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Samoa Travel Guide

Kava Bowl
Kava being served to visitors on island night
at a Savai'i resort.

Kava and Tattoos

Unlike Fiji and Tonga, the Samoan kava (ava) ceremony is an exceptional occurrence held at important gatherings of matai, seldom witnessed by visitors. Chanting and dancing usually accompany the serving ceremony. A taupou prepares the drink in a traditional wooden bowl; in the old days she was the fiercely guarded virgin daughter of a village high chief, a ceremonial princess. The taupou will be dressed in a fine mat adorned with chicken feathers. On her head will be a taiga, a headdress made of human hair and seashells, and lipstick will be smeared on her lips and cheeks. One function of the taupou is to collect money for charity and onlookers often attach banknotes to her well oiled body. The male guardian figure who dances behind the taupou is called a manaia.

Tattooing is one of the few Polynesian cultural attributes adopted by Western civilization, and although missionaries a hundred years ago predicted its demise, it's still widespread among Samoans.

The navel-to-knees tattoos are a visual badge of courage, as 16 or more highly painful sessions are required to apply a full pe'a using purple candlenut dyes. Once the tattooing begins, it cannot end until completed, or the subject will be permanently marked with dishonor.

Until recently, a full body tattoo could only be applied to a talking chief as a mark of his rank, but today anyone (including tourists) who can stand the pain is eligible. The designs originally represented a large fruit bat, although this is only recognizable today in the lines of the upper wings above the waist. The female equivalent, the malu, is more delicate. This art dates back to ancient times, and contemporary Samoan tattoo designs are strikingly similar to incised decorations on lapita pottery thousands of years old.

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