Kava & Cannibalism in Paradise

I felt my head dip in and out of hypnotism as I watched the muddied water sloshing in the wooden bowl between our feet; the even drumbeats of rain on the dash resounding a rhythmic truth I could not escape. My mouth was numb and my mind sleepy as I tried to find any feeling at all to connect with here at the end. I couldn’t grasp a single root of emotion amidst the sticky heat inside the car. Everything smelled of mud. Everything felt numb.  

Flinching as Mesi nudged my arm, I felt my sun scorched skin crack under his touch. He took one dark arm from the steering wheel and motioned to the bowl, quizzically lifting his left eyebrow as if to ask ‘ready for some more?’ I nodded and reached for the small cup floating in the bowl. The dark wood warped and hard under my fingertips, I gripped harder tracing its details with my eyes, trying to make this moment feel real. Dipping it into the brown liquid, filling it up and lifting it to my lips, I let the lukewarm, dirt flavored water slide down my throat and the tree root work its magic, sending tingling electricity zapping across every nerve of my tongue.

“Make you sleepy, aye?” Mesi laughed peering over his left shoulder at my lazy eyelids as I swallowed the root water. I smiled, sunk into the passenger seat, nodded, and filled up the small cup from the Kava bowl again, this time passing it over to him.

Kava was a way of life here in Fiji; a ritualistic form of creating friendships and one I was well accustomed to now after three weeks on the island. So when my taxi driver, Mesi, had offered to stop by his home and pick up some Kava from his wife for our 2-hour ride from Nadi to Korotogo, I did not argue.

This ceremonial drink comes from the yaquona root. The root, itself, has no mind altering characteristics and is far more common here than alcohol. One to two cups will have your mouth humming in a numbing buzz; four will have you completely relaxed, and seven will knock you out cold – fast asleep. But unlike alcohol, your mind remains. Call it trying to forget or trying to remember, but either way here I was – drinking Kava with Mesi while he drove us through a torrential downpour to my last stop on this 7-month journey.

My head hung sleepily against the murky glass as I mindlessly noted field after field of sugarcanes, imagining what it might feel like to lay under them after a storm like this, letting the sweet sticky rain water drip across my face. Barefoot teens splashed in the mud on the side of the road and tired farmers attempted to drag their horses into shelter from the storm but to no avail. Human and horse alike, it seemed everyone wanted to remain in this moment, in this heavenly downpour.

Five Days. That was all that remained and as Mesi dropped me somewhere inside a drenched jungle 2 hours later, I was determined to make these last five days about me, somehow finding peace in the end of a book that I never wanted to close.

There is so much green in Fiji that it seems impossible to believe they have just endured a four-month drought, but they have and many of the villages have been without any drinking water for some time. In this particular place at this particular time, somewhere in the jungle off the Coral Coast, the rain is endless and the people, overcome with a grateful joy. The lush brightness of the jungle comes to life under the downpour like parched skin desperate for moisture after months under the sun. Hidden here amidst a coconut plantation on its own private beach lies Fiji Beachouse - a paradise far away from the rest of the world.

I fall into a shalom like state for two days of relaxing rain and still I feel nothing. On the third day, I awake to the recovered vengeance of the Fijian sun beating me into consciousness and everything feels brand new among the quenched vegetation. My toes scraping the sand from where they hang out of the hammock, the sound of the calm turquoise waters lapping up in front of me and the gentle caress of the early sun against my face as I sip strong Fijian coffee. So still. So raw. And I feel every bit of it all at once.

Three more days.

The beach is nearly empty and for this remainder, the world is mine. Kayaks lined the bank to my right – orange, blue, yellow, and green – begging with puppy dog eyes to be taken for a ride and I must indulge them. A turquoise vessel to glide across the turquoise sea, I drag it out into the warm shallow waters. A hefty stretch of disabled coral lies between me and where the waves break, far out in the distance, and I glide along the translucent blue above them as if floating on air. Far from the shore, yet still short of the surf, I lay my paddle next to me as I stretch out on my back. One foot dangling overboard and my eyes closed, singing to myself, I let my kayak drift wherever the current pleases and not caring in the slightest where that may be.

“Do you want to join us for Kava tonight?” The voice shatters my daydream and squinting up into afternoon sun, I see a local Fijian standing over me in the water. I shift myself upwards and crane over my shoulder to find the beach a few feet away from me. I hadn’t realized I’d drifted back to shore.

“You’ve had Kava before, yes?” His pacific island accent dances across the shallow waves and the sun glistens off his dark skin like the sea. I nod and smile, yes … yes I have and yes I will join.

Sat around the large wooden bowl that night, I watch Lemi strain the dried root with water, squeezing and pressing it inside a hemp looking bag, turning the liquid into muddy rainwater. Brushing the thick dread locks from his face, Lemi takes the small cup, scoops it full of the murky root juice, and hands it to me first. “Drink all at once,” he instructs and I down the bitter refreshment in one go as I had learned to do previously, and then pass it along to the next in the circle. It tastes horrible as it always does, but for some reason I still can’t get enough of it. The ritual continues for hours into the night, the seven of us in a kava merry-go-round. Barriers fall, songs are initiated and tales of Fiji’s dark cannibal past begin.

A crumpled idea of a man with a smile larger than his face hushes the guitars and voices. In a husky whisper, he begins an ancient tale of a human hunt and bloodthirsty tribe. His English is limited but his voice coats the group in melted chocolate, deep and enchanting, before breaking into gruff reverberated tones. Glistening white teeth in the darkness – the only sign that the sound is coming from a man before us. The circle falls into a lulling silence as we hang onto the ancient Fijian’s every word. He halts abruptly mid sentence and removes himself from the circle. Still, no one utters a breath in his absence.

Returning with ancient wood carved, hunting weapons, the storyteller boasts them above the crowd, rekindling his story of the tribes long ago that used them in their dangerous games. Grabbing a local boy by the back of the neck, the group shrieks as he brings down the wooden sickle in a mock beheading. I stare wide-eyed amidst the other’s laughter as the man demonstrates how another weapon was used to crush bones. The group begins to poke at me, laughing and teasing in their island charm. And I’m sat in front of the men, laughing nervously in reciprocation while simultaneously wondering if they will in fact eat me.


{... Continued in subsequent blog post : "One Last Day"}

FijiKristen ThomasFiji