“You want some grog?” a 20-something Fijian man asks me. He’s very fit and is wearing nothing but surf shorts.
It’s 10 a.m. and he’s sitting with four other local guys on a linoleum floor around a faded wooden bowl the diameter of a large pizza. We’re in an elongated, sparsely decorated room with one wall made entirely of open, sliding glass doors and windows. Through the open spaces is a palatial, hammock-strewn wooden terrace, and beyond that blue water spreading to three or four small, fuzzy, green islets. The bowl is on four short, rounded wooden legs and is filled with what looks like dirty river water. I realize these guys are drinking kava, a narcotic beverage that’s as famous in the South Pacific for its calming effect and putrid taste as it is for its cultural and ceremonial significance.
I wasn’t expecting my first taste of Fijian kava to be in such a casual setting. In my head, kava is supposed to be enjoyed at a chief’s house with lots of etiquette in a grand cultural moment. Getting stoned at 10 a.m. doesn’t sound particularly appealing, either, but I say yes to the “grog” anyway. Who knows when I’ll get offered it again? After 15 years living in Tahiti, where they don’t drink kava, I’m ready to give it a go.
I take a seat around the bowl and say hello to everyone.
“High tide or low tide?” the guy at the head of the bowl asks me.
“Um, I don’t know. What does that mean?”
No one answers, but they all smile at me as I’m handed a coconut shell cup that’s half full. I’m not sure what the protocol is, but I remember my dad drinking kava with the locals when I came to Fiji with him as a kid, so I just do what I remember him doing. I clap once with cupped hands, say “Bula!” (an all-purpose word that means hello, cheers and welcome) and toss it back.
It’s not all that bad – a little bland actually. There’s a slightly bitter, almost medicinal aftertaste and a metallic tingly feeling lingers on my tongue. I hand back the empty coconut cup to the guy at the head of the bowl and he scoops out another coconut full to give to the next guy. Each person drinks in turn and they mostly clap but no one says “Bula!” I take another bowl in turn, then another.
“High tide,” I eventually learn, means a full cup. I start to opt for “low tide” (a small cup) so I don’t risk overdoing it.
We were supposed to leave to take a boat to another island at 11 a.m., but it’s soon well past noon and no one seems remotely interested in leaving the kava bowl. As for me, it’s as if “Fiji Time” has finally sunk in. I’m in no hurry at all and sitting here talking and laughing about nothing feels just about right. This isn’t a blurry drunk feeling, it’s just a sense that all is right in the world, that the beautiful ocean out the front door is moving in time with my breath and everyone on the planet is my brother. My mouth is also a little numb and my tongue feels half a size too big.
A few more people show up, some guitars come out and soon everyone is singing. Eventually we finish the big bowl, which then gets refilled. By 1 p.m. the second one is done too, so we make the difficult decision to finally leave this mellow scene and go to that other island. No one looks haggard or staggers when they stand up; in fact, I too feel pretty normal, just happier. Within an hour my kava high is gone and all that’s left is a little headache.
After another week or so in the islands, it became clear that I didn’t have to worry about never getting offered kava again. It’s everywhere in Fiji. The most unlikely offering occurred when I was walking through a busy schoolyard and a few women who were moms of some of the students asked me in for a bowl. But unfortunately I never got to drink with a chief or experience kava with all the proper ceremony. I would have liked this too, but I still think I got to experience a part of what kava means in the culture: the aspect of sharing a drink with friends, being on the receiving end of great Pacific hospitality and getting a narcotic nudge into the headspace of the locals.
I bought a bag of kava to bring home to Oregon, a kava bowl, the sock to steep it in and even some coconut cups. Six months later, it’s all untouched in the cupboard. Perhaps I’m afraid that kava out of context would somehow taint my blue water island memories, but I continuously blame my home life’s busy schedule. Still, kava is all about slowing down and enjoying the moment, which is exactly what many busy Americans need – desperately. As I write this I’m imagining a day on a sunny Pacific Northwest river with friends, ukuleles and a big bowl of that wonderful murky tonic. Can “Fiji Time” work outside an island framework? I’m not sure, but even if it only gets my friends and me to that sunny riverbank, it will be worth it.