An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
As soon as she saw the gelatinous mess, her throat constricted and she heard her mother hiss, “Don’t eat that. Whatever you do, Jenny, don’t eat it.” She calmly tried to banish her mother’s fears as the bowl was proudly passed to Peter. He scooped up a handful of the slime and ate it out of his hands as was the custom of the their Fijian hosts. Peter made a point to make eye contact as he passed the bowl to her. After six months of traveling together, she could read his amused gaze clearly – “You have to eat this – so just suck it up. Isn’t this fun?” She had fallen in love with his mischievous nature but this was the first time his mirth smacked of sadism. He knew her stomach was still recovering from a mysterious malady picked up in Nepal, but she was starting to learn that his love of the exotic outweighed his concern for her.
At this point, they had already been in New Zealand, Nepal, and French Polynesia. The Fijian trip was, as usual, carefully planned by Peter to maximize time in villages where outsiders were still a novelty. After loading up in the big city of Savusavu with paddling food and gifts for the villagers (mini doughnuts for the kids and kava – a ceremonial drink – for the Village Chiefs), they blew up their inflatable kayak and went looking for adventure. Over the next two weeks, they stopped at five villages and camped on their own only once. Their experience at each village was surprisingly similar. First, the kids would see them paddling and they would alert the adults. Eventually someone would wave them ashore and they would disembark amid incredulous laughter and cautious curiosity that melted into smiles when someone inevitably poked the inflatable boat or touched Jenny’s blond curls. Then the entire party would be led to the Village Chief where – according to their guidebook that was unerringly accurate – they would have to be physically lower than the Chief at all times. They originally thought it would be easy to be shorter than the regal – and very large – Melanesians. As custom would have it, the Chiefs received them in their hut where they sat upon cushions which required Jenny and Peter to perform a kneel, crawl, flop dance. Since this was their fifth village, they felt confident they had perfected what they called ‘the dance to be addressed.’ Once the Chief recognized them, Peter would offer the kava as a gift and then the conversation would begin. While most villagers did not speak English, all of the Chiefs they encountered had a basic command of the traveler’s native tongue. Peter, with the help of the glossary at the back of their trusty guidebook and some well-honed hand gestures, created his own communication style that worked well with their rock-star status.
For the first four villages, Jenny loved the pomp and ceremony of being an honored guest of the incredibly hospitable Fijians. She was fascinated with village life and wanted to ask questions about the island’s cannibalistic history but never mustered the nerve. In fact, in most of the villages she didn’t talk much at all. Posing as Peter’s wife (it was much simpler than explaining their relationship), she usually hung out silently with Mrs. Chief while the men drank kava. Only once or twice was she included in the circle where the dirt-like drink and stories were shared.
The Chiefs and the high-ranking villagers who entertained them were full of questions for Peter (Where were their children? Was Jenny barren? Maybe he should get another wife?). During their one night alone during this two-week stretch, Peter and Jenny giggled about the cultural differences and were grateful about the choices they had as Americans while extolling the virtues of village life where everyone had a clear purpose. By the time they had reached the ceremony that made her sick (neither of them knew what was in the bowl – only that it was a privilege to eat it), they realized that they were basically a traveling freak show. Exhausted from impersonating unofficial ambassadors, Peter longed to smoke a joint and Jenny wished they were back in New Zealand watching the tussocks wave in the wind like squat cornfields in an afternoon storm. She was tired of being a silent observer and hanging with the Mrs. Chiefs. While the women smiled warmly as they introduced her to their children (future Chiefs and Mrs. Chiefs) and showed Jenny their crops and how to prepare food, Jenny felt like the outsider that she was – a childless woman who traveled far from home for fun. Being sweet and demure were not Jenny strengths and after trying the traits on for a week or two, she was ready to resume her verbal volleys with Peter.
As she took the bowl from Peter, she, once again, wondered why she agreed to a yearlong trip of spending $4 a day. Her former life as an agent for film stars seemed to be fiction now that she was traveling with her wilderness guide boyfriend. He had designed this trip years ago and she had simply hitched a ride to his dream. At the start, she was happy to put her stuff in storage and leave California for parts unknown. She remembered boasting to her friends that a year with a wilderness junkie is what she needed to detox from 15 years of negotiating bigger trailers and killer salaries for her clients. Before she met Peter, she had yet to backpack for more than a week and always ended her tramps in the woods with a stay at a luxury spa. She calculated that, by now, she had logged more wilderness miles (both on foot and paddling) than all her friends combined. Jenny thought longingly of her best friend and the swanky hotel where she saw the owl swoop down and scoop up its prey ten yards from where they sat in a hot tub after a day of hiking.
“That owl is LA and whatever it killed – that’s me,” Jenny had shared, her voice thick with the importance of her epiphany and a good amount of tequila. “I’ve got to get out of here.” A month later, she went to Alaska for a kayak trip, fell in love with the guide and became intoxicated with the idea of shirking it all. Within a year and despite her mother’s xenophobic diatribes delivered in a thick Bronx accent and the astonishment of everyone she knew, Jenny exchanged her Saab, thriving business, organic food deliveries, weekly massages, and the rest of her life in LA for a backpack, an inflatable kayak and a man with a plan to travel for $4 a day.
In the hut, Jenny looked Peter in the eye, took the bowl, smiled at the Chief and Mrs. Chief, and scooped up a dainty glob of the goo and ate all of it one bite. It was tasteless but the texture was just as she suspected – bumpy with what she thought might be eyeballs. Peter raised his eyebrow in appreciation as he caught her eye before she passed the bowl onto Mrs. Chief. She saw that look only once before when she wielded the Nepalese guide’s walking stick like a professional animal trainer on an early morning walk in the Chitwan National Forest. They were looking for tigers – on foot – with only the stick as protection and she had spontaneously demonstrated a kung fu move against an imaginary foe. After returning the stick to the guide, Jenny had turned and walked back to their tent without a word. Peter followed a few minutes later and asked why she left.
“I’m not looking for tigers in their protected habitat with only a stick for protection. This is beyond crazy. Worse than the three wire bridges in New Zealand.”
“But,” Peter – who was a highly regarded wilderness guide in Alaska who never ventured into the woods without a gun – protested. “He told us that if he sees a tiger that hitting him on the nose works!”
They burst out laughing and then tried to shush each other as not to alert their guide or any wild animals of their glee. Back then; they were two children off on an adventure that included only them.
Later on, Jenny would say the relationship ended the night she threw up outside the Chief’s hut even though she traveled with Peter for another six months. He was laughing when Mrs. Chief silently appeared before them, offering Jenny a cool rag. Jenny gratefully took the rag and while she was wiping the spittle from her sweaty face, she heard a bird descend from the trees above their head.
Mrs. Chief smiled and said, “Tyto alba lulu.”
Jenny looked at her without comprehension until she recognized the screech of an owl.
“Tyto alba lulu,” repeated Mrs. Chief kindly as she pointed at the bird as it took flight with something in its talons.
Jenny nodded and rose shakily to her feet while Peter grinned at her with amusement. She never forgave him for his lack of help that night or his irritation with her funky bowels for the next several days. She wasn’t ready to stop traveling (or eating mystery stews), but Jenny was done with being Mrs. Chief. As soon as she returned to Savusavu, she was going to dig out one of her credit cards from the plastic bag in her backpack and stay in a luxury hotel. It was time for her to navigate her own adventure – without the help of a guide.