Survive This: Sakau

Spreading pounded root into hibiscus bark. Photo by Tim.

For the adventurous traveler, Pohnpei’s awesomeness quotient is greatly enhanced by a little thing called sakau. Made from the root of the kava plant (Piper methysticum), sakau is a thick, sludgy drink served in various forms throughout the Pacific. Once the sacred ritual of royal gatherings in Pohnpei, this mud-like concoction is now served up daily all over the island in makeshift roadside “bars”, as well as in the more ceremonial nahs structures that serve as the setting for traditional and family life. The growth of its popularity and mass production has both helped and hurt the people of Pohnpei, generating a large amount of revenue and tourist interest while at the same time leading to deforestation from over-harvesting of the root and severe medical and economic complications within the large population of nightly drinkers on the island.

Straining sakau through hibiscus root. Photo by Tim.

While in some countries the sakau-making process involves the chewing of the kava root to mix the plant with human saliva, Sakau in Pohnpei is created through a rigorous pounding process. First, the roots are laid on “the rock”, a large, flat, slab-like stone chosen for the musicality of its sound when beat with smaller rocks. Next, using fist-sized stones, the roots are pounded against the rock, often in traditional rhythms. Water is then added to form a spongy texture, and the mixture is spread into swatches of hibiscus bark. Finally, the hibiscus is twisted around the ground root and wrung until a slimy goop slowly drips through the bark. The slimy goop? That’s your drink, and it’s coming your way in either a traditional coconut shell shared by everyone in the group or an imported plastic cup of your own.

Where’s the adventure in that, you might ask. Easy. Sedative, anesthetic, and famously tongue-numbing, sakau has been touted by backpackers the world over as a brag-worthy legal-drug experience, and let’s face it: what traveler doesn’t want to be hardcore? In order for your sakau initiation to go smoothly, though, there are a few things you should know going in.

Pounding kava root on the rock. Photo by Tim

1. When taking a sip from the sakau cup, you must close your eyes and keep them closed until you remove your lips from the cup. Keeping your eyes open is believed to invite evil spirits and is also generally considered rude.

2. If you don’t want to drink, pretend to sip anyway. Rejecting ancient customs never goes over well.

3. Important terminology: “Sakau-en-wai” is alcohol, sometimes consumed as a chaser or a nightcap at the end of the evening. “Sakau-la” is the state of deep sedation that results from drinking sakau (i.e., when you look up at the people seated around you and realized you just missed ten minutes of conversation). “On-sakau” is the state of utter lethargy that overcomes a person after a night of drinking kava.

4. The water in town is treated; the water outside of town is not. Know your source. Vomiting on the floor (already a likely possibility when experimenting with slimy liquids) kills everyone’s fun.

5. And finally: relaxation is no joke; know your limits. A fellow volunteer liked to tell the story of once finding a poop-filled local skirt at a sakau bar. Enough said.

Ultimately, what you need to know about sakau is this: love the stuff or hate it, if you’re in Pohnpei, you’re going to drink it. From weddings to apologies and feasts to business meetings, sakau is the social lubricant on which the island runs. Armed with these few tips, though, you can hopefully rest assured that your first encounter will be, um, memorable for all the right reasons.

Traditional sakau pounding ceremony, Culture Day 2010