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Last Exit Magazine « An Acquired Taste

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[published: April 02, 2008]

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An Acquired Taste

On the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, local culture revolves around sakau, a foul-tasting muck that induces paralysis, comforts mourners and sometimes even solves legal disputes.

As we darted across the jungle on a narrow road, my taxi driver, “Mellowchee,” cracked a noontime beer, his third, and explained that he got his moniker both for his couldn’t-give-a-damn demeanor and because he sells homemade kimchee as a hangover cure. We arrived at a clearing where cars lined the pavement in rows, and had to inch through throngs of men, women and children who were swinging machetes at their sides, toting live pigs and dragging tall clusters of stalks, leafy and green. I saw the crowd converging at a meetinghouse propped up on cinder blocks, gathering as if drawn to the din of thuds emanating from inside.

“Big funeral,” Mellowchee said.

I had come to Pohnpei, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) between the Philippines and Hawaii, for sakau, a
drug-bearing plant that’s deeply embedded in local culture and that can induce a glowing sort of paralysis, usually without intruding much on one’s thoughts. When I landed on this mangrove-rimmed plot, however, I discovered more than a peculiar high. I also found people with a unique sense of time and traditions as old as the outrigger canoes that brought inhabitants here millennia ago.

In Pohnpei, sakau is the leading cash crop, and most everyone with land grows it because of its importance in commemorating a variety of occasions. Although related to kava kava, a similar mind-altering substance on the island of Vanuatu a few thousand miles southeast, sakau is generally considered more potent. Alkaloids present in the drink made from its roots cause sedation, analgesia, muscle relaxation, and, at high doses, psychoactivity.

Luckily for visitors like me, Pohnpeians consider sakau a gift from the Earth and gladly share. All that’s required is a strong stomach and the will to not wince. And so, this inebriating experience can be had at more than a dozen nighttime markets: simple open-air mangrove-wood structures where young and old gather to socialize and sip themselves stoned. Sakau’s popularity has actually grown since going commercial in the 1970’s, partly because it is one of the few homegrown products on an island increasingly full of imports. And, tradition aside, sakau’s cheap compared to alcohol. Most markets charge either $1 a plastic cup, or $5 to $6 to drink from a coconut shell passed around and refilled all night. A six-pack of canned beer, on the other hand, costs $8 at a grocery in a state where non-government jobs rake in a minimum wage of $1.35 per hour.

When it comes to rites like the village bigwig’s funeral that I attended, however, money is no object. That event cost the community as much as $50,000 in cash and saleable goods. Even more modest funerals on Pohnpei require considerable resources. A hundred sakau plants are consumed (at least), and each could fetch fifty bucks. Long before the open markets, these ceremonies provided the foundations of society and the sacred times when sakau was imbibed. And so when I got into a taxi in Pohnpei and the driver mentioned one of these memorials was happening on the other side of the island, I tried to hide my glee out of reverence for the dead.

Inside the meetinghouse, or nahs, where the funeral was held, Bonifacio Hatles, the second-in-command for his tiny village within the municipality of Nett, was seated cross-legged on a raised platform. He’s in his mid-fifties, and began taking sakau in his teens.

“At that time I was thinking it was only for fun,” he said. “When I grew older I knew how important the feeling is.”

Hatles noted that today nahs are constructed from concrete and tin rather than wood and thatch as when he was a boy. But though times have changed, Pohnpeian culture lives on, in part, because of sakau. “Other islands nearby that don’t have sakau, they are missing something,” Hatles said. “They don’t get together to talk. Here all people gather over sakau and have something to learn from each other.”

Throughout the four-day event, locals bring the plants and chop and wash the roots. Shirtless men pound the mulch with rocks on coffee table-sized basalt slabs and roll it inside slimy hibiscus strands. They wring the liquid into halved coconut shells, and the crowd passes around what tastes like a highball of soapsuds and marsh water.

On the first day the regional chief, or nahnmwarki, comes to accept offerings and quaff the choicest sakau. Over the next two days, people bring scores of pigs and fish to redistribute to the family of the deceased and to high-ranking villagers. On the fourth day there is a Catholic mass.

