Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Coconut Festival

First, the name of this country is pronounced New-AY, with the emphasis on the second syllable and a hard 'a.'  It is not pronounced New-ie.  The “iu” vowel combination is pronounced like “ewgh” and the final “e” is pronounced like a long “a” just as it is in all the Polynesian languages.  Cannot tell you how many cruisers pronounce the name of this island incorrectly.

Niue might be the smallest country on earth.  It consists of only one small island and is a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand.  The entire island is less than 100 square miles.  Think about it; that is less than 10 miles long and 10 miles wide.  Niue was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1774; but after 2 unsuccessful attempts to land he named it the Savage Island, noting the ferocity of the inhabitants; and never returned.  One must assume that Capt. Cook mistook the inhabitants’ greetings as being negative but that they were in fact trying to warn the sailors where and how to land and to discourage Cook’s small boats from landing in dangerous areas because getting ashore on Niue is very difficult and can be downright treacherous.  The inhabitants are by far the friendliest people imaginable.  Many of the Pacific islanders are friendly, but none more so than Niueans and they resent Capt. Cook’s inappropriate name for their island.

Niue was not formed by volcanic eruption as were most of the Pacific islands.  The island is an elevated coral outcropping perched on top of a seamount rising from very deep water.  Niue may be the smallest self-governing country but it is also the largest raised coral island in the world.  The entire island looks like an inverted saucer with a slightly elevated ridge around the top like the “base” of that saucer.  This elevated ridge is the central plateau at a height of 220 feet.  The encircling saucer is about 90 feet above the water.  There are no sloping shores down to the water level and there are no beaches.  The sea is deep steep-to all around the island.  Niue is dotted with many caves and chasms, both above ground and also under the sea.  That is one of the reasons that it is so dangerous to attempt to anchor here.  It is too deep to anchor safely and there is a strong likelihood that your anchor would be caught in one of the underwater chasms and become irretrievable. 

Niue was probably settled more than a thousand years ago by migrations from Samoa and Tonga.  The London Missionary Society attempted to land teachers on the island in 1830 but they were repulsed by the inhabitants.  In 1849 Samoan teachers were landed and with local Niueans established the first Christian mission.  The first European missionary did not arrive here until 1861.  Niue started as early as 1887 to try to become a member of the British Empire; but it did not happen until 1900, when Niue was declared a British protectorate.   The following year it was annexed to New Zealand.  On October 19, 1974, Niue became self-governing in free association with New Zealand.  Under the Constitution Act of 1974 it is agreed that New Zealand will continue to be responsible for the external affairs and defense of Niue and for providing necessary economic and administrative assistance.  Niueans are British subjects and New Zealand citizens.  (Now, are you as confused by all that as I am?  Strange arrangement.  Best of all possibilities for the Niueans.)  The current population of Niue is down to about 1750 inhabitants, but there are about 15,000 Niueans residing in New Zealand, where they have moved to seek jobs.  There is almost no opportunity for employment on Niue, where the only substantial employer is the government in one form or another:  education, health, police, fire, etc.

There are 14 villages connected by tar-sealed roads; more about these villages later.  There is fertile soil but it is not plentiful.   This lack of soil combined with the rocky and broken nature of the country makes cultivation difficult; but we saw some lovely locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables at a festival today.  The vegetables would be unrecognizable to US citizens.  Bill and I have tried a few at various islands and do not care for any of them.  The principal agricultural export is taro.  The forests in the interior plateau are filled with mahogany, rosewood and sandalwood.  Although there is much timber on the island, it is not exported but is used for local building.

Niue is known as The Rock because of its unusual coral and limestone structure.  This same structure filters rainwater and there is no soil run-off, so the surrounding sea is amazingly clear.  We are moored in 110 feet depth and can clearly see the bottom when the sun is bright.  That is unbelievable to be able to see that depth.  This is one of the reasons that Niue is a premier diving site ---the water clarity as well as the underwater caves and chasms are spectacular.  There are millions of tiny sea-snakes.  These snakes are very poisonous but their mouths are too small to bite a human.  So you can dive without worrying about the snakes.  In fact, the snakes are very curious and will swarm around the divers.  That would totally freak me out!

