With our bundles of yangona in hand, we climbed the path from the stone jetty to the village center on the ridge. In a grassy area south of the church, some men were assembling a "pavilion" with lashed bamboo posts and "rafters," topped by sheets of corrugated roofing clamped down with more bamboo poles. Beneath the finished part, a group of men were sitting around the tanoa (the kava bowl), and as we appeared someone ran for mats for us to sit on.
We'd arrived at the beginning of a busy time. On Thursday was scheduled the funeral of the wife of Aposai, a respected and educated village elder, and groups of guests were arriving – by boat and footpath – from all over the east end of Vanua Levu. Isei, the chief, came and sat with us over several rounds of kava, inquiring about our travels and talking business with Jim, only to be interrupted as new groups arrived.
As each group arrived, it approached the pavilion, set down the palm-leaf baskets of taro, cassava, and other foodstuffs they'd brought (which at least once included a squealing pig strung by its feet on a pole between two bearers), and sat down with a bundle of yagona identical to the one we'd brought laid on the ground front of the speaker. Isei would move to sit facing them and listen somberly to their petitionary speech. He then would deliberate a bit, because he has the right to accept or decline the offering, before finally answering equally formally and picking up the yagona.
The yagona ceremony is age-old. Many cruisers do not like it. Some don't like having to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and follow a particular protocol. They feel they have a universal right to go where they please once they've done the official paperwork, and most of the world indulges them in this belief. Others feel they should be able to give something of more practical use to the village rather than a bunch of dried up roots (each of which costs F$10 at the market) to "one old man."
But our visit to Cawaro let us see that the ceremony is neither some imposition on cruisers nor is some traditional performance maintained for tourists. We saw each group of visitors to the funeral, people from neighboring villages and presumably invited, initiate their visit with the same formal ceremony over a bundle of ugly roots. The chief's acceptance of the yagona signifies his acceptance of you into the village and extends his protection to you while here.
Ironically, despite a friendly reception and despite drinking kava with us, Isei never did complete our sevusevu. It most likely was all the distractions of the arrivals for the funeral, or it may have been a tiny reprimand for delaying so long in coming to the village, or it may even have had to with some undercurrent between him and Jim. In the end, when Napote (husband to Tokasa who works at Also Island) pointed out to Isei that he had never actually done the sevusevu, Isei designated Napote to complete it.
We could easily have come and gone from Also Island without bothering to visit the village, much as we did at Nukubati and Palmlea. It is definitely easier to stop over in one of those places where it is not expected. But you get so much for it. By this simple ceremony, we were now invited to attend Thursday's funeral "festivity," something Tokasa had been urging us to stay for.
Electrification & Appreciation
Although Jim and Kyoko are not by any stretch official missionaries, they stopped here because they saw a chance to make a difference, to become a bridge between what is still an almost primitive culture and the modern world that is pressing in on them….quite simply, to help.
Giving to a culture like the Fijian one is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls. Because it is such a communal culture, there is no real understanding of personal possessions. If you have something, be it a thing or a service, and it is needed, then it is expected you will share it. And, as we saw at Jimmo's plantation at Nukubati, if you aren't using it, and it's needed, they just take it. They simply don't see it as a big deal. Marrying into a Fijian family (also Samoan or Tongan) can bring some big surprises, when you discover that you may be expected, for example, to pay for a cousin's wedding, simply because you have the resources. It is a big disincentive to get ahead!
In Jim and Kyoko's case, they have put the majority of their retirement savings into their operation at Also Island, where everything they have implemented– the boat repair and building, the coconut press, the store, the fuel depot, etc. -- has been in response to a need of the local people. It has not been an outright donation. They do expect to able to support living the rest of their lives here, but it is no kind of get-rich scheme and hardly what most Americans would choose for retirement!
What this has to do with electrification is that Jim is "expected" to provide his expertise for events like the funeral to wire the village meeting house and the grounds with temporary lighting. Cawaro as a village has none of its own. A few individuals have batteries and an electric light, but that's about it. So Wednesday afternoon Don went with Jim to tackle the job. Don made two trips back to the island for equipment and light bulbs (right out of Also Island sockets!), which Jim predicted would disappear before he got them back. They were about to make their third trip, when Jim discovered that the "stick" he relies on to pole his boat through low tide shallows (Jale had made us one for our dinghy) had been taken from his boat. I don't know if someone is deliberately messing with him or not, but borrowed or "thieved" (as we say in the Caribe), it was something like the hundredth stick that has disappeared on him, and on Wednesday, it became a "straw" that broke the camel's back. Jim stomped off the job leaving the pavilion unfinished.
