48. All aboard!

First thing I did was surrender my suitcase at the entry level and having checked my ticket, it was accepted and my hands were free.  I came back down to the wharf where my family and friends, who had come directly to the docks, were waiting.  

Saying the this-time-for-real goodbyes to the family before climbing the gangplank was rough to say the least, especially seeing my mother’s face and knowing this was, once again, tearing her up … it hurt.  

Then there is my sweet Noori.  I was closest to her now than ever before and knowing how dearly she loved me didn’t make this farewell any easier.  

The loudspeaker blurted out the commencement of pre-boarding for those passengers who were already residing on that ship from the previous port.  My heart skipped a beat and I can only imagine what my mother, sisters and brother and Noori’s hearts were doing.  

“Send us a postcard!”  someone said.  “Don’t forget to write!” said another.  “Remember us and return soon …”  trailed another voice.  It was time to say our final (such a word!) goodbyes.  

One by one I went to each person, young and old, hugging, kissing and wiping tears and making the repetetive promise to take care of myself and return sooner than later.  

Do you know there were a few of my family members whom I had never in my life, witnessed them shed a tear up till just now.  How heart-wrenching.  It was a long line-up of dear ones and then I get to my brother and my sisters.  

I had never seen my brother cry either and in our embrace he poured which of course caused me to cry my eyes out too!  My dear sister-in-law stood by him silently crying.  To make her smile I told her I’d miss her meals as no one could touch her cooking where I was going.  It worked.

I gave my brother a personal promise; whether or not he wanted it I would send money to assist so that he wouldn’t have to miss me that way and I reminded him that I will definitely call for him as soon as I have settled.  

To my sisters I told them how much I loved them and would miss them (I knew my little sister would be the one writing to me) and to all my nieces and nephews I laid down the promise of goodies from America.

My mother, my dearest, most precious mother.  I don’t have to tell you about the nonstop tears there.  She said to me, “Maybe I’m not going to be here when you come back.”  What a stab in my heart, I had that coming.  

I knew I’d better say something comforting and quick!  ‘Amma don’t worry please.  I promise you as I have made the same to Noori that I will be back in two years to marry her.’  

Noori was naturally standing there right beside my mother.  That statement brought a gentle smile to my crying mother’s face … and to Noori’s.

It was nearly 4 o’clock and the steamship whistle sounded.  The call for all to board was heard and went through my bones.  Noori and I embraced, tightly, she cried a lot and we repeated our love statement for one another.  ‘I will see you soon Noori.’  I assured her and she assured me in return, “I will wait for you Gary.”

Orsova ticket to.. 1959I began my ascent of the gangplank and I could hear all the crying.  I made my way to the top deck of the ship.  Boxes of streamers were laid out for the passengers to throw as their departing gesture and final tie being broken … well that’s what it felt like to me.

I grabbed half a dozen of those paper streamers and made my way to the railing of the ship, obviously dockside.  The Fiji Military band had begun a tune and the mood was set.

I see my people down there on the wharf and I can tell they’re searching for my face among the many.  A couple of the excited children spot me waving and point me out to the rest.

The Orsova horn -that sound- was blasted again, twice.  It was 4:45p and the gangplank would go up in five minutes.  I hold one end of each streamer and then begin to throw them towards the crowd, in the general direction of my family and friends.

Then the departing song Isa Lei began.  A man had caught one of my streamers and as though by fate, handed it to Noori.  She may not have caught one on her own, I don’t know and I had no idea who he was.

The big rope at the stern was first released and the ship begins a controlled slip away from the dock.  The tears and emotions for nearly everyone present were uncontrollable.  It’s such a haunting piece of music and the way the lyrics are sung, one cannot help but to lose it.

Isa is God in Fijian.  A feeling of hearts full of pleasure and return right away and your absence will bring pain … that kind of a feeling, very haunting you know.   

“Why did you come if you have to leave …”

The band is still playing and the streamers have been flying.  Now the stern has been released as the ship pulls away under it’s own complete power.
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You know this goodbye with Noori reminded me of 1953, nearly the same scenario up in Vancouver with Sonia.  I had said to her I would return to her and that we would run away and get married.  Sonia had said she would hide me from everyone.  This felt a lot like the same and I really didn’t want to suffer that love lost once again.

15. One Last Song For Gary

Saturday evening had arrived and it was the 15th of May.  Noori has asked my brother if she could sing a song for me -well, presented as a song for all- before we leave the house and I enter my new life.

He said yes, seeing no problem with that.  Earlier Noori excused herself with my sister, she would not attend the wedding ceremony or celebrations.

Her passionate voice sang a song from an Indian movie made only the year before and it went something like this:  *Raja ki aayegi baaraat, rangili hogi raat, magan main nachoongi ho, magan main nachoongi…”

She sang it all the way through but by the middle of the song I have to tell you, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house, especially mine… and Noori’s.  Only later did I find that my mother knew why.

