Saturday, 8 February 2014

Fara Way 11

                         “Don't want to hear from and cheerful Pollyannas,
                          Who tell me love will find a way, it's all bananas.”
                                              George Gershwin, But Not For Me

The way back from Vai’oa Beach was shorter. A small red Citroën 2CV pulled over to give us a ride.
“You must be Robyn and Wink.” Said the driver, a finely spoken thin gracefulness, with Nefertiti’s face and air of nobility. She wore her hair piled in a bun, high towards the back of her head, and drove like she was in Paris. If Julie was the Pollyanna of Polynesia, Sanimeli Maraf was the Rotuman Eleanor of Aquitaine; they were both goddesses in their own way, one chalk and one cheese. Talcum and Tomme de Savoie.
“Call me Sani.” She said.
“How was the beach?” Julie asked, on our return. I swallowed the word I was thinking.
“Very friendly.” I said. Her smile came on twice as bright, until Sani got out of the car. It was the first time on Rotuma I felt anything like a chill.
“This is Sanimeli.” I said, not believing, on reflection, that they wouldn’t have previously met. Sani told Julie that the Hospital Board had arranged a luncheon for us for the following day, and what time she would pick us up. But, for a brief movement, I saw a sag in Julie’s smile. And then I got it. Sani was about to introduce us to the rules. Julie had already introduced us to their transcendence.
The Hospital Board was ready for us on the lawn next morning. There were tables with tablecloths, with lemonade and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and the lone physician. Sani introduced us to him and the three other women board members, and they talked to Robyn, and I talked to the doctor. He was younger than I was, and there was fatigue in his eyes, and a weight on his broad Polynesian shoulders. We spoke of the frustration he experienced at watching people die, for lack of a reliable air ambulance evacuation service. He was an Old Testament minor deity and, for all his frailties and faults and failings, the people loved him all the same, for he was still a much better chance, than they used to have. We discussed the high incidence of diabetes and heart disease, in a population with thrifty genes, and pork fat as intermediary metabolites. There was a lot of premature death from heart attacks. I was surprised to learn that he didn’t have a defibrillator, shocked even.
“What do you do if their heart stops?” I asked.
“Have a funeral.” He said. I promised him I would find him a defibrillator, as soon as I got back to Canada.
Sani drove us on the Bennett’s at Itu'muta, and introduced us to Samo and his wife and two children, Rotumans home from New Zealand, for Fara. We drank lemonade and green coconut on their veranda, and promised, as travelers always do, to keep in touch.
On our tour around the rest of the island, it was along the southern coast, entering the districts of Juju and Pepjei, that things got a little strange. As we entered the village of Upu, blowing up like Notre Dame in Paris, was the Marist Catholic church of St. Michaels.
“Do you know about the wars?” Asked Sani.
“The wars?” I asked.
“Between the English Wesleyans and the French Catholics.” She said. I told her I had heard about them but not much. I knew that Rotuma had experienced the usual ravages and interbreeding from the whalers and ships deserters, including the only blackbirders that hit the place on the Velocity, all 40 sailors from which are now represented in the gene pool. I knew that the, and other fafisi off the Unites States Exploring Expedition in 1840 brought grog and measles and influenza and dysentery and venereal disease. But I didn’t know that most of the death and destruction was brought by the God’s door to door salesmen.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Motusa Religious Warriors on Rotuma

Fara Way 10

Over the next two hours, we watched our deserted delight fill up with rotund Rotumans. Smoke rose from the far end of the beach. Finally, the sound of an outboard grew louder from Fara way in the lagoon, until we could make out from which direction it was coming. Within a few more minutes, a small open boat had beached up in front of us, and its crew warmly welcomed, as they offloaded their catch. I thought my waiting was over but, as I got up to collect my snorkeling gear, a corrective glance disabused me of the notion. Not yet.
Eventually, after another half hour, one of the young boys kneeled next to my towel.
“You can go in now.” He said. I grabbed my mask and snorkel, and made for the lagoon, before anyone could reconsider. I didn’t make it.
At the water’s edge, I was met by a big Rotuman, eating big fish and big taro and a dozen other big things, off a big banana leaf.
“Lunch is ready.” He said. I was beaten.
Burning feet dragged my snorkeling gear and broken spirit, back to the towel beside Robyn.
“What was that all about?” She asked.
“Lunch is ready.” I said.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Fara Way 9

