We walked into the elders’ house. I was sweating. Like everywhere.
The men were already gathered around the the tanoa, discussing news from the main island. The bundle of waka roots felt heavy in my hands. I knew it had more to do with its symbolic weight than its actual consistency (after all, it was just a plant).
Then seated villagers craned their necks to look at me and I froze.
Holy hell, why couldn’t I stop sweating?
Even though villagers had smiled and greeted me all day, I only had one chance to be welcomed by The Firewalker Elders. When I presented my gift (known to the Fijians as sevu sevu) they could accept it, bless it, and agree on behalf of the tribe and their departed ancestors to watch over me on my visit. OR, if they weren’t satisfied with my gift, they could turn me away and hex me.
I know. Sounds like a game show, huh?
But it wasn’t. Voodoo and witchcraft had long since died in popularity in the South Pacific, but it was still prevalent in the smaller villages and considered every bit as dangerous as it was before the pre-Christian movement. So much for lifelines. Where was Regis Philbin when I needed him?
It would be especially unfortunate to be turned away now. It was a three-hour boat ride back to the main harbor and the next boat wouldn’t leave until the boat owners wanted it to.
There was no such thing as a ferry schedule in this part of the world.
I beat back worrisome thoughts and took a seat in the back of the room near the other women. Ro Mereani sat by the tanoa, declaring her status.
I did the math in my head, calculating the probability that I would be welcomed into this exclusive South Pacific club. I figured my odds were good (since I had been invited out by the sister of the Chief), but the elders that ran this village were different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to in Suva. These people did not see white girls very often. So rarely were we visitors, I made children cry upon my arrival. So yeah, while my odds were decent, there were no guarantees.
I rested my sevu sevu gingerly in my lap, not daring to say a word. The kava ceremony began, commencing the traditional gathering and welcoming of Fijian visitors (i.e. me). The chief bowed his head, speaking to his dead ancestors in ancient tongues. The elders and male villagers took part in a call-and-response, bringing me back to my days of Catholic school mass. But there was something about this exchange that seemed graver. Heavier. Mystical. The responders took their answers more seriously than my plaid skirt pupils and I had taken ours.
Ro Mereani met my gaze with her golden eyes and gave a curt nod. This signaled my time to crawl over and present my sevu sevu to the chief. I had learned through weeks of practice that you never made yourself higher than the elders during ceremonies. I bowed to the chief and turned to inch my way back to the corner.
“No,” the chief said, patting the seat next to him. “You stay here.”
My eyes widened. He wanted me to sit next to him and the elders? At the highest point of the wooden bowl, showing the others that I was of importance?
Not going to lie. I was kinda ecstatic about this. I forced myself to keep my cool, pretending like little American me gets invited to sit beside chieftains everyday (you know, typical Tuesday). I tried not to wiggle like an excited puppy. Ro Mereani winked at me.
The chief raised up my sevu sevu, welcoming me to Dakuimbeqa (meaning ‘Little Beqa’). I only recognized a few words that followed such as, “America”, “bula” (welcome), and “vinaka” (thank you). At the end the men all clapped and gave a resounding, “Bula, bula!”
I almost yelled it back, unable to contain myself. I’d passed the first and most crucial test of my stay in the village. Score!
The elders regarded me in amusement. One of them leaned over and touched my leg. “What is your name?”
Before I had time to answer, another elder gave a bellowing laugh and replied, “Tinker Bell.” He gave me a toothy grin as the rest of the congregation burst into fits of laughter.
“It’s Hilary,” I said softly. “But I can go by Tinker Bell!” The group laughed again.
After my welcome and blessing, the gathering turned informal. Ro Mereani had brought packs of cigarettes over from the main island. The villagers passed them around, placing packs in-between their toes and using large clamshells as ashtrays.
After initial introductions, questions poured in about my visit. Where was I from? Were all Americans as fair skinned as I was? What did I think of Fiji? Had I ever met Justin Timberlake? Why didn’t I have a nice husband to care for me and raise pigs to slaughter?
I was doing my best to answer the questions in an appropriate manner— I was from Las Vegas, Nevada. No, I was pretty much a vampire by society’s standards. I loved Fiji and its beautiful scenery. No, I had never met JT. And I guess I just always wanted to slaughter my own pigs— when new guests arrived at the elder’s house. A gust of wind shook the gossamer curtains. No one else seemed to notice its timing but me.
“Those are the schoolteachers,” Ro Mereani whispered. “It’s surprising they are here. They don’t often attend gatherings because they have early mornings at school.”
One of the teachers sat next to me, saying nothing. I could feel his eyes on me as I accepted a bowl of kava and clapped the required three times after finishing it. When I handed the bowl back to the server, he spoke. “For someone so foreign, you handle yourself like one of us.”
