FESTPAC, the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture, was first on my Bucket List.

This week’s Sunday paper tells me that there’s a boom in people planning, but not making, travel arrangements. Until Covid clears, people just want to put some joy back into their lives. I’d don’t blame them. As an adventurer with wanderlust in my blood, dreaming of traveling again is like giving a drink of water to a parched soul. So, Gunter and I spent part of the day making out a new bucket list.

Back in 2004, during our world circumnavigation, we attended the Festival of Pacific Arts, the world’s largest celebration of indigenous Pacific Islanders. This festival is hosted every four years by a different Pacific Island nation. At that time, we’d vowed to attend another one when the country and timing suited us. This could be the year! The 2020 festival was cancelled due to Covid and rescheduled for June 18-27, 2021 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The last such event, held in Guam in 2016, drew 90,000 visitors. This year’s festival will be made up of 28 nations, 3,000 delegates and could attract 100,000 visitors. I turned to Günter: “Because we have no schedule for this year, this fits perfectly. Shall we plan but not book?”

That turned out to be the applicable question. The very next day, Günter went back to the website to check on hotel reservations. The 2021 festival is now cancelled! The next one will be in 2024. FESTPAC will remain on my Bucket List but will no longer be Number One.

Fest Pac Logo

The following story about our experiences during 2004 FESTPAC is excerpted from The Long Way Back, the third book in my sailing/adventure trilogy:

A Taste of the Pacific Arts
Palau Marina Hotel, Koror, Palau
August 1, 2004

Even though Pacific Bliss is now berthed in Australia, I’m not quite ready to put the South Pacific islands behind me. I’d love to be able to sample even more of the culture of these islands before we sail on to Indonesia and ports beyond. So, I talk Günter into treating me to the Festival for my birthday. The Festival occurs every four years and changes venues, like the Olympics, but that’s where the resemblance ends. First, it’s a celebration, not a competition. And second, the way it’s organized is island-style: It flows freely from one event to the other; schedules are treated as guidelines. Attending the Festival will be a grand finale to our South Pacific adventures and provide a taste of those islands we haven’t visited.

We arrive at the Palau Marina Hotel after a day’s layover in Guam following a flight from Cairns, Australia. In the lobby—decorated with bamboo furniture and giant shells—our taxi driver introduces us to the Japanese man who owns the hotel. We bow and talk with him while our driver translates. Smiling Filipina waitresses lead us to our table where we enjoy an arrival dinner of sushi and Asahi (Japanese beer). On leaden legs we climb the steps to our third-floor room and crash. We will have two days to rest up before the action-packed Festival begins.

The next day, we order the “morning set” for breakfast: a semi-American breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs and toast, grilled sausages cut at a slant, and finely shredded coleslaw with dressing. For lunch, we order a bento; yakitori for me and squid for Günter. The side dishes here differ from our old standbys at Ichiban’s in Pacific Beach, San Diego: fish balls, poi-like sticky balls, spinach, seaweed, and other odd delicacies. Emily—one of the trio of Filipinas who works here—fans away flies as we dine on the veranda facing the peaceful harbor ringed by the tantalizing Rock Islands. Our view is a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, the sea’s sun-sparkles giving way to darkening wavelets as the wind freshens. A warm, tropical shower gently drifts past the veranda toward a perfectly domed, mushroom-shaped island, then encloses a backdrop of rounded hills in an ethereal mist reminiscent of Japanese paintings.

I turn to Günter. “Even if this is the rainy season here, I won’t mind.”

Mind? I will soon take back those words as I become intimate with the July-August weather slightly north of the equator!

As we leave the veranda for a sightseeing walk, a second shower appears. This time it’s the real thing. A million sharp-nosed bullets dive into the sea until it’s a mass of perforations, like a high-tech sound studio. We decide to retreat to our room to take our pensioners’ nap, a habit perfected in Australia.

Later, we don rain jackets and slog along the pitted dead-end street to the Palau Aquarium. Outdoor pools hold sharks, a hawksbill turtle, and a variety of large game fish. The magnificent interior contains the best live displays of marine life along a coral wall that I’ve ever seen.

Afterwards, we walk to nearby Fish & Fins to introduce ourselves. This premier dive-and-tour operation is run by an energetic Israeli couple who sailed their sailing vessel Ocean Hunter to Palau eight years ago, fell in love with the fabulous marine life here, and—like many cruisers we’ve met during our voyages—decided to stay in the place that captured their hearts. They charter out their sailboat for overnight excursions to the Rock Islands, along with Ocean Hunter II, a motor dive boat. We check on snorkeling tours for later in the week.

