Savoring The Kava Connection On Fiji

“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.

Seoul food: an eating and drinking tour of Korea’s capital

Visiting Seoul during a mid-winter freeze isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone unless, like me, you go there to eat. The few trees are leafless, the local’s faces are sullen with a determination to keep warm and trips to the local sights, such as the beautifully stark outdoor royal palace, only make you want to retreat to a heated room. Luckily, Daniel Gray is there to save us all with his nighttime eating and drinking tour. This is the delicious side of Seoul where you can get as warm and tipsy from atmosphere as from the mugwort beer. And any time of year, the food is excellent.

I don’t often take tours but Dan’s came highly praised by a foodie friend, so I decided to try it. Dan is a Korean American who started a food blog after moving to Seoul to find his roots. As his blog grew, people began asking him to take them to the places he wrote about, so about a year ago he started a culinary tour company and cooking school called O’ngo Food Communications with his friend and chef, Jia Choi.

The night tour is done using local transport or on foot. On the night of our tour, our first stop is barbecue. Dan leads me through an alleyway thick with steam from food stall workers washing their dishes on the sidewalk. The humble neon shop signs and row of rudimentary restaurants look eerily like futuristic scenes in the movie Blade Runner. Our destination is a basic stall-style restaurant covered in clear plastic to keep out the cold. The small tables each have a charcoal barbecue at their center and the place is packed with locals. It smells like cooking pork and the damp air is warmed by body heat and hot grills.We find a table crammed between two others and Dan begins ordering in Korean. We get a few kinds of pork, the best being garnaeggisal, a cut from near the lungs and back, which we grill alongside whole mushrooms and cloves of garlic. We dip the cooked meat in a bean and chili paste mixture called samjang, then wrap it in gaennip (sesame leaf). To wash this down, we drink shots of cheongha, a rice alcohol that tastes like sweet sake. Of course I’m the only non-Asian in the place but all that earns me is a few fleeting smiles.

“Save room,” Dan tells me as I down another perfect, caramelized pork skewer after complaining about being full.

Next we walk to a small cafe called Pub of the Blue Star. It’s an arty place with young couples snuggling in the corners, the unpainted wood walls decorated with the owner’s travel photographs. We sit at a simple round table with small bench seats. Again Dan orders in Korean, and soon we’re served what looks like a miniature witch’s cauldron full of green pond scum.

“It’s called makgeolli– it’s better than it looks,” Dan says, noting my confused expression. “Do you know what mugwort is?”

I do know. It grows in the US and hippies use it to have good dreams – or something. Dan ladles the pea green, frothy drink into our bowls. The rustic drink is known as “farmer’s beer,” and it’s delicious: slightly fizzy, subtly spicy and something I could drink vats of if not careful. The owner makes several other variations such as green tea and mulberry, and I’d like to try them all but decide to stick with one for sobriety’s sake. So we drink the makgeolli with the cafe’s tasty homemade kimchi and talk food.

I of course want to try live octopus, since that’s what I’ve heard is a specialty here. I have an idea that the critters are tiny, like bite-sized wriggling cheese puffs.

“Um, not really,” says Dan. “In fact, I took some people this morning and they ate some. Do you want to see the video I took on my phone?”

He shows me a terrifying clip of a man stuffing a fist-sized octopus in his mouth with a chopstick. The octopus is slathered in sesame oil to make it go slick down the gullet.

“Around four people die every year from eating octopus this way,” Dan explains. “The tentacles grab onto your windpipe and strangle you.”

OK, let’s skip the octopus. Instead Dan suggests we go to the market to eat pancakes called pajeon. I tear myself away from the yummy mugwort brew and again we walk through the cold steaming streets. The market starts in what feels like a mid-city pedestrian tunnel, damp and strewn with litter. We pass vegetable sellers, then the tunnel opens to a wider, covered area stuffed with restaurant stalls and vendors.

