Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gaua Island Arts Festival Opening Day

Around eight in the morning we walked fifteen minutes to the next village of Aver and the site of the festival grounds under the shade of a large banyan tree. The tree is worthy of mention as the base was an easy forty feet across and branches extend another eighty feet in all directions. Along one side of the tree twelve or so huts offering carnival food of a sort. Fresh stalks of sugar cane to chew on in lieu of cotton candy, fresh green coconuts to sip on in lieu of Cokes, freshly roasted peanuts, corn on the cob, and fresh bread with exotic jungle fruit jam, and "lap-lap to go" wrapped in banana leaves and tied up with coconut husk twine. One booth sponsored by the Peace Corp wielded posters promoting the protection of the environment and sustainable fishing and farming practices. A single strand of barbwire enclosed the large performance area and only "paying guests" which they called 'visitors' such as us were allowed inside the wire. I have to say this was a disappointment as the judges and guest of honor sat in a raised hut and proffered speeches that would have been nearly inaudible to the intended audience lined up at the barb wire fence. The speeches were in Bislama and thus mostly unintelligible and lost on the 'visitors'. Perhaps they'll get this figured out in the future.

A parade to the festival grounds from the Air strip with important dignitaries in tow was led by one of the local chiefs dressed in a woven mat type loin cloth, decorative arm band stuffed with colorful leaves and palm frond accessories on ankles and wrists. He carried a war club looking staff and a very large shell/horn. This chief's singing entourage included thirty or so similarly clad young men including a few very young boys. Following was a troupe of singing women in grass skirts and woven mat type tops or in some cases no tops followed by hundreds of locals dressed in standard western style clothing of board shorts, tee shirts and ball caps. What made this really interesting was the trance like song and the pause to do a little island jig of violently stamping feet and haunting menacing chants every third or so verse. The dancing and chanting were very impressive and might be based on a historically intimidating ritual that said to the neighboring tribes "I'm here, watch out!"

Once inside the grounds some chanting and Kastom dancing precede introduction speeches by eight or so dignitaries in attendance including three local chiefs. The speeches were in Bislama and spoken very rapidly so it was a long couple of hours making it through the speeches.

At a break for lunch Kathy purchased some lap-lap which includes some ground up root vegetables mixed with coconut cream and then baked in an underground fire. Served in a banana leaf with some rice and chicken it seemed quite appetizing if you're willing to risk a little upset stomach later. As it turned out Kathy got unlucky as her serving of chicken was a foot and leg. That would be the claws part connected to at one point, but not including the drumstick. Such is the gamble with festival food. I in the meantime I was smugly satisfied that I didn't order any lap-lap and instead snacked on freshly roasted peanuts, no harm in those right? More on that later. All told we sucked down seven green coconuts two cups of peanuts a stalk of sugar and some jungle donuts during the day. Total cost less than two US dollars.

After lunch there was a grade taking ceremony where a local chief was elevated to a higher rank through the gift of a pig, and shell money to the high chief. The ceremony made some of the westerners squirm as the large pig was dragged into the grounds with a rope around one leg and then was held down screaming and struggling madly as the chief bashed it's brains out with a big club. The chief wasn't swinging hard enough as the pig just wouldn't die despite the twenty or so hollow sounding blows to the pigs' skull. With the pig mostly dead the chief placed shell money on the pig and the high chief touched the pig, the shell money and some taro roots lay nearby. Next the pig was carried to the high chiefs ceremonial hut just up the hill from the banyan tree where subsequently several other hollow blows were heard in attempts to finally silence the pig. I was up close for the action photos that I'll be sure to post at some point.

Next a string band competition replete with choreographed dancers competed for top honors. Awesome woven skirt like costumes, body paint and entertaining dance moves that had the crowd cheering and laughing at times. Back on the boat we hosted Chris and Kathy from Two by Sea for cards to round out the day.

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