The moral of which story, to us at least, is beware of altruism, in particular in cultures not accustomed to balance sheets. It can become a heavy burden to bear.
The Funeral at Cawaro
Thursday dawned overcast and threatening, with rumbles of actual thunder in the distance. It was also a very low tide. At nine o'clock, Jim collected us and Ted and Karen of Sequester aboard the Also V, and with our dinghies tied off to the stern (in case we wanted to leave at different times) carried us to a landing near the school that still would still have enough water for us to land…and where no one was likely to take his stick.
What we didn't realize was the school landing was at least a mile from the village over dirt footpaths. Jim also forgot to suggest we carry-in our change of clothes. So there we are in our Sunday best, and it starts to rain. No problem, we have an umbrella. Hah, imagine trying to keep dry under an umbrella on a hiking trail in the Adirondacks growing moment by moment more slick with mud. First to go was the shoes. Bare feet got a much better grip. Next the umbrella, which was put to better use as a walking stick. At first we were glad to see the river, happy for the chance to sluice off the mud, but then it turned out we had to follow the river bed over its very slick rocks, which was pocked with holes. I'll confess to a fleeting moment of nasty satisfaction that it was Jim, whose impatience with our slow progress was hard to miss, who went down, backpack and all, in a big hole in the river. It was gone the moment I saw his barked shin. Then, just when things started looking up, there was the proverbial log bridge across the river. I'd thought he was kidding on that one, but, no, there it was. I'm not good at the balance thing, and I thought the day was over for me, but the top of the log had been flattened and one of the nice village ladies came out to lend me a steadying hand, so I made it. Have I mentioned that there was a group of ladies "walking" with us? Somehow, they managed to make the trip without even seeming to get wet!
Once we arrived at the village, bedraggled and muddy, Jim took off to find Kyoko, who had (we now saw sensibly) been ferried over at high tide at 6am! Tokasa, who, with her little notebook, seemed to be the ringmaster of all that was going on, passed us into the care of her sister-in-law Kilisi, who also works at Also Island. Kilisi took us to her house, stripped off our wet clothes, hanging them to dry from a wire across her living room, and outfitted us in substitutes from her wardrobe trunk. I ended up with a coordinated skirt and blouse combo, but Don, who wears a sarong on the boat all the time, was loathe to go out in public in his loaner sulu, and preferred his wet pants.
To our amazement, the funeral started pretty much on time. With somewhere around two hundred people from outside the village, there wasn't a chance of everybody getting inside the church. Some sat cross-legged on mats under the bamboo and corrugated pavilion, and others on the cement "deck" of "the old chief's house," while the rest occupied themselves with preparing all the food for the big upcoming feast. Although as "special guests" we were urged to go inside, we all (Ted, Karen, Don and I) preferred to sit outside and listen to the singing through the opening windows. When that got old…and the rain eased…we wandered around taking pictures of the food preparation.
This would not be a good activity for the squeamish. Men were butchering the various meats – beef, pig, turtle and fish – with axes and machetes, after which someone else would cut them up into the bite-sized pieces required when eating with one's fingers. Women were clustered together in doorways peeling, slicing and dicing the various vegetables to be mixed in with the meats as well as the boiled root crops – taro, cassava and yam – that are perennially served on the side like potatoes. There were fires with grills and cookpots blazing in four or five locations, and little boys having fun with some of the unused parts…like the cow's head and hooves! Here's how we put it all into perspective: less than 150 years ago, Fijians were still cannibals and at such an event as this it might well have been people in the pot!
When the funeral service emptied, the casket was carried out of the church to the cemetery. Leoni, Jim's venerable carpenter, motioned for us to follow him into the line of mourners. As incredible as anything we saw was the job of the pall bearers bearing the casket down the steep hill and up the next to the burial ground. Great effort had been extended to cut steps into both hillsides, but thanks to the rain and many feet it was largely transformed into a slide. How they managed I don't know; maybe because they were the first up. The rest of the crowd slithered and slid, everybody helping one another while struggling to remain solemn.
This, as you have probably gathered is hilly country, with little flat land available, but still it was surprising to find the cemetery situated in a v-shaped crotch of hillside. Maybe a dozen concrete tombs poked out of the slope in a random fashion. The new grave was open at the bottom of the hill, and by the time we straggled up, the crowd had pressed close. The minister (Methodist) said some words at graveside before the casket was lowered in. Then men from the village took turns spading in the dirt and tamping it down, placing four sticks to mark the corners of the rectangle. Then they passed in large stones that were used to frame the grave top, which was filled in with more dirt. Then the mourners spread two woven mats across the grave and topped them with a piece of beautiful tapa cloth, on which was then laid all the bouquets of flowers. Only when the last bouquet was laid, did the keening begin, almost a high whimper like dogs might make. It seemed ritualized, but there was a lot of dabbing at eyes throughout the crowd, and when it was over it was over. The family gathered around and someone took pictures.
