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Clap, exclaim, imbibe, savor . . . euphoria

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April 10, 2005

Kava, kava everywhere! Fijians imbibe the murky concoction -- a mild narcotic -- morning, noon, and night.

Typically served in half-coconut shells at room temperature, kava is ladled from a tanoa, a four-legged wooden bowl. In resorts and villages, men and women sit with legs folded, circled around the bowl. Several men said they drink about 50 cups daily, despite claims that kava causes dry, scaly skin.

Kava is made from the dried and powdered root of a pepper plant called waka. It's wrapped in a cloth pouch and infused in cool water. ''Having a grog" has long been a Fijian tradition. Before accepting the cup, it is proper to make one hollow clap and then exclaim ''Bula!" After guzzling the kava, clap three times and try not to grimace.

On a visit to Momi Village, the residents honored us with a sevusevu, an age-old ceremony centered on the preparation and imbibing of kava. We sat barefoot and cross-legged on a banana leaf mat in the village's large community center. The village chief chanted blessings while another man wrung a pouch in cool water. Women and children clustered behind a row of bare-chested men clad in grass skirts. They wore vines tied around their biceps; their cheeks and foreheads were smeared with charcoal and coconut oil.

The taste of kava is chalky; the effect is euphoric. Lips and tongues tingle after a couple of cups. Drink more and minds and spirits start to go numb, too. With properties that reduce anxiety, depression, and blood pressure, it's no wonder Fijians are always smiling.

AIDEN FITZGERALD

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