"Look how tall you've gotten!" family members would squeal as I was growing up, patting me on the head.
"My gosh, isn't she just the cutest?" a family friend would exclaim at a cookout reaching for my face to pinch my cheeks.
There's a certain level of discomfort when someone reaches right through your personal bubble and touches you unexpectedly. We've all experienced it from our aunts, uncles, parents and family friends growing up. And for those of you who are short, like me, those childhood days of inappropriate grabbing and squeezing seem like they will never come to an end. And that's uncomfortable, I grant you. But when you are on your own, in an unfamiliar place and your personal bubble popper is an absolute stranger, it adds an extra layer of meaning to "inappropriate."
It was just after midnight on Oahu and the cab driver pulled into a dark parking lot with one flickering street lamp illuminating the pavement.
"This is it," he said. "Are you sure this is the right place?" I nodded slowly, without any degree of confidence.
Earlier that day my hula teacher had told me the ceremony would be here at midnight, just through the woods ahead of me. She told me I should plan to take a cab there and back and I could meet her and the others at the big stone structure just beyond the trees. I confirmed a pick up time with the cab driver, took a deep breath and blindly headed towards the woods.
When my eyes settled on a familiar figure in the distance I felt my shoulders relax. I approached the woman in the white hula dress and tapped her shoulder. She greeted me with a warm hug: kind and welcoming. And then she put a finger to her lips in the silence of the evening - no talking. She pointed down the dark path ahead of us. I followed two paces behind her, my feet crunching the gravel beneath me and slowly a pair of bright headlights came into focus.
As we got closer my eyes brought into focus the truck parked in the middle of the woods. Leaning against it I could just begin to make out the silhouettes of four male figures staring back at us. I felt my heartbeat quicken and sped up my walk to pass by the mysterious men without confrontation. Maybe if I don't look at them they won't notice I'm here.
When the woman in the white dress grabbed my hand and pulled me directly towards them, I was utterly confused. I could hear my elementary school teachers, parents and favorite childhood television characters all warning me about "stranger danger." But before I had time to listen to their pleas we were standing in a circle with the men. The four of them looked to be in their 40s or 50s, gruff, and steely eyed. They were dressed in worn t-shirts and jeans and I was suddenly very aware of my small stature.
I felt like shrinking a few more inches when they started coming towards me one at a time. The first man grabbed my hand forcefully and pulled me close to him, hugging me to his chest. And then the second came forward with the same strong embrace. By the time the third man approached, I was used to the process and considerably more at ease hugging these gruff middle-aged men, who apparently spent their Saturday nights hanging out in the middle of the woods.
When the fourth man stepped forward I thought I was ready for him. Just one more awkward stranger hug and I'm done, I thought. But instead of pulling me in for a hug, he grabbed my hand and moved his face towards mine. For a split second I was sure he going to try to kiss me and I tried to think up a way to quickly maneuver away and call the cab driver to come pick me up. Not even a midnight hula ritual was worth being assaulted by a middle-aged Hawaiian man. But before I could react he pressed his forehead and nose to mine and stared into my eyes.
I didn't know what to do.
I held my breath and prayed it would be over soon. It felt like we had been standing there for hours and eventually I felt my breath release. I forgot to be worried and, for the second time that night, I felt my shoulders relax as I was overwhelmed with a sense of complete consuming calmness. Almost as if he sensed my comfort, he loosened his grip and stepped back, smiling before walking deeper into the woods.
We followed him down the path and I leaned over to the woman in the white dress to ask what had just happened.
"He's from New Zealand," she told me. "And when he touches his nose to yours and his forehead to your forehead it symbolises the joining of mind and spirit."
"Oh..." I whispered back, the only response I could muster at the time. The stone structure came into view beyond the edge of the woods. Tiki torches lined the ancient stone mound and the dancers stood along the edge of the flickering fire light preparing for the ritual. I took my seat opposite the mound and looked up toward the sky - seeing it now with fresh eyes.
Laying back and feeling the cool grass against my back I waited for the ritual to start. In the thick night air, my eyes drifted closed and I thought about the moment when that fourth man reached for me. How my confusion so quickly turned to fear and ultimately the fear disintegrated, replaced by the warmth of understanding. I think almost everyone can say they've been touched by a stranger while traveling, but when was the last time your mind and spirit was joined with one?
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About the Author
Rachel Vinciguerra is a college gal, nearly a post-grad (yikes!) currently spending three months studying and living abroad in India. A dancer by nature and a Type A personality she's either nose deep in her computer planning her next travel adventure or throwing caution to the wind and going wherever her latest passion takes her. Tweet her at @rachelynn17 and follow along with her Indian adventures at pennilesstraveler.com
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