Every day when I drive home from town, I pass a rugby field.
I actually pass half a dozen rugby fields, but this one in particular always catches my eye. Twice I’ve been honked at for slowing down to watch the players scurry around the field. Fijians are nothing short of obsessed with rugby, and I seem to have gotten the bug. Perhaps it’s something in the water.
Today I finally decided to stop and watch. I parked my car alongside the massive green, grabbed my camera, then inched up to the side of the field. I felt a little self-conscious—between my big camera and my car stamped with a large “RENTAL” sticker, I was certainly out of place. But I always get a little braver from behind the lens, and within a few minutes I was right on the sidelines, furiously snapping away.
There must have been six different teams sprawled across the field, ranging from an excitable group of preteens to office intramural teams. There was also very fit group of college students that threw themselves into the muddy ground with such vigor that I was shocked all their limbs were still attached.
Most of the players on the field were so engrossed in their practice that they didn’t notice I was there, but there was one older gentleman who kept looking over at me. He seemed more curious than threatening, but still I was wary. When the group took a break to grab some water, he made a beeline to where I was standing.
“You must be the American girl who is taking pictures all over town”.
I was startled. I did seem to fit that description.
“Uh, yes, hi! I’m Erin”, I stammered.
“You took my brother’s picture last week”.
How could you possibly know that, I wanted to ask. But instead I said, “How did you recognize me?”
“You’re blonde and seemed like an American”.
I laughed. Although I always try to play the local everywhere I travel, it was true I didn’t exactly fit in. Between my light hair, blue eyes, pale skin, imposing camera, lack of traditional dress, and bright backpack, I stuck out like a sore thumb. And being from the United States immediately draws attention—although American tourists are common in the resorts, amongst the towns and villages we are few and far between. I haven’t met another American traveler in the two weeks I’ve been here.
The rugby player asked the normal range of questions: Where are you from, how old are you, are you alone, what are you doing here, etc. Anywhere else these questions might seem odd (or downright creepy), but here they’re completely harmless. I talked to him about rugby, my grant with National Geographic (“Is that the one with the yellow box”?), and my upcoming travel plans to other islands around Fiji. He asked me multiple times how I liked it here: Is your host family nice? Are you excited to see Taveuni? Do you like Suva?. It was as if he was responsible for making sure the country put their best foot forward for me.
He and I chatted for about ten minutes, long after his comrades had started playing again. Eventually he turned and said “Well Erin, nice to meet you. Perhaps I will see you around Suva”. I thanked him for coming up to say hello, and he smiled.
“That’s what we do when we see new faces in town”.
He ran off to rejoin the team, leaving me once again pleasantly surprised at the kindness of the strangers.