Being Marika

by Mark A. Rayner

You'd never know if from looking at me, but I once was betrothed to a Fijian princess. Fijian sunset

You'll probably think the kava was to blame, but I believe it was my crush on Emily. In 1989 I started a round-the-world journey and one of my first ports of call was the island of Viti Levu, in Fiji. It was there that I met Emily.

Emily was a tall, elegant brunette with the most luminous and sad eyes I'd ever seen. But it was probably the warmth of her smile that I found so compelling. Whatever the source of my infatuation -- erotic or romantic -- I was keen to see what might develop between us. On our second day in Fiji, she discovered that a village on the island of Beqa was taking in travelers to raise money for their church. This sounded like an adventure to Emily, who had just finished a master's in anthropology, and she wanted us to go. She could have asked me to go bare-assed snorkeling with tiger sharks and I would have said yes.

That night we watched the sunset together, and we had one of what would be many heart-to-heart talks. I could feel one of those do-or-die points coming upon us, you know, the moments that define relationships. The surf roared as it slammed into the reef a mile out. The sky was a delicate tracery of scarlet. I was intensely aware of her sitting next to me on the sand. Something was definitely going to happen.

It was at exactly that moment that she let me know that she was gay.

My infatuation died right there, but our friendship grew. We sat amiably, as she spoke quietly about how hard it had been for her to come out of the closet before she left Canada. The clouds burned a brilliant crimson, and we stayed there watching'till the light was gone.

The next day found us in the town of Navua. No more than a few shops along a dirt road, Navua was also our port of departure. Emily and I bought some kava as a gift for the village chief, and then headed for the docks along the Navua River. A cheerful fellow from the village met us there. Emily and I watched dubiously as he organized the loading of our boat.

The fifteen-foot launch was crammed with people who had come into town to do some shopping. The boat already had about 20 people in it, along with their purchases, and we had yet to add ourselves to the mix. I sized up the launch, the 40 horsepower engine, and gazed down the river out at the Beqa Lagoon.

Now, when I think of a lagoon, I imagine the little cove from Gilligan's Island. The lagoon that we were about to cross was essentially about 10 to 15 kilometers of open sea. The stretch of coral that made the water officially a'lagoon' is farther south of the island of Beqa, where massive Pacific rollers pound into it. Luckily, the day was calm, so the crossing went well. By well, I mean that we did not sink, though several times water sloshed alarmingly over the gunwales.

At Beqa we approached a beautiful little cove and the village of Naiseuseu, which was isolated from the other villages on the island by steep jade hills. Beqa Island is most famous for another village, Rukua, where they are familiar with the secrets of firewalking. If there was any justice, Naiseuseu would be equally renowned for its hospitality.

Emily and I were billeted with Te-Cassa, David, and their six children. Te-Cassa was an enormously cheerful woman and a gracious hostess, who did most of the speaking for the family. David, who was a farmer, smiled constantly, showing off his missing front teeth. They lived in a one-room hut, or bure, with a woven mat floor that served as sitting room and dining room all-in-one. At the back of the hut were two sleeping platforms with mosquito netting over top them. Politely, Te-Cassa asked if Emily and I were married. Though I might have once wished otherwise, she was soon convinced that no, indeed, we were not partaking of nuptial bliss, and she gave us each our own sleeping area. (For which I immediately felt guilty, as the rest of the family slept on the floor.)

Te-Cassa showed us where the facilities were, including the one fresh-water pipe behind a privacy blind that served as a shower for the whole village. While Emily showered off the sea-salt of our voyage (sigh), I entertained David and the kids with a story about my encounter with a bear, and amused them with a perfect rendition of "Swimming, swimming, in the swimming pool."

After I'd had a chance to clean up, Te-Cassa produced'tea', which I guess in Fijian means: "let's see how much food you can stuff into a short foreigner." The watchword in Te-Cassa's house was courtesy, and that meant feeding us as near-to-constantly as she could manage. Emily was spared the excess of Te-Cassa's hospitality, but as the visiting male guest, it was expected that I eat everything put in front of me. It was not the nature of the food, but the quantity, that proved to be the problem. In our first full day on the island, Te-Cassa fed us breakfast, tea, lunch, tea and dinner. Most of the meals consisted of cassava (a dry starchy potato substitute), taro root (which was moister and more flavourful), flour pancakes, fish and fresh fruit. For the most part, the food was bland but extremely filling. And clearly, they did not have much, so I did not want to offend them by not eating as Te-Cassa insisted. But she was killing me with kindness, and I nearly offended our hostess deeply at the end of our first day, as I could physically consume no more. The awkward moment was forgotten as I groaned theatrically, and fell onto my side, moaning, "ah, I'm going to die!" This brought peals of laughter from David and the kids, and a warm smile of contentment from Te-Cassa. Belch in Belgium and fake death in Fiji.

After meeting our hosts, we were asked to join the chief and the village elders in the large central hut called the community centre. There, we presented our gift of kava, and a kava ceremony ensued.

Kava comes from the root of the pepper tree, and plays an important part role in Fijian culture. With the gift offered, the root was pounded in a mortar and pestle, and then mixed in a huge wooden bowl with heavy legs, called a tanoa. In Naiseuseu, this mixing was a serious business, and the man in charge kneaded the root into the water, pulled the roots apart, squeezed the roots, and then repeated the process. Some of the men in the room talked quietly while this went on, but Emily and I watched with fascination. When it was prepared to the liking of our kava-mixer, a bowl made out of the top of a coconut, called a bilo, was offered first to the chief, and then to the guests in turn.