Remarkably, the Opening Ceremony on July 22 begins without the omnipresent rain. “Alii!” begins Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. “Our home is your home; our food is your food; our island is your island; everything that we have, we want to share with you…except our spouses.” I chuckle. “The Pacific Way” has evolved! In a ceremony that reminds me of the Olympics, the delegates of 24 of the 27 participating nations march or dance across the PCC Track and Field, each to their own country’s traditional music. Each delegation presents gifts to the dignitaries of Palau according to the custom of these islands, stakes a box-art gift into the soil, and then performs in front of the grandstand. And what a show it is—absolutely awesome! For cruisers, I’d recommend the Festival over the Olympics anytime.

Günter and I privately declare the delegates from Papua New Guinea Best Dressed, not that they wore a lot of clothes! They sported flamboyant headdresses topping their fierce, tattooed faces with grass skirts and bare chests. (We had the good luck to talk to a few of these delegates briefly before the festivities began and noted their friendly dispositions. Later, Günter observed two of these warrior-dancers holding hands, as is their custom, as they ambled past the craft stalls.)

Lois and Gunter with Papua New Guinea Dancers

The Maoris of New Zealand draw gasps from attendees who have never witnessed their indigenous greeting: the warriors march forward—eyes bulging, tongues protruding, and spears thrust—while their women yell threats and twirl balls on the end of bungee-like cords.

The speeches, performances, and gift giving seem to go on forever as Günter and I shift our weight this way and that on the hard stadium seating. Then volunteers hand out box dinners of rice and fish (symbolizing a feast) to all. Yes—one box to every one of the participants: the media, the organizers, the dignitaries, and the attendees in the grandstand—all 8000 of us! Why? Because that is The Pacific Way. Altogether, the opening ceremony lasts five hours—despite a downpour during the last two—and closes with incredible fireworks, courtesy of Taiwan.

The Festival incorporates multiple simultaneous venues and activities—from symposia, movies, and plays to crafts, culinary arts, and natural history tours—forcing us to make difficult choices. We decide to make dancing our priority. Each of the 27 participating islands has entered a dance group into the competition. Taiwan, Japan, and Indonesia, as sponsors, have sent performers as well. The dancing program continues day and night at the ball field, the stadium—and when raining—the gymnasium.

After attending dance venues for days, we narrow our favorites down to half a dozen:

1. Papua New Guinea: for their flamboyant style while displaying fierce demeanors and fabulous headdresses.

2. Solomon Islands: for dancing to the most primitive rhythms while hunched over huge homemade bamboo flutes.

3. The Cook Islands: for the toughest workout: Male dancers sensuously knee-slap to a fast, pulsating drum beat, then twirl their women in perfect sync.

4. Rapa Nui (Easter Island): for the best choreographed routine—sophisticated, yet vigorous—muscled bodies moving to a hot beat.

5. Yap (one of the Federated States of Micronesia): for an astounding Las Vegas style, all-male chorus routine—ending with pelvic thrusts bouncing critically placed feathers.

6. Torres Strait, Australia: to Aborigines for enacting realistic stories from their lives; in one dance simulation of fishing, the performer falls to the floor, catches the bait with his teeth, and follows a fishing line in, writhing all the way across the stage. That performance raises the roof!

The routines of the Hawaiian and French Polynesian dancers, though the choreography was polished, lacked the drama of indigenous dancing.

Festival Ceremony and Dancing

From pages 28-29, The Long Way Back.

As the festivities continue, we note that music of the Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians reflects a common, linked heritage while Asian Special Performances are clearly different. The songs of the Taiwanese highland tribes, for example, are sophisticated operatic arias with the typical dissonant chords of Asian music. They are 1000 years old!

This ten-day extravaganza has to be the ultimate Pacific tourist opportunity! Imagine mingling with locals from 31 islands while you’re shopping in the stalls, having lunch in Koror, or walking through the college campus to attend a symposium. We get to know and love these islanders as never before. We talk with and photograph dancers before and after their stage performances. Often dancers are having their own photos taken with performers from other troupes; we join right in. By the end of the Festival, I realize that the participants themselves are beginning to “mix it up.”

But it’s not only the participants who are learning from each other. About 7000 people attend the Festival events here each day, including about 3000-4000 Palauans. One local says to me, “This is a tremendous once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am proud to be a Palauan; I have seen my Pacific brothers and sisters, and now I know that there is no shame in being an islander.” (In Pidgin, this enlightened view is called Blong One Talk.)

An integral part of each year’s Festival is the Traditional Navigation and Canoeing Program. At sunrise on opening day, news helicopters hover above as smoke rises from a fire, triton-shell trumpets blare, and war and sailing canoes pass below Palau’s KB Bridge. Represented are war canoes from eight Palauan states and sailing canoes from Palau, Guam, and the Marshall Islands. Missing sailing canoes from Yap and Saipan, still underway, put a damper on opening festivities. They would show up days later. The monsoon season in Palau is not an optimal time of year for promoting the canoe program!

