It’s common for Fijians to ask tourists to become pen pals. And when we stopped at the Tongan hill fort (Tongans have invaded Fiji over the years – introducing, among other things, the version of the kava ceremony that Fijians use today.) the woman showing us around quizzed us on our homes and occupations. When she found that one of the people in the group was a doctor, she immediately descended on his little girl and importuned her for an address that her own little girl could write to.
In one of those fascinating little tableaux that travellers are presented with from time to time, I watched the Fijian woman grin furtively but proudly, as if she has scored a shrewd victory in lining up an obviously rich pen pal for her daughter. Then I watched the doctor’s family, genuinely obnoxious people who found Fiji to be icky with intestinal parasites and crawling with oily people on the make, get back into the van smirking. Saddened for both parties, for the woman just trying to help her kids and for the smug bozos too arrogant to make any attempt at understanding someone else’s culture, I got back in the van too, a little wiser. Man, I’m tired of getting wiser. I think I’d rather just be naïve and chipper.
Actually, finding pen pals is something we do all the time when we travel as a family. And in Fiji we picked up a new name and address five minutes after we entered a village near Lautoka.
We strolled in on the heals of the guide who promptly disappeared into a shop to get a coke on the hot day. It was a school holiday, so a roaming troop of grammar schoolers sidled right up to us. This was perfect for us. Adults sometimes tell you what you want to hear, but kids usually say whatever’s on their mind. So, they always make good guides. They showed us around – the Methodist minister’s house, the little church, the residential bures (take your shoes off and duck before entering), the hills that their Indians rent from the village, and the ball field. Then a couple of the smallest – first graders - appeared with sign up sheets for the local walkathon. We never did find out what the walkathon was for, but we’ve signed several thousand of these things in our own neighborhood - using pencils still wet with nasal mucous and signing sheets full of names like Aunt Glad and Billy B.. So, we promptly fished out a few US dollars from our sweaty pockets. The kids were more interested in our signatures than the money since we had such strange names. And we promised to send a Christmas card to 9 year old Misiwata Vula. In December we sent him a photograph of us standing in our backyard in three feet of snow with our 150 pound Newfoundland dog – things Misiwata had never before seen in his life.