Hard to Swallow

Imagine a tropical nightlife destination where the vibe is as chill as the air conditioning — the lights are low, bamboo lines the walls, and a thatched tiki bar serves a Polynesian elixir, kava, that soothes the nerves.

"There've been no fights here ever," manager Ken told me of Nakava, the nonalcoholic lounge that, other than kava, serves only tea and juices.

Bartender Nicole chimed in: "Every once in a while, a couple of drunks come in, and we send them away, telling them 'We don't have what you want right now. '"

Relaxed and polite? It's not exactly the vibe Boca Raton is known for, yet it's thriving in a dingy strip mall just east of Florida Atlantic University.

I hit the nakamal (the official term for a kava lounge) on a Wednesday night. I figured the open mic would lure some outgoing personalities.

"This place is like my Cheers," the 30-something dude on the stool next to me bragged.

He peered at me through his frameless lenses and introduced himself as "Carney." He appeared to have all of his teeth, so I assumed the moniker didn't come from a tour of duty operating the Cyclone at the fair.

"I'm an aquaculture fabrication specialist," he said when I asked his line of work.

I suspected he was just a swimming pool builder with notions of grandeur. It was Boca, after all.

But no, it turned out he'd engineered a shrimp farm, so good for him. But I wanted to know about kava and its famously bad taste, not raising prawns.

See, the brew of this pepper plant root is as notorious for its icky flavor as it is for its relaxing, euphoric effects. Tonight, there were three brews to choose from that varied in potency.

"They all pretty much taste like dirt," Nicole shrugged when I pressed for more information to help me decide among the three brews.

It obviously wasn't the sales pitch that was moving the kava.

"I had a Triple Puddle Jumper — four ounces of each kind," said Carney, who invented the concoction's name.

"How do you feel?" I inquired.

"A little nauseous, acidy," Carney said, taking a swig of his water. "But soon, all that goes away and all you feel is liquid peace."

Sounded like smack but without those pesky track marks.

I opted for a single of the midgrade stuff: the Hawaiian Purple Moi. The bartender ladled the milky-beige liquid into half a coconut shell and set it in front of me on a little bamboo holder.

"Cheers!" I said, lifting the shell and getting it halfway to my mouth before realizing that I'd forgotten to unwrap a post-kava candy (Nakava provides a small selection) to eradicate the ick.

"Wait," Carney said placing a hand on my wrist to keep me from drinking.

The immediate-gratification addict in me twitched, but I paused long enough to look around. Everyone at the tiki bar was waiting for everyone else — friends and strangers alike — to be served. Then, they raised their shells and exclaimed "Bula!" — the traditional kava toast meaning "good health!"

According to kava drinking custom (and taste-bud kindness), I tossed the four-ounce shot in a gulp.

"Tastes like dirty water stirred with funky feet," I said, grimacing and shaking my head. Carney more poetically calls its flavor a peppery delta silt. A few minutes later, my intestines started to gurgle.

While I waited for my kava high, I ventured into the east room to check out the status of the open mic. I perched my butt on a park bench bathed in the glow of a huge fish tank and watched as brightly colored saltwater fish the size of dinner plates swam by.

Across the room, a conga player sat on another bench. And Ken was playing a solo game of darts. Someone had spread an abandoned game of Solitaire on one of the tables. Perhaps in anticipation of just such a lull, board games were stacked along the walls.

"You play any other instruments?" the dude holding the classical guitar asked the conga player.

"Yeah, the triangle. There are 47 ways to hit a triangle," Conga Boy joked. "I know 46. The other one is illegal in all 50 states."

The three fashionably disheveled (bedhead and wrinkled clothes are all the rage this season) chicas sitting on the bench next to mine laughed.

It wasn't long before the conga and guitar players were jamming, and I returned to the bar for a second dose.

"I don't feel anything," I told Carney, who was still perched on the same stool.

"You might not feel much the first time," he told me. "It has a reverse tolerance effect — the more you drink, the less you need."

