On a bleak winter night in the suburbs, eight Tibetan monks wearing sandals and maroon robes shuffled out across the ecru-colored stage of the local recital hall. They paused for a moment, donned oversized centurion style yellow hats, then abruptly filled the room with the deep, guttural grunting for which they are renowned the world over.
According to the program, these monks devoted a lifetime to perfecting these sounds, but as the novelty wore off, the audience yawned and fidgeted, applauding politely—perhaps gratefully—when the droning finally finished. As an experience, it was “delightful,” something to check off a list of cultural requirements (“endangered eighth-century music ritual—done!”). To me it felt rather like a trip to the zoo, where visitors trudge dutifully past all kinds of rare and marvelous transplanted species and light up at soft ice cream. Which is something like sipping good Bordeaux at one of those franchises that proprietors stubbornly refer to as a “café.” Which, when you think about it, isn’t all that far from popping ginkgo biloba alongside one’s morning Cheerios.
All of this is to say that a profundity goes missing when exotic phenomena are brought to the audience rather than the other way around. For somewhere between Tibet and suburbia, ocean and aquatic park, jungle and pharmacy—between faraway and here—too much is extracted.
And thus I went to Fiji—all over the Fijian archipelago, in fact—to fill my belly with an authentic indigenous experience. My grail was the root of a pepper plant known in Fiji as yaqona (yah-GOH-nah). Ground up and mixed with water, yaqona (“muddy water”) has been the focal point of an entire way of life for 3,000 years in the South Pacific, where it is used extensively to promote well-being.
You’ve probably heard of yaqona as kava, marketed under names like Kava Kava. They are supposed to be the same thing. But in the United States, herbal-product makers typically mix the dried roots with solvents, extracting something called “70 percent lactones,” which they coat in gelatin; customers pop 70- to 200-milligram capsules two or three times a day. The capsule form is sold as a natural alternative to prescription anxiety-relievers. It’s also used to treat pain, muscle tension, sleep disorders, menopausal symptoms, and urinary tract disorders. Kava is said to have neither the comparatively harsh pharmacological properties nor the side effects of other sedatives. It promises to alleviate anxiety and help the brain process information. But the extract has also killed people, and others have suffered serious liver disorders, so that it has been banned in Poland and is regulated in several other Western countries. So my question became, what really had been extracted?
The Land of Muddy Water
My search led me ultimately to the remote, rugged island of Kadavu. Because of the barometric pressure and soil and shade and whatever expertise is bound to accumulate after 3,000 years of growing yaqona, Kadavu is known for the most potent muddy water in Fiji, which would put it in the running for most potent anywhere. And if Kadavu’s yaqona is the best of Fiji, then yaqona from the garden at Toguni, a settlement on the western end of the island, is considered the best of that.
Serene and humid and lush, the garden of Toguni cascades up hills and through patches of jungle, down a big valley to a crag overlooking a piercing turquoise lagoon. As we stroll along, my guide, an extra-large Fijian gardener named Malekai, points out taro, vanilla, breadfruit, jackfruit, pineapple, -chilies, okra, and cassava—all of which grow with verve. If tranquility can be put into a pill, I figure this garden would be an obvious place to start.
Coming upon the yaqona groves is akin to entering an oenophile’s cellar. Different roots are different ages: some head-high with heart-shaped leaves, some newly planted. Some rows are strictly for the mataqali (extended family, pronounced martar-garli). Malekai explains that the longer yaqona is left to grow, the thicker the tubers become and the stronger its kava’s effect. It’s typically a five-year commitment. Gardeners—also known as planters, but never as farmers—have traditionally grown yaqona only for personal use. For Malekai the fact that someone he’s never met will pay him for his toil still kind of blows him away. Depending on the season, Kadavu yaqona can fetch up to $40 per kilo.
Leaving the garden for Toguni proper, I was struck by a solitude uncharacteristic of Fijian villages on the bigger islands, which typically buzz as the afternoon wanes. The settlement is a bricolage of thatched bures and somewhat more modern hovels, with corrugated iron roofs and louvered window frames painted in soft blues. A weathered wooden church sits at one end, and pandanus leaves dry in the sun at the other. Hiding behind palm trees, three young kids gape and cautiously whisper “kaivalagi” (ka-va-lang-ee, foreigner) as I shuffle hesitantly through. There’s a banging that sounds like distant church bells. It’s the afternoon ritual of pounding yaqona.
