Saturday, March 7, 2015

Getoashigil Joashigi-Welimwemwil

Map picture

For those of you, who are not fluent in the Ulithian Language, allow me to translate my title for you: “Woleai Atoll Culture Day Festival-Welcome.” You will recall from my blog yesterday that in the Micronesian State of Yap, March 6th is the day set aside for celebration of their native culture. As it would happen, the Silver Discoverer was the very first cruise ship to arrive into the atoll of Woleai on the day of this celebration, and so we were not only welcomed to the island, but also welcomed to participate in and to enjoy their festivities.

Let me backup just a minute to set the stage a bit. Pretty much since entering the Federated States of Micronesia, the Silver Discoverer has been cruising westward towards the final destination for this cruise, the city of Koror in the Republic of Palau. In the process, it has seemed that pretty much another day does indeed mean another atoll, however the atoll of Woleai was something a little special. For one thing, it is quite large consisting of twenty-two islands, most of them inhabited with a population overall of around 1,200 people. The island of Woleai is the largest of these, and is divided into five different villages. The little island is also home to a general store, a church, a clinic, and a generator which provides electricity around the island. What is most impacting our visit today is the fact that Woleai holds firmly onto the traditional ways so that the festival to which we were both participants in and a witness to were something special both to the islanders and to ourselves.

Our ship anchored off Woleai around 7am, and our intrepid Expedition Leader, Stefan Kredel, went ashore both to scout things out and to obtain permission for our arrival from the Island Chief. I gather that he was greeted as if he was a visiting dignitary himself. Soon afterwards, several outrigger canoes sailed by our ship in tribute to our arrival, and by 9am we were all welcomed ashore to join in the day’s program. We were seated on the beautiful white sandy beach facing out towards the lagoon. DSC03432From the water’s edge, and jutting out into the gently lapping water, had been constructed a stage, complete with a tin roof and flower pots hanging under the roof. On the raised platform sat the various Chiefs from the communities participating in the events, along with the Captain of the Silver Explorer and our own Expedition Leader, Stefan Kredel. All in all, I counted nine Chiefs, to which you add our two dignitaries, and what we had is eleven individuals all of whom had to have an opportunity to address the assembled gathering. Now all around us on the beach was a very large crowd of brightly dressed locals all of whom seemed to be hanging on every word that was spoken. Clearly, this was both a holiday for them and an important event! After staying long enough to hear our Captain and Stefan make their remarks, I decided I could stand no more speeches, since most of what was being said was in a language I did not understand, and I took off to explore behind the scenes.

I walked away from the beach finding that entire villages had setup tents under which they were actively putting their local skills to display.DSC03464 Walking a little further I came to a ROAD. I mean a real time road with tire tracks, and indeed just behind the events was parked a Toyota pick-up from the YAP government. I looked up to see power lines running along the road, and so I started to walk along the road away from the events unfolding on the beach. I was clearly going in the wrong direction because the road will filled with locals who were dressed up in their finest ceremonial attire all headed in the opposite direction. Soon I came to a beautiful Catholic Church, in front of which was a dilapidated plaza on the side of which stood a monument, the top of which was adorned by a bell. I noted a large brass plaque on the monument, and out of curiosity, I wandered over to see what it said. The top of the inscription was in Japanese, but the bottom was basically a memorial to the many Japanese who had given their lives on this island during WW II. I was curious about this because I had never heard of this atoll in connection with the war, so before writing this blog I did a little look around the internet. It seems that during the war, this island was occupied by the Japanese and near the end of the war it was home to over 7,000 troops. By the time Japan surrendered, there were only 1,650 survivors, the rest having perished by starvation and disease. Those survivors were rescued by the destroyer USS Sloat on September 17, 1945. It is amazing what you find when you are not even looking.

Even after having been gone for quite a while, when I returned, the speeches were still ongoing, and so Lisa and I decided to return to the ship a little early. Just as we were boarding our zodiac, the young men of the island were demonstrating how to right an overturned outrigger and how to recover a capsized canoe filled with water. DSC03502These survival skills are clearly needed in a land surrounded by water, and it was interesting to watch. Before long everyone returned for a lunch break which was also shared by the islanders on shore.

Festivities started again around 2pm, and while Lisa chose to stay onboard, I went to view the entertainment dances. There were seven dance shows, four of which were put on by members of the local high schools, and the remaining three were done by members of the community. I must tell you that everyone seemed so very pleased that we were joining them on this festival day that it was really amazing. The locals were very deferential to us and made sure that we had the best seats and a clear viewing location. I have to tell you one cute story. While I have recovered much of the use of my injured left leg, I still walk with a limp and I simply cannot stand for any length of time without suffering pain. So as I came ashore for the afternoon shows, one of the crewmembers was kind enough to grab one of the few chairs available and move it into the shade for my use. However, before I could get there, a very young boy who had seen my limp came up to me carrying a chair which was almost too big for him. He carefully sat the chair down right in front of me and indicated I was to sit there. I thanked him profusely, and he ran off with a smile. I promptly took that seat instead.

The performances were interesting, but long. I got a kick of the friends of the young dancers running up and taking photographs with their cell phones, or in one case a young man had his laptop out and was using it as a camera. DSC03519All of the dancers were elaborately and colorfully adorned, but in the afternoon heat after two hours I had to throw in the towel and head back to the boat. Then one of the highlights of my day occurred. As I approached the zodiacs, Stefan steps up to me and says “you want to meet the chiefs, yes!” This was not posed as a question, but rather a statement! Now having known each other for many years, we have taken to opening joking with each other, so I was not sure what to make of this “command.” Without further hesitation, Stefan leads me to the stage where the old Chiefs are still seated, albeit a little warmed by their coconut wine, and proceeds to introduce me one by one. They must have thought I was some kind of dignitary given the manner in which I was welcomed, and indeed one of them pulled up a chair and asked if I would care to sit awhile. (In hindsight my not doing so was one of the dumbest moves of this trip. I would have loved to have asked them just what it took to become a chief on the island and whether or not I could run for the job!) Stefan and I joked around and they joined in the merriment when one of them offered me a cup of coconut wine. Now the grey-white fluid being proffered was not very appealing to me, but it was obvious that to refuse would have been seen as insult. Soooo, I took a good swig of the stuff, and while it was not as bad as it looked, I understood why these gentlemen were having such a good time sitting on the podium while all the festivities had moved on up the beach. I was preparing to take my leave when Stefan said that before departing I had to meet the three gentlemen I had not yet seen sitting on the right side of the dais. In the middle sat the Senior Chief who was clearly a very old man and who was clearly blind. His eyes were milky white, most of his teeth were missing, and he looked so frail that I was amazed he was sitting up unassisted. But, let there be no doubt, when he took my hand, the handshake was both strong and friendly. He apologized for not being able to see me, but he liked my strong voice, and in some way across half a planet and thousands of miles away, I connected with a fellow traveler on this planet and it was a powerful experience.

Today is a day at sea, and tomorrow will be the last full day of our trip because the day afterwards we will arrive into Palau and from there depart for home. I hope everyone is well, and while I will try to write about tomorrow since our tour is in the afternoon, I doubt there will be enough time. So this is in all likelihood my last blog for this trip and I do hope that everyone has enjoyed our adventure together.


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