One night in Noumea, the capital of the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia, I wandered into a kava bar.
It was a difficult place to find. I had a rough idea of it’s location on a map, but darkness sinks as thick as lies in the South Seas night. There weren’t any streetlights and I didn’t know the name of the road. I circled the area half a dozen times, the headlights of my car sweeping a searchlight glare on enormous moths and potholes and packets of litter in a way that startled brief daylight without revealing more than a hurried glimpse of confused shadow.
I was about to give up when a small sign on the side of a building snagged the periphery of my awareness. I slammed on the brakes and reversed. I’d been down that street 4 times already and had missed it each time.
A red arrow pointed down a sloping driveway behind some sort of cinderblock workshop. The terraced hillside was covered with trees, and on a wooden trellis hung a hand painted sign with the name of the bar. When I say “hand painted” I mean that someone had taken a paintbrush and scrawled the name on a board. It looked about as inviting as a back alley in an inner city.
I stepped under the trellis but didn’t meet any staff. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see handmade tables of logs tucked into little pockets among the trees. Each had some sort of netting over it to protect it from rain, and each was isolated from the others — just a table and a cluster of chairs surrounded by greenery, sometimes with the faint light of a single candle burning at the centre.
I went deeper inside, taking tentative steps in the dark, ducking under branches, until a group of Kanak’s brushed past me in silence and exited under the trellis. I followed the direction from which they had come, and found a set of steps leading further down the hillside. At the bottom was a bar and another cluster of tables.
It was a quiet place of mumbled conversation. There was no music. Small groups of people sat together at the tables — the farthest of which were hidden by greenery — sipping soft drinks or fruit juice.
No one came to my table to offer service, so I sat and watched to see what would happen.
Finally a wiry Kanak man stood up and walked to the bar. He put a 100 CFP (Central Pacific Francs) coin on a metal tray, and the owner, a bearded German in his early 30’s, took a half coconut shell from the pile on the bar and ladled kava into it from an enormous wooden bowl.
The man took his shell and stood in the corner facing the wall. He drank it down in one long draught, spit the last mouthful into the nearby sink to honour his ancestors, rinsed out his shell, and returned to his table to sit with the others. Each time someone was ready for more kava, the process was repeated.
I went over to the bar to ask the owner how it all worked.
“Can I take it back to my table?” I asked.
“Yes, you can drink the kava anywhere you like. But usually people drink here and immediately eat one of these crackers or a pineapple piece, because the taste isn’t so good.”
“Do you serve other drinks?”
“I have soda and fruit juices, and many kinds of tea,” he said, gesturing to the shelf behind the bar. Boxes of herbal tea occupied the space where bottles would normally be. “We don’t serve alcohol here. We don’t want the sort of atmosphere that it brings.”
I ordered a cup of peach tea and bought my first shell.
The coconut shell was rough in my hand, and the liquid sloshing around inside was the opaque brownish grey of tired bathwater. As the German watched closely, I brought it to my lips and drank it down in three long gulps standing beside the bar.
Kava is made from the ground root of the pepper plant (Piper methysticum) and has sedative and muscle relaxant properties. It’s used for ceremonial purposes throughout the South Pacific, but studies of it’s pharmacology have shown it to work as a natural pain killer and appetite suppressant, to combat depression, reduce anxiety, and lower blood pressure. It also has antibacterial, diuretic and decongestant properties. Unlike alcohol, kava drinking does not produce aggressive behaviour.
It tasted like what I’d imagine a mud puddle in a forest would taste like. Bitter, with a flavour of tree roots and the earth. It wasn’t unpleasant, just strange, and it numbed my tongue tip like a dentist’s shot of novocaine.
“How many shells do people typically drink in an evening,” I asked, popping a slice of pineapple into my mouth.
“Five or six,” he replied. “Some people can drink as many as twelve.”
I drank 8 shells during the two or three hours we spent there. Besides the German owner, my companion and I were the only outsiders. Everyone else was native Kanak. The place felt closed and unwelcoming when we first went in, as though we’d stumbled into a private ritual. But I had mistaken a comfortable silence for lack of openness. People simply sat at their tables in quiet contemplation. I never heard a raised voice or saw a rude gesture. One old man even approached our table to shake our hands and wish us good night on his way out.
The taste of the kava was always bitter, but I began to sense subtle distinctions as I got to know the root. A deep physical relaxation washed over me. The tension faded gradually from my muscles, and the sense of time urgency that normally dominates my waking hours completely melted away. It was the feeling of late night silence on a car ride with your father, when the springs creak with each swell in the road and the night air smells like growing things. It was the feeling you had watching a lone shaft of light peek through the curtains in your childhood bedroom, but without that slight tinge of sadness at the impermanence of the moment. I was perfectly content to be right where I was.
At the same time, my thoughts were entirely lucid. Unlike alcohol, which relaxes the body but blurs the mind, or marijuana, which relaxes the body and mind to the point of drowsiness and stupefaction, the kava released all sense of physical toil from my body while allowing my mind to sift through memories and thoughts with no feeling of intoxication. My mind and senses were sharp, and my body suffused with a deep sense of wellbeing. It was the sort of night that lasts until the sun appears with a surprised air.
We sat in our dark corner enjoying quiet conversation, and just sitting comfortably with our own thoughts. That night I fell into the deepest sleep I’ve had since I was a child, lit by some of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever experienced.