Robyn and I were gone, before anyone could reconsider. We didn’t really know the way, but Julie had guided us to the soft coral path across the isthmus along Maka bay, and onto Raho’s western basket of earth that had formed the Itu'muta peninsula. We came to what appeared to be an enormous Zen sansui garden of raked white sand, out of which colossal black lava stones protruded. It was a Rotuman cemetery. A tall structure, about twelve feet high, consisting of four inward-leaning wooden poles with streams of red and yellow and purple cloth hanging from the close-tied cross pieces, had been recently erected to commemorate a new ancestral addition to the community. From there the trail climbed into rainforest, interspersed with plantations. A Rotuman myzomela, with its black upper plumage and bright scarlet belly, announced our entrance to one farmer’s yam patch. He provisioned us with mangos, and further directions through the bush. Exhilarated, walking alone together, the salt air of the most beautiful beach in the world’s last Eden, danced on our noses, where the light finally split the jungle. We broke through the canopy, to a breathtaking long scimitar of white sand below, fringed with towering palms, and niu and hifau trees, framed by purple green volcanic mountains, on a cerulean-spattered watercolor bay. Large schools of fish ran in every direction, but we only ran in one, over a rock bridge and along the caster sugar crescent, to the horizontal limbs of a massive fig tree in the middle, and shade. We rolled out our towels, and lay down together, together in the faint relief of an offshore breeze, and Fara ‘ nuff away from the constant attention of ‘Pear ta ma 'on maf,’ This Land Has Eyes. Or so I thought.
For the first five minutes of our intimacy, Vai’oa Beach was deserted. We were in heaven.

“I think I’ll go for a swim.” I said to Robyn and, collecting my snorkeling gear, began to cover the short distance to the water’s edge. I didn’t make it.
I had just put on my mask and was adjusting my snorkel, when I realized that there were now a few other human clusters that had magically appeared on the beach, one of which was moving quickly in my direction. Two young boys got to me first.
“You can’t swim yet.” One said.
“Huh?” I said. “Why?”
“You need to wait.” Said the other one. I looked out at the clearest bluest water in the Southern Sea, at the underwater coral forests, at the blazing schools of colored fish, at the only cool reprieve in sight.
“For what?” I asked.
“For the fishermen.” Said the first one.
“I need to wait for the fishermen, before I can go for a swim?” I asked.
“Yes.” The both said at the same time. It was about then that my inner renegade just about got the best of me. This is ludicrous, I thought. The heat was becoming ridiculous, the snorkeling looked brilliant, and some superstitious local custom required me to avoid the entire Pacific Ocean because it might affect the fate of a few fishermen who were nowhere to be seen. I turned around. Robyn just looked at me, waving her fan.“There’s no point.” I said, realizing the futility of resisting the social pressure to participate. “We’re still the ambassadors of something here.”
“How long will they be?” I asked. They shrugged. I was beaten. The land has teeth and knows the truth. There were now whole other villages coming out of the jungle, and spreading their pandanus mats under the palms.
Burning feet dragged my snorkeling gear and broken spirit, back to the towel beside Robyn.
“What was that all about?” She asked.
“We have to wait.” I said.
“For what?” She asked.
“For the fishermen.” I said. She asked me why. I had no answer.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Fara Way 8

‘On the Thursday flight (17 December) Dr. Lawrence Winkler and his  
 wife Robyn arrived. They are from Nanaimo B.C., on Vancouver
 Island (where several Rotuman families live). They stayed at Motusa
 in new huts--accommodations recommended by Sunflower Airlines.
 The Hospital Board of Visitors had a Working Bee/Breakup Day on   
 Friday, 18 December, so we invited them for lunch, and we all met
 the couple. Robyn originally came from New Zealand. In the
 afternoon I took them to the Bennett's at Itu'muta and met up with  
 another couple from New Zealand, Samo's son and wife with their two
 children. We toured around the island, calling into places and ending
 up at Rocky Point for cold beer.’
                                  Archived News, Rotuma Community Bulletin Board

