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Monday, June 13, 2011

Speartacular Part Three: Escape from Santa Ana

The next day, I began to process the whole crazy event that is Wogosia.  I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research about the whole event prior to attending, other than some friends of friends said it was the amazing thing they had ever been to.

I spoke at some length with my kind adopted father, Will, about the whole process.  Will is one of the best spear fighters in the whole spear fighting event, hence why he is the sheriff.  He explains that Wogosia has been going on for a very long time in various forms but the main reason now is to settle differences (with spears) and to celebrate the new year/harvest time.

There is a sense of renewal about the whole festival; a time of letting go of old grudges and turning over new leafs (or wearing them, as the case with the banana burkas).  Will explains further that it is illegal to hurt anyone; spilling blood means payment of compensation to the victim.  This is why, Will explains, the worst fighters fight in the sea so they limit their chances of hurting anyone.  And here I thought they were actually just a bunch of badasses fighting the surf long enough to throw a spear.

While we munch on bananas, Will says that the fights used to be clan versus clan: Amwah vs. Atawah.  But now only same clans fight to avoid too much ethnic tension.  Will explains further the history of his island; Santa Catalina has only been inhabited for a short while, compared to Santa Ana and the mainland of Makira.  Its newness and isolation led to the preservation of older beliefs and traditions, like Wogasia.

The whole festival is very sacred to the people of Santa Catalina and despite my opinions about its strangeness, I feel honoured to be an attendee and to be adopted into the tribe.  A man with a portable load speaker comes around, as he has almost every hour or so and informs us what is next on the programme.  Yes, there is a printed out programme, apparently us ex-pats need a timeline/schedule at all times… 

As the day wears on, some friends hop into a boat and are paddled to the northern part of the island, where the water is very clear and bright blue. We swim and then dry ourselves off and then play a rousing game of Uno.  Then back to the village for a final goodbye (actually there would be a lot of goodbyes).

The families escort us to the main village ground where pipe instruments have been set up.  We are going to be honoured to view some local dancing.  The women dance troupe assembles and I am slightly surprised at the age of the dancers.  In Polynesia, the women are typically young and beautiful.  But here, on the sun blessed island of Santa Catalina, the dancers are all over the age of 50 and missing most of their teeth due to rampant beetlenut chewing.

As the older women sway their hips and laugh, the older men of the village sing to them.  There is a call and caller relationship with the older men and women.  The women dance with abandon and joy and it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  When I ask my adopted mother later why older women are chosen, she says it’s because they are the best; they have the most experience with dancing. 

The older men take position and dance as well.  The men dance with the same joy but much more humour as the old father of the village gyrates sexually at my wantok (my fellow American), Calista.  Calista looks completely unimpressed with the turn of events and I can tell that she would rather be somewhere else.

The finale is when all of us are invited to dance.  The kids get up and dance with us, screaming with delight.  I sway my hips with my mother, in a motion which appears to be somewhat like husking a coconut.  Or something.

The Wogosia dance party continues for quite some time; it feels great to dance with my new family.  We finish with more speeches, more food and then time to go back to the house.

I meet my grandmother, who takes one look at me and says “ui fat tomas” or you fat too much.  Great, I just got vetoed by my Melanesian grandmother.  Anyway, they name me after her, which I think is wonderful, despite her obvious distain for me.  Perhaps being fat tomas was why I only got hard navy biscuits for breakfast.

My father presents me with a wonderful shark carving, to remind me of my tribe.  I present a shell necklace to my mother and my underwater torch to my father.  He took a liking to it when he saw that it glowed red for emergencies and has a whistle on the end.  I gave it to him in the hopes that he will always be safe at night on the ocean.

It’s my last night sleeping on a woven mat and my body has gotten used to sleeping on hard surfaces.  I seem to be able to tune out the noises from the village and fall to sleep easily.  It always seems the way; as soon as I get used to a place, it is time to move on.

The next morning we have an early start to catch the boat across.  My mother hugs me goodbye and she cries.  I’m sad but can’t muster any tears which I feel guilty about; it takes a lot for me to cry.
My father shakes my hand and off I go on the first boat across to Santa Ana.  The ride over is easy and the water is smooth.  When we get out of the boat, an almost Italian woman is on the beach, waiting for us to arrive.