Learning the Ceremony
In retrospect, I suppose a taste for yaqona comes about the same way one acquires an appreciation for Guinness or a fine single-malt scotch; you like it in the beginning for the mystique, then simply because you can get it down without gagging. Ultimately, though, you become a connoisseur, able to appreciate the je ne sais quoi. More specifically than mere taste, however—and this is where yaqona consumption differs from popping a few pills out of a vial—is the ceremony. The abridged form goes like this:
We sit cross-legged in a circle on a giant woven mat in a spartan shack. Beside me is Malakai, who uses a log mortar to pound the dried root through a square slot. Next is Lemeke on the tanoa, a four-legged wooden vessel in which the ground yaqona root is painstakingly mixed until the infusion reaches adequate strength. Next to him is Martin, who fills and passes the bilo, a half coconut shell used as a cup. Then there’s Walter Smith, the chief, and for a little while Jonefo Faleula (Fale for short), recently home from the capital, Suva. Women rarely drink with the men.
The bilo is filled to the brim. When offered one, you clap once and accept it with both hands. With a sort of solemn gratitude, say “bula,” which means many things, including “hello,” “cheers,” and “life.” Down the entire cup—it tastes a bit chalky—clap three times, and if you’re feeling confident try an “ah motha” (it was good). The bilo is refilled and goes around the circle of drinkers until the tanoa is empty.
There’s more nuance than that, of course. The clapping, for instance, is a vigorous action performed with cupped hands. As a kid at assembly you’d take your clapping this seriously, until clapping at the right moments usurped the process of clapping itself. It occurred to me, after downing round one in Toguni, that “growing out” of having to concentrate on the clapping process couldn’t be a good thing.
Meanwhile, conversation drifts from George Speight, the leader of a national coup in 2000, to American Indians (“redskins”) to rugby. A Pentecostal diver from Australia who lives on the island has organized a rugby tournament between villages. I’ve seen practices: giant coconuts thrown around small clearings, bamboo uprights at each end.
As bilos go round and round, the discomfort and formality of being a stranger from a distant culture gradually disappear. More relaxed, less hurried. Big nods of the head when someone understands you and, when they don’t, even bigger nods. It is, in fact, hard to tell if my growing ease comes from the good-natured camaraderie or the mildly narcotic mixture rumbling in my stomach.
Martin, now lying on the mat, explains how they each ask for direction in life. “Drink enough kava and it comes,” he says earnestly rather than jokingly. We debate whether the body builds up tolerance for yaqona: does the novice drinker have the capacity to ingest more than the guy who downs a dozen bilos a day? I hear a legend that the people of Kadavu are protected from sharks because their octopus god beat up the shark god, although most islanders eat neither shark nor octopus—in case it was the other way around. Solutions seem simple here.
The Meaning Beyond the Root
Looking back, it strikes me that the ritual of consuming the root is the panacea as much as the physiological panacea itself. Kava consumption is intricately blurred into the cultural fabric of an entire society. It fosters trust, reconciliation, love, spirituality, camaraderie, and understanding among strangers. With every bilo in Fiji comes a reassertion of ancestry and identity. These qualities—or rather the lack of these qualities—cannot be underestimated in the emotional decay of North America and Europe.
One German woman who experienced difficulties while using Kava Kava was reported to ingest 12 capsules a day. Others mix it haphazardly into complex herbal, vitamin, and prescription medication regimes. Doctors don’t know how all these substances interact because the information doesn’t exist. But even when we do know the ways in which “70 percent lactones” function in a human body—valuable as that information certainly is—that knowledge ignores the cultural significance of yaqona consumption. We simply can’t fractionate the “active ingredients” and expect to live as free from anxiety as the Fijians, no more than Fijians can expect to spend their new cash on our high-processed foods and expect anything less than rampant diabetes, a disease that tragically has swept the Pacific Rim.
Whether it’s yaqona or Coca-Cola or less physiologically dire phenomena like monastic chanting, as one culture devours the bric-a-brac of another, we need to appreciate, now more than ever, that more visceral frames of reference are paramount to finding the deeper marvel in life. As consumers removed from the source context, we must go much further, literally and figuratively, in meeting these emerging esoteric cultural commodities.
And sometimes that’s not even far enough. In the garden before my Toguni yaqona session, Malakai would sporadically stop to point out various trees and shrubs. One was used by the local medicine man for fevers; another relieved “female sickness.” At one point, I stuck a couple of large, green “tummy and bowel” leaves in my mouth and began to graze. I swallowed, then grimaced. Malakai shook his head, a silly grin broke, and he doubled over in laughter. When his roaring subsided and he was again able to talk, the big Fijian gardener exclaimed, “We only chew it!”
In the end, we may learn the hard way.
Chris Koentges is an award-winning writer who has been known to forget such skills as walking after one too many bilos of muddy water.