Field Day - Polynesian Style!

In my former life, I was an elementary school teacher.  (Technically, I guess I still am, just with fewer students!)  I remember the anticipation and excitement that could only accompany Field Day.  Kids were sent to school lathered with sunscreen and laden with hats, water bottles, and sneakers.  'Mrs. Silverstein' would be carrying her handy clipboard to monitor game rotation and the day’s agenda, toting a first aid backpack for skinned knees and bee stings.  Volunteer parents stood valiantly at their posts, whistles around their necks and stopwatches in their hands, to referee games like tug of war, water balloon toss, long jump, and three-legged race. Orange cones and hoola hoops transformed the playground into a battleground.

The students entered each event with the determination and fervor of Olympic athletes, ready to pummel the competition and claim the gold.  It was a day of victory and defeat, pride and devastation, accomplishment and disappointment.  Field Day wasn’t about perfect attendance or straight A’s.  It was about strength, speed, and agility.  For many students, this was their time to shine.

In Tahiti, we happened upon a Polynesian Field Day.  It was Bastille Day.  Each year on this day, local Tahitians gather to compete in sporting events that have been vital to their culture.  There were no three-legged races or hoola hoops here, and I’d need more than a Band-aid to patch up injuries incurred in these events!! 

The first event we watched was the javelin toss.  A coconut was staked onto a high pole.  Thirty competitors stood behind a line, ten people long and three people deep, with a bundle of javelins stuck into the ground beside them.  Each person’s javelins had a unique colored striping on the tip, so that winners could be identified when time was up.  As the emcee enthusiastically counted down to start the game, the front row would stretch their arms back, place one finger on the end of the pole, their front hands flattened to support and aim the pointed tip.  Trois, Deux, Un – and the javelins were hurled through the air at the lone coconut.   Many sailed up past the target, poking into the grass beyond, but a few lucky ones hit the coconut and stuck.

The competitors kept aiming and tossing until either the time was up or their javelins were gone.  Then the coconut was carefully removed from the pole and each javelin was accounted for, determining the winners.  Each heat became more competitive, bringing in more experienced competitors and raising the coconut higher and higher.  A far cry from our ring toss back on the playground!

The next event was stone lifting.  Much like the heavyweight competition in the Olympic games, except the men were wearing sarongs in a flowered diaper-style design and lifting dark boulders found throughout these islands.  Many of the ancient ceremonial ruins (marae) that we have seen were built using these types of stones.  The men were required to lift boulders from the ground up and onto their shoulders in the fastest time possible.  You could have heard a pin drop as these mountains of muscle wrestled the boulders up their bodies, straining every inch of the way.  The crowd was intense.  Everyone heaved a sigh of empathy each time the boulder tumbled to the ground and cheered when it wobbled atop a shoulder.  

It was time for a lunch break.  We grabbed a baguette sandwich and fresh coconut water while dancers from the Marquesas entertained us with their lively chanting and drumming.  I spotted a kids arena, where mock events were set up for children to try, so we scooted over to have a closer look.  Elizabeth and Michael each got a chance to lift a Polynesian boulder and throw a javelin.  They weren’t too sure at first, but once ice cream was mentioned, they gave it a try and had a great time.  Elizabeth hit the target, and Michael wanted to go again and again – boys and their weapons!

The third event was palm tree climbing.  Again in their colorful sarong speedos, men would tie a band of sennit, braided or woven straw or hemp, between their feet and scale the trunk of a tall palm tree in seconds.  Seriously, these guys were like monkeys!  I have never seen anything like it!  Turns out, the winner of this competition was actually the groundskeeper who had removed all of the coconuts from the trees in preparation for the festivities, to prevent any falling coconut fatalities!  He’d probably scaled the same tree hundreds of times, but it was undeniably impressive.

Finally, it was time for the coconut husking competition.  Now, while we’ve traveled in this part of the world, we’ve learned more and more about the importance of the coconut in these cultures.  Recently, I also learned that people on the islands get money and supplies from France in exchange for the meat of the nut and the hard shell.  For many families, this is their only means of income.   So fast husking is a skill that is still very valuable today.  This event had some serious competitors, at least 30 men had entered the field.  The tensions were high as they piled up their stack of coconuts (looked like 50 each) and laid out the tools they would need.  Burlap sacks were spread out meticulously on the ground nearby, along with a machete or axe, husking pole, coconut scoop, and stool.  Judges patrolled the grounds carefully, counting coconuts and ensuring a fair event.

The crowd hushed as the emcee again began a countdown.  Trois, Deux, Un!  Furiously, the men began whacking the coconut husks with their axes and then thrust them onto the pointed poles to rip off their husks.  Once all the husks were off and stacked separately, each nut was cracked in two and the white flesh was scooped out.  It was a flurry of shell-slinging, sweat-dripping action!  The crowd was screaming for their favorites, watching for one that was pulling ahead of the rest.  It was fierce! 

Finally, I saw a man cracking his last coconut and I thought the competition would be over.  But when the flesh was removed, he stood up and began dumping the pile of white meat into a burlap sack until every bit of it was off the ground.  Then he did the same with the shells into another sack – a testament to the work ethic and cleanliness of this culture.  A huge whoop went up from the crowd as the judge lifted the winner’s number, and the exhausted man slung himself onto the pile of husks he'd removed.  The event continued until there were only a few men left husking.  The finished competitors, however, hadn’t gone off to celebrate. They sat around the remaining men and sang chants of encouragement, pushing them to press on towards the finish line – a beautiful example of sportsmanship and community.

That was the grand finale of the festivities.  Our Polynesian Field Day had come to a close.  It was a day of victory and defeat, pride and devastation, accomplishment and disappointment.  But it was also a day of teamwork, tradition, and togetherness that I’ll never forget.


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