Hard to Swallow

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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.

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Marya Summers