My Dinner With Kamal

Most of the people in Fiji live below what we call the poverty level in the States but they are the happiest people I know. Life just flows here without political or social distractions. My friend Kamal is a big hearted Indian/Fijian who drives a taxi to support himself, his wife and two children. He befriended me shortly after my arrival and invited me to dinner at his home.

Their home is made from the metal sheets used on the roof of my cabin, pieced together room by room. Kamal built most of it himself as money allowed. One of his brothers lives next door, his wife’s cousin next to him…you get the idea. Family is very important to the Fijians. (Everyone is astonished by my being here alone without a wife or family.) His home is very simply constructed on the hillside above Savusavu with a million dollar view of the bay. Here people think he has money but he does not. He works hard and does what he can to make ends meet. Their furniture reminded me of the furniture we had in our home during my youth. It was as if I had walked back into my childhood. Doilies on the arms and backs of the chairs just like we had on our furniture, vintage 1950. This evening we all sat on the floor as is the custom.

Kamal sat on the kitchen floor and I watched as he cut up the veggies and a chicken. He apologized for not having a live chicken and asked if the store brought chicken was okay. You can only get whole chickens in Fiji, not packaged parts as in the states. (It has been a while since I’ve cut up a whole chicken, so I will research the internet for instructions when I travel into town next week.) He asked if I mind the skin with the chicken as he knew some Americans did mind. I told him it was not a problem. His wife Nirleshni ground the spices and curry in a container and checked with me to see if the spices were too hot.

They shared the cooking on an open fire inside the kitchen. Most of the smoke goes outside thru the slatted wall behind the fire but not all as the ceiling was black from smoke. “Sometimes the wind blows the wrong way,” Kamal said somewhat apologetically pointing toward the ceiling. They used a long wooden tube to blow air into the fire to make it hot. I was reminded of the old bellows used by blacksmiths to fan their flames. They have a propane stovetop like the one in my cabin but the gas is expensive so they only use it occasionally. “Besides,” Kamal says, “the foods taste better when cooked on an open fire.” He was a chef at one point of his life. He speaks Hindi, Fijian, English and some Chinese which he learned while working ten years for a Chinese family.

His cousin and her uncle joined us. The food was placed on communal plates and we all shared the meal. I had purchased some beer and a bottle of gin for Kamal. His uncle poured all the men beer and they drank while I slowly sipped mine. Then I realized they would not pour themselves any more beer until I had finished. I was an honored guess. So I quickly finished my beer and the ritual began. As a guest I could not pour my own beer. Someone always poured it for me soon as my glass emptied. When I brought the beer, I asked for a twelve pack. I did not know a pack here is twelve quart bottles. The four of us finished them drinking from six ounce glasses. I was peeing all night. Because Kamal is a taxi driver and could lose his permit if he drinks and drives, he had arranged for another taxi driver to pick me up at his house and take me to my home. Good thing he told the driver where to drop me off because this was the first time I had returned to my home at night and there are no street lights here in the outskirts of Savusavu. The night was pitch black.

Kamal and his family are Hindu by culture and religion but he allows himself and his family to eat chicken and fish on special occasions. He wants his family to be “modern, with the times.”

So tonight we had fried fish, chicken curry w/veggies, roti bread (similar to tortillas), taro root (tastes like a mild sweet potato but has more vitamins) and another curry dish along with other assorted items whose names I don’t remember. The food was excellent and the company was grand.

Generally Indian women are not permitted to sit with the men but Kamal allowed his wife to sit with us because of my visit. She sat outside the circle of men. Fiji still has a very male centered culture. Whenever Nirleshni addressed me, she spoke first to Kamal in Hindi and he would interpret her query to me, but she understood my reply without translation. English is spoken or understood by almost everyone here because it was a British territory until the 70’s but the Hindu culture does not permit a married woman to speak directly to another man who is not a relative or family member.

Kamal has a brother in the States who told him you can walk for miles and never get your feet dirty because the walking paths are concrete. “Is that true?” he asks. They see America as the land of rich white people and think all Americans are wealthy. I told them, “I am not rich,” but by the economic standards here, perhaps  I am. They can’t believe the government supports me. (I am retired).  Kamal is depending upon his family members to support him when he can no longer drive a taxi and support them. He had a broken arm which has mended but was never placed in a cast and it causes him great pain. That is why he drives a taxi now instead of a bus which apparently paid more.

Kamal has a goat tied up in the yard eating the weeds and getting fat. They want to slaughter it in my honor at a special Hindu celebration in October, called Diwali or Festival Of Lights. That a family I have only known for a few days wants to honor me in such a manner is priceless and beyond any words I have.

This is Fiji, natural, untamed, and unpretentious in every way.