Of all the places we’ve visited, Vanuatu is the one where there are more people living a lifestyle closer to pre-Western contact than any other. It’s more "National Geographic", traditional, primitive, or custom-life, and one of the important parts of that life here on Tanna is kava. It’s just as ingrained in the lifestyle as it is in Fiji, but in a very different way. It’s the strongest kava in the world and not only are women not allowed to drink it, they’re not even allowed to watch the men drink it. It’s an honor to be included, but apparently it can be as simple as asking. That’s what Markus did when they arrived, so Colin and I joined him to the "kava place" soon after landing and checking out the "Yacht Club".

We made inquiries in the village and were pointed down a path with trees overhanging on each side. At the end of the path, well away from the village was an island-style privacy fence created by standing large coconut fronds upright and supporting them with a more traditional fence made of wood and bamboo. We slipped inside one of the entrances in the fence and entered the nakamal. We immediately felt a little self conscious. The compound was in the shape of a large oval, maybe 300 feet or so across, and it was very quiet. Nobody was talking, and everyone seemed to be looking us over. Scattered throughout the nakamal were several of the local huts made of wood, bamboo, and coconut leaves with thatched roofs. Several small fires burned here and there and men of all ages wandered about or sat, generally in the vicinity of others, but not talking. There were maybe 50 or so men all together, clearly a good portion of the adult males in the small village. The one recurring sound was men spitting, with the healthy spitting preceded by the sound you usually hear when someone has had a chest cold and it trying to gather a good chunk of phlegm to spit out. The cause of that would soon become clear.

Markus found John, the local with short dreadlocks that had told him about the nakamal near the entrance and John invited us to sit on logs beside him. He checked to see if we still wanted to drink kava, said something soft and barely intelligible about chewing and then carried on fairly silently with a couple of friends nearby. I got to sit closest to the small group of men we’d sat down with, and by observing and asking a few quiet questions of whoever was nearest to me, I was able to put together what was going on.

Although the men gather every day in the nakamal for kava, today was a special day. Four 12-year old boys had been circumcised today (the ceremony had begun two days before) and were currently resting in the hut across from us, so this was something of a special ceremony. The men chat and talk until they start drinking the kava, and then they’re quiet, each generally still and silent, although there is the occasional hand gesturing, walking about, and throwing pieces of wood at roosters that wander into the nakamal. After drinking kava, they’re free to take some of the food on the ground in the middle of the nakamal, which was a mixture of pork and tapioca cooked and wrapped in banana leaves. Smoking cigarettes was a common pastime as well, and not having any lighters or matches, the men would pick up small limbs of or chunks of charred wood from the small, smoldering fires and use them to light up.

In Fiji, kava roots are dried, pounded into a powder, and then placed in a cloth and dipped in water until the water is brown and ready to drink. Here the process is a bit different. The men bite the fresh kava roots and chew them for a while, absorbing the numbing juices and turning the kava into a grayish lump that looks a lot like tuna salad. They then spit the chewed root onto a couple of leaves about 6 inches across until they build up a pile of chewed kava about the size of a softball. The chewed and spit-out kava root is then taken over to one of the two or three spots in the nakamal where water is poured into large old plastic containers and the kava is wrapped in an old cloth and then dipped and wrung out over the container by two men, one on each end of the cloth. The brown liquid is then put into coconut shells and you drink your shell worth of kava in one go.

We were only a few minutes away from our first taste of the kava drink when we put it all together and realized that we’d be drinking kava made from the pile of spit-out kava at John’s feet. All you could do was chuckle silently. Except for the few seconds when I thinking about the pile of spit-out roots, the kava tasted pretty good and was fairly strong.

The second time around, though, I thought it would be just as well if we experienced some of the root chewing, so I asked if we could try it. John handed some over and we all took a bite. It was a lot like trying to take a bite off of a tree; the way the locals bite if off and fill their mouths like it’s an apple or something is pretty impressive. After chewing for a bit it became softer and after we’d had enough, we spit our contributions onto the leaves. I had some idea that maybe we could actually drink our own spit this time, but it wasn’t to be. Our chewing result in a clump the size of a thumb that was still whitish, while their chewing resulted clumps almost the size of tennis balls that were well-chewed and grey. John brought over coconut shells with water in them for us to rinse and now we all understood the hacking and spitting.

John said we could have our second round whenever we were ready, so since it was getting close to sunset, we went ahead and told him to mix it up. He was back in a few minutes and we drank it down. During our time in the nakamal, several men came over to say hello and shake our hands and a couple sat down beside me for a quiet chat. The next day several men we met mentioned seeing us in the nakamal and one told us that it’s one way they keep the old customs alive — gathering everyday to enjoy some kava and learn from the chief and older members of the village.