It’s getting late and some places are closing but there are still plenty of bubbling pots of soup, fresh fish on display and groups of locals bent over bowls of noodles. We go into a shop where pajeonare being fried up by a grinning grandma. The place is full of young people. Dan orders the specialty modumjeon, a mix of pan-fried snacks made from spam, flounder, kimchi and tofu alongside mungbean pancakes. This is all to be eaten with shots of soju, Korea’s national drink. There are two sojuvarieties: “original,” which is 20.1% alcohol, and “fresh,” which is slightly less challenging at 19.5%. Both taste like paint thinner to me, but I manage a few shots. Everyone around us is downing sojulike water. Meanwhile, the eggy, protein- and vegetable-rich pancakes are just the healthy, salty type of thing that goes down well with drinking.

At the end of the night, I’m not only full, warm and a bit drunk — I also feel like I’ve tasted the best food in town without feeling like a dumb tourist. Dan has been fabulous company. During my next trip to Korea I’ll definitely take his daytime market tour – but I think I’ll skip the live octopus.

For more information on O’ngo Food Communications: www.ongofood.com.

Learning to love durian: why the world’s stinkiest fruit is better than wine, cheese or chocolate

Durian. No other fruit creates such conflicting opinions. Throughout Southeast Asia the green, hedgehog-shaped “king of the fruits” is appreciated as haute cuisine to be savored like wine or truffles. Westerners, however, are confounded by the hype because, well, durians smell like road kill wrapped in sweaty socks and have the texture of rotten bananas. We nod our heads in approval when we see “No Durian” signs in swanky hotel lobbies and on the Singapore Metro.

I was first introduced to Durian when I was 20 years old in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My Thai friends told me to take it slow and start with durian ice cream or cookies, which capture the flavor but not the smell. They were right — the absence of the intense odor helps get the stuff down, but I still wasn’t crazy about the flavor; the almost-tangy, near-putrid aftertaste lingers for several minutes even after being baked into a biscuit. Durian, in any form, doesn’t want you to forget it.

Years went by and I tried durian in several countries. I politely ate small bites when they were offered to me by locals, I once ate a big slab of it at the bottom of an ice cendol (a sugary Malaysian shaved ice dessert) and in the center fillings of chocolates, and I found out that durian means “thorny” in Indonesian and that you can potentially kill a person by throwing one at someone’s head. But I still didn’t think it tasted very good.Then, a few months ago, almost 20 years after my first durian experience, I arrived in Malaysia at the height of durian season. The fruit, in a dizzying number of varietals, was displayed in stall after stall at markets and along roadsides. Locals were scrambling to get in as much durian eating as they could and the smell was everywhere. After a few weeks of inhaling the odor daily, for some strange reason, it stopped smelling bad and actually made me hungry. I wanted to eat durian. It was weird.

So while in Melaka I asked my friends Brandon and Choo if they could take me out to show me what all the hullabaloo was about. They were thrilled.

We drove to a small temporary wood shack along a busy road. Choo explained to the owners of this glorified fruit stand why I was here and their eyes immediately sparkled with purpose. It’s not everyday a Westerner wants to learn about durian and they were going to do their darnedest to make sure I left loving their fruit. My two friends and I were graciously seated at a simple wooden table behind the fruit rack.

“Sweet or creamy?” was the first question.

I had no idea.

They decided it was best to start with sweet and brought me a varietal called D13.

We cut open the fruit and dug in with our fingers, pulling out individual sections, each with a hazelnut-sized seed in the middle. The durian pulp was as slimy as I remembered, but without the smell bothering me there was no psychological barrier getting it in my mouth. Then, the surprise: It tasted like sugar cream, a little like creme brulee but with more personality. I took more bites and the flavor deepened. The overall taste was sweet, more wholesome than sugar, more pure than a peach or a berry; in fact it was the best sweet thing I’d ever eaten in my life. How had I not experienced real durian like this before? Had the others been un-ripe or inferior varietals? No one could answer these questions.

“Maybe your palate has matured,” Brandon suggested.

