One night, the sun had gone down and we were just getting settled into our evening when Andrew steps below. “Lizzie and her Grandfather are here, and they want me to go for a walk. No one else has to go if they don’t want to, but I need a translator.”
“So, what you are saying is I have to go.” I respond.
Crystal didn't want to miss the action, and Kevin didn’t want to stay on the boat alone. So, we hid all of our electronics again, locked up the hatches and leave Sonrisa behind. On the road behind the marina, we meet a man in a wheelchair struggling to keep his head up and speak. He gives us a large toothless smile and laughs happily as we all introduce ourselves. Lizzie begins pushing the wheelchair over the unpaved road built of coral. I try to speak with her in French, and like the other men and women here, she turns her face up at me and as she listens, thrusts it forward and upward as if to say: “go on, I’m listening” with her face. When she understands or agrees, instead of nodding, she raises her eyebrows twice. It took me a while to pick up on these nuances of facial expressions, and until we realized what was going on, I never knew whether anyone understood me. With Lizzie, it’s even more difficult because when she responds, she speaks so quietly that I cannot pick up on the fast French she is speaking. I laugh and tell her I don’t understand. She tries again, and I still don’t understand. So, she smiles and laughs.
We reach a paved road for only a minute, then turn left onto a muddy path. We reach a little white house with an open door and brightly colored curtains fluttering in the breeze. Lizzie indicates we should go inside. Ok. We take our flip-flops off and line them up outside on the tile entrance. Lizzie finishes pushing her grandfather up a makeshift ramp and then laughs at our shoes. She brings them inside the house by putting each of our shoes on and stepping over the threshold. Lizzie is 13 and her shiny, long Tahitian hair swings in a braid while she tries our shoes on for size. The only shoes that fit her are Andrew’s. Her heels flop over the back side of my shoes and Crystal’s. Even Kevin’s shoes are a bit too small. Her big toe and her second toe are splayed apart, as if shaped specifically for flip-flops. She laughs at our “tiny” feet.
Inside, we are greeted by a cheerful mama who issues a high pitched, singsong squeal and giggle of delight that we have arrived. She tells me that the man in the wheelchair is named Sylvainn, and that he has been watching our boat since we arrived. He has wanted us to come to dinner, and she is so happy we were finally able to connect.
Dinner! Oh, ok. I look around the house. The room we are standing in is an open room with a dining table placed in between the kitchen and the living room. The kitchen has countertop following the 90 degree turn of one wall. There are large, heavy iron pots bubbling away on the stove. The centerpiece of the living room is a display of twelve photographs of older white men with graying hair all dressed in their tidy suits. On top, there is a photo of Jesus that is typically circulated in the LDS church. These white men peering out at you with a serious look is a stark contrast to our friends’ deep brown eyes, rich dark skin, and black silky hair. The photos are attached to the wall in meticulous rows.
Mama sets the table with four plates and four forks. She places a large bowl of rice and a bowl of fried chicken on the table. She hands us barbecue sauce and a sweet sauce made of lemon, vinegar, sugar and garlic. “Mangez tout! Mangez tout!” which is a command meaning: “You eat it all!” We look at each other with uncertainty while Lizzie, Sylvainn and Mama all look at us expectantly. “What about you?” I try to get across. “Vous mangez, aussie?” You eat also? Mama laughs as if this is the most silly question in the world: “No! No! Vouz manger tout! Nous mangerions apres vous!” Meaning: “No! No! You eat it all. We will eat after you.”
They are going to eat after us? I wonder if I am properly understanding their French, but they continue to watch us and smile, tipping their face up and jutting it forward to say “go on!” What could we do but scoop up fried chicken and rice, cover it with the lemon sauce and eat? So we do. The chicken is fried with high expertise. It is perfectly crispy, rich and delicious. The lemon sauce is a perfect match. We eat and eat while they watch. Soon, Mama starts fussing with something else on the stove. There is a second course! Now she presents us with chow mien, topped with carrots and cabbage. This, too, is delicious.