You must remember a few rules at a sakau ceremony. First, close your eyes when you drink. Besides being good manners, it also makes the chalky brown concoction easier to get down. Second, clench your teeth so as to not swallow the gravelly sludge at the bottom. Most importantly, never say no to sakau.

“There is a lot of power in having sakau,” Errol Henry, chief justice of Kolonia Town Government, said after the funeral, as he was perched at a picnic table at Yoko Sakau Bar. “Even the Nahnmwarki cannot refuse to take it once you offer.”

In between slugs, Henry explained that sakau is so much a part of Pohnpeian life that it still plays a vital role in legal affairs and in resolving grievances.

“Our custom is to bring sakau to the victim’s family. Then you make some remarks and apologize.” This, he said, can greatly affect how a court case is resolved. “It saves 60 to 70 percent in legal fees. If the sentence in the regular system is five years, then it might get reduced to one. If the sakau ceremony has taken place and the family has forgiven, the judicial system will look at that in a good light. In the old days that’s all there was.”

A former presidential chief of staff for the FSM, Bermin Weilbacher, sat beside Henry, wearing his shirt around his shoulders. “This place works opposite of a beer bar where the noise level and the excitement goes up,” he said. “Here, it goes down.”

Crowded around us were people gossiping and politicking, as a ditty that sounded like a calypso remix of the “Chicken Dance” drifted from a crackling P.A. Others were already nodding off at dusk with their chins on their chest.

I had just slammed my third cup of sakau. After sipping cautiously at the funeral over many hours, all I got was a tingle in my tongue and a sense of ease. Now, my mouth felt like it had been shot with Novocain, and my limbs were turning to jelly. Soon my head was floating, and any pain from sitting slumped over all day was replaced by a pleasant throb.

“You know,” said Weilbacher, “When people are really drunk on sakau they might pee on themselves.”

Not a chance, I thought, looking down to make sure that I hadn’t already.

After 30 minutes or so, when I could stand again, I taxied to visit Matt Mix. The wiry and wired lawyer was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia in the 1960s before he was booted for getting caught with marijuana. Rumor has it that Pohnpeians can thank him for bringing the reefer seeds that are harvested in such plentiful crops today that $1 joints are available in boxes behind the counter at several convenience stores. Mix dismisses that idea as a romantic notion, but he does agree with the many islanders who say the bottles of sakau his family sells out of a cooler on his “compound” represent some of the strongest stuff on the island.

I found Mix in his yard, and before long he was recounting his experiences growing sakau. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. Though sakau does flower in nature, cultivated reproduction happens via replanting a section of mature roots. But despite the relative ease in growing sakau on Pohnpei, the plant does require the location’s tropical climate and some of the most abundant rainfall on earth. Like Mix, it wouldn’t be too happy back in the United States.

As with any other drug, Mix explained, handing me a chilled bottle that looked like putrid chocolate milk, the effects vary greatly depending on the particular batch of sakau. “On at least one occasion,” he said, “it put me right on the edge of hallucination.”
It also can trick you into thinking you’re in control.

“I was given very, very strong sakau and advised to drink it in large quantities, which I did,” he said. “Within two hours I was completely lucid and I couldn’t fucking walk. I needed to go outside to take a leak and my legs said, ‘Yeah, you and who else?”

According to Mix, the reaction of his Pohnpeian companions that night was, “Wow, you’re really one of us now.”

“Pohnpeians want foreigners to partake,” Mix said. “It’s a way to welcome you into society. To them if you won’t drink sakau you’re an asshole.”

As I found myself increasingly in an ether-like haze, Mix’s wife, Roberta, emerged from a screened in porch. I was feeling with my tongue the coalescence of slime on my gums, and wondering how people decided to drink such unappetizing muck.

An island native, Roberta related a local belief about sakau’s origin. Long ago, a woman brought it from the nearby island of Kosrae in her vagina, she said. “That’s why sakau on Pohnpei tastes bitter and smells.”

The voyage also must have graced the magical plant with its allure.

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