Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji Popular Posts

The Time I Flashed Fijian Chiefs

“If you need to get up and pass by the tanoa, you must pass on the left side. Make sure you crawl, kneel, or bow down as you pass the bowl. It’s a sign of respect to the service going on around you. Also, make sure you touch the bowl and say, Tulo, Tulo (pronounced chi-loh), as you go by. That means excuse me in Fijian. And it’s very important you respect the tanoa and its contents. They are thought to be mystical and powerful. You don’t want to abuse it.” Caroline smiled at me with her eyes and then tapped my notebook with her finger. “Write that down.”

I scribbled away in my tiny spiral notebook and gave a nod of thanks to the relative of Ro Mereani. She and the other women surrounding me laughed as I did this. This had become our bit. We’d sit at the back of the kava party (the customary place for women) and I’d ask elementary questions about the traditions I was witnessing and they would happily indulge me. They found my naiveté amusing and I guess I couldn’t blame them. My presence was very unusual for such a deeply ingrained tradition.

We were a few nights into the wake of David Jones. The actual funeral wouldn’t be held until next week (they had decided to have him cremated so his remains could be buried with Talei’s). Fiji’s first crematorium didn’t open until the following Monday, but the family had preceded with the typical mourning celebrations. It was custom to start the mourning period immediately after death, but that was because in the olden days the villagers didn’t have much time to bury the body before decay became a problem.

I did find it interesting that before this very week, there was no means of burning bodies in Fiji. The timing was eerie. But even more so, it was fascinating to me that cremation was foreign to the locals (finally– they understood how I felt, at least for a moment). Felix predicted there would be camera crews and many strange observers at the funeral. He even surmised it’d make the papers.

“David would get a kick out of this,” Ro Mereani had said with a light in her eyes unseen to me before. “He always liked unusual things and he would have been thrilled to be the first customer of the crematorium.” I found this whole thing very strange.

Luckily I’d adopted (or was working on) a new attitude. After getting past the initial shock of my situation, I decided to take on an anthropological approach to the experience. After all, I was getting an unbarred, uncensored look into the traditional workings of a Fijian funeral.

As morbid as it was, there was much to learn here. And who knew when I would have a chance to immerse myself like this again? So I stuffed my handy-dandy notebook in my jean pocket and kept a pen in the binding just in case. All I needed was a blue dog and I was set to have an adventure. (Clearly I’ve been hanging out with a three year-old too much).

But I was convinced to get the most out of this and document all I could. Like Elizabeth Gilbert said in Eat, Pray, Love, “I’m lucky that at least I have my writing.”

As was becoming routine, the night brought a living room full of village guests and relatives. And though it was a somber occasion it was less formal than I’d expected. D’Tui was watching Looney Toons. Some of the daughters of the villagers were on their Facebook pages. I smiled to myself. I guess even for all that’s different there are some things that are still universal.

The first night it had just been Mereani’s brothers (the chiefs of the nearby villages) and immediate family. Regardless, they must have gone through three bags of kava and spent hours at the tanoa. The second night the Herald clan had shown up along with the chiefs. They discussed with Felix, Mereani, and the elders what was to be said to the villagers about David’s death. They then went back and officially announced the wishes of the family.

Ro Mereani specifically requested no gifts. “Everyone shows up with dakua mats and food and its exasperating. I have mats and food. I don’t need those things but it’s tradition,” she had explained to me one morning. Villagers had shown up with fresh fish anyway. And like any good host she accepted their thoughtful gestures.

The mixer of the kava wanted to get up to smoke so Felix took over temporarily. “That’s a new rule,” Caroline said. “The chiefs decided that all smoking should be done outside as a sign of respect. But we never leave the bowl unattended.” This used to be done to prevent the mix from getting poisoned, back when kava was only available to the chiefs. But now it’s just considered bad luck.

I felt a faint ache in my back. We’d been sitting on the floor for hours. My butt missed chairs. Sitting on furniture wasn’t customary during grog sessions unless the elders were doing it and said it was okay. No-one could sit higher than the chiefs or elders. I stretched and pulled my knees up to my chest, propping my notebook on my knees. Feeling some relief, I went back to my note-taking. As was typical of FIjian gatherings, someone was snapping photos.

