“If you need to get up and pass by the tanoa, you must pass on the left side. Make sure you crawl, kneel, or bow down as you pass the bowl. It’s a sign of respect to the service going on around you. Also, make sure you touch the bowl and say, Tulo, Tulo (pronounced chi-loh), as you go by. That means excuse me in Fijian. And it’s very important you respect the tanoa and its contents. They are thought to be mystical and powerful. You don’t want to abuse it.” Caroline smiled at me with her eyes and then tapped my notebook with her finger. “Write that down.”
I scribbled away in my tiny spiral notebook and gave a nod of thanks to the relative of Ro Mereani. She and the other women surrounding me laughed as I did this. This had become our bit. We’d sit at the back of the kava party (the customary place for women) and I’d ask elementary questions about the traditions I was witnessing and they would happily indulge me. They found my naiveté amusing and I guess I couldn’t blame them. My presence was very unusual for such a deeply ingrained tradition.
We were a few nights into the wake of David Jones. The actual funeral wouldn’t be held until next week (they had decided to have him cremated so his remains could be buried with Talei’s). Fiji’s first crematorium didn’t open until the following Monday, but the family had preceded with the typical mourning celebrations. It was custom to start the mourning period immediately after death, but that was because in the olden days the villagers didn’t have much time to bury the body before decay became a problem.
I did find it interesting that before this very week, there was no means of burning bodies in Fiji. The timing was eerie. But even more so, it was fascinating to me that cremation was foreign to the locals (finally– they understood how I felt, at least for a moment). Felix predicted there would be camera crews and many strange observers at the funeral. He even surmised it’d make the papers.
“David would get a kick out of this,” Ro Mereani had said with a light in her eyes unseen to me before. “He always liked unusual things and he would have been thrilled to be the first customer of the crematorium.” I found this whole thing very strange.
Luckily I’d adopted (or was working on) a new attitude. After getting past the initial shock of my situation, I decided to take on an anthropological approach to the experience. After all, I was getting an unbarred, uncensored look into the traditional workings of a Fijian funeral.
As morbid as it was, there was much to learn here. And who knew when I would have a chance to immerse myself like this again? So I stuffed my handy-dandy notebook in my jean pocket and kept a pen in the binding just in case. All I needed was a blue dog and I was set to have an adventure. (Clearly I’ve been hanging out with a three year-old too much).
But I was convinced to get the most out of this and document all I could. Like Elizabeth Gilbert said in Eat, Pray, Love, “I’m lucky that at least I have my writing.”
As was becoming routine, the night brought a living room full of village guests and relatives. And though it was a somber occasion it was less formal than I’d expected. D’Tui was watching Looney Toons. Some of the daughters of the villagers were on their Facebook pages. I smiled to myself. I guess even for all that’s different there are some things that are still universal.
The first night it had just been Mereani’s brothers (the chiefs of the nearby villages) and immediate family. Regardless, they must have gone through three bags of kava and spent hours at the tanoa. The second night the Herald clan had shown up along with the chiefs. They discussed with Felix, Mereani, and the elders what was to be said to the villagers about David’s death. They then went back and officially announced the wishes of the family.
Ro Mereani specifically requested no gifts. “Everyone shows up with dakua mats and food and its exasperating. I have mats and food. I don’t need those things but it’s tradition,” she had explained to me one morning. Villagers had shown up with fresh fish anyway. And like any good host she accepted their thoughtful gestures.
The mixer of the kava wanted to get up to smoke so Felix took over temporarily. “That’s a new rule,” Caroline said. “The chiefs decided that all smoking should be done outside as a sign of respect. But we never leave the bowl unattended.” This used to be done to prevent the mix from getting poisoned, back when kava was only available to the chiefs. But now it’s just considered bad luck.
I felt a faint ache in my back. We’d been sitting on the floor for hours. My butt missed chairs. Sitting on furniture wasn’t customary during grog sessions unless the elders were doing it and said it was okay. No-one could sit higher than the chiefs or elders. I stretched and pulled my knees up to my chest, propping my notebook on my knees. Feeling some relief, I went back to my note-taking. As was typical of FIjian gatherings, someone was snapping photos.
Tomorrow would be the fourth night of mourning. On that night, family members would give up a habit for the following 96 days (to complete a 100 day cycle of grief). I kept calling this Fijian Lent but the women looked at me blankly. They exchanged looks that said, “There goes the European girl saying strange things again.”
The grog server made his rounds through our gaggle of women with the coconut bowl. When he presented me with a drink I shook my head and gave the bowl back kindly. I was tapped out. “Maca,” Caroline said. “That means finished. You have to tell them you’re done before they serve you.” I bit my lip and realized I should have caught him sooner. I felt so full. But I set a smile on my lips and clapped as you were supposed to upon receiving a drink. I carefully took the coconut shell from him.
The Server waited patiently for me to finish, averting his eyes from actually looking at me. I gulped it down slowly, feeling my body slosh full of water and pepper powder. I felt a little nauseous. I handed it back and closed my turn with the customary three claps. He continued on, his eyes glued to the ground.
That was weird, I thought. Why won’t he look at me?
I went back to scribbling something on my notebook, not paying attention to what was going on in front of me. The room suddenly fell quiet. Ro Mereani shrieked.
I looked up to see all eyes on me, mouths agape. “Yessss?” I started slowly, unsure what the deal was. Felix was craning his head to the side. What the hell is he doing?
“Sit like a lady!” Mereani said, almost beside herself with shock.
And that’s when I learned something.
Apparently sitting with my knees up against my body (as they were) in a sulu was a bad idea. My knees held the material for the front of the skirt up while the back of it lay uselessly on the floor.
I might as well been that stereotypical little girl lifting up her dress to show her underwear to party guests.
My mind went straight into denial. This is a dream. This is the part where I wake up.
But the shocked faces and stunned expressions that dotted the room confirmed what I only hoped to be some twisted fantasy.
I JUST FLASHED THE CHIEFS.
No. Say it isn’t so…
ALL THE FIJIAN CHIEFS JUST GOT A FULL VIEW OF MY ASS.
I scrambled to sit cross-legged and turned fifty shades of purple. Sala covered her mouth with her hand. The room was dead silent except for D’Tui’s Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner show. I wanted an anvil to fall on me.
“Oh- Oh my God… I am so sorry,” I stammered, suddenly getting hot and sweaty. “I didn’t realize…”
Then something happened I didn’t expect. The chief started laughing. He pointed at me and said something in Fijian to Felix. Felix started cracking up and the entire room followed with giggles and amusement.
I didn’t know what was happening. But the laughter didn’t make me feel better. Oh God, I thought, now they’re going to hex me. I’ve insulted the chiefs and now they’re ALL going to curse me.
I felt my body shrinking, my ego bursting, my soul crying inside. Was I dying? And if I wasn’t, when could I start? And where the hell was that anvil?
Felix wiped a tear from his eye and translated. “He said, ‘Well now we know she’s from Vegas after all.'”
I gave a choke of a laugh as the guests cackled again. I hid behind my hands in total embarrassment. But I still couldn’t help cracking a smile.
Caroline patted my back and chuckled. “It’s different here, eh?”
I nodded, my face still buried deep in my palms, on the verge of tears but also unable to quell a laugh.
Well, at least they all had a sense of humor.