Comfortably numb

After a bowl or two I have the protocol and the lingo down pat. Sitting cross-legged on a woven mat, known as a coco, I ask for a "low tide", clap once, slurp down the brown fluid in one gulp and clap three times. Anyone watching closely will also see me wince.

This, I am told, is the correct way to partake in a kava session.

Newcomers to the beverage would best follow my advice and request a "low tide" - a half coconut shell serve.

The more experienced can ask for a "high tide" (a full bowl), while those with a thirst or who simply relish the thought of their lips and tongue turning numb will man-up and order a "tsunami", where the liquid slurps over the sides of the shell. Whether you get that lip-tingling straight away depends on the strength of the brew.

On a recent trip to Fiji I felt fine after a few low tides. However, when I first swigged the liquid years ago in the Yasawas my tongue went numb after a few sips. It was like a trip to the dentist, but without the drill.

One thing is certain, you cannot escape being offered a bowl of kava if you go "up country" in Fiji.

These days many of the resorts also turn on kava nights so there's no excuse not to imbibe. Not having kava in Fiji is like not having a beer at an Aussie barbecue.

Like beer here, kava is the drink of choice across the Pacific islands where it's also known as ava in Samoa and awa in Hawaii.

And just like here, the Fijians like to nick-name their favourite tipple, "grog". I laughed out loud when I first saw the name "grog" emblazoned on a shopfront in the sleepy town of Wairiki, way off to the north on the island of Taveuni, and on another trip when seeing a "Grog Pounding Factory" in Labasa.

And also like us, Fijians do the BYOG thing, but instead of bringing a bottle or a case, it is imperative to turn up at a celebration with a "sevusevu" (a gift) for the village chief.

Each kava ceremony begins with the presentation of the sevusevu - a bunch of roots of the Yaqona plant wrapped in newspaper and tied with a string - and several speeches, exchanged between the presenter of the gift (usually the oldest male in the visiting group) and the chief.

The yaqona (or Piper methysticum - a relative of the pepper plant) is the most profitable crop in Fiji, and the roots are sold at markets for up to $FJ40 ($23) a kilogram for the very best plant.

While the village elders talk, the young lads take the yaqona roots "out the back" to be pounded into a fine grain using the traditional mortal and pestle method.

Sometimes, in big villages, the yaqona has been pounded in advance, so there's always a ready supply to get on with the job of mixing the potion.

Now this is where most newcomers tend to squirm - one of the chief's assistants will mix about one cup of the powder with several litres of water and stain it, over and over again, through what looks to many like a dirty old dishcloth. The cloth acts in the same way as a piece of muslin does, filtering out the heavier particles. At an official village ceremony men always sit in the first few rows, with the women at the back.

If someone asks "E dua na bilo?" ("Try a cup?") then order a low tide.

Pope John Paul II did back in 1986, and the Queen savoured a bowl during her 1952 trip.

It's the best way to get acquainted, and you might enjoy that tingling feeling.

The writer was a guest of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji and the Off-Road Cave Safari, Fiji.