This drink defines life in Fiji. Yaqona (pronounced yahn-go-na) is central to almost every occasion here, particularly in Ovalau. People will drink it to relax, to celebrate, to welcome visitors, even to mourn. While drinking yaqona, people will watch a rugby match, play cards, sing, and dance. On my island the plant has additional significance as being a major source of income. The people here are proud of their grog and they like to drink it strong- stronger than I’ve tried on the mainland, at least. I’ve been told it is not close to as strong as the Vanuatu grog, which I am still waiting to drink.
Any time I’ve taken part in drinking yaqona here, it has been pretty much the same. The root and stem are pounded into a fine powder and then wrapped in a cloth. Inside a basin (tanoa), that cloth gets squeezed into water which turns a nice muddy brown. The mix is then shown to an elder who decides whether it needs more water or more squeezing. That moment reminds me of the tradition in the West with waiters presenting wine. When it is deemed acceptable, the drinking begins.
One person will dip a coconut shell (bilo) into the basin and distribute the drink one by one. Bowls are distributed by order of ranking. A respected visitor is normally first, followed by the chief and senior elders. People usually sit according to their ranking, so the drinking begins in the front of the room, with guests and elders and ends in the back, with the women sit. Drinking occurs in rounds, so that an elder will tell the people distributing the yaqona to begin the next round with the word taki (they say talo in Ovalau). I find that people like me to drink each round, so I try to ask for the small bowls (bilo vakalailai) when it comes to me.
The taste of yaqona is actually not that bad when you drink the first bowl. It kind of tastes like water mixed with dirt. The first few bowls are palatable enough. Unfortunately for the unseasoned drinker, the negative qualities of the taste accumulate in the mouth and throat with each bowl. After a handful of bowls, depending on how much one is drinking, it can become quite disgusting. The trick that I’ve learned from sitting in on grog sessions is to be prepared by always keeping a snack at hand. Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western drinking culture, they call these snacks “chasers.” Candies as well as salty snacks are used to try and wipe the kava taste out of the mouth, to make that next bowl taste as close as it can to the first. It does help, and if you plan on drinking any real quantity at all, I suggest using these “chasers,” though I find their effects short-lived. Another tradition that I have yet to take part in is the wash-down. After a long night of drinking yaqona, some prefer to drink a bottle of beer, to wash the yaqona taste out of the mouth. They claim that it reduces the severity of a hangover the next day.
There is plenty more I would like to discuss about this drink, particularly the negative impact on the productivity of society, but I will leave that for a later time.
Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.