W. Scott Olsen
from Defending The Tourist: Travels in Te Aotearoa—The Land

of the Long White Cloud

Rotorua—Day One

Today, I am in Rotorua. And today, I fear, I am the most common, obvious, ignorant type of tourist. I've got a camera slung around my neck, and I'm sure my face has frozen in a type of silly, incongruous grin.
The InterCity bus left Wellington early this morning under the still dark, pre-dawn sky. Sleep came easy in the rocking coach, despite the passing views of the rocky western shores of the North Island of New Zealand and the Tasman Sea beyond them. I've been in this time zone for some time now, but sleep has not always come easy. I wish I had stayed awake.
We stopped for a break in the town of Taupo, and I took the fifteen minutes to simply walk around a bit and stretch my legs. Had I been awake in the bus, I would have known what to expect when I came around a shop corner and caught the sight of Lake Taupo shimmering in the mid-morning light. Lake Taupo is a large lake, calm today and inviting, and in the southwestern distance beyond the lake, two old black volcanoes rise to snow covered peaks. Mount Tongariro, I'm told by the bus driver, and Mount Ruapehu. Mount Ngauruhoe is also there, in the mist. We drove right by them, the driver tells me. Quite a sight, he says, even having passed them a thousand times on his routes.
A brochure I find at the Taupo Information Centre tells me the lake was created by one of the planet's largest geophysical events: "The Taupo eruption, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions that has occurred in the world in the last 5000 years, took place in AD 186. Ash erupted up to 1000 km in the atmosphere and was recorded by both the Chinese and Romans."
I kick myself for having slept through this.
We board the bus again and head for Rotorua. Green hills out every window. Water in rivers and small streams and dripping from leaves. And what I had assumed was a remaining mist from last night’s rain I discover is not. Not even close.
As the bus winds its way into the city, the countryside here literally steams—white clouds rising from small pools and thermal springs in the hillsides. Already I’m regretting the fact that I've only got a day and a half in this town. No time for just wandering the streets, drinking coffee in some cafe, listening to the melodies of the New Zealand accent as friends share their stories at nearby tables. Rotorua is a heavily promoted town. A national promise to tourists. There are helicopter and plane rides to look at the volcanic scenery, hot mineral baths to bathe in. Things to do! Things to see!
Another brochure in my lap tells me there used to be a national wonder near here: the Pink and White Terraces, destroyed in a 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, killing one hundred and fifty people and burying villages.
Rotorua is like Yellowstone National Park, a center of geophysical activity and wonder. Rotorua is a place of a great many tourists and not a few New Zealanders come for holiday, to enjoy the water and mineral baths and scenery. Unsteady ground, at best.
I check into the Four Canoes hotel and am greeted by a wonderful desk clerk named Joy. I explain to her my desire to get going quickly here, and somehow soon find myself disembarking from a tourist bus at something called the Agridome—a large dome with a stage and bench seating, a sheep exhibit and show and gift shop for tourists. All the varieties of sheep kept in New Zealand are trotted out on stage here, the quality of their wool and meat explained to the audience. Sheepdogs come out and run up and down the backs of the tolerant sheep, to the applause of the crowd. A sheep is sheered in front of us and we are allowed to touch the fresh wool, still oily and fragrant. After the show, we are invited outside to watch a dog put some sheep through their trials in a large pen. The whole show takes an hour and a half. At its close, we are put back on the chartered buses and motored away.
It is possible, in New Zealand, to see flocks of sheep on the road being driven by shepherds and dogs from one set of fields to another (what bus drivers call a New Zealand traffic jam), to see sheep dogs and expansive sheep stations, to taste lamb in restaurants and buy wool in shops. And it is possible to remain completely ignorant about it all. There are more than sixty five million sheep in New Zealand! If anything here is a part of the national identity, it is sheep. While I generally dislike the obvious tourist attractions like this Agridome, this is also an education for me. At least now I can name one or two sheep breeds.
After the Agridome, the tourist bus takes us to the Rainbow Springs Trout Farm, where we see trout. Also at the Rainbow Springs we enter a Kiwi house and watch both a male and female stalking about in an artificial night. Then after Rainbow Springs we motor to Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve to watch the Pohutu Geyser and the more than five hundred thermal springs and boiling mud pits.
Te Whakarewarewa also contains the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. We walk past a large Maori canoe, Maori houses, a glass walled exhibit of Maori portraits and clothing. We enter the Institute and admire wood carvings on every wall, then tour the perimeter of a large room wherein young Maori men work on carvings in process. They glance up at us as we pass. None of us on this tour has the courage to ask questions of these men, none of us quite sure if it's proper.