Getting ashore is quite the challenge here in Niue.  Since there are no beaches and the sea is steep-to all around the island, landing a dinghy is impossible.  There is a large, very high concrete wharf with a crane.  You bring your dinghy alongside and disembark your passenger so he/she can climb up the concrete steps (and if it is high tide there will be surging waves up to your knees to cause you to lose balance and it is quite dangerous).  Your passenger disembarks and operates the crane.  Swing the crane out and lower the large hook.  Connect an interior bridle in your dinghy and connect to the hook, while the dinghy is riding up and around on the sea surge the entire time.  Then the dinghy driver climbs out on those same swell-crashing concrete steps.  Your passenger operates the crane to lift the dinghy up onto the wharf.  There is a hand-operated rolling dinghy dollie to move your dinghy away from the crane loading area and park it elsewhere on the wharf.  The same procedure is reversed when you leave.  If you don’t have a passenger to assist in connecting and hoisting the dinghy, it is possible to do this procedure single-handedly as long as the previous user has left the crane hook lowered down to the water.  But if the crane hook is raised when you arrive in your dinghy, there would be no way to manage this alone.  Thanks goodness there is a knotted Tarzan-style rope to grab onto when climbing in or out of the dinghy at the concrete steps.  The dinghy is bouncing up and down with a range of about 6 feet while the sea surges up over the bottom step.  Do not think anyone could get in or out of their dinghy without that Tarzan rope to hold onto. 

BTW, the guides books are wrong (again!!).  Upon arrival the Customs and Immigrations officials no longer come out to your boat.  When arriving in Niue you should hail Niue Yacht Club on VHF Ch 16 before arriving in the mooring field.  They will direct you to an area where you can find an unoccupied mooring ball.  Once you are moored and have your dinghy in the water then you hail Niue Radio on VHF Ch 16.  They will not answer to any other name like Niue Port Control or Harbormaster or whatever.  They only answer to Niue Radio.  Niue Radio will either direct you to the Customs office or will call the Customs officials and they will meet you at the wharf.  So you get an immediate familiarity with that infamous dinghy crane upon your arrival in Niue.  We went through this drill yesterday.

By the time we finished with Customs and Immigration yesterday it was too late to get connected with WiFi.  So our mission today was to go to the bank to exchange US dollars for local currency of NZ dollars, get internet connected and buy eggs and bread.  Well, those plans changed as soon as we had the dinghy lifted onto the wharf.  A local woman named Lelane took us under her wing.  She was at the wharf to collect sea water for her mother to use in cooking.  (Didn’t get an explanation about this; don’t know what she was cooking that required sea water.) 

Lelane is a Niuean who married a Cook Islander and they now live in Auckland, NZ.  There is a big forum going on in Niue this week.  It is like the G8 conference that the US participates in, but this forum is for all the Pacific nations.  It is called the Niue-Fakaalofa Lahiatu 39th Pacific Forum.  The Prime Minister of Australia and the Prime Minister of New Zealand are both in Niue, along with the ministers or officials of Samoa and all the other major Pacific governmental entities.  The only country that did not attend was Fiji.  Anyway, Lelane is visiting her home island of Niue as part of this forum and she had a rental car.  She told us about a big annual festival that was taking place at the high school in honor of this forum.  Lelane took us to the bank so we would have some local currency to spend at the festival and then drove us up the hill to the festival.  Later in the day she returned to the festival to give us a ride back to the wharf area.  What an incredibly nice lady.

