You smell Rotorua, New Zealand before you see it. It’s a city where the crust of the earth is terribly thin. There are even signs, in the living thermal Maori village of Whakarewarewa that clearly say: “Danger–Thin Earth.” You can bet people take photos of signs like these. Where else on earth will you see such a sign, posted on someone’s front lawn? It’s surreal, what with the hot steam being vented through flower beds near someone’s front porch. You get a sense, immediately, that humans are insignificant in the face of a volcanic and seismic earth history.
Whakarewarewa is a living thermal village, a place where the Maori people still live and work, and where they invite you in, as a traveller, to see their ways. The Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahaio people have been inviting visitors into their village since the 1800s, and have shown them how to use geothermal energy for cooking, heating, and even bathing. The full name of the village is a mouthful, namely “Te Whakarewarewa O Te Ope Tua A Wahiao,” which means “The uprising of the warriors (war party) of Wahiao.” No wonder they shortened it down!
You walk through an arch that was built in the 1950s to memorialize those Maori villages who gave their lives in WWI and WW2. Alongside the roadway is a series of picture panels with the faces and biographies of mostly female guides who have led tours through the village since the late 1880s. You cross over a bridge, where Maori kids are often found swimming and ‘penny diving.’ It’s tradition that, if the kids are out, you toss them pennies and they dive down into the water to retrieve them. It’s the price you pay to cross the bridge, into an otherworldly, almost out-of-history landscape. Eleanor Roosevelt even visited, taking part in the hongi, a truly intimate Maori greeting where two people press noses together twice, with a breath between. The Maori believe that, as you press noses, you are sharing the breath of life. This breath is believed to have come directly from the gods. After you take part in this ceremonial greeting, you are no longer considered a visitor, but rather you become a ‘person of the land.’ It is a gathering in, of sorts, and you feel its ancient intimacy and intensity. You feel honoured and grateful, thankful for having been welcomed to Maori land. When Roosevelt visited, she took part in the hongi and it was big news in the States, where racism was still prevalent.
New Zealand, in the Maori language, is referred to as “Aotearoa” or “Land of the Long White Cloud.” The word for “hello” or “goodbye” or “thankful” (similar to Hawaii’s “aloha”) is “kia ora.” Any Maori word, though, sounds like poetry or music. It reaches into your soul, really, and you feel the genuine warmth of the Maori when they speak the words. The other languages that have struck me like this are Irish and Welsh, the Celtic languages that ripple into you so that they echo outwards.
In places, the village reminded me of some of the First Nations reserves I’ve been on. There is poverty there. Windows are musty, dirty and chipped or broken. There are flower pots decorating the end of short driveways. A family pet, a dog, sits guard on someone’s front step. Everywhere, there are Maori guardians, carved out and lining the fences. You’re never allowed to forget that there is a deeply spiritual essence to the Maori people. The “maere” (meeting grounds) includes an intricately carved “wharenui” (meeting house). At the apex of the roof, a carved icon. The roof represents its outstretched arms and the carved sides of the house are symbolic of its legs. Once inside, you see that the roof is divided by beams, the long one that separates the space is meant to evoke the spine, while the others represent ribs. You are inside the Maori culture when you are inside a meeting house. It feels sacred.
In Whakarewarewa, there are pools, of both mud and water. The mud one is so hot that it bubbles, big gaseous gulps rising to the surface. Ancestors and current residents often use the mud to treat skin conditions like eczema. The water pools have varying degrees of heat, but they are fenced off to protect you. In one pool, the Maori cook a bag full of corn and other assorted vegetables. In another, diapers were once sterilized. In yet another pool, water is transported to the baths, where the floors leading to the bathtubs are heated from below the earth. (Talk about early heated floors!) On a cool New Zealand winter day, about 15 degrees Celcius, the warmth coming up from the earth warms your feet and body from the inside out. The Maori know about sustainability; they live it every day and they are true guardians of the earth, at a place where the earth’s crust is unbelievably thin.
We only had a half day, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Later that night, we visited Tamaki Maori village, where we learned about the practices of weaving, the “haka” (war dance), games, and the history of a very proud people. The South Pacific is a place of rich, rich culture. There are so many beautiful Maori stories….and not enough time or space to tell them. The only thing I can say is that I want to go back and spend more time there some day.
Kia ora, friends.