Traditional Fiji is all about formalities, paperwork, and figurative curtseys. Sitting next to the Turaga ni Koro (village spokesman) one rainy afternoon, he invited us to come to the youth break-up party on Friday evening. The official invite came one hour later in the hands of one of his children. On a sheet of college-ruled paper, fit with addresses (and the village homes don't have addresses), full names, and dainty language, he asked us to be "honored guests" at the annual event where the youth members talk about their accomplishments and downfalls.
It was meant to be a fundraiser for their tele-center plans, but Cyclone Mick caused so much destruction in surrounding villages that no one else could make it for the event nor spare a dime for another cause.
Playing the Part
Around sundown, our host parents pulled out their dress clothes for us to sport: Garrett a pocket sulu and bula shirt, myself a sulu-i-ra (long shirt and matching skirt) with a shell necklace. We dressed by the light of our head lamps, and, once fully beautified, Fane sprayed me with a little perfume, as if she was sending me out pasture with the studs.
Our feet flopped carefully around the statuesque frogs in our path until we reached the community hall, where a dinner tablecloth ran the length of the entire building. Garrett was immediately asked to do the honor of mixing the kava, and I watched on with envy. Placing the dry, freshly-pounded powder in the thin sack, Garrett massaged the kava into the water being poured onto his hands. All the boys watched on as the amateur kava mixologist churned, each one of them insistent on dropping a morsel of advice into his ear.
Especially since we were cordially invited as honored guests, and thus had all eyes on us, I was a little worried about the contents of the meal - that is, until I saw it. A hearty amount of root vegetables loomed over scoops of taro leaves and coconut cream, chicken curry, and pork. We sat in front of two piled plates and waited for the go-ahead, which was apparently after a little more kava drinking and a speech from both of us.
I commented on the developments of the tele-center while Garrett thanked everyone for the food, and soon we were applauded and welcomed personally by the female youth representative. "Dig in" weren't her words verbatim, but the meaning pulled us to our plates like magnets. The moment we dug our fingers into the steaming food, every young male crowded around his own plate, girls continuing to serve and top off empty plates. Abel stared at me the entire time, as he found my eating style hilarious. My no-utensil eating skills were acquired in India; I only use my right hand. This is not the way in Fiji. A hand is meant for shoveling chow - both hands.
Thankfully, I loved the food, except for that which was still attached to the pork meat. Whether I was trained to be picky, ornery, or just plain conditioned to not like the tasty bits, I'm not sure why I couldn't ingest the inch-thick pig fat and skin still sitting on my plate. I wanted to offer it to someone else to avoid wasting or seeming unsatisfied with the food, but by the time I had finished my first serving of food, all the surrounding boys were wiping the sweat from their brows after consuming at least two and a half plates full.
Rubbing Their Noses In It
Within minutes of eating, the men returned to orbit the kava bowl, clapping and handing out multiple drinks, some the size of big cereal bowls (a.k.a. tsunami bowl). I watched on as they proved their manliness by ingesting large amounts of narcotic liquid, including Garrett who wanted to prove his peers he could handle their worst. I, on the other hand, couldn't get comfortable sitting in my dress on the ground, with the sores on my feet still exposed and tender thanks to the bacteria in the surrounding air, water, and earth.
One after another, the youth members spoke, either mumbling as they lounged against the wall or standing on their knees making echoes in the barren hall. We had no idea what they were announcing and speaking of for so long. Ben, sitting next to Garrett, made it his official duty to act as translator and guide to the proceedings, but the power of the kava brought him down into a state of numbness.
Eventually we discovered they were talking about the accomplishments of 2009 and what they hoped to accomplish in the following year. The women urged the young men to stop drinking kava recreationally, build their own homes, and find wives (as they're pressured to do by the age of 28). Ironically, it seemed the men were flying too high by this point to fully take in their cousins' criticisms. Another lesson lost. I didn't hear any arguments made by the men requesting the women do anything differently. Sadly, even though women are allowed and encouraged to go to tertiary school, it's not expected that they desire anything more than homemaking. Some men actually prefer an unambitious lady with stellar cooking skills and child-bearing hips.
Though the night was young for most of the men, for me it was old and feeble. I went to bed before midnight, hearing Garrett waltz in a couple hours later merely tipsy on hours of kava drinking time. Seven hours later, Abel came to bid us good morning and fall asleep on the floor. For some of the young men in the village, the night truly was infantile...and rum soaked.
What do you think of the events of the night? Any questions you have about Fijian formalities, dress, food, drink, or party etiquette? Leave a comment below!