We were taking
our time strolling back to our anchored yacht in Levuka, when
an unkempt Fijian woman with a long loaf of bread and a can of
cocoa powder tapped me on the shoulder. She ignored me ignoring
her and tugged on my arm again. Then she lifted up her shirt and
rubbed her dark belly in wide circles. Whether her gesticulations
implied a question or a statement was not clear.
The woman was
Melanesian with a moustache and had a stream of sweat running
straight down her forehead. Her nappy mushroom of hair was matted
lopsided and she smelled of kerosene and fish. She motioned for
Jessica and I to follow her. We shook our heads no and smiled,
but she insisted. I couldn’t figure out if she was asking
for food or offering it to us. She didn’t seem all there,
but we didn’t want to come off as close-minded. After all,
we were travelers with an open-ended agenda and needed an excuse
to shake out our sea legs.
We followed her
through a maze of shanty alleys to a wood and tin shack that was
no different than all the others. There was an old man sitting
on a stool near the doorway decapitating fish with a machete.
When we greeted him, he said a word that sounded like “which”
and started laughing without ever looking at us.
The house was
on stilts, jutting out over Levuka bay. We paused for a second
to see if we could spot our boat, then followed her inside. In
places you could see the muddied water between the unfinished
slats on the floor. Our lollipop-headed hostess ordered us to
sit down on palm-frond mats, but we were reluctant. The mats had
a funny smell and milky smears all over them.
We were saved
by a brouhaha of children and pets that barreled in to the room
and bounced all over us. A few of the kids looked mulatto. The
children showcased their puppies, holding them up by their necks.
They demonstrated how cruel they could be. The more we tried to
teach them to be kind, the more they laughed and playfully tortured
their pets just to appease us. Our hostess with the moustache
and mushroom hair laughed hysterically at our reactions. Then
all of a sudden she stopped laughing and left the room.
A skinny kid reached
up and punched me on the shoulder. “She like you,”
he said. His accent was pretty good.
English?” I answered. “Do they teach you it in school?”
you. To go. After she.”
The rest of the
children were laughing. The kid that spoke was the hero. We didn’t
know what to believe at this point. The children quickly lost
interest in us.
Jessica and I
were about to leave, when our lollipop-headed hostess returned
and motioned for us to come into another room.
be going,” I said, “but thank you.” We started
to make for the pile of fish heads beyond the open doorway.
face melted to a look of anguished confusion. She grabbed my arm
and pulled me back in.
We’ll stay a little while longer.”
The other room
was painted light blue and had tasseled pictures of Jesus and
the Virgin Mary all over the walls. Some other women ceremoniously
filed in and sat down on the floor, so we followed suit.
We had nothing
to say as we didn’t speak a word of Fijian and none of them
spoke English. We just all looked at each other and smiled. An
exceptionally large woman was breast-feeding a blonde infant.
She had huge dark nipples caked with dried milk. We weren’t
sure what we were waiting for. The awkward silence was punctuated
by the sound of the machete lopping fish heads outside.
Propped in the
only window was a mannequin torso with a circular bulls-eye on
the belly. Just to make conversation, I pointed to it and asked,
“what’s that for?” My cheeks were starting to
hurt from all the smiling.
Nobody even attempted
to answer me. Our lollipop-headed hostess got up and left the
room without saying anything.
them could be a seamstress,” Jessica speculated.
I answered. I continued to look around the room and smile. “I
wonder where the men are at?”
probably out fishing.”
A few days before
we took shore leave on another Fijian island where we were treated
to a kava drinking ceremony. On that island we only saw men, except
for the two virgin girls that chewed the kava root and spit it
into a wooden bowl. Women were not allowed to drink kava. At the
time, we wondered what the women were doing while that was all
Our crazy hostess
appeared long enough to shoe a mangy dog in to the room. The dog
had a mannequin hand in its mouth. The dog bee-lined towards me
and Jessica. One of the women jumped up and intercepted the dog.
She pried the artificial limb out of its mouth and shoed the poor
dog back out of the room. She apologetically mumbled something
over and over.
Jessica said. “We’re fine with it.”
the woman asked me, pointing to Jessica with the mannequin hand.
I said. “Not yet.”
The woman looked
away at the mannequin torso in the window then looked down at
her own hands.
really weird,” Jessica whispered out of the corner of her
smiling mouth. “I wonder if they have ever had anyone else
over like this.”
Then our lollipop-headed
hostess returned—dramatically sober as she stared down at
the floor and shuffled her feet. She stopped and removed her flowered
sari. She was naked from the waist down. An unkempt bush of pubic
hair concealed her sex, all the way down her thighs. She spread
the sari out on the floor and proceeded to lay down on her side,
like she was posing for a Gauguin painting. Within seconds she
Once she was sleeping,
the woman nursing the child pointed at the crazy woman and drew
imaginary circles around her temples with her finger—the
universal sign for mental illness. It was all bordering on hysterical,
but we didn’t know whether it was okay to laugh about it.
The other women
“are they expecting anything from us?”
think of what,” I said.
The woman holding
the mannequin hand pointed at the sleeping woman and said, “witch,”
but it was unclear whether she was asking a question or making
a statement. She made a motion like she was writing something
in the air. Jessica instinctively reached into her backpack. This
felt like the customary point in a travelers encounter where addresses
were exchanged, promises were made, and both parties said goodbye
to never see each other again. Jessica pulled out a ballpoint
pen and a scrap of paper and handed it to the woman. She only
took the pen.
Then the woman
holding the mannequin hand started writing on the stomach of the
sleeping crazy woman. It was hard to see the blue ink against
her black skin. She drew a circular target centered on her belly
button, and a wandering line leading away from the circle towards
her overgrown bush. Then she inscribed the letters “WOMBAHAHA.”
The crazy woman slept peacefully through the whole ordeal. It
was then that all the other women started laughing hysterically,
and we did too just to be polite. After all, we had followed her