From Friday November 12th through the 14th the Yap Canoe Fest was held, an annual event featuring various boat races, dancing, and demonstrations of traditional navigation and canoe building skills.
Since the opening ceremonies began at 9:00 a.m., Miranda and I woke up at the usual time as if to go to work. Thankfully, due to Veteran’s Day it was a government holiday for both of us. We packed up our cameras and brought a few bottles of water in preparation for a long day out under the sun. Even though it was still early, it was already getting hot, and the sky was bright blue and cloudless. Ready to head out, we made it almost to the front door, when suddenly down came a torrential rain storm! As typical with these freak tropical weather systems, it stopped after only a few minutes and was gone as quickly as it arrived.
Now with rain gear stowed in the car just in case, we drove into downtown Colonia. Groups of people walked along the roadsides, all heading to the same destination. It seemed like the entire island would turn out for the festivities.
We decided to stop at “Colonia’s Best Coffee”, a recently opened cafe offering fresh fruit smoothies and a variety of drinks made with fresh ground coffee. Large bags of instantly familiar Starbucks coffee beans sat in the glass fronted counter, alongside local favorites like Ramen noodles and canned meats. We sat on the couches and drank our mocha lattes under a large map of the word (that negligently did not include Micronesia!). This fellow eyed us suspiciously and made various faces at us until retreating behind the glass counter, where he peeked at us over a tin of Spam.
Beverages in hand, we headed towards the Community Center, a tin-roof covered basketball court with bleachers at the edge of town along the waterfront. It provided a great view of the bay created by the reef surrounding the island, and the ocean beyond it. Dotting the horizon were five or six triangular sails that grew steadily larger.
A cool, strong breeze brought the canoes in surprisingly quickly as they glided into the harbor. They were so close, we could hear the shouts in Yapese as the half-dozen crewmembers brought down the sails for the final approach.
Apparently each canoe is hand-made with local materials and crewed by a different village community on the island. It’s amazing to think that little boats like these, held together with rope traditionally made of woven plant fibers, ferried the giant stone money across hundreds of miles of open ocean from Palau. No wonder the rai money pieces are so highly prized! These modern sailors must feel a particular pride in keeping the skills of their ancestors alive for future generations.
After the canoes docked, we found a shady spot on the bleachers next to the “VIP” section. Apparently, the Australian ambassador was in attendance along with representatives from the other FSM states. The day before, a huge megayacht had pulled in, it’s helicopter pad (with a carefully covered helicopter) and double radar towers poking out high above the other boats in port. A few nonchalant phone calls to people-in-the-know revealed the yacht belonged to Seattle billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen! Unfortunately, no one in the VIP crowd appeared conspicuously wealthy, wearing monocles or top hats. In fact, most of these VIP’s looked suspiciously like the average, everyday tourist.
Consistent with island time, a bit later than the stated start time, the event kicked off with opening remarks given by the Director of the State Youth and Civic Affairs Department (on the left below) and the Governor (on the right below). Next, a traditional voyaging chant was so powerful, and given with such conviction, that the entire crowd was silent. It was quite moving, even though we had no idea what was being said.
After the elder concluded, the crowd broke into thunderous applause, that continued as the crewmembers of the sailing canoes entered the building. Each wore traditional attire of thu’s, the colored wrapped loincloth, nuw nuws and wreaths of local turmeric leaves. The village chiefs came in first, followed by the younger sailors.
Next came a traditional bamboo dance, performed by the youth of Fanif Municipality, an area to the north of Rull Municipality where we live. The dancers wore grass skirts of different varieties. Some of them were made with red and yellow dyed hibiscus strips, others were typical grass skirts, while others used the same palm fronds that Yapese baskets are made from.
Many of the dancers decorated their upper bodies with yellow turmeric paste. A trio of girls started singing a rhythmic song, while the two rows of opposing dancers shouted along with the singing as they struck their bamboo poles together in time to the beat.
After these ceremonies, we walked around, bought a couple of T-shirts, and looked at the different demonstration booths that had been set up. There were carvers making canoe paddles, and another featuring a collection of ‘toy’ canoes.
At another booth was a demonstration of how the hull of a paddling canoe is hewn from a solid tree trunk.
There were also food vendors offering local delicacies like pork cooked in banana leaves, and even stranger dishes like turtle and something made mostly with pig blood. Even though we didn’t sample any of these, we did get an excellent BBQ chicken sandwich made with fresh baked baguette rolls and some locally brewed beer for lunch.
People were everywhere. Some sat in groups on the stone embankment above the water, while others walked around looking at the canoes getting ready to set sail again. People lined the bridge across the bay, claiming the choice spots to view the festivities.
The races began with several young boys piloting bamboo rafts, followed by paddling events featuring incredibly long canoes making laps around buoys in the water.
We stayed for a while, but as it was getting late in the day, with ominous looking clouds bearing down on us in the distance, we headed home. It rained off an on for the rest of the weekend, turning many of the open fields around the booths into slippery, muddy bogs. As it turned out, even at our house, we could follow along with the progress of the races as the announcer’s voice boomed out across the island from the stadium speakers. We went back the next day, but it seemed like the entire high school was in attendance, with Miranda not being able to walk five paces without running into one of her students!
Even though we didn’t see all we would have liked to see, we had a great time. We’re already looking forward to next years’ 3rd annual Yap Traditional Canoe Festival!