The festival was very entertaining and gave us a wonderful insight to the Niuean culture.  These people are not just hospitable; they are genuinely friendly and have a basic happy outlook on life.  We thoroughly enjoyed the day and the people.  There were various stalls or booths like at any festival and we visited all of them.  I ate a very strange grilled sausage wrapped in a slice of bread and topped with chopped grilled onions and a tomato sauce and Bill had a piece of barbequed chicken.  There were some tiny balls called pancakes that looked interesting but neither of us was very hungry so we did not sample the pancakes.  There were families from each village selling their home-grown produce.  Before we arrived there had been what we would call an art car parade and judging.   The vehicles decorated with palms and coconuts and other island items were a sight to behold.  After the forum officials made a few speeches then it was time for the games and contests.

These people can do anything with a coconut tree.  They utilize every piece of the coconut palm.   First there was a contest for women to see who could weave a coconut palm frond into a basket the fastest.  These were not supposed to be tightly woven baskets to last a long time.  These were to be what is called a day basket --- one that is loosely woven for a one-time use only.  As soon as each woman completed her basket then she had to stand up and put the basket over her head and walk to the podium.  Some of the women danced up to the podium to collect their prizes.  They were all laughing and having a great time with these baskets turned upside down over their heads.  The top 3 winners were from the same village.  Found out later that the women from that particular village always take awards for their weaving skills in any competition.  It was obvious that the villages like to compete with one another over just about anything.

Next was a slippery pig chase for the kids.  Same as we call a greased pig contest, except they coated the pig with liquid dishwashing detergent.  Should have seen the little girls scatter when the announcer said that it was time for some girls to participate.  Apparently only little boys chase pigs on this island.

Next contest was the tropical island version of skiing.  Cannot remember what they called it.  This requires 2 people to hold either end of a long horizontal pole.  The actual contestant stands on 2 pieces of discarded palm frond bases.  Also do not know what those are called; but they are very hard and slightly curved and are about 2-feet long.  The contestant places each foot on one of these hard curved palm pieces and squats down with bent knees while the 2 people run holding onto each end of the pole (also made from a coconut tree).  This apparently is harder than it looked because some people had difficulty and didn’t make it very far down the field.  After the kids raced then the local policemen and the military competed against one another.  Competition was a little more evident with the police and military.  The military groups were brought in from New Zealand for the forum security detail.  I think the local police beat the NZ military guys.

The ladies then participated in a coconut throwing/rolling contest.  Object was to see who could make a coconut go farthest down the field.  This also was obviously a contest that the locals do often between the villages. 

The older boys and then the men participated in a tikai contest.  Tikai is pronounced “see-cah”  with the emphasis on the first syllable.  A tikai is a piece of wood (again coconut tree) that is about 4 feet long and the diameter of your thumb.  It is shaped sort of like a spear except that there is no point on the end.  Instead, on the far end is very hefty oblong shaped piece of carved wood that is darkened and polished.  You hold the bare end of the tikai between your thumb and second finger with your index finger on the very tip end.  Rare back and throw it.  It lands half-way down the field and then continues to run along the ground surface for a great distance.  Object is to see who can throw the farthest.  If you hold the tikai any other way (like in the middle) when you throw it, then it will land heavy point down and just stick into the ground or break.  To get it to skim the ground you must throw it from your index finger on the rear tip of the “spear” pole.  The NZ military guys also tried this but were nowhere near as accurate as the local Niuean men.

The final contest was a real hoot.   We have no idea what they called this activity.  It was pretty involved and the official had to explain it several times before the contest started.  It involved teams of 8 people each.  Each team formed a queue at one end of a field.  About 200 feet from each team were the items needed for this competition: a section of cut tree trunk standing about 2-feet tall, 6 coconuts still in their outer covering, a 3-inch diameter pole about 5-feet long, a machete, a palm-frond basket and a small plastic drinking glass.

The first person in each team ran down the field to the tree trunk.  They placed the end of the pole on top of the tree trunk and used the machete to sharpen the both ends of the pole and stuck it into the ground at an angle.  He then husked 2 coconuts by slamming them against the sharp point of the pole.  (This is really not easy to do; it requires a lot of strength and accuracy.)  Then he ran back down the field and got in the back of the queue.

