A quick flash back from my Diwali trip months ago...
I returned to my settlement of Naqio for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The mini-bus trip from Suva to Nausori occurred with only one note-worthy incident: I left my rain coat on the mini-bus, which is now the property of some lucky rider or Toyota Hiace driver. My rain coat, an obnoxious brickish red color, never suited me or my personality... I bought it on advice from Jay-Rocc who was accompanying me on my first winter SAR training in the Adirondacks. Given the choice between distinguishing myself as the only team member to die during a training because he could not be found in white-out conditions or being found alive because of his obnoxiously colored jacket and ridiculed for the rest of his life, I decided to hedge my bets, get the red jacket and consider the option of taking it off and burying it with my dying breath- thus avoiding the ignominy of the latter situation.
Aesthetics aside, it's unfortunate that my jacket is lost because the rainy/cyclone-y season has begun. It's been raining cats and dogs here and I could really use a rain coat*. I like rain coats because umbrellas are goofy looking and tend to blow inside out leaving me sheepishly holding what looks like a giant, water logged and decidedly dead, mechanical bat; its metal bones all busted and bent out of shape.
Diwali, as I already said, is the Hindu Festival of Lights. Lord Ram, a prominent deity in the Hindu faith, returned from exile in the forest. Dubbed "the darkest night" in Hindu religious lore, Lord Ram's return was marked with celebrations and festivities; many lights were lit. So what does this mean now? Lights, fireworks, and prayer services- all beautiful to behold.
By lights I mean "christmas lights"- though it feels strange describing the decorations of one religious holiday using the terminology of another. The houses in the settlement were stringed with the blinking lights, unspoken but apparent attempts at one-up-manship being self evident.
As could be expected, my family's house was full-on spiffed, made further still by the jury rigged, spliced together strings of lights my dad had set up. I should have figured something like this would happen- my house in the settlement is the American equivalent of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. I'm not going to defend the last statement, because, 1, it's true, and 2, as we all know, every family has some amount of dysfunction (insert now deleted anecdotal family story). My dad's behavior is also kind of endearing, even though it provides the grist for ample bitter roti, rolled and cooked at different times throughout the settlement.
The jury-rigged lights: So, dad comes out, and starts hitting me with questions about whether or not we can splice christmas lights together. I didn't really know the answer. Even though we had just successfully trouble-shot the string that would only half work due to a wayward bulb, I wasn't feeling too confident. I didn't think we really needed to start cutting and splicing anyway- I considered the situation from the General Hospital perspective. .. "but doctor, is the surgery really necessary?"... in this case yes... hell yes. The alternative, taking down the lights and re-orienting them so that the plugs aligned properly, just wasn't an option; and besides, we were supposed to start drinking grog in twenty minutes. There simply wasn't enough time.
Now, the last time I was electrically shocked was when I was about four years old and I was up at my uncles apartment listening to ZZ-Top, fantastical stories, and the voice telling me to dump the entire glass of milk on the carpet. I have faint memories of a tingle-y feeling going up my arm when I pulled two cords apart but that was it.
Flash back to 2010 Fiji. Dad just juiced the line and I wasn't paying attention. I've had 28 years of accumulated knowledge reinforcing the notion that the metal, prong end of a cord is no threat. It's not a threat because the male end goes into the female end [...tee-hee] of the wall outlet. Unless one is particularly diligent about putting something metal into the outlet end, or have particularly wet fingers, there's nothing to worry about. This common wisdom, incubated in a culture of Westernized electrical safety codes neglects the perfect storm of spliced Diwali lights, an imminent grog sesh, and a boorish but endearing (and quite electrically crafty) father.
So it seems my elbow, as I later pieced it together, brushed the live metal prongs of the exposed male end of one of the light strings. My arm spasmed backward and out, like someone had pinched the nerve in my elbow with channel locks. My mind ran through possible threats. Bees, *******ed kids, nervous system melt-down, or, possibly, an act of God. Then I realized what had happened. Everyone laughed at me and my response in the sort of good humored way that says, hahaha dance whitey!
Not true. I made the last part up. I actually don't know what my host family was thinking, obviously the weren't concerned like I was- but as I already stated and refuted in a previous blog entry, I'm a micro-managing kill joy in the safety department. Want to know what I was thinking? I was thinking... well I can't remember what I was thinking at that point, but as I walked off rubbing the singe mark that the electrical arc had traced on my forearm I did consider that in these parts a choking person is repeatedly slapped on the top of the head in order to clear their airway; I can't imagine what the response for an electrically induced cardiac arrest would be.
I walked off, rubbing my sore arm, it was time to visit Ram. Not Lord Ram, Ram my neighbor; whose English is as good as my Hindi, putting our verbal interactions somewhere between the predictable and absurdist.
Prior to the light incident, I met my first developmentally disabled child in Fiji. Dad and my sisters along with a Fijian boy named Galo walked up the road to visit a native Fijian family to borrow an extension cord. I swear the cord we got was made using bakelite- Hey, remember that stuff? Probably not since they stopped using it in the 40's. As we approached the drive way, Galo made some wise crack about the kid. My mom, my real mom, is a speech pathologist who has worked with developmentally disabled kids for ages- including, at different times and for different reasons, my dad, sister, and myself so I felt pretty comfortable around folks with these disorders.