Tomorrow would be the fourth night of mourning. On that night, family members would give up a habit for the following 96 days (to complete a 100 day cycle of grief). I kept calling this Fijian Lent but the women looked at me blankly. They exchanged looks that said, “There goes the European girl saying strange things again.”

The grog server made his rounds through our gaggle of women with the coconut bowl. When he presented me with a drink I shook my head and gave the bowl back kindly. I was tapped out. “Maca,” Caroline said. “That means finished. You have to tell them you’re done before they serve you.” I bit my lip and realized I should have caught him sooner. I felt so full. But I set a smile on my lips and clapped as you were supposed to upon receiving a drink. I carefully took the coconut shell from him.

The Server waited patiently for me to finish, averting his eyes from actually looking at me. I gulped it down slowly, feeling my body slosh full of water and pepper powder. I felt a little nauseous. I handed it back and closed my turn with the customary three claps. He continued on, his eyes glued to the ground.

That was weird, I thought. Why won’t he look at me?

I went back to scribbling something on my notebook, not paying attention to what was going on in front of me. The room suddenly fell quiet. Ro Mereani shrieked.

“Hilary!!”

I looked up to see all eyes on me, mouths agape. “Yessss?” I started slowly, unsure what the deal was. Felix was craning his head to the side. What the hell is he doing?

“Sit like a lady!” Mereani said, almost beside herself with shock.

And that’s when I learned something.

Apparently sitting with my knees up against my body (as they were) in a sulu was a bad idea. My knees held the material for the front of the skirt up while the back of it lay uselessly on the floor.

I might as well been that stereotypical little girl lifting up her dress to show her underwear to party guests.

Shit.

My mind went straight into denial. This is a dream. This is the part where I wake up.

But the shocked faces and stunned expressions that dotted the room confirmed what I only hoped to be some twisted fantasy.

I JUST FLASHED THE CHIEFS.

No. Say it isn’t so…

But yes.

ALL THE FIJIAN CHIEFS JUST GOT A FULL VIEW OF MY ASS.

I scrambled to sit cross-legged and turned fifty shades of purple. Sala covered her mouth with her hand. The room was dead silent except for D’Tui’s Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner show. I wanted an anvil to fall on me.

“Oh- Oh my God… I am so sorry,” I stammered, suddenly getting hot and sweaty. “I didn’t realize…”

Then something happened I didn’t expect. The chief started laughing. He pointed at me and said something in Fijian to Felix. Felix started cracking up and the entire room followed with giggles and amusement.

I didn’t know what was happening. But the laughter didn’t make me feel better. Oh God, I thought, now they’re going to hex me. I’ve insulted the chiefs and now they’re ALL going to curse me.

I felt my body shrinking, my ego bursting, my soul crying inside. Was I dying? And if I wasn’t, when could I start? And where the hell was that anvil?

Felix wiped a tear from his eye and translated. “He said, ‘Well now we know she’s from Vegas after all.'”

I gave a choke of a laugh as the guests cackled again. I hid behind my hands in total embarrassment. But I still couldn’t help cracking a smile.

Caroline patted my back and chuckled. “It’s different here, eh?”

I nodded, my face still buried deep in my palms, on the verge of tears but also unable to quell a laugh.

Well, at least they all had a sense of humor.

50 Comments

  • Reply

    gene3067

    October 16, 2012

    Look at it this way. You definitely changed the mood.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      Haha! Yes, that I certainly did. But I swear I’ll never live it down. Oh, the embarrassment… But I have to admit, it is pretty funny.

      Have you ever had an embarrassing travel moment?

      • Reply

        gene3067

        October 17, 2012

        Does dancing down the streets of Boulder, Colorado count?

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 17, 2012

          Uh, no. Dancing is not embarrassing. Unless you’re naked. Or really drunk. Did this dancing in Colorado fall into one of those two categories? Then again, I am a dancer, so I may not be the person to ask =).

          • gene3067

            October 17, 2012

            LOL. I wasn’t drunk, just a teenager.

            Um. The closest thing i can think of was on my honeymoon. We were on the cruise’s “private island” and I teased my new wife by asking where were all the nude sunbathers. Suddenly some lady dropped her top as if on cue. My wife pointed her out and teased, “There you go. Go take a look.” I was so embarrassed that I walked a good 200 feet in the water to avoid any semblence of looking at her.

