Papeete Whirlwind Part 1

19 July Papeete Whirlwind

It’s been a whirlwind five days in Papeete, and today, the sixth, is the first day we’ve had any down time.

As planned, we pulled into Papeete early on July 14th, Bastille Day, and by 7am had a berth in the new Marina Papeete, located where, 35 years ago, yachts simply stern tied to the quai along Pomare Boulevard and anchored bow out. We were hoping to enjoy some Bastille Day celebrations as well as see some of the competitive dance and singing events we knew occurred in July. Franco, at Marina Papeete, expressed a Polynesian view of Bastille Day when he said it wasn’t a holiday for him, and that he had no interest in celebrating a French (colonialist) event. Sharing his anti-colonial views, we asked if there was a protest planned and hearing there was none, we traipsed over to the Commissariat Building (of French administration) to watch the formal governmental ceremonies that occur on Bastille Day. One long block of the tree-lined and shaded boulevard outside the Commissariat Building was cordoned off to traffic. From each of several different branches of the military, 20 or 30 mostly French soldiers stood at attention with full regalia, rifles out and bayonets unsheathed; a modest crowd of Papeete residents and tourists occupied the sidewalk. Many women and girls wore colorful long dresses with extensive frill-like hems, and men and women alike wore wreaths of beautiful flowers and greenery. News teams were present and on high alert to capture the action. At the appointed hour, French and local political dignitaries, administrators, and military officers walked out of the Commissariat Building and to the end of the block, where podiums and sound equipment had been set up. There followed a rather subdued series of speeches, interspersed with polite applause and the presentation of some sort of medal. My basic French was not up to the translation task and this prevented us from other than a superficial understanding of what was going on, though it was clear that we were witnessing a demonstration of the legitimacy of the French government and its military power, as well as the linkages with local politicians and political processes that at least tacitly support, not contest, French power and presence.

After half an hour or less the ceremony came to an end. We decided to explore downtown Papeete a bit, in search of ice cream (as per Devon’s request) and, as it turned out, to witness another example of state power and governmental authority. While we did not find ice cream (the city was pretty much entirely shut down due to the holiday), we did arrive at the Assembly Garden, located next to the French Polynesian Assembly, which is the only popularly elected national, representative body, comprised of members from each of the five archipelagoes that together make up French Polynesia. The Assembly Garden contains an extensive botanical garden, walkways open to the public, a lotus and lily pond, all connected by a flowing waterway containing fish. The botanical garden has an extensive collection of plants growing along the network of paths – an information sign next to each featured plant provided an brief description of where it is found, its provenance, uses and other key characteristics. Interestingly, the descriptions were in French and English only, not Tahitian. The power of the state to name, classify and create knowledge about plants and plant taxonomy is a key marker of state authority and its right to control access to the botanical world and the resources that it provides. That this knowledge was codified in French and English – imperial, colonial languages of rule, but not Tahitian, reinforces the link between botanical knowledge and state power. The descriptions were not in Tahitian because local botanical understanding and knowledge, indeed social relationships and cultural understanding, would no doubt differ significantly from those encoded in French or English (and indeed, perhaps challenge those of the dominant knowledge system).

Having enjoyed the peace and quiet of the Assembly garden, discussed linkages between botanical knowledge and state power, and concluded that ice cream was not happening on Bastille Day, we returned to Anthea for a rest as the tiring effects of two nights at sea were catching up. Later that day, I was extremely happy to be able to purchase tickets for that night’s Heiva performance at the ticket office. Heiva is an annual, competitive dance, singing, and sports extravaganza that brings some of the most renowned groups from throughout French Polynesia to Papeete for about three weeks of intense performances. It is linked with the resurgence of culture and identity that has emerged over the last few decades and it is a celebration and recasting of Polynesian traditions of dance and song.

That evening’s performance, in an open-air amphitheater only about a 20 minute walk from the marina, was unforgettable. The program consisted of performances by four different groups – two dance and two singing. Words cannot do justice to the vitality, beauty, emotional intensity, and extraordinary talent of these groups. Both dance groups had their own live orchestral accompaniment – the amazing percussion and syncopation of the traditional drumming instruments was extraordinary, not to mention the flute, string, and other instruments. In all four cases the announcer took pains to recount the plot of the dance performances and the subject matter of the singing groups’ songs, in French, English, AND Tahitian. The dance performances included the classic (and stunning) hip swiveling female and knee swaying male moves, high energy and perfectly choreographed dance scores involving upwards of 30 or 40 dancers, outstanding male and female solo performances, and remarkably beautiful costumes. The second dance performance focused on language revitalization and the importance of language for maintaining cultural integrity and identity. It presented an explicit critique of the ways in which French language has supplanted Tahitian and of the importance of re-centering language and Tahitian culture and identity. Each dancer seemed to genuinely enjoy what they were doing; the dancing was a marvelous and exuberant celebration; we could feel the dancers’ emotional commitment to the themes and subject matter of the dance. The singing groups were also special, though they did not quite have the same moving, engaging, high-energy quality of the dance groups. While the singing seemed a hybrid of traditional and church singing styles, the songs themselves recounted Polynesian myths, the accomplishments of cultural heroes, historical events and, in one case, the importance of the younger generation knowing ancient place names. A panel of more than 10 judges carefully made notes and decisions, which would become the basis of awarding the considerable prize money to the best performing groups across a wide variety of different dance and song genres. Thus ended our first and quite full day in Papeete.

continued as part 2 post….

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