03. Growing Indigenation

  1. 01. Fiji…Again?
  2. 02. Fun & Games
  3. 03. Growing Indigenation
  4. 04. Coup de Grâce?
  5. 05. Friends Go Away
  6. 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
  7. 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
  8. 08. Walk Like A Man
  9. 09. Extreme Retirement
  10. 10. Get a Grip
  11. 11. Dangerous Cargo
  12. 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
  13. 13. Fit for Purpose
  14. 14. Emotion Sickness
  15. 15. New Fiji’s Eve
  16. 16. One Helluva Christmas
  17. 17. Enough is Enough

The Fijian rain pelted down all night and into Friday morning, 30 July 1999. Opening the curtains in the morning, I half expected to find a muddy gully where the lower half of the resort used to be. No such luck. I did realize for the first time what a tremendous view of the reef our room offered. And a good thing, too. If this weather continued, we’d be spending a lot of time using that view.

Down at breakfast, we read the activities board for the day. The weather being what it was, we decided to partake of the Pottery Village Tour and Shopping Trip to Sigatoka. It promised comers would “see with your naked eyes” the formation of bowls, vases, and such pottery stuff, which seemed totally unremarkable to we jaded fat white folk. But what else do fat white folk do on a rainy day other than shop?

We boarded the bus with seven other fat white tourists, and paid our “all inclusive” fee. Aboard, it was explained the day would include a brief stop at the local tourist trap, just so we could compare prices, because we’d stop there again on the way home, after we’d seen what they charge in the “big city” (Sigatoka, pop ~6,000). At a genuine Fijian village, we’d partake in a welcoming ceremony, a tour, the pottery demonstration, and mysteriously, “the entertainment”. Finally, we’d have lunch and the afternoon at leisure in Sigatoka. As the bus lurched over the muddy remains of the already treacherous ridge-top road that connected Crusoe’s to civilization, it was mentioned that the pottery would be created without the assistance of a potter’s wheel. You could scarcely find an individual less interested in pottery, but this intrigued me.

As advertised, we stopped at the local tourist trap, a nicely appointed store on a coastal inlet fraught with photo opportunities. The prices seemed amazingly cheap, although each time I so much as looked twice at a bargain, an authoritative man in native regalia derided its quality and steered me towards something costing twenty time as much, describing its superior value much as a wine salesman raves about your palette, as if he knows more about your palette than you do.

I was enamoured of the “cannibal forks”, which were as functional as they were beautiful, the tines extruding from the handle in a cube, rather than in a plane, certainly more practical than chopsticks. Envisaging a themed dinner party (“Guess the meat!”), I wanted to buy a set of twelve, but Frank thought this in bad taste.

Back aboard, the bus proceeded another half hour into Sigatoka, with a brief stop for the opportunity, we were told, to exchange at the bank our fat white money into small change for use at the pottery village, where bargains abounded and anything more than fifty Fijian cents (US$0.25) would pose a problem. Dutifully, we alighted the bus and accumulated Fijian change as directed.

The bus took us ten minutes outside the city into the surrounding hills and as nearly as possible to the village. The bus’s diesel growl startled a roley-poley Fijian woman on the road, who upon recognizing the tourist bus welcomed us with a hearty wave and a “Bula!”, yet she seemed somewhat puzzled by our arrival. She and our guide exchanged verbal hieroglyphics through smiling (gritted?) teeth, the upshot of which was, I think “You said Saturday!” In any event, the harried Ms. Poley departed, hastily tumbling down a path in the apparent direction of the village, bellowing all the way.

Our guide explained in dulcet tones that the tour would precede the welcoming ceremony, and oh, by the way, there was a four dollar donation to the village for the hospitality we were about to enjoy. “It is the village’s main source of income.” The atmosphere in the bus noticeably cooled, the nine of us rummaging for cash. It wasn’t a lot of money, and a reasonable expectation, but we were miffed at the near blackmail choice of paying the additional fee lest we spend the next three hours sweltering on a bus in the jungle. We all got over it, forked over the blood money, and cheerily tumbled down the village path which the rain had transformed into, well, potter’s clay. The path took us over a swollen stream on a narrow bridge constructed of three bamboo tree trunks laid across, covered with mud. There before us rose the village, much resembling some of the seedier areas of Orlando Florida, which is to say it resembled most of Orlando Florida.