          • Hilary Billings

            October 22, 2012

            Ahahahahaha! How funny! Serves you right. Be careful what you ask for, eh? ;)

  • Reply

    Hailey

    October 16, 2012

    Ha ha! :) Made me laugh hehehe

  • Reply

    A Gracious Life

    October 16, 2012

    I think that was embarrassing but also charming altogether! lol. Lesson learned again. Don’t worry about it much.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      I like charming. Let’s go with that. =)

      I keep learning so much! Gosh, I hope I don’t have much more to learn… my brain is overloaded!

      I’m not worried per se- more just mortified. But at least we all had a good laugh. ;)

      What’s been your most embarrassing moment?

  • Reply

    stevenwwatkins

    October 17, 2012

    hilarious.

  • Reply

    Noventa Días Más

    October 17, 2012

    Haha that’s both really embarrasing and funny! I hope you realize the amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience you are living! I assume is not easy but as you said, try to live it as a social experiment! Enjoy and absorb experiences!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      Thanks so much for the great advice! Right now I’m just trying to swallow the experience and not forget anything. But I do know that I will never again have this raw of an opportunity to experience this!

      Have you had any embarrassing travel moments?

  • Reply

    Say Gudday

    October 17, 2012

    …………(struggles to hold it on)……..(still struggling)……..(not..nice…to…laugh….at…a…lady)……BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! sorry.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      It’s okay, you can laugh. It’s pretty funny. Leave it to the girl from Vegas to give the chiefs a show.

      I swear I’ll never hear the end of it. =)

      • Reply

        Say Gudday

        October 17, 2012

        Not if I have anything to do with it, you won’t! When are we going to start taping your adventures and make a web-series out of it. This episode alone would have gotten quite the viewership.

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 17, 2012

          Haha! As soon as I can get a proper video camera and editing program. =) Lots of things in store for the upcoming year, but I do need to get some sponsors to help achieve all these goals!

          • Say Gudday

            October 17, 2012

            I know a gaggle of indy filmmakers and documentarians that I could introduce you to. Just let me know when you are ready.

          • Hilary Billings

            October 17, 2012

            =) Do you think any of them would have interest in documenting a story like mine?

          • Say Gudday

            October 17, 2012

            You are funny, engaging and, if you come across on camera like you come across in type then you are gold, baby. Getting a ‘film crew’ will be the least of your problems.

          • Hilary Billings

            October 22, 2012

            =) =) =) What a wonderful compliment. Thank you so much!

  • Reply

    Troy in Las Vegas

    October 17, 2012

    Doh! :)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      Yeah… not my finest moment. =)

      Ever had any embarrassing blunders that you couldn’t live down?

      • Reply

        Troy in Las Vegas

        October 25, 2012

        And at least you were wearing panties. oh, wait. Please tell us you were! LOL
        And yes, once I introduced my new bride to a friend using my last girlfriend’s name. Oops

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 26, 2012

          Haha! I’m from Vegas, but I’m not a strumpet! Of course I was wearing them. I was wearing shorts too, but they weren’t helping much.

          Oh noooooo! That’s hilarious. And awful all at the same time, haha!

  • Reply

    Ingrid

    October 17, 2012

    I so enjoy your story telling abilities……… stilling smiling :-)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 17, 2012

      Thanks, Ingrid! I’m glad my post could make you smile.

      I greatly appreciate your sweet words. It’s always so wonderful to hear when your work is appreciated. =)

      Have you every had a blunder during your adventures?

      • Reply

        Ingrid

        October 17, 2012

        Daughter and I rented bikes on Mackinac Island MI 2 yrs ago, I no sooner start rolling, loose my balance, on the ground, legs in air spread….not a pretty pic! Daughter (who is about your age) could not contain her laughter!

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 17, 2012

          Oh no!!! That sounds pretty bad. But at least you were okay! And that memory is probably ingrained in your mind forever!

  • Reply

    October 20, 2012

    Be Easy, You, European Girl:) sometimes, i wonder why all this strange things happen to you:) ha ha ha:) it’s such a happy experience reading this post of yours… i want more.

    And, yes, next time, if you have to sit on the floor, be a little, a little careful:)

    Enjoy your adventures:)

    ashok

  • Reply

    ashoklaughswithlife

    October 20, 2012

    Be Easy, You, European Girl:) sometimes, i wonder why all this strange things happen to you:) ha ha ha:) it’s such a happy experience reading this post of yours… i want more.