Outside the Institute, at the far end of the thermal reserve, past the kiosks for ice cream and souvenirs, I am feeling utterly stupid and guilty. I have seen Maori art every single day of this trip. Faces carved into wood, tongues stuck out in what is called a Poukena—a gesture designed to distract an opponent during battle. I have seen carved hands of three fingers, representing birth, life, and death, and sometimes a fourth finger as well, for the afterlife. I've seen clubs and staffs and paddles. And, here in Rotorua, I'm learning that I've seen nothing.
Back in the States, I meet, chat with, eat with people of color every day. Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans. Each of them representing a cultural history and heritage that is woven into the context of my community and my life. The fact that we come from different races is obvious, but what we share is much larger than what makes us different, and our conversations almost always concern themselves with what we share, our common goals and dreams and desires, our progress toward or our frustrations with these things.
Here in New Zealand, I've seen Maori every day, spoken with many of them. And I've simply assumed we share a great deal, which I'm still convinced we do. But the foundations of our identity cannot be ignored, and I've been guilty of this ignorance.
Rotorua is considered the capital of Maori life in New Zealand, at least by the Pakeha, despite there being at least thirty three major Maori tribal districts. Pakeha is the Maori word for the non-Maori, mostly white, population of New Zealand. And Pakeha is a term freely adopted by the non-Maori, even when referring to themselves. For tourists, Rotorua is the place to learn about Maori, and I am a tourist here.
Back near the trout farm, there is a gondola ride up a hill to a restaurant overlooking Rotorua and Lake Rotorua, and the island in the middle of the lake. And from there, people can rent what here is called a luge, a small sled on wheels, the summer version of the ice-track insanity witnessed during the Olympics, and go down a concrete track or narrow roadway about half way down the mountain. Or, people can hang onto an overhead bar and swing down the hill, as if they were in paratrooper training. And, of course, there's bungi jumping as well.
I eat lunch in the restaurant, cafeteria style food, overlooking the island, and the town and the lake, and when I am done a taxi brings me back to the Four Canoes Hotel. When I walk in, a story is circulating about a guest here—a young girl who decided, with her father, to ride down the luge. The luge can get going fairly fast, I'm told. People ride down the hill with an aggressiveness you would never see on a road, bouncing each other, jostling each other, speeding around embankments. This girl and her father took a corner too fast, tried to pass another rider. They went face-first into the track, their sled heading off into the wild blue. No helmets. No padding of any kind. The woman's face was bruised heavily where it met the concrete, as was her arm and leg.
I asked her if the ride was worth it.
"Oh," she said, "Certainly."
I remember my flight from Auckland to Christchurch, what seems like a pleasant lifetime ago. On that plane ride I read an article in the inflight magazine by a New Zealand author about how some tourists have come to think of Rotorua as really Rotten-rua because of the omnipresent smell of sulfur. This author was debunking that idea, proclaiming Rotorua a fine town, a clean town, an admirable town. It's true that the smell of sulfur is everywhere in Rotorua. That smell comes from the thousand or more vents and mudpits and geysers and thermal springs. But Rotorua is a complicated place.
There is no shyness here about tourism. In the Yellow Pages of the phone book, there are six and one half pages of hotels in Rotorua—from the Aaron Court Motel to the Wylie Court Motor Lodge. In every hotel and shop there are flyers and advertisements for the Skyline Gondola, hovercraft rides, paddleboat rentals, fishing trips, Maori shows in the hotels or at a marae (a traditional Maori home). A hundred ways to spend the tourist dollar. Yet, there is also the feeling that something real and large and important rests just behind the tourist facade. Just as there is a great deal more to Yellowstone National Park than the group of tourists snapping pictures of Old Faithful, or just as there is a great deal more to the history of the American west than can found at the Buffalo Bill Museum, there is more to Rotorua. Perhaps it is because of the tourist sights and events here, the hint of real depths is strong and persistent. Even at McDonalds, which I wander into to get a fast cup of coffee as I stroll to the lake to get a look at the black swans, which paddle the townsite shore, wooden Maori carvings make up the posts and pillars, the entirety of one wall.
For myself, however, Rotorua will be a place to see those things in travel that can be exploited—those things about natural phenomenon or cultural history that can be turned into an attraction or an event. Only today and tomorrow morning here. I planned a short stop, feeling a tourist town would show me only a commercial surface. With more time, I could learn something real in Rotorua. From pipes stuck into the ground here, and from the earth itself, sulfur rich steam escapes into the sky.