The accepting and drinking of kava also had a ritual aspect to it. When the server offers you the bilo, you have to clap your hands once, and then the bilo is handed to you. Then the kava-mixer claps his hands three times, and you may drink. (The polite thing is to say "bula!" or " greetings " first.) After downing the kava, one is expected to clap one's hands three times, and in less formal circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to say "matha!" , which means empty.

The bowl was placed in my hands next, and all eyes in the room were on me. The question on everyone's mind, including my own was clearly, "can he drink it?" The bowl was filled with what appeared to be muddy water and that is pretty much how it tasted. On the plus side, it was also a slightly bitter, with an interesting gum-numbing after-effect like novocain. I downed the bowl in one gulp to the great approval of the crowd.

Now at the time I did not know that kava is, in fact, a mild psychoactive substance with narcotic effects. So, during the rest of the ceremony and our interview with the chief and elders, I did not know why I suddenly felt so good. This must account for why I was able to polish off another of Te-Cassa's prodigious meals so handily that night.

When it got dark, the whole village gathered at the community centre for a dance. The women and children at one end of the bure, the men and guests at the other. More kava was prepared! A guitar was produced and music and dancing began.

I would like to quote from the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances: " ... the user typically feels a state of mild euphoria and tranquility. The muscles relax and the user remains in control... " I have to quibble with the premise that one remains "in control" when one has had, say, 20 bowls of this stuff.

Up until bowl 15, the dance was quite a staid affair. It seemed that the men were more interested in playing guitar and drinking kava than dancing, so the women danced with each other. Dance partners stood next to one another and linked arms around one another's hips, and basically just walked back and forth to the beat of the music. In a kava-inspired flight of dance interpretation, I started doing the twist during one of these marches back and forth. The entire village thought it was hilarious. This only encouraged me, and in no time, I had about half the population of Naiseuseu doing a conga-line (it seemed a natural extension of their traditional dance form).

Emily informed me that I was every anthropologist's worst nightmare.

By our third day I was starting to feel right at home. The villagers started calling me Marika', which means 'Mark' in Fijian (or so they told me, I suspect it might mean 'clown'). And so I had a new identity. At the same time Emily was struggling with her own issues. She had drawn inward and would disappear for long stretches of time, walking in the hills or along the beaches. She later told me that she was thinking about how badly her parents had taken her coming out.

It was about this time that an impressive young fellow named Thomas befriended me. The chief was his uncle, and his dad -- an important man named Sitiveni -- ran the gang that worked on the cane plantations on the'mainland'of Viti Levu. This gang consisted of about a dozen single men and younger husbands who would work on the mainland for a whole season. They were the village's main source of hard currency. The rest of the men were either farmers, like David, or fishermen. Occasionally, villagers made if off the island for advanced education or to work in New Zealand's forestry industry. Thomas had done well at school, and he hoped to go to university.

He told me this as we sat under his favourite mango tree. Then our conversation turned to serious philosophical issues, such as how good he was at rugby. It was Thomas's contention -- and I agreed -- that if I were to play rugby with the average group of Fijians, I would probably get quite seriously hurt. I used to play in high school, and I have a powerful build, despite my short height. But the Fijians are, by and large, big-boned and very strong. Thomas, for example, was already six feet tall at the age of 16.

"But I would get them for you, Marika." He then demonstrated how he could deliver a wicked and surreptitious blow with the elbow. Excellent.

Their reputation as fierce competitors in international rugby makes more sense if you know a little Fijian history. Fiji was once known as the'Cannibal Isles'a tradition that dates from at least 1000 AD, when the islands were invaded by Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa. The Melanesian natives fought these invaders off in large-scale wars and cannibalism was common in the islands until the mid-1800s when Methodist missionaries staged their own successful invasion.

The only church service I attended was held the next day, when the cane gang returned. That night they held a meke, or a traditional dance. These performances rest on strong oral traditions and are passed down from generation to generation. That night I met Thomas's dad, Sitiveni. We talked and after several bowls of kava, the conversation turned to my age. He was surprised that I was 23. Much amused, Sitiveni said something to his wife in Fijian. Suddenly there was a wave of serious conversation amongst the women. Frequent and less-than-furtive glances from many of them were cast in my direction. Something was definitely up.

My bachelorhood sent ripples of uncertainty throughout the village. An unmarried male of such an age could only cause trouble! The women's council leapt into action, and after several hours of debate, they decided that I should marry Thomas's sister. The next morning Thomas delivered this news while we ate mangos.

"It is very bad," he said. He couldn't imagine anyone purposefully staying in Beqa, for all its beauty.

I couldn't have agreed more. Of course, there was no question of my staying on and actually marrying his sister. Never mind that she was 15 and half a foot taller than me, I still had the rest of the world to see! I decided to tell Te-Cassa and David that I planned to leave the next day, before I received any official word of my impending marriage. (Lest there be hurt feelings.)

When I told Emily why I suddenly wanted to go, it was the first time I'd heard her laugh in days.

The return passage on the launch was less pacific. Instead of four-foot waves, we faced fifteen-to-twenty-foot swells. Some of them were bigger than the boat itself, and as we reached the top of each breaker, the engine would come out of the water and whine. It was a piercing sound that made the tension of the crossing even worse. Then we would descend the other side of the wave, and at the bottom, we were surrounded on all sides by the deep blue walls of the Pacific.

I began to sing.

Emily and the two Fijians crossing with us looked at me as if I was insane. Even our captain was terrified by the size of the waves relative to our boat. The wind was fierce and cascades of cats paws ruffled the slopes of the waves, blew foam off the whitecaps. I sang louder, trying to get my voice to carry. Mark might have been afraid, but not Marika.

The End

Photo by Alex Kehr