We finished the sweet durian and now it was time for the creamy one, a durian susu. This fruit had bigger pods than the first and the luscious sugary flavor was more subtle. It made up for this in texture. It was like half-solidified whipped cream crossed with a marshmallow. Ecstatically enveloped in an unbearable lightness of gustatory being, I ate more, and as I did I liked it more. Unfortunately each of the two fruits were almost the size of my own head and by the middle of the durian susu I was absolutely stuffed.

I could eat no more but luckily my Malaysian friends had better stomach capacity than I and finished off the last of the sections.

To end the fruit orgy, we each took the shell of about a quarter of a durian, filled it with slightly salted water and drank it down in a few gulps. This I was told is to cool the body since durians generate internal heat. It can also stop you from sweating durian smell the next day. For this, I was glad. Next we ran cold water through the husks to wash our hands, apparently the best way to get the stink off. It worked. As far as I could tell we left without a hint of eau de damp socks.

“You are now an honorary Asian,” Brandon said as we left.

And, as un-Asian as I may be, I felt like it. I had moved to the other side where durian is the indisputable king of the fruits. In my opinion durian is better than wine, cheese, chocolate (hard to say but true) and just about anything else edible on our planet. So believe me, it’s worth trying again and again. Start with the ice cream, hold your nose and let your taste buds lead you to bliss.

[flickr image via YIM Hafiz]

Solo hiking in Sarawak, Borneo: an exhilarating adventure – by accident

I ended up in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Borneo, after I had to change travel plans at the last minute. I’d just finished researching a guidebook on the Malay Peninsula and my visa to Myanmar, where I’d planned to go next, got denied, so suddenly I had five days of free time and a day to plan it. A flight to Kuching from Penang was around $60 round-trip on Air Asia and they still had seats, so off I went. I had no clue that I was about to have one of the most tranquil yet exhilarating travel experiences of my life.

The trip started poorly. As the lone patron of my Hostel World-recommended guesthouse, I wasn’t meeting a soul in Kuching. Although it was filled with temples and delicious seafood restaurants and cut by a winding river out of a Maugham novel, the town offered little in the way of activities and I was getting dispirited wandering around by myself. My guidebook said that Bako National Park was an hour and a half from Kuching and was packed with wildlife. The sleeping options were reportedly grim (“dank bathrooms” and “torn mozzie nets”), but I had to get out of Kuching or I’d start talking to myself. I wasn’t sure I’d meet anyone at Bako, either, but hanging out with monkeys sounded better than feeling like a human loser in Kuching.

After an hour ride to a boat dock in a clunky yellow bus and a wet half-hour in a rusty speedboat, I traipsed from the boat up to Bako’s beach through warm waves, pants rolled up to my knees, backpack on my head. The all-local transport made me feel like an intrepid solo adventurer rather than alone and lost, so already I was happy to be there. Bako’s park headquarters are in mangrove swamps on a gray stretch of sand littered with rubbish; although beautiful, it’s not pristine.

I walked up to the front desk and signed in, then asked the ranger if it was possible to get a hiking guide. She looked at me blankly, as if I was the first person who had ever asked this question.

“Don’t need guide,” she said flatly. “Sign here when leave. Sign when get back. You don’t come back, we go look for you. No one get lost.”

A couple who were signing out at headquarters and about to catch the boat back to Kuching chimed in and told me that they’d been hiking for a few days and the trails were very well-marked. “But what about wild animals and rapists?” I asked. Everyone smiled and said I’d just have to watch out for poisonous snakes, most of which are nocturnal anyway.

With my bags dropped off and no guide or friends to walk with, I decided to trail-test this hike-on-your-own-in-darkest-Borneo theory. After a series of boardwalks over mangroves, the trail went straight up a well-trodden rocky path leading over giant tree roots in the shade of gnarled, vine-covered trees. It was so hot that soon I had saturated my T-shirt with sweat for the first time in my life. I was red-faced, clammy and probably smelling pretty bad, but when you’re alone, who cares?

