Saturday, December 17, 2011

Marquesan Festival Day Two: Dancing

"They are not prepared for tourists," groused one of the ship's passengers, an expat from New Caledonia. "They should have this set up for tourists, but they are only doing the dancing for themselves, to show off to other islands. This whole thing is for locals, not for tourists."

"That is why I'm here," I thought, then edged away from her. You can't find the holy grail of non-beaten-paths and then complain that it's not touristy enough.

We were standing under a tree, cowering from the brutal sunlight with 35 other Aranui passengers as we tried to figure out where we were supposed to go to watch the morning's dances here on the second day of the Festival of the Arts of the Marquesas. We'd been told there was a covered place for us, but no one knew where that might be and the ship's guides were still transferring the other passengers by bus from where the barge had dropped them on the beach to the Tohua, the outdoor stage, which was a grassy square surrounded by a couple of lean-tos and one pavilion for VIPs.


We'd brought the VIPs with us from Taiohae's festivities where they'd been yesterday, and soon learned we could join them in spare seats in the pavilion. We headed around the back of it and to the right, where we were offered hands to be hauled up the side, one by one, over the steep rock base and up onto the platform.

A Polynesian woman in a straw hat motioned us into red plastic chairs in the back of four rows, where we sat to watch Nuku Hiva dances. The kids were dancing first.

The theme of this festival—which only happens every four years—is "The Apprentice." That means the kids are featured in some of the dances and songs. A group of kids—including a few blond ones—in green leafy skirts performed dances pretty well, twisting, jumping, and stomping. Their two dance coaches danced along from the crowd of spectactors, reminding the kids of their next steps—I saw the kids looking over at the men more as the dance wore on and they began to tire. The men zealously encouraged them, dancing vigorously from the sidelines.

After the kids danced off the field, the adults of the host island of Nuku Hiva took over, shimmying their way onstage.

A few speeches followed, and right on their heels was a two-hour lunch break. Everyone moved to a far pavilion, but the pig hadn't finished cooking yet, so people stood, bored, in close quarters. I headed back to the seating area where I snacked on walnuts I'd bought weeks ago at the Auckland airport supermarket, and sipped some water. I realized now that I should have stayed on the ship for lunch, and come in late afternoon as the most colorful events happened in the latter part of the day.

"Did you see the ceremony of the chairs," one of the ship's passengers asked me later. I witnessed the start of this now, as the Aranui staff came to the viewing platform to swipe all the plastic red chairs. Later, passengers returned with them, one by one, as they finished their lunches. The VIPs, meanwhile, looked flummoxed. Where had all their chairs gone?

The German couple next to me acquired two coconut halves from one of the snack stalls, which they dutifully attacked with my titanium spork. They made some progress but in time, gave up on the second half. We three stayed in the shade, doing nothing, bored while waiting for the dances to start.

Finally, all the red chairs had returned from their holidays and lunch was complete. New Caledonia's drummers took the corner of the field, beating up a pounding rhythm to welcome their dancers who showed up in a selected variety of New Caledonian traditional skirts. Some wore magenta and yellow while others wore dried grass. Rapa Iti's dancers, who had made such a dramatic entry yesterday when they shimmied and swaggered their way into the welcoming ceremonies, did not disappoint when they were up next.

Rapa Iti dancers wore what looked to be dried leaves and skeleton paint. They roared and vamped—these guys had great senses of humor and were real crowd-pleasers as they leapt about, stomped, and generally tried to look terrifying. The women laughed and the men stuck out their tongues. One man in white paint—who turned out to be the nephew of one of our guides—danced so hard his skirt shimmied right off leaving him surprised to unexpectedly be shaking his butt in his blue-and-white-striped underwear in full view of several hundred spectators. He laughed, reached down to his ankles to grab his skirt, and tied it back on as he did an abbreviated dance.

"Where is Rapa Iti?" I whispered to the blond German woman next to me. "I'd never head of it before yesterday."

"I don't know," she answered. She'd never heard of it either. Someone later told me that it's the southernmost of the Australs, the most isolated of all the islands in French Polynesia. Obviously, it's small—the word "iti" means small in contrast to "nui" meaning big—but Rapa Iti's size didn't deter its dancers from joyfully producing some of the most raucous dancing of the day.

Rapa Iti and New Caledonia were part of the guest delegations, groups that were not from the Marquesas, which included the Tahiti delegation that six staff members from our ship were dancing and playing with.

Rapa Nui performed next—that's Easter Island's delegation, and they'd been on the same flight with me a week ago. Yesterday someone near me had commented on their pale skin color. True, they were the palest delegation. They were also the only Spanish-speaking group.

Later, someone had joked to me about how they'd been surprised Easter Island even sent a delegation. "How many people can live on Easter Island?"

I bristled. "Nearly five thousand people, and there are two dance troupes that perform almost nightly for all the tourists."

Some of the smaller islands were were visiting had total populations of 600-700. The largest population of any of the Marquesan islands was here on Nuku Hiva—2,664 inhabitants. Easter Island was huge by comparison. Their dance troupe showed it—they were well-rehearsed, even slick.

A barge for dinner on the Aranui was leaving at five, and I was dehydrated and ready for a break. I jumped off of the raised platform, went around the performers, and walked up to the handicrafts pavilion. I wanted to buy a piece from the man we'd met yesterday, a master carver from Ua Pou. He'd told me the remaining "herminettes" were needed for the dancing tonight, but I wanted to make sure he knew I was serious about buying one.

I couldn't find him. I'd have to look for him when we next visited Ua Pou again, later in the week.

I found a 4WD that was filling up with Aranui passengers. It was "Vai'i," the Toyota Hilux that I'd been in for our safari from Taiohai the first day we'd arrived on Nuku Hiva. We drove back to the barge, which was pulled right up to the beach. The staff dropped the hinged front side of the boat down into the surf, and helped us all on board, one by one. We motored around the dozen moored sailboats—everyone traveling in the region had come to the festival, including a couple from Long Beach, NY, that was sailing around the world—and when we reached the staircase that led up to the ship, we all stepped off the barge and onto the ship's staircase, one by one, timing our steps with the waves which gently controlled our ascents.

Later, I'd go back to the dances, where by night, hundreds of Marquesans in yellows, reds, and greens would stomp, shake, and whirl about under the floodlights, to the thundering of a dozen tall drums.

Marvelous.

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