This post is about my second day in New Zealand, which was the start to our five-day stay in Rotorua, as well as the beginning of my love affair with the Maori culture.
We arrived here with our bridging cultures guides, Tyme and Paul (both from New Zealand; I believe Tyme is part Maori and Paul is mostly Samoan) who are wonderfully sarcastic and funny – obviously my kind of people. We checked into the hostel where we will be staying the rest of our time in Rotorua. One of the first cool things to note about this area of New Zealand is that it is very volcanic. Tyme and Paul told us the Northern Island is volcanic in origin and the southern island is glacial in origin. Rotorua happens to be a hotspot of volcanic activity, so you can look around and see plumes of steam rising from the gutters, and the pools at the hostel are geothermally heated, as well as the water in the showers and pipes. It also smells a lot like eggs. Yum.
After we arrived, had lunch, and had our second information session with Paul and Tyme (this is all part of the globalinks bridging cultures program), we were introduced to this beautiful woman who told us to call her “T” – because there was no way we would be able to pronounce her name. ** She explained to us that we were going to a local, family run school and we would be greeted in a traditional Maori ceremony. First, our group would be greeted with the blowing of a conch shell. We would have to nominate a chief among us who would accept the peace offering from one of the boys of the tribe who would present it after a really cool chant/dance/routine thing that has all sorts of ancestral meaning. I don’t remember all of the specifics, but I do remember that in Maori tradition, they send a warrior out to scope out the foreigners, to kind of size them up. He goes back to the tribe and then they send out a second warrior to present the chief of these foreigners with a peace offering, which the other chief would then accept or deny. If the chief denied the peace offering, the warrior would retreat to the tribe and the third warrior (or maybe it was the chief?) would come out and the two warriors would fight – always to the death.
** (This woman reminds me so much of my half-sister Emma, who is half Thai and half English, that I had to approach her after she met with us and tell her about my sister.)
Obviously, our chief was advised to accept the peace offering, and we were greeted into the belly of the ancestor (little school/prayer/multipurpose building). There we were greeted by the chief-like figure of the tribe, “Rai” (the brother of the woman who greeted us back at the hostel), who gave us a beautiful speech in Maori that was not translated into English, then the children and few other adults present sang a song, also in Maori. After this, T told our elected chief that he could present his acceptance speech. Ha…slightly awkward. But it was lovely! Then we all lined up (traditionally men first, so the women would be protected from foreigners) and one by one went to each of the 15 or so members of the tribe there and participated in the Maori version of a handshake. This included grabbing each others forearms and touching our noses and foreheads together, twice. A little weird, but also surprisingly comfortable. These people were the kind where you could tell they genuinely were happy to have you, happy to share their culture, and happy to see us, even though they didn’t know any of us. The rest of the afternoon we would be split up into four groups and go through four workshops where we would have a quick dip into some traditional Maori practices.
We got to learn a Maori game including tossing baton-sized sticks back and forth to a partner to a chant. This was a lot more fun than it sounds…. and quite difficult! T and I bonded because it came really easily to me and she used me for all the demonstrations. Another station was learning to Haka. This was probably my favorite. The Haka is a traditional Maori intimidation tactic that includes chanting and stomping and slapping and that awesome thing they do with their faces where they make their eyes huge and stick out their tongues. Rai had informed us earlier that all the carvings we would see of the ancestors depicted this kind of facial expression. Eyes were widened to appear larger and scarier, as well as protruding tongues. Basically the Haka says to the enemy: “Don’t fuck with us. We’ll annihilate you and eat your face.” And they did practice cannibalism many years ago! It was a lot of fun to learn the chants and some of the moves that went along with them, but more fun was being able to see our two Haka coaches (a 19 year old who looked more like he was 25, and the 14 year old who offered our chief the peace token upon our arrival) perform it properly. Definitely intimidating! But I couldn’t help but smile and laugh in awe at how beautiful and passionate it was. Another station was learning the basics of weaponry and fighting with the chief, Rai. This was straight up intimidating. What I remember is that the Maori find anything besides man-to-man contact fighting disgraceful. Their weapons would be spear-looking things made out of wood with a “tongue” thing at the end that would be used to shove between the ribs and twist. Or under the mandible and twist. Or another important area with some gruesome twisting. Or these paddle-looking things made out of stone that took generations to complete, or made out of a ridiculously strong wood. These would also be used to impale and twist. Horrific and bloody awesome at the same time. These people were the real deal warriors.
The last station is where we learned to make “Poi”, which were essentially these 6 inch rope pieces with a baseball sized cotton ball at the end. From a young age children were taught to use these to flick back and forth with their wrists to hit the top and bottom of their forearms. All of the Maori warrior fighting and weaponry required incredible forearm strength to be effective, so children would do these things for hours a day for years to build up their forearm strength.
At the end of the four stations, we were all starving. We were treated to a home-cooked traditional meal. And when I say home-cooked I mean by the sisters and brothers or nieces and nephews, moms and dads, of the chief and his sister who had been teaching us about their culture all day. These people were so hospitable and generous and incredible. They served us bread, butter and some pickle-y stuff that was almost exactly like Branston Pickle (a reference that only a select few will understand). I thought this stuff was delicious, most people were creeped out by it. What can ya do? I like marmite too. Blame it on my British upbringing. But don’t actually, because it was awesome. :). For our main meal they made chicken (which I politely refused), roasted potatoes, pumpkin mash, cabbage, and stuffing. It was like having thanksgiving, Maori style. SO GOOD. Then it got even better, when my friend T, two other women, and four men came out to show us some of their traditional song and dance (and some haka too). Again I was in awe at the beauty and richness of culture… and I cried tears of happiness. T kept making eye contact with me and smiling and it made me feel totally at home. Actually the degree to which I felt at home there was slightly eery.
At the end of our dinner, our group of 40 ish college-aged Americans had a Haka-off with the Maori children, and it was so close there was really no way to tell who won. HA. Not. Obviously they won. But then they asked us to sing “Don’t Stop Believing” for them, and it was nice to feel like we had a little something to offer.
All in all, I have decided to move to Rotorua, marry a Maori warrior, learn the language, have some kids and never go back to America.
Just kidding. I can’t leave my pup. He needs me to return.
Here’s a video of the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, performing their Haka before a game.