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Drink Down the Fiji Vibe at a Traditional Kava Ceremony

Published by Bill Lehane, Writer

Country: Fiji

The Experience

Nestled in the middle of nowhere, in the wide, blue Pacific Ocean, Fiji is a prime destination to just get away from it all. Sandy beaches, gorgeous sunsets and cheap food and drink are just some of the attractions of this little island nation. Most unique among these attractions, however, has to be the national drink of kava.

If you've never heard of it, kava (which is also known as Yaqona, or grog) is a drink made from the root of a pepper called piper methstyicum. It looks a bit like muddy water, but packs a secret punch. It's not alcoholic or narcotic, but it has analgesic (pain relief) properties that make it very relaxing to drink. If this sounds like something you're not sure about but would like to try, then fear not, because a small dose of kava is perfectly harmless. It's merely loaded with Vitamin B, which acts as a natural muscle relaxant and antidepressant. And if you're not sure where to go to try it… Finding a kava ceremony in Fiji is about as easy as finding coffee in North America!

Kava ceremonies are used in almost every tradition of Fijian life, but you don't have to be local to give it a try. Traditionally, if you attend a village ceremony, you should bring a piece of the kava root with you to offer to the local chief; but in other areas this may not be necessary. In all cases, participants will sit in a circle before a large bowl of kava called a “tanoa,” with their feet facing away from the bowl. The actual drinking is done from a smaller wooden bowl called a “bilo” that is passed around the group. To prepare the drink, the root is ground into a cloth with a mortar and pestle, which is then dipped in water and massaged and squeezed into the tanoa.

For the kava ceremony itself, the host will begin by speaking in Fijian, but don't worry; you only have to know a few words to take part. The chief is the first to drink, and then the bilo is passed around in a circle. When the bowl is passed to you, clap once and say “Bula!” Drink the bowl down in one go before saying “Bula!” again and clapping three times. For extra politeness, you can also say “Vinaka,” or thank you. You'll probably feel your lips going numb, but it's perfectly normal. After another few rounds, you will feel your whole body relax and you might sweat a little, even though the drink is served cold. By the time you leave the kava ceremony, you should experience a tranquil light-headedness. You are now initiated as a true Fijian!

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When to Go to Kava Ceremony

Air Pacific, Continental and Korean Airlines have the most flights to Fiji (including flights from North America). However, the most practical way to get to visit the remote island is to integrate a visit there into a trip to Australia, from where you can get much cheaper flights. Visas are not required in advance for most countries provided you're staying less than four months.

The best time to visit Fiji to partake in a traditional kava ceremony is between May and October because the weather is dry and the temperatures are a pleasant 78-86°F (26-30°C). You'll also avoid the strong humidity the island gets between November and April.

Odds n' Ends

Most hotels or tour packages will offer a kava ceremony, and if even that is too complicated to arrange, sometimes you will be offered some of the beloved root while souvenir shopping around the island. If you do go to a village kava ceremony, a gift of kava root should be easy to find at any local market for around US$15 for a pound.

While it's always sure to be hot in Fiji, dress for the kava ceremony in the same way as you would enter a church. Cover your legs and shoulders, and remember to remove your shoes before sitting down in the circle. Hats, shorts and sunglasses should not be worn.

If your kava ceremony is scheduled for a certain time as part of a tour, don't be surprised if it gets started late. Locals like to make frequent jokes about the fluidity of plans on the island, and will often exclaim, 'it's Fiji time!'


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