11.02.2015: Rotorua, New Zealand
Upon returning from white water rafting down the Kaituna river, Niki and I made short stops at Be Rude Not To to get lunch and a charity shop where I got a gorgeous necklace and earring jewellery set (that I subsequently wore later that day). We, unfortunately, didn’t have much more time on our hands because we had to freshen up before our ‘date’ at the Tamaki Māori Village, that is, by the way, set within a stunning 200-year-old native Tawa forest. Fun fact: Tamaki Māori Village is New Zealand’s most awarded cultural attraction! We knew we couldn’t say that we’ve truly experienced New Zealand until we’ve immersed ourselves in the Māori culture and explore its incredible traditions.
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
― Gustav Mahler
This experience was, simply put, out of this world. Every penny we saved was worth splurging on this amazing night.
We had arrived at the Tamaki office a little early, so we decided to drop by RAVE, aka. Rotorua Arts Village, which was just next door. This was where we saw the exploration of the most beautiful means of recycling and upcycling. There were lovely bags woven out of leftover fabric, wooden pens carved out of native New Zealand trees, and Māori-inspired costumes.
We didn’t spend too long away and right when we returned to the office, we registered ourselves with the main desk and, acknowledging that I had requested for a Vegan meal, the lady behind the counter gave me little cards to indicate to the waitress later that evening that I’d prefer the plant-based options. I was so relieved. We were also informed that we were booked on a bus named ‘WEKA’ and that our driver to the Māori village would be a guy named Dennis, who we found to be extremely warm and humorous.
During the bus ride to the village, Dennis shared with us a little about himself and how he absolutely enjoyed growing up in Rotorua, which was the reason for wanting to be part of introducing this wonderful town to tourists. He also told us that on arrival at the village, an ancient ceremony of welcome would take place (included in the video at the bottom of this post).
“The ceremony might frighten you at first, but it really is harmless. It’s loud, heart-stopping and stirring, but it’s all in good nature… simply to test you whether you come in peace or war. So we’ll need a male volunteer to represent our bus. He’ll simply need to greet the village leader for us with a Hongi. A hongi is a traditional Māori greeting here in New Zealand. It is done by pressing one’s nose and forehead at the same time to another person at an encounter. No kissing okay! Who’s up for it?”
The hongi, we later learned, has a fascinating history. The tradition originated from the story of the birth of the first earthly Māori woman, Hineahuone, who was made from clay until the Māori god Tāne breathed life into her nostrils. Now, the greeting means “to share breath.” By doing so, it would be acknowledged that the visitor becomes a member of the local people, i.e. only then would we be allowed to enter the village.
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A little bit of a digression, but as I write about this, I am reminded of a time in language school when I walked into class and witnessed a Palestinian classmate holding his hand out in a fist to a fellow classmate from China, clearly having the intention of a friendly fist bump to say ‘hello’. My Chinese classmate glanced down at my Palestinian classmate’s fist, then up at his face before glancing downwards again, before asking, “Was ist los?” (English: “What’s happening?”) A chuckle escaped my lips, and I fist bumped the Palestinian classmate before taking my seat beside the Chinese classmate. The Chinese classmate followed suit with the fist bump!
I found a couple more wonderful greetings from around the world here. 🙂
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After the warm welcome into the village, we streamed into the forest, which had been set up with various stations showcasing various aspects of the traditional Māori way of life: warrior training, war calls, the Poi dance, the fearsome Haka (Māori war dance), village games, arts weaving, wood carving and Ta moko (facial tattooing). We were split into groups before we made our ways to all the stations in a round robin system.
At every station, they asked for volunteers to participate in activities and, being most intrigued by the games, I volunteered myself for both of them. (I’ve included this in the video below!) The first one was a game focused on agility. It started with 4 of us, each holding a stick in front of us. We were taught that ‘mauī’ meant ‘left’ and that ‘mātau’ meant right. The leader of the game would then shout either ‘mauī’ or ‘mātau’ and the players would have to let go of their own stick and run to the stick in the correct direction, trying their best to catch the stick before it touches the ground! It was manic — but in the best possible way!
The second game (also in the video) was more of a test of one’s concentration. We were told that the game is traditionally played by men and is used by the village elders to test whether a man was skilled enough to protect the village. (The game sounded a lot like a ladder drill to me!) If anyone were to knock the sticks or fall over, they would be hit by a stick.
Just as we completed the last station, we heard the sounding of a conch shell and were informed that that meant that it was time to see the Hāngi lifted from the coal pit in the ground! After we settled ourselves down in the cozy amphitheatre, we were told that a Hāngi is a traditional Māori method of cooking food. “Laying a Hāngi” or “putting down a Hāngi” involves digging a shallow pit oven in the ground, heating stones and water in the pit with a large fire (to create steam), placing baskets or trays of food on top of the stones, and covering everything with earth (the earth is then covered with leaves, whāriki (flax matting) or, in more recent times, sacking or cloth) for several hours before uncovering (or lifting) the Hāngi. Even today, it is still used for special occasions.
For centuries Māori – the indigenous people of New Zealand – have lived, worked, and loved the rugged yet fertile lands of their ancestors. Traditional Māori believed that the Earth was the giver of all life. From the soil, came food and that same food was cooked beneath the earth. It was thus accepted that the people who were born on that land inherited the right to produce from it and to protect it for the benefit of all.
Moments later, the earth was scraped carefully away from the Hāngi pit by the Māori chefs and baskets laden with sumptuous, mouth-watering food were revealed. I was most excited about the perfectly roasted veggies and the sweet potatoes.
While our Hāngi meal was being brought over to the dinner hall, we headed into a performance hall where the Tamaki villagers performed Patere (rhythmic chants) and a Haka, sang Waiata (songs) and danced with energy and passion that was absolutely infectious (everything included in the video below). I felt the hair on the back of my arms rise as the spiritual beauty of the Māori voices filled the enclosed space. I loved it.
“‘Kai’ is the Māori word for food.”
The sharing of food is an important part of the Māori custom, and to end off our evening, we were invited to join in on a traditional Hāngi buffet feast in a large dining hall. I skipped the chicken and local greenlip mussels, and instead darted straight to the beautifully golden brown veggies, seriously delicious Rewena pararoa or Māori bread (made from potatoes) and heaps of root crops including potato and kumara (sweet potato) which were seasoned with the most fragrant traditional bush herbs. To make up the protein component, I was separately served some incredible lentil patties topped with kumara purée! I sure was a happy kid. 🙂
The evening drew to an end with the Poroporoaki (the official closing ceremony), which included waiata (songs) and whaikorero (speeches), before we were driven back into Rotorua town centre by Dennis, our driver from earlier on. I guessed he must have been in a particularly good mood as he launched the entire bus into singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, which was absolutely hilarious. At one point, we joined a roundabout and went 5 whole rounds around it as we sang ’round and round, round and round, round and round’! Hahaha only in New Zealand!
It was a really special evening out in the village. I felt that whilst the Tamaki Māori Village is a tourist destination, it still is a genuine effort at sharing the culture of Māori life. One thing that I found absolutely beautiful was how, regardless if they were related to each other or not, they would address each other as ‘my family’. My time at the village definitely made it into my list of favourite cultural experiences around the world.