It’s just after dusk on the island of Espiritu Santo in the Melanesian archipelago of Vanuatu. Before grabbing dinner in the stalls of the Luganville marketplace, local men, ex-pats, and visiting divers walk into a thatched hut on the hillside above. Inside there’s a wooden counter next to a large, sink-like basin and, behind the counter, a length of stretched panty hose with a giant lump in the bottom, dripping a gray fluid into a bowl below.
One by one people line up, chug some of the liquid from half a coconut shell, rinse their mouths with water, and spit a few times into the basin. Then they all take seats on benches, lean back, and start to tingle. This is the nightly Vanuatu ritual surrounding kava, a mildly psychoactive drink made from the root of the Piper methysticum shrub. It creates a warm anesthetic feeling, starting at the lips and radiating outward, enlivened by little spikes of euphoria.