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.
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.