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The Dashing Life and Exuberant Times of Brian Harrison....And Other Rare Anecdotes

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Escaping an Arranged Marriage

One more story, one more narrative, on this spectacular little island that I have focused so much on...and then I shall move on to other things and shut up about my stay in Fiji. One such story cannot afford to go unrelated for it involves the rare and random incident that one only hears about in certain cultures that a person, from our Western world, hardly comes into contact with, or for that matter hardly ever is given the very option of going through. Well, I chance had that option before me. Nearly thrust upon me, which i declined with good reason. What I turned down...a chance to arrange my own marriage with the father of a woman I didn't know.

It all was to go down place in Nadi. A nice, bustling town on the western side of Fiji. A carnival was going on. A Fijian fair with the few ferris wheels lording over the palm trees and the ice cream trailers melting its goods in the balmy heat. People flocked from all over the island for this celebration. "The Bulah Festival" it was called. I liked to walk about the premises taking in all the sights. Wondering if I could convince the officials at constructing a dunking booth for myself, where I'd sit within and mock all the people going by to throw balls at me. Above me the sign would read, "The loud, obnoxious American." As the phrase fits the stereotype.
But somewhere along the carnival lights and clamor, I befriended a young Hindu man of about my age who was cooking BBQ for the festivities. He invited me to eat dinner at his house that evening. And knowing the full hospitality of the Fijians, whether indigenous or not, I consented.

That evening I shared dinner with his family. His mother, brother and sister. And made great connections, had bonded so well that I could only assume that the hospitality of the Melanesians-Fijians are almost rivaled by the other large population of the island, the Indian-Fijians. The next morning in my hostel room. I get a knock on my door, it was this fellow and a friend desiring to use my shower, because of the festival they had spent the night on the fairgrounds. I let them in and they were just as grateful desiring that i should certainly come by their BBQ booth where they would feed me for lunch.

About 1 oclock, I walk up to the the BBQ section of the carnival. The hot meat smoking on the grills. The scent so alluring to my nostrils and the smoke wafting into the tropic day, I approached their booth very naturally. They immediately sit me down in a chair back behind the booth and heap BBQ steak after steak onto my plate. All the while my hands getting messy and greasy, the only sacrificial ritual towards BBQ. I talk with this new fellow who is at the front table. I ask him how old he was...he tells me 38. At the time, I thought he said 28. So when he flipped the question around to me, I told him I was the same age as he. This was confusion for both of us. For he thought it strange for me not to be married at the age of 38. And I thought it strange for him to have a 16 year old son at the age of 28. So you can see how communication becomes thwarted. He then asked me the golden question if I wished to ever get married. I answered lackadaisically, "One day". He then asked me if I would be opposed to looking at any Fijian for a wife. Knowing the fun this might produce with the shrug of the shoulders, I answered, "Sure. Why not."
A murmur was heard throughout the booth. One middle-aged Indian man with a beard stuck his head over to the booth talking to my previous partner in conversation. He was told that I was single, an American, and that I was looking. This man's eyes widened in his head and he stroked his beard and he turned to me and spoke, "Hello, if want you should visit my daughters at the BBQ booth a few booths down. There you can have a look at one of my daughters and we can talk business. Okay? She is a good Muslim woman." At this slight description of her he beamed with pride.
"Okay", extremely desirous of going through with at least the business talk of this little adventure that presented itself to me. So I finished chomping down my BBQ steak and wiping the BBQ from my fingers marched down to where this Muslim had his daughter.

She was standing at the table placing salads on plates. She didn't even look up at me as I walked in. The bearded father shook my hand and made me sit down in a chair. "My name is Ali and I am Muslim. This is...(Forgive me, I can't remember her name)...my daughter. She is 24 and would make a perfect wife. And this is (Another name I can't remember) my daughter of 18 years of age." I met his wife as well.

I decided to hone in on the oldest daughter for the business discussion, however much I wasn't ever going to go through with the seal of the deal. "Well, do you like what you see?" He asked me.

I couldn't even see her face. Her back was turned to me. Her head cast down, completely ignoring the fact that she was on the auction block. Her mind seeming to be cast into the ancient feminine world of shredded cabbage and diced carrots. She wasn't a ravishing beauty but she definitely wasn't ugly. Her long dress fell upon her in tresses towards her ankles. Forgive me, I couldn't even make out if she had a nice backside or not. "Yeah, she's cute." I shoot back to her father.

Well, then all that is needed then is a small negotiation of a dowry, a plan for the wedding, and you to convert to Islam, etc. He sounded off this as though, it was a daily to-do list. I smiled.
He spoke up, "I know that most American guys are good guys. That they take care of their wives. I had a niece who married an American guy and they live in California now, and it was a good match. So I know that you will look after her. What do you think?"

