Travel Writers: Vanuatu Kava Kool

by Joseph Gelfer

Location: Vanuatu, Pacific Islands

We are always going to stand out when we visit other, culturally dissimilar, places – however much we try to blend in. It is, however, always worth taking the time to get to grips with the subtleties and etiquette of any given place, so allow me to let you in on a few things you need to know should you find yourself in a nakamal, a classic Vanuatu kava bar.

The first trick you need to master is the identification of the nakamal, as they’re not the most obvious places in the world. The guidebooks will tell you to look out for a red lantern. I, at least, had in mind a swinging red lantern hoisted outside a building with a ‘Nakamal’ sign outside, but this is not the case. The red lantern is, in fact, a red light bulb – usually obscured by a filthy hurricane lantern and stuffed inside a bush. If you’re in a town this red bulb will be at the end of a very dark drive that leads towards someone’s darkened garden; if you’re in a village it’s at the end of a dirt track leading to a clearing in the wood. Either way there will be no lighting at all and you will finally bump into a corrugated iron or wood shack with a hole in the front: this is the bar.

You then to need scrub up on your fluent French:
‘Je voudrais un kava, s’il vous plait.’
‘Vouz amais la kava, monsieur?
‘Oui, J’aime la kava.’
At this point, pretend it’s far more Chatwin-esque than it is (He: That sounds like a Parisian accent, sir. Me: I have spent some time in Paris).

Then comes a very exact protocol for drinking the kava. If it’s your first time, don’t worry – it’s nowhere near as nasty as all the locals are pretending. You buy either a small or large ‘cup’ (a wooden bowl or half coconut shell) for 50 or 100 vatu. Take the cup to the nearest wall or bush. Stand facing said wall or bush, giving yourself only a few inches space between you and it. Drink the cup down in one go. If you can’t finish it all at once, dramatically throw the rest away, as it is not the done thing to take a second gulp. Then make a grimace as if it were the most fowl thing known to humanity, spit loudly to your side and go and sit yourself down on one of the benches or logs provided.

One of the others sat around will then probably offer you a boiled sweet or piece of fruit to take away the taste and you can talk about how nasty it is, but kind of how nice at the same time and far better for you and the community at large than alcohol, the scourge of the Pacific islands.

At this point you’ll notice the lack of women around. This is due to a strange set of gender politics surrounding kava. Grown men are not technically aloud to make or serve kava; women aren’t technically allowed to drink or even see kava, which leaves an odd gap in the loop. Historically this has been filled by pre-pubescent boys. These days there seems to be a lack of willing participants, which forces the need for women. The problem here is that none of the men really like this fact, so at this point you’ll probably find yourself in the omnipresent nakamal conversation where all the men slowly shake their heads and lament that there are women in their midst.

There is one final thing to remember and that is the locals can’t really take any more kava than you, despite the fact that you’re new to the game. Take comfort in this; you’ll not end up looking foolish. Time to order another cup…

Visit the website for Joseph Gelfer, Travel Writer for other travel articles, books and information on the author

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