Published on 25th October 2012
The first day of the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts in Honiara opened with a bang, and as VSA's Annabel Norman reports, despite a few speed wobbles along the way, the day turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I am woken by a loud explosion and sit bolt upright, wondering if it’s a bomb. Then I remember – today is the first day of the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts. I check my watch as a second boom goes off. It’s 4.10am, so the noise must be from the fireworks at the festival’s dawn opening ceremony.
I throw on some old clothes, grab a bottle of water, an apple, a torch and an umbrella and set off for the AE Oval to catch the rest of the ceremony.
When I get there I find a traffic jam of buses and cars and crowds of people swarming towards the beach. It’s still pitch black and, as I hunt for a viewing space, I make my way past a local panpipe group, skirt a huge pile of watermelons and kumara, then trip over a live pig destined for a future feast – a bit confronting for a vegetarian.
I finally find a place to sit, surrounded by the Samoa and Easter Island (Rapanui) delegations and, just beyond them, the Fijian contingent who are singing loudly. To my left a group of tribesmen in traditional loincloths, with painted faces and carrying spears, sit around a fire. Soon the Samoans are up dancing and the Easter Islanders are trying to out-sing the Fijians; across the beach I hear the call of a Maori welcome.
Just as the sun starts to light up the sky, nine Solomon Island war canoes appear on the eastern horizon and come charging towards the shore, with drums beating and the sun rising behind them. At the same time, seven huge vakas from participating Pacific nations sail in from the north.
It’s an amazing display and an outstanding start to the festival, but there’s more to come. First, though, my colleagues and I have to deal with last-minute preparations for the festival parade and official opening ceremony being held in the afternoon.
The festival office is chaotic. During the 16 years I spent as director of the Nelson Arts Festival I had a recurring nightmare that the festival would start and we wouldn’t be ready for it. For a few hours in Honiara I feel as if the nightmare has become a reality.
The requests keep coming at us – for invitations to the Prime Minister’s opening party, for accreditations for delegates, and for copies of the limited-edition festival programme. In Nelson I would have had a meltdown, but in Honiara the Pacific way prevails; people wait patiently, or accept a response of “sorry not today, perhaps tomorrow”.
Eventually I escape the office chaos and, with my co-worker, Freda, head to Lawson Tama Stadium to see how things are going for the opening ceremony. We arrive to find schoolchildren rehearsing and crew rigging the sound and lighting – it’s all looking good.
Then we check the dignitaries’ stage and discover that there is no seating, no lectern or PA system for the speeches, and no refreshments. We panic briefly, then drive into town where we sweet-talk a local hotel into giving us a lectern; a few phone calls later and we have everything we need – crisis averted.
It’s not long till the next crisis, though. Despite being assured that water would be supplied for the opening ceremony – an essential commodity for a five-hour event being held in 36-degree heat – no water has been ordered.
I take a deep breath and call the local soft drink company. Fortunately I’ve met the guy before and, hearing the urgency in my voice, he agrees to load a truck with bottles of water and get it to the stadium. The festival traffic is so gridlocked that it takes an hour and a half for the truck to arrive, rather than the usual 20 minutes. But Solomon Islanders are patient and hardy and, despite spending several hours in the searing sun
without water during the afternoon, they still have energy to dance and sing well into the night.
As the official opening ceremony gets underway I slip up a back staircase to the pavilion’s rooftop to enjoy the spectacle.
The next few hours are spellbinding. Tahitian women wearing stunning yellow skirts and headdresses that shimmer in the sun sway their hips in time to frenetic drumming by bare-chested men. The rhythms and chants of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more gentle, while the scantily clad Rapanui dancers are quite a hit.
A hair-raising roar greets the arrival of a group of Maori in feathered cloaks. The crowd roars again when New Zealand’s champion kapa haka group Te Waka Huia start performing. Nearby journalists scatter in fright as tattooed Maori warriors carrying spears come charging at them.
The group repeats their performance for schoolchildren on the other side of the stadium, sending them into a frenzy. Within minutes, the crowd is returning the haka, lost in the moment.
And so the night goes on, with wave upon wave of pageantry showcasing the diverse cultures of the Pacific. At one point, Honiara’s unreliable power supply fails and, as if choreographed, the crowd steps in to fill the darkness with light from their mobile phones.
The night closes with a spectacular fireworks display. I slip out of the stadium just before it finishes, hoping to beat the traffic. It’s been a long and sometimes stressful day, but right now I feel there is nowhere I’d rather be. I know I have witnessed a “once in a lifetime” experience.
* Annabel Norman was on a six-month assignment as a Festival Adviser based in Honiara.
This article was originally published in VISTA magazine, October 2012.
Read more about how VSA volunteers are working to strengthen education in the wider Pacific and Asia.