07. It’s Nice to be Needed

  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

Clara had left the house by the time we got back. She had seemed a bit distracted the night before, and even a little run down. That was unusual for her, Clara being one of those enviable persons who take everything in stride, at least insofar as all of us less enviable persons can tell.

Who could blame her? The Fijian Women’s Foundation (FWF) she had volunteered to help was clearly in need of it, running her ragged. Her recent bout of mosquito-borne dengue fever, not an unusual event in Fiji, hadn’t made things any easier. While her case did not develop into its life-threatening form, it was nevertheless debilitating for a spell, with the lesser but long-lingering after-effects still a nuisance.

To top it all off, Clara had found herself on the receiving end of a “tsunami of grief”, as she put it. One of the FWF’s founding members, a legendary figure in human rights movements throughout the Pacific, had recently passed away. It fell upon Clara to arrange a simple thanksgiving and celebration of the deceased’s considerable life achievements – with two hundred of her dearest admirers.

That event was this afternoon.

“It’s nice to be needed…” Clara had said with a shrug the previous evening.

We showered and made ourselves presentable, near we could figure. This wasn’t to be a funeral, but then again it wasn’t a beach party, either. It was, however, in Fiji, where semi-formal means you need to cover your knees. For all its flowery flamboyance, Bula-wear, the Fijian equal to Hawaii’s Aloha-wear, is actually quite conservative, with hemlines below the knee, few bare shoulders, and high necklines.

Frank told Aydell we’d meet him and Clara at the hotel venue around two o’clock for the three o’clock event, “Just in case Clara needs some help setting up.”

“That’s good,” Aydell replied with a knowing smile, “Clara will appreciate that.”

First, we wanted to check out downtown Suva. As we walked there that Sunday morning, one church hall after another resounded of the hymns howled by the flocks within. Every conceivable team of the Christian league had an arena and plenty of fans, and all of them took their Christianity seriously, from the sounds of things.

Having read several guidebooks and websites on Suva, I was rather wary, as they all seem to give grave warnings about crime. The advice made references such as:

  1. “Beware vice activities” (I wish);
  2. “Don’t be too friendly” (this has never been an issue for me);
  3. “Grabby Fijian Men” (see response to number 1 above); and,
  4. “The appearance [of] street walkers offering sexual services/massage to anyone passing by is a nuisance and a disgrace on a street named after an Empress of the British Empire.” (good point!)

If crime is a problem in Suva, I saw no sign of it. Sure, there are unscrupulous vultures purveying tourist crap taking advantage of too willing idiots ashore from the cruise ship in port. But that is a longstanding tradition, and just as life should be, in my humble opinion.

It has been suggested that The Commodore-led crackdown on crime has cleaned up the streets. I am always skeptical when any government claims to fix anything with something called a “crackdown”. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t have been necessary. No, more likely, street crime was never very bad, and to the degree it has improved, it is attributable to a more stable economy. For that, I may give The Commodore some credit.

Suva really is a city, though, albeit a small one. The streets of the central business district are lined by buildings several stories high, with nearby Suva Central towering sevenIMG_3375teen floors above all. Some of the buildings are of colonial era design, wooden structures with inviting verandas, but mostly they are modern buildings fulfilling the modern needs of their modern clientele.

The sprawling market and massive bus terminus are a constant whirlwind of activity, hard by the docks. There cruise ship passengers can access the foreshore esplanade by running a gauntlet of street vendors of questionable repute hawking wares of undoubted worthlessness. The foreshore esplanade is a beacon for the recreationIMG_3381 and relaxation of the locals, where they picnic and promenade, fish and fester in détente with rubbish and rubble.

None of central Suva is very pretty, and much of it borders on seedy, a source of distress and fear for some visitors. One can see why most tourists might direct themselves elsewhere. Happily, I am not most tourists, having a healthy appreciation of the seedy.IMG_3455

After a bit of shopping – stocking up on Bula-wear — we arrived at the venue a little earlier than planned. The hotel, owned by the FWF but operated by a commercial tenant, has pride of place in Suva with a magnificent waterfront location. At a glance it appears desperately in need of attention. All five stories of its brutish concrete exterior were black with mould, or “concrete cancer” as a passer-by commented upon seeing me stare at it, slack-jawed.

