Monday, November 28, 2016


The movie, "MOANA", is out in the cinemas and it made me remember visiting Samoa for the first time. For a quick look, here's the trailer of this new Disney movie to give you an idea of how it is in the Pacific Islands.

My life's journey had led me to knowing about the Pacific as I built my family with an islander from Samoa. Because of this, I have known Polynesians namely, from Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji personally and I got opened to a culture that I felt so close to even before I knew of them. Their music, their food, their ways and their people have touched my life in more ways than one. At my first visit to where my better half is from, Hogan, who was my boyfriend then, introduced me to the beautiful country of Samoa, his home.

Samoa is called "The Heart of Polynesia". Its estimated population of 195,000 as of 2016 is composed majorly of its locals at 92.6% and the rest are Euronisians, Europeans and people from East Asia. It is located at north east of New Zealand and it lies almost next to Fiji. The country is composed of several islands which include, Savai'i, one of the largest islands in the South Pacific and Upolu, the home to most of the Samoan population.

Being a Filipino, I find that there are similar norms we practice the same way they do. They have huge respect to elders, family is number one and they are passionate about their roots, beliefs and traditions. I see them as Filipinos on steroids because we both own the brown skin, the black hair and the hospitality. But they have a physique like no other. They're strong and steadfast. Probably because of being solid islanders: they have the sea, the sand and sunshine. That being said, they cannot be compared with any race. They work hard for their families and they eat taros, bread fruit and bananas like how Asians eat rice. And they literally need to climb trees to get these. Hence, their muscles become well formed upon reaching the adult age.

The huge black tattoo starter
from the lower back is the
 vessel of the boat.
The huge black tattoo almost
covering half of the thighs
represent the ocean
and the journey.
 It extends to sharply
edged marks wrapping
 the thighs and
this marks the needed weapons
for protection and defense.
The rest of the tattoo is composed
of the wearer's personal journey.
Elements of the family maybe
included in it as long
as it is conforming to the
Polynesian design.
The Pe'a is a huge representation
of family, culture, and courage.
Courage to accept full
responsibility to his
family and country.
It signifies that the male wearer
is ready to take
any form of challenge.
Just like Moana's story, legends make up most of Samoa's tell tales. One very famous story from the Samoan Mythology was about the twin sisters who sailed from Fiji to Samoa carrying tools for tattooing. As they swam, they sang a song that only women will be tattooed. But as they neared the Falealupo Village in Savai'i, they saw a clam underwater and dived down to get it. When they emerged, their song had changed, the lyrics now saying that only men get the tattoo and not women. This song is known in Samoa as the Pese o le Pe'a or Pese o le Tatau. They said, carrying the pe'a, Samoa's traditional tattoo, means you are carrying part of Samoa's legends with your own story added to it. Tatau is the Samoan term for tattoo to which the English language owes. Wikipedia elaborates more on this but what I wanted to share was my own experience of seeing Hogan receive this rite of passage to becoming an apprentice for the title of being a Samoan matai.

When you hear about a Polynesian island, you instantly become interested with the adventures that go with it. Mine didn't include the white sands, the wonderful sun and the beautiful blue sea. I was introduced to something deeper which I considered taboo in the beginning.

A Samoan matai is also known as the Samoan village chief. He holds a line of responsibilities and decision making which the entire village relies to, depends on and respects. The first step in becoming one is receiving the pe'a to hail the roots of what being a true Samoan really means. Once completed, it would mark the apprenticeship to being a matai. It is extremely painful because the whole process is traditionally done. The black ink that is made up from the burnt candlenut soot is tapped into the skin using fragments of turtle shells shaped into a shark tooth in a form of a comb, a very different way on how I know tattoos are being applied, as I know only of the modern machine used nowadays. 

Therefore,  the receiver should not only be prepared physically, but also, emotionally. To help out, the whole family shows support by singing mellow songs, preparing the tapa mat where the pe'a receiver could rest and most of all, preparing food rich in protein to aid the healing in between sessions. "Having the pe'a is one of the most unforgettable milestone of my life. The pain is like no other.", remarks Hogan.

Also, receiving the pe'a is done in pairs because thru history, there had been people who didn't make it all the way to healing completely because their body rejected it or got sick along the way. Hogan's cousin took the malu (pronounce as ma'-looh), which was the equivalent of pe'a amongst the ladies and together, they are considered twins or soul mates. One is dependent of the other's energy. So basically, they have to be strong for each other. The malu is the Samoan term for a female specific tattoo that covers the legs from just below the knees to upper thighs right above the buttocks, and typically owns a finer and more delicate design than the pe'a.

This was the outlining on Hogan's back.
Notice the comb like nature of the tattooing tool.

Everything was done seriously until I made some mistakes that they find it to be the ice breakers with all these preparations.

Day 1 of Hogan's tattooing:
We were just fanning onto the artists
because it was warm that day.
Notice the elders around him
as he lies chest down.
The pe'a was marked on to his back
and the pain is supported
by the guitarist singing and
playing mellow songs.
You see, Hogan wanted everything to be documented. It is a huge leap for a Samoan to go thru the tap-tap experience (a sound so simple but pe'a men consider it traumatic) so I was taking photos. But while he was being tattooed, one of the tattoo artists' assistants saw me going to the restricted area where the tools are kept sterile. Hogan, had to get away from his no-pain cloud 9 and come back to earth to translate what the guy was telling me which was not to go to that area. So I was like, "Eeeep!" That was stupidity no. 1. 