"What's her personality like?"
"Well, she really would like to live somewhere overseas." That was all. That was all he could think to say about his daughter.

This daughter, meanwhile, was turning a stereo on and popping in this CD of Arabian techno music. Her movements and the way she entirely ignored the conversation that we were having about her, seemed to exude this extreme scorn straight at me. As though she held nothing but contempt for me. Wow, in America this phase doesn't cut in til after the stupid lovesick phase. At least that's been my experience. Here she was being absolutely consistent straight at the get-go.

I spoke up to the father, "I find it funny that I haven't even spoken to her yet."
"In our culture, the girl will not speak to us until we place a little roll of cash in her hand. It is our custom."
"Did you go through this same thing with your wife? Do you talk to her father just like this"
"Yes, of course." He rose clutching a benevolent hand upon his wife. They both beamed together. And he said, "Right now, you should go. Enjoy the festival. Tonight you come back here and we drink kava and we really talk business and we get this wedding nailed down. Okay?"
"Okay. See you."

I left his tent and wandered about the festival, I made a special note to myself not to even venture on that side of the carnival for the rest of my stay in Fiji.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nightly Wanderings

The worst, most horrible, detestable thing about village life in Fiji and probably any village for that matter, could be summed up into one thorough category...or one object, one creature, of which in my travels, I keep running across over and over again. And it still hails me in a full-throttled cocky manner. What else? But that of a rooster. Or roosters plural. For with this loathsome poultry, the village I was staying at in Fiji, the village of Yavuna, had many. Now, mind you, if you do keep up with my lengthy scribblings, which I commend your patience and stalwartness for, you will remember that not long ago, on another island, Waiheke in New Zealand, I had the exquisite luck to make my bedding right where a lone rooster, a single poultron of exuberant noise and pride, launched his cuckoos into the early morning air. Well, that was nothing...This feathered vagrant numbered only one and at least with his exuberance, he kept it to only a few cocks at specific times in the mornings. Mainly 4:30 and 6:00.

But with this little boisterous colony of male-chickens in this Fijian village, the crowing times began at 4:30 and lasted incessantly until the sun was well up, say about 7:30. And there would be no stopping. The roosters knew no such thing as an intermission in their operas of the gray dawn. They were in steady yet belligerent competition with one another. There were several of these red-crested minstrels stationed throughout the village. Probably on each side. And one would crow, the others would sound off their reply in uproarious cry after one another. I swear they must've been carrying on full-scale conversations, but seeing how they uttered the same "cockadoodle-doo", I don't see what could be communicated here.

Some of these roosters hung in trees. The one closest to our hut sat perched up in a tree next to a little cliff that dropped to the river below. I only know this because after waking up the second morning, and after the turmoil of wrapping my pillow around my head and not being able to fall asleep again with the loud cries long before the sun was up, and unable to sustain the anger that I noticed surging in my sleepless veins, I ripped out of the mosquito netting, dropped down from my bunk bed, half hoping not to wake up the village family that was so kind at taking me in. And in a murderous march, I darted towards the village trail from where the nearest rooster sat proudly jeering in the darkness, and picked up a rock and in a fit of rage hurled the stone at the rooster. Such vehement abuse quelled the bird from his luxurious calls and sent him into a half-silent clucking. I could've cared less if I had sent that rooster off his branch to the river below and to death. It was only after my irate stone-pitching that I noticed the neighboring village hut across the way where a lady sat outside fully awake and probably taking notice to my violent deed. Oh well, maybe I was doing what she had always wanted to do. The rooster remained silent the rest of the morning. He was still alive just reticent. Thank God.

I remember going back to bed and seeing the lady of the house, a large, homely Fijian lady sprawled out in the middle of what would be their living room. For some strange reason they kept the overhead light on; they even had electricity to do so. A boy lay on the mat nearby. The woman looked like she had been TKO in the last round of fight that had taken place in her house. I recall shutting the hut door as quietly as I could, not to disturb anyone, observing how awkward their sleep habits were when she ripped one just as I was nearly stepping over her to get to the partition where my bunk bed lay. I shooked my head, half laughing to myself.

The morning before I took the more passive approach and decided to only extract myself form the sound of the roosters. So I went on an early morning jaunt. The village lay at the extremity of this one dirt road which lead to Nadi. However, the dirt path continued to lead further up into the mountains. So before the sun was visible, right when the stars were still winking their last flirtations to the darkened seas below them, I hastened out of the village careful of preserving the secrecy of my escapade. But I had no worries of that. Everyone else, all the villagers, were flung into the vicinities of unassailable sleep, completely oblivious to the roosters crowing. Familiarity is a deafening thing.

