One More Stop
It was getting late and Aruind said we had to make one more stop. He wanted me to meet his sister and his “auntie.” We drove back in the direction of Nadi but turned up a dirt road and, after making several turns ended up in front of another corrugated steel house nestled in the middle of a small compound of similar houses. Indians tend to have more furniture than Fijians and Aruind’s sisters house was no exception. On the right as you walk in was a large couch and an overstuffed chair. On the left was a dining room table while overhead the standard bare light bulb. All about the room on various pieces of furniture were small shrines including one apparently dedicated to a Snoopy who occupied the central position in a shrine surrounded by candles and cloth. Aruind’s sister and “auntie” were interested in how I celebrated Christmas while I was interested in their daily lives. When I described putting colored balls and lights on a pine tree Aruind’s sister pointed to a small, decorated plastic tree in the corner of the room. In her pantheon a Christmas tree deserves its own shrine.
When we got around to her life and situation I was a bit circumspect. Most places I’ve been to partially define “middleclass” as a household where the women don’t work outside the home. By this definition most of America has fallen back into the role of working class without admitting it. If I asked Aruind’s sister what she did for work I thought I might insult her but that is exactly what I wanted to know. Aruind understood why I was being timid and said, “Fiji has no middle class, all rich and poor, nothing in the middle.” That took care of my reluctance Aruind’s sister how she spent her days.
If I were in China or some other country known to be politically dangerous I might have been a bit more attuned when listening to her nuanced answers. At the time her pleasant and matter of fact delivery lulled me into mentally just recording the facts about jobs in Fiji. It is only now, some weeks removed from the events that allow me to understand exactly what is happening in Fiji. A while back I recorded my impression of the history of Fiji. My history more or less ended about the time Fiji gained independence from Britain. Let me bring you up to date.
Fiji is a multicultural society living under the thin veneer of British Civilization. I put that in capital letters to emphasize what everyone in Fiji truly believes I their more sane moments. Fiji is, for all intents, 50% Fijian and 50% Indian. In the 1990’s Fiji created a constitution that was truly multicultural. The first president of Fiji with Indian blood in his veins was elected and it was beginning to look like Fiji had made or was poised to make a leap few countries ever make to a racially mixed, racially blind democracy. It was not to be. The Fijian party controls the police and the army and most of the land in Fiji is controlled and communally owned by Fijians leaving Indians as permanent second-class citizens. The coup of 2000 effectively removed all Indians from the government and sent packing hundreds of Indian businessmen with investments on the islands. The Fijian counsel of Chiefs, that holdover from pre-Colonial days now appoints the President who may or may not accept the Prime Minister elected by parliament. Democracy is a fragile form of government, there will always be people who don’t like the outcome of popular expression and will seek to pervert its institutions.
Aruind’s sister had been employed in a textile factory that closed soon after the coup and has not reopened. Working in the textile factory was almost the only hope of attaining a middle class income and life style in Fiji. We, in America, may scoff at textile workers earning a small fraction of what we do but to them it is a lot of money. Just $2.00 US an hour would bring an income more than the national average in Fiji.
Time was running out but before I could go I had to have more kava. Aruind explained that beer and wine were too expensive for the average Fijian so kava was the national drink for everyone, Indian and Fijian alive. We all clapped and I was handed the small coconut filled with the dusty liquid, which I chugged. Aruind made his kava considerably stronger than the kava I had had in Nadi. My lips were immediately numbed. “What is this supposed to do,” I asked? Aruind laughed and said, “It’s very good for family planning. It numbs everything”
I needed to use the facilities, which gave me the opportunity to explore the house. I’ve already described the “living room.” The bedrooms were unadorned mattresses on the wooden floor with a small bureau. The kitchen was in an adjacent corrugated steel covered porch with a hibachi. The facilities I was seeking were behind the house in a separate row of “outhouses” with flush toilets. A small Indian neighbor girl, giggling with curiosity waved at me from her back yard.
It was dark as we left the house. On the way to the airport I asked Aruind how well he could read if I sent him a letter. “Dear boy,” he said, “I passed the fifth form.” That’s 11th grade I thought, I’ll have to send him a postcard … and some auto parts.
The airplane ride home was uneventful. If there was turbulence I slept soundly through it. I had left Nadi airport at 10:30 P.M. on a Saturday evening. I arrived at 6:00 A.M Monday morning in Boston. I have a seven-hour jet lag or is it 17 hours and it snowed 10 inches last night.