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Pacific Arts Festival comes to Palau

A man dances from behind the curtain of writhing torsos – he’s wearing body paint and a squash shaped gourd around his more prominent genitalia.  Drums, hearts, the ground vibrating.  In a ceremony thousands of years old, this man dances as if it’s the most glorious day ever.  It is.

Pic courtesy PVA/Mandy Etpison

The Pacific Arts Festival, held once every four years on a different island, kicks off for 2004 on  July 22nd in Palau, hosting over 2000 participants from 27 Pacific Island nations and territories.  The Festival is a gathering of Pacific Island cultures for the purpose of showcasing their traditional and contemporary arts, crafts, and pastimes.

Representative groups will convene on Palau for ten days of performing arts, craft demonstrations (and vending), traditional medicine and healing arts, contemporary arts such as cinematography and photography.  Participating entities include: American Samoa, Australia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.

All the islands have beauty in common:  warm seas, spectacular weather, and a plethora of things to do on the side.  Palau boasts diving, swimming with dolphins, and the unusual opportunity to swim with jellyfish – stingless jellyfish, evolved in a secluded marine lake without predators.  Also recommended is kayaking through the hundreds of lagoons and pristine bays, but there’s also sportsfishing, sailboat charters, and snorkeling in calm, shallow reefs with tropical fish and Day-Glo giant clams.  Palau is about two and a half hours by plane from Manila, about four and a half from Tokyo, a bit longer from New York or London.

My Festival sojourn was to Western Samoa, yet another blindingly beautiful spot in the smattering of paradises in the South Pacific.  I was lucky enough to experience the full ten days of color, crescendo, and craft.  Recommended is watching the Papua New Guinea ceremonial dances (featuring the bikini-gourd) after sipping a peculiar root-and-mushroom tea widely available via whisper-and-cash and a sideways glance.

Performances run throughout the day and evening.  Plus there are the craft tents to visit:  body painting, jewelry-making, pottery, traditional canoe building and navigational crafts, fortune telling.  Stick-and-tarp markets in town sell handmade everything:  shell cutlery, sarongs of invigorating color, lots and lots of jewelry.  Needless to say, the sudden influx of tourists makes for some interesting conflicts – technical difficulties, sailboats overbooked, and of course thrilled indigenous vendors who sell out of the wood-carvings fashioned idly over the years.  Plan for these things, it’s Island-life.

Other festival-related activities include weaving, bone and stone carving, jewelry-making, shell-work, and dance lessons, where you can learn to tell the Polynesian Story of Creation with hand gestures, gentle arm contortions, and a sultry sway of hips.  (Try some of that tea first.)  Tattooing and fire-walking are very popular for curious, supportive spectators.  Not to be missed are the literary arts:  story-telling, myth recitals, orations, debates.  It’s riveting to hear these tales, some factual some Rococo, of how the first Hawaiian adventurers made their way by starlight and tide to impossibly small targets such as Tonga, Tahiti.

The official web site for this year’s Festival is, and while it’s not the sexiest web site ever built, it provides relevant information, including a full list of festivities and contact info.  For a glimpse of Palau, visit, which includes details for getting there and where to stay.

Pic courtesy PVA/Mandy Etpison

The Festival of Pacific Arts was created as a way for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific to assert and revitalize their cultural identity through the artistic expression of history and traditions.  It’s working.  Go for an unusual experience, one that encourages the preservation of Pacific Island cultures while being tremendous fun.

While the principal dancer shakes his thing, I glance at my new friend John – a photographer for National Geographic.  His eye holds firmly against the camera, snapping hundreds of photos per minute.  He’s crouching, rolling, bellying along the grass in a peculiar dance of his own.  The two or three frames I click are perfect enough – it’s impossible to take an uninteresting photograph here.  It’s the most glorious day ever.  And the Festival hopes to preserve that day for a thousand more.


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