My Sixty Sixth Siganisucu
My Sixty Sixth Siganisucu
I was wondering what to call this auspicious blog. A little assonance or alliteration would be nice, but what goes with the ‘B’ in Birthday I thought. Then I looked up the Fijian word for Birthday, perfect.
I re-used Zu’s palm leaf basket to carry the plastic oval plate of sliced chocolate cake oozing with melting chocolate icing and dotted with squares of flapjack up to the village. Three young boys, one on a kamikaze bicycle mission, greeted us and looked into the basket. I had laid two 6 shaped candles on the top ready to be planted and lit at the right time.
“Am I 66 today,” then turning the basket around, “or 99 do you think?” They didn’t understand or didn’t want to risk insulting an elder maybe. Then three young men came forward and I did the same. Poor woman they probably thought and hedged their bets with “66 definitely”.
We walked on to Mere’s house, casting “Bulas” all around to all ages of villagers. Some of the villagers who we had met before came to us, “Barbara Happy Birthday” they followed with big hugs.
Mere had baked some coconut bread first thing, placing the dough directly into a dish of fresh coconut milk which helps the bread stay moist as it cooks, a kind of steaming method. “Doesn’t it soak into the dough?”
“Noooo” she replied.
Mark and Teri arrived and joined us and so did Peter and Martina. Bill took us for a stroll to see the school. We passed where the matai woodcarvers were at work next to the crafts shop. A group of super yacht passengers were being entertained for a couple of hours and would no doubt buy up some of the items which sell for much less here than in Suva.
“Do you ever host superyacht passengers?” I asked Mere.
“No, they are not so willing to share our way of life as you” she replied tactfully. How lucky we were to have much more time than they have too.
Suva used to set the theme and curriculum for the island schools but now they just send a theme and it is up to the teachers to design the curriculum. The government provides $50 per child for their annual education. Children from off lying islands come here for their start in education and parents take it in turn to come with them to lessen homesickness and support them. They sleep in pretty dormitories with ocean views. I chatted with the headmaster’s wife while Mark, Teri and Rob went to the beach to watch three of the children, presently on school holiday, make a fun game out of scrubbing dishes using sand and seawater and spinning them in the water as hard as they could.
Numerous posters hanging outside the classrooms gave us a clue as to what they had recently been studying and many were statements of how should be treated. One dramatic hand drawn picture showed a child with an adult’s hand around his throat stating that child abuse is unacceptable and how can people not only hurt children but know it is happening and do nothing about it. I asked Mere about this later and she said the theme was preparing children for life in Suva when they go there. In her village the old adage applied, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and everyone plays their part to guide the young, who are loved and cared for and well disciplined.
At some stage in our visit we took some gifts to Mere including two lighters, some lighter refill gas, matches and some kitchen scritchers I thought might be of use. “Thank you Barbara so much for the lighters and matches.” Mere said with a glint in her eye, not wishing to be reminded of the mundanity of housework.
As we wandered back from the school Rob bought a nawanawa wood bowl carved by Jone and we asked him to carve his name in the base, so he took the bowl and disappeared.
Next we met Tui, a tall young man who is the children’s choirmaster. He and Bill walked with us to the next village as Bill wanted to show us the shop.
On the right of the pretty path Tui pointed out areas where root crops including kumara and kawau were growing. On the left was the cemetery where colourful banners flew from the old chief Taniela Bese’s grave. The closing of the grave will take place later in the year. Every chief’s grave is marked with a cast concrete conch shell to show their high status and we saw three generations of past chiefs in this way.
Nearer to the path was a small grave that really stood out being covered with white tiles with blue grout and a polished black headstone.
“He was very popular in the village. When other children shied away from strangers he would run up to them in greeting. He died in February, just collapsed suddenly as he was running along. When a cruiser friend of ours heard he was very upset and paid for the headstone, making all the arrangements for its carving and delivery himself.” Bill told us.