The day before we ended up at Rocky Point for a cold beer, two days after the Hospital Board of Visitors decided to invite Robyn and I for lunch, the day after the harvest festival, right after our third night of Faracidal insomnia, I rolled over next to the sponge mattress, and shook Robyn awake. Her fanning didn’t break Farastride.
“Do you realize that we are sleeping next to some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, and almost halfway through our time on Rotuma, we’ve only seen the seashore once?” I asked. For a Kiwi, this was an unconscionable source of shame.
“Today.” She said. We dressed and closed the powder blue door to our cabin, jaws grimly set to overwhelm Julie’s sense of family togetherness, and escape to an isolated beach on our own. But we had no idea that, here in the most remote Polynesian paradise, this was not just impolite, or impolitic. It was treason.
Rotumans are a gentle people, culturally conservative and strongly socialized, with an emphasis on collective responsibility enforced by a sensitivity to shaming. No one did anything without everyone else’s participation, except perhaps, in a rare free dove cord moment, making other Rotumans. And Julie was the perfect Polynesian Pollyanna, far too happy and in love with everything, which she believed rightly, in Motusa village at least, to derive from, and return back to, the family. She was the living Nash Equilibrium embodiment of Southern Sea survival. How could it be possible that we, in our most evil manifestation of individualistic inconsideration, even think of abandoning our adopted village, for a single day of selfish gratification? The easy answer was, of course, was that it was necessary. Robyn and I had never been creatures of collective conformity. We were mavericks, nabobs of narcissism, which is why we fell in love in the first place, and made a life together, based on not belonging. When we had first arrived on Vancouver Island, I was approached to join the local Rotary Club.
“You’re not a joiner.” Robyn had said. And the Rotarians were condemned to do without.
“Julie?” I asked, a mouthful of morning pawpaw in my mouth.
“Yes, Wink.” She said.
“Robyn and I were thinking of hiking across the isthmus, to
Vai’oa Beach.” I said.
“Lovely, Wink.” She said. “What time should we go?” Then it got hard.
“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.” I said. “We thought that, for just today only, we just might go alone, to give you and the girls some time to yourselves.” I looked across the floor mat, into eyes that couldn’t decide whether to be hurt, or offended. I thought it was a polite formality, and it never occurred to me that, in an island culture so remote and isolated, the idea of separating awhile from your family, real or adopted, might ever be interpreted as antisocial behavior. But, for a brief movement, I saw a sag in Julie’s smile. Meltdown.
“Are you sure?” She asked. I nodded.

“OK.” She said. “Enjoy yourselves.”

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Fara Way 7

But it was time to dance. Not the Fara way dancing of the night migrations, but the traditional tautoga rectangular rows and columns of the hafa, half of the group on one side men, the other half on the other side women. They wore powder blue h' fli lava-lavas, red and white collared shirts and blouses, red and white and yellow pandanus fruit garlands, and tropicbird tailfeathers. The accompaniment behind them beat a pile of old mats with large sticks, to keep time. The men jumped from side to side, or in circles, or scanned the horizon back and forth, with a raised flat hand blocking the sun from their eyes, feet apart, clowning and clapping and yelping and grunting hui'i, hui'i, hui'i, hui'i,’ in syncopated exhalations. The women were constrained to graceful subtle motion, feet together and hands clasped, until they weren’t and the story-telling motifs began. They sang the third and fifth above the notes of the men, some breathing while others vocalized, spinning the music into a continuous hypnotic thread of verse. After each set, the dancers in the front would drop back, allowing the row behind them to come forward, and begin the rhythms of their ancestors all over again.
“Is your harvest festival like this in Canada, Wink?” Julie asked. I conjured up a mental image of our country fair.

“Not quite like this, Julie.” I said. “Not quite.”

