Thursday, November 4th, 2010
If you have never had kava before, it is a flavour experience that is hard to describe. It is earthy. It tastes of root with a hint of spice and pepper. It will numb your mouth and lips instantly. You don’t want to sip the stuff. It is not like a fine Muscadadu from Sardinia. You definitely want to down your cup as quickly as possible. So, it’s a good thing that that is the tradition. You don’t chug bowl after bowl – but have one and then sit and relax with friends. Catch up on the day. Tell stories. Say nothing at all. There’s no pressure with kava. It does not taste good.
Traditionally in Vanuatu society it seems that it is more of a man’s realm. Not to say that women do not partake or that it is ‘tabu’ for them to do so. But in general the men gather – after a days work tending the cash crop gardens, fishing, hunting or talking politics – and drink some kava together. The preparation of kava is also a bonding time – as it is in itself quite a process. As I will come to in subsequent logs this varies from island to island. In Banam Bay they mash the roots in a pipe using a pole. After they have pounded them for a while they drop them in a bowl and add water, mixing and squeezing the root -extracting its juices. This process continues for three or four more times until the water is muddy and opaque and the roots sapped dry of any moisture. Then they take a clean cloth and filter the kava into another bowl. Now it is time to drink. Would you care for a low tide or a high tide? A low tide is a small bowlful, whereas – you guessed it – a high tide is an overflowing bowl. Drink and enjoy the moment with your new-found friends. Tastes ghastly, feels a little relaxing.
While the days were filled with exploration, visits to the inland waterfall, snorkelling and playing with the children – the nights were filled with dancing, kava drinking and listening to the local music. The held a wonderful feast (kai kai) for us on our first evening on the island with noodles and rice and taro and pig. Chief Saitol then invited everybody for a string band dance. Numbawon string band in Malekula! You bet we were there. We had the obligatory kava and the crew danced along with dozens of people from the island that had come out for the festivities. The music was fantastic – the rhythm infectious. A box with a protruding pole and taut string acted as the bass and the band gathered in a circle – their guitars and voices filling the warm tropical nights with fast-paced local favourites. The children danced in circles around us – even the littlest ones tottering around the village square to the beat. This turned into the nightly affair and when our crew returned on the 10pm skiff they were either tuckered out from dancing or revving for more.
On our last day on the island Chief Saitol arranged a very special event. We were invited to watch local Kastom dancing. The men danced first – a highly synchronized dance imbedded with meaning and seeping with tradition. Each dance had a story behind it and in that sense it was similar to the Cook Islands dancing we had observed, but in that way only. These dances are unique from village to village -a lthough many share common themes of life with historical elements. Through these dances the culture is maintained and stories passed down from one generation to the next. Then the women danced for us. The dance was no less synchronized, though much gentler in both music and movement. Another feast was thrown in our honour that night to thank us for the school supplies we brought.
When we left Banam Bay to sail on to Bwatnapne Bay in Pentecost we left not only with huge smiles on our faces (it seemed it was impossible to frown) but with one of their own. A sweet and gentle man named Dixon would be travelling with us as far as Santo – where he had business. He will make a stellar addition to our motley crew. Dixon is also Deputy Governor of the Province. ‘Simpa Lambone!’ Banam Bay.