“GROG” vs. “FIRE WATER”

Posted by on Nov 3, 2008 in The Mind of Makaira | 0 comments

Aloha!fire water.jpg

I love reading, as I’m sure many of you have already discovered by now. Recently I stumbled across writer Joel Gibson’s very vivid and entertaining account of a trip he took to the South Pacific entitled “Just One More Cup of Kava” in the travel section of The Age, a news website out of Australia, where kava is a schedule IV drug, legal to possess and sell, but ¬†illegal to import without a special license.

Gibson writes, “Three hours into our 16-hour odyssey on a government tub called Tovuto, I get my first taste of Fijian hospitality. Leaving the crowd behind, I’ve decided to sit on the uppermost deck: a sterling idea when you’re waving Suva Harbour goodbye at sunset; a lousy one at pretty much any other time.

As the diesel fumes from the funnels and the Pacific sea winds compete to see which can make me more wretched, I lie there, at once hot and cold, wet and dry, wondering if I’ll get any sleep at all en route to the remote island of Vanua Balavu, halfway to Tonga.

Napoleoni, a chief from the mountains above Suva, waves me down to the mid-level onto an empty piece of woven mat. “You can tell who’s been on the boat before,” he laughs, explaining that he’d started up top too, before moving. Then he asks a question you hear daily in Fiji.

“Do you want to have some kava?”

In the ensuing hours, Napoleoni plies me with coconut shells full of water infused with the peppery root that’s the Pacific’s preferred social lubricant, before force-feeding me chilli chicken and cassava and sending me off to bed.

As I lie down again, this time out of the wind, a woman tosses a sleeping bag over me and puts a pillow under my head. For the next eight hours, I sleep as well as a baby could on a steel deck, then wake to the sounds of singing and prayers as the boat chugs towards the rising sun.

It’s easy to see why Mel Gibson and the Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata (a friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger) chose this part of the world as the place to invest their hard-earned money in a private island. As we pass their adjacent piles, Mago and Kanacea islands, and cruise into Fiji’s remote Northern Lau Group, the water glows three different shades of aquamarine as the coral reef below it dips, rises and curls around Vanua Balavu’s northern tip.

Above it, limestone outcrops perch over the water, crowned with green jungle and copra plantations. A break in the rockface gives us a glimpse of a small harbour. At intervals, a deserted white beach rolls past, crying out for swimmers. There are 16 villages on Vanua Balavu, each home to up to 300 people but clearly there’s plenty of island to go around.

At the end of a reef off Mavana, the anchor is dropped and the boys from the village begin tearing towards us in aluminium boats, diving off the bow and swimming over the top of each other to be first on board. Big Wil, a Fijian lawyer I met earlier, tells me I’m watching the ancient “tabisa” and “cere” ceremonies, which mark the arrival of a ship. The boys get to keep whatever they can grab. The rumble of tin drums carries across the water and the village sends out a delegation to perform the more sedate “vakasobu” welcoming ceremony, where an offering of a tabua, or whale’s tooth, is made to the local chief.”

Like aborigines the world over, indigenous Fijians place great importance on their relationship with the land. They define themselves by where they come from and they size others up the same way, beginning a typical conversation with the words, “Where you from?” and ending it with “You should come to [insert name of village] sometime.”

It’s because of one such conversation that I’m here. Mesake and Maria Koroi live near Suva but return to their small house in Mavana a couple of times a year. So I’ve taken up their invitation and I’m to be a vulagi, or visitor, in Mavana for three days.

