Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Samoan Tattooing

The art of tattooing has long existed in Samoa. The word tattoo itself is derived from the Polynesian word tatau. Dutch explorers who reached Manua island in 1722 noted that the Samoans wore "artfully woven silk tights or knee breeches". The explorers clearly didn't get close enough to the individuals to recognise that they were not wearing breeches, but were sporting the traditional pe'a tattoo, which stretches from the waist down to the knees.

Deciding to have the pe'a is a mammoth undertaking by any individual. Something in the order of 60-65% of the body is tattooed over as short a period of time as the recipient can handle (six or seven days’ work over a span of about two weeks is typical). After the tattoo is finished there follows a long period of recuperation; six months to a year is a normal kind of time frame. More often than not people are unable to work for much of this time to let their body rest. Because of this, the significant upfront cost and the social implications, any person wishing to have the pe'a must first seek permission from all their family.

A week ago my friends and I visited Su'a Petelo Suluape in the village of Falesiu. Suluape is considered as the leading tattoo artist in Samoa and is well known worldwide for his traditional tattoo work. He and his brother (sadly killed last year in New Zealand) have travelled the world showcasing their work and promoting the tattoo traditions of Samoa. When we arrived there was a man who had flown out from Los Angeles to have his pe'a done by Suluape. They were finishing up their sixth day of work and the tattoo was almost complete. It looked amazing, but the pain and distress on the man's face as he slowly moved to the edge of the fale to rest gave sharp indication of exactly how serious and challenging a process it is. His wife was flying out this week to take him back home and look after him over the coming months.

Whilst not there for the pe'a, two of us did have Suluape tattoo our legs in the traditional Samoan fashion. The only creative control we had over the process was in determining how big the tattoo should be (ie. we shaved as much, or as little, hair off our legs to provide the "canvas"). The rest was in Suluape's hands.

Suluape uses the traditional implements and techniques to do his work. He uses a mallet to strike a variety of combs with extremely sharp teeth to push the ink into the skin. The mallet is known as the sausau and the combs have different names. The autapulu is a wide comb used to fill in large dark areas of the tattoo. The ausogi'aso tele is used for making thick lines, the ausogi'aso laititi for thin lines. The aumogo is a small comb used for making a variety of small marks. For our tattoos, Suluape did not need the autapulu (thank goodness!). Suluape's combs seemed to be fashioned from some kind of glass or plastic. Traditionally the combs were carved from a boar's tusk.

Did it hurt? Oh yes. It took about one hour for the work to be completed and it was an hour spent grinding teeth, clenching fists and practicing lots of meditative breathing techniques. It was particularly painful when Suluape was working on the skin directly above my shin bone. I’m extremely happy with the result however and consider it to be well worth the pain (although what we experienced is clearly nothing compared to what the man having the pe’a must be feeling).

The history and art of Samoan tattoo is fascinating and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the topic. The process of having the pe’a is highly complex, full of taboos, customs and demands on the tattooist, recipient and the recipient’s family. It’s well worth another post, which I’ll try and get around to soon, but in the meantime, if you’re interested, I suggest reading this introduction to the pe’a and traditional Samoan tattooing.

The first photo is taken from last year's Samoan Tourism Authority calendar. It's a great example of the pe'a. The second shows Suluape striking the aumogo with the sausau to create small lines of my friend's tattoo. The third image shows my (swollen) leg the morning after having it done. Since then my leg and foot have swollen up well beyond normal size and I've had a small amount of infection to deal with. As of today though, the swelling is almost entirely gone and the course of antibiotics I'm taking is having its effect in dealing with the infection.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Life is short. PRAY HARD.

I spotted this t-shirt whilst at the first match of touch football of the season for the inter-Ministry sports teams. It's by no means the only religious t-shirt I've noticed since I've been in Samoa, but I like it. The other one I like has "No weapon formed against me shall prosper. (Isiah 54:17)" on the front, with "God's got my back" written on the back. All in big bold bright yellow lettering on a black t-shirt.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Just another day at the office

Yesterday (Friday) was my first day back at work after a couple of weeks off. My timing could not have been better. A relatively straightforward working day was followed by two work-related social functions that were great.

