Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fiji: Kava Party

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in October and November 2010. Stay tuned to this blog to follow the team as they dive to collect data on the health of the coral reefs, pick up trash where they find it, check in with the villagers to see how some conservation initiatives are faring and further develop connections with the people that live on these beautiful Pacific islands.

A NAI’A tradition is the fourth night kava party. Kava is a drink prepared from a pepper plant (Piper methysticum) root; once pounded into a powder and combined with water, it takes on an appearance right up there with what the penguin aquarists scrub off the penguin colony exhibit’s islands. It would seem to me that it couldn’t taste much better than guano water probably would. Taste aside, everything else is on the up side. [See photos from a kava party during a 2010 village visit in this post.]

Kava is steeped in tradition having been enjoyed for centuries. It is a drink that welcomes visitors, ties families together, is part of the pomp and circumstance associated with honoring someone, and, on the NAI’A, is a notable constituent of the nightly singing on deck for the Fijian crew (not much television watching out here). Simply put: it is mortar for cementing together the daily blocks of Fijian life. After drinking a quart or so, the effect is a slight buzz (and a need to deal with some internal hydrostatic pressure!).

For Joint Aquarium Expedition first-timers, Kava Party’s dressing up in sulus (colorful skirts) and bula shirts (like Aloha shirts in Hawai’i), the big woven coconut mats spread on the deck floor, kava mixed in the traditional hand carved wooden bowl (tanoa) and served in a half coconut (bilo), and then lots of traditional Fijian tunes being sung. All of these elements combine to make an unforgettable introduction to the quaffing of kava.

Mosesi Tuavuni, 12 year veteran of the NAI’A crew, chief divemaster and conversant in all parts of ship operations, plays the pivotal role in the music program onboard. He’s a talented guitarist, singer, master of ceremonies, and ambassador for team NAI’A. He makes Kava Party one of the most memorable events of the expedition, with participants commenting on past trips’ coming-togethers with complete recollection.

When the bilo is passed to you, your single clap signals to all that you are ready to slurp down the half coconut shell’s contents with gusto. Three clipped claps once finished inform all that the bilo has been drained, and that you are part of the ‘kava clan.’  Then, repeat. And repeat again.  And… well, you get the idea.

Then there’s the part about kava dreams, once you finally turn in. Perhaps something about that later.


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