Kava Time

Words by Mat Arney & images by Mat Arney



serving kava in a traditional ceremony in fiji

With the WSL Fiji Pro in full swing many surfers around the world will be seriously considering booking a ticket to the South Pacific for their next surf trip, and rightly so. Those that do end up making it to the South Seas will no doubt end up partaking in a kava ceremony at some point, just like the one that makes up the opening ceremony of the Fiji Pro, or that some surfers of a certain age will remember from Endless Summer 2 – the bit where Bruce Brown cracks a joke about Kelly Slater’s girlfriend shorting out his Walkman just before Pat and Wingnut break out the dance moves… So, what is the deal with kava?

Kava is a ceremonial and social drink (also sometimes referred to as “grog”) popular across the western Pacific Islands, made from the ground root of the yaquona bush mixed with water. Yaquona (piper methysticum) is a relative of the pepper plant and a mild narcotic, which when consumed in this way has sedative and anesthetic properties – it results in tingling and subsequent numbness of the tongue and mouth and a few “high tide” cups will soon result in a deep and restful sleep. The sedative effects of drinking kava can often carry on into the next day, a fact to which the concept of “Fiji time” could well be attributed. Kava looks a little like a cold cup of tea and tastes somewhat earthy and bitter, so isn’t always immediately palatable to visitors to Fiji.

Kava is used on formal occasions and at functions to bring two groups of people together; visitors bring a gift of kava when visiting a village (or running a surf contest) and present it to the village chief before both groups drink the kava in a seated ceremony. The kava root is ground and wrapped in a cloth before being soaked in water in a large communal wooden bowl, placed in the center of the group. The chiefs drink first and then the kava is shared with the rest of the group – if you’re visiting Fiji and don’t have a “chief” then the oldest male in your group is usually designated “chief”. Each drinker claps once, drinks their cup in one go and then claps three times. Once the cup, often a halved coconut shell, has done a circuit of the group the ceremony is completed and the groups are considered united and celebrations (or your surf contest) can commence. Don’t celebrate too much, though – you want to be up early to catch that skiff across the lagoon to get into some waves.

the view from a boat heading towards tavarua and namotu island resorts in Fiji
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