A Symbolic Evening

Trip Start Jan 15, 2011
Trip End Mar 19, 2011

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Funky Green Voyager Backpackers

Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Monday, March 7, 2011

After our brush with livestock royalty, we freshened up for a night out to a traditional Maori hangi. A hangi is the Maori equivalent to a Hawaiian luau, and there were many hangi options in the Rotorua area. We ended up choosing Mitai. Our guidebook had given it high marks and the hostel worker at Funky Green Voyager immediately recommended it. We felt pretty confident we'd made the right choice.

The Mitai bus picked us up at our hostel at 5:45 PM that evening. We quickly plopped onto two available seats that happened to be across the isle from two elderly English women. From their conversation I could tell they were meeting for the very first time, yet they spoke like old friends. One continuously complained about her ailments (it was too cold out; her ankle ached; she hoped she wouldn't have to walk too far) while the other empathized with her own constant chatter. They talked over one another like twin Woody Allens. Katie and I suppressed our laughter whilst eavesdropping. They could’ve been a comedy duo.

Our Hangi started out under a large outdoor dining tent with some karaoke style Polynesian music. We found our seats while an elderly Maori gentleman with white hair and a matching cowboy hat crooned along to some synthesized tunes.

Not long after we settled in, our evening’s host sauntered out and welcomed us. "Kia ora!" He called out with enthusiasm. Like the first day of school, his students responded softly, with little confidence. We received a stern look. "Kia ora!!" He shouted again, his tone demanding a boisterous response. The crowd’s common voice rose a few more decibels. His head dropped with disappointment, but he accepted our meager rejoinder nonetheless. It’s funny how grown adults can be as timid as kindergartners.

He explained that Mitai was the name of the Maori tribe who owned the land. The Mitai tribe members were the makers of the feast currently cooking in the ground beside us and the singers and dancers of the show we were about to enjoy. We, in turn, were visitors from many nations and this was a night to celebrate our coming together in friendship. One by one, he called out names of countries from around the world. People cheered when their homelands were announced: New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Spain, America, and on and on and on. A total of 11 countries were in attendance and in order to come together as one tribe we must now choose a chief.

In accordance with Maori tradition our chief had to be male and was expected to greet the Mitai chief with a speech. Unexpectedly, two men volunteered for this honor. A Dutchman and a Romanian. Our host was perplexed. He usually had to beg someone to come forward and claim the throne. Now he had to decide between two candidates. I’d like to say that a duel ensued, with gauntlets thrown and pistols pulled, but it turned out to be a much more democratic process – we voted. The Dutchman came out on top (I think he had more support from special interest groups).

Before our meal we were shown the earthen pit where the hangi feast cooked. Racks of lamb, whole chickens, kūmara (New Zealand sweet potato), and potatoes steamed before our eyes. It looked mouth-wateringly good. Our host then led us through the forest beside reaching ferns and hanging vines. Distant songs emanated from the surrounding vegetation. Deep within I could see Mitai tribe members walking in solemn procession. We stopped beside a natural spring swirling below like a perpetual gathering storm. The water spewed forth in crystal clarity, spiraling plump granules of salt and pepper sand. It was marvelous. This cold water spring is a prized possession of the Mitai people who’ve lived off its waters for hundreds of years.

We all waited alongside the creek that flowed from the spring, listening to the distant chanting that was growing closer and closer. Maori warriors entered our view, paddling upstream in a waka (canoe). Bright red oars pulled in unison. The men were garbed in ancient dress. Leaves decorated their hair with their chests left bare and bulging. They snarled and grunted as their oars flew upward all at once. Their synchronicity and fierce demeanor was a sign of power and solidarity. We watched quietly, fascinated.

Afterward, we were led to a covered viewing area. Before us sat a traditional Maori village as it would’ve appeared hundreds of years ago. Fires burned brightly in front of thatched-roofed huts while a large totem stood center. Our elected chief (the Dutchman) was brought forth before the Mitai tribesmen. Maori warriors danced toward him threateningly, weapons in hand. Our chief stood his ground. After their show of strength, each rested a freshly cut branch of leaves in front of our chief as a peace offering. He readily accepted these gifts, and the Mitai chief stepped forward to hear his brief but humble speech. Then they came face to face – literally. Following Maori tradition, they performed the hongi, gently touching their noses together twice as a sign of friendship. I found this to be a beautiful display of trust and harmony, representing two groups coming together as one. Then the party started!

The tribe burst into song and dance. The women danced while swinging decorative migoto with amazing skill, flinging them around their arms and bouncing them in time with the music. The men’s low voices joined the women’s in a rich melody. Then they all danced together. The Maori warriors then displayed their fighting prowess by whipping and jabbing staffs and spears in the air with impressive speed.

The chief then addressed us, his guests, and taught us about his people and traditions: The meaning of their words; the weapons they wield; Their facial tattoos and what they represent. The tattoos incorporated images of birds and the surrounding forest, gifts his people have used for food and shelter since they came to Aotearoa.

Finally, the men performed the haka, which translates to “breath of life.” The warriors use this dance to frighten their enemies before battle. They summon all their energy, chanting and slapping their puffed chests with ferocity. Eyes bulging big and bright. Tongues protruding like hungry animals. Their painted faces dark and menacing. It was a show of strength and intimidation. Very powerful.

