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Awa

by F.L. Clarke

Overland Monthly, V. 13 #75 (1889)

What hasheesh is to the Malay and Javanese, the root of the Piper methystichum (called "awa" in the Hawaiian and Micronesian groups, and "ka-awa" in the Fijian archivpelago) is to the cognate races inhabiting the vast middle area of the Pacific Ocean where the plant can be made to grow.

Like many of the varieties of the family of PiperaceŠ to which it belongs, the awa grows in damp, warm localities, such as the little humid gorges so frequently found indenting the banks of the heavily wooded valleys of the Hawaiian islands. In these, springing from a deep, rich black mould formed by the decay of the rank vegetation, the bright green stalks of the plant (with characteristic whorled leaves, proceeding from conspicuous joints) grow in rank luxuriousness to the height of six or eight feet, the plants covering, sometimes, an acre or two of ground. Though not indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands, awa is of such a remote aboriginal introduction, and has found the soil and climate so favorable to its growth, that it is no longer cultivated, the natives leaving it to take care of itself, and seeking it in its natural, wild habitats.

Like all its tribe, the leaf is quite aromatic, leaving the hot taste of pepper in the mouth when chewed; but unlike the betel leaf -- also grown on the islands -- it is the root only of the ava that is used. In gathering this the loose soil is scraped away, and the root soon uncovered and pulled up. It is quite woody in texture, though sappy, and is disproportionally large as compared with the jointed stalks. Perhaps a root of awa might be compared to that of a turnip allowed to go to seed and grown bulky, woody, and clothed with hundreds of rootlets. These roots, tied in bunches of three or four and dried, are sent to the nearest village market, and with a fresh fish or two, a bit of salt salmon, a handful of shrimps, some edible sea-weed, and perhaps a half pound of fresh beef neatly tied up in the smooth, glossy leaves of the ki plant (DracŠna terminalis), are sure to be purchased by the native husbandman or laborer, when of a Saturday night he makes his preparations for a glorious "feed."

The moderate use of awa is attended with much the same effects as those experienced by the hasheesh consumers; it induces an agreeable lassitude preceding a profound slumber accompanied by delicious visions, while the inordinate use of either develops more alarming and disastrous symptoms.

The victim to habitual indulgence in hasheesh finally finds relief from the maddening visions of a diseased brain in "running a-muck" through streets and alleys, stabbing right and left with his keen, crooked creese, until killed -- as a mad dog might be -- by his friends as a means of self-protection. The confirmed awa drinker, however, is not subject to such fits of wild delirium. Its use simply stupefies as opium does, but in a less degree. But it does bring out unsightly blotches on the skin, inflames the eyelids, and blears the eyes, rendering the subject an object of compassion on account of his blindness; of disgust in regard to his parti-colored skin; and of curiosity -- and interest, perhaps, to the medical man -- in view of the patient's still possessing muscular power without being able to use it intelligently.

In the preparation of the two drugs there is a wide difference. Hasheesh is inhaled or taken as a bolus, while awa is only swallowed in a liquid state. The preparation and use of awa in the Fijian archipelago (where, as has been said, it is called ka-awa) is attended with much ceremony. As daylight breaks over a village the beat of drums hollowed from logs arouses the people. They busy themselves for a few moments in winding about their bushy locks a turban of filmy white kapa, or bark cloth, while standing half immersed in the cool, bright waters of the stream on the banks of which their huts are always located.

Their bath finished, they spring out on to the grassy bank, and wind about their loins long strips of the same kapa, leaving trailing behind them a yard or two as a train.

The sonorous drums beat as they assemble in front of their chief's residence. Then they arrange themselves by families in semi-circular lines in front of the ranai, or thatched veranda. Soon their chief, distinguished by the extra size and volume of his snowy turban and by the elaborate manner in which his face is painted with colored earths, -- one cheek a brilliant red, the other chalky white, the eyes surrounded by circles of black, the forehead streaked with blue and yellow, and the ears decorated with bunches of bright-hued flowers. About his waist is wound yard after yard of white kapa, which trails after him ten, fifteen, or twenty feet.

Behind him clusters his group of wives, retainers, and hangers-on.

Slowly striding forward he stops under the front of the veranda, and sinks with benignity upon the pile of mats heaped up for his use. As he does so, the concourse of people in front shout, "He is seated!" and then there is silence.

Out of the crowd there advances a fine-looking, muscular man, who sinks upon his knees in the open space in front of his chief. There follow him attendants bearing each a huge bowl of dark, polished wood, one of which, filled with the macerated pulp of ka-awa, is placed before the "mixer of drink." Another hands him an oblong strip of stout kapa loosely wove, which he adjusts over his smooth, bronze-like arms. The third kneels ready at his side with a smaller calabash.

The operator commences a low chant, the burden of which is carried by the attentive crowd behind him. As he does so, he dips his hand into the bowl of pulp, and moulding a mass, transfers it to the web-like strainer. Another and another is added, until enough for one straining being accumulated, the operation proceeds by the mixer folding the kapa over and over the mass. When completely enveloped, the ends of the strip are seized, and with rythmic gestures, the scientific play of muscle, and deft turns of the wrists and elbows, the strainer is held high above an empty bowl of richly polished tortoise-shell, and as the chant grows louder, the juice falls in a thin stream. This is repeated until the bowl, which will hold about a quart, is filled.

