It started raining yesterday afternoon so I went ashore for my cold shower with my wet weather gear, and once cleand uip followed the rough road out past the main village looking for the Big Banyan tree, where David had said was a track to the left. I followed it up through the forest past a small collection of traditional homes, past a muddy rough pen holding pigs, looking for the Yakoben Nakamal, a special place where men gather to drink kava. I knew I had found it when I came across it a few hundred yards up the bush track because the ground levelled off and opened into a truly magical place that took my breath away, even in the rain. It was a large flat space without vegetation but enclosed by several even more "Big" Banyan trees, thier massive systems of roots seeming to form vertical walls that reminded me of mediaval cathedrals, thier huge canopies arching over like the roof, yet it was all forest. Several large smoky fires were burning and the men round them were dwarfed by the trees. I was beckoned over to one group of old men who all introduced themselves and shook my hand as I stood in the smoke warming up. WHen David appeared he took me further on to another clearing and another extraordinary sight, a huge gathering of women children and dogs were busily preparing food under a makeshift awning. The food was mostly what is known as LapLap, manioc mashed and cooked wrapped in banana leaves with some little pieces of meat scattered through it. It was all set out on the muddy earth on top of more banana leaves. We ent further on into the bush through a new track and came to another makeshift hut, with another smoky fire and inside lying on the ground in rough dirty sheets were the three boys who that morning had been circumcised in that very hut, by the "Doctor" The boys had to remain in there for the next three days, could be visited by men and boys but not by women, while other young men stayed with them all the time and gave them food and water. The newly circumcised boys were around 10 or 12, were very subdued and said almost nothing. I had previously asked David if I should bring themn something, and he suggested sweets so I divided my two remaining bags of lollies into 3, and added a few almonds and handed them over. They said nothing. I think their operations must have been pretty bloody awful - scissors had been mentioned...
And now the Kava ceremony! We went back to the Nakamal and kava root was being chopped up with machetes, the dirt scraped off and then David and half a dozen others began chewing into it, biting pieces off till their cheeks were bulging then chewing and chewing and chewing till a great glob of chewed up Kava root with the consistency of thick porridge was expelled onto a fresh clean green leaf sitting in the mud. Eventually all the root was converted into these hamburger bun sized mounds of pale grey/yellow mush. It was now nearly dark, and to make the drink, each mound in turn was supported in a filthy cotton tea towel , ater was poured inot it and it dripped out below into old coconut half-shells. To assist the process small boys, who were never permitted to drink the Kava, came across and worked the mash in their hands, squeezing and mixing it as more water was poured though, and then finally twisting the cloth from both ends to express the last remaining drop into the coconut. Now, in one go, facing east the entire contents were drunk. Soon it was my turn...I swallowed it all and received some appreciative comments from everyone watching. It wasnt unpleasant and I had already put out of my mind the potential ingestion of someone elses diluted saliva and oral hygiene.
Now I was permitted to eat LapLap and expected to smoke a cigarette, a home made one of a rolled up0 local piece of tobacco leaf inside some notepaper. It was necessary to hold a glowing stick from the fire in the other hand as the cigarrette kept going out unless you puffed continuously. Again, it was not unpleasant. And now, in the dark by the glowing fires evertyone simply settled down and spoke in low whispers if at all, stared into the flames and up into the night sky, almost soundlessly we smoked our cigarettes and meditated and relaxed. It really was quite amazing, the stillness and the sense of closeness with everyone. The one sound that disrupted things but soon became part of the experience was the constant hoiking, throat claring and spitting and coughing of the old men under one of the other trees.
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