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The man whimpers as he is dragged into the Pacific, screaming as the salty water laps at his red, raw buttocks.

Tears spring to his eyes as a team of villagers support his limp body, firmly holding him in place.

Around them, a group of children slap the water to keep a frenzy of butt-flesh-hungry fish at bay.

“At this point I was pleading to god to give me a heart attack so I could die,” Chris Solomona tells me, recalling the scene from more than 15 years ago. “A lot of men commit suicide after the first section of a full-body tattoo.”

I’m sitting in the middle of Samoa Cultural Village – a collection of small, open coastal huts (fales) showcasing more than 3000
years of Samoan history.

Nearby, women weave intricate coconut leaf baskets while men rub sticks together to make fire. Chris is devoted to teaching visitors about Samoan customs and his culture runs deep.

The 45-year-old absent-mindedly rubs his buttocks as he continues his story. The memories of his painful tattoo are obviously as clear to him as the blue waters which surround his Samoan Islands archipelago.  

Chris endured the gruelling process in 1998, aged 31. The 12 sections of his complex body art took up to six hours each to complete and, despite warnings from his grandfather, Chris went through four weeks of “agony, pain and pure hell”.

The traditional tattoo covers approximately half of his body – crescent moon shapes run from the hip bones down to the pelvis, his bottom is covered and it extends to his kneecaps, and he has intricate patterns all the way down his right arm.

As he whips out the implements used to mark his body, I grab my own posterior in sympathy.

There’s not a needle in sight. Instead, he shows me sharp tattooing combs made of boar’s tusk and turtle shell plate, and candlenut soot used for the tattoo pigment.

The combs are hit like a chisel with a 23-inch-long mallet and the pain, Chris reiterates, is intense. Once inking begins, there’s no looking back; failure to complete the full dozen sections results in shame so great that death might seem an easier option.

Six strong assistants had to hold Chris down while the revered tattoo artist went to work. “It was the worst decision of my life,” admits the strapping Samoan.

But with its bloody completion came his transition from boyhood to manhood, and a vow of dedication to his family, village and country.

This, in a nutshell, is the beauty of Samoa. Traditional tattoo torment isn’t for everyone, but a strong sense of local pride, family and culture is.

So too is a slow-paced way of life, as I find out the day before when I’m met at the airport by my talkative guide, Anthony, and briefly introduced to local road rules.

So laid-back are the cheery island drivers, the change from driving on the right-hand side of the road to the left, ordered by the Samoan government in 2009, didn’t cause the mayhem you might expect.

Anthony chuckles: “Accidents? Nope… we’re too relaxed for that!”

Despite his insistence that island motoring is a seaside breeze, the 45-minute journey from the airport to Apia seems wild and unpredictable to me.


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