Food

An emotional, highly anticipated return to Nakavika

An emotional, highly anticipated return to Nakavika

Returning to my first lemon leaf tea in five years, I happily settled on the grass mat with a Christmas mug. I was nearly out of the emotional woods with this favorite, sweet elixir and a few cold pancakes. I sighed and scanned the room, finally noticing two photos taped to the wall, one of my mother in the snow and another of my grandmother holding my baby niece. I should have just accepted that a breakdown was inevitable.

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Reunited with the Fiji of my dreams in the markets of Suva

Reunited with the Fiji of my dreams in the markets of Suva

I reacted in amazement before the information reached my brain: Siteri was standing in front of me...at the market in Suva...spotted me the moment I arrived with no other knowledge than my flight time. I guess I could have anticipated this crossing of paths in retrospect, because we had been connecting on Facebook, little blue lines coming onto my screen from a dream I once had. Regardless of the plausibility of the chance encounter, I was now face-to-face with tangible evidence of my long and confusing stint in Fiji, a time I still chew on in my mind for more clarity and takeaways. Her name is Siteri, and she is my umbilical cord to Nakavika.

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The flow of a Fijian funeral: Day 52

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It didn't matter how many times people clarified the schedule for the funeral arrangements, they never began at the designated time. It wasn't about timing, though. It was about flow. Only when one group assembled could they continue with the next event, and with weather that echoed the widow's eyes, every moment was contingent on the skies. Being three foreign individuals unfamiliar with "the flow," we had to shuffle and scurry across the village to capture the sudden moments that would unfold in front of our eyes.

The funeral days commenced, and the village became a complete organism that moved in harmony with all elements. All we could do was observe and document.

My Bovine Faux Pas

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The day Elias returned to the village, the clouds released their girdles and let it all hang out, much like the post-cyclone days of '09. The boys of the village prepared to help truck loads of relatives traverse Namado's cavern, which was slowly being covered with dirt in the first step of building the new bridge. I'm guessing this isn't often said: the Fijian government had good timing in starting this project.

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I was rushed to the scene with camera in hand, having been told Elias was approaching and I needed to capture his coffin coming over the dirt bridge. The crowds coagulated on both sides. The dirt turned to mud. Insects feasted on our waterlogged feet. An hour passed, and the only news I heard hinted the truck carrying his body hadn't even made it past the first bridge on its inland journey.

Desperately grasping for timeliness rather than flow, I left the dripping spectators for my weekly call with home. I dangled my feet out of the doorway, phone to ear:

Mom, there is a cow staring at me right now. She's huge and black and standing in the rain. I think she's about to meet her maker. They already killed one cow today. I taped the whole thing. It was thoroughly disturbing.

...I think she knows I'm talking about her. She looks worried.

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Having already witnessed one cow's demise that day, I couldn't have been paid to observe the second. Those twenty-five minutes of bone crunching and joint popping made me wonder, "When on Earth would I ever need all this raw footage of a cow slaughtering?"

The children crowded around the camera, one holding an umbrella to cover its weather-weary body and all filling my headphones with snickering and foreign whispers. I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish by putting a wireless mic on a guy doing the killing. The sounds were beyond the worst from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The most upsetting moment came a few hours later, when I was told to join Garrett in the community hall for a communal meal. As I stood at the threshold, slipping off my flip-flops, Garrett tried to get my attention and persuade me subtly to not enter the room. He knew I would have some hesitation with the meal of cow innards he was working on. Confused, I motioned I'd see what Jackie is doing, but the surrounding boys knew what I was trying to avoid.

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We offended them. Abel came running outside to see why I didn't join them, and when he realized what Garrett had hinted, he was thoroughly ashamed. The stress on Abel's shoulders melted into his words, and I felt like the worst guest in the world. Our maneuver wasn't blatant, but the boys knew us well enough by then. I walked away crying, knowing I had let my hosts down in the worst way on the worst day for errors.

I'm no Bourdain or Zimmern. I am far from possessing a truly adventurous palate. To err in this way is among my biggest travel fears.

Elias' Last Hours in the Sun

The village illuminated the Highlands that night. Few eyes rested, as it is tradition to stay awake on the last night with the deceased. I was milked by the day and collapsed in my room to the sounds of singing and bugs buzzing around the lights, while the rest of the community continued to move their minds past shock to acceptance.

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In the morning, Abel brought us to the hall again for a communal breakfast of tea and crackers. I sensed some action afoot, grabbed the camera, and poised myself outside the neighbor's house along with everyone else, just in time to see the casket emerged from its woven bamboo walls. Six of our friends hoisted it into the air, grabbing hold by the mat that cradled the entire vessel.

Stopping their procession in the middle of the village, the pallbearers lifted Elias above their heads, and his family and mourners began to bawl, passing under him in what was surely a monumental moment in the entire process.

Something caught in my throat, from behind the camera. I was witnessing a distant culture reveal itself in raw form. The ladies howled, hands atop their fluffed hair, and I shivered under the sweat coating my body. Wow.

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The service was long, set to the sounds of belted harmony. A ribbon of people followed the casket from the church to the cemetery. Standing in a cathedral of leaves, we watched the widow and her eight children part with their father, many of their cries hitting high decibels.

Vittorina's body heaved and shook against my legs, as she stepped back and sat, watching her cousins, sons, and nephews lower her husband's body into the ground. Feeling her crouching frame against mine, it was unbearable to imagine the pain encapsulated within the adjacent skin. I cried for her pain, for the unfelt sorrow of her youngest children, and the next funeral I know I'd be soon attending.

And with that, it was over. People left the grave-peppered jungle floor to down more kava.