There I meet a very special person for a very special family…

The Kuper family holds iconic status in the Solomons.  The grandfather, from Germany, married a local woman from Santa Ana.  Their children went on to play pivotal roles in World War 2 as coast watchers; a group of locals who reported the movements of the Japanese to the Americans.  The Coast Watchers saved thousands of allied lives by signaling when Japanese warships and subs sailed down through the Slot (the water between most of the major islands in the Solomons).

Standing before me is Greta, the daughter of one of the most famous coast watchers and the granddaughter of Mr. Kuper.  She invites all of us into her home to take shelter from the heavy rain and begins to happily tell us the story of her famous family.

Her mother, Linda, comes out from the back room.  Linda is easily in her 80s and talks about her role briefly during the war.  Linda was a Coast Watcher, with her husband, in Isobel.  IShe tells me that it was a very scary time and no one knew for sure whether they would be alive day to day.  She tells me about hiding out in the jungle and fleeing the Japanese.  Linda, born of an English father and Marshalese mother, can hardly hear anymore but graciously bears my questions about the war.

The rain breaks and we are off again to the airport.  Santa Ana is a lovely little pocket of the Solomons; many expats have settled there, so supplies are plentiful and French sailboat lazily sits in the protected reef filled harbor.

We walk up to the Solomon Air counter where we are all publically weighed (oh the humiliation!).  The first flight leaves but leaves behind two passengers due to a mix up.  We wait and are told that some of us may have to stay until Saturday (it is Wednesday). 

While we wait, we trek inland to a large freshwater lake where there are “probably” no crocodiles.  The ground is very saturated and there is thick gushy mud everywhere we walk.  After a dirty slog we make it to the lake, which is the picturesque but hardly filled with clear water.  I sink in from the bank and quickly go over my head.  The locals laugh with us and probably laugh at me especially.  I knew I shouldn’t have worn my white tank top with my grey bra…anyway, I stand on a submerged tree branch and chat easily with the other women about life on Santa Ana.

Paul, the all star army fellah, swims into the middle of the lake and past it until his bobbing head appears to only be a mirage on the surface of the water. 

After he returns, we climb out of the water and dry off.  We take another path back to the village which seems strangely dry and mud free.  We happily tread through the village, leaving bewildered pig pigs and chickens in our wake. 

Dinner is at “Auntie Greta’s” where she lets me rest on her couch as she tells me some of her secrets.  We laugh together and I realize that this warm soul is truly the jewel of Santa Ana.  She lets me lay down for awhile and I fall asleep, thinking she has left me to do some cleaning up.  When I awake 45 minutes later, she is still there, patiently waiting.  I feel sad leaving her house; it’s a place that anyone would feel comfortable spending a day or lifetime in her nurturing presence.

We are given the bad news when we return to the airport office.  Our entire compliment of luggage must remain in Santa Ana due to the plane being overweight.  I look at my bags, not wanting to leave behind my trusty dry bag back pack that my mother bought me in the States.  Besides, I purchased some lovely carvings in Santa Catalina, including a horrific pig man head (which Tessa would later christen his ugliness). But 19 of us leaved all our possessions behind, unsure if we would see them again (we would, more than a week later.  Thanks Solomon Airlines for stinky, moldy clothes and me not being able to take my gear to the 

We walk to the airport and then we are off on the plane.  I sit next to a good hearted volunteer who had developed a bad case of septicemia.  My now rusty emergency response medic skills tell me he needs antibiotics quickly.  I realize there isn’t much I can do but wrap my skirt around his shoulders and rub his back as gently as I can.   Once we get off the plane, we rush the volunteer to the Number Nine clinic.  The attending nurse takes one look at him and gives him an injection of antibiotics.  Hopeful that I had served the volunteer well, I taxi back home for some sleep.

Life back home resumes quickly back to normal but, with leaving for the Weathercoast the next Monday, I don’t have much time to relax.  Thursday night I go to aerobics at the local schools.  About 60 women are there, all punching and kicking up a storm.

Despite participating in the three weirdest fun runs of my life during Wogasia, I find I respond in kind, enjoying every kick and punch thoroughly.  It’s as if Wogasia had left a primal legacy inside of me and I happily grunt and scream with Elsa beside me, kicking the air.  I feel pretty good until she does a full ten minutes of sit-ups.  After 90 minutes of physical brutality, we take off back home in taxi. 

Covered in sweat and full of rage, the spear festival spirit has taken up a space in my soul.  I feel ready for 

Indeed, the spirit of Wogasia would serve me well on what was to be my most challenging adventure in the Solomons: the wild Weathercoast…