Monday, 3 February 2014

Fara Way 6

   “ well or better cultivated and its inhabitants more numerous  
    for its size than any of the islands we have hitherto seen.”
                                                        Captain Edwards, Pandora, 1791

“Wink? Robyn?” It was Julie, and daylight too soon.
“I think these people are zombies.” I whispered to Robyn. “They don’t seem to need any sleep.” On the mats in Julie’s house at breakfast, she explained that Av mane’a was more than going Fara.
“Today we’re going to Manea‘ ‘on fa ma haina.” She said, dishing out additional vowels with the sliced papaya and pineapple. The girls fanned the flies and the Fahrenheit from our faces.
“What’s that, Julie?” Robyn asked.
“The harvest festival.” She said. Our family walked to Motusa, past some big Mother Hubbard women carrying large rolled woven mats into the village church. I looked up at what had been carved in a curve, above the door. Mt Sinai. Moses and the rushes. It was allegory. And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it fire. But the smoke was ahead of us, at the far end of an large expanse of lawn and a magnificent giant flame tree, under which were several open shelters, with tin roofs and pandanus mat floors, connected by upright wooden poles, each one wrapped with plaited palm fronds. Long horizontal cloth banners of red and white hibiscus flowers hung below the rooflines. Fluorescent lights were suspended from the ceilings. We were at play, in the field of the Lord’s Hawaiian carports.
The playground was a fairground, an agricultural exhibition farmshow, of big yams with big pink tags, big dances by the biggest people, and big watermelon filling up the big faces of little girls.
The yam farmers who couldn’t win a prize would have to give away their harvest, and go home empty-handed, but the women weavers could bring home the mats they hadn’t sold. They sat sidesaddle, purses slung over their big Mother Hubbard shoulders, waving their fans, and waiting for the feasting and the dancing to begin.
The old men were already drinking kava, at head tables covered with fine petit point linen tablecloths, punctuated at intervals with bouquets of flowers and brass salt cellars, pasted with Fijian money notes. Before the arrival of the missionaries, kava had been prepared by virgin girls with limestone-caked hair, who chewed and spat it into a slurry, before it was mixed with water by the older women. Since the arrival of the missionaries, the elders had begun blending in a little additional liquid from their hip flasks, which further muddied the waters, and hastened the collapse of their livers.
The smoke from the Koua earth oven, that wafted through the celebration, suddenly thickened, a sign that the sand was being raked off the leaves covering the old mats, that had been placed on the banana and papai swamp taro leaves, on top of the hot stones that had been carefully distributed over the food, with tongs made from the midribs of coconut leaves.

This koua had started with a large circular hole in the ground, lined with coconut tree trunks, and filled with kindling and a mound of parallel firewood, over which had been placed the lava stones, big ones on the bottom, smaller ones on top. A shredded coconut sheath had been lit to ignite the kindling, and the men had gone off to scrape breadfruit and taro and other root crops, and to kill the hogs. The pigs were turned on the heated stones to singe off their hair, and scraped with seashells or knives. Their throats had been slit, their alimentary canals tied off at both ends, so their guts, including the gall bladders, could be cautiously removed from their sliced-open abdomens. The male pigs had their penises tied, to prevent any urine from contaminating the meat. Everything to be baked had been washed in seawater. The large hot stones were spread over the bottom of the Koua with long poles, and any unburned firewood removed. The smaller ones were placed inside the pigs’ carcasses, together with their livers and breadfruit leaves, to keep the steam inside. The men, using the same long poles, slung the swine, belly down, onto the base of hot large stones, now covered with taro scrapings and banana leaf ribs, to regulate the temperature. The breadfruit and the root crops had been placed along the margins of the pit, because they hadn’t required as much heat to bake them. When the smoke finally cleared, out of the Koua, came roast pork and roasted chicken and corned beef, and breadfruit and cassava and taro, and ‘al‘ikou packages of taro leaves filled with coconut milk and onion, and taro fekei pudding. The food was hoisted with large pandanus baskets on poles, and placed beside the watermelon and pineapple and mango and pawpaw and sugar cane and jams. Some young girls fanned the food tables constantly, to keep off the flies, while others filled the closely woven tauga flat-bottomed coconut leaf baskets with food, to carry to the chiefs at the head table, most of which would have been too paralyzed by this time, to have fended for themselves, even if they had to. Everyone filed by the tables, filling their plates if they had one or, if not, supporting their overflowing fono basket in one hand, while the other held up the front edge, in a desperate race against gravity and gluttony. The feast was substantial, and superb.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Fara Way 5