Casting aside the strainer, the mixer seizes the brimming bowl between his outstretched hands, and with a strange, difficult undulating motion advances on his knees toward his chief. The utmost stillness prevails as he does so; and when he has arrived at the edge of the veranda, with a profound obeisance the bowl is handed to the chief. Breathlessly the multitude gazes as the chief leans forward and takes the bowl. All faces are alive with excitement as he raises it to his lips. As he drinks, every head is bowed, and then as he slowly inverts the bowl and the last few drops fall on the ground, a deep shout of "It is drank!" from a thousand throats ends the ceremony for the day.

In the Hawaiian Islands there is not so much ceremony used, but, as often happens, the absence of style is more than compensated by the solid pleasure gained.

During my solitary horseback tours throughout the group, it was not seldom my fortune at the close of a long day's journey to be the guest of the primitive people living in the seclusion of quiet valleys, where nothing suggested the presence of human beings, until one caught a glimpse of a low, grass-thatched hut, nestling under the shadow of an overhanging cliff and the dense shade of thick-leaved bread-fruit trees. Above these waved and rustled cocoa palms, and near at hand the scarlet-blossomed hibiscus and waxen-flowered ginger lent color and fragrance to the still life of the scene. Then the noisy rush of a half dozen mongrel curs, followed by the appearance of as many brown-skinned urchins of both sexes gazing at me in dubious surprise, would indicate that my approach was known; and as my horse plashed through the little stream between me and the hut, the pleasant smile and musical cry of "Aloha!" (Love to you) from the native mother standing in the doorway would give me assurance of a hospitable welcome.

As I dismounted, some one of the many boys would be ready to unsaddle and lead away my horse, while generally the white-haired, age-bent grandmother would busy herself in futile efforts to disperse the yelping dogs and "Ouish" away the vagrant fowls, pigs, and piglets clustered around.

Always in answer to my query as to whether I could sleep there the response was "Ae" (Yes), delivered with a gesture and inflection that implied my entertainers felt surprised, if not hurt, at my considering such a question necessary.

To show hospitality to the mali hini (stranger) -- especially when he happens to be a haole (foreigner) -- is as natural to the native Hawaiian as it is to him to breathe, and so the best they had was always mine.

It is part of the unwritten law of hospitality and respect the Hawaiian evinces toward his white guest that the stranger must eat alone. So my supper -- almost always of a chicken, caught, cleaned, and cooked a-la-fricassee, in plain sight of the hut -- having been discussed, and I having retired to the pile of soft mats arranged as my lounge and bet in the best corner of the hut, the women of the family would complete the preparation of their evening meal.

From the huge calabash of pasty poi -- the mainstay of all Hawaiian meals -- would be taken glutinous handfuls, which, being transferred to smaller dishes made of cocoanuts, gourd shells, and the dark, highly polished wood of the kou tree, would then be mixed with water to the consistency of thin paste. The fried arms of squids, strips of goat meat or beef, and dozens of limpets, sea urchins, and other shell fish, would be boiled; and little shells filled with rock salt, limu, -- or dried sea-weed, -- and roasted nuts of the kukui, or candle-nut tree, would be arranged as zests to the entertainment.

While this was going on, in one corner of the hut one or two girls would be preparing awa.

But this was not done until with a propitiatory smile my host would ask if I were "mikionari," that is, if my "missionary" training forbid my allowing them the use of awa.

As the question was generally addressed to me while enjoying my pipe or cigar, it is perhaps needless to say that I never felt called upon to denounce their indulgence in their popular sedative, and so the ceremony proceeded.

It was simple enough, consisting mostly in the young girls mentioned slicing off bits of the awa root, which they masticated vigorously with their beautifully white teeth, taking occasional mouthfuls of water, which, with the finely chewed awa, would be emptied from time to time into a cocoanut shell reserved for the purpose.

When a quart, perhaps, of the juice had been thus prepared, the mixture would be carefully strained through the web-like bark gathered from the spathe of the cocoanut leaf, and was then ready for consumption.

The supper meanwhile being arranged about the calabashes of poi, the family would group themselves on mats about the eatables, and then the head of the household having, with all politeness, offered me first a libation from the awa bowl, -- which, it is perhaps needless to say, was always as politely declined, -- he would take a deep draught of the liquor, and then it would go round the circle, each one taking what may be called a dose, even na kamalii (the children) coming in for a few remaining drops.

The supper was then attacked, and with much smacking of lips (a native Hawaiian cannot thoroughly enjoy a meal without such noisy labial demonstrations) the calabashes of poi would be emptied, and the piles of limu, shrimps, shell-fish, squid, and other dainties disappear.

And then, while the gruop of brown imps scraped clean the kettle in which my chicken had been cooked, or scrambled in haste amongst the fragments of the feast, the elders, lying back in all the luxury of repletion, would pass from hand to hand -- from mouth to mouth, perhaps I ought to say -- their one rude pipe carved from a bit of hard wood, and inhale deep draughts of their rank tobacco of native growth.

This would last but for a few moments though, for so nicely calculated would be the effects of the awa they had drank that soon all would sink back in deep slumber except, perhaps, the ancient crone, the great grandmother of the youngest, whom she would gather in her withered arms, and by the dim red light of the expiring hearth-fire croon to sleep with a low chant of former, brighter days when she was young.

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