I watched as Siali’s muscular legs propelled him effortlessly up the side of the palm tree. I contemplated stepping closer to the base to see if he was wearing anything beneath his Lava Lava. Propriety (and the fact that Kesa was watching and would have called me out on it) held me back. He was a good 35 feet up in the air by now, jumping up the side of the trunk like a monkey. Gravity was just a joke the rest of us hadn’t quite caught on to yet.
“You know there’s no coconuts up there, right?” My Samoan friend Tavita had just appeared at my side.
“There’s not?” I answered.
“Of course not,” he replied. “We have hundreds of tourists coming through here every day. These trees could never grow coconuts fast enough to keep up. We have to ship them in.”
“I see one up there now,” Kesa pointed out.
“We put them up there ahead of time,” Tavita smiled, “so we can show off our muscles for the pretty girls.” He winked mischievously.
Kesa and I tittered in response.
Tavita raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Oh, not you two! There’s a couple of hot blondes over by the lagoon.”
“You fa’a’aivao!” Kesa shoved Tavita, then recoiled. “Ewww! You’re all sweaty and gross!”
“No kidding!” He replied, stumbling and laughing. “Who you think they get to haul those coconuts all day long?!”
Kesa and I were hanging out in the Samoan Village at the Polynesian Cultural Center. The PCC was a big tourist hotspot next to BYU-Hawaii, the small, private university we were all attending. It was a massive, lush property covered in flowing canals and thick foliage which had been divided into several different sections, one for each of the Polynesian islands – Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Marquesas and Aotearoa. Each “island” performed traditional dancing and singing, as well as teaching tourists about local games and customs.
The Polynesian Cultural Center had been founded by BYUH and its parent organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church). It was created as a means to help the young church members of the Pacific Rim earn their way through college. Students who qualified for a scholarship would work at the PCC in exchange for free or reduced tuition at the university. The goal was to help students to graduate from college as debt-free as possible. They would then return home to enrich their families and communities.
I watched in awe as Siali and Tavita hacked apart the coconut’s hairy brown husk with their giant machetes. They managed this as easily as if they were chopping up an apple. I had tried to open a coconut once before. I’d nearly broken my leg in the process. The boys handled the task much more expertly. There was no heaving it at the pavement or smashing it in the crown with the business end of a crowbar here. With just a few quick slashes of the machete and a good, firm whack, the coconut popped open obligingly.
Tavita handed me a chunk of coconut meat, its juices shimmering in the sunlight. The shell matched the color of his bare, muscular chest. I bit into the fruit and let its flavor cool my taste buds. Next to me, Kesa made contented noises as she munched. Tavita leaned back against a rough-hewn wooden pillar while Siali lay on the open grass beside us, eyes closed, softly humming to himself.
Afterward we made our way over to “Aotearoa” where Emiri was about to finish her shift. Emiri had been assigned to the village of “Aotearoa” because she was part Maori and hailed from New Zealand. She hadn’t been working there very long, but was already an expert at Poi Balls. Contrary to the sound of their name, Poi Balls were neither a laundry additive nor a venereal disease.
Two soft, white balls about the size of a baseball were each tied onto the end of a separate string. Emiri taught me how to hold the ends of the strings in each hand and spin the balls, in time together, at a matching speed. When both balls were spinning equally she showed me how to bounce them off of the front and back of my forearms, reversing their direction. They bounced back and forth, back and forth, spun around, then back and forth again. The result was a beautiful rhythm, almost like a soft, rustling drum. When Emiri performed with her coworkers the effect was mesmerizing.
Like the other Maori “villagers” Emiri painted her chin before work. Every day she drew a black, swirling Maori pattern in a strip extending downward from the center of her mouth to the base of her chin. The resulting effect made her look beautiful, yet dangerous.
The Maori Men’s “tattoos” were different. They contained the same swirling pattern, but it covered one entire half of the face beginning at the jaw, ear and hairline and extending horizontally to the center of the nose, mouth and forehead.
These designs were traditionally tattooed permanently in place, not drawn. Fortunately, the PCC didn’t demand that level of authenticity from its employees. Only one of the boys in Emiri’s “village” had permanent facial tattooing. Cultural body tattoos weren’t uncommon though. Lots of Polynesian students had them in various forms. The most impressive, by far, belonged to the Samoan Chief.
The Samoan Chief was a chief in the truest sense, not just for the tourists. His title extended well beyond his day job. The Samoan kids looked to him for leadership. His authority was undisputed. He was a real, documented and recognized Samoan Chief. He had earned this honor back home in Samoa and now lived it out as a Samoan ambassador, educating the world about Samoan culture and traditions.
In a special ceremony, he had undergone the Samoan Tatau Ritual utilizing traditional Samoan tattoo engraving. This was done using handmade tools, crafted out of natural items like bone or shell. The tattoo was pounded into the skin by hand, using a small mallet. Chief said that this process was unthinkably painful. He said that the grueling experience of receiving these tattoos went on for weeks. He described the agonizing pain that resulted from having every inch of one’s skin slowly and methodically hacked open, and dyed. It must have been excruciating, because the chief’s blackish-green tattoos covered every inch of skin from his midsection to his knees.
Chief also said that the ceremony was a test of bravery and strength. Unlike American tattoos, this was something to be earned. Looking at the massive space covered by his tattoos, I could see why he was so unequivocally respected by the Samoan students who worked with him. I also knew that I would never look at the meaningless mock tribal tattoos so popular with young American kids at the time the same way again.
I asked Tavita if the chief’s tattoos covered every inch of skin … in that particular region. He said yes. He also said that the process was so painful, some subjects didn’t survive. I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me, but if it really did cover every inch, I could see how that could happen.
Kesa, Emiri and I stopped to watch our friend Taika play the massive Tongan drums in his long grass skirt. I loved watching his skillful manipulation of the instrument. It didn’t hurt that he had the chest of a Tongan warrior. You could have hammered out steel on those abs.
Taika tried to teach me how to play the nose flute. He explained that the Tongan people believe the breath that passes through the nose is holy. Unlike the mouth, air that emanates from the nostril possesses some of that person’s soul and is therefore considered more powerful or even magical. When Taika played, the melody was so soft and sweet I could actually see his point. I, on the other hand, was a little reluctant to blow my nose into anything but a tissue, so the resulting sound was pretty meager.
I loved hanging out at the PCC. It was a far more entertaining backyard than anything I’d had back home. The best part for me was what took place after the PCC shut its doors for the night. After the big finale show was over and all the tourists had gone home, the leftover food was sold off to the students out back. It was a perfect allocation of resources; maximum usage and minimum waste. It was a hodge-podge midnight buffet but it was gourmet food for only a couple of dollars. Whenever we were still awake (and able to scrape enough spare change together) we would line up to gorge ourselves on Mahi Mahi, rice, barbeque chicken, kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, poi, seafood, fresh fruit, salad and whatever else they happened to have laying around.
The food was great, but that wasn’t why I loved it. What I loved was simply being with my friends, relaxed after their shifts, laughing and jibing everyone in thick, eclectic accents. The PCC shows were amazing, but they just couldn’t capture the wit and tenacity of the individuals I was coming to know and love. Their cultural and personal identities were so much richer and fuller than one solitary artistic representation could convey. It was a beautifully executed approximation, of course, but the real deal was so much better.
Nothing could never compare with hanging out on a moonlit street curb with an overflowing plate and a rich array of culturally diverse friends. The best experience took place in an old parking lot behind the PCC just a few hours after the tourists had all retreated to their hotels for the night.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.