Devorah is one inch shorter and three years older than me, and I could be her if not for an accident of birth.
“How did you meet Isoa?” I ask. We are in Labasa town on a characteristically hot November afternoon sharing a plate of French fries with barbeque sauce.
“I was seventeen and at secondary and he was twenty-two and at university in Suva,” she sighs, a far-off stare in her eyes.
“I got pregnant and my parents said it wouldn’t look good to have a baby out of wedlock.” Her father is a preacher at the Methodist church.
“So here I am, three kids later.” She shrugs and sops up some of the barbeque sauce with her French fry.
Devorah dreams of going back to Suva. “Everything is better there,” she smiles. “I would live with my family.”
We walk through light rain, veering off of the main road and through a path that bisects a sugar cane farm studded with bleating goats. My shirt starts to soak through to the skin.
Johnny, age two, and Isimeli, who just graduated from kindergarten, are in tow.
“The rain is good for the mangos,” Devorah explains. “We had three months of no rain and everything turned brown. No fruit. But now the rain brings bounty.”
Devorah points to an overgrown mango grove just off the path. We slide through a slick patch of mud and up the small hill to gather fruit there. Johnny and Isimeli throw sticks up at the branches to see what falls. We take the easy fruit first. Then Devorah scales a branch and tosses mangos down to me, one by one. The fruit we have gathered overfills and threatens to tear two plastic bags.
“Try one!” she says, jubilant. “Take a drink.”
The mango is unlike anything I have ever tasted before––leathery green skin hides gooey sweetness. The orange pulp makes a mess of the front of my shirt. I reach for a second, and a third.
“This kind of mango is good,” Devorah says, taking a bite and ripping the skin with her teeth, “because the seed is small and the flesh is soft and sweet.”
I didn’t know that there was more than one variety of mango. This fact hits me like a mango on the head. Of course there are different kinds. I feel very small (and very full of fruit). I will never know the world in its juicy whole.
This is why I travel––for the moments of being overwhelmed, for the sweetness of learning. To be humbled by this planet I call home.
Our conversation turns to plans for tomorrow night––earlier in the day we ran into Devorah’s cousin who invited me to go out dancing in town.
“Come with us!” I plead. “I know you’re a good dancer.”
Devorah laughs. “I would love to, but I’m not free!” She gestures to the kids. Isimeli is throwing rocks against a tree and Johnny has gotten his flip flop stuck in a patch of mud.
Before bedtime I used to ask my mother: “How did I get to be your child?”
“You chose me,” she said, never missing a beat. “You were floating out there somewhere and had your choice of so many mothers, so many lives. And I feel lucky that you chose me.” She punctuated that last sentence with a hug.
Though I doubt I had any agency in the process (or, goodness, did I?) one thing is for certain: if I were born female and Fijian, there is no way I would be living out the trip that I am on.
Financial matters aside (thank you, Harvard funding gods), there is the matter of gender and culture. More than once, a patriarchal figure has lectured me over a plate of cassava and curry: “I just don’t like the idea of you, a girl, being out there all alone. Anything could happen. I wouldn’t let my daughter do what you’re doing. It is not suitable for Fijian women.”
I travel not only for myself, but for all the women who are unable to do so.