Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My First Foray

After a week spent tethered to our little hut, venturing out only for forays to the potty beach with my sister or mom, I felt ready seize my relational destiny and strike out to find my new best friend. I knew some Pidgin, mostly gathered from our village living stay in Papua New Guinea, and felt confident that a new world of friendship was waiting just beyond the next pandanas tree.

So with these high hopes, I stepped out of our hut one fresh morning into the sunshine, which fell like a benediction on my skin, blessing me and commissioning my purpose. The path that led from our front door skirted the village church. It was a solid and airy building, with its painted white cinder blocks rising only half-way up to the tin roof, left conveniently open for the little daydreamers who fidgeted on its pews every day, and twice on Sunday. In front of the church was the requisite crushed coral yard, hemmed in by flat reef stones, and then beyond it a large open space of packed white sand, used as a gathering place for church functions.

This I crossed with some trepidation, trying to squelch the creeping paranoia I felt from the empty black openings of the surrounding huts. It was hard not to think of all the Islanders hiding there, peering out at the white girl as I crossed the exposed space. I kept walking, though, drawn by the beach beyond and its promise of companionship. Here the houses thinned out, and under a cluster of coconut trees sat a group of girls.

They lounged on the packed dirt like a pride of young lionesses, leaning against each other languidly, their bodies liquid and supple. The breezes coming off the lagoon saw them and loved them, sending their hair and lava lavas fluttering. One had a little ukulele, and it sang a background for their gossip and jokes as they sat there in the shade.

I realized, as I watched them, that I had no plan for what to do once I actually found some girls my age. Never one to be daunted by lack of a plan, however, I forged on, walking right up to them and plopping down on the dirt. I addressed the biggest girl in Pidgin: "Hi, I'm Danica. What are you guys doing?" A short silence followed, leaving my words dangling from the end of the question mark.

The girl I had spoken to widened her eyes at me, gave a glance at her friends, and said something to me in the native language. Everyone started laughing hysterically, their mirth rising up into the air like a flock of pigeons in a town square. Completely unseated, I jumped to my feet and beat a quick retreat back the way I had come. I could hear them shouting after me words that I didn't understand. I picked up my pace, my feet pounding the dirt path across the open meeting area, around the church yard, down the side of the church and to our front door.

I burst through the front part of our hut, a common area for eating, cooking, and visiting. Our home was divided into three areas; the front, and two back parts, one of which my parents used as a bedroom, and the other had four little pallets laid out on coconut mats, with mosquito nets hanging over each. Mine was the furthest back, tucked in a corner where the leafy roof nearly met the floor. This is where I dove, headfirst, to seek refuge and lick my wounds.

I sat there, writhing inside in embarrassed agony as the scene kept replaying itself before my unwilling mind's eye. In that shadowy corner I buried my little rainbow dream, and resolved myself to a life of relational celibacy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Birthday Doughnut

When I look back and try to recall my first few days on Luaniua Island, my mind fills with a whirl of shapes and colors, like a glass of water you use to clean your painter's brush in. My brain during that period was constantly whirring on all cylinders, organizing and synthesizing the rush of sensory input that bombarded it. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning (pinpoint lights dancing through the thatched ceiling as the tropical rays found their way past the leaves), to when I lay back down on my coconut mat for 'bed' (the wind blinked past, making my mosquito net breathe a giant breath), my new world was slowly becoming part of me.

As the first and second days off the ship rolled past, Islanders would periodically appear at our door, with steaming plates of unknown substances in their proffered hands. We dined on smoked fish, fish soup, fish on rice, fish on taro, with sometimes a side of disgustingly grey, sticky, gelatinous taro pudding on the side. We would sneak out at night to feed that to the fishes, subversive and sinister as the New York mob.

The third day on Luaniua was my birthday. I woke to my mother prying open the plywood crates that had come on the ship with us.

"I am making donuts for your birthday breakfast!" she announced bravely. We all clamored round her; already the island diet had grown old, and we were starving for some comfort food, something to remind us of home. She continued to dig in the crates. A wok appeared. After that, a single Bunsen burner. Thirty minutes later, Mom had unpacked half the crates we owned, and a pile of necessities was slowly growing beside her. Us kids were starting to protest in hunger, ("Hurry, Moooom!"), while Dad had long since given up and made off into the village to start his day of language learning and relationship building. I could see the sweat droplets start to gather on my mother's face, as the stress rose within her.

You can tell that my mom is getting stressed out because it builds up from her feet. Like the old-timey Donald Duck cartoons, when he starts getting mad and the red rises from his toes, until it finally bursts his head and steam pours from his ears. My mom does this, only it's when she's stressed out.

So the stress was building, and us kids were whining and complaining. She staved us off with a plate of leftover rice and fish broth as she finally located her mixing bowl and spoons. No cookbook had surfaced yet, but the intrepid heroine of this little story quickly went to plan 'f', and started throwing ingredients that might make up donuts into her bowl. The stress was now showing in her arms, as they stiffly beat the flour and leavening just a little harder than was necessary.

