Heiva is a 140-year-old French Polynesian festival. All of the islands in French Polynesia come together in July. Following the Christianization of the archipelago by the London Missionary Society in the early 19th century, a ban existed on songs, games, and lascivious entertainment. This changed in 1880 and in celebration of French National Day, the ban was lifted. In 1985 the events were renamed as Heiva changing the previous name of Tiurai festivals.
Today, the events begin on Autonomy Day, 29th June. The day marks the celebration of French Polynesian self-rule as a French overseas territory. There are tons of events. Just to name a few, canoeing, horse racing, swimming, dancing, races, stone lifting, palm tree climbing, and wrestling. Most are free to watch.
Having Cream Puff in downtown Pape’ete allows us really easy access to most Heiva events. We can walk to just about all of the events or take the bus to those just a little bit out of our walking range. Our Heiva began with a weeklong dance festival. This takes place in the huge volleyball stadium just a short walk through our favorite park. This is the one event where tickets are sold due to the limited space and popularity. Cindy managed to snag us a couple of nice seats for a Thursday night performance. Soon after she paid, the event was totally sold out.
They have a very firm rule of no picture taking during the dance events. So, sorry. I followed the rules. I thought we might sneak a few pictures with the cell phone. Ha! They are very adamant about it and have ushers looking throughout the entire event. The moment someone holds up a phone, the usher is on them like white on rice. However, we did manage to find a link online for the event we attended. If you click the picture below, you can view some incredible pictures.
I’m not sure how long the link above will be active so if some time has passed and it is no longer available, sorry. Just in case, here is another link with more pics. It is in French so have Google translate on.
This dance presentation is perhaps the first event I have attended in my entire life where a good portion of the costumes littered the stage area after the activities. Most of the costumes are made just the day before from fresh palm leaves, flowers, and grasses. After each show segment, a crew of guys with large duster mops swept the floor to gather up the debris. The costumes, as you can see in the picture, can be quite skimpy to start. They don’t have a lot to lose before a “wardrobe malfunction”.
I still laugh about the term “wardrobe malfunction” coined by the Janet Jackson event of the US 2004 Super-Bowl. America had a meltdown because Janet Jackson flashed a nipple for a nanosecond. This is from a country that has no issue showing someone’s brains being blown out on regular nightly network television. Holes in the head and shootings are okay but God forbid a nipple shows.
The music, dance, and color were incredible. At times there were as many as 150 dancers on the floor and since they rotated their performance in the center to address all sides of the stadium, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The dances tell a story. On our night we watched dances about the legends of Teahupoo, the benefits of the banana tree, and the arrival of the Bounty in Tahiti. Each night has a different theme told by a French Polynesian town or island group. I can honestly say, this was perhaps the best value we have ever experienced. A four-hour performance for a US$20 ticket. As we walked back to the boat, all I could say was, wow! We are so glad we did this!!!
Last year, due to Covid, most Heiva events were canceled. One exception was what Cindy and I have coined as “the fruit races”. We attended last year. It was during a spell where the island was Covid-free and before the next wave. There was absolutely no tourist here and the crowd was so thin we easily roamed about the venue, took pictures, interfaced with the runners, and had no issue sitting in the best spots to spectate. This year was very different.
Tourism is here and this event is a big draw. Who wouldn’t want to see muscular men and women dressed in traditional garb running barefoot with a load of fruit lashed to a log on their shoulder? It sounds sort of hokey, doesn’t it? I can assure you it isn’t. The races are very serious and can be very exciting if close. Along with some friends, we staked out a shady spot on the start line which is also the final turn before the finish line. We arrive about an hour before the start of the first race and took some time to catch up on what was going on in each other’s lives and island events.
Miss Tahiti arrived a few minutes before the first race. Her entourage consisted of Miss Heiva, Miss Heiva runner up, and Miss Tahiti runner up. They each took a part in starting the races.
I think I might have mentioned this last year but it is worth repeating. One of the things I love about the French Polynesian people is how they encourage the race participants. Some of the islands have a very small population so they might have a very limited number of people who can participate in these events. It is not uncommon to see someone lag very far behind the leading pack. But regardless, they are cheered on by the crowd. In fact, in one of the women’s races, I would dare to say the lady arriving last at the finish line drew more applause than the winner. People stood, cheered, and clapped as she passed.
After the race events, Miss Tahiti presented awards to the participant on the stage, and then we were treated to some traditional Polynesian dancing. I have to say, the music sounds very angry to me but then again, it’s hard to make big drums sound happy. Much like the dancing we attended on an earlier night, parts of the costumes and fruit litter the park along the racecourse. There is no rule requiring the runner to pick up the fallen fruit. If you get hungry, there are plenty of bananas.
Another event we attended was in Parc Vaira’i. This park has fond memories for us as it was in this bay we first anchored in Tahiti after our 29-day sail from the Galapagos Islands. This is a little bit too far for us to walk since it is about 8 km (5 miles) away. We decided we’d attend the events there even though they occur on a Saturday. Why is this an issue? Buses here have a limited schedule on Saturdays. As the day progresses, they become further and further apart. On Sundays, there are no buses at all. So, perhaps Saturday afternoon is the prelude to Sunday. We knew we’d have no trouble getting there but getting back might prove iffy.
