You can find kava, a mud-colored drink made from a root, at almost every resort in Melanesia. Though great ceremony once surrounded its consumption, nowadays, the “ritual” of kava tends to feel more like a party than a religious experience. Not so on Ratua Island.
Eight of us followed the conch-horn summons to the nakamal, a traditional open-air meeting house normally forbidden to women. We sat around a fire blazing under a cauldron in the center as Robin, dressed in mats of woven grass, related the legend of kava’s discovery. He explained how in his culture, people use kava to connect with ancestors, and when we went to drink it, we should “be silent, to keep the sacredness of the moment.”
We quietly filed past the kava bowl in a communion-like ceremony. The beverage numbed my tongue, and, as this kava was quite strong, it didn’t take long for its relaxing properties to take effect. In that moment, in a silence broken only by the crackling of the fire, it felt entirely possible that ancestral spirits were nearby.
In Fiji, kava has turned into merely a mildly unpleasant substitute for alcohol. But in Vanuatu, at least for now, kava retains its sacred significance.