Forty Four

The Chief’s house lay off of the main road buried in dense, tropical foliage. An enormous bonfire burned next to a massive, makeshift buffet. Four tables strained under the collective weight of dozens of disposable, aluminum pans—each stuffed to the brim with a bevy of delectable foods. My mouth watered at the sight of baked fish, rice, teriyaki chicken and macaroni salad, and my curiosity sparked as I beheld the heaping mounds of breadfruit, cooked green bananas, taro root, Palusami Lu’au, poi and some sort of corned beef cooked in taro leaves and coconut milk. Siali and Tavita, along with the other Samoan boys, had spent the day cooking in the Chief’s underground oven. It was Thanksgiving.

We laughed and joked as we sat together, balancing our flimsy, overloaded paper plates on our knees and stuffing ourselves to the breaking point. Afterward, Tavita and Siali stepped away to help with the cleanup leaving me on my own, just soaking it all in. I leaned back against the old picnic table under a spray of waving, wild palm fronds and felt my breath coming in indulgent bursts. The warm night breeze tickled my skin, which felt hot and alive, warmed by the red hot flames. I relished the foreign sounds that had become strangely familiar. I loved the sound of the Samoan language, soft yet distinct. The tones were mesmerizing. They mixed with gleeful laughter and the soft chords of a ukulele.

I watched as people slowly detached themselves from the group and began to dance around the fire, their graceful motions illuminated in the fiery glow. The dancers moved slowly but with purpose. As the beat picked up, their movements accelerated until they were in a fever pitch, dancing and whirling. Bystanders whooped and yelled. Spectators shouted out, cheering them on. Around and around they went, like the thoughts swirling in my head.

And as I watched, my mind wandered, replaying for the billionth time everything that had happened on Hapuna Beach. It felt like a dream. But it was real. My lacerated kneecap still throbbed beneath my jeans. It wasn’t a dream. I had heard something. Someone. Someone had tried to warn me.

I hadn’t listened, of course.

But still, someone had tried. I had heard the warning and the warning was right. What did it mean? Who had spoken to me? Was it God? Was it someone else? And why? And what was I meant to do with that information?

I didn’t know. But I knew what I had heard and I would never forget the feeling that accompanied it. Someone had spoken to me. They had tried to help me, to save me. Maybe they had, despite my unwillingness to hear. Maybe they had done even more than whisper. Who knew?  I was still here, wasn’t I?

I chuckled to myself as the thought occurred to me. At the very least, someone didn’t want me dead. This seemed like good news. Someone was watching out for me. Someone was trying to protect me. Someone out there cared about me. I was neither too broken nor too far gone after all. The thought was a revelation. I was not too broken or corrupt. Not for them. Whoever it was.

Whoever it was.

After piling up the leftovers in haphazard and dangerously wobbling stacks, Tavita rejoined me at the table. Mere moments later, Siali was beckoning him from the tight ring of chairs that had formed, displacing the dancers, around the fire.

“Time for Kava,” Tavita said, reverently. He stood, dusting off the front of his loose, white t-shirt and brown patterned lava lava.

I’d always wanted to try Kava so I moved to stand but Tavita held out a hand to stop me.

“Not for you. Only men in the Kava circle.”

I waited for an apologetic look or maybe an isn’t tradition archaic? shrug. I got nothing. Apparently, gender roles were still something to be unashamed of in Samoa. I sat back down again and watched, a little resentfully, as Tavita joined the other men.

Half of a polished coconut filled with strange brew was migrating around the circle. I didn’t really want to try Kava anyway, I told myself. It was probably disgusting. It looked like mud. And imagine all the germs on that communal cup. I mean, if I would have been invited, I would have tried it, of course, but still … Who wants stinky old Kava and awesome, sacred, ancient rituals anyway? I was dangerously close to pouting.

The men looked somber as they passed the cup. Tavita took a sip and handed it to the Samoan Chief whose intricate tattoos seemed to morph and grow in the flickering firelight. He was a chief in the truest sense. He filled the role of “chief” at the Polynesian Cultural Center, of course, but it went much deeper than that. He was not just a “chief” for the tourists. The Samoan kids looked to him for leadership. His title extended well beyond his day job. His authority was undisputed.

Tavita had told me that the Chief 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. As part of the chief’s ceremony, he had even undergone the Tatau Ritual. This ritual was built around the traditional Samoan form of tattooing. It was done using handmade tools crafted out of things like bone or shell. The tattoo was pounded into the skin by hand, using a small mallet.

The 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 cut and dyed. It must have been excruciating. The chief’s blackish-green tattoos covered every inch of skin, from his midsection to his knees.

The Chief was proud of his tattoos. He had explained that tattooing was an honor as well as a test of bravery and strength. Unlike American tattoos, this was something to be earned. Considering the ample square footage of his tattoos, he must have earned a lot. I could see why he was so unequivocally respected by the Samoan students.

The boys listened intently as the Chief addressed them. Meanwhile, small groups of girls sat scattered around the fire, chatting away. Did any of them resent being excluded because of their gender? I probably would have, if past experience was any kind of an indicator. I had always chaffed against the gender roles in my own culture. If I’d been born Samoan, I probably would have struggled with this too. Maybe I was destined to chafe regardless.

I was suddenly grateful to be witnessing this event from the outside. I could appreciate this sacred tradition which had survived centuries and traversed oceans to keep the culture alive and thriving, without feeling directly impacted by it. Unlike so many, this inequality could not bind me. I was simply blessed to be present. I was occupying privileged space. No one was forcing anything on me. No one was expecting me to proclaim the divinely instated order of things. I could just sit back and savor this sacred glimpse into another world … and ponder what other worlds I may have glimpsed … and what to do with that possibility.

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.

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