Spell of kava relaxes Vanuatu
"Ronnie's Nakamal, please," I tell the minibus driver as I pull the sliding door shut.
It's dusk in Vanuatu and Port Vila locals are heading out for knock-off drinks.
But most won't be sinking beers or glasses of wine, they'll be slurping shells of kava.
They much prefer the narcotic effect of drinking the ground root of the piper methysticum plant mixed with water.
Kava was once the elixir of the high chiefs, but word got out about its mildly anaesthetic properties and now it's everywhere.
The Kava Emporium is emblazoned on the national rugby league jersey, politicians set up community nakamals (meeting places) to fund development and there's even talk of bringing in kava appellation controls.
Port Vila has more than 100 kava bars (nakamals), which come to life at 4.30pm every afternoon and don't stop until the kava barrels are empty. Little red light bulbs mark where they are, usually in the backstreets.
As we pull up outside Ronnie's Nakamal, a lady calls out "enjoy your kava" with a giggle. After I'm dropped off, the bus driver parks two doors down and heads inside Bamboo Kava Bar.
I walk into Ronnie's, which looks like a beer garden, with a central kiosk surrounded by wooden tables with thatched roofs. Little plastic bowls of grey-brown kava are dished out from barrels at the bar.
I order a bowl, which costs about $1, and knock it back in one gulp, like the guidebook says - no sipping.
Kava tastes of bitter mud and my mouth goes partly numb as soon it hits my throat.
I sit waiting for something else to happen and a Ni-Vanuatu man wearing a flat-brimmed cap walks up to me and introduces himself as Baker, the manager of Ronnie's.
"Kava is not like alcohol, we don't really have crime or violence like the Solomon Islands or PNG," he tells me.
"You can just relax and be peaceful."
As I nod in agreement, I realise I'm slouching so heavily I'm almost horizontal. My right arm props up my head and I'm staring dreamily into Baker's eyes.
I quickly readjust into a more respectable position and he invites me to look at the kava making area.
In a tin shed one man grinds the kava roots into pulp, while three others busily squeeze it through stockings that look like big tea bags into large bowls of water.
Outside, Kiwi-turned Vanuatuan, Ian, joins us at a table.
"Coming to a nakamal is like going to the pub, but there's no fights, there's no problems," he says.
"You meet your mates here, knock back a few shells, go home and sleep like a baby.
"The only problem is, it tastes like s***."
But despite its bitterness, Ian loves kava and says allowing nakamals and raising taxes on alcohol was a masterstroke by the Vanuatu government.
"Kava saved Vanuatu, without a doubt," he says.
"Another shell, mate?"
"When in Rome," I reply, slouching again with a dreamy smile.
STAYING THERE: Breakas Beach Resort has 26 beachfront thatch huts with open-air showers made entirely of coral. It's set along a private beach on the outskirts of Port Vila.
Breakas and Virgin offer packages including return flights, transfers, five nights' accommodation with breakfast and comprehensive insurance for about $1455 per person (conditions apply).
PLAYING THERE: Kava bars are ubiquitous in Port Vila. You can find them by looking for little red lights between sunset and about midnight. The best are Ronnie's Nakamal, one of the oldest, which has the strongest kava in the country, and Big Chief's Nakamal, across the road from the parliament, where you might be able to share a shell or two with the country's politicians and even the prime minister.
The writer travelled at his own expense.