I thanked him and nodded toward Ro Mereani. “I’ve had a great teacher.”
He nodded, accepting a bowl of grog from the server. After finishing his drink he turned back to me. “You must be a friend of Talei’s.”
My chest contracted, yearning to push out a sob. I nodded, gulping down my grief. “Yes. I knew her daughter. But I only met her right before she died. I wish I had known her longer.” I blinked a hundred times to keep myself from crying.
I don’t know why this shook me up so much. The question was bound to come up at some point.
I thought back to earlier that day when I’d visited her grave with Sala and Mereani. We’d decorated her memorial on the beach with exotic flowers and cloth. After they left I sat there and stared at her grave, craving the advice she had giving me on that Nicaraguan beach many moons before.
“Why did you choose me, Talei? Why did you bring me here? It’s all wrong.” I’d waited, getting no response except a bray from the goat. So I’d cried. I’d cried for her, for me, for the whole screwed up situation.
“She is missed terribly,” he said quietly. “Did you have a chance to meet David?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. Why was he asking me all the hard questions? Why couldn’t he just ask me why I wasn’t married like everybody else? Damn teachers and their need for knowledge…
The teacher cleared his throat and I snapped out of my thoughts. I stumbled over my words, “Yes. Yes, I did have a chance to meet him.” The server handed me a bowl of kava and I drank the muddy water, feeling disoriented.
I doubt it had much to do with the drink.
I took another deep breath, turning back to the schoolteacher. “Have you always taught here in the Dakuimbeqa village?”
“No,” he replied, meeting my gaze with his soulful eyes. “I used to teach on Viti Levu, the main island. I’ve only been out here a few months.”
His eyes reminded me of Talei’s. My mind fought against images of her smiling at me. I couldn’t deal with the mental memorial going on in my head so I scrambled to think of a distracting question. “What’s the biggest difference between teaching here versus teaching on the mainland?”
The schoolteacher thought for a moment stroking his chin. He finally spoke. “Well, we only have a photocopier here. Every quarter I have to print up my tests for the students. So I take the three-hour boat ride, paying my own fare, to Suva city. Once I get there, I type up my tests and print them off. Then I take the boat back and make copies. When I was in the city I didn’t have to take a weekend off to do that.”
I stared at him, mouth agape. The boat fare was 15 Fijian Dollars each way. The minimum wage in Fiji was 75 cents an hour. My mouth blurted out the words I probably shouldn’t have said. “SIX hours of travel time? On your day off? Are you KIDDING?”
The room fell quiet. All eyes were on us. He cleared his throat again. “It’s not so bad. Some villages are on islands so far away they travel three or four days by boat. We are lucky.”
I couldn’t hide my shock. I couldn’t think of any teacher in America who was willing to make that kind of sacrifice. All I could squeak out was, “Lucky?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Lucky.” He smiled.
I sat in silence, processing. I thought about every moment I had ever been ungrateful, every day I’d freaked out because I had absolutely nothing to wear, and every time I’d complained about driving thirty minutes across town to meet someone. In fact, just last month I’d cursed at my computer when it took too long to upload a photo to Pinterest.
I was disgusted with myself. I needed to rescue kittens or something. Immediately.
“Why don’t you come by the school tomorrow morning?” The teacher suggested, pulling me out of my mental self-flagellation.
The idea alarmed me. “What?”
“Come by the classroom. Meet the students. They’ve never met a girl from America. It would be a good learning experience.”
“But what would I tell them?” My brain suddenly contained no knowledge of my homeland. Where did I live? Who was the president? Was Canada above or below us?
“It doesn’t matter,” he assured me. “Just getting exposure to you and your culture will be wonderful. We don’t have many opportunities for guest speakers.”
I nodded, in a daze.
It was time to leave. I said my goodbye to the schoolteacher and bowed to the elders.
“Goodbye, Tinker Bell!” The toothy man said. The room erupted with laughter as we made our exit.
As we walked back to her house, I told Ro Mereani about my conversation with the schoolteacher. I got that breathy run-on sentence voice a child does when they have something important to share. I huffed and slurred my words and hopped from one foot to the other. “And— And— He wants me to go to school tomorrow to speak to the children.”
She raised her eyebrow. “Hmm. Very interesting.”
“What? What’s interesting?” I repeated, my body twitched nervously.
She smiled in that all-knowing way her daughter had. “Nothing really. Just that teaching the children was going to be Talei’s job once she got home.”
She faced me, her eyes glowing in the moonlight. “I think Talei did a good job picking you.”
Say what whaaaattt?
I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out.
“Well, goodnight. I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes tomorrow!” She disappeared into her house.
I stood frozen for a long time, listening to the waves crash out on the coral.
Finally, I said to no-one in particular, “Yeah, me too.”