Before I tell you about the lemon leaves and chili bushes and forests fragrant with frangipani, before I tell you about the snake that wound its way around my neck and a reptile that took refuge in the thicket that is my hair, before I tell you about white sand the texture of certain grains and markets teeming with enormous bananas (the length of a man’s arm!) and iridescent fish that eddy around your ankles, before I tell you all of this I want to tell you about Muhammad.
It goes without saying that I’m acutely aware of my privilege — a woman who is able to have means to travel by herself to paradise, a woman who can hire a private tour guide who will ferry her about town and take her to all the food markets (it’s not scarves or carvings I’m after. I want to see the food. How locals prepare it!) — so I make a point to talk to my guides, asking them all the questions the fancy tour books won’t tell you.
Are there drugs in Fiji, and do people take them? Marijuana is popular here, but justice for possession and consumption is harsh and expedient, so folks mostly drink, although that’s expensive too. What do most people do for work? Tourism, and the upkeep of an idyllic paradise, is the livelihood for most Fijians (the population is split between Fijians, Indians and some Muslims– all of whom cohabitate peacefully and respectfully, and make a point of learning one another’s language), who make, on average, $80 a week. Hotel work is coveted, as most folks can make upwards of $3.50/hour. Everyone gets paid on Fridays, they shop for the week on Saturdays, and they lament on Sundays — when all of the island shutters its shops and everyone recovers from the binge that was Saturday. On the side of the road, you’ll see a tickertape of women selling juicy papaya and enormous pineapples; they hack through fat coconuts with large machetes, and you’ll see proud, smiling boys skinning fish and hocking crab — all a means of supplemental income.
Muhammed tells me that they survive on very little, but they are very happy. All that pretty finery we Americans accumulate, Fijians acquire slowly, and it can be erased, vanquished by a cyclone that hit last December 12 and tore the roofs off houses and submerged electronics that took years of savings to buy. But still they are happy.
Muhammed says, let me tell you a story. We are now sitting on top of a very large mountain (Tavuni), a place where the Cannibals (before Christ) would come and behead their victims, drain their blood and deliver raw brains for the chief to eat (thought to build intelligence), and cut off their head on a stone so the town can skin the body and roast it on a spit, and Muhammed says, let me tell you about life.
The story goes like this: A man contemplates suicide. Debt-ridden, slovenly, and unloved, he makes his way to a bridge in Fiji from where he will leap to his end. On the way a beggar stops him and asks for something to eat. The man confesses to the beggar that he’s en-route to his suicide, that he’s poor, but would he want any of his possessions to sell once he dies? Incredulous, the beggar says, Are you telling me the truth? You really want to die? The man nods, and the beggar makes but one request, Please, let me take you to the king. The beggar and the man walk and they present themselves to the king. The beggar shares the story he’s just learned, about this man’s plight, and says, I’ve parts of this man to sell to you. The king says to go on, and the beggar says, I will offer you each of these arms for $20,000. The king agrees. I will offer each of these legs for $100,000. The king agrees. I will offer you these eyes for $1,000,000 each. The king agrees and the man begins to shake. He tells the beggar to stop. I will offer you this heart. This heart in this man’s body for $20,000,000. The king agrees. The man shakes his head and apologizes, as he starts to see not only his value, but the fact that he is worth more than the sum of his parts. The cost of his suicide would be incalculable, and he apologizes to the beggar, says, I cannot do this. I am worth so much. The king laughs and the beggar nods, confessing that this is precisely the reason why he’s been brought here. Sometimes it takes another man to show you what you cannot yet see.
So Muhammad tells me that I shouldn’t focus on getting older, I should focus on my value, my life, right now. Right as I live it.
We climb down this mountain and we sit in the car and drink hot coffee in a day that is nearly 95 degrees.
Later, Muhammad tells me about finding love late in his life. Do you know love? he asks me. For a time I’m quiet and watch the trees move, something like scenery, before I say, no, but I’m hopeful. After grieving the abandonment of his wife twenty years ago (she left at the pressure of his parents because she is Hindu and he is a Muslim), it was at the prodding of his beloved son that he give his heart to another woman. It took years, but Muhammad is now dating a woman who works at the coffee shop we visited, but he only sees her once a month. This has gone on for three years and one child conceived between them. She is patient, she will wait for his heart to be laid down at her feet. They don’t see one another for this reason (although Muhammad has fallen in love when he thought it wasn’t possible), and for the fact that their work (14-16 hour days) keeps them logistically apart.
On my first day in Fiji, I invite Muhammad and his girlfriend for lunch in Sigatoka, and she glows. We sit for an hour while they speak in a language that is a mixture of Indian and Fijian, while I allow them this time, and eat the food shopkeepers and vendors eat. Good, real Indian food.
Time. This is kindness. If I could give them time, a stolen hour in a day between their monthly visits, then I feel good. When we leave, she hugs me, thanks me for lunch, and I shake her off, shy, but she holds me close. Because she never sees her beloved, and they felt comfortable enough to steal time during a tour to simply talk.
So when I think about my first day, as I type this at 3:30 in the morning Fiji time (HELLO, JETLAG), I think about Muhammad. I think about kindness. I think about paradise not being an ocean of coral at our feet, but of a simple meal passed between two people so deeply in love.