High tide after thick rain. The waters lap close to my feet. I’m suspended over a trash heap––coconut husks and tin cans and empty chip bags––in a hammock, breathing in the horizon. If I squint, I can see a rainbow. Tall clouds move south, taking the raindrops with them.
Losite, my host, comes up behind my shoulder. “Devi, we go bath in the sea!”
I wrestle my body from the view and follow Losite and her two sisters as we run across the main road––a sand pathway––to the other side of the island. Soft sand squishes under my toes and I can feel the holes in the ground that were not long ago filled with rain. The whole trip takes less than a minute.
Just before the beach sit the pens of many families’ pigs, a mess of pink and brown bodies stacked close. The smell of slop and pig poo permeates the air. I hope there aren’t parasites in the water.
I shelve that worry, though, as soon as I see the raw beauty of the beach. Coconut fronds frame the red-orange curve of sunset. White sand kisses the deep mauve and azure of the water on this sheltered side of the atoll. We step in barefoot. The water is soft and warm.
Losite’s middle sister, the daring one, starts to swim across the bay to a small island. I follow. Losite laughs, revealing her missing front tooth. “I can’t swim!”
I slow down to stay with her, the vestiges of my mother’s lifeguarding instincts taking over. I make sure that it’s shallow enough for Losite to walk across the whole way. The current pulls at our limbs, but it’s not strong enough to knock us off balance. When we’re out in the middle of the water, I pick up a piece of algae and joking toss it in Losite’s direction.
Losite splashes her sister with a mouth-full of salt water as she dodges the green, slimy projectile, prompting a full-on splashing and algae-hurling war. The rhythm of our laughter travels across the water as we dodge the pieces of slime. I pick a piece of algae off of my cheek and exhale salt.
We reach the opposite shore but the bottom is sharp with crushed-up shells so we turn around. Back in the water, Losite’s youngest sister points and says in a completely serious tone: “That’s a big shark.”
Losite and I freak out and start hurling our bodies towards shore. The other two sisters collapse in laughter. Cue more algae hurling.
The middle sister reaches her hand to the bottom and picks up a tubular, brownish creature as long as my outstretched hand. She offers it to me and I touch it, recoiling and making a face at the slippery squish.
“This animal makes sand.” she says, finding another and tossing it in my direction. I duck, just in time for it not to hit my face. “We call it loli.”
“Loli.” I taste the Tuvaluan vowels, the long “o” and the upswing of the “i.”
The dark rises. We continue to soak.
“Dave, on your island do you have a boyfriend?”
“In the states? No.”
“It’s more fun to be alone.”
“And on your island, Christmas is warm?”
“No,” I laugh. “It’s snowing.”
“What would happen if it snowed for Christmas in Tuvalu?” one sister dreams.
Losite thinks this would be a brilliant idea. “We need snow! The sun here is too hot.”
I express concern for the coconut trees. Could they handle it? Probably not.
The first star comes out, then a second. I point and shout for every time a new one appears. “Two stars! Three! Four! Another, there!” The simple jewels.
“In Tuvaluan, we call the night sky ceitu.”
I try on the word for size. “Ceitu. Cei-tu. Cei-tuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”
Losite and her sisters laugh and mimic my exaggerated pronunciation. Drum beats echo across the water from the village.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“The evening summon to prayer.”
“That means it’s almost Christmas!” I proclaim. “Happy birthday, Jesus! Amen.” I stick out my hands like they’re pegged on the crucifix and fall backwards into the water. I dive down, do a handstand, and come up to cheers.
“Dave, how you do that?”
I explain putting hands on bottom, toes pointed in the air. The youngest sister tries and succeeds. The middle sister flicks her toes back and forth in the air like a mermaid tail. Losite tries but comes back up for air, sputtering.
We give up for home. Outside the one-room house we huddle around a spigot by the rain drum, passing around a bar of soap and a cup between our hands. We soap our hair and use the suds to point it straight up in the air.
The middle sister says to me: “You know, Dave, you’re a nice girl.”
“Ha! And you’re a very naughty girl,” Losite retorts. She is met with a cup-full of water in the face. We all laugh.
“Tomorrow we bath at the wharf?”
“You ready?” Losite asks me from the top of the platfom. We look down at the ocean from above: a stretch of pristine blue lapping placidly at the concrete pillars supporting the platform from where we stand.
“Is it deep enough?” I manage, curling and uncurling my toes.
“Yes! Yes! Very deep. Tide is high.” Losite punctuates each word with a hand gesture and smile, our fallback if neither one of us understands the other. “We go?”
