Worlds Apart

“Where are you coming?” a voice called out behind us. We were on our way back from a provisioning run into town. It’s about a fifteen-minute paddle, depending on how strong the trade winds are howling, and then a half an hour stroll over a sloping hill to get to downtown Neiafu. I was pulling our rolling suitcase full of veggies and fruits we had purchased on the busy market next to the wharf. Half a dozen coconuts, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, taro leaves, green bananas and mandarins. There was also a dozen eggs bumping up and down in my backpack, rubbing against the laptop we had taken with us to check our emails. We were now about half way back, maybe a couple blocks from the crest of the hill. The voice had the raspy tone of a woman in full bloom, but the short girl now catching up with us seemed to be barely pushing the upper end of the teens. She was puffing on an almost burned out cigarette, which she promptly flipped into the gutters. I knew she wanted to ask where we were going, but the preposterously pedantic pedagogue in me took her by her word. “We’re coming from town”, was my factual response.

Soon we were strolling downhill as a threesome towards the Bay where the Chinese are rebuilding the bridge. “I’m walking this street every day. It’s too long!” our new Friendly Island friend complained. “It’s good exercise, it keeps you in shape”, Beatriz contested. “What do you do in town everyday”, I inquired, “Do you work?” “I work at Backpackers”, she replied. Backpackers is one of the lodging houses in town for the worn down tourists that call in this place and they pride themselves to be low cost/high value, catering precisely to their namesakes. Centrally located along the elevated main drag and overlooking the harbor they offer package deals with sailing adventures, scuba diving, whale watching and you name it other activities to assure that nobody dies of boredom during their short stay in the Kingdom. “Is this a local business?” I ask. “No, the owner is from New Zealand”, she replies. I could have guessed. All those frenzy businesses are run by white folks, no exceptions. “And are they treating you good?” the little unionist in me wants to know. “Yeah!” was the answer and I’m not sure I believed it. “What kind of work do you do for them?” “Cleaning rooms!” I could have guessed that one too. What else could a girl from the countryside with probably little formal education do in the white man’s world?

Salie was our friends name and she carried a plastic shopping bag over her shoulder with a pack of Pampers in it. “You have a baby?” Beatriz asked. “Yes, she is nine months old”, was the reply, “I also have a boy who’s two.” “How old are you?” “Twenty three, but I’m short. That’s why people think I’m eighteen!” It’s true, Salie is definitely petite, but her smile is brilliant and her laughter sincere. “My husband will come and pick me up”, she now pointed to a rowboat approaching the beach as a black silhouette down on the water, set ablaze by the blinding glare of the early afternoon sun. “Oh good,” I say, “we have our canoe down there too.” “I can bring you coconuts to the boat”, Salie offered, “I bring coconuts to the Backpackers too. They just love them. Everybody loves them.” “Coconuts are great”, I chime in, “but we just bought some on the market, thank you.”

Down at the beach Salie hopped into the red rowboat with her husband. I had seen it before crossing the bay, ferrying school kids back and forth, her uneven oars clunking in the lose oarlocks at every stroke. The husband seemed even younger than her. Two kids are raising two kids of their own. What’s the rush, I wonder, to procreate, nurtured or nature? I needed to collect some little green crabs on the beach for fishing bait, and then we had to drag Alunita down to the water from above the high water mark, so once we got under way they had a good hundred yards advantage. It didn’t take us many strokes of our paddles to catch up with them and overtake them. Now it was our turn to put on a friendly smile. It sure is strange, I thought. They have adopted the plumpness of a distinctly European tender, inspired by a floating nutshell at best, and were struggling to make headway and maintain direction. We in turn chose to adopt the sleek and efficient craft of the Pacific, the outrigger canoe, and clearly had an edge. Cultural exchange or the swap of the neighbor’s greener grass? But then our Eurocentric fixation on beating time might not be the best measure for gauging the quality of life. Sure we got to our floating home first, way before they reached theirs on the other shore. But during their long, long way home their happy laughter echoed all around the bay, while on my cheeks some wrinkles crimped crooked grooves in my epidermis once the friendly smile had wilted. It might just be that they don’t need to have the edge; they’re completely content without it. Here you have the seed that throughout a long and painful history has allowed the unhappy to colonize and exploit the happy. And it continues to do so every day at the waterfront of Neiafu. The Kiwis and Aussies slurp and sniff the icing off the cake, accumulating and concentrating their wealth, while Salie does the walking, surfing the wave of the minimum wage with no end of the grind anywhere in sight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: