Kohimarama is the Solomon Islands' Anglican seminary. The nation's training ground for new priests sits about an hour or so down the coast line from Honiara, nestled against the rising mountains, surrounded by cocoa and pineapple plantations. There is a potholed dirt road that connects Kohi with Honiara and the rest of Guadalcanal, cutting through the jungle but never out of sight of the beach. It was down this road that I bumped in a public transport van, sharing the seat with a local friend.
I was excited, high on the thrill of independence. My parents had never let me take this trip alone before, but it had been determined that I spend the weekend in Kohi with some friends. And best of all, I would ride the jungle road on my own. So I sat hugging my backpack, watching the trees reach over the road and relishing my happy freedom.
Every fifteen miles or so the van would stop at wayside villages, picking up and letting off passengers. There weren't many travelers today, or perhaps there were more transport vans than usual, but either way the seats in our little van remained relatively empty. My legs stuck to the vinyl, sticky from countless sweaty passengers before me. My friend was closest to the window, her head leaning out so that the breeze could lift the curls from her neck. I said a silent thank you that we didn't have to share our seat, which was made for three, with a stranger. I didn't want to be stuck between two perspiring, swaying bodies.
My luck lasted to the next stop. When the van slowed and the door opened, people started piling in. We all began the inevitable dance that repeats itself in elevators, buses and subways across the world. Who shall sit where? The seats filled up quickly, until the only places left were the seat opposite me. And beside me.
I should stop here and say that I was the only white skin in the van. I was used to being the conspicuous on Guadalcanal, my blond hair and pale skin made more obvious by my height. On Luaniua, everyone knew me, and familiarity had long ago nullified any gaps caused by physical differences. But in other places in the Solomons, I was immediately categorized by the strangers around me as loose, easy, and rich. Most Islanders' exposure to Westerners came from movies, and most white women in moves filled these stereotypes. The weight of men's assessing eyes and women's judging ones became a familiar, if not easy, burden whenever I was on the mainland.
So I sat there on the van, trying to ignore the invisible bubble the Islanders had created around me. My friend's leg pressed comfortingly against mine. A woman boarded last with her daughter and a large basket of taro. She quickly took in the situation, and barked at the girl in Pidgin, "You sit with the Arokuao. I'll sit here."
I could feel my friend stiffen beside me. The woman had used the Island equivalent of the 'N' word we use here in the States, except it was their word for a white person. The daughter was looking at me, her face betraying her hesitance at having to sit next to the white skin. I gathered grace around me and smiled at her.
"You can sit here, there's room," I said, in flawless Pidgin.
As the girl slid down next to me, I looked over her head and watched her mother's slowly dawning realization that I had understood what she said.
To quote the inestimable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, "Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that."