Noah made one small error.
One small error which would have grave consequences for all of us. He didn’t know it at the time and neither did we.
Our fearless guide on the 5 day Fiji Experience tour had thoroughly and confidently briefed us on the social mores and guidelines for the cultural visit to Nasautoka Village, which helped provide much needed income to people whom the influx of tourist dollars into the country had largely bypassed.
He’d told us to wear sarongs. Real men wear sarongs, he assured us, and if Fijian rugby players wear them, we weren’t going to argue.
He’d told us that the word Bula would suffice for virtually any situation in which we conversed with our hosts and he’d offered the following explanation when we stopped outside a supermarket on the way to Nasautoka.
“The tourists used to buy school supplies at this shop, like pens and books. They would give the supplies to the children at the village who are very poor and the children used to be very happy”, he explained.
“You can also buy snacks and drinks because the hotel tonight is far from shops.”
With this, the group of Aussies, Brits and assorted Europeans ambled into the shop. The Aussies bought ‘chips’ and the Brits bought ‘crisps’, while the assorted Europeans bought assorted snacks.
Back on the bus, we discussed the benefits of giving school supplies to the kids and wondered why the tourists no longer did this. Perhaps, we pondered, after one visit per week for many years, they had enough school supplies.
So we spent the day with the people of Nasuatoka village.
We partook in a kava ceremony, the school kids welcomed us in song, we visited a traditional house and walked through the fields with the friendly locals.
We enjoyed a hearty meal with our hosts before Noah thanked the community on our behalf.
As a parting gesture, in front of the entire community and the school kids with expectant eyes and beaming smiles, Noah invited us to present the elders with the school supplies we had purchased that morning.
We looked at Noah. We looked at the elders.
The elders looked at Noah. Noah looked at us.
We looked at the kids. The kids looked at us, without beaming smiles.
We hadn’t bought school supplies.
A group of relatively wealthy, privileged, tourists now felt totally ungrateful and inconsiderate for failing to spend a few pennies on books and pens for local school kids.
It was extremely awkward.
Then we left.
Noah expressed his immense frustration to us once back on the bus, before the token English teacher explained to him that ‘would’ and ‘used to’ refer to actions that happened regularly in the past and DON’T happen anymore in the PRESENT.
Thus, the predominantly native English speakers simply thought Noah had said that the guests bought school supplies in the past, but not anymore
That’s why grammar matters.