A hurricane lamp flickered into life outside our window, faster than we did inside.
“Robyn? Wink?” It was Julie. “Fara time.” It was still hot and muggy and my muscles ached from the dancing and the fatigue, but I told myself that this was, after all, why we had come, and roused Robyn, to tell her the same.
It was an even larger group this time. The word was out. All over Rotuma, at different houses each night, every night for a month, impromptu singing and dancing celebrations would burst into flame. The only difference for us was that, because we were extra special guests, it would happen at the same house every night. No sleep. The foreboding words of Sefo rang in my ear. But then the entire night rang into melodious song and smiles, and it didn’t matter at all. We were only in Rotuma for week. Compared to other things we survived that long, Fara fatigue would still be more fun.
The tradition had evolved from the manea’ hune’ele beach parties of old, where young people would picnic at the beach from late afternoon through the night, singing and dancing and courting. Here they could spend time with prospective partners, away from the suffocating tight knit social regulation of the strong Rotuman family and community pressures of collective conformity.
But then came the missionaries and the powerful church doctrine they represented. Manea’ hune’ele was decreed to be immoral and licentious, and the escapades and potential loss of virginity that might occur, unacceptable. But a compromise was needed, so as to still allow some form of courtship to occur. The Methodists found a method to combine flirting with supervision, and the custom of ‘going Fara’ superseded the past trysts on the beach that had occurred before Jesus arrived, and spoiled all their fun. The fun was given a more precise purpose. The flirting was now the search for a life partner. The young boys were told not to ‘play for nothing.’ If unsuccessful they were mocked as someone who ‘compresses horse manure,’ a’pat finak ne has, accomplishing nothing by riding up and down, except spreading horseshit on the roads, until it was packed down, or a’pat finak ne ha skat ma f’ia ra, returning from a fruitless fishing trip without any fish. The boys would sometimes orchestrate having their own Fara troupe taken hostage at the house where the girl they were enamored with lived, so as to increase their chances of success. Fara literally means ‘to ask,’ in Rotuman. For most islanders, all they asked was that it still be just more of a fun social event, more frolic than flirting.
As the nights followed the Fara way, Robyn and I began to follow the troupes to other houses as well. We would fall into unconsciousness, like cats in the heat of the day, whether we wanted to or not. Inevitably, inexorably, we were worn down. I had reached my limit, and I asked Julie, if we could be excused from that night’s festivities, just to catch up on some sleep.
I thought it was a polite formality, and it never occurred to me that, in an island culture so remote and isolated, the idea of separating awhile from your family, real or adopted, might ever be interpreted as antisocial behavior. But, for a brief movement, I saw a sag in Julie’s smile. She agreed not to wake us.
And so it was that Robyn and I looked forward to the arms of Morpheus, even though it was far too hot to look forward to the arms of each other. We settled into our linoleum lethargy,
and set a course for coma.
My eyes were beginning to wobble, and then I heard it, just once.
I swore out loud, and then hoped that no one in the Fara troupe that had congregated outside our window had heard it. And then I swore again. Robyn just looked at me, waving her fan.
“There’s no point.” I said, realizing the futility of resisting the social pressure to participate. “We’re still the ambassadors of something here.” And we got up, and opened the powder blue door, and joined the singing and clapping and perfume in the dark. The moon was full, and the stars were bright, and I danced with the old women and the little girls, looking away all the time they danced, until I could dance no more. After each they said ‘Fa ieksia,’ thank you, and I said the same. And that, I had decided, was that. But it wasn’t, was it.
An electric ripple rolled up my back, from bottom to top. I turned into a radiant reflection of where it had all started centuries ago, in songs of colliding souls swept in with the tide to the shore.
She was intoxicating, sweeter than her caramel skin, than the coconut oil in her hair, than the perfumed flowers of her tefui garland, than the captivating one behind her ear. She moved like the story of what had been sacrificed for us to have met here, in the gracefulness of Mak Samoa, the Samoan way, first with her feet together, with a subtle shuffling in-and-out in time to the music, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, then with her arms, silk ribbons flowing fluent in elegant motifs from her fingertips, like slow breezes, then, from behind and within her titi skirt of long leaves, hips and loins pulsating, whirling ever more exuberant, and then, and only then, with her eyes, rolling and wandering, before finally fixing on both her hands, reaching out to me.
OK, I thought. Just one more.

tall and pleasant, well-built, and full of gaiety, with eyes large and  
 full of fire, noses a little flattened, white teeth, ear lobes pierced with
 a sweet-smelling flower, and almost naked.”

                                                                                    La Coquille, 1824