The village tour was mercifully brief, consisting of a walk past the modest homes — sheds, really, where they lived at what appeared to be subsistence level, albeit apparently a happy subsistence level. It culminated at the Methodist Church which presided over the village from a small rise. We filed in. I glanced back to see Ms. Poley frantically racing through the village, still trying to scare up anyone interested in welcoming us.

fiji1Our guide seated us in the front pews, a good thing since the rest were covered in cobwebs suggesting rather infrequent use. The native Fijians are renown for their devote Christianity (commonly Methodist, of all sects), the result of some very effective missionary work over the past two hundred years. Given the apparent disuse of this facility, however, I considered the possibility that religion might have lost its significance to this village as it has to most of the western world. The Fijians and tourists here gathered represented an impressively diverse conglomeration of secular people paying homage to a common but largely irrelevant Christianity. I, for one, was grateful for the structural integrity of the roof.

After a pious moment of awkward silence, our guide informed us that this was our opportunity to donate to the village church. In fact these were the only words she spoke on the entire tour, not that I really needed the genealogy of the village lawnmower or a dissertation on the development of cinder blocks. (Come to think of it, why are they called cinder blocks?) We each dutifully and begrudgingly delved into our shrinking reservoirs of small change, and then unknowingly assumed body language positions that said “This is getting fucking ridiculous.”

Marched back to the far end of the compound, we were de-shoed and seated on the floor of the community center for the welcoming ceremony. Ms. Poley had succeeded in rounding up a dozen women and young boys (interestingly, no adult men or young girls). A Fijian welcoming ceremony (or every other Fijian ceremony I’ve seen, for that matter) revolves around the disbursement of the narcotic drink “kava”, a simple concoction of crushed kava root and water. In appropriate quantities, it induces a numbness and then slumber. No doubt, the missionaries found kava an effective barrier to promiscuity, and thus not only tolerated but promoted it.

The ceremony consisted of making the kava (place crushed root in cloth, dip in water, and squeeze), and then serving it to all present, one at a time (men first!) from a common bowl. The plagues of European diseases that decimated the native population on white man’s arrival suddenly made sense. The event also entailed a lot of clapping and “Bula”’s, an utterance literally translated as “life”, but in practice a multifaceted word, meaning hello or good-bye or cheers or good or an Australian purveyor of dairy products.

Once the kava had eliminated all sensation in my mouth, and either the kava or my cross-legged squat on the floor (or some combination thereof) achieved the same for my lower extremities, the pottery demonstration commenced. What one can do with a pile of mud and a flat stick if one spends a lifetime trying is utterly amazing. Yet, it doesn’t bear description beyond that.

Then began “the entertainment”, which oddly enough turned out to be us, dancing for them. We were coached to dance in the Fijian style, with the hips shaken and not stirred as done in the Hawaiian fashion. Round and round the room we spun, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms wrapped around each others. This is no simple feat when you lack sensation in your legs, a circumstance that magnified the entertainment value, at least to the Fijians watching. Then we started the “snake dance”, which at home I would have called a “conga line” before declining to participate. (Fans of The Simpsons, think “You Don’t Make Friends with Salad”.) But here, participate I did, hopping beyond hope to expedite the end of “the entertainment”.

Before leaving, we reviewed the finished pottery pieces laid out on the floor, all priced at ten dollars or more. Walking back up the path to the bus, our pockets jingling with excess coinage, I asked our guide “What’s the mainstay of the villager’s diet?” She gave me a bewildered look, and I realised the term “mainstay” probably wasn’t in her vocabulary. I rephrased the question: “What do they eat?” She looked at me like I had two heads, responding “They go shopping!” Well, that answered that, I guess.

In 1999, idiots like me wore sunglasses like this.

We returned to Sigatoka for lunch (a reasonable pizza) and shopping. I bought a very cheap digital watch because the watchband on my old very cheap digital watch broke, and it turns out that very cheap digital watchbands cost more than very cheap digital watches. We poked around the farmers market and the grocery stores, which were simultaneously modern and primitive, buying some snacks for the room. We also purchase the mandatory “Bula Shirts”, which to my eye bore an uncanny resemblance to Aloha wear.

All the shops we entered, without exception, were run by Indians showing the usual Hindi indications, yet many also had Christian paraphernalia (afixed Jesuses and Mary-on-the-half-shells) prominently displayed, not for sale. In search of the proper size and color shirt, Frank was brought to the back room of one such establishment, where he uncovered a crowded sweatshop of several slowly blinding women toiling on the simple garb. “Bula!” he said, “Bula!” they replied. Life, indeed.