The entire show was wonderful. Despite knowing they do this every night, you couldn’t help but sense how deeply rooted their traditions were and how seriously they take them. This wasn’t just a stunt for the sake of tourists. They showcased a sense of pride for their stories, dances, and their ancestors’ way of life. Maybe I was reading more into it, seeing what I wanted to see, but that’s how I felt. Katie too.

After the show we were treated to a grand feast. The meat was delicious. And there was a dish of creamy scalloped potatoes that I mixed with each bite of lamb that… Oh. My. God. It tasted amazing.! (And I don’t usually like scalloped potatoes OR lamb!). The meal was filling and scrumptious, the dessert, moist and delightful, and finally a hot cup of tea to top it off. I was a happy tribeswoman. But the night wasn’t over yet…

Katie and I opted to do an extra excursion at the end of the meal. We were part of a small group scheduled to take a nighttime tour of the Rainbow Springs Nature Park after dinner. From the very beginning we could tell this was going to be an extremely relaxed tour. First of all, our shared torch (flashlight) had a battery knocking on death’s door. We could barely see in front of us! Second of all, our guide was a young Maori woman around 18 years old. She knew her stuff, no doubt, but had an extremely lackadaisical attitude, and she was cracking Katie and I up!

Her style was simple: Stop, talk, and then yell “Follow Me!” She didn’t keep track of anyone in the group, she would simply trudge forward through the darkness and expect us to keep up. Meanwhile, a bunch of foreigners were bumbling through the pitch black woods bumping into one other and shining lights in peoples’ faces. When she reached the glowworms, which were hanging under the surrounding vegetation, she told us all to turn off our torches and look into the trees. That was easy for us, since our torch was giving off as much light as a lit match, but for other people who didn’t speak English it wasn’t so clear. I saw beams of light swinging through the bushes like eager monkeys.

“Glowworms?” You’d hear people whispering, confused. Like an apathetic Willy Wonka, our tour guide would mutter, “If you turn off your torches you’ll see them better.” I suspect this was a common problem, tourists not understanding that to see the glowworms glow you shouldn’t shine light upon them. Her tone definitely implied as much.

A few yards later we were looking back down into that remarkable spring I mentioned earlier. This time it was lit from beneath. We could see the long body of an eel resting motionless in the clear water. It swayed eerily below us while the smoky sand continued to bubble at the center. It looked eerie and mystical. As our tour continued, we were treated to the sight of a silver fern (New Zealand’s national symbol), a blue pool of swirling rainbow trout, tuataras, and some frisky kea birds. The highlight of the night, though, was the kiwi reserve.

The Mitai tribe has a kiwi sanctuary on their grounds where they breed and protect the little spotted kiwi. They’ve successfully bred over a hundred kiwi per year. Some interesting facts about kiwi that you should know: They are nocturnal, they are flightless, they have tiny wings about the size of a pinky finger, and they have the largest egg to body ratio in the world – meaning their egg accounts for 26% of their body weight. That would be the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a six year old child!

I remember seeing a kiwi once in a zoo many years ago. It was during the day, so the birds were asleep, and we only got to view them on a night vision monitor. This experience made me believe kiwis to be small. About the size of a guinea pig was what I imagined. After all, I didn’t have any way to tell how big it was on that monitor. There was nothing to show its relative size. So when I walked inside the kiwi enclosure I didn’t expect to see what I saw.

We’d been told to stay silent and not to take any pictures, so we entered cautious and quiet. The pathway was lined on either side by a short wall, around 2 1/2 feet high. On the other side of this wall was where the kiwi lived. Since they’re nocturnal animals it stood to reason that the best time to see them would be at night. We were right on time. I peered into the dimly lit foliage expecting to see a little critter wandering beneath a bush. What I didn’t expect was the rather large animal that came lumbering towards me! She (this kiwi was female) was around the size of a large chicken. Her pace was fast, about the speed of a strolling cat, and her two legs strode smoothly over soft ground. Try to imagine Groucho Marx in classic pose: Bent over at the waist, hands behind his back, leaning forward and pacing back and forth. Now imagine he’s covered in light brown spotted fluff. Voila! You have a spotted kiwi.

She strolled around the enclosure searching for food and paying zero attention to us humans. Her long thin beak darted into the dirt ceaselessly, always searching for that next morsel. Her head would look up, down, and then she’d carry on briskly as though her shift were about to end. At one point she marched up to the wall right in front of me. She halted. Her head rose up for the briefest of moments and I saw her tiny black eyes staring back at me. I was hovering right over her, mere inches from her beak. It was a fleeting moment. Magical. Then she looked down and wandered away.

Her body language told me: Back to work. Time is food. I gotcha, sister.

A bus took us back to our hostel when the tour was over. It was late by the time we got home. Everyone was asleep. We were tired, ourselves, after a night of stuffing our faces and wandering through the forest. We looked up at the clear night sky and saw the Southern Cross twinkling above. A starlight kite drifting in the heavens. It dawned on me that in a single evening we’d managed to see all three symbols of New Zealand: The silver fern, the Southern Cross, and the spotted kiwi.

Now that I’d met a kiwi face to face I felt complete and total understanding as to why New Zealanders would make this special bird their national symbol. They. Are. Awesome. It’s as simple as that. If I could pack one in my bag and take it home with me, I would. However, I’m not sure they’d be safe in there with all those rocks...

UPDATE! Alice and Katie are now embarking on a Round the World trip!
Visit aliceintraveland.com to follow along on their continuing

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