Chinese New Year Dragon Dance
We are in Penang, Malaysia, a wonderfully multi-cultural little island with a large Chinese population that enthusiastically celebrates Chinese New Year. We've attended several events over the past few days to usher in the year of the monkey, which got me thinking about all the other celebrations, festivals, and ceremonies we've been lucky enough to attend in our years of wandering the high seas. For some of them, we actually planned to be in the right place at the right time, but for most it was just dumb luck that we were there when things were going on. Here are a few of our favorites.
Chinese New Year, Penang, Malaysia
The celebrations go on for 15 days at various venues and temples around the city. Lots of firecrackers, drum banging, cymbal clanging, and good food.
The guy in the slip next to us in the marina lives in Penang and every year hires a lion dance team to come to his boat to bring him prosperity and good luck in the new year. We hope some carried over next door to Asylum
This is a Hindu festival that stems from a rather complicated legend with gods and villains and swords and vanquished enemies. It's also a bit gruesome, with many of the devout spiritually preparing themselves for 48 days before the celebration to be rather extensively poked and punctured, including spears through their cheeks; big hooks in their backs that they attach to ropes to tow floats; and dozens of little things hooked all over their bodies, some of which looked to us like those wee metal tea infuser balls. We thought just a few of the most devout engaged in the piercings (most people just carry milk pails on their heads to a temple), but apparently its hundreds who opt to be pierced. We saw a few of them being prepared. Each had a small drum band accompanying the piercing process, with firecrackers and lots of incense burning in the area. Supposedly they feel no pain and don't bleed.
Testing the hooks before rigging two guys to pull the float on the right.
Hitched to the float and ready to pull it on a long walk to the temple. They may look like they're holding those spears in their mouths, but they really are poked through the cheeks and each
of those little pots on their bodies is attached by a hook in their skin.
Loi Krathong, Thailand
A festival of lights that happens on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai calendar, the name means "to float a basket." The baskets are beautifully decorated and elaborately folded banana leaves, with flowers, incense sticks, and a candle. Many vendors line the waterfront assembling them on the spot. To launch your little basket, maybe adding a bit of your hair or a coin, you light the candle and let it go into whatever body of water you can find--making a wish as you do--and hope it floats away. If it comes back, your luck isn't so good; if it does float away, the coming year will bring good fortune.
Krathong vendor in Krabi
Ready to float our baskets, with friends from Catspaw
Away they go, down the river, bringing us all good fortune
Rainforest World Music Festival, Borneo
This 3-day international music festival is held near Kuching in Sarawak, Borneo and brings in performers--everything from rock bands to gong orchestras--from round the world. The year we attended they covered countries from almost-A to Z: B
urkino Faso to New Z
ealand. Our favorite part of the festival was the series of informal workshops offered during the day, in traditional longhouses, that covered interesting and oddball topics like the variety of plucked instruments, bowed instruments, instruments you toot, drums and things you bang on, bellows and bagpipes around the world. At night, the high energy performances on the main stage went from 7 pm to 1 am. Hard to get good photos of that kind of thing, but you get the idea. Who woulda thunk in the wilds of Borneo??
Traditional Borneo longhouse workshop venue
Final night at the big stage
Carabao Festival, Philippines
Filipinos love a good festival and there's no subject too lowly to keep them from throwing one. Even water buffalo, affectionately known there as "carabao," get one, and it's a big deal
. I have a thing for water buffaloes so this is a slice of heaven for me. It's hot, dirty, and crowded but I love it!
Everyone with a water buffalo comes from miles around to join in the parade
The water buffalo are trained to kneel and owners take great pride in having them do it in front of the church. Not sure whether the carabao himself gets the significance but the crowd loves it.
I never met a water buffalo I didn't love and want!
Traditional Canoe Festival, Yap
This was a quaint little event in Yap to celebrate their history of sailing and paddling the high seas in traditionally built vessels. The year we attended the weather wasn't great and despite their goal of attracting foreign tourists, we were among only about 10 non-natives in attendance. But it was fun and colorful with a low-key, home-grown feel.
Cultural Festivals, Vanuatu
Vanuatu is one of those almost-mythical places any National Geographic reader dreams of visiting and we were lucky enough to be in when three uniquely "kastom" festivals were held: one, a first-time culture-preserving gathering held on a tiny island in the Maskelyne group; another, a national cultural arts festival, the first in over 30 years, with the entire island nation represented; and finally the jaw-dropping Land Diving on Pentecost Island, to celebrate the yam harvest. It's hard to find the right non-trite words to describe these events, but awesome, authentic, and once-in-a-lifetime come to mind.
All the men from a small village perform a kastom hunting dance
The Rom dance from Ambrym Island, for men who are moving up in society's hierarchy of "grades" (it costs them a lot of pigs, the currency of the realm, to climb that ladder)
Land Diving, with nothing but vines around their ankles (note the upside down kid in flight on the left)
Racing across the Pacific in 2007, our timing was perfect to be in the right place at the right time: Tahiti around Bastille Day. Heiva is an old festival that dates officially to 1882 when the French decided the Polynesians could legally dance again. Before that, the custom dances Polynesians performed for all occasions and ceremonies had been condemned by missionaries as seriously erotic debauchery and essentially outlawed. Now the festival has large, exotic traditional dance performances telling opera-like legends, as well as traditional sports activities with heavy stone lifting, javelin throwing, outrigger canoe races, and running around with heavy loads of bananas lashed to poles.
History, haircuts, and funerals, San Blas Islands, Panama
Panama's San Blas islands remain one of our favorite places in the world and their indigenous inhabitants, the Kuna Indians, celebrate life and death with great ritual. And, they love their chicha
, home-fermented grog that would make a dragon wince. At one of our first island stops in the San Blas we stumbled on the annual 3-day reenactment and celebration of the 1925 Kuna "revolution" against the Panamanian government. And while the village was in such a festive mood, they also held a puberty ceremony for girls who recently had come of age, get their first haircuts in a hair cutting ritual, and are then ready to be married off. For these ceremonies, a town-size batch of chicha
is set to brewing a few weeks ahead and declared ready when it's, well, time to drink it. At the other end of life are funerals, and we were also lucky enough to be invited to two, something we were told doesn't often happen for tourists. At the first we were advised not to take pictures and never in my life have I so wished for a James Bond gadget with a micro-camera in it. At the second, however, the family was not only OK with photos, they wanted copies!
Kuna kids celebrate victory in La Revolucion
Kuna girl gets her first hair cut
Kuna women do enjoy their chicha!
Kuna women and curious children tend to the deceased old woman while the men prepare her nearby grave
We have no idea what these towering street performers were celebrating but even in dour Havana they were having a grand time doing it!
It would appear there's nothing quite so universal as a good celebration of something. Birth, death and all the milestones in between. Harvests, hunts, the sun, the moon, the sea. Friendship, heritage, art and music, water buffalos. Even mussels (we forgot about that one in New Zealand). Celebrations are everywhere, and they make you feel good--sometimes awed, sometimes inspired, sometimes cleansed, and sometimes just better.
With that, we're off to take in another Lion Dance. You can never have too much good luck and prosperity. Happy New Year!