By Graham Earnshaw
POHNPEI, Micronesia, Aug 21, Reuter – Even connoisseurs agree that sakau has the consistency of phlegm and the taste of mud pies.
But its narcotic qualities have made it the drink of choice on the island of Pohnpei in the northern Pacific, 3,500 km (2,000 miles) southeast of Tokyo.
Locals say young people on the island are increasingly turning to sakau in place of beer, and they say they welcome the change — beer makes people aggressive while sakau makes them numb and sends them to sleep.
Many doctors on the island now also prescribe sakau as a cure for hypertension and high blood pressure.
To make sakau, you first dig up the root of a bush which grows on some parts of this fertile island in the heart of Micronesia. You chop it up, mash it, soak it in water and squeeze out the juice through hibiscus bark.
The mud-coloured liquid that results is ladled from a big plastic bucket into half-coconut shells and passed round.
The taste, I can testify, is absolutely vile.
Sakau is a murky, tepid drink with a bitter, leafy after-taste that had me cringeing after every sip.
The effect begins after only a couple of mouthfuls with a slight, tingling numbness on the tongue, spreading later to the back of the mouth and beyond.
After six or eight cups, drinkers feel numb from head to toe and sometimes have great trouble walking. Conversation slows to a halt as the coconut cup is passed round, heads loll forward and eyelids grow heavy.
“There is more sakau being drunk than ever before,” said Iones Sahm, speaker of the town council of Kolonia, the main settlement on Pohnpei island. “Teenagers now drink sakau rather than beer.”
He said sakau used to be drunk only at special parties in private homes but could now be bought ready-made in the markets or in Sakau bars for 25 cents a coconut cupful.
“Sakau is better than beer,” he said “It costs less, and after you’ve drunk it, you don’t make trouble. You just want to go to sleep.”
Sakau has a fuzzy effect similar to that of marijuana, said John Sonden, a local businessman. “But it is not a high like smoking pot. You sort of feel very low. You don’t like loud music or much noise.”
Inevitably the subject of sex and Sakau is raised. “Some people say that Sakau makes sex better, more perfect,” Sonden added.
Not that sakau is harmless. The tradition is that as you drink from the coconut cup, you must close you eyes.
“There are fumes coming off the sakau which can affect your eyes, so it is best to close them,” said Sonden’s father Otto, a 65-year-old judge.
Some people can drink any amount of sakau with no ill effects whatsoever while others suffer from a sakau “hangover” the following morning which makes getting out of bed difficult.
“In Japanese times (between 1914 and 1944), sakau was banned except on special occasions,” said Judge Sonden. “The Japanese wanted to make sure everyone could work hard. We drank it in secret, of course, but if we were found out, they would beat us.”
Traditionally, sakau was only drunk on special occasions. Warriors used to drink it before they went to war.
“If they were caught and killed, they didn’t want food to come out of their stomachs, only sakau,” town council speaker Sahm. “It was a matter of pride.”
With coconut prices low, Pohnpei is always on the look-out for alternative sources of export income. But sakau is probably not the answer despite its narcotic effect.
It’s difficult to see a market overseas for a muddy brew which even many Pohnpei people agree tastes disgusting.
But another problem is that the sakau bush is not all that common and local tipplers jealously guard their supplies.
“We don’t have enough,” said Sahm. “What we have we want to keep.” REUTER GAE JWT NNNN