A few days after the official opening ceremonies, the “scheduled” races are held, although not one is even close to the time on the printed schedule. Günter and I take a taxi to the Friendship Bridge near the stated finish line for the kabekl (war canoe) race. We stand on the concrete jetty, cameras in hand, on increasingly wobbly knees. Then we spread our rain jackets on the concrete. And we sit. And sit. After about two hours, an announcer explains the rules for the two heats to be held by the canoes, to be followed by the play-off. Then we sit and wait again. About a half hour later, the announcer states that, due to the delay, there will be no final race. They will hold only the 1000-meter and a 500-meter. We wait even longer.

Nearby, a few ladies dressed in red and white—with towels over their heads to protect them from the sun—are cheering for the local Ngiwal State of Palau. I decide to follow their example. I stand and cheer, then sit and wait…and wait. Another half hour creeps by and finally the race begins. Everyone stands to cheer—this time for real. The ladies frantically wave their towels like flags. The red team wins. In the 500-meter, Koror wins.

All this waiting gives me the opportunity to talk with islanders. One stocky man in a red T-shirt that must be XXL explains how the Festival has spurred the sport of canoeing. “We’ve had races here before, but with motorboats,” he says. “Our boys didn’t know how to race canoes. You should have seen them only a few months ago. They couldn’t even paddle!”

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any sailboats in the harbors except those used for excursions. “Don’t they sail either?” I ask.

“No, ancient Palauans navigated by the stars and all,” he says, “but then they didn’t need to sail to other islands anymore. We have everything we need here. And sadly, the tradition was not handed down.”

Carrying on the island traditions and culture is exactly what the Festival aims to do. Hoping to learn how to navigate by the stars, we attend the Traditional Navigation symposium the next morning. Unfortunately, much of the discussion centers on intellectual property issues—how to prevent the usurping of traditional skills and knowledge by the West—as if we need those skills with the advent of GPS! Then the discussion turns toward how to get funding for the very program that some of the participants don’t want to share. The locals seem oblivious to the contradiction.

The Sailing Canoe Raceis scheduled for 1:00. This time, we take a taxi to where the canoes actually are, thinking that we will cleverly position ourselves at the start rather than at the finish line. By then, we have begun to understand “island time.” So, Günter keeps our cab while I venture toward the group by the canoes, potential racers who are preparing to barbeque their lunch.

“When do you expect the race to begin?”

“At one o’clock,” one of the racers responds.

“But it’s one-thirty now.” I point to my watch.

“I think the race is actually at four o’clock,” another canoeist volunteers.

“No, the program says that is the time for awarding of the prizes. Do you have a program?”

“No.”

“Hold the cab! We’re leaving!” I call to Günter.

Later, we hear that the races did occur that day—at 4:30 p.m. By then, two teams had decided not to race. Guam, Yap, and Palau—although mismatched—managed to paddle to the finish line against the wind and current under the bridge.

Booths and exhibits at the Festival

From pages 26-27 of The Long Way Back.

Festival activities keep us busy for the next few days. We enjoy hanging around Festival Village where we purchase souvenirs from various countries’ booths and sample their native food. We walk through the thatched-roof Pavilion to view tattooists, carvers, and weavers at work. One project, called MAT, calls for each participant country to weave a 2×2-foot square that will eventually be combined into one majestic Quilt of the Islands, to be displayed at the Palau National Museum. This Museum will also display a carved log with each country’s section, and one large storyboard representative of all carvers’ combined efforts. We view architectural displays and attend poetry readings, instrumentals, and plays. In a clever New Zealand stage play, two actresses recount the history of the Maoris from the first sighting of the white man.

During the final days of the Festival, the rains arrive to stay. A typhoon is moving toward Japan; all of Micronesia is drenched in the resulting weather system. The closing ceremony is moved to the college gymnasium. To make space, the country delegations sit on the wooden floor in the center. Even so, the grandstands are overloaded. Many Palauans are left standing outside holding umbrellas. I sympathize with this tiny country of 20,000 that has valiantly tried its best to be the perfect hosts to 4,000 visitors. But I’m proud of them as well. I’m touched by the warmth of the speeches and by the sincere effort to again feed the crowd in keeping with The Pacific Way.

“In today’s strife-torn world,” concludes Festival Host President Remengesau, “it is uplifting that so many of us have come together to celebrate the value and beauty of our heritage.”

May these Festivals continue to uplift, to teach, to inspire, and to celebrate the heritage of the islands. Attending the 9th Festival of the Pacific Arts was a birthday gift that I will cherish forever.

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Other SailorsTales blogs about the South Pacific are:

Breaking Bread with the Locals

The Pacific Puddle Jump 10-Year Reunion

Cruiser Camaraderie: Revisiting our World Circumnavigation

Reconnecting with Crew

Pacific Bliss Goes Snorkeling

The Largest Clams in the World

Visiting Levuka, Fiji’s Ancient Capital, during our World Circumnavigation

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased on Amazon.