WARNING: Disturbing visuals of a cow slaughter from 1:39 - 2:15.

Any comments, questions, or anecdotes to share about any experience like this, your's or our's? Please let us know.

When in Raki, dive like the locals dive: Day 31

When in Raki, dive like the locals dive: Day 31

I had never loved baked beans more than at breakfast that morning. Along with my scrambled eggs and tomatoes, everything tasted beyond satisfying. I was floating. I couldn't even eat the entire plate because my stomach had shrunk to the size of a guava. Ordering water, I received a sweating 1.5 liter of Fiji, no floaties, no mysterious colors, no hurricane residue. I sunk into the plush leather chair, admiring every smooth square inch, until we went for the beach.

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Independence in a Communal Society: Day 39

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Returning after our holiday, we had not only our backpacks but boxes worth of books, school supplies, and ingredients for a week of comforting menu items. Fane gave us no hint as to when she would return to the village, and we were given permission to run her household to our liking, to cook and clean for ourselves. After being dependent on others for a month, we came back with something to prove to the village.

Making the Exotic Familiar

Ten days of tourist comfort reminded Garrett and me how much we yearned for the familiar: reasonably pure water, meals with lots of protein, comfort foods, and clothing that had even the slightest resemblance to clean. Instead of being reluctant to return to the adventure, we decided to find a new comfort with what Fiji provided; however, this also meant we took a turn for the debatably worse. Thankfully we didn't let the others closely witness the change, but we took it...there.

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We became 'Mericans. Throwing our backs into the job of tidying the house, we scrubbed nature raw, paving paradise...in the 'Merican way. Taking the pure produce of the Highlands and frying it into submission, we cooked with Fijian ingredients...in the 'Merican way. Positioning our laptops near our work stations, we performed household duties while bouncing around in shorts listening to Lil' Wayne embrace obscenity...just like the 'Merican way prescribes.

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Occasionally, we had a visiting mother come see what we were up to, curious as to why every piece of flatware spread across towels to dry in the hesitant breeze. The kids were ever-inquisitive, asking to play cards in our main room or shoot pool just to be in the presence of the beats. Most of the villagers found it surprising that we cared enough to scrub the walls and floors until the original colors were visible. It did seem a bit odd to make viciously clean what was nearly submerged in pure nature, but we were tired of being told not to do what seemed natural to us.

We wanted to feel comfortable, like ourselves, and because we had each other, we found an excuse to escape from the Fijian experience in our own American oasis.

Walking a Fragile Cultural Line

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In the mornings, we were summoned by the neighbor children to come have breakfasts of scones, crackers, and tea. Though the fluffy scones in coconut cream were our favorite, we often wanted to experience our own breakfast routine (and infuse secret peanut butter into the menu).

Careful to not be offensive, we often explained that we'd already begun preparations of our own breakfasts of beans or oatmeal, sure to express our gratitude for the offer. The mothers always seemed pensive but understanding of our independence - we hoped our wild excitement for Fijian jobs well done would be endearing to them - but we soon felt them pull away and leave us alone for good.

Coming from a culture that encourages independence, we had trouble understanding why they didn't find our domestic attempts flattering. We mimicked their cleaning patterns and adopted the motherly civilities, like acknowledging everyone by name as they strolled by the house. The 'Merican oasis soon withered and became something akin to a typical household, as my sulu returned and Garrett took up manly duties.

When someone asked for help or a tool, we supplied them with what they wanted. And we continued to eat one or so meals a day at another person's house, in order to be social and imply our continued need and appreciation for their hospitality. We still had a desire to be a part of the communal atmosphere.

However, after a couple days of exercising our domestic capabilities, it felt as though we couldn't win both battles of comfort and acceptance. Our attempts to be comfortable while still submerged in another world were not universally well-received.

The Bi-Weekly Seminars

Even if our Martha Stewart tendencies didn't merit praise, we still thought our new adult classes would give us brownie points. We appointed Wednesday and Saturday nights as class nights, careful to swerve around rugby practices, processionals, committee meetings, and days when people typically went to the city.

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That first Wednesday, we spread the word: Tonight is Q&A Night! We were teaching their children throughout those summer days, and yet most of the parents didn't really know why we were there or what topics we discussed. Additionally, people always seemed to have questions on health, hygiene, money management, and so on.

9pm came and went, and not one adult showed up, even after we confirmed the event with many of the main figureheads in the community. We sat in Fane's freshly cleaned common room, thumbing the little pieces of paper and freshly sharpened pencils we had prepared for the onslaught of questions and opinions. A couple friends stopped by to see what we were doing. "We're waiting for some of the adults to show for our Question and Answer session." The boys suggested we invite ourselves to a kava session, or we wouldn't be speaking to anyone that night.

The adults were busy with kava, as they were most nights. There was no special occasion, simply the occurrence of dusk. We became an afterthought, and though we knew no one meant offense by their absence, we couldn't help but take some. Sick of the grog and its apparently necessary presence at every social gathering, we were not about to speak over the din of a kava party about matters of health.

We went to bed defeated, hopeful for success next time, and comforted by a spoonful of peanut butter in a spotless room.

And a flying fox in a palm tree: Day 25

And a flying fox in a palm tree: Day 25

Our rosy-nose expectations of the twelve days of Christmas made the final week leading up to the big day a little anticlimactic. How do we prepare for the event? What's going to happen? The rest of the villagers were jolly as ranchers but had no advice for us on how to infuse ourselves in the mix...aside from purchasing four sugar sweets and three Fijian hens for every child in town. We learned quickly that the children didn't know of Santa, nor did they receive presents for the occasion.

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Climbing mountains for funerals: Day 21

Climbing mountains for funerals: Day 21

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.

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