At the top of the hill was a map with distances to several destinations and each route was color-coded. I took a trail to a beach and soon the terrain changed to treeless and sun-scorched with white powdery soil and low shrubs. I stopped on a bench at a viewpoint and a butterfly landed on my hand. All I could hear were insects and the trickle of a river. Walking again, I started to notice a huge variety of carnivorous pitcher plants and vines in the brush. Without the noise of a chatty companion, I was soaking in every sound, sight and whiff of a breeze. With no one to wait for and no one to keep up with, what became important were the details and sensations of the natural surroundings. It was bliss.

There was a Spanish couple at the beach, so I felt safe enough to put on a swimsuit and go for a swim. The water wasn’t clear but it was warm and soft with little waves that massaged my tired back. Refreshed, I put my sweaty clothes back on and returned to headquarters.

That night in the dorms I met a few other people who had also gone hiking on their own. We ate dinner together and told our stories, but it had been so liberating hiking alone, the next day I decided to go solo even though I’d now met plenty of potential hiking partners. All the other lone travelers had the same thoughts as me and we all went our separate ways, meeting only for meals.

Over the next three days I traversed much of the park, but I saw wildlife exclusively near headquarters. Every morning I’d head down to the boardwalk and sit silently as a family of pendulous-nosed proboscis monkeys foraged for mangrove fruit. Occasionally another person would come and sit with me but we’d just enjoy the close encounter in wordless complicity. One of my dorm-mates showed me where to find pit vipers coiled around branches in the jungle, sleeping off the evening frog hunt. One afternoon I followed a troupe of silver leaf monkeys along the water where they foraged with their babies between the beach trash. One night I joined a guided group hike and saw creepy long-legged, hand-sized poisonous spiders crawling around in a cave. Thieving, mischievous macaques were omnipresent, pillaging the garbage cans and trying to steal food at the restaurant and out of people’s rooms. At night, after the usual torrential downpour, frogs came out to sing.

This was a jungle in Borneo, one of the wildest destinations on Earth, and it felt that way, but somehow, even with the snakes and spiders, it felt safer than a small town and as soothing as an ashram. Perhaps it was the human silence.

Yes, the dorm rooms were in a flimsy wooden barrack-style lodge, but they were clean, fan-cooled and mosquito-free; and yes, the cavernous shared bathrooms with coldwater stalls definitely merited their dank reputation, but they did the job.

All in all, this wasn’t a textbook paradise, but the tranquility and pervasive nature made it live up to that name for me. Thanks to a last-minute switch in plans, I’d found a place I never wanted to leave.

Where to stay
The only place to stay is at Bako National Park headquarters. Reserve by phone, online or in Kuching at the National Parks and Wildlife Centre (in the Sarawak Tourism Complex on Jalan Tuan Hadji Openg). A dorm bed costs RM16 (around US$5) per night and rooms cost from RM50-100 (around US$16-32) per night. The only rooms with attached bathrooms are the RM50 doubles.

Food and drink
There’s a decent buffet-style restaurant at headquarters serving a mix of Western and Malaysian food for around RM7 (US$2.50) per meal. They also sell bottled water, beer, juice and soft drinks.

Getting there
There are lots of organized tours from Kuching, but it’s easy and much cheaper to get there on your own. Buses leave from Kuching’s open-air market to the boat dock at Kampung Bako hourly from 7am to 6pm; the trip takes around 45 minutes to an hour and costs RM3. From here, you need to charter a boat to park headquarters. Boats cost RM50 (US$16) for up to four people and you can usually find other travelers to share the boat. The boat trip takes 20-30 minutes. Arrange a time for a return pick-up with the boat driver and try to coordinate it with the bus schedule back to Kuching.

Tahitian dance chronicles, part three: Dancing towards a new adventure (video)

To’ata Amphitheater, French Polynesia’s biggest Tahitian dance venue, is an open-air wooden stage surrounded by a half-circle of tiered seating for about 4000 people. High-tech lighting on adjustable steel scaffolding surrounds the arena and the stage is backed by a covered, elevated platform for the orchestra. From the stage, the seats seem very close and standing there before the show made me nervous — would I be busting my not-exactly-professional moves while looking my family and friends in the eye? My 200-woman-strong Tahitian dance troupe had rehearsed nine months for this one-night show but as a newbie, this still didn’t seem like enough time to get it right. But here I was, the night of the show and it was too late to change my mind.

