A Trip to the Kava Bar and the Village of Tanoliu, Vanuatu
For those who worry about trying Kava in Vanuatu, my experience is everybody made a much bigger deal out of it than it actually was. The staff at the Havannah Resort warned me not to have more than one cup of Kava and that two cups of Kava might be pushing it. As it turned out, it mostly made me a bit sick to my stomach but I didn’t get the high or euphoric reaction I had been expecting.
We sat on a wooden bench under a makeshift lean-to of sorts with a dirt floor, waiting for Lietau’s son to finish mixing the Kava. Lietau Harry has 4 sons and hails from the island of Tanna. She came to Efate Island to teach secondary school, and met her future husband, Charlie, in the village of Tanoliu. After raising a family, and she is now a grandmother, Lietau went to work at the Havannah Resort in housekeeping.
She walks to work from the village of Tanoliu down a blacktop road along the beach, and then veers off on a dirt path that takes her to the resort. They say it’s a 10-minute walk, but at our pace it was about 30 minutes. Along the way Lietau showed me pummelos, mangoes, coconuts, avocados, oranges and bananas growing on the other side of the road. If I heard her correctly, her husband’s brother is chief of the village.
When her son finished mixing the Kava, I asked him how much I should pay. 55 Vatu. I had only American money, so I handed him a dollar. He turned it around and examined the paper. He was a quiet for a few minutes, then asked: how much is this in Vatu? About 100 Vatu. He was OK with that, I told him to keep the change and he handed me the cup of Kava. He has actual glass cups shaped like the kind that used to come with punch bowl sets, but no handles. Maybe they were dessert bowls. I had been expecting the Kava in a coconut shell but some places don’t serve it that way, I guess.
The water was a muddy brown, nothing at all like the Kava I saw him chopping up earlier. The Kava itself is sort of a light yellow root. Lietau was gracious enough to take me to her family home, which is situated high up a hill and was a bit of a climb. All of her sons and their families live below in handmade huts. The kitchen is typically separate from the house and consists of a tower of stones, a pile of fire-starting material made from dried fronds, a mat they used for dining, and the structure is encased in chicken wire with a tin roof.
There is not much electricity; no live TV, they gather around an oil lamp at night. Lietau and Charlie’s son, Peter, which they pronounce Petah, built his own kickboxing and workout area. Part of it includes a log planted upright in the dirt with bars made from wood and attached perpendicular. After he twirls around and kicks the bag secured to the log, he then pumps his arms up and down between the bars for strength. He won a bronze medal in Port Vila. Says he is “maybe 21,” when I ask and shoots a help-me-glance at his mom.
They have a horse they keep across the road on the side of the ocean, and a pony is tied up in the yard. Of course, they raise chickens and Charlie showed me their stash of chicken eggs in the nest. Lietau continued to warn me that I should watch where I was walking because if I hurt myself, I still needed to walk all the way back to Havannah Resort. I wondered if she had this problem before where a guest had injured herself and could not leave. I could think of worse places to be laid up, that’s for sure. This place was paradise.
On the way to the Kava Bar, Lietau asked one of her sons to climb the coconut tree and gather us a few coconuts. He handed his mother his music device and earplugs and darted across the street. I was amazed at how quickly he scooted up the tree. It was as though his arms simply pulled him up and his legs ran around the trunk. He tossed 3 coconuts to the road. Lietau cut them open with a huge butcher knife, slicing the sides at a diagonal until she got down to the skin.
This was young coconut, not the dried brown type. Once we got to the skin, Lietau cut off the top revealing a small hole and handed me the coconut. The water wasn’t as coconut-ty as I expected but it was a refreshing drink in the heat. I drank about half of it and handed the coconut back to Lietau, who finished it off. Then she cut it in half and used a piece of coconut shell to scoop out the flesh, which we also ate. It, too, wasn’t really like a coconut but instead more almond-like.
Her granddaughter Sarah grabbed a big chunk of it, and soon her face was covered in coconut, with pieces of the flesh stuck to her legs. Sarah has the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a little girl. She’s gonna knock ’em out when she grows up. Lietau thought nothing of handing the toddler her butcher knife to put away. I wanted to jump up from the mat and help her but instead thought otherwise. Not really my place. I was a guest and a very fortunate guest at that.
We walked down to the river to visit Lily washing clothes. Lily also works in housekeeping at Havannah Resort. It was more like a private pond in the middle of the water. Children swam while Lily and her family pounded clothing. They had backed a pickup truck down by the river to load up the clothing after the family finished washing. It was pretty much a weekly ordeal. I met a gorgeous woman there and asked if I could take her photograph. At first she was shy and somewhat reluctant. I explained that she was beautiful and deserved to be captured in a photo for eternity. Her eyes lit up, and I could see the proudness in her soul emerge and begin to shine. It was a moment that almost made me cry.
Glancing back at the women washing clothes, I saw them eyeing me suspiciously like what in the world was I doing? Back at the Kava hut, Lietau’s son handed me the glass of Kava. Lietau grabbed my camera to take a photo. Her son decided to get in on the action, too, and he raised his cellphone. I stood there in the dirt trying not to dribble any of the brown water down the front of my shirt and downed the drink in one huge gulp. It didn’t taste bad. Not at all like I was prepared for. A little minty, there was a certain tingle, numbness to the Kava, and a bit of an aftertaste that seemed quite suitable. I think I shocked my new friends by my reaction. They clapped.
Did I want water? No, but I’d take another Kava. They suggested I sit for a few minutes to determine how I would ultimately react. I noticed Lietau looking at me strangely. Was my face in some kind of contortion, I wondered, of which I was unaware? Nope, she wanted to know what the front of my shirt read. It read: Do I Look Like a People Person To You? I shared a story about this shirt, which is one of my favorite t-shirts. How I had been walking through a department store in downtown Sacramento and a stranger approached me to say, Why, Yes, you do. I forgot I was wearing the shirt. I do WHAT? I asked. You look like a people person, the woman responded. Well, F-You, I replied, because I’m not. I just said it because I am a smart aleck. But this story with its abrupt ending sent Lietau and her son into fits of laughter. They found it very funny and endeared themselves to me even more.
Even after my second drink of Kava, I still didn’t feel anything weird. It was near the dinner hour, and Lietau walked me back to the resort. I wouldn’t have found the way by myself, so maybe there was something to the Kava after all.