I don't speak French. This makes me unpopular with French people, and makes it tough to get around by myself here in French Polynesia. My husband is trying to teach me the basics as we sail from one island to the next. But my Spanish-soaked brain rebels against silent consonants, and my tongue refuses to form words that start in your throat and exhale through your nose.
Instead, I smile and nod as Rob translates, feeling isolated from the culture around us. After a couple of weeks exploring towns on tropical islands, I was itching to join a conversation all by myself. I wanted to feel connected to the communities we visited. Turns out that all I had to do was replace Rob with a half-dozen kids.
One hot day on the island of Kauehi, Rob set off to fish along the coast. I borrowed our friend's nifty folding bike, and shoved off in the dinghy to explore on my own. As I puttered up to the beach, a gaggle of six local kids ranging from five to ten-years-old stared at me from the sand. They hung back shyly as I struggled to pull the heavy boat above the tide line. A quick “come help” hand gesture had the kids running toward me eagerly to assist. Their shyness evaporated in an instant. The kids touched everything at once: the bike, the boat, my hair, the backpack.
And, boy, did they talk. After a throat clearing prep, I decided to try out some French. “Comment ce va? J'mappele Brianna.” This unleashed a round of complicated Tahitian names as the kids pointed to their chests. As they jabbered away, I sorrowfully told them I didn't speak French. It didn't cause a break in the chatter, though—they simply pulled me toward my bike and gestured for me to climb on. The kids made it perfectly clear that understanding their words was not integral to joining their clan.
Next thing I know, the six kids mounted four beat-up bikes, and off we shot down the one paved road, all of us barefoot and giggling. We stopped often to trade bike partners, although the only girl in the group stubbornly refused to budge from the rack over my back wheel. I toted my new girlfriend along on the tiny folding bike, trying to keep up as we took shortcuts through sandy trails, bouncing over coconut shells and pieces of sharp white coral.
The boys kept asking me questions, even though I continued to reply, “Je n'parle pas frances.” They'd just laugh, speed up, and wave me to follow. After we'd plowed over a few miles of trails along the coast, they dropped their bikes and proudly showed me how to whack the top off a green coconut. The kids threw back their heads as they guzzled the sweet treat, water running down their chins and chests. I promptly followed suit. Rejuventated, we bounced back to the beach, giggling as we raced each other to the next path.
Kids don't give a damn if you pronounce words through your nose or out your ears. They forgive butchered words, and are content to use charades instead of sentences to communicate. My island bike gang welcomed me wholeheartedly into their afternoon, and reminded me of a forgotton lesson: connection goes beyond the verbal. Languages extend to the physical and the emotional, which allows me to engage in communities as deeply as I'm able. All I need is a bike, a smile, and a few local kids to find my place here in French Polynesia.