Reporting Maori occasions

Most Maori public functions that journalists will have to attend or report will take place on a marae. They will include hui, conferences, tangihanga, karakia, perhaps even weddings and twenty-first birthday parties. In all these instances, visitors are put through a welcoming or "decontamination" ceremony. This varies slightly in detail from district to district and from marae to marae. But the basic structure is the same and journalists should be familiar with it and understand it, so as to feel confident and to know how to respond if they are part of it. In some (but by no means all) instances, it begins with the wero or challenge, carried out by a man wielding a taiaha.

The explanation that follows is given by an authority on Maori ceremonial, Ranginui Walker.

"The wero...is a cultural survival from the times of tribal conflict. Its purpose was to determine whether visitors came with friendly or hostile intent. Accordingly, as the challenging warrior went through his gestures of defiance he never took his eyes off the visitors--if they were hostile one of the fastest runners among them could break ranks to pursue and kill him before he made the safety of the pa. Today the wero is performed in honour of VIPs. The leader who picks up the dart placed before the visitors signifies peace, whereupon the party is lead on to the marae.
"A party of visitors arriving at a marae may not enter unannounced because they are waewae (sacred feet). They bring with them alien tapu and accompanying ancestral spirits which might be inimical to those of the tangata whenua (hosts), so they must assemble at the entrance to await the karanga (call). This is announced by the high-pitched wail of women paying tribute to the dead. As visitors walk on, their eyes are cast down in homage to the dead.
"Once on the marae, the visitors halt with a clear space separating them from the hosts, where both stand for a few minutes in acknowledgement of their mutual bereavements as well as those of other tribes. At a signal from the hosts visitors are free to sit down. The elders sitting on the paepae (formerly the beam on the threshold of the meeting house but nowadays a bench off to one side) rise in turn to give speeches of welcome.
"The mihi (welcome) has a standard format. It begins with a tauparapara (chant in poetic form which identifies the local tribe). Depending on the occasion the tau may be a tribute to the dead or a philosophic exhortation to the living to unite in harmony.
"The second part of the mihi is the eulogy to the dead. Reference is often made to recent bereavements of the hosts, visitors and other tribes. This part of the mihi is embellished by mythological allusions and figures of speech which indicate the oratorical prowess of the speakers. They are poetic, deeply spiritual and very touching.
"The third part of the mihi is introduced by a clear separation between the living and the dead. The dead are farewelled and consigned to the spirit world. The orator then turns to greet the living. Greetings are extended to the canoes, the tribes, the four winds. Individual visitors of note are welcomed by name. At this point it is usual to make reference to the reason why the two groups have come together (kaupapa).
"The mihi concludes with a waiata (song), often a lament but sometimes one that identifies the speaker's tribe and the notable landmarks in his territory. The whaikorero (speech in reply) by a visitor also follows the format of the mihi. At the conclusion of the speeches intimacy between the hosts and visitors is expressed by physical contact through shaking hands and pressing noses (the hongi). The food provided for visitors immediately after the formalities signifies the complete ritual decontamination of waewae tapu. The visitors are then free to mingle with their hosts."