We entered through the bar, where things looked better maintained. With some time on our hands we decided to have a beer, but the only person in the place was a lone patron slumped over a beer, his head drifting inches above the bar, face down. After assessing the situation, we started searching for the bartender. Finding no one, I announced “Hello?” at an audible level, hoping somebody might appear from some undetected back room. No luck. Eventually our activity interrupted the sole patron’s reverie. He surmised our intentions, blurting with a slurred Aussie accent “He’s at lunch, mate.”

I looked at my watch – it was 1:30 pm. With no beer in sight, we went in search of the front desk. That was staffed by a young woman who had never heard of the Fijian Women’s Foundation or Clara, and knew nothing about any function for two hundred at 3 pm. Were we in the wrong hotel? Allowed to use the hotel telephone for a local call, we called Clara on her mobile. Seconds later she was standing behind us, chatting to us on her mobile.

“I was upstairs.” she deadpanned. “C’mon.”

Clara led us up a flight of stairs to the function room where we found Aydell hard at work, setting up chairs. A lonely lectern with microphone stood in front, its electrical cables dangling out of reach of any power point. A projector, projection screen, a couple tables, signs and various decorations lay stacked and bundled in a corner, awaiting attention.

“Aren’t we expecting a couple hundred people here in an hour?” I asked, perplexed.

Before Aydell could answer, Frank’s years of experience in the hospitality business kicked in. “Aren’t the hotel staff supposed to be doing that?” he intoned in an even but irked manner.

“Good to see ya!” Aydell replied. “To answer both questions, this is Fiji. A three o’clock start means most of them will arrive around four. And yes, the hotel staff is supposed to be doing this, which is why we should get on it right away.”

Aydell and I went downstairs to lug another load of chairs up. Frank tracked down some hotel staff – an achievement in itself – and began issuing orders. Initially, the staff was gob smacked at a stranger telling them what to do and how to do it. But do it they did, without complaint or attitude. Before long they seemed grateful to have somebody giving them direction of any kind. Meanwhile, Aydell and I took to sorting out the audio-visual component of the function, a task clearly beyond the skill set of the hotel staff, or Frank for that matter.

By three-thirty, the chairs were in place, the microphone, laptop, projector and screen functioning, the décor hung, the remembrance wall erected — everything was ready. As Aydell had predicted, the only guests who had arrived were two older Australian ladies. But at five past four it was as if a bell went off, the locals began streaming in by the dozen. By quarter past four the place was packed – we had to make another chair run – and the ceremony commenced.

It was a huge success. As happens at such events, lots of wonderful things were said about the dead person of honour. Unusually, evidence was presented to show that this particular dead person deserved to have lots of wonderful things said about her. Through the slide shows and testimonials it became obvious she was a lesbian – indeed her lifelong partner gave one of the testimonials. The intimate nature of their relationship was deftly skirted passed, time and again, with a mixture of respect and avoidance. Those who felt their Christianity required them to remain oblivious were allowed that luxury.IMG_3414

Afterwards there was a more informal gathering offering food and drink in the hotel bar. The hotel handled that quite competently, which is more than can be said for how some of the participants handled their drink (exceptionally, myself NOT included).

A singing group of five men that had performed at the ceremony joined us for the after-drinks. One of them, who sang the alto-soprano parts in falsetto, had an overwhelmingly feminine persona: make-up, hairstyle, dress, mannerisms, attitudes, and, of course, voice. Anywhere else I would have called this gent “Miss”, which is generally proper etiquette to show respect for serious drag queens. But this man was no drag queen, he was just extraordinarily feminine.

The Samoans have a word for this, Fa’afafine – or “Fafa” – men raised as females who identify with that gender. It is reported that in Polynesia this occurs when a family has numerous sons and no daughters, so determines to raise one of the boys as a girl. They say the Fafa generally are not gay, although most “have relationships with heterosexual men.”

Yeah, I am a bit confused, too. I have yet to find anyone who knows firsthand of this familial construct actually existing in Fiji, so I tend to dump it in the “urban myth” bucket. Yet, there is no denying that there are a significant number of men in Fiji who have adopted femininity as their lifestyle. Contrary to the Fafa construct, many of these “lady-boys” (as the Thai call them) are subject to the disapproval and abuse of their families and peers, an unfortunately familiar scenario. Even so, they seem to exist, even thrive, in public life, professional roles and church groups here.

Culture is a very strange thing indeed. And it’s nice to be needed.

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