Word had spread to the next village that it was my birthday and the lady who ran the shop greeted me with good wishes. She opened her shop and we were surprised to see a column of black shoe polish, here in villages where people wore flip flops at most. “They are for the woodcarvers to decorate the rims of their dishes.” She told us.
It is hard to choose a highlight to this wonderful day but I think it has to be the climb to the cave of skulls and bones.
Bill and Tui led the way through the vegetable garden again, teasing eachother, “Tui is from the Solomons, so he knows nothing.” Bit like the Irish/Anglo banter, but Tui gave as good as he got with “And Bill comes from the city, poor thing”. I thought it interesting he was named after the New Zealand bird.
We came to where the climb began and the lads offered us ladies helping hands up to what was once a lookout area when the old village was built in a cleft in the hills, no doubt in times when the villagers were under constant threat of invasion from Tongan warriors in their war canoes coming from the east.
We scrambled through thin undergrowth to the two cave entrances that were at window height, so it would have been difficult to enter over the sharp uneven limestone rock. And then, whoah, was a pile of around thirty skeletons, bones piled up underneath with skulls on the top. Some skulls looked out at us accusingly from ledges on the far wall. The skulls were whitish with some pale green algae on them in the dry airy cave.
“Even my grandfather had no idea of the origin of the bones, so they go back many generations.” Bill said.
“Could they be Tongan warriors defeated in battle Bill?” I wondered. “You could send a sample away for analysis and that would give their age and probably their origin too.” Maybe I crossed the mark there but I think the cave is sacred, Tabu and entry is forbidden, or maybe they are comfortable with the mystery and it is a western trait to want to solve all mysteries. I wondered also if they were cannibalised remains as is likely if these bones belonged to invaders. Bill smiled a lot but is none the wiser than us.
The next part of the climb was up the vertical limestone cliff to a tiny lookout 4’ x 4’ where the 7 of them stood taking in the 360’ views over the islands and lagoon. Not wanting to do a Shakespeare and die on my birthday I waited below. I was wearing flip flops and my feet were sweaty, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Back past the spotted pigs in their pen, my birthday party was next.
Mere’s grandmother made me a beautifully fragrant garland of wild rose blossoms and frangipani flowers and tied it carefully around my neck.
We feasted on pumpkin curry with onions and fried spices, rice, Chinese cabbage in coconut milk with noodles, taro leaves done the way I mentioned before and we drank fresh coconut water, straight from the nut.
Next everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ while Mere struggled to get the candles to stand upright in the cake slices, I blew them out and made a short speech before the chocolate cake, flapjacks and Teri’s wonderful brownies all vanished in a flash.
The boys disappeared to have showers while the kava session, which I was to lead (!!) was set up.
Between each round of kava we join in a discussion and tell stories and anecdotes and this exchange is called a Talanoa. When I sensed there was a lull I would say “Taki” and the kava master would pour another round into the bilo and hand it to each of us in turn. Before taking the cup we clapped once with cupped hands to make a resonant sound (cobo) and then again three times as the recipient handed back the cup.
I have no idea how many rounds we shared but when Rob and I saw the light was fading we said our farewells and with Peter and Martina made our way back to the dinghies in the finest most refreshing rain that only became heavy after we were on the beach and able to shelter in the shed.
Their heavy dinghy with its big motor was sitting on the beach so Rob ferried them back to Havachat before returning for me. No way could we lift it to the water.
While I waited, standing on a little hump of sand calf deep in the water so Rob could reach me in the tender, I noted four of the ugly bumpy snake like creatures very slowly closing in on me. They have feelers instead of heads and eyes and I just hoped they were blind vegetarians.
I was relieved to see Rob on his way I can tell you.
After showering on Zoonie we went to Havachat, to have a chat about how we as couples met and about families and life in Australia etc over cheese and biscuits and Peter’s wonderful cocktails of Vodka, lemonade and pineapple juice complete with paper umbrellas and a slice of lemon.
Last thing, when the tide was much further up the beach, Rob whizzed Peter in to collect his tender and that, my friends was how we spent my Birthday.