By Bob Baxter
One of the highlights of our trip to Samoa was the response of the people to all things tattoo. These warmhearted and unforgettable men and women welcomed us into their homes, prepared food for us, acted as guides and even stopped us on the street, in order to check out, with great enthusiasm, our stateside ink.
The Aggie Grey Hotel was island-style elegant—not a big, flashy resort like Disney World. Rather, the Aggie had a more laidback energy, with waiters, housekeepers and groundskeepers attired in traditional lavalavas and sporting intricate pe’as (the men) or malus (the women). The locals had built a two-thousand-year-old momentum as far as loving tattoos is concerned, and they certainly loved ours. Especially the ones with lots of color. Samoan tattoo artists, as you know, only use black ink derived from candlenuts.
My first trip to Samoa, the one that Paulo Sulu’ape hosted, was my favorite. It was my maiden voyage, so to speak, and around every corner was a surprise. Each one better than the last. One of my favorites involved a side trip to Savaii, an island even more undeveloped than Upolu. Although Upolu didn’t have chain stores and commercialized shopping malls (all of the property is owned and controlled by the tribes), each village was neatly segregated from the one next door by long rows of white stones or other markers. Savaii was an even bigger trip back in time than this. Arriving by ferry, we stepped onto the dock and were treated to an open-air market with local vendors selling a wide array of fruits and vegetables, live chickens and, most beautiful of all, carefully poured mounds of fresh spices, in yellows, rusts and orange. The market, with its thatched roof and carefully swept dirt floor, must have been running for hundreds of years.
Our destination, on that day, was a two-hour bus ride away. Bruce Litz, the illustrator who accompanied me on the trip, commented that sitting on the wooden bus benches was “like riding on bookshelves.” It was on this ride down the two-lane, asphalt roads that we got a true understanding of the primitive lifestyle that these islanders enjoy and how the land that spread before us was truly magical. At one point, we looked out the windows on the left side as we passed a small church perched on a hill overlooking palm forests and banyan trees—the cobalt blue ocean in the distance. Coming down the hill from the right was a lava flow. Cooled now, it once flowed with billion-degree heat straight toward that little white church. As we sped by, we could see how the lava had reached the front porch, but instead of plowing into the defenseless structure, it mysteriously separated and split, one branch flowing to the left, one to the right. The church was spared. And even the most avowed atheist would have to acknowledge that somebody’s God has something to do with that particular miracle. The Samoans are mostly Christians and treat religion as a kid of tongue-in-cheek exercise in community living, but there was no denying that this magnanimous save was well beyond the scope of either luck or coincidence.
Once we reached our destination, a remote village situated on the edge of a lovely lagoon—the water literally lapped at our feet as we dangled them over the edge of our fale—we were greeted by a colorful band of enthusiastic villagers. Our fales were small and open to the breeze, but the weather was mild and perfect. A combination curtain and mosquito netting gave us some privacy, but we never closed it. We just curled up on woven mats, closed our eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of the lagoon.
The biggest surprise came on the second day. Word had gotten out that it was my birthday, so, sure enough, the villagers had prepared a combination birthday party and traditional Samoan breakfast. Lots of taro root. The chief made a speech, as did a couple of the tattoo artists. It was the usual uncomfortable, everyone-is-looking-at-me moment, but I survived admirably. The coup de grace was the time-honored practice of awarding me a special gift, one that I had not bargained for. How can I say it? Okay, they gave me a maiden.
I’ve never been given one of those before, at least not by the chief of a tribe. But I accepted graciously (my mother would have been proud) and, while additional aspects of the ceremony continued (singing, more speeches and so on), I tried to find out exactly what this two-thousand-year-old custom required. What were my responsibilities? After all, I didn’t want to insult anyone by going against what tradition required. I never really got a straight answer, however, I got the impression that nothing was off limits. But being a gentleman and noticing that each of the males of the tribe outweighed me by a good one-hundred-and-fifty pounds, I played it close to the vest and keep my hands to myself.
Possessing a keen sense of humor, the villagers played along with me, smiling and winking every time they caught my eye. The final scene came as we were boarding the bus and sharing goodbyes. And as we pulled out from the parking lot, the young girl—unfortunately, I can’t recall her name—came running toward the window, gave a big smile and shouted, “I wait for you, Bob. I wait for you.”
As I said, these dear people are warmhearted, funny and totally unforgettable. Except for their names.
As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at email@example.com.
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