On top of that, my Uncle Jerry- actually my great uncle, now deceased, was mentally retarded. Having him in my life was very important. It was his presence along with the vicarious experiences I got hearing my mom's work stories that evaporated the fear these sorts of conditions can provoke in children... thus helping to tame the ignorant and hurtful views many of us carry into adulthood. It also permanently stunted my ability to come up with hilarious Helen Keller jokes like so many of my hurtful and funny peers.
As we approached the house, the family inside gathered on the porch to see what two little Indo-Fijian ragamuffins [my awesome tom-boy sisters], a goofy looking white guy, our soon to splice father, and a rotund Fijian boy wanted.
As dad was chatting, I caught a glint of something in the window. The majority of the residential windows in this country are made up of rectangular glass louvers [I know what a louver is because my dad, my real dad, pointed them out on the side of a white Ferrari Testerosa model I had as a kid]. These glass louvers open up at an angle so that when they are closed, the window looks flat, but when opened, the rectangles of glass pivot on an angle to let air in. The glint was from two large, watery eyes staring at me- accompanied by this sight was a vibrating, buzzing noise that I couldn't place. In the shadows, a little figure was eyeing us and sucking on the glass louver of the window.
I was taken by surprise but I didn't show it because demonstrating that sort of response isn't baller. I called out- "hey buddy!" but the child just sort of slunk back into the shadows. I can't remember if the child was brought outside or not- it's been weeks and weeks now... but I do recall the buzzing sound which I couldn't place. I was considering what sort of disorder the child could have as we left the homestead and headed back to our settlement. No one mentioned the child and when I asked if he was enrolled in any sort of special school I got a negative. These schools do exist in Fiji, the Sunshine Special School comes to mind immediately because another FRE8 and friend is placed there.
That night, the lights were all a-twinkle and the settlement was filled with native Fijian boys who had come in from the surrounding villages, lured by candy and fireworks. The Indos in the settlement have good relationships with their neighbors, but there is a common sense approach to having large amounts of strange village boys about [don't leave your sandals out]. I had brought sparklers for the kids in the settlement but I was mobbed by little shadows, their hands outstretched, asking for freebies. Of course I obliged- I'm not a dick.
Periodically I would stop throwing fireworks at my sisters (they were the non-pyrotechnic Snaps... see last comment) or giving away my sparklers to hungry shadows to go drink grog with pop. I was heartened when, who should show up, but our neighbor with her child that sucks on glass louvers.
The interactions between the little boy, his mother, and the Diwali festival was fascinating. The little boy was having a blast. I think. He definitely was over-stimulated but I couldn't blame him. We all sort of were. There were lights everywhere, sparklers, noise and occasionally fire-crackers. I remember the Diwali lights reflecting in little twinkles off his large eyes as he looked around, completely a-gog... "Maaaaaa- Maaaaaa" he would say. The buzzing sound I learned, was actually made by him- it was loud and a bit unsettling at first. The crowd of men around the grog bowl took it all in stride. I couldn't tell if this was because they took the boy's condition for what it was, or whether they were exhibiting some sort of "it's taboo to recognize this child's existence" approach. I honestly think it was the former as everyone was friendly to the mother, tolerant to her child and respectful of the buzzing noises. I can't fault people for remaining silent when they don't know how to engage a developmentally disabled Fijian child (I ran out of things to talk about after "bula" but was quick with the smiles in follow up), so their behavior was really encouraging to me and one more example of the many reasons why my family, our neighbors and the entire province of Rewa is super cool.
Oh by the way- my sisters and I set off one of the largest "bombs" of the night- a multi-shot piece of pyrotechnic art that caused gasps from the adults, screams of terror from the darkness of the road, and a chaotic scramble of little bodies from the Diwali equivalent of shock and awe. To quote Dick Marcinko, it was like the Fourth of July, Bastille Day and the Queen's ******ed Jubilee all at the same time.
Well... I thought so. It was beautiful. We did everything right too, but we still had to push kids back because, in every culture, they have a tendency to want to hunker down and look...really look... directly at whatever it is an Indo-Fijian girl and a goofy white guy are trying to light on fire. I left the actual lighting of the projectile in the capable hands of my youngest sister- something which is probably causing some people to sweat and swallow hard over but was a good decision on reflection. She was competent and I was needed for the pressing task of crowd control. Ha! Pressing. English, I re-discovered, is nowhere near as good as a gentle but firm push of bodies when dealing with twenty-odd excited adolescent boys. Once the fireworks started cooking off however, the light and sound took over and provided enough incentive for everyone to step back to a safe distance and enjoy the show- or run about in complete kid glee.
As the fireworks capped off the Diwali celebration, I listened, watched and savored the chaos... it was my favorite kind. Joyful.
*p.s. My new Marmot Aegis rain coat will be returning with my favorite PCVL in January. The color? A dignified white-ish"granite' color... I decided to hedge my bets with all this green jungle...