Vinaka

There are about fifteen of us in the boat when we hit the beach to visit the village, but two of the young women have not brought scarves or anything to cover their shoulders. Another woman on board has brought extras. I’m told I’ll have to take off my hat.

It’s conservative, here.

We walk up the path to a school, where we wait in the shade for recess to be over. Boys are playing rugby on a field of packed earth and dry grass, and it’s rough and tumble. Full-on tackle, take down, no pads no helmets, no elbow or knee protection. I can’t imagine such a game being played at a grade school in the U.S.

I have no idea how important rugby is to Fiji, but will learn in a couple of days.

It’s a boarding school, and children come here from other villages on other islands. The row of huts closest to us belong to teachers, and they have small solar power arrays for electricity.

“This is new, and saves on diesel fuel, which is very expensive,” says our guide. Teachers are dedicated, but at least need electricity.

“It’s Friday, so the children will go home today. They will return on Sunday for Monday classes.” They study math, science, English, the Fijian language.

Recess over, we cross over the field to a large classroom with two rows of empty chairs at one end, the rest of the room filled with children sitting on the floor.

“Be sure you clap afterwards,” says our guide. This is his village. I wonder if he has a child here.

This feels a little obligatory. We sit in the empty chairs as if we are the ones on stage. I’ve endured enough grade school performances. I really want to see the village, see how these wonderful Fijians live outside the cities. I’m sure the performance will be very nice and all, but…

Then the children start to sing.

The Fijian songs are intense, beautiful and the singing fills the simple room. It is not the pure, silver bell refinement of a European Children’s Choir. There is an earthen urgency in the harmony of these voices that is far less contained; almost a ferocity. I can’t help but sway with the notes. It is so strong and loud and beautiful, I’m nearly overwhelmed.

A little girl with deep dimples sits near the front, and she watches me very closely, even though I’m in the back row. After a minute I look back at her, cock my head slightly and smile, which brings a wide, beautiful flash of white teeth, a bright light of joy.

At one point, individual children stand up and dance at us, distorting their beautiful faces into terrible masks of crazy, tongues out, eyes bugged out, a grimace or fish face pushed eight inches from ours as they hop and flap about. It is startling at first, even a little scary, but all the rest of the children are laughing and singing.

Then the songs are those we recognize, and the little girl in front laughs with me as my fingers follow her’s and we climb an itsy bitsy spider up the water spout. Yes, I nod at her, I’m a dad, I know this song, while I sing along.

When the singing is done and our final, very real applause has ended, we stand to shakes hands with as many children as we can. The little girl nearly leaps out to grab my hand, stare into my eyes. We are smiling, acknowledging. Some things, you just recognize.

To hell with colored pencils: I put my largest bill of Fijian currency in the school donation box outside the classroom door.

We go to the village then, of huts about the size of a large U.S. kitchen, some made of corrugated iron, others of concrete block, others of grass. The Catholic church is the largest building in the village, of course, and is made of concrete.

There’s a communal laundry tub with water for washing clothes.

“The diesel generator is only turned on for four hours a day, from about six to ten p.m.,” says our guide. Diesel fuel is very expensive.

In a grassy square under some trees, village women have laid out tarps covered with items for sale.

“The money you put in donations box is for the entire village. What you buy from these women is for their own families,” we are told.

There are too many women to buy from everyone, and it’s a disappointment they are selling identicaal book marks, door mats, shells, bracelets of shells.

“Buy this for your wife!” says a woman on the blanket in front of me.

“No wife,” I say to her.

She squints at me. “How old are you?”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Dunno. 50, 60?”

When I tell her, she tsks, shakes her head. She does not approve of me being single. Some things you just recognize.

I remember the reading glasses I brought to give away. I ask the woman in front of me if glasses are needed and she says yes. Like an idiot, I give the glasses to an older woman sitting on the next cloth, because she’s older and I thought she might need them more.

This causes a little dispute between them. The glasses aren’t just an aid, they are a commodity, in a village where trading is living.

I make the rounds twice, three times. I do buy bracelets that my daughters may or may not decide to wear. I do not buy a bracelet with shark’s teeth for myself. I don’t wear shark’s teeth. Why give sharks an excuse for revenge?

I come to a place where children are sitting with their mothers, and from my backpack I pull out a tray of water color paints for a pair of boys.

Their mother gives them a little nudge on the shoulder, and the quiet instruction in Fijian to say “thank you.” Some things you just recognize.

“Vinaka,” they say together. A very small boy in a red shirt to my left watches hopefully as I reach again into my bag, but two little girls have appeared. I give the bubbles to them and the little boy cries out. His mother hushes him. I look at him and am sad, but the bubbles I’m holding would be better for these girls who are older.

The little boy cries when a bubble leaves the loop. Again his mother tries to hush him, but he can’t be consoled. I have nothing left in my pack. He cries as she puts her things away, and as they walk off down the trail.

Then we are done, it’s time to go.

Walking down the path I talk with a young couple from Monterey. Trey is in the Navy, Ashly works for a company that sells organic pesticide for vegetables, I think she says. As we walk out of the village, Trey is saying how amazing it is to see this much happiness when the Fijians have so little.

The little boy in the red shirt is still crying in one of the huts next to he path.

“Excuse me, I have to make amends,” I interrupt Trey, and walk up to the little boy standing on the threshold of a concrete hut that has almost nothing inside except what’s needed for survival. I squat down so he’s a little above me.

“Bula” I tell him. “Hello.” It’s the only word of Fijian I know, besides  vinaka, “thank you.” But he instantly stops crying. His mother stands behind him, and she is smiling.

“You are a wonderful boy,” I say from only a foot away from his wide brown eyes, looking as deeply into him as I can.  “I will come back here,” I say, and I mean it. Of course, he can’t understand a word, but the tears are gone now, and he smiles.

I stand up and start to leave. His mother says something to me. Though I don’t understand the words, I can tell she is telling me to stop. Some things you just recognize.

She brings the bag of items she had been selling from the lawn and that I bypassed several times after looking, even though I was tempted. She reaches inside. She makes me take a tiny shell bracelet. I’m overwhelmed.

Vinaka.

About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon
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