The play: "Darkness Lifting." Commissioned by Habitat for Humanity
International for their 25th Anniversary.
Fiji conjures up images of luxurious beach resorts, tastefully concealed amid
palm trees and offering infinite beaches during the day and torch lit tiki bars
at night. Friendly native voices waft in from across the island, always singing
in the breeze that is always blowing gently in your direction, as the waiter who
always knows when your glass is less than half full offers: "Sir, can I offer
another Mai-Tai for you, and another Singapore Sling for the lady?"
In fact, Fiji is a third world country dotted with remote villages whose
inhabitants will probably never see the inside of the places that attract
foreign tourists. The indigenous culture of Fiji has a storied history of
superstition and mythology. The British brought Christianity in a wave of
colonization, but not before encountering the unique beliefs of the native
population, including the belief that cannibalization of ones enemy was a form
Now, Fiji is an odd combination of British influenced native culture. Upon
entry to any village, a guest must first participate in the native kava ceremony
whereby the visitor is introduced to the tribe and his or her intentions are
made clear. If all goes well, a bowl of kava is shared between the participants
that signify the visitor's acceptance into the village. The kava plants grow
wild in Fiji, and the root is ground into a powder that is placed in a porous
cloth and soaked in water like a tea bag. Servings are taken from a large
ceremonial bowl, and a series of ritualistic phrases and claps must take place
in a particular manner before and after the kava is consumed. In addition,
participants never show the open end of their feet towards the chief and they
always bow as they enter the bure hut, the meeting area of the village where the
ceremony takes place.
Concurrently, on Sundays one can hear the ethereal notes of Christian hymns
sung in a uniquely Fijian manner. Songs are chosen from the traditional
Methodist hymnals in churches usually built at the highest point of the village.
The British also brought with them an Indian sub-culture to assist in working
the sugar plantations. Their co-existence among the native populations has been
tumultuous. Although many of the shops on the island are owned by the prosperous
Indian merchant class, this group of people is forbidden from owning land. This
issue has led to conflicts and government instability.
But the workings of the official government of Fiji may have little effect on
the lives of many of the islands inhabitants, whose lives are more directly
controlled by the mandates of village life. The village operates in a communal
manner with a strict hierarchy of authority. Specific rules for life in the
village are enforced from within, and the needs of the individual are addressed
collectively by the group, provided that individual is living within the
mandates of the community. Each village is, in essence, its own nation state
replete with its own economy, welfare state, laws and justice system. Thus, when
one enters a village through participation in the kava ceremony, he or she
becomes a part of something much bigger and all-inclusive.
I had traveled to as many as thirty or forty different countries when I came to
Fiji, my journey to his village showed me that the real difference in experience
comes less from the place visited and more from how one visits the place. Like
most people traveling abroad, I typically had a hotel room into which I could
retreat at any point in my travels. This served as a type of fortress, allowing
me to address the newness of the experience at my own pace by allowing me to
close everything out whenever I chose to put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my
door. Generally speaking it is hard to find a place in the world that is devoid
of the familiar voice of CNN, or a place without an internet connection which
affords immediate access to the familiar. In modern travel it is difficult to
ever leave your world entirely no matter how many miles you put between yourself
and your home.
In addition, as travelers we tend to bring with us a lot of our own stuff,
which further provides a sort of insulation between ourselves and places we have
traveled to. An upset stomach still leads to Pepto-Bismol here just as it does
on the Tibetan plain. No matter where in the world you may find yourself, a
stuffy nose creates a choice between Sudafed, Benedril, or Allgera. Our bags are
usually jam-packed with familiar items designed to address any potential
circumstance. In some ways, modern travel can be reduced to attacking the
unfamiliar with the familiar.
In Fiji, we stumbled jet-lagged into a place that was absolutely removed from
our world. In the sweltering heat, a man we hardly knew spoke in Fijian to the
villagers about our intentions for the visit. There was chanting, a clapping of
hands, a call and response, until suddenly a villager stood before us and
offered a coconut shell of grayish-looking water that we would have done
anything in the world not to drink. As the narcotic content of the kava numbed
our throats, we realized that there would be no hotel room to which we could
retreat; that we were becoming a part of something that was so far from our
world we could have never even imagined it.
Living in a village is to surrender any and all walls to your existence. Our
group slept on cement floors of the huts with as many as ten people in the room.
There were two outhouses in the village, and an evening walk to either
inevitably meant stepping on a frog or worse. Once a member of the village, you
were welcome in the home of anyone else in the village, and conversely, they
were welcomed in your home, along with their chickens, pigs, goats, and other
living sources of nourishment. There was no electricity in most of the homes and
there was one tap of water at the far end of the village.
The experience made me realize how very insular we tend to be as a culture.
Our homes are separated by acreage, fences, hedges, security systems, and the
social norms that cause us to appear shocked and offended when someone simply
shows up at our doorstep without having called first.
When confronted with this new communal and unfamiliar lifestyle, the first
tendency is to try and establish some sort of boundary. If nothing else, I
managed to pile my belongings between myself and my Fijian roommate (floor mate
actually) whose snoring could be said to have awoken the livestock in the next
village ten miles away. But the true freedom came in letting go to the
experience by allowing myself to become a part of the village and thus to
experience the freedom from self that is offered through communal living. Once I
was able to simply let go of the concept of separation, I found a world waiting
for me that I had never before known.
My writing was largely inspired by simply living the life of the village and
seeing things as I had never seen them before. It was interesting to note, for
example, the effect of bringing an electric fan to one of the two places in the
village that had electricity and witnessing how it created a variety of needs
within the village that led to conflict. Prior to the purchase, nobody knew they
needed the things the fan was suddenly causing them to fight over.
In addition, I did many interviews in the village. I was particularly struck
by the story of one elder who was reminded of the time the American troops were
stationed in Fiji during World War Two. He had befriended a GI from New York,
whose stories of fifty-story buildings and subterranean people-moving vehicles
caused great concern among the villagers great concern about the man's sanity.
The G.I. managed to bring a movie of New York to the village, along with a
projector and generator which his platoon had used for R.R. What ensued as the
villagers saw on the wall of their hut that which they could never have imagined
was one of the great world-changing events that can only occur when people step
outside their lives and befriend the unfamiliar.
The Play: Darkness Lifting