Climbing mountains for funerals: Day 21

Regardless of our desires to infuse routine into our Fijian lifes, the days always promised to be unpredictable. Waking up in the morning, I could lie in bed, staring at the illuminated ceiling and think:

Today, I could eat something crazy, go some where amazing, end up crying, hurt myself, receive a phone call, get charged by a wild boar, who knows...

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One such morning, Abel ordered us to grab our sulus and hiking shoes and head to Navunikabi, a village 8 km away by foot over the nearby bushy hills. His cousin had died.

Wobbling awkwardly in my rain boots, a favored hiking shoe when the soil is slick, I gritted my teeth as each of my open sores rubbed against the bending plastic with every lunge up the hill (darn you, tropical bacteria). We crawled over shattered bamboo patches, croutched through caves of foliage, weaved through tight openings in the trees, and slid down an extreme pitch to finally ford a river at the village's periphery.

I pulled off my rain boots to dry and was immediately carted off to the women's gathering, while Garrett walked toward a sea of men drinking kava. Moments later we both emerged from our respective houses, making lines to the home where the wake would take place - I in a sulu-i-ra sprayed with perfume (to wrangle a man, supposedly).

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Prior to entering the home housing the wake, the women were all smiles, picking their fluffy hairstyles round and rolling mats to present to the family of the deceased. Crossing the threshold, these same women crouched and sat in the closest space (the proper Fijian way) and began wailing into their handkerchieves. The sound was odd; I looked behind me subtly to see what it was. It didn't sound like crying - more like the way my brother used to mock me when I would get upset as a child. Someone flipped a switch, and these normally stoic and collected ladies were a mess. It was their time to mourn audibly. I don't think they get many opportunities.

The deceased was a woman of 88, her body still in Suva being prepared for the subsequent funeral. The mats sat in the center of the room next to the presiding villager holding a whale's tooth. I could only inquire about so many features of the visitation before I got into untranslatable territory. What I gathered was that the mats and whale's tooth went to the next of kin, which in this case was an uncle. Though this initially didn't make sense, a woman of 88 being survived by her uncle, I remembered Fijian siblings can span decades.

A woman of 88 passed away, and I was surrounded by sobbing. I couldn't help but think of my ailing grandma, who was turning 88 in a week, and I choked back the tears I know would have seemed odd in this setting coming from an outsider.

When my legs fell asleep, the women near me sensed my discomfort and assured that I could extend my legs. Of course, soon after, the kava bowl made its way to me, requiring that my tingling legs be sucked back in. It was a delicate dance in proper behavior, for Fijians often switch from informal to formal at a moment's notice and often hint the switch to you in the subtlest manner. Out, in, out in - it was hard to know when I was allowed to regain feeling in my lower half. I nearly toppled over, and the slow consumption of a narcotic didn't make it easier.

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Garrett sat next to the tallest man in the Namosi province, Phillip, a man I met on my first visit to Nakavika - a man I didn't imagine would be the tallest much longer, thanks to his ravenous appetite for nicotine. Grabbing my camera, Garrett went to see the body mass, formerly known as cow, be cut apart and prepared for visitors to take home in chunks. "What were we going to be eating..." was the question on our minds.

Thankfully, it wasn't the same organ soup the rest of the table received when lunch started. For the first time in a long time, we ate meat, actual muscle with protein and adequate energy, and the broth was delicious. Never mind that my stomach, thinking it went veggie, had quite a hassle digesting that throughout the next 24 hours.

We came, completely unprepared. We sat and watched, our eyes as wide as eggs. We ate, thankful for all the awkward, cultural situations that were avoided. We experienced a ritual that went completely over our heads. And when it was all over, we waded in the Luva, talking about life, culture, comfort, and death. A piggy squealed in the distance, being chanced by dogs and kids. He was about to join the likes of the cow.

Any questions about the rituals for a death of a highlander? Leave a comment!