once more to enhance international relations and understanding by sampling Kava, the national drink of Fiji.
Partaking of this muddy mixture is not just a matter of shouldering your way up to the bar and ordering another round of drinks to go. It is a solemn cultural experience and should be undertaken with appropriate respect and decorum.
My first opportunity to partake came at the central produce market in Suva. Downstairs the huge concrete hall is crowded with stalls selling pineapples, coconuts, bananas, papaya, mangoes, vegetables and other exotic Indian and Fijian foodstuffs.
Upstairs they really get down to business; stalls up there are stacked with wispery piles of dried kava which the locals call 'grog.'
Kava is made from the ground up roots of the pepper tree mixed with water. In ancient times the dried root was chewed to a pulp by the village virgins then sieved into a large bowl for consumption by the local warriors. With the advent of mechanical grinders (or perhaps because of a shortfall of virgins prepared to masticate pepper roots for hours on end) this practice has diminished. The powdered pepper root can be bought from the market for about $15 Fijian a kilogram and cruising yachts often carry a stock on board to gift to the chiefs of any villages they visit.
'Whew…she looks like a pretty powerful brew,' I observed aloud to a wizened brown stall keeper , pointing to the equally brown and wizened root stock stacked on his stall.
'Kava from the island of Kadavu,' he replied proudly, 'Best kava in all Fiji.' 'MMMmmmmmm,' I countered non-commitedly, 'but what does it do to you?'
'You never drink kava before?' he asked incredulously, 'come…sit,' he patted the wooden bench beside him.
With the air of a magician producing a rabbit from a top hat, he whipped a grubby muslin cloth from beneath the bench and, taking a battered plastic bowl, disappeared downstairs to the communal tap for water.
Shortly he returned, poured some of the gingery powder into the muslin cloth and began to tenderly knead it in the bowl of water. I felt a bead of perspiration trickle slowly down my spine.
'Drink,' he ordered, dipping a coconut shell bowl into the mixture and handing it to me. Advice from my Fiji guide book popped to mind: the drinker claps his hands twice, empties the bowl (bilo) in one swallow, returns it and claps twice again. Feeling faintly foolish I gave the recommended applause, held my breath and gulped the muddy brown mixture, Gritty, and a little peppery, the kava slid down my throat and left me feeling…well, different. I glowed with a sort of confused goodwill towards my host, surrounding stall keepers and the shoppers thronging past.
'My name is Nathanial – call me Nat,' my host beamed, extending a work hardened hand. I replied with my name and where I was from, then Nat and I sat down to talk. Conversation is an integral part of the kava experience and Nat began to talk about Kadavu, his home island. He told me how, during cyclones, sheets of corrugated iron flew from house roofs and sliced coconut palms in half leaving stumps that looked like grated cheese blocks. 'Thatch roof is best for Fiji,' he explained.
CLAP..CLAP..and the bilo came around again.
Kadavu, nat told me, is a steep, hilly island and access to his village is by boat only or, if the pass through the reef is impassable, by a long hike over the hills. There is no electricity, TV or radio. Nat and his family live near Suva but return every year to harvest the kava and fruit from the family land.
Nat clapped and the bilo came round again.
By now several other people had gathered round the stall, many of whom were also from Kadavu. 'Kadavu people is like one big family,' Nat beamed happily.
CLAP…CLAP…and the bilo came round again.
Suddenly I remembered the shpping list buried deep in the pocket of my shorts – my reason for going to the market in the first place. The bread, butter, tomatoes and meat would have to wait a bit.
During the next hour or so I learned that Kadavu is about 60 100km south of Suva, mountainous at one end and tapering down to Astrolabe Reef in the north. Almost 280 km long, it grows the best kava, biggest fish, sweetest mangoes and prettiest girls in all Fiji – most probably the world. Kadavu is Fiji’s southernmost island Nat laughed, and Kadavu men who travelled to Suva to find brides would tell them they could take the ferry to New Zealand to go shopping.
CLAP…CLAP…and the bilo came round once again.
I talked a bit about where I came from, the huge conical mountain that spent much of the year wearing a snow cap or hiding amongst the clouds. The men shivered at tales of sleety winter storms and nodded knowingly when I told them about the cows and how they made milk from grass. I talked about my wife Sarah, our children Ali and Tui and our vaka (boat) Elkouba and our life at sea. They wanted to hear about the storms so I invented a couple and CLAP…CLAP…the bilo came round again.
Several bilos later and wearing a smile that threatened to split my face in half, I bid my new friends farewell and ambled off to the bus station. Quite in control but feeling unduly smug. From my seat on the wooden bodied bus I thrust my elbow out of the paneless window and enjoyed the bustle of downtown Suva as we rattled past.
Back at the yacht club, a loosely tide rope blocked access to the dinghy dock and the first indication that something may have been amiss among my brain cells came when I reached out to lift it out of my way and missed about four centimeters. After two or three attempts I outsmarted it by walking around the tree it was tied to.
Anxious to share the afternoons cultural adventure with Sarah, I clambered into our dinghy and began the row out to Elkouba. The 50 metre trip seemed to take ages, like rowing through setting green jelly, but eventually the dinghy nudged Elkouba’s transom and Sarah came on deck.
'G’day love,' she smiled, 'what are you rowing all back to front like that for?'