First, we joined Prime Minister Tuilaepa and Ministry of Prime Minister & Cabinet CEO Poloma Komiti on the roof of the government building to celebrate the PM's recent re-election victory (which warrants a post of its own). The government building is the tallest in Samoa and the view of Apia and the surrounding villages is unbelievable. Pictured here is the view towards Mt. Vaea with the Catholic cathedral in the foreground. Smoke from a few fires can be seen floating upwards in the background.

As the sun set the colour of the sky and clouds changed dramatically, and the number of fires burning in and around Apia increased dramatically. The fires were most likely coming from umu ovens, as families prepared their evening meals.

The PM gave a small, lighthearted speech and everyone had a good time, enjoying some food and drink. I was most delighted however, when Tuilaepa whipped out his ukelele and entertained the assembled with some favourite Samoan tunes. The head of the Press Secretariat accompanied the PM on the guitar and many others sang along. Who knew that the PM likes to rock out on the uke!

After this function reached its conclusion, I joined a small number of Immigration staff in attending a dinner at the Chinese embassy. With a considerable economic, aid and development presence in Samoa, the Chinese are always working with Samoan Immigration in obtaining the relevant entry permits for the various Chinese nationals who come to Samoa. With some new diplomatic staff recently arrived in Samoa, and the new Chinese ambassador due in under two weeks, it was a good opportunity for everyone to get to know each other a little better.

The meal we had was great. We enjoyed a selection of Chinese style dishes, some of which featured a degree of local flavour. Chicken and breadfruit stir fried in ginger, huge crabs wok fried with ginger and spring onions, steamed whole fish and amazingly good tuna sashimi were just some of the highlights. They also had a bean curd dish, which I was most interested in as finding tofu in Samoa can be a challenge. It transpires that their chef imports the yellow beans from China and makes his own bean curd. After dinner our hosts turned on their Karaoke machine and we all sang a few songs to conclude the night.

For a first day back at work, it was a good one. Just another day at the office? I certainly hope so.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Piula Cave Pool

About thirty minutes east of Apia, along the coastal road, is the Piula Theological College. The college was established by the Methodist Church in 1868. Piula is a transliteration of "Beulah", meaning married.

The college sits on beautiful grounds. There is a large oval which is used for games of kirikiti and the real draw card of Piula is the cave pool which is found directly underneath the foundations of the main church on the grounds.

A large freshwater pool is separated from the ocean by a wall of black volcanic rock. The water is cold and clean and the pool is inhabited by many small fish. At the rear of the pool, one can dive underwater and see light filtering through the wall. A small, three metre long opening connects the pool to a second, smaller pool. It might seem a little daunting at first, but it's an easy swim.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Party people

Last Friday I celebrated my birthday. Given that I'm only in Sydney for just a few days, I wanted to really make the best of the night and have as good a view of the city as I could muster. To that end I booked some tables at the Glenmore hotel in the Rocks. The view from the rooftop bar is spectacular:

We had a fantastic night. I had friends I've known for 25 years meet friends I've known for 25 weeks:

There was birthday cake:

There was an abundance of Davids:

And there were manskirts:

It was definitely the best birthday I've celebrated in a while. A big thank you to everyone who made it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Sojourn in Sydney

I've managed to whisk myself away to Sydney for a few days in order to celebrate my birthday. It's fun and funny coming back to my home town after six months away. It's much noisier, smellier, busier and cramped than I remember it. I keep wondering why people don't smile at each other on the street or wave at each other as they drive down the road. Still, I know the place like the back of my hand and have enjoyed visiting favourite haunts, catching up with friends and family and eating fantastic food.

The picture shows the view of the city skyline from Balmain East, where I used to live until moving to Samoa. Sydney is, without a doubt, a beautiful harbour city.