[The internet quit working in all of French Polynesia half way through uploading photos on this post. So, I will post text only until we are able to get internet up and running again. What would happen if the internet quit working for five days in the US? Mayhem. Here, we just go spearfishing.]
We intended to leave Nuku Hiva on Wednesday, but as luck would have it, a local invited us to the 50 year Jubilee Celebration at the Catholic church, for Thursday night. Islanders from all Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Ua Huka, and Ua Pou all traveled to Nuku Hiva to perform traditional dancing and singing for Catholic and French dignitaries. Everyone was in town to celebrate the arrival of the Catholic Church on Nuku Hiva fifty years ago. We also learned that the locals enjoy a market on Friday mornings at 4:00 a.m., and we happened upon a flyer in the post office indicating a music festival was to take place on Thursday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.! Wow! This place usually shuts down at 9 p.m. every night - this music festival must be a big deal. So, we decided to stay.
The Jubilee was absolutely worth it. As we approached the church, we could see it was decorated for the occasion. Grass tufts were strewn across the road, making the entry look island regal. Tents were set up, with the traditional decorations of flowers and grass wraps ensuring one cannot see those garish tent poles. Islanders streamed out of the church and began milling about a center square. We found ourselves ringside seats next to a local who introduced himself as Leonard.
The locals were dressed to the nines with flower headdresses, bore’s tooth necklaces, pua shell necklaces, and brightly colored clothing. We knew something big was going to happen when they began carrying human sized torches near the square. Boys gathered around drums, tapping nonchalantly and occasionally tooting a conch shell.
Leonard explained that the North and South Islands each prepared a performance for the Catholic dignitaries. But first, everyone was going to eat. He explained that if we bring our own plates and bowls, we were invited to eat, too. I told Andrew we needed to buy some plates/bowls, but he insisted that my French to English translation was incorrect as none of the locals had plates or bowls with them. We enjoyed the cooling dusk temperatures and watched the people mill about until at 6:00 p.m. the locals pulled out plates and bowls and made a beeline to the buffet tables. I poke Andrew: “Look! They all have their plates!” He sighs and heads off to the magazin (store) to buy plastic plates. Luckily they were still open.
When Andrew returns with plates we take turns going to get food so as to reserve our ringside seats. Andrew and Crystal go first, returning with banana goo, banana cake, banana weeners, banana tapioca goo, steamed breadfruit and pork. Apparently poisson cru was also available, but we all had had our fill of raw fish over the last few days. Kevin and I take our turns, arriving at the buffet table to see a manajorie of women with flowers in their hair scooping all manner of goos from bowls onto our plates sometimes with spoons, and sometimes just with their hands. GO-GO-GADGET-IRON-STOMACH.
The pork was tasty and everything else either tasted like bananas or had the texture of a banana. Leonard was extremely pleased that we were staying, enjoying and eating. He conversed with our Captain (Andrew), with Andrew occasionally consulting me regarding translation. Leonard admired Andrew’s new tattoo, but proclaimed he could have done the same thing for $80.00. A vision of a bone point and chisel flashed through my mind. Leonard and Andrew hit it off and Leonard invited Andrew to morning coffee the next day.
Soon, the performers began to line up and we all quieted down. The Tahuata, Hiva Oa, Ua Huka contingent arranged themselves in the square and began by adorning the dignitaries with thick, white flower leis. They step away, sit down and the leading woman began with a loud and joyful sounding chant in Marquesan. In response, the group began drumming and singing. Then, a young girl stood in the center and added her own chat, the group responded with a conch shell and more singing. When this performance was over, the twenty-five people in that group exited and the larger contingent from Nuku Hiva began gathering to start their performance.
The men in the Nuku Hiva group took a more active role. The primary chanting was started by a large polynesian man with a shell lei. Five tattooed, muscular men with bore’s tooth necklaces ferociously stomped and exclaimed war cries into the otherwise peaceful night air. Immediately upon completion of the war cries, six drummers began drumming ferociously, hands flying, bodies jigging to the beat. The men continued to call out “Huooah!” from deep within their guts, stomping and dancing until sweat was pouring off their faces. Women lined up behind them waited their turn. Upon completion of the men’s strong introduction, the women wove their way forward to the sound of island guitars, singing and waving their hands above their heads.
The Nuku Hiva dancers continued on in this manner for a solid forty-five minutes, adding more and more pomp to their performance presenting gifts, lighting candles, lighting torches, and finally ending by building a little church at the feet of the dignitaries. This was a sight to behold.
They ended their performance with a solemn and melodic song that said something like “we are so grateful you are here, this Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Then, an amazing thing happened. The entire crowd joined into singing the last song. It was nothing like the congregations of church goers at home, humming and mumbling their way through something that resembles a song while the choir leads the way. No, the collective Marquesan voice rose toward the sheer cliffside, melodic and haunting, with perfect time and perfect pitch.
I feel a bit squeamish that the Catholic Church came into this beautiful, vibrant culture and for many years tried to squash it. In speaking with locals they explained how the Church and the French government demanded that all Marquesans speak only French. They explained that they had to hide their Tikis, and cease dancing and singing in quite the same way for many years. Apparently, the Catholic Church has had a change of heart, allowing the Tikis, signing, dancing, chanting, war cries, drumming and the Marquesan language to survive along side Christianity and the French language. This is a minor miracle. It would be such a shame if we all lived, sang, and worshiped in the exact same way.
We made it back to the boat around 10:30 p.m. Andrew was hell bent on waking up at 3:30 a.m. to make it to the 4:00 a.m. market. I consider myself to be game for almost anything but a 4:00 a.m. market just seems silly. Crystal and Kevin come down on my side, so Andrew set his alarm to wake at 3:30 a.m. all by himself. A short while later, he returns. All the islanders are still in bed because they were up too late partying for the Pope. No market today. Around 7:00 a.m., Andrew sets off again (alone) to go find Leonard for coffee. He returns a short while later, being unsuccessful in locating Leonard. Some days are just like that.
We entertained ourselves with some grocery shopping. It started raining on us, so we took cover under a little bench overlooking the bay. The longer we waited, however, the harder it rained. We sat there for at least an hour, waiting for the rain and eating the cookies we just bought. Kevin had to turn around and go buy more.
From across the way, we could hear the “music festival” firing up. A lonely band played on the quay to no one in particular, their electric guitar and drums beating out songs to an empty parking lot. We figure no one is excited about the opening act, and things will get jumping a little later on. We finally get a break in the weather, load our groceries into Grin and head out to the boat to pack them away and take a nap. We must energize ourselves to enjoy the closing music festival act at 2:00 a.m., you know!
After our nap and dinner, we return to the quay expecting a party. We tie Grin up and jump out only to find very few people on milling about and the same band who was there at 2 in the afternoon poking around at songs. Just like on the radio here, they play the first thirty seconds of a song then randomly cut it off and pick a new song. We sit under a tent where mango juice and sodas are served. A stray dog sits at our feet like he’s snuggled up under our dining room table. Soon, we are asked if we play an instrument, “anyone is invited to play!” Crystal is learning the Native American Flute, does that count?
You win some, you lose some.