The Emperor’s Playground

The second balade brought us up into the humid area at the foot of the basalt pillars. Following a maintenance path of a water line, for long stretches carpeted with thorny leaves, with two places where a thick rope was hung to climb across vertical rock faces, we were looking up at these amazing sculptures from a very humbling perspective.

Clouds were still hiding the highest peak most of the time. Only every now and then did it become visible through the blinding white of the clouds. On the way back to town a local guy offered us a ride. He was on his way home from bulldozing at a place of urban sprawl for the better-off on a terrace overlooking Hakahau Bay. When he mentioned that he had to go and pick up his son from school, we asked about the local arts program there. He answered that Friday night was going to be a big get together of all the island’s elementary schools to perform dance and theater.

Here we are now sitting on concrete steps, which ascend arena like around a volleyball court, and the show is about to begin. The presenter announces that we will see the result of a state sponsored prevention program with the declared goal to raise awareness about environmental issues like recycling, and about risky behaviors like drinking and smoking pacololo, Polynesian for pot. What follows is artistically quite embarrassing, mainly teachers shoving groups of toddlers around and making them say many appropriate things, how we should not throw garbage onto the streets, how bad those social drugs are and that we will all be doing much better and never fall prey to those nasty habits. Behind us a heavyset lady stands up every twenty minutes or so to smoke her cigarette, as are many more of the responsible parents watching the show.

What hits me as particularly peculiar is the set of special guests sitting on a podium to which the spectacle was obviously directed. They are introduced elaborately as the honorable mayor, chief of the island, the principal of the school and the chief of the local gendarmes. The latter is accompanied by his sturdy wife, they have been greeting friends earlier at our side, she skinny of quite obvious French complexion in elegant trousers, him hands buried stiffly in his pant pockets, shoulders hunched forward and stopple hair. The principal is armed with a duffle bag over one shoulder, a short nose supports intellectualoid glasses with some melancholic shine misplaced behind them. He comes over to the kindergarten class sitting gingerly on woven palm fronds just at our feet, where his wide-eyed cute little daughter sports the same headband with a bundle of pandanus leave ribs sticking feather like into the air. Mid-show she gets a special treat from daddy in form of a sponge cake bought from a small food stand at the other end of the arena. Soon all the other boys and girls beg the teachers for some sweets too and they see themselves obliged to purchase a couple sponge cake slabs as well, which are morseled up and shared amongst all the less privileged kids.

The most impressive of the special guests though is monsieur le maire. His hefty body seems to have jumped out of a Fellini movie. Two massive thighs bulge the jeans he’s wearing to the seams, the legs spread apart like a cowboy on a barstool. The muscular upper body makes the pear shaped head look tiny, moving slowly from side to side. The voluminous arms and hands hold clumsily on to a gadget of some sort with which he’s taking pictures of the show. His attention seems to be totally absorbed by this little apparatus, when not shooting scenes his glance is glued to it with his arms now resting on his thighs. There is an ambiance of weighted opulence emanating from this figure with a whiff of brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin proportion. During the entire evening I don’t see anybody talking to him, he seems to enjoy his might in splendid isolation. This impression spreads into the analysis of everything else in this island society. The whole spectacle gives the impression of something deeply disjointed, leaderless chaos blindly stumbling into modernity, lust of power strangling healthy socializing and democratic problem solving. The innocence of children smooching with stage fright in the glaring lime light, the diligent work of resourcefully decorating the drama with all kinds of vegetative fronds and frills, the thrill of the audience responding gaily to the social comedy unfolding, it all is lost, it crunches and crackles and breaks apart to reveal a divine tragedy of roman proportions with the emperor indulging in the spectacle of the gladiators who are giving their lives for the travesty of entertaining the powerful, and with them the masses, anesthetizing the former’s doubts of conspiracy against his firm but senseless grip of absolute control.

While leaving this place of obediently manifested good intentions we stroll through the soccer field that stretches out alongside the arena. There clearly within shouting range of the no-drugs indoctrination a gang of youngsters clusters gothically around a potent boom box slung from the railing. Cardiac rhythm accelerating rap screeches mottafokin lyrics onto the passing good citizens returning to their humble homes. The gangs slimy stares follow each and every one of them to gauge the impact of their desperate provocation, ready to crank it up just a notch should the elixir of social recklessness prove to be too insipid for their urge of effortless revolution.

It’s too dark to see the lofty pillars up in the sky behind the glare of the lights. The ancient gods up there in turn, if they are still clinging on, must be seeing clearly the falseness in the artificially illuminated hearts of their flock!

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