While waiting for the feast to begin, Karen and I followed two little girls creeping down a hallway in the "old chief's house" to its main room where a crowd of elder ladies were well into the Fijian version of an Irish wake. Several strapping young men, shirtless but for a necklace and armbands of leaves, served the ladies cups of kava from the tanoa in the center of the floor. Everybody was packed in sitting on the floor mats around the walls while four mature ladies made meke – the traditional chants and dance much like what we saw at Nukubati. Apparently it was hilarious! Even the little girl in front on me was laughing into her fingers.
Suddenly it was over and it was time to eat. Don, Ted and Jim had been summoned with the first round of men to the long mats laid in the town hall, but about ten minutes after their head start, Isei, the chief, spied us waiting and hustled us in to eat with our husbands. Bowls and platters of meat dishes, fish (boiled and fried) and "provision" (the Caribbean's collective word for starch crops) were laid out down the middle of the mats, constantly removed and replaced as they emptied. After watching the butchering, Ted and Karen rediscovered a vegetarianism that they'd let slide, but Don and I gamely tasted most everything. I am most sorry to say that the turtle was the best dish after the fried fish. To drink there was a Koolaid-type drink, and industrial-sized finger bowls were shared for rinsing off greasy fingers. When you were done eating, you stood up and left, so that someone else could take your place. Only that way could they rotate the crowd through the meeting hall.
We emerged from our "sitting" to find the sun struggling to come out and the tide well in. On the grass between the "pavilion" and the "old chief's house" were piles of goods over which Tokasa hovered, placing the name of each village group on a pile. These goods included woven mats, taro and a chuck of beef (often still including hide and hoof!) If I remember my reading right this suggests the traditional redistribution of tribute paid to the chief. Or maybe it is just the Fijian version of party favors. Even Jim got a mat. No one was disappointed he didn't get a piece of cow.
We all went back to Kilisi's and changed back into our own (still wet) clothes and then Jim and Ted took off to get the boats and bring them around to the main jetty. Don, unfortunately, had managed to pop his knee on the descent back from the cemetery and was hobbling gingerly. Only as we waited for the boats to appear did we meet Leighton, a tall, handsome young Fijian with the King's English. A resident of Aukland, he was visiting his mother's home village which is how he came to be a guest like us at the funeral. Had we met him earlier, he might have been the "interpreter" we needed to get a better grasp of what was going on around us, for although everyone here speaks a little English, a little English is as far as it goes.
But even without interpretation, the day made for quite the kaleidoscope of experience, so much that was universal, so much that was unique. On every precarious path and step, hands were extended to help, and everyone was unfailingly friendly, evidently pleased to have us there, cameras and all (they specifically encouraged us to bring cameras!), even though we were so obviously outsiders.
The German Question
Our party were not the only white faces in Cawaro. A family of four on a small boat flying a German flag, sailed into Lagi Bay on Monday evening. Despite the flag, the family -- Andrez and Marianne and their two tow-headed boys Simon (5) and Samuel (2) – turned out to be Swiss, doing a year's cruise on a friend's boat out of Australia.
Tuesday morning they went ashore on their own on the hunt for some children to play with theirs, so by the time we arrived that afternoon with our bunches of yagona for sevusevu, they were well-ensconced. A village girl had Samuel on her hip, while his parents went for a hike to the waterfall, and when they got back, their enthusiasm for the hospitality of the villagers was positively bubbling over, greater than Andrez's English could keep up with. Wednesday morning, they went back to the village and on Wednesday evening Andrez came back to their boat alone for clothes, because they were all staying the night ashore, and he, Andrez was going out with the men that night for spear fishing.
On the one hand, all this made us feel like a pair of old fuddy duddies. Where had we lost this youthful enthusiasm to throw ourselves so wholeheartedly into such an adventure? How wonderful an experience this must be for the children, who'd seemed more shy of us when we first met them than of all the unfamiliar faces of the village! This, it seemed, is what cruising cultural exchanges ought to be like.
But in balance, were they sufficiently culturally sensitive of their hosts? Marion's rather revealing attire was certainly not, and Andrez stood over the seated Fijians and talked down at them, a big no-no. Had they brought yagona and done their sevusevu? Was their extended visit an imposition on their hosts, who are culturally unable to say "No"? Was the hospitality they were so enthusiastic about merely the villagers native politeness?
I don't know the answers. I don't even have a clue. To me is emblematic of the central quandary of cruising: Is the visit that is good for us as good for the villagers?
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