While we eat, they tell us about the land Sylvainn owns, his geneology, and how it is his dream to sell his land and take everyone to America - Utah specifically. We learn that June is Mama’s youngest daughter, and Lizzie is her granddaughter. They bring out a book written by Bernard Moitessier and show us photographs of Mssr. Moitessier at Sylvain’s childhood home on a neighboring island in Ahe. We all cheer and express our amazement that Sylvainn knew Moitessier, as Moitessier is highly revered among all small boat sailors as a man who truly knew how to love the sea. We learn of Lizzie’s running prowess. They ask us if we have any music from America they can listen to, so Andrew returns to the boat to fetch the iPod. Sylvainn loves Bob Marley and joyfully dances in his seat when Mr. Marley begins to sing “I wanna love ya, and treat you right.” Mama loves Garth Brooks and anything with beautiful, soft guitar. She grabs Sylvainn's hand and they dance together.
After we finish eating, Mama helps Sylvainn eat his food and Lizzie also partakes. We stay late into the evening listening to music. I try to speak French with our hosts, then translate to the group. It worked sometimes. As we wrap up the evening, we offer to help with dishes, and Mama looks truly horrified. No, no. Instead, she says: “A demain, vous mangez ici?” She is asking us to eat at her home again the next night. We try to decline, (we don’t want to eat these people out of house and home) but she insists and she explains that Sylvainn insists. So, it is a plan, we will eat with them again.
The second night, Mama explains to me that Sylvainn told her Americans eat dinner all together. She apologized for her misstep and sets out nine plates as she explains that in French Polynesia, guests eat first and when the guests finish their meals that is when the host will eat. This explains why the kids seemed to feel so awkward when we bought sandwiches to enjoy together on the day of our tour. I try explain to Mama that she should do what she feels most comfortable with, that we are in her home and we are enjoying ourselves, but Sylvainn insists that we eat all together like in America. So, we do, but you can tell that Mama, June, Fatiaou and Lizzy feel uncomfortable.
We bring brownies, and everyone enjoys the first brownie of their lives. Everyone is very excited, but Mama says: “Demain, nous mangeons ma dessert.” Meaning, “tomorrow, we are eating my dessert.” What can we bring if we can’t even bring dessert?
As we eat, Sylvainn admires Kevin and Andrew’s new haircuts. He requests that we cut his hair the same way. So, we agree. That night, while we are playing the “you must eat here again tomorrow” translation game I say “No, please allow me to cook for you at the boat.” Mama looks pained. We settle on meeting at 3:00 p.m. to cut Sylvain’s hair, and I figure we will negotiate the dinner plans then.
After a day of pearl hunting, we return to the boat and wait for Sylvainn to arrive. They are a little late, and it is 5:30 p.m. before we finish his haircut. Mama invites us to dinner, but I insist that she allow us to cook for them. Three days of dishes and cooking for four extra people is quite enough. Her kindness has been over extended. She relents and agrees that she, Lizzie and Sylvainn will return for dinner in about an hour. We whip up a salad of artichoke hearts, olives and cucumbers along side toasted garlic baguette and pasta carbonara. Mama brings a delicious fruit cocktail with Lychee grown in her yard and grapes. We hang our solar lanterns from the grass thatched hut next to the marina and everyone enjoys dinner well enough. As they leave to go, Mama hugs me and says “Je t’aime, Leslie. Je t’aime.” Meaning, I love you, Leslie!
What is this? These people are so kind and generous, and they just met us one week ago. They very well could have left us to explore Manihi on our own like regular tourists. We would have enjoyed Manihi and then headed on our way. Instead, they welcome us in like long lost family. Crystal, Kevin and I start out a little suspicious of this kindness. We puzzle over what is in it for them; what do they want in return? But as the days go on, they ask nothing of us other than to enjoy their company. June and Fatioau give all of us necklaces carved from the mother of pearl on the inside of clam shells. They are beautiful.
Everyone told me that Polynesian culture was very welcoming and I should bring something to trade, but it sounded more like pens or toys for kids, M&Ms, etc. I give them a deck of cards from the Luxor and a Las Vegas poker chip to remember us by, and Sylvainn laughs and laughs. Crystal crochets headbands for the girls, and I make them bookmarks out of some beads I scrape up and some old earring charms. Sylvainn asks for “a little American flag” to sew on one of his shirts, but after combing the boat I couldn’t find one. I told them I would try to mail one to them. Who knew I should carry around some little American flags? I also wish I had brought a Bob Marley CD.
I am uneasy because I know that in another few days we will leave, and it will be sad. I try my best to relax and just enjoy the mutual good feelings created by their hospitality. Anticipating sadness over leaving new friends only infects this moment with negative emotions that I wouldn’t otherwise be experiencing. As this trip often teaches me, I must focus on this moment because it’s all I really have.