Then the second person ran down the field and also husked 2 coconuts.  He cut the 4 husked coconuts in half and ran back to the queue.

Then the third person also ran down the field and also husked 2 more coconuts and cut them in half with the machete.  He then ran back to the queue.  Note that they now have 6 husked coconuts all cut in half.

The fourth person ran down the field (this was usually a woman) and sat down on the tree trunk and used the edge of the machete to remove the meat from inside the coconut.  I think this is called copra.  Amazing how fast they could do that.  Then she ran back to the queue.

The fifth person ran down the field and picked up the discarded coconut husk and scraped out the fibrous stuff inside.  He/she then wrapped this fibrous stuff around the scraped-out coconut meat and squeezed it over the plastic drinking glass.  The glass had to be filled half-way with the resulting liquid coconut cream.  Then he/she set the glass on the tree trunk and ran back down the filed to the queue.

The sixth person ran down the field and placed his forehead on the end of the pole, which was still standing in the ground but not very sharp anymore.  He had to circle around the pole 8 times very quickly with his head touching it and then run back down the field to the queue.  They were falling all over the place after turning 8 fast circles.  No one could actually run and no one could even propel themselves in the correct direction with any accuracy.   It was hysterical.

The seventh person ran down the field and selected 2 of the coconut halves.  He picked up the vine-like stuff that grows at the top of each coconut and straightened it so that it looked like twine.  He used the tip of the machete to open the holes of the eyes of the coconut halves and ran the “twine” through the holes and knotted it off about 2 to 2 ½ feet long.  Then he stood on the top of the 2 coconut halves and held onto the twine and had to run back down the field to the queue.  Sort of like coconut sandals.  This was hilarious.

The eighth person ran down the field and collected all the materials used (except the tree trunk).  He was the clean-up guy.  He put all the items into the basket and ran back down the field to the queue.

The first team to complete all these steps was the winning team.  The prize was $100 to be distributed however the team wanted.   A great time was had by all.

Aside from the fun stuff the most interesting aspect of our day at the festival was talking to a man who said he was the island elder.  He verbally traces his ancestry back to the original inhabitants of Niue.  He had a display of all kinds of carved mahogany items.  The most special of these was his personal outrigger.  He was very proud of this outrigger and explained it at length to us.  He said it was his second wife and it was important to treat the craft just like a wife.  His words about why his outrigger is his second wife:  he rides her like a wife and she takes care of him like a wife as long as he is attentive to her needs.  Just like a woman, sometimes she needs new things to make her more attractive and to do her work better.  As long as he takes care of her, she will take care of him.

His craft was carved from mahogany and very pretty.  It looked like it had never been in seawater but he said he uses it all the time and that it is far safer on the ocean than a motorized boat.  The hull is 3/8-inch thick.  It has one seat; one sits up on top of the seat in a traditional outrigger, not down inside the hull like in the new fiberglass outriggers.  There is a spare seat that is normally used to block the forward area of the hull where gear is stowed such as fishing line and bait or drinking water, etc.  If by some unfortunate accident you should lose a paddle, then the spare seat becomes your emergency paddle.  You simple remove the outside top bar on the outrigger balancing ama and attach it to the spare seat and you have a paddle.  The outrigger will float even if totally submersed in water.  He could not stress too strongly all the reasons why he felt that the outrigger is safer than any other water craft. 

He also explained that when islanders of yesteryear would go on “travels” that they went in very large outriggers and with a minimum of 6 in a group.  They did not travel alone between the islands.  At first an outrigger held 26 or more people.  Later as they began to make shorter voyages these craft were made smaller and smaller.  They never made a 2-person traditional outrigger.  They went from a 3-person craft down to 1-person craft, which is the one seen most often today.  We very much enjoyed talking to this man.

We took way too many photos and lots of short videos at the festival and at the dinghy crane; but the internet connection has something blocked to prevent me from uploading right now.  Will try to add photos and videos later.

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