Farewell to Fiji
Fijians love to eat. Fijians also love to farewell. It was only natural that the two would be combined as my close of service neared. For the last two weeks I was in my village I did nothing but eat my way around the tikina (district). One of the most memorable feasts came on my last Wednesday, a day I had hoped would find us in the deep ocean, under a bright hot sun, gazing into water so blue it made the sky pale in comparison. Instead, as happens to all good plans during Peace Corps, I found myself running around the neighboring village begging for a boat, then fuel, then a boat driver, then a different boat, then tell this person what this person said, and so on. Just as I was about to throw my hands up in frustration, and break down into miscommunication tears one last time, we came up with a better plan.
Soon, I was calling the boys to get their gear and asking the girls for any cooked cassava root to spare. I joined the line of boys, flippers and snorkeling masks in one hand, spears in the other, as we made our way through my village to the beach. I was on parade, but this time I was in charge. My job became to get everything together. As I went from house to house asking for more cooked cassava, women came out to give me something else: limes, chilies, bags of salt, bottles of water, recycled bottles with fishing line and a hook, a container of cooked roti (just in case we didn’t have anything else to eat- and this was only for me, not to be shared with the others!).
And so our plan morphed into a picnic on a small island close to the shore of my village. While this is apparently something common, this was the first time I would be experiencing a picnic like this. This was something the boys from a neighboring village wanted to do for me that ended up becoming collaboration between our two villages.
After being adequately showered with all the provisions, I headed out to the sea, clad in gum boots, my required sarong around my shorts, spear in one hand and my fishing basket now filled to overflowing with everything we’d need. I was not alone, and soon the boys came from all directions. The original four headed out to do the fishing while Turaga and I cleared the area for our soon-to-be feast. I gathered firewood while he cut back the growth. We staked out our area facing the sea, under a clearing of trees. Boys, who were really anywhere from men 20- 40 years old, started coming from all directions. Each brought a knife to cut firewood or some other addition to the feast.
By the time the fishers started coming back with the fish, we had a good ten or so boys stoking the fire. After the fish were scaled, they were thrown directly on the fire. Tukana brought back a fish, a giant crab, and a giant clam. Those went right on the fire, too. Pisa and I mixed the seasonings. This involved pouring what I thought was our drinking water into a bigger container, adding salt, squeezing limes, and cutting up dozens of fiery hot chili peppers into the mix. When the fish were blackened, the char was scraped off and everything went into this container, about the size of a very deep 8x8 in. cake pan. The cassava, roti, and vudi (large bananas kin to the plantain), lay spread out on banana leaves.
We gathered up the boys, prayed, and dug in, dirty fingers and all. Everyone fought hungrily to get the best parts. When the tub was licked clean, we packed up and headed out, wading through the water with the heat of the day still beating down. As we splashed through the sea on our way home, I turned to watch Kanu and Pisa taking pictures against the backdrop of that beautiful blue sea, one last time with my camera. I treasure the memories of how it all came together in the end, despite my fears, fears that were rooted more in the fear of leaving my Fijian home.
That night we celebrated again, back in the village, by drinking kava, feasting some more, and serenaded by a trio of musical brothers. We reminisced about the day and even my sunburn couldn’t dampen my spirits.
Every bit of the feast came by graciousness and was one more example of how community focused was my Fijian village. The mood was jolly, bittersweet as it was, and nothing tasted better to this vegetarian girl from Wisconsin than the freshest catch eaten with the dearest of friends.