I swallow my suspicion as another round of kids, some naked and some in shorts, push past us to jump in, chortling and hollering and making all manner of gleeful sounds as they descend to the water below. It can’t be that bad, right? I poke my head over the edge to make sure they are all unharmed.
“Okay, we go.”
We walk closer to the edge, looking down.
“One, two, three!”
My body is filled with blue. How can the sea be this warm in December? I have to remind myself that Christmas is always sunny and sticky hot in this realm of the southern hemisphere, far from the white Christmases of my childhood in New England and Ontario. I let myself float on my back for a moment, taking in the milky clouds overhead. Tiny, electric blue and yellow fish dart in and out of the currents surrounding our bodies.
We climb the stairs, dripping and laughing. Losite and I jump again and again and again until the harsh bite of salt water finds my nose and my fingers are wrinkled like tiny chestnuts. The water is coming in, almost filling the shore.
The Tuvaluan island of Nukufetau sits like a smile of a sandbar atop the ocean. There are no cars, only motorcycles. You can walk from curved one end of the island to another in twenty minutes, and that’s if you pause to chat with a few neighbors along the way. One boat, the Navaga II, arrives monthly from Funafuti to delivers the essentials––flour and sugar, breakfast crackers and rice––plus, of course, relatives.
Without warning it starts to rain in big, fat drops. I love swimming in the rain. It feels defiant, somehow. Hey raindrops, you thought you were going to make me all wet? Nope!! Turns out I’m already swimming in the sea!
The rain stops as quickly as it came. I look to the horizon, where a rainbow arcs from one point in the Pacific to another, so clear I could lick it.
“Rainbow! Nua nua!” No one else seems to take notice. A second arc appears, lighter and fainter about the first. I shout and point, flapping my arms like a baby bird who hasn’t quite mastered the art of flying.
Rainbows must be a daily occurrence in Nukufetau, especially in the rainy season.
Children continue to swim and splash each other, dunking their heads below the surface. One has found a dead fish, yellow with stripes of white and black. The fish passes between the children’s hands, salty. Its dead eyes fix on no one in particular.
Losite’s family lives in a one-room concrete home that her grandfather built at a perfect angle so as to maximize the passage of the sea breeze. The floor is covered with woven mats that double as a sleeping surface and an eating surface.
Decorating for Christmas happened entirely in the two days before. We hung up a string of multicolored lights around the perimeter of the room and taped a gold and red sign that reads “MERRY CH” to the wall. I don’t know what happened to the “RISTMAS.”
Losite’s dad cut a branch of a bush-like plant from the shore that, when stuck in an empty tin of biscuits filled with sand, served as a tree. We wound more lights around the bush. The whole thing was so simple and beautiful that I almost cried. Being part of a family celebration here in Tuvalu dispelled any loneliness that I had lingering from a non-Thanksgiving in Fiji.
Tuvaluans open their gifts on Christmas Eve. At dusk, Losite’s mother leads us in a long prayer followed by a bigger feast of barbecued chicken and a heaping plate of the local root crop, followed by another blessing.
After the last streaks of barbecue sauce have been licked from the plates, Losite and I, as guests, are in charge of handing out gifts. Each family member has one gift hanging on the tree. Earlier that afternoon, Losite’s sister meticulously wrapped each item in left over lined paper from a school notebook. She sealed the edges with a roll of packing tape, securing each with a handle that could be used to hang the present directly one of the Christmas bush’s branches. Each person’s name is scrawled on the paper in permanent marker in all caps.
We tear at the paper in unison, smiling. Each of the kids opens a packet of corn chips and a lolly pop, which they eat immediately. Losite’s father and I both open a tin of pineapple in sweet sauce. It feels decadent.
“Thank you,” I manage, overcome with an emotion I can’t quite name. I hold on to the tin, the cool cylinder and ridges of its lips a blessing. “You didn’t have to do this.”
I add two gifts to the tree: a beaded necklace, maroon and gold, that I bought from a craftswoman in Suva, and a postcard from Manhattan Beach with 50 AUS$ inside tucked in next to thank you note saying how grateful I was to spend time with this family. I make a point of thanking every person who hosts me, whether in writing or in person. Losite’s mom reads the letter aloud and then hands it to her youngest daughter to read to everyone again.
After that is nap time on the floor––the real festivities don’t start until the early hours. Starting at midnight and going until dawn, local kids gather at the playground with pieces of tin that they use as percussion instruments, the soundtrack for an all-night dance. I am exhausted from the day and only make it through half an hour of shaking it under the stars before I walk home under an upside-down Orion and fall asleep, joyous. All in all, definitely a Christmas I am not soon to forget.