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Another Portland Blog

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Fun with kava

The afternoon began with a boring trip to the DMV. Two hours later, I was a stoned mess, dropping phrases like "harshing my mellow" without irony while trapped in a hazy bubble. Moments later, I was on a spontaneous trip to Tad's Chicken and Dumplings, babbling in a passenger side seat and suddenly very eager to catch Meet the Robinsons in 3-D before this strange, wonderful high wore off.

How did this happen? When it comes to substance abuse, I'm remarkably uptight and boring for someone totting around a BA from the University of Oregon. What had led me down this path? One word...


Another word:


A few more words...

Pied Cow Coffeehouse (3244 SE Belmont St.).

I'd driven past Pied Cow on a million different occasions, figuring it was just another locally owned bean shop in a town full of them. But what always intrigued me was the location: an old Victorian homestead that looks like it might be the last known residence of Wednesday Addams. With some time to kill, I swung up Belmont.

I was out of my element. The interior of Pied Cow looks like the sort of place that would be a hit among, with all due respect, stoner-lesbian backpackers. There's a Buddhist shrine with a creepy, nude doll thrust in the center. The front room is filled with Turkish furnishings and oil paintings of annoyed women (see above). The most impressive bit of decor: a painting of two pirate ships in the bathroom with electric lights built in the hulls.

The Twin Peaks soundtrack was trickling down from the ceiling as a waitress brought over a menu. Beyond assorted snack plates and traditional coffee drinks, a few things stood out: a full selection of flavored tobacco and hookahs and something I'd never heard of: kava. Half a page was devoted to a description, part of which went a little something like this...

"Kava ($2.50): This drink, a daily ritual for many people in Fiji, tastes like dirt (but in a good way!). Known for its tendency to numb the mouth while loosening the tongue, it has become a favored drink for the euphoric sensation reported by drinkers. Give it a try!"

I asked for a single serving and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. I'd seen grandiose descriptions of tea before. I figured all $2.50 would get me was the same buzz typically brought on by a cup of Earl Gray.

The waitress returned with a teacup, a spoon and a large bowl. The kava tasted exactly like what it resembled: water sucked up from a mud puddle. The numbing effect kicked in within a few minutes but where was the euphoria? I kept at it, alternating between bites of the cookies with sips of the sludge, expecting nothing.

Two cups later, I was talking at a mile-a-minute about David Lynch movies (note the background music). A conversation between a group sitting nearby about a reality show had suddenly become hilarious. Numbed mouth? Check. Loosened tongue? Check. Euphoria? On the way...

30 minutes later, I was behind the wheel (a bad idea) and headed towards my parents' house for dinner (a worse idea). A song on KMHD, a remix of an old jazz standard about the legend of Jesse James, was now, officially, the "best song in the history of the world." The neighborhood nearby, with a chalk drawing of a sun in the middle of an intersection and a few houses littered with sculptures, was deemed "fucking beautiful."

I made it across town without incident and promptly dived into Wikipedia to find out what I should expect next. Things were getting weirder. I found myself unable to focus on the text on the screen but discerned enough to find out that, when consumed in high quantities on an empty stomach (like I had done), a kava high is similar to that of a few massive bong rips. The next phase would be drowsiness and, whenever I decided to pass out, "vivid dreams." In the middle of reading about the first DUI arrest for kava use in Utah, I lost interest and cut over to the trailer for GTA IV.

I was getting paranoid and my ability to speak had been mostly reduced to a pathetic series of "ummm"s and "yeaaaaah"s. My sister agreed to play detox doc. It's all a blur now but somehow we decided chicken and dumplings would work as an antidote. A trip out to Tad's was in order. My parents accepted a muttered, distorted explanation. On the car ride to Troutdale I found myself dropping the aforementioned "mellow" bomb. The rest of that conversation is probably best forgotten. This much I remember: the restaurant's ancient jukebox, with a playlist unchanged since the '50s, sounded fantastic.

The internet warned me to expect another hour or more of this. My inability to keep my voice at a acceptable volume was grating on my sibling's nerves and Tad's family-friendly clientele. Sensing something was "off," the waitress quickly brought out a plate of vegetables and a basket of rolls. The food cut through the high like a knife through margarine. A cup of clam chowder later and I was back on terra firma. This, of course, buzzkill'ed plans to see Meet the Robinsons but we went anyway. The kava was well out of my system by the time I hit the hay. I missed out on the dreams but, all things considered, for $2.50 I got my money's worth.

Something this fun should probably be illegal and I'm surprised the Feds haven't already banned kava nationwide. Regardless, I have a feeling that the typical kava drinker doesn't experience the same thing I did. A combination of my nonexistent tolerance along with the large quantity I consumed on an empty stomach no doubt contributed to the intensity.

Wikipedia tells me people in Pacific have been drinking kava for thousands of years while other locals reject it as a vice. Western tourists still love it though. An article dating back to 2005 from USA Today says the FDA, at one time at least, was looking into reports of liver damage caused by the use of kava dietary supplements. Several countries in Europe and Asia have already banned or reduced its sales.

Meanwhile, kava bars are supposedly popping up around the states and exports out of Fiji are up 50% over last year. A key quote from one herbal products guru: ""There's nothing else we know of that acts as an anti-anxiety agent that doesn't make you stupid." That's all fine and dandy but it doesn't explain that "mellow" bomb I dropped. Kava definitely made me stupid...or at least more stupid than usual. How many patrons are really hitting these bars to take the edge off serious anxiety disorders? Three?

A Google search on "kava bars" and "Portland" didn't turn up anything so, if this is a full-fledged fad, it hasn't hit out here yet. Regardless, kava smacks of something that's sure to be banned if it catches on.

Long story short: enjoy while it lasts, everybody. Pied Cow stays open late.

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