It was like I was wearing lead shoes not to mention the heaviness of my heart but I also knew, the promised **baaraat had to leave my house now in all its pageantry and head directly to the bride-to-be’s house.

Goodnight dear, sweet Noori.

The marriage ceremony took place as planned.  It lasted about an hour and a half.  Yes it does and can even go up to 2 hours in some instances.  Another time perhaps.

At the end of the ceremony my bride was taken into her house and I did not see her again the rest of that night.  At this point of the evening, amidst the congratulations and what-have-you, the entire baaraat and all guests were fed a wonderful and fulfilling vegetarian dinner.

Arrangements have been made for myself and a few male members of the wedding party to slumber outdoors.  Of course for me and some others, we slept underneath protective mosquito nets.  Don’t worry, this is Fiji; it’s nice and warm!

The women from my side of the family have returned to my household for the night; there will be much to do when they awake!  Sunday morning arrived swiftly and ^kichari was the traditional meal which was served.

It was about brunch time now.  I have not yet seen Hemma since we were wed last night; we will not be sharing this meal together either.  Tradition.

Although the delicious food has been laid out on the table before me and my guests, no one eats.  I have to take the first mouthful.  But even I cannot start because I must wait.

You must be wondering, now what?  So I’ll tell you: in the tradition (at least it was practiced back then and before that even) the guests put money on the table in front of the groom, one at a time; a gift-giving game in good fun.

And from just beside me, I’m being pinched and coached:  Very much in the capacity of a best man, my adopted+ brother’s given duty was to take full & proper charge of all my needs.  This responsibility was met with great honor and dignity for him, as it was for me to receive it.

So he sits beside me to watch closely each denomination laid in my presence.  With each note I got a pinch from him to say, “That’s not enough!”

And so the cash keeps coming in until the note laid down is big enough to stop the nipping, thank goodness!  Finally my brother approves and says, “Now you can eat!”

Good thing too because by this time we were all very hungry and so I take the leading bite!

Not long afterwards my bride Hemma comes out of her house, escorted by the ladies.  It is time to wrap this part of the wedding up neatly and make the initial journey to my house; our home.  The goodbyes are said.

Whoever is still here from the baaraat goes with Hemma and myself to our house.  The first part of the journey was by car and then we walked the remainder of the way; it’s not as far as it sounds.

It wasn’t a bad walk for that path had been cleared out for the most part – it was now nothing like the school boy days when I had to ‘hike’ through there;  you remember that, right?!

That evening my wife sleeps in another room with the girls of my family; we are still not together.  The next morning her family comes to take her back to their house.  Yes you guessed it, tradition.

Before they can leave however the in-laws are invited in and served a variety of fresh & hot, delicious and hearty snacks with tea of course.  About an hour later, they have left with my new and still very young wife.

The remaining folk in my home now are those who live here, a few family members and some friends to hang around, help out and enjoy the petite celebrations and with more eating of course!  Now we can go back to our regular diet and have a drink= or two if we wanted.

It’s also time for me to wrap my head around thoughts of my new life.  Hemma is away for a full week.  Last of the ‘tradition’ call and …I am really married.

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*Raja ki aayegi baaraat (the king’s wedding procession will arrive), rangili hogi raat (the night will be colorful-festive), magan main nachoongi ho, magan main nachoongi (transfixed, I will dance),… and as song approaches its end,  the lady is singing that she’ll be dancing alone because of something like, a blow to the heart, rainfall (tears) in her eyes, the night will be dark and so she’ll dance alone.  Pretty darned sad if you ask me.

1953 Credit where it’s due:    LYRICS: Shailendra & Hasrat Jaipuri    MUSIC: Shankar Jaikishan                     ~  If possibly there’s an error with these credits, someone please let me know – thanks much!

**baaraat    Groom’s wedding party

+adopted brother    elder than my blood brother, he was the son of (one of) my father’s best friends.  My mother practically raised him.  This relation was born from a very strong bond forged on the ship which my father traveled from 🇮🇳 on;  you would’ve read about those relationships in the Pilot Episode (archives).

^kichari    traditional dish served day after the wedding.  It is rice and dal (spiced lentils) prepared  together; see?  A symbol of unity.

= a drink    as with the mandatory vegetarian meals, so too alcohol consumption is not allowed.

And there is more thing:     LBM never, ever liked for his food which was served hot, to become cold.  To this day he still very much does not like that, not one bit!  Just imagine him as a restaurant owner?  LOL – think you would be let back in as his guest if you did not dig-in immediately upon being served?

4. Friendships and a Conch Shell 🐚 Lamp

Oh you can imagine my joy and Stéphane must’ve seen that all across my young brown face.  He invited me to join him for some refreshments in the officer’s lounge and well I certainly was up for that; what a privilege this would be!  I recall he spoke briefly into an intercom.