No way was I leaving without a kava buzz, so I decided to take the next two doses at 15-minute intervals. While I waited for my euphoria, I consulted Ken about what I should expect.

He handed me three books: Kava: Nature's Answer to Stress, The Prozac Alternative, and another with a lengthy title that was subtitled The Pursuit of a Natural Alternative to Anti-Anxiety Drugs and Sleeping Pills.

Not that I'm one to judge a book by its cover, but the titles pretty much spoke for themselves, so I resumed my interview and learned that Ken had just returned from a vacation in Vanuatu — not only a South Pacific island nation where a Survivor series was shot but also the source of much of Nakava's special brew.

"The stuff is consumed there recreationally, ceremonially, spiritually, and medicinally," he reported.

"Is it habit-forming?" I asked him. "Do you find people abusing it?"

"It's not really something you can abuse," said Ken, who was put off alcohol after being hit by two drunk drivers. "With kava, the bad taste is as bad as it gets. After a while, your body just naturally gags."

Good to know. I ordered and gulped another shot without a gag.

Outside, people were getting their smoke on and lounging in the lawn chairs provided by Nakava. Inside, open mic was starting. Maybe that's why management cranked up some alternative rock in the bar area.

"What about the sign?" I asked Ken as I gestured to one of two plaques that read, "The nakamal is a place of meditation. Please respect the quiet."

Ken shrugged: "Well, Americans really aren't quiet people."

True enough.

I was beginning to feel the effects of the kava. It didn't just go to my head; it went to my entire body — and not the way I was promised. I was completely amped — sorta like a coke high (or so I'm told) but without the jitters.

My intestines gave another big gurgle, and I hit the ladies' room. So far, I wasn't a big fan of the intestinally disruptive, funky-foot water.

When I reemerged, the open mic had started. A dude whose coiffure prompted me to dub him "Bedhead in a Wind Tunnel" was improvising a pretty good jazzy piano piece on his keyboards. Stranger yet: The audience was actually listening. Perhaps kava also cured the attention deficit so prevalent in South Florida audiences?

The open-mic acts covered a range of quality, from fine a cappella singing to some painfully sung cover songs. The show ended in a long-form improvisation (basically a bunch of skits that share a common thread) by host Robbio (who will be putting his Chicago-comedy education to work teaching improv classes at Nakava on Monday nights) and Bedhead in a Wind Tunnel, who turned out to be his comedy partner, Terry. I laughed till I snorted a couple of times (perhaps a side effect of the kava) as they generated one absurdity after another, including one bit in which a couple of pirates were dispensing grog from a wooden mermaid's nipple. It gave new meaning to the phrase "taking a nip" of booze.

When they were done, I was so hyper that I had to resist the urge to chatter on and on to the people who basked in their mellowness at the bar. I reported the effects to Ken.

He reassured me: "Some people say it makes them hyperactive, but I think that's just because it relaxes the mind."

A kava novice, Geoff, at the bar had this insight: "Maybe it's like the opposite of what happens when they give Adderall to ADHD kids."

I had been feeling a little depressed lately. Maybe he was on to something.

Next to him, his friend Cristina, at just 110 pounds, had had three singles and a double in 20 minutes, and she was fine. I outweighed her by 20 pounds, so I clearly wasn't experiencing an overdose.

"I feel a little mellow. My tongue's a little numb," she reported.

Geoff interrupted in the first aggression I heard all evening: "Of course it's numb — you're drinking a fucking root!"

Since that made no sense to me, I figured this must be my brain on kava.

Before I left, I met a 30-ish businessman whose casual self-assurance was more effective than any pickup line. I was just being charmed as he quickly rounded the corner and puked his guts out, which was completely audible through the bathroom door.

Must be the gag reflex Ken was talking about. And my cue to cut and run.

As I drove homeward on Federal Highway, I soared — and it had nothing to do with the speed of my little coupe. The hyperactivity had dissipated, and all that remained was a euphoric peacefulness that was so potent, it was worth the vile taste and the digestive side effects. And that's no shit.

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Marya Summers