The moon was out. And I had the auspicious luck to make it to Fiji just in time for the full moon. So everything was enlivened with this moon-glistening effect that sets all of nature aglow into this phosphorent portrait. Here in these moments under such moonbeams, the color silver seems to be given breath and breathe life into the the magnificent objects underneath. From a rising in the land, the entire sky and land, is charged with these vitalized brushstrokes of silver coolness and hushed, timid radiance. The winds wafts and pulls the tops of trees as a cellist gently strokes the strings of his cello, and creates this truly remarkable spiritual timbre. Such is the silent music created on such moon-drunk nights. And such is my anticipation to go on walks with nothing but silence, nature, and the moon's steady vigilance of fresh solitude and silver dreams.

But the night is not long in its mystic spell, pretty soon the sun hauls himself above the ground, shadows dissapate, the stars all dwindle away, and the moon hides, everything becomes more actual. I thought that I would stay out away from this village and watch the sunrise pour like molten gold through the crevices of these tropical mountains, but it was taking way too blasted long for it to rise above them. My reflections drifted back to the village. "I bet they would think it the strangest thing, a person going off by himself into nature." I thought to myself. It occured to me how communal village life was. People don't wander off by themselves in such societies. No, it is very possibe that these people are living out a life that our ancestors were akin to. Not in a matter of lack of technology nor education. They have sufficient amount of these. But more in the way they saw themselves in their world. Their ideas on the self, the individual, and their community. I would suspect that the Fijian villager does not fret over the same isolation that our western society skulks along in. Yes, that unconscious prodding that is at the hearts of all of us. -That enstrangement that is so prevalent in our world. Estrangement from each other, from nature, from our very selves. Yes, man was never much interested in going off into the woods alone, climbing mountains, and reconnecting with nature until after the Industrial Revolution. The solace-seeking romantic is a recent invention. I thought, "How funny I must seem towards these people if they knew that I delighted in going off by myself." I don't know if it is in their natures to understand how sick of information, consumerism, and just all around data a person can be where going back into the remnants of something pristine and divine and unsubmerged with the choking ideologies of our lives. How beautiful it must be to live a life like these people do. Except for those damn roosters.

Later, I found out what a dangerous foray I was taking on my nightly saunterings, when sitting at an enormous kava-drinking ceremony, several of the young buck villagers asked me if we had alot of stray dogs in America that could be sent over. I asked him why. (Hoping he won't refer to any type of dish that I might have just eaten). When his reply intrigued me greatly, "We use them to hunt wild boar."
Out in the forest, it is a favorite pasttime of the men to get on horses and accompanied with a large pack of dogs go hunting these fierce hogs with nothing in regards to weaponry, but spears. Yes, spear-hunting wild boars! I really wanted to go. But you see, they are a bit lax in the enthusiasm of taking someone new and someone unaccostumed to this practice. If your horse throws you off, which it could do, not knowing very well its rider, then you are at extreme mercy of the boars. Of course you would have your spear. But someone not exactly a master at spearing anything...much less a wild, tusked creature who would like nothing more to do but slash you open with one of those tusks...you can see how bloody this could be and how reluctant the villagers would be at taking me on such a quest. The boar I found out roam at large the entire wilderness area and myself traveling away from the village is a risk at ending any nocturnal romp tragically, I being on foot and unarmed.

...still, still more to come....

Monday, August 04, 2008

Village Life

All eyes were upon me as I walked with the girl and her mother into the village. Kids grinning, old folks waving, even the village fowls seemed to cluck their generous welcome...maybe I'm exaggerating a bit here. But there was one slight problem, I had to urinate like a race horse as the expression goes...I had to urinate 20 minutes ago while I sat almost hearing the contents of my bladder sloshing around on the bouncy bus. And with the crowd that enveloped me, never would I be alone to relieve myself. What made it even more awkward was the 14 year old girl, Mimsy, followed my every step as though it was her duty to shadow everywhere I went. I had to tell her directly, "Before I go meeting everyone in this village, I really need to to go the toilet." Thinking that she would leave me alone to water a tree. But no, she did the civilized thing, and showed me to her family's outhouse. She must have thought I was quite the savage wanting to empty my bladder on her village's main highway...a dusty trail.

