Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Streets of Suva - from a novel-in-progress

from Wendy
Here's an excerpt showing an American guy, Brad, walking around the streets of Suva, early morning, May 19 2000.

Brad decides that Suva is an amazing place: a city on a peninsular, with about a hundred thousand people. The city area is a mix of colonial style wooden buildings, high rise offices of cement block and glass, small shops crammed with goods and lights that pedestrians rarely obey. The city was not built tidily using a grid. It just seemed to have grown in an ad hoc manner. Traffic is chaotic, many drivers obsessively toot horns, call out as the vehicles crawl. Some streets twist around with single-fronted shops, mainly Indian, some Chinese, on each side, selling clothing, crafts, jewelry, cell-phones. Signage is in Hindi, Fijian, English Chinese. The shops seem to glow from within, full of trinkets from Asia. It's a little India for sure.

The shopkeepers seem pushy. 'Sir, come and buy. Bargains, all bargains. We'll do a special…' 'Bula' 'Oy, mate!' 'Come in sir!' Their voices rattle with a staccato consonant attack that makes the speakers sound argumentative.

A white woman with thin legs peers into a doorway as a trader entices her inside. Though she is dressed like a teenager in logo T-shirt and multi-coloured baggy pants, Brad guesses she is over forty. She leans forward, fingering the cheap cloth, and the trader uses a hooked pole to pull down gaudy shirts and dresses for closer inspection. They do not haggle over prices because she accepts the first dress offered. She leaves the shop smiling at Brad who is kin, because he is also a foreigner.

A woman in a grubby pink blouse and black skirt squats on the cement with a little girl with earrings, lipstick, and shiny ribbons in her hair. A dirty cloth is spread out with half a dozen coins of the lowest tender. The woman stands up and lurches into a curry shop leaving the girl clutching a black handbag as if it is the most important thing in life. A surge of disgust rises in Brad. The child’s eyes are as fierce as the mother’s eyes.

After purchasing a savoury cake made with split peas and dark green leaves, Brad realises too late that chillies burn his mouth! A 50-cent tepid glass of cordial settles his palate a little. He cannot finish it because it's too sweet. He remembers he has his own drink bottle, so finds a seat amongst Islander women selling grass skirts. As he sits on a rough stool a shoeshine boy polishes his sandals for 50 cents. A white man dressed in a crinkled khaki shirt and shorts, knee socks and sandals watches the procedure. The stranger's beard is speckled with what looks like remnants of breakfast. When he speaks he sounds like a cultured Englishman, using short clipped sentences. He is reciting Shakespeare.
Brad says, 'I'm looking for the Flea Market.'

The gentleman gestures in an S loop so Brad heads off. It is opposite the main market. Va had told him this was a good place to buy souvenir items, clothing, handicrafts. He buys four packets of Coconut Crème Soap, nicely enclosed in a kind of bark-cloth tied up with fibre, four 'cannibal' forks which will amuse his brothers, and a blue and white floral sulu for his sister.

A smiling girl murmurs, 'Nice tats! Where'd you get them done?'
One drunken weekend, back home, Brad and his mates had undergone a type of tribal marking, getting identical tattoos of zigzags, scrolls, cruel-eyed eagles, though they were nothing to do with their lives, just dyed skin that wouldn't come off. When Brad asks the girl how tats are done here, she explains that students do them with Chinese ink in black, red, or blue using a sewing needle. Names or little geometric designs, nothing fancy.

‘Permanent?’ asks Brad.

The girl says, ‘If you don’t like them, then you can use milk to make them fade a little. Would you like some new ones? My cousin can do one for a dollar.’
‘Uh uh! No thanks.’

Brad crosses with a mob of people at traffic lights, rushing across when there is a gap rather than watching for the lit-up green man. Cooked fish and boiled cassava are on sale but Brad is suspicious of salmonella and instead purchases a parcel of vakalolo wrapped in banana leaves made from pounded taro, sugar and coconut. He tucks it into his backpack for later. Taro is fine, but Brad does not like the white root cassava, manihot exculenta, because it is just starch and even contains poisonous compounds when uncooked. He has said so to Va, but she just smiled.

(to be continued)

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