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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Speartacular Part One: Welcome to Wogasia (Spear Festival)

It’s midnight; I’m running through a strange village with a coconut frond in my hand, slapping the ground all the while flaming coconuts are being thrown at me along with stingy stinky fish water.
When a flaming coconut hits the back of my calf, I realize that this is some of the craziest sh*t I’ve ever participated it.

27 brave souls fly to Santa Ana (in two separate planes, no less), an island just south of a much bigger island, Makira (no, this is not the Melanesian equivalent to Shakira; it is an actual place).  Originally, it was to be two flights at the same time however, as anyone who flies Solomon Airlines (quoted in the Lonely Planet guide as competing strongly with Air Kiribati as the most unreliable airline on the planet), knows, time tables, schedules and plans go out the window pretty quickly.

I am on the morning flight.  After we land, the pilot turns to me and asks me if I am the boss.  I say no but he doesn’t quite believe me.

Anyway, we make our way from the grassy airstrip down to a village that hugs a beautiful bay.  There we board some banana boats to make it across to Santa Catalina, our destination for five days.  The trip across is fairly easy; only a little swell to make things more sporty.

We are greeted by warriors, wearing banana leaves and black paint.  They scream and point spears at us.  
The whole village is there to greet us, sing songs and make speeches.  The 12 of us who made it across (all women) stand in a line and wait for our names to be read out so our host families can come and get us.  It is explained later that we are going to stay with these families and are to be adopted into their tribe.

My new father, Phillip, takes my bags and quietly escorts me to my new home.  Phillip’s house is a large, open plan leaf house.  My room was originally part of house; they built a divider for me so I could have some privacy.

A whole banana bunch is hung from the ceiling; I have literally a hundred small yellow bananas to myself.  I meet my mother, Sally, who has red wavy hair just like me.  She shows me around to the toilet, which is in a leaf shack near the Greek Doctor’s house, the bathing area, which is in another leaf shack closer to the house and other facilities around the place.  When we return from our “walkabout” I get a fresh coconut to drink out of. For some strange reason, the coconuts here are so sweet, as are the bananas. 

We hang out for the afternoon, getting used to the village.  Village life seems peaceful but there is activity going on all the time. 

In the evening, we are invited to witness the making of the special traditional Wogasia (spear festival) pudding.  So let me break it down for you.  Pana is a kind of potato that is mashed until sticky and, well, foul smelling.  The pana paste stuff is poured into a large rectangular bowl.   Into the mixture goes hot, hot stones and loads of coconut cream.  The white sticky stuff slowly turns a grayish brown and is mixed by four men with large stirring sticks.  The pudding becomes a mass of bubbling goo.

Two large bowls of cool water are brought out and two men take positions on either side.  Then the fun begins. The men start grabbing at the hot stones.  They throw the stones on the ground, careful to miss their toes and put their hands in the cool water. This goes on and on until the pudding is thoroughly mixed, the men are all sweaty and the stones are removed.

The pudding is then left to sit for three days and will be eaten at the end of the festival.  Yum.   
We eat a nice shared meal of fish. I always go for the fish head; it’s delicious and easy to eat and no one else dares eat them but locals and myself.  I discover that, after awhile, the group uses me as a taste tester because, essentially, they think I’ll try anything.  They are right; I always give anything a go once.

Wogasia stones...yum!
After the meal and some more speeches, we wander back to our homes for some talk story and bed time.  I go to sleep on my hard woven mat.  I find it almost impossible to sleep at first; the sounds of the village, children, chickens, everything keeps me awake until the early morning.  Eventually broken sleep comes.
I wake up the next morning to three in one coffee mix.  Now, here is a wonder from the Solomon Islands.  

Three in one coffee mix is essentially powdered creamer, sugar and coffee mix all together in one supremely 
convenient package.    As I sit and survey the village.  A chicken climbs halfway up a tree, desperate to eat the insects. The Greek Doctor doesn’t believe that there could be such a thing as a tree climbing chicken, until one climbs on top of her head. 

The morning is spent climbing up a steep hill going for pana and beetle nut, the festival’s must haves.  We climb up and sit under trees, talking story and sharing until it’s time to go down the steep trail with about 10 kilo baskets of pana on our heads.  I opt to hold mine under my arm; I’m not terribly well balanced and I break my thumbnail down past the quick.  I’m such a girl, complaining about my broken nail.

The day goes on as we prepare for the night’s festivities.  A large shared meal is eaten and we are allowed to sleep for two hours.  The 24 hours of Wogasi is about to begin.

At 11 p.m., we are woken up by our parents.  I wonder down to the main centre of the villages, sleepy, not knowing what to expect.  The whole village has turned out (About 700 people).  I am given the spine of the coconut frond.  I am told that we are going to run, slapping the ground to scare the evil spirits away.  Oh and people will be throwing coconuts at you.  Flaming coconuts.  And stingy water.  And other stuff will be in the water too (no one would tell me what the other stuff might be, they just sit and giggle).

Blowing of the conch before the coconuts fly...
Men blow through conch shells are loudly in the dark.  A group of thirty men stand in the centre of the main ground, blowing a haunting tune to let people know that the festivities are about to begin.  A Korean documentary crew wonder around with flood lights filming the whole thing.

My mother has disappeared somewhere in the crowd and I am left with my friend Viola and her mother.  Four rows of 30 people each sit down, waiting to begin the run.  I’m nervous, especially when Viola’s mother warns us not to slap the ground because people will hit us with the sticks because we aren’t properly trained.
Half of the visitors sit and watch from the side lines, warned or told not to participate.  I know it’s dangerous but, as I may never run with the bulls, I thought this was my chance to do something truly dangerous and fun.

The conchs blow louder and louder.  Viola’s mother tells us to sit down.  We look like warriors prepared to rush the trenches.  I hold my coconut frond stick tightly, waiting for the signal.  It comes and suddenly
shear madness envelopes the crowd.  Screams come from the runners, the people in the houses.  Projectile flaming coconuts are hissing around us and I duck to miss a few.  The Greek Doctor gets one in the head but she recovers quickly; it is, after all, just the husk and not the full coconut.

We run.  I hold onto Viola’s hand as we speed blindly in the dark, following the screams and shadows in front of us.  I get hit by a frond; a warning to behave myself.  As we race through the villages, I get sprayed with water and let out a scream.  Something primal takes over Viola as she starts screaming the village style and begins to slap the ground, especially the embers of the coconut husks.

I figure, what the hell and let out a primal scream.  I slap the ground loudly and break my frond in two.  I still speed through the dark.  A flaming coconut husk hits my leg but I keep running.  The crowd descends on my home (I find out later it’s because my new dad is the Sheriff of the tribe).  The shrieks and screams reach a crescendo; people are bouncing up and down like wild things and slapping the ground as hard as they can.
Then it ends and everyone wanders back slowly to the central area.

I think to myself: what the f*ck just happened and what have I gotten myself into.

Viola’s mother proclaims in pidgin: “Wogasia (spear festival) 2011 has just begun.”

Fire flies dance in the bush amongst the coconut and palm trees.  I breathe deeply, covered in sweat. 

“Welcome to our festival.”