D’Tui and her village friends wasted no time paddling out in the water on a handmade raft. They giggled and squealed and splashed water on each other. The village goat brayed pleadingly, wanting them to come back and play. He circled the bush he was tied to in frustration.
I watched them from the porch. We’d had lunch and settled in. Now I was itching to explore the village. I found Mereani and Sala in the kitchen. “Ro Mereani, may I take a walk around?”
“Take Sala with you,” she said. “Until the chiefs have welcomed and accepted you at the kava ceremony tonight you have not officially been invited. You’ll need a village escort wherever you go so as not to offend anyone.”
My stomach tightened at the mention of the kava ceremony. I had been to many a grog session in Suva, but these were different chiefs and different customs. I wasn’t sure what to expect and could only hope it would go well. After all, if it went poorly I didn’t know what I would do. It was a three-hour boat ride back to Suva and the village boats didn’t leave until the villagers wanted it to.
With my luck I’d be sleeping outside with the goat.
Sala led me out of the house and away from my anxiety. We made our way past the church and to the village homes.
It wasn’t long before we had a trail of curious village children following us like ducklings. Some of the older children whispered to each other, reaching out longingly to touch my hair. “It’s okay,” I said, smiling.
Two of the girls exchanged looks and grabbed strands, rubbing them against their cheeks. They grinned and chattered with each other. They ran their fingertips over my arms, trying to rub the white off my skin. Sala laughed as they talked to her.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
She smiled. “They want to know how your hair is so gold and soft.”
I looked back at them lovingly, reaching for the taller girl’s hair. “I want dark hair like yours, pretty girl.” She giggled and grabbed my hand, swinging it back and forth as we kept walking.
I drank in the drastic differences between the houses. Some were made of cinderblocks; others of tin. Each family had their piles of trash burning outside their houses. I was fascinated by the laundry hanging on the lines.
“You sure do like how we dry our laundry,” Sala observed with a laugh.
I laughed with her. “I can’t help it. The clothes are always just so colorful. It’s like functional art. I think it’s beautiful.”
Villagers stood in their doorways, asking questions about me. “They keep asking who the new girl is with the pretty hair,” Sala explained. “And then I say back to them, ‘Who, me?'” She threw her hip out and posed, flashing her brilliant smile.
I laughed. The more time I spent with Sala the more I adored her. I wanted to travel with her everywhere and keep her vivacious spirit close by.
“It’s funny,” I started, as we walked down the dirt path, “The longer I’m here, the more I wish I looked like you.”
“Oh no,” Sala said. “I wish I looked like you.”
If only she knew how pretty I thought she was. Or how beautiful I thought the Fijians were. It’s funny how you want what you can’t have.
A woman and her toddler came up to greet us. The little girl hid behind her mother’s legs, regarding me cautiously. I leaned over and smiled at her. “Well, hi there!”
Then something unexpected happened. Loudly and without warning, the girl broke into hysterics. She wailed and screamed, crocodile tears running down her cheeks. I took a step back, unsure what had just happened.
Then, a chorus of cries erupted from surrounding youngsters. In unison they expressed their distress. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” I asked Sala anxiously.
“It’s nothing,” She reassured. “They’ve just never seen a white girl before. They’re afraid of you.”
“WHAT?!” I couldn’t hide my surprise.
Sala shrugged and stood there matter-of-factly. The choir of screams continued around us. She laughed. I wanted to cry myself.
I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. And regardless how much I smiled or how much their mothers cooed, there was no appeasing these horrified children. I was their walking nightmare.
They didn’t understand why a ghost was here. And unlike the older children who reacted with curiosity, they reacted with fear. I have never made a child cry before because they disliked the color of my skin. Let me tell you, it’s quite a strange feeling.
And believe it or not, I continued to make these youngsters cry for the remainder of my stay.
I guess it’s time to call me Beetlejuice. Or Frankenstein’s monster. Or Ghost of American Girl Present?
But seriously… I was the first caucasian woman these children had met. How often do you suppose THAT happens to someone?