Kava-tasting is something of ritual for yachties travelling to Fiji. Sometimes it advances well beyond tasting, writes Lindsay Wright.

One of the most uplifting aspects of travel are the opportunities to be at one with the locals; eat their food, dance their dances or imbibe their inebriants (not always in that order). Nor to excess, you understand – just enough to foster the warm feeling of mutual admiration that comes from shared experiences.
During our travels we’ve been fortunate enough to sample ouzo in Greece, wine in France, Spain and Portugal, the inexpensive and smooth rums of the Caribbean, traditional ale in Britain, schnapps in Norway and whiskey in Scotland.

So, a few days after arriving in Suva, I set out once more to enhance international relations and understanding by sampling kava, the national drink of Fiji and many other Pacific islands.
Partaking of this muddy mixture is not just a matter of shouldering your way to the bar and ordering two handles of kava to go. It is a solemn cultural experience, my guidebook told me, 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 bustles with stalls selling pineapples, coconuts, bananas, papaya, mangoes, vegetables and exotic Indian and Fijian foodstuff. But upstairs they really get down to business. Stalls up there are stacked with whiskery 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 and the powdered pepper root can be bought from the market for about $15 Fijian a kilogram. Many cruising yachts carry a stock on board as gifts (savusavu) to the chiefs of any villages they visit.

“Whew…she looks like a pretty powerful brew,” I observed aloud to a wizened 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.”
“Mmmmm,” I countered non-commitally, “but what does it do to you?”
“You never drink kava before?” he asked incredulously, as though I’d just admitted that I’d never breathed air. “Come… sit,” he patted the worn wooden bench beside him.
With the air of a magician hoisting 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 a helping of the gingery powder into the cloth and began kneading it tenderly 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 brightly-clad crowds of shoppers thronging past.
“My name is Nathaniel – call me Nat,” my host beamed, extending a work-hardened hand. I replied with my name and where I was from. Introductions over, we sat down to talk. Conversation is an integral part of the kava experience and Nat began to talk about Kadavu (pronounced Kandarvoo), his home island.
He told me how, during cyclones, sheets of corrugated iron flew from houses 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 at Lami, near Suva, but return every year to harvest the kava and fruit from the family land.
Nat clapped and the bilo was back again.
By now several other people had joined us around the stall, many of whom were also from Kadavu. “Kadavu people is like big family,” Nat grinned happily.
Clap…clap…and the bilo came past again.
Suddenly I remembered the shopping list buried deep in the pocket of my shorts – my reason for going to the market in the first place. The mangoes, pawpaw, tomatoes and pineapples and sweet little island bananas would have to wait a bit – this was real culture and surpassed material sustenance.
During the next hour or so, I learned that Kadavu is about 80km south of Suva, mountainous at one end and tapering down to Astrolabe Reef in the north. Almost 280km 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 said, 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 a pair of cupped hands passed the bilo once more.

I talked a bit about where I came from, of the huge conical mountain that spent much of the year wearing a snow cap or hiding among 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. Clap…clap…the bilo came round again.
“My daughter’s name is Tui,” I said, and they asked me to repeat it. “In Fiji, Tui means big king,” Nat laughed. “She thinks she is a king in New Zealand too,” I told him and smiles rippled through the group of men as my words were translated among them.
After a few more bilos I bid the Kadavu crew farewell and, wearing a smile that threatened to split my face in half, I ambled off to the bus station, feeling unduly smug and languishing among the wonderful, warm people clasping bags of produce as they queued for their rides home. From my seat on the wooden-bodied bus I thrust my elbow out of the pane-less window and grinned at the bustle of downtown Suva as we rattled past.
Back at my room, a loosely-tied rope around some work site blocked access and the first indication that something may have been amiss with my brain cells came when I reached to lift it out of my way and missed it by about 100mm. After two or three attempts, I outsmarted it by walking around the fence post it was tied to.
The next obstacle was the old-fashioned door key….it slid easily into the lock. “Got ya,” I thought. But it wouldn’t turn – and after several attempts and a rapidly-falling frustration threshold, I paused to muster my mental faculties. Room 23 was painted on the door. I looked at the key in my hand.
Room 32 the key tag read.