Catching the number 30 bus just down the street, we hope the scheduled rain for the day holds off long enough for us to take in the events all of which are free to watch (no park entry fee). We are off to see “javelin” throwing, stone lifting, dancing, wrestling, and coconut shelling. It turns out Google translate used javelin instead of spear. We expected to see something similar to that in the Olympics where a single athlete throws the javelin and the winner is determined by the greatest distance. This was not the case.
It is a spear contest and it is a team sport (or at least we think it is). Please understand, our French is very limited and we often only get the gist of what is happening. But, it appears to us there are teams. The team is identified by all members wearing the same fabrics. Each member of the team has 10 spears carved from some sort of reed (perhaps bamboo). It is not a distance contest but instead a test of accuracy. If you can believe this, they need to throw the spear and hit a coconut 22 meters (72 ft) away that is on a pole 9.5 meters (31 ft ) up in the air. Over 8 minutes each team member can take their time to try for the coconut with their spears. They use an under-arm throwing method. Not only do they need to hit the coconut, but the spear also has to stay stuck in the coconut for it to count. I bet you are thinking at this point not too many people hit the coconut. Guess again!
We later find out we were correct in our assumption about teams. There are also individual and women’s events. We didn’t see the individual event. We also never found the coconut shelling. This is a timed event where the participant is timed for how long it takes them to shell 100 coconuts. I wonder if the participants have all their fingers. Judging from the number of people we note walking around with shelled coconuts drinking the water, I think we might have missed this one.
Our attention is captured by loud drums in the distance. Ha! Something exciting must be happening on the other side of the park. It never fails; we seem to always be on the wrong side of the park. Following the noise, we find a stage and park ourselves on the lawn a few rows from the front. People are somewhat still practicing the one-meter rule. Families sit together but put space between them and the next family. We are not sure what’s about to happen so we eagerly wait. It seems we are not alone in being on the wrong side of the park. People start to arrive from all directions and the lawn starts to fill slowly. Miss Heiva arrives and sits in the VIP white plastic chair.
For the next 30 minutes, we are treated to some traditional Polynesian dancing. Not being an expert on this topic, I can’t tell you if what we watched was a top-notch performance, or not. I will say, the crowd loved it and the enthusiasm level of the dancers was contagiously energetic.
I watched the lady in front of us drum her leg in perfect time with the massive drums from the musicians. She didn’t miss a pause or a start. It made me realize the dance being performed must be a classic and well known to the residents here. It is sort of like at a rock concert and how the audience sings the words with the band; a rock concert Tahitian style.
When the dance finished the people stayed seated. A good indication something else was about to happen. Even Miss Heiva stayed put in the VIP white plastic chair. This is how we do these events. We just pay attention to the crowd and see what they do next. And, we weren’t disappointed. It turns out this is the same stage for the rock lifting contest.
As with most Heiva events, there is a lot of seriousness. The rules are explained to the audience. Thankfully, they had a person lifting the rock showing the acceptable techniques enabling us to understand the event. I should rephrase this. The judge didn’t actually lift the rock himself. It is way too heavy. The largest rock is over 160 kg (352 lbs). He had two other men lift it and put it on his shoulder. At the end of the lift, the knees must be locked (no bend in the leg) and the rock must be held on the shoulder with one hand. From the time the rock leaves the ground, it is timed until the finish pose is struck. It is all about momentum at the onset. If the athlete can’t keep the rock moving upward after a good start with the legs, it becomes impossible to lift. I am surprised the officials in their red flowery shirts don’t get a toe smashed as athletes lose control. A couple came pretty close.
We feel a drop of rain on the cheek. Hmmm! Where can we run for cover if the skies open up? There are plenty of lush thick trees and tents. The weather to this point has been perfect. The overcast skies have kept the temperature down and the lack of sunshine means no sunscreen is needed. The wind is blowing just enough to keep us cool but not too much it makes the coconut dance about for the spear throwers. We are lucky, the rain holds off.
At this point, we have been sitting on the lawn for what seems like an eternity. Most of my lower extremities and my butt have no feeling. I feel very old as I try to stand up. Things go snap crackle and pop. We decide to take another look for the coconut shelling but find the wrestling event instead.
I immediately feel sorry for the wrestlers, especially the guy on the bottom. As he goes down, his face goes in the dirt. I am not a fan of wrestling. I think it’s bad enough having some smelly sweaty man all over you but to go face-first into the dirt is not my idea of fun or entertainment. Poor guy.
It’s starting to get late in the afternoon and we decide to head back to Cream Puff. Outside of the park, we cross the road to the bus stop. There is never a bus stop too far away. A good thing about being on the road we are on is every bus on this side is going to Pape’ete regardless of the number on it. Our concerns about limited buses turned out to be a non-issue. We had to wait only about 30 minutes for a bus.
We say hello to a lady selling flowers at the bus stop as she packs up her wears for the day to head home. She gives Cindy a beautiful flower wreath to wear on her head. We offer to pay but she is insisting it be a gift. A perfect end to a fun day.