This was after I had seen her and her mother's lodgings and had been shown the living room where I was to make my bed. The house had one main room, like a living room. Large woven bamboo mats covered the entire floor. This was where everyone mostly sat, though there was one chair in this main room and a couch; everyone still made use of the mats. The room also had a large sheet or curtain that divided where all the beds were situated. In another hut, sharing the same roof was the dining room and two other beds. Outside was the cooking room, were the fire was lit for all the serious cooking. And then the outhouse behind that. The walls of the house were made out of the this bamboo or coconut woven material as well. Though the roof was tin, not thatch.

They made me sit down and rest, an act that Fijians can be pretty strict about, and next I was to go and present the kava to their chief in a special ceremony, that I can't remember the Fijian name for. It is truly something to be in a society where peoples lives aren't too busy in order to hold ceremonies completely unplanned for. Just how unbusy this chief was, I soon found out. For when Mimsy, walked me to the chief's hut, I found him prostrate on the floor waking up from a nice little nap, he had on those same mats that I found on the floor of every Fijian's house. Near him lay this little boy sprawled out almost lifeless in his sleep. The chief introduced himself as Chief Samuel. He had this squint in one of his eyes and a full-going moustache that is typical of Fijian men. He sat up sluggishly and got his wife to bring the large kava bowl, as I lay before him the bag of powdered kava.

Please excuse this bit of disrespect, but the chief's wife had to be the ugliest woman I've ever seen in a long while. But as I found out, she was in a staggering competition for that title with several of the wives of other Fijian men. I'm almost to the point of suspecting that the men pride themselves on the obtaining of ugly spouses, or perhaps their idea of physical beauty does not conform to our concepts of that notion. Besides however unattractive the older Fijian women of a village were, their inner beauty, devotedness, and motherly charm more than compensated for this lack of pleasant-lookingness.

Cross-legged I sat on the mat with Chief Samuel while we downed the kava and he told me a bit of the history of Fiji and was glad to inform me that back in the early days, me wandering into their village, a big feast was sure to be entertained and I would be the main course. For only about 150 years ago or so, Fijians were considered the world over for being the most voracious cannibals. "Yes," he told me, "people would have traveled from miles around to taste your fair flesh."
Thank God for the missionaries, for this horrid practice has long since been abandoned and now the current indigenous Fijians are the most devout Christians. Methodists they all are, and every village has a quaint little church building where the villagers assemble and sing in gorgeous voices about the love of God.
I found out later that Chief Samuel was Pentecostal although the entire village of Yavuna was Methodist. At least even in the strange happenings of the Pentecostals eating other people is frowned upon.

I sat with Samuel for a good while. But the sun was still blazing this beautiful color that always amazes me in any country in the world during the late afternoon. And I was desirous of exploring the village more. Chief Samuel would have sat and talked with me and drank kava for the rest of the night and day, had I been so inclined, but I think he sensed my restlessness and bade for Mimsy to take me around and give me a tour of the village, while he returned to his nap.

Mimsy did show me around. But this wasn't much else to see. A church, a large field, several other huts and buildings. And then she showed me her father's tomb. For little did I know, but her father had passed away several years ago leaving a wife, 2daughters and a son. And still these folks, the Sautonia family, had taken me in and were busy fixing a big dinner for themselves and their unexpected guest.

That night a group of children were playing about the Sautonia house and I began to draw cartoon pictures for them. "What's your favorite animal?" I'd ask. "A tiger." the child would utter. I would sketch a cartoon one for them and they'd crowd around me drawn in by this entertainment. When dinner was ready, the Sautonia family sat around a large dining table with ample enough of rice and vegetables to feed all ourselves and 3 others. Even with food shortages in the world, the Fijian people never starve. Yes, they may not own huge houses and cars. But they believe that they are blessed more than enough. They always have enough to eat. And their life is a simple and non-stressful one on a tropical island. I sat with Mimsy, Maves (her sister), their mother, and Junior the little brother who was about 4 or 5. The mother asked me to say the prayer and afterwards we talked and how beautiful, how remarkably wonderful these people are. Here I am, a person from a land where we horde more dollars in our bank accounts than these people make in years, and here they are feeding me dinner, urging me on to seconds and thirds, for absolutely free.
Shortly after dinner, a bell rings. This bell indicates that it is time for the village devotional that they have every night. And on this night, the entire village is to assemble together, though this particular night there was an exception because a very old and well-venerated Fijian passed away. And this night many of the elders of the village were not present but were going around to various other villages on foot, announcing the funeral and burial times. So no devotional time this first night. It wasn't long after that we were urged off to bed shortly after 9. My bed was on the top bunk above Mimsy and Junior were sleeping. They even made a mosquito net for me. I laid there for the next few hours until I finally got to sleep.

More to come...