May 2, 2009

The Saipan To-Do List #1: The Flame Tree Festival

When we look back on our last days in Saipan, we want to be able to say that we didn't miss a thing--that we did it all.

In just under two months, Barbara, Elijah, and I will, at last, take the Long Walk ourselves. For Babs and me, it will bring to an end eleven beautiful years on this lovely little piece of paradise called Saipan.

Though we've known since November of last year that this would be our final school year in Saipan, as our time here rapidly dwindles we're becoming more and more aware of how difficult this move will be. We are trying to prepare ourselves emotionally and mentally, as well as practically for uprooting ourselves from this place we've come to call home.

Part of that process, includes fully experiencing the joys of living in Saipan while we still can. We've begun a sort of checklist, a to-do list, of all the things we want to do here in Saipan while we still can. In this blog, I'll share the items on my list.

1. Spend some quality time at the Flame Tree Festival. This one is already checked off the list. We spent about two hours Saturday night, April 25 and all afternoon, Sunday, April 26, 2009 at the 28th Annual Flame Tree Arts Festival. It was time well spent

The Flame Tree Arts Festival takes places every spring in Saipan, just about the time the time the fiery blossoms of the flame tree are beginning to emerge. Along Beach Road, all over the area near the airport, and in countless groves that dot the Saipan hillsides, the trees are bursting into gentle, orange flame. The Festival celebrates this time with a gathering of artists, musicians, and dancers from the Marianas and beyond. The festival grounds are erected on a strip of beach side park. The anchor for the festival is the massive main stage which hosts a constant parade of dancers, bands, and other performers. Throughout the weekend the mainstage provides the soundtrack for the festival--even if you're not watching, the island rhythms, classic rock, and hip-hop beats are always with you. On the beach side of the stage, are the the rows of food shacks run by local restaurants, families, and community organizations: mouthwatering island favorites like barbecue, red rice, chicken kelaguen, apigigi, and fresh coconut juice; Chinese meal plates (7 choices for $5.00); and refreshing treats like pearl shakes, snow cones, and slushes. Of course, there's cotton candy too.

On the road side of the stage, are the artist's booths filled Saipan-made handicrafts, Palauan storyboards, and vibrant paintings and photographs that come remarkably close to capturing the rich beauty of our island home. There are t-shirt vendors, trinket sellers, and always an earnest display by the Chinese religious sect, the Falun Dafa.

The Festival Grounds
The music is good, the food is tasty, and the art is lovely, but what really makes the Flame Tree Festival special is the wonderful sense of community one finds there. It seems practically everyone on the island comes out for the Flame Tree Festival. It's one of the few times that traffic and parking are actually an issue on Saipan. On Saturday night we had to park all the way down at the Joeten Shopping Center and hike a quarter mile or so back to the festival. But the walk was worth it. You're guaranteed to see familiar faces as you browse the artists booths, order some chow, or groove to the music. We'll see our students strolling about in their little packs, church members, teachers from other schools, and island friends we haven't seen in ages. And when you spend some real time at the Flame Tree Festival as we did last year, that close-knit sense of community really sinks in.

I found it remarkable how people would sit for hours passively watching the entertainment come and go on stage. They weren't the most expressive crowd. Generally when a performer would shout out "How's everybody doing tonight", they'd get silence in reply. There was little in terms of applause or cheers. At first, I thought that perhaps the audience didn't care for the entertainment. But after awhile, I began to realize they were enjoying the music and dance, but for them the festival was less about hearing this particular band or seeing that particular dance troupe, but more about just sitting together enjoying one another's company, relaxing, and quietly taking in whatever passed by onstage. People here in Saipan seem to understand the value and reward in just sitting for awhile, without having some purpose they must hurry to accomplish.

After REAL Christian Theater performed on Sunday afternoon, Babs, Elijah, and I spent the rest of the afternoon until sunset at the festival. We'd come the night before too, but it was after eight o clock in the evening when we got there, Elijah was tired and cranky, and I was antsy to get home and to bed since I had an early morning run the next day. So it wasn't until Sunday that I was able to truly slow down and let the spirit of the Festival take hold.

I walked the dusty grounds of the festival, slurping down a pearl shake; browsed the artists booths, beginning to think about what kinds of art we'd want to purchase as keepsakes of our time in Saipan; sat with Carol Paez and her family and watched the dancers; and finally made our way to the car as the setting sun blazed across the water and the through the trees at the edge of the festival grounds.

To think that for years, we skipped the Festival all together! Back then we knew we could "always go next year." This year, we knew that this was our last chance, and we made the most of it.

Carol Paez took the photos you see in this blog and passed them on to me. She took a lot of pictures of the Rainbow Dancers, a large group of women and girls that were performing to raise funds for an upcoming fiesta in their village.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was the arrival of voyagers from Satawal, one of the Caroline Islands hundreds of miles south of us. These men traveled over open ocean in three traditional canoe, without modern instruments, navigating the way Carolinian voyagers have for centuries--using the stars, the waves, the sky. This double hulled canoe actually came from Satawal via Palau. The other two traveled directly from Satawal to Saipan. I find it so heartening that these traditional skills are still being preserved and passed on to the younger generation.

Throughout the festival this boat was anchored off shore and the two smaller ones were pulled up on the beach right at the festival grounds. The voyagers were staying in tradtional, thatch roofed huts right there on the beach.

The Rainbow Dancers. There must have been a hundred of these women and girls ranging from 5 to 75 dancing on the main stage. They danced for a long time and it was one of the few times that the audience really came alive. There was much cheering and clapping. Also, in these types of island dances it's customary for the audience members to dance up to the stage in deposit money in a small woven basket or plastic bag at the front of the stage, or even give money directly to some of the dancers. It was so fun to see people dancing up, shouting, "money,money" and giving their gift.

After the Rainbow Dancers, the voyagers plus some men from our own community got up and did a dance as well, and they were a huge hit. The audience was cheering, shouting, and laughing, and some of the women came forward to mischeviously tuck money into the waistbands of the men's traditional loincloths.

I felt priveleged to be able to be able to share in the rich cultural heritage of the people who've allowed me to call this place home.

Our own performance at the Flame Tree Festival went quite well too. Here's a couple of our actors on the main stage performing the skit "The Box." I was pretty nervous--our group, with its skits, was so different from the typical festival fare. But that turned out to be in our favor, as we drew quite a crowd--especially kids, of course. They were intrigued by something different happening on stage. God blessed us with one of our best shows yet. At the end, a little bit of rain started to come down during our performance of "Everything," and that had the double advantage of bringing additonal drama to the performance and bringing more people under the shelter of the stands to watch the show. At the end, it was clear that many had been touched by the message, and even the emcees commented on how moved they were.


Mai said...

That brings back so many good memories....

Brit's Blog said...

Aww...I truly miss flame tree festival! I got my first and only story board there =)

I'm so glad you are making your last memories awesome ones on Saipan!