    And, yes, next time, if you have to sit on the floor, be a little, a little careful:)

    Enjoy your adventures:) (and, by the way, you looking very pretty)

    ashok

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 22, 2012

      Thank you! I don’t know either, but I don’t mind. Strange means interesting. My life’s never boring, that’s for sure! And I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed the post. Sometimes sharing the epic fails is more rewarding than sharing the success, you know?

      And TRUST me… I feel like I’ve gotten a crash course in skirt floor sitting, haha! Have you ever had an embarrassing moment?

      And thank you so much for the sweet compliment! It’s greatly appreciated!

  • Reply

    travellingmo

    October 20, 2012

    That is hilarious! I love reading your blog. You certainly always keep me on my toes, crazy girl!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 22, 2012

      Thank you so much, friend! I swear I don’t intend to have such randomly up-and-down posts… life just seems to happen in such a manner where it works out in my favor. =)

      Do you have any embarrassing traveling moments you’d like to share with a shamed girl? Pretty please? ;)

      • Reply

        travellingmo

        October 26, 2012

        Not as embarrassing as yours, but I had been on my big Europe trip for about 5 days when we went to the National Gallery in London. I’d bought these awesome Doc Martins boots that weren’t properly broken in yet, and it was like walking in clunky moon boots. So naturally I was going down a set of stairs at the National Gallery, which is world famous and crowded with tourists, and suddenly time goes in slow motion as I realize I’m going to fall down the stairs . . . and I did. I tumbled down half a flight of stairs and did absolutely nothing to catch myself. It’s funny, it was pretty embarrassing to be sprawled at the bottom, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t hurt and I still thought the boots were badass. :)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 28, 2012

          Haha!! Well that’s a different way of breaking in some boots ;)

          Glad you’re okay! But definitely sounds like something worth laughing about nowadays. =)

  • Reply

    gumiii

    October 20, 2012

    Ah the true blue meaning of cultural exchanges. Ahaha!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 22, 2012

      Haha! Almost spit up my coffee reading your comment. =)

      Have you ever had any embarrassing moments while traveling?

      • Reply

        gumiii

        October 26, 2012

        Oh yes, there have been too many cringe worthy moments being on the road. I don’t remember mooning any village chieftain yet though. Hahah! Keep up the reports. I am enjoying your accounts of your Fiji adventure ;-)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          October 26, 2012

          Haha, yes I do believe these chiefs could count on one finger the number of times this has happened to them ;)

          And thank you for the kind words! I’ll be sure to keep you updated!

  • Reply

    gumiii

    October 21, 2012

    You forgot ze low hanging pants!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 22, 2012

      Haha! I’ve gotten in the habit of wearing pants underneath my sulus now. No more awkward moments for meeee!

  • Reply

    Suzy

    October 21, 2012

    Well at least you made everyone laugh! I would have been purple in the face too.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 22, 2012

      Haha, it’s all about looking on the bright side, right? And at least I don’t feel so alone now =). Thanks for commenting, Suzy! Do you have a most embarrassing moment?

  • Reply

    larkycanuck

    October 23, 2012

    Well look. Nothing to be ashamed about. My policy is if you got it flaunt it. As long as you were wearing your best and cleanest out of respect for the elders, all is good.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 24, 2012

      Hahaha! Well, luckily I was wearing board shorts under the skirt, but it was still pretty humiliating. But I’m not sure if the Fijian chiefs would agree with you, even though I see your point ;)

  • Reply

    […] ← Previous […]

  • Reply

    […] Women are required to wear skirts, sulus, or sarongs while living in villages. Some places you can’t wear hats or have your hair up in a ponytail. Luckily everyone had a sense of humor and was very forgiving when I flubbed up (including that time I accidentally flashed the chieftains). Check out this story here. […]

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About Me

About Me

Hey fellow adventurers, my name is Hilary! After being rejected from grad school, I took off on a solo journey around the world. Now I constantly challenge myself to take on new experiences. This blog documents my journeys from Europe to Fiji, swimming with sharks and living with tribes, to becoming an accidental beauty queen and working for one of the top national media outlets. If you like what you're reading, please subscribe! Here's to the next great adventure!

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