About 20 minutes had passed, I was completely relaxed and absorbed into my surroundings when a knock came upon the door.  It was a steward.  He wheeled in a cart laden with delicious looking cakes, sweet treats, sandwiches, fruits and soft drinks.  Oh you know I was in heaven; what pure delight for this young man that I once was.

Stéphane and I spoke of many things.  I asked him so many questions yet he remained patient with me, answering all that he could.  A delightful friendship was indeed born and from then on whenever he returned on his ship to Suva, he brought gifts for me and occasionally for my family members as well.

He brought for me shirts, tins of nuts, a colorful beaded belt from Hawaii, tee shirts, socks, a few muumuus for my mother and my sister-in-law and a pair of American sandals I remember well.  He treated me just like a little brother.

I brought Stéphane home a few times for visits and always a delicious meal with the family.  When I first met him, he was single.  He eventually married and permanently resided to Hawaii.  He remained a family friend for years.

My nephew years later, would stay with Stéphane and his family many times whenever he went to Hawaii.  Monsieur Vieuxmaire, a wonderful soul indeed!  I had felt it before and it proved to be a good lesson in trusting my first instinct.

In the meantime my brother although employed full time at the local watchmaker and jeweler’s shop, would make Tortoise shell buttons, watch bands, cuff links and combs on his time off away from the shop.  He had set up a specific crafting area for this in our home.  He also made the most beautiful Conch shell lamps with shells he’d find along the shore.

I’d sell these by way of a mobile cart, which also housed a glass case, made particularly to display the jewelry and special items.  At the end of each worked day I’d leave my cart inside my brother-in-law’s business garage, the one that’s near to the docks at the Port of Suva, remember I mentioned it earlier?

One Sunday morning as the day passengers disembarked from the ship to visit Suva, a nice couple approached my cart.  This in of itself was nothing different than usual but they were taken in a good way, with all I had on display in my cart.  After a few moments of eyeing the goods they told me they’d revisit me on the way back to the ship, later in the afternoon.

Thinking nothing different, I went about my vending.  The day ships had a five o’clock evening sailing time.  It was sometime after 3 in the afternoon when I spotted that same couple and I could see them heading in my direction.  Along their stroll back to the ship they stopped to visit some of the other vendors.

At last they arrived at my cart.  They looked over the remaining items in my case and then the gentleman asked me, how much did I want for everything on my cart.  I opened my mouth to respond but no words fell out.  To be honest, I had no idea what to say either.  I finally managed a reply, ‘Everything?’

He responded, “Yes, how much for all of it?” Again not sure of exactly what I should say, out came $350.00 and that’s when he smiled, reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of American dollars.  He began counting each bill into my hand; one, two, three, four and I’m thinking now, ‘what to do?!’

I realize I cannot break a one hundred dollar bill and as I looked into his eyes, I’m sure he saw my slight distress.  After placing one more bill on the stack in my hand, he assured me that the $500 is the final price he’ll pay for the entire contents of my cart.

I know I don’t have to translate to you just how much money that was in those days!  I happily wrapped all the goods in the newspaper that I kept just for this purpose -still a bit of disbelief going on here- and they lovingly placed the items into their bags.  They even got the last Conch shell lamp and I have to say here, this was the best treasure of all the things that my brother crafted!

In parting the gentleman handed me his card and said, “Keep in touch ma’boy!” His voice was soothing, warm and sincere and I could feel it.  They walked away towards the ship and of course I immediately closed up my mobile shop.

Even after the fact, I am still unbelieving the recent stroke of fortune!  I wheel my cart over to the garage and was immediately questioned by my brother-in-law as to my completely empty cart.

I proudly told him that I sold everything today!  He smiled, “Very good.”  I then caught the bus to go home.  Later that evening when I saw my brother, I gave him all the money.  As I’m sure you can imagine, he was completely surprised.  He then gave me some pocket money and well, it was a good day for us all!

I had kept a box; you know a safe place for my collectibles, personal treasures and whatever.  Well in that box I had placed the card that gentleman gave me.  It must’ve been about 1950 when I pulled that card out of this box and as I looked it over, I asked myself, ‘What is this J.C. Penny anyhow?’  It was near instant that I realized there was one person who would know for sure.

So the next time Stéphane was back in Suva I asked him about it.  He informed me J.C. Penny is a chain of department stores in America.  Wow!  My mind was blown.  I shared the story of that day with him.  He said that person could have been any one of the store’s many corporate level employees by the sound of my description.

Stéphane also told me he loved knowing that he had a really wonderful friend and welcoming family to visit in the lovely Fiji Islands.

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Hello.  Thanks everyone for your patience this evening.  It took a while to get this post up due to technically challenged equipment but next weekend’s timing should be back just fine.  I hope everyone had a perfect Thanksgiving.  Until next Sunday evening then, take care!

>Tortoise shell items: We want you to know as knowledge comes into daily practice and with age we can hope, wisdom comes along; neither of us support harming animals.