We wade ashore and I’m met by my hostess Maria, a larger-than-life Jehovah’s Witness who is fanning herself against the blistering heat. She spots me and sings out, “Are you Joeli?” For the next three days, Maria will ensure I eat every meal going and then some, repeatedly asking if I’ve had my breakfast, lunch or dinner. The villagers drink tank water, have flush toilets and cold showers. They get their power from a diesel generator, and their food from the sea, the earth and the branches above. Like most Fijian villages, Mavana is about 50 dwellings, ranging from thatched huts to fibro shacks, to the Prime Minister’s double-brick, blue-roofed, whitewashed mansion, front and centre, where he now lives in exile. Paths snake between the homes, shaded by fruit trees and teeming with chickens, adults in bright “bula shirts” and sulu skirts and curious kids in even brighter school uniforms. There’s a community hall with a satellite phone and a dish to capture rugby games plus a small shop and a large Methodist church. It’s here that we head after lunch.

The first Methodist missionaries to Fiji arrived in the Lau Group from Tonga, in about 1830, were rebuffed and were sent back. Others returned in 1835 with the blessing of King George of Tonga, were allowed to stay and went on to convert most of Fiji.

“You cannot heal the land by technology, but only by kneelology,” a young Methodist minister declares from the pulpit. The rest of his sermon is in Fijian, so it goes over my head. It conforms entirely to the concept of Fiji time, according to which things take a little longer here, but the two hours of good news I can’t understand is made more bearable by a white-cassocked choir of about 40 singers that well and truly makes sure God can hear it.

After church, once the spirit’s taken care of, there’s the opportunity to drink grog. In Fiji, “grog” means kava, not alcohol. Alcohol, in the form of spirits, is called “hot stuff”. Hence, what might be called “top shelf grog” in Australia is here called “high class hot stuff”, which makes for great fun when ordering in bars.

When I bump into Napoleoni after church and he says, “Let’s go find somewhere to drink grog”, I can think of few better ways to wile away the remaining hours until bedtime. The voice of Maria catches me as I wander off. “Joeli, I suggest you eat your dinner before you start drinking grog, or you won’t eat.”

I thank her for her concern but the pull of the grog circle – its guitars, its blokey conviviality, its promise of mild narcosis – is too strong and, like a drone, I file in, sit on the mat with my legs crossed, clap ceremonially when the other men do and drink round after round of the root of the yaqona plant (pronounced yan-gonna thanks to those missionaries mentioned earlier).”

Now this next section, I feel, gives a great description of the effects of kava and the pull of the kava circle!

“It’s a rare tourist who passes through Fiji without encountering a kava ceremony but drinking with the big boys in a village goes beyond the ceremonial. In the language of hedonists of all persuasions, everywhere, this is a “session”, pure and simple. At no point during the night do I lose the feeling in my legs, as I recall someone telling me had happened to them. But before long, a pleasant, barely perceptible sensation of, well, nothing, washes over me. I’m neither anxious nor elated. I don’t feel like dancing or sleeping. I’m not hungry, but nor do I feel like my appetite’s been suppressed. Everything’s somehow balanced. Just talking and listening seem the most natural activities in the world.

The nothing gets gradually stronger over the course of a couple of hours until, from out of the darkness, the women’s voices start calling the men to dinner and I realise what Maria was getting at. It’s not so much that the kava suppresses the appetite, but that it’s very hard to leave the circle. After the third reminder, I get up and eat as a gesture to my hostess, but many of the men don’t.

A feast of pork, fish, dalo, cassava and palesami – a Fijian salad made from dalo leaves and coconut cream – and I return to the ring, where Big Wil, my mate from the boat, resumes my crash course in most things traditional and Fijian.

Big Wil tells me how many of the ancient Fijian traditions – the dances, the songs and the more rare ceremonies – are endangered. These remote villages, where the fast boats don’t go, are keeping them alive. So are the tourist resorts, ironically enough, with their kitsch nightly performances to hordes of sunburnt vulagi.

In all, it takes me three grog circles to get home tonight. I’m in bed by 1am but can still hear the “dong, dong, dong” of kava roots being pounded in a large cast-iron mortar somewhere. It rings all night and sounds like church bells.”

Wasn’t that a simply splendid retelling of one man’s journey into experiencing kava? Tonight I am writing late, so I myself will leave you now and join my family and friends for our own kava session. Until next time…

Aloha no,
Makaira

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