The Shrub-based Tea That Causes Relaxation, Euphoria, and a Tingling Sensation

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.