Stupidity no. 2 comes with the way I sat at the Samoan fale where the tattooing took place. 

A Samoan fale or "house" holds many of a Samoan family's gatherings. May it be just an afternoon talk as they wait for the sunset or an important occasion, it is a place where they get together and many conversations are made. And every Samoan that has to leave home misses this setting. It is basically a hut made up of soaked coconut husks and wooden pillars that is finished up with a flat cement floor. Hogan's tattooing took place in their own fale at the back of their house. To kick start the traditional tattooing, elders, relatives and the tattoo artists had been welcomed with a Kava ceremony which is the solemn ritual of sharing a ceremonial drink. It marks special occasions, sang onto with traditional songs by the rest of the men of the family. They sit on the floor with crossed legs as a form of respect and opening a connection. As the Kava ceremony finished, I joined in to watch and document the process with my camera. When I got tired, I sat with my knees folded in front in a manner where I could hug my legs. Stupidity no. 2. Since I was wearing a skirt, I thought this was the most appropriate way of sitting down because it covers the entire end of the skirt covering any flashy treat. But, one of the elders explained in Samoa, "Forgive our guest for she doesn't know how the customs go." And Hogan got alarmed right away. I didn't understand much of the language then as compared to now so I didn't react. My full grin got erased when Hogan gave me a signal, "Cross your legs as you sit down." I wanted to melt because of embarassment. Another lesson learnt.

This is how the setting was in receiving Hogan
in the Samoan fale . The mat is made up of straw,
the back part is where the sterile gloves, materials and ink
were secured and the elders and artists take their position comfortably as well.

From 10am to 3pm, Hogan was under the artists' hands. It was pretty tiring in terms of the position he has to keep and needless to say, it was a pretty long time to deal with pain. For 9 days, it went on like that. The tattooed part on each day has to be washed off of dried blood and other elements that could infect it with so, it was overall a huge delicate ordeal that at the end of the day, you will be needing rest. Rituals go, the old mat should be put away and a new mat should be put in place to receive the man in the process of being tattooed safe and nurtured. Hogan's mom instructed me to fold the old mat. Little did I know, they even have a proper way of folding it so that negative energy or bad luck will be completely tucked away and would not get into the open wounds. So, I casually folded it the way we do it in the Philippines. I rolled it then folded it in half for easy storage. And then they laughed at me. Stupidity no. 3, why didn't I ask??? I just laughed with them. And I told all of them, the day almost ended without strike number 3.

As to give emphasis on preventing the bad energy to get in thru his wounds, there are at least 2 guards that watch over the receiver of the tattoo for the whole night and/or sleeping time he takes to recuperate. Weeks usually are given for other people's pe'a to finish but Hogan had to go thru it for 7 days straight because he had limited vacation days from work. He stayed up til the 2nd week in the village of Puipaa, his home town in Apia, Samoa then flew back here in Hong Kong. All in all, it took him just 15 days to finish everything. I had to attend to his wounds and they were massive. We continuously washed it with cold water, cleansed it to avoid contamination and cared for it by moisturising it with huge amounts of vaseline. It was unbelievable how he healed in just three days considering how big his wounds were. Since he was 18 years old, he had asked his mom to have the mark of a true Samoan but his mom only agreed to it 10 years later. But him and his family believed, it was just the right time for him to have it. He was an adult in so many ways. His body was strong and his mind was mature enough to understand what the pe'a stands for and how important it is to stay being the good example that younger Samoans would look up to.

This was taken on the day they finished the tattooing ceremony.
Leis were offered to the tattoo carriers and the tattoo carriers
offer leis to the tattoo artists' and the elders who have the same tattoo
to signify respect and gratitude. Another closing ceremony was held
where their heads were poured of traditional oil and the rest of the body for
annointing, healing and blessing purposes.
Moreover, an egg is cracked on the tattoo receiver's head
to complete the ceremony. This is a sign of welcome to the pe'a world.
This brings big pride to their families as they now own the
mark of what being a true Samoan means.

While my husband keeps the memory of the whole process wrapped up with the most painful part which is the tattooing of the puke (Samoan term for the "navel"), I keep my own memory of the beautiful Samoa thru this traditional ritual I witnessed dashed of a little bit of humor here and there and I'll carry it in my heart forever. Probably, my own daughter would go for the malu too when she grows up. I will be in full support and that would make her dad very proud I'm sure.

With all of these being shared, travel has a great way of teaching us about how we differ with our traditional ways yet, the same when it comes to having that passion for our purpose. There are but quite a few who knows about the pe'a and I'm blessed to gain such knowledge and heritage. 

This was the Kava Ceremony right before the tattooing started.
The elders gather around inside the Samoan fale to bless a special
undertaking in behalf of La'auli (Hogan) Toomalatai,
son of Faalataitaua Lauoletolo Lealaitogia'i Toomalatai
and Sifou Lototasi Toomalatai. Notice how the boys surround the fale
as the first line of protection that come together to support the ritual.
The Kava drink should be served by a young virgin woman
to signify purity and cleanliness and to preserve its sacred narcotic sedative power. 

Related posts:

 - another Samoan tradition is playing the fire-knife dance. Have a glimpse of what is it about here.

2. PHOENIX SEILEAFI BRAVE - what my daughter's Samoan name means.

3. NEW POLYNESIAN CLUBS IN HONGKY - Looking for a Polynesian club vibe in Hong Kong? Check these out!

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