Tell your father that we're getting married.
Um. What? The words prickled my skin like a centipede's legs. Unable to suppress a shudder, I let the letter fall on the happy yellow quilt that lit up my uniformly boring dorm room. The letter, postmarked 'Honiara, Solomon Islands', had been forwarded to me by my parents my freshman year of college. I opened it happily, wondering which of my girlfriends 'back home' had taken the time to write. To my great dismay it had been sent by one of the boys who had run in my circle. Apparently this was his romantic proposal. Island style.
When a boy and a girl get married on the island, it is only after extensive negotiations between both families. The girl takes with her a dowry of thick beaded belts, cloths died bright yellow with turmeric, bolts of calico and sometimes money. The boy's family pays for the girl with a mountain of coconuts, and sometimes a pig or two. With the girl also comes land, which follows the matriarchal line in that culture.
After a thorough reciting of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer's Marriage Ceremony (with its fair share of have mercy's), the happy bride is led, sobbing with her face in her cheap Thai wedding dress, to the marriage feast. It is a requisite that the bride cries throughout the entire feast. She sits there, shoulders shaking, head buried in a lava lava, sniffling, next to her new groom. They occupy the mat of honor, front and center in the semi-circle of gathered revelers. The groom maintains an appropriately solemn and embarrassed expression. Neither makes eye contact with each other, or anybody else.
It was explained to us that the bride cries for her lost girlhood, her single friends, and single sisters. Once she crosses the threshold of womanhood, she enters the completely different world of the married woman. In this highly segmented society with its complex social structures, this is a huge and lasting change.
Everybody else thoroughly enjoys the festivities. Hot and cranky after the stifling church service, everybody piles joyfully onto the assembled coconut mats, and hungrily eye, as one body, the mounds of food. There is taro pudding cut into brown, gelatinous cubes. Tubs of little round fry bread. Fish cooked in coconut milk, clams cooked in coconut milk, crabs cooked in coconut milk, taro cooked in coconut milk, rice cooked in coconut milk. If the family is wealthy, there might even be a pig or two, slaughtered as its screams echoed through the village the day before, and now cut into sumptuous little chunks and cooked up. In coconut milk. Blackened kettles of hot tea stand ready, and to the side is a mountain of green coconuts.
The guests, having brought their plates, mugs and spoons, settle in. The bride's father stands up. The bride resumes sobbing a little louder.
"Thank you, everybody, for coming today. Chief Kanaka, Chief Kevaa (Insert names of all the chiefs, chief's sons, priest, local government officials. All the 'big men' are recognized personally.) We are glad that you came to our little feast today. I am so sorry that it is so bad. There really isn't any food. We were not able to prepare much for you today. I deeply apologize for this horrible food that we are about to serve you. It really is quite bad, and we are ashamed of its ineptitude."
This is the politest thing a host can say, since arrogance is next to murder on the island sin scale. A quick prayer is then offered up, and the women of the family commence with divvying up the delicacies. Everybody eats while all the big men stand up and make boring speeches, then relax with tea as groups of kids parade out to dance to steady, faithful drumbeats.
As the party starts to wear itself out, guests file past the happy couple, depositing tokens on the mat in front of them. The bride, reduced to sniffles by this time, cranks it up for the finale.
Finally, the feast is completely over. Guests leave with plates of food. The men retire to a relative's house and get rip roaring drunk. The women wash the pots and pans out, gossip, and smoke their hand rolled cigarettes. And the happy couple disappears for a while from village life, only to return fat, pregnant, and thoroughly settled into their new roles.