Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wardrobe Malfunction

The M.V. Baruku, although resting peacefully now atop a Southern Pacific reef, was the rust bucket that carried us to and fro from Honiara, to Ontong Java atoll.  The ship would come about every three to four months, laden with treasures of cloth, rice, canned foods, the occasional fresh produce that survived the three day trip, and as  many green-faced passengers as could be packed on deck without sinking the thing.


The advent of the ship was always heralded by a herd of pikininis, running naked from the ocean side of the island and screaming the news of, "Keva'a!  Keva'a! (Ship!  Ship!)", throughout the village.  From then, it was another good two hour's wait as the Baruku slowly grew from a barely distinguishable speck on the horizon, to the ship that it was, chugging along the reef with its passengers standing out in sharp relief against the sky.  The captain would carefully navigate it through the deep passage a few islands down from us in the chain, and into the lagoon.

Once the ship had settled its anchor in front of Luaniua, people would start out to it in their canoes and bright orange, fiber glass, outboard motor boats.  Kids would load up like bananas in a bunch on their little canoes, and swarm the ship.  New people and new things were are rarity on the island, and there was only a day, maybe two, to enjoy the novelty before it moved on.

One time, when the Baruku came to Luaniua, I went out to greet it with a group of friends.  I sat wedged between the legs of one friend and against the back of another, my butt soaking from water that had splashed into the bottom of the canoe when we all got in.  We'd recruited a little brother to paddle us out, and as he did his work, we excitedly watched the ship draw nearer.

It was teeming, like a mango that has been left overnight and is furry with ants by morning.  People were tossing cargo from the deck down into canoes below, those on the receiving end fluidly catching the bags of rice and boxes of tuna and rolls of bedding, then placing them in the bed of the canoes, all the while balancing as the waves kept both ship and canoes in constant motion.  When we got to the ship, our boy threw out a line to someone on deck, and we balanced ourselves against the boats on either side of us to prepare to board.  One by one, the girls in front of me stood carefully and reached up to grasp the hands that stretched down to pull them up to safety.

Then it was my turn.  I always felt like I had something to prove when outsiders came to the island.  To those on Luaniua, we had long since ceased to be a novelty,  and were simply Teveti, Pamela, Letani, Danika, Ana and Tiu - friends, enemies, rivals, adopted family members.  I became so comfortable there, that my own white skin would startle me when I looked down at it; I was so used to seeing brown.  But newcomers to the island saw our white skin and probably thought it was hilarious that we were dressing like, talking like, and acting like the villagers.  I was always conscious of eyes on me when the ship was there, and I was determined to not embarrass myself by acting like a white girl.

So when it came my turn to go from canoe to ship, I stood with confidence.  And forgot that my butt had by this time become saturated in the bottom of the canoe.  A wet lava lava stays on no matter how  you move.  But a lava lava that is wet on the bottom and dry around your waist will unravel, as the heavy, wet cloth sticks to your legs.  So when I stood, I could feel the cloth snake from around my waist, threatening to pull completely off and leave me standing there in my T-shirt and nothing else.  With desperate hands I grabbed at the cloth and held it to my navel.  Looked down to check.  Whew.  It was still hanging to my knees, and everything was covered.

Carefully, I planted a bare foot against each wall of the canoe and straightened.  I could feel the eyes of the Melanesian crew members on me, and also the islanders' family members from town.  I looked up to the strong hand that was extending to me.  I would have to let go of my lava lava in order to be pulled up.

Taking a moment to adjust my wrap-around, I cinched it more tightly around my waist.  Opened it a little to get more leverage.  And a breeze bounced up from a rising wave.  That rogue bit of air took the edge of my lava lava and flung it behind me.  The wet cloth stuck, and I looked down with rising horror as I saw the entire length of my thigh exposed.  A delighted, decidedly bass, whoop rose up from the decks of the ship.  This was a culture where breasts are bared, but nobody can see what's from your hips to your knees.  I'd basically done the cultural equivalent of flashing my breasts at a bus full of frat boys.

Burning, I snatched my recalcitrant lava lava back in place, tightened it with desperate firmness, and allowed myself to be pulled on board.  Oddly enough, even though I stayed extra close to my friends while we explored the boat, we seemed to come across an awful lot of crew members, all of whom were very interested in talking to us.  I let my friends do the talking.

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