Frank picked up a copy of the Fiji Times, which was hard to find because the circulation is about twelve. In it, there was a daily article listing the names and registration numbers of island drivers spotted driving in careless fashion, most frequently guilty of failing to signal a turn. It was called “Stop the Car-nage” or something like that. I suggested to Frank that if we rented a car, he might find his fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame here.

When we got back to Crusoe’s, the resort was abuzz with news of the tiger shark that the local villagers drove and speared. The gentleman staying in the bure adjacent to ours, Andrew by name, had been out kayaking at the time. He became a somewhat unwitting participant in subsequent round-up, describing his role in somewhat heroic terms, although the Fijian characterisation of his participation was “bait”. Initial reports put the beast at over three meters, and inventoried the contents of its gullet as a horses head, half a cow, and a number of unborn offspring.

By dinner, the shark was over five meters, JFK, Jr’s body was inside with a warning note from Jimmy Hoffa pinned to it, and both Richard Dreyfus and Roy Scheider had been sited in the area. All water sports were banned for a month by decree of the managerial fat white folk. As it turned out, a managerial fat white folk month lasts exactly two days.

We joined Andrew and his travelling companion Darryl for dinner. They lived in Sydney, although Andrew was a Brit and Darryl a New Zealander. We had all traveled a fair bit, so we swapped stories until the conversation devolved into a recital of the shortcomings of Australia and Australians, this from two yanks, a pom and a kiwi all living there by choice. It was a lively evening for us, although the Australians within earshot may not have enjoyed it as much.

At daybreak Saturday, the sun appeared behind a light haze of cloud cover, suggesting it would clear to a fine day. It didn’t and wouldn’t, but we didn’t know that then, and elected to spend the day lounging at the resort.

With breakfast a newly arrived woman from Vancouver enthusiastically assailed us. I was in no condition for such bubbly exuberance. My despair evoked subtle smirks of delight from some of those seated adjacent to us at dinner the night before, who had, perhaps, less than warmed to our line of conversation. Natural justice, I guess.

Where do all these Canadians come from? Don’t get me wrong, Canadians are amongst the finest people out there. But three couples from Nova Scotia? I didn’t know there were three couples in Nova Scotia who could afford a trip to Fiji. By and large, the resort guests – and Fiji tourists in general, for that matter – were white English speakers. Mostly they hailed from Australia and New Zealand, which is understandable, given the proximity. There were plenty of Brits, also understandable considering they ran the world a hundred years ago, and still think they do. But few Americans, and a disproportionate number of Canadians, given there are ten times the number of Americans out there.

The day was more relaxing than I would have liked. For the most part it was spent staring longingly at things I could not have or use: the sun guarded by the clouds, the ocean guarded by tiger sharks, the catamaran guarded by swarthy Fijian resort staff. An occasional downpour vetoed any idea of extended outdoor activity.

One of things I like to do in foreign lands is tour the seat of government, most often the parliament. I asked the tour setter-upperrer at the front desk “Would it be possible to arrange for a tour of the Fiji Parliament?”

Her brow crinkled. “Tour the what?”

“The Fijian Parliament. In Suva.” I clarified. She left the desk without another word, going into a back office. Moments later the manager came out with a bemused smile asking “”What’s this then?”

“We were hoping to arrange a tour of the Fijian Parliament? Is it in session?”

He chortled. “Why would you want to do that?”

I explained that we liked to do, well, that.

“We can always arrange a car to take you there,” he said, starting to dial the phone.

“Whoa, whoa!” I implored, “Not this instant! I was thinking tomorrow or Monday – if there are tours. Is Parliament in session?”

He hung up the phone. “I have no idea. Let me make a couple calls, and I’ll let you know.”

Later at dinner he reported that he could get no answer at Parliament, and nobody had ever heard of a Fijian Parliamentary tour, much less anybody wanting to take one. So we didn’t. I’ve since regretted that, as it would have been interesting to see before the coup that would occur there only nine months later, led by one George Speight. But we’ll get to that.

Saturday at Crusoe’s Retreat was Lovo Night. Lovo is indigenous Fijian cuisine cooked in an earthen pit, along the lines of the Hawaiian luau, the Māori hāngi and the New England clam bake. Basically, we’re talking about chicken or fish wrapped in palm fronds or banana leaves cooked in a pit lined with hot rocks. Various root veggies (cassava, dalo, uvi) get thrown in, too, creating a balanced if somewhat bland meal.

And so ended our bland day. The sun will come out tomorrow. Annie promises.

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