Matthew and Nathan were the next to give up the wait, wandering outside to meet the ever-present spectators of 'The White Man Show'. They had commenced a game of shoot-the-rubber-band with the village kids when Mom finally got the burner started. However, a wok, as it turned out, is not designed well for deep frying. The oil never got hot enough to really cook a doughnut the way it's supposed to be cooked, and after several tries, my mother finally managed to produce one sad little circle, lopsided and still a bit chewy in the very middle. This she handed to me, with the red simmering just a little below her ears. "Happy Birthday, sweetheart."

I took the doughnut, holding it in my hand for a few beats. I could see that the only thing keeping the lid on the pot that was now boiling inside my mother was her love for me. It looked out of her eyes at me, saying, "Please be happy with this. I want you to have a happy birthday. I tried to make it special. Please don't be disappointed." And I realized, looking into my mother's eyes, that I wasn't.

I took a bite of the sweet, chewy goodness and let it sit on my tongue. I rolled it around my mouth, feeling the satisfying way it chomped between my teeth. I swallowed it slowly, and my stomach jumped as it hit, clamoring for more. I ate that doughnut probably the slowest that I've ever eaten anything in my life. I savored every bite, except the last three, which went to my siblings, whose puppy-dog looks told me that I really couldn't eat it all by myself. But I ate most of it. Because, after all, it was my birthday.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Potty Training, Island Style

We stood there on the beach for a few dazed minutes, blinking our eyes to adjust them to the blinding sunlight that the sand reflected up at our faces, which magnified every color and image we saw. At first there were predominately children pressing around us. It seemed as if the rocks themselves had turned into kids and swarmed us at once, some mystic self-defense ritual that the island possessed. But then the sharp rebukes of adults cut across the childish chatter (I could only imagine what they were saying to themselves. WHY were they staring so hard?) and the kids backed off a little.

A short, balding man came striding down the beach, and the crowd parted for him. My father greeted him, having met him on a previous scouting trip. This was the village priest, Father Nehemiah. I tried not to stare. He was wearing what looked like a skirt, but what was actually a length of cloth, wrapped towel-style around his waist and falling to his ankles. He was bare chested. "This is a priest?" I wondered incredulously to myself, deciding to reserve judgement until I had seen more of my new environment and its inhabitants. As Father Nehemiah led us through the village, I noticed that nearly all the men were wearing the cloths, too (which I would later learn were called lava lavas). They, too were bare chested. The women also wore the lava lavas, wrapped tight under their armpits, or, (gasp!) at their waists. I saw some tee shirts here and there, and a couple of shorts, but for the most part the Islanders' garb was foreign to me. Except the kids. They didn't have any garb.

I recognized a bag belonging to our family being carried ahead of us, in the same direction we were going. A second look revealed a lot of our luggage following our little caravan as we made our way through the village. We came to a halt in front of a hut that looked the same as every other hut we'd passed. It had a steep, shaggy roof of leaves that reached almost to the ground on both sides. Its walls were some sort of woven plant material, with spaces left for a few windows and doors. It looked very dark inside the hut. There was a neat yard of white stones in front, bordered by some lush, tropical plants, whose names I did not know.

This was Father Nehemiah's house. When we entered it, we saw our bags in a neat pile in the corner. Then another strange thing happened. People were thronging into the house after us, and started taking everything in it (except the white people's stuff), and walking out.

"You will be staying here," Father Nehemiah explained stiffly in Pidgin, "until we build a house for you." He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, then motioned for us to sit on some mats that had been laid out in a square on the dirt floor. "Would you like some tea?"

Why anybody would want scalding hot tea at midday in the tropics, I couldn't imagine, but was too afraid of offending to refuse. So I sat there, tracing circles in the dirt with the wet bottom of my mug as the grown ups talked. And talked. And talked. Father Nehemiah's wife was introduced, a sharp-eyed woman named Valina. Thankfully she wore her lava lava under her arms. Village kids poked their brown faces through the windows, lined the doorway, I could even see eyes blinking at me from where the wall mats met the dirt floor. I could hear their childish voices, and although I didn't know their language, I knew their tone. "Look at the white kids!" I could imagine them saying. "Look at their hair! Hear how funny they talk!" I shifted from my left butt bone to my right, impatient of the grown up ritual of meeting and greeting.

What was I to do, except fall back on the old kid stand-by for getting out of unwanted situations? "Mom," I whispered, poking her in the leg.

"Be quiet, Danica," she said, in a tone honed by years of rote repetition.

I waited a minute. "Mom," I whispered, this time more urgently. She looked at me with a sigh of surrender that I knew meant that I had won and now had her attention. "Mom, I need to go to the bathroom."

This sparked an embarrassing discussion among the adults that I didn't understand, and Valina rose. "Come," she said, motioning to my mother and me.

As we walked out the back of the hut, she shooed children away so that only a few brave ones dared to follow us at a distance. As we picked a path through the jumble of huts, I wondered what type of outhouse we would use here. I had received the jungle training given to all good little missionary-kids-in-training, and considered myself an expert. I knew that there were outhouses where you did your business on a seat over a hole dug in the ground, ones where you just squatted over the hole (I hoped it wouldn't be that type), even ones built over the ocean, so that the tide came and took your business away every day, and little fish thrived on the extra protein you provided them.