While setting up our changing areas before the show, we were told that the maman groups (those of us well-past high school age) couldn’t use the dressing rooms — we’d have to change costumes outside where inevitable lurking spectators could see us. This was not ideal.

Luckily my friend Arvella came to my rescue and said if I helped out dressing the little girl dancers I could use the private rooms. This sounded like a good deal. I got in my first costume, a flamboyant number made out of leaves and vines that made me look like a glamorous swamp monster, then got to work helping the girls. After putting make-up on the first eight-year old, word got around that I had cool sparkly stuff and soon I had a line of wide-eyed cuties asking me for silver eye-shadow and lip gloss; once they were made up I was onto hair and costumes.

We were all ready and could hear the stands a-chatter with people. It got dark without us noticing and soon we were getting called to take our places. My group was entering the stage from the spectator’s stands after the Advanced-Pro and teenage girls opened the show with flaming torches. We walked up to our starting place at the main entrance of To’ata where people were still buying tickets. Several tourists took pictures of us, and I reflected on how strange it was to finally be a tourist attraction just before moving back to the States after fifteen years in this country.Our drum signal beat and on we went, through the stands and on to the stage shaking our hips, our leaf skirts swishing. Boom, boom! Like a dream our arms were raising and falling, hips never resting, bent knees, straightened knees, spinning and shimming across the stage. We were giving every move all the energy we had. Looking into the bright lights it was impossible to see the audience. I could almost imagine that we were dancing on stage by ourselves; it was perfect. I forgot that my family and friends were even there.

Before I knew it, the first dance was over and we were back in the dressing room but this time there was more to do in less time. I threw on my white fitted dress and flower hair ornament for our next dance then set about putting some little girls’ hair in buns.

After bun number three I looked around and realized I was the only grown up in the room. I ran out to see my group going on stage – I was late! Without thinking I ran on stage to my place (fortunately at the back) and got there a second before the dance began. This was a real rookie move but fortunately few people noticed.

The rest of the performance went on the same schedule: dancing, then running back to the dressing room to get dressed as quickly as possible to help the little girls with their hair and costumes. It was so hectic and fast paced that the most relaxing moments were on stage. I thought I’d be nervous and that I’d have bonding moments with my fellow dancers but there wasn’t time for this. It was all about getting on stage, getting off and working as fast as possible. The night seemed to go by in five minutes and before I knew it we were putting on our big headdresses and grass skirts for the final.

The final was choreographed so that we saluted the audience row by row with a “ia ora na” (hello or goodbye) and “maururu” (thank you). Whether this was done for the audience or not I have no idea, but from a dancer’s point of view it was the best ending possible. After nine sweaty months of laughing, bickering, sewing and building excitement I could palpably feel the overflow of gratitude from each dancer. To have been on this stage with such a diverse, strong group of women, dancing a thousand-year old tradition in costumes made from this land, Tahiti, reached back into all of our souls and transported us to a timeless place of pure culture. Thank you, we said, to the people who came to see us, to each other and to our teacher Heirani.

On my way off stage I saw one of Heirani’s aids and we stopped and hugged even though that’s rarely done in Tahiti. Some of my new little girl friends came up to me with huge smiles and one held my hand back to the dressing room. Everyone changed back into their street clothes silently. What could we say? After hundreds of hours of dancing and weeks of costume making, it was over. Thinking that I no longer had the performance to look forward to made me feel empty and light, like strong breeze could lift me away. I wondered what I could do in my new home in the US that would fill my life as much as Tahitian dance but I knew there was nothing that could ever compare to this experience. The dance was over for better or for worse and I was on the brink of a new adventure.

Previously —
Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked
Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata

[Photos: Josh Humbert; Video: Jasmine Humbert]