*DX NEWS* Kava DXperiment – a tale from 197DA/0

Tom  & Daz downing kavaWhen the sun drops below the sea beyond Bokissa Island to create a sunset scene reminiscent of many Vanuatu postcards, the air in Luganville becomes thick and heavy with pikininni laughter and the scent of a thousand frangipanni trees. 

Under the coconut palms of seaside parks overlooking neighbouring islands in the distance, locals lie on hand-made grass mats sipping coconut milk from husky shells while wandering tourists like 43DA234 Tom and me enjoy the Pacific tunes of local string band musicians who hope for a few coins to be tossed in their direction.

Around town though the radiance of coloured beacons inviting locals and daring travellers to sample a different snapshot of Vanuatu culture — kava — can be seen in the late afternoon and this is what Tom and I are in search of before we head back to the station on Aore!

An ancient drop of the western Pacific and a legal narcotic in Vanuatu used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes, we’d read and heard reports that this mysterious drink would induce feelings of relaxation and mental clarity.  So, like curious cats, Tom and I had asked one of our new island friends from the Aore Resort to line us up with some!

Kava rootAn after-siesta stroll around Luganville with our new mate Mansen took Tom and me up a volcanic dirt road past an old service station-cum-general-store to one of the town’s secluded kava bars.  Different to what we’d expected, the bar was housed in a modest wooden hut with a dirt floor, with corrugated iron walls and roof and a single neon bulb for light. 

The place was packed with smiling women too, whom we later found out worked in the kava kitchen itself, chopping up the kava roots into tiny pieces and grinding them into a gluggy pulp.  The sight of two white men arriving to taste the kava caused a few giggles too and a few cheeky smiles!

Although normally prepared by grinding the plant root and mixing it with water, in some parts of 197 Division such as on the island of Tanna, tradition has it that the roots must be pulped in the jaws of virgin boys.  In other parts of Vanuatu though, like on Espiritu Santo Island, it’s prepared by chewing, grinding or pounding the roots of the kava plant in a large stone with a small log.

So, Mansen says, grinding is done by hand against a cone-shaped block of dead coral; the hand forms a mortar and the coral a pestle.  The ground root is then added with a little water and drunk as quickly as possible!

Bowls of KavaKeen for a new cultural experience, Tom and I meandered our way up to the counter, handed over a hundred vatu coin and a young man wearing fancy Elton John like sunglasses, eyeing us suspiciously,  scooped two half coconut shells of what we later found out was “Tudei” kava (rather than “Palarasul” kava) from a large bowl on the counter. 

After that, we returned to a bench outside the bar where a few Ni-Vanuatu men were chatting softly, listening to music on MP3 players or cleaning their sinuses of Kava tainted phlegm by raucously spitting on the ground.

A little nervous, I lifted the shell of Kava to my lips and let the muddy liquid flow down my throat, while my DXpedition companion 43DA234 Tom did the same — but at twice the speed.  It was gritty, peppery and bland — like nothing we’d ever tasted before.  Or ever hoped to taste, might I add…!

We rested on our bench for a couple of minutes chatting about nothing in particular and laughing at nothing, as our muscles relaxed and our worries about possible band openings with Europe later in the evening evaporated.  Our throat, lips and tongue were overcome with waves of numbness and our stomachs had drifted off to sleep…

“Time for another,” grinned Tom as he disappeared into the hut.

In a moment, we’d thrown back a few more shells while fascinated island women watched on and were sitting back on the bench as the kava took full effect. All the while, we were admiring the gigantic susu of one of the pretty islander girls named Dinah who was selling traditional foods at a stall opposite us.  Poor Tom could barely keep his tongue in his mouth and stop the saliva dripping down his chin, such was her beauty!

Drying KavaAs the seconds ticked by, our heads started to twirl like spinning tops and our stomachs grew more and more restless.  Desperate for food, we bought everything Dinah had brought to the stall!  3 plates of spring rolls with rice and fish, marinated chicken wings and sweet-potato fritters — all for about $5 AUD. 

I’m not sure whether or not it was the kava induced euphoria which had taken hold of me but that food was the most amazing food I think I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.  Dinah was pleased too because our humungous appetites had just paid her rent for the week!  So didn’t that put a big smile on her face!

When we spotted Mansen a few minutes later, he was in such a daze of kava that he barely recognised us.  With filled tummies, we all then stumbled back down the hill to catch our boat back to Aore Island, with a feeling that everything was good in the world, even if our legs kept falling out from under us and taxis hooting up the main street of Luganville almost ran us down.

Kava ManOn the way to the BP Wharf, we stopped at a fruit shop owned by Chinese but staffed by cheerful Ni-Van ladies in colourful floral dresses and, still overcome by the munchies, bought wedges of boiled breadfruit which we ate on the boat during our 15 minute ride across the channel.  Tom was kind enough to donate his share back into the ocean on the way loll!

That night, after a few contacts with southern Europe and Asian DXCC, we slept peacefully but woke up the next day with clear heads — a welcome change from a night on the local Tusker beers and familiar headache the next morning.

The next day, we were still feeling very sleepy though and this lasted for a further two days.  Such is the effect of the type of kava we had enjoyed the afternoon before, I am told……“Tudei” or “Two-day” kava……the most potent of them all.  Still, it was another unforgettable experience of our time in Vanuatu for 197DA/0 and one worth sharing with our radio mates!

***Note: Susu is the Bislam word for a woman’s breasts***