We reached the beach, and I looked around expectantly. "Ah!" I thought to myself. "It will be over the ocean! I wonder how far we have to walk to get far enough away from all the houses?" The above-water model was my favorite, anyway, because you got to watch the waves coming and going, and the fish swimming underneath you as you sat there. It was to my great dismay, therefore, when Valina proceeded to walk straight into the ocean. None of the three of us having the language skills that the men enjoyed, my mom and I could do nothing but follow her. "Maybe she has to go fishing first?" I wondered to myself. "That's pretty rude when you know someone has to go!"

We got out to about waist deep for the women (and up to my chest) when Valina started motioning at me. I stared blankly at her, then looked at my mom for support. Her face was carefully controlled, her cheeks pulled back in a polite, 'there's nothing at all abnormal about this situation' expression. "Danica, I think she means you go here. In the water," she added, when she saw my horrified expression.

Uh oh.

My goose was cooked now. I didn't even have to go, and I had made my unsuspecting mother and one of the only two people we knew on this whole atoll get wet for no reason other than that I had wanted to get out of an uncomfortable situation. So I did the only thing any kid in their right mind would do. I moved away from the adults, and winced up my face a little, pretending that something was happening. After a safe interval, I announced I was done, and we waded back through the waves, Valina leading the way, followed by my mother, and me bringing up the rear. And this was the way I was introduced to the biggest bathroom I'd ever used, and have ever used since.

A Portrait of My Parents

My story begins, as most pertaining to children do, with my mother and father. My dad can best be described by a mug my mom gave him in the eighties. It has a picture of a rainbow, which arches the span of the mug and ends as a cascade of bricks forming a wall. The caption reads, "Under Construction". My dad always has a project he is building either with his hands or with his mind. He constantly talks about his grand dreams and plans - some of which get done, while the rest remain gloriously incomplete as castles in the sky, untouched by reality or harsh physicality.

My mom, on the other hand, has her feet firmly planted on solid ground. She is a giant willow tree, her branches supple and far reaching, with lots of room underneath her to shelter, hide or rest. Her roots cling to relationships, memories, traditions, anything that can stay substantial in her ever-changing life.

My parents met and fell in love in the height of the disco era, although they were more flower children than club hoppers. They saw the first Star Wars movie on their honeymoon. They moved to Austin, TX to start a fledgling software company (more rainbows) a few years later, bringing my older brother, Nathan, myself, and my sister Anna in tow. There, they also began building the house of their dreams, my mother wielding a hammer during the day as she looked after the three of us and grew my brother, Matthew, in her belly. Dad would come home from nursing his new company to work late into the night, building his own private castle.

I am convinced that had Dad and Mom known Ma and Pa Ingalls, they would have packed up the covered wagon right along with them, and headed West. I would have grown up running the prairies with Laura and Mary, and mean ole' Nelly Olson. As it happened, though, there were enough uncharted territories in 1989 to fulfill my parents' wanderlust. And that's where the little island of Luaniua comes in.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Very Best Place to Start

My first sight of my island was from the bow of the Baruku, an old rust bucket freighter that had been abandoned as scrap by Japanese fishermen, then resurrected by the Solomon Islands government to ferry faithful citizens to and from the outer islands. I stood there, not worrying, as I'm sure my mother and father were, about the constant discharge of water from the ship's bowels as the pumps worked overtime to keep equilibrium with the seawater seeping in. Nor was I concerned by the people pushing around me, chattering in a strange language of k's and gutturals.

No, my first thought was: "Is that it?" Floating on the horizon, barely distinguishable from the low lying clouds was what looked like a long, hazy hot dog. It grew hair, as the Baruku faithfully plodded over the waves, and then more islands began popping up on either side of it, like peas on my dinner plate.

Even though I didn't know the language, I began to sense a shift in my traveling companions' moods. The air began to vibrate with the anticipation of reunion and homecoming. I heard my mother call (the only English voice in the mix; very discernible) and I ran to her, my bare feet slap-slapping on the rusted metal deck, down a ladder and then reporting in front of her. My mother assembled her children to her, like a mommy duck hiding her babies under her wings as the rain approaches. She didn't know what was coming, but instinct told her to hold us close.

The ship moved through the passage in the reef like an old person with nothing but time. Now we could see each tree individually, and huts crowding up to the beach, and dark figures forming groups on the stretch of white sand. Dissipating. Reforming. Shorter figures ("Children!" I thought, excitedly) darted hectically in the crowd.

The villagers had already dispatched canoes out to meet us, and my father loaded the six of us into one, with a few of our bags. I set mine, which held my prized and priceless possession (my blanket) on the seat next to me, out of the puddle of water at our feet. Compared to the giant slowness of the great freighter, the canoe felt like a mosquito, whizzing along with its propeller in the water.

Suddenly we were there, at the beach, and the swarm of Islanders thronged around us. My would-be friends and playmates grabbed our belongings and took off into the village with them; in under a minute we had been stripped of all our worldly possessions. Fear quickly followed outrage then, as I stepped with my parents out of the canoe and into the unknown.