O la`u pe`a (continued)
The long awaited follow up
Now that a significant amount of time as elapsed to ensure proper reflection I am now ready to record and share my own personal experience with the “pe’a Samoa”. (Actually, I was having problems downloading my pictures of the experience from my laptop and I didn’t want to have you all read this without a visual).
It was Saturday the 7th of May 2005 that my very close friend, Dori, and I set out on our adventure. I met Dori in front of the ATM on a busy, crowded street in downtown Apia. She had arrived promptly complete with our obligatory “oso” (Samoan word for a gift of food). We had agreed on purchasing a half case of “eleni” (tinned fish), 1 carton of cigarettes, and a cake made by Dori. That morning I had been busy learning a traditional Samoan dance and had to depend on Dori to run the errands. She did not disappoint. So with “oso” in tow after withdrawing the necessary funds from the bank we had out to the fish market to wait for our bus. And wait we did, and wait, and wait, and waited some more. Our appointment with Samoa’s renowned tattoo artist was for 3:00pm. However, it was clear that when we finally boarded the very crowded bus at 2:45pm with a 45-minute ride out of town we would be late. I sat on Dori’s lap for the duration with both hers and my own legs asleep only 10 minutes into the ride. When we reached the village of faleasi`u we silently rejoiced that we had made it. We departed from our luxurious mode of transportation and with the assistance of a friendly woman began the 30 minute trek inland to our final destination. We arrived at his house at approximately 4:05 where we were quickly reminded that we were late. I quickly busted out with the required Samoan apologies and explanation for our tardiness. He was understanding and warmed up a little towards us as I continued to speak in Samoan. He smiled politely at Dori’s well-intentioned attempts to use the local language.
I was to go first, as I knew I would have a harder time facing the music if I had to watch someone else undergo the torture first. I watched cautiously taking notice of every detail in the way our tattoo artist meticulously made the preparations. Every piece of equipment was in sterile bags and he used rubber gloves to touch his equipment. (Peace Corps recommends that if we are going to get a tattoo that we use this particular man as he is not only the finest in his craft but as of a year ago he was also still the only known sterile tattoo artist on the island) I was instructed to lie face down on my stomach and after a very brief and vague description of what I wanted he quickly began the tap, tap, tap.
That is a sound I will never forget. For two hours I heard the tapping of Suluape’s wooden tool tapping (hammering?) into the other wooden tool with the boars tooth attached at one end that pounds the design into the skin. The pain was intense and immediate. I squeezed Dori’s hand and started humming to distract my mind. Dori supported me throughout with singing songs and although she listened to my moaning she was quick to let everyone around know that I was fine and not to worry. I was in fact, just being a big baby. I appreciated her attending to this minor detail, as I did not want the boys assisting their father to feel any guilt on the pain they were helping to inflict upon me. This was a pain I freely chose. So the tap, tap, tap, went on with every minute or so a pause to wipe the ink and blood. Suluape had 2 of his sons assisting. They held the skin taught and kept me from squirming too much. Also in the faleo’o (small Samoan house, made of wood and palm leaves with no walls) were Suluape’s wife and large scattering of children and cousins. They were all entranced by the television playing a Bollywood film although when my moans turned more to shrieking they would look towards me with mild alarm. Dori would always assure them that I was fine. After two hours passed I finally heard the sweetest word a person could say at that moment: “uma” (finished). I said, “mo`i?” (really?) I looked down at my leg and was stunned at the beauty. I was scared to get up and bend my leg, frightened that I would somehow smear the firmly impressed ink. Suluape said “tu i luga! (stand up!) I obeyed and was quickly given a wet bandage to keep my leg wrapped. I was then told I would go with Suluape’s son in their car to pick up the gift of boxed tinned fish that Dori and I had left at the house near the road. It was too long of a walk to carry the close to 30-pound box. A sterile pad was laid to keep the blood from staining the front seat of the car (and I’m sure to prevent infection) and away we went. We were gone for nearly 45 minutes. (We not only picked up the tinned fish but also Suluape’s grandchildren two villages over) When I returned I was shocked to see that Dori had already braved enduring the first half of her tattoo alone. She was the strong one. I quickly sat by her and held her hand but not a peep was heard from her lips. Every once in awhile she took a deep breath but it was apparent that I had needed her much more than she had needed me. When it was all done, we were ushered to the tap at the side of the house to wash and massage the tattoos. Suluape’s daughter did this part. A massage sounds like it would feel good, doesn’t it? But this was quite the opposite. She took the soap and let the cold water run down my leg. That was nice. Then she began kneading her hands into my thigh. (This is to ensure that the ink does not leak into other areas of the skin) I nearly screamed bloody murder. Again, throughout this process Dori was quiet. After it was all over we rested in the faleo`o until Suluape had decided what we should pay. It was dark and Dori and I were in pain and sleepy. I was wondering how we were going to get home since the busses had stopped running hours ago. I heard Suluape tell his eldest son to put gasoline in the car and drive us home. I was thrilled and quickly translated to Dori that we were getting a free ride home. We were driven to Dori’s house and thanked our driver. Once inside, with the luxury of light, Dori and I examined each other’s tattoos and the bruises that were quickly developing. We had done it. We really did it! I will forever remember that day and will forever be proud of us. Many will not see the same beauty as I do when then seeing my tattoo back home. That’s okay. The have not witnessed what I have and I cannot expect them to understand the intricacy of this amazing culture. What I know and what is more important is that we are now and forever a part of Samoa and Samoa is now a part of us.