- Michael King
Kawe Korero: A guide to
reporting Maori activities

Rotorua—Day Two

Ok. How do I say this? What a night last night was!
Just before suppertime last night, a small group of us mingled in the foyer of the Four Canoes Hotel. Each of us had reservations for a Maori hangi. None of us had been to one before. We made small talk, paced about the lobby, wondering what this evening would bring.
Then Newt came through the door. Newt, of course, is Maori. He's a good-looking man, just under six feet tall, with a disarming grin and loud, energetic voice. His is the type of energy that transfers itself to others. The nervousness of the hotel company soon changed into a type of summer camp giddiness.
"You all are going to the hangi tonight?" he asked.
There were a few nods and yes’s.
"Choice!" he cried. "Let's go!"
Newt led us to a small bus, drove to one or two more hotels to pick up others, and then we were leaving Rotorua, driving into the steaming hillsides.
"So," he boomed into the bus's microphone, "how many of you are from the United States?"
A few of us either raised our hands, clapped, or said me.
"Choice!" cried Newt.
Every time he said "Choice" there was a bit more laughter on the bus.
"Anyone here from Australia?"
A couple in the back of the bus said they were.
"Choice!" cried Newt. More laughter.
Newt went through a host of likely countries—England, Japan, Korea—then went into his explanation of what would be happening.
"What do you all think of Te Aotearoa so far?" he asked.
People clapped, said they loved it, smiled broadly.
"We don't call this place New Zealand, you know," he said, drawing out the Zealand so it sounded like a buzz saw. "That's Dutch. You're in Maori land now, so it's Te Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud."
A few of us tried to get our mouths to say Te Aotearoa.
"Ok now," he said, "there are some things we need to talk about, to go over, so that none of you fine tourists gets killed tonight and wind up as part of the dinner."
His own laugher was the loudest at this.
"In the days of our tupunas, our ancestors, you see, when one tribe of Maori would go to visit another tribe, they would arrive in a large canoe, what we would call a waka. You need to imagine that we are a tribe of our own, and this bus is our waka."
The people on the bus all quietly said waka.
"Now when a visiting tribe would show up in their wakas, the people they were visiting didn't know if they were coming as friends, or if they were coming to start a war. So there is a type of ceremony at the start of a visit to determine what is what. Have you all selected a rangatira, a chief yet?"
"No," we said.
"Well, you need to do that, you need to select who is going to lead this waka."
Instantly we selected a man named Kelly, the tallest and most strongly built man in the bus.
"Kelly, you going to be the rangatira, the chief?" Newt asked.
"I guess so," Kelly said.
"Choice!" Again, more laugher.
"Now Kelly, when we get there, everyone else must walk behind you. Got that, everyone? No one walks in front of Kelly. You don't want to start a war tonight. Kelly, my man, when we get there, you're going to have to face what we Maori call a wero, a challenge. One of the men at this marae will come out swinging a very large club, called a taiaha. What he wants to do is scare you, ok? He wants to show that if this waka wants a war, they're up to it. When he gets right up to you, he's place a gift at your feet. When he does this, you have two options. You can pick it up, which means this waka is coming in peace, or you can step on it, which means you're here for a war. If you step on it, every one else duck because the next thing you'll see is Kelly's head rolling on the ground. And don't look for me, because I'll be driving this waka back to town at top speed. Kelly, please pick it up, ok?"
"Ok!" said Kelly.
"Choice!" said Newt.
As the bus rolled into the deepening twilight, off the main road onto ever smaller and more narrow side roads, Newt continued to explain what would happen.
"Now here's what's going to happen after the wero. There will be singing and you all will be welcomed onto the marae. When you go into the meetinghouse, only men can sit in the front rows, ok? Sorry ladies, but that's the way it is. Only men in the front row. If this were a traditional marae, you all probably know that you couldn't wear your shoes inside or take pictures, but don't worry about that. After some more singing, you'll be welcomed with a mihi, some formal speech making. Kelly, as rangatira you'll have to stand and say something for your waka about how nice it is to be here. Any of the other men here, if you feel you want to, you can rise and say something as well. But only men can make a speech, ok? Ladies, there's a part of this evening that's for you as well, so don't worry, but I'm not going to tell you what it is yet. I think I'll let that be a surprise. Then after the speech making, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the show. Ok? Choice! Then it's time to eat!"
Newt's voice and enthusiasm had every one of us in the bus believing we really were in some type of modern waka. Briefly I wondered what the women on the waka thought about the roles they were, or were not, going to play tonight, but I marveled at the transformation taking place inside our waka-bus. Each of us knew, somewhere in our heads, that we were simply part of a never-ending series of tourists bused out to the countryside for a night of Maori culture. Yet, each of also knew that we were about to take part in an old custom, a custom with a cultural importance Pakeha could only hope to partially understand. Quietly, I was thrilled.
Newt got us all singing old camp songs as the waka continued its journey. We sang drinking songs, children's songs. Then Newt told us we would have to offer a song, as a group, back to our hosts at one part of the evening. "How about Ol' Suzanna?" he asked. "You all remember that one?"
Ol' Suzanna, I thought? Surely the Pakeha musical world has enough in common for something else? Someone on the bus suggested Amazing Grace instead, and Newt said that would be choice as well. We gave it a trial run through, giggling at the variety of keys we started in.
"Choice!" Newt exclaimed once more. "We're here!"
The bus drove around a final corner and brought us to the shore of a lake, dark yet reflecting the newly risen moon. A few paces back from the beach, the beginning of the marae. There was a sidewalk separating a neat lawn and leading maybe forty yards back to the meeting house itself, which was built in the traditional A-frame style, large wooden and heavily carved beams placed in the ground at each side and soaring to cross in the middle. We stepped off the bus and quickly made sure Kelly was in front of us all. Newt said we were waiting for two other wakas, so for a few minutes we milled around. Newt told us to make sure we didn't actually step on the marae, and we were only too glad to follow his instructions. Finally, the other waka arrived. Newt told the other drivers that we were going to sing Amazing Grace instead of Ol' Suzanna, those drivers told their passengers, and we were ready for the night to begin.
All told, there were maybe fifty of us, all carefully standing behind Kelly, who stood obviously nervous at the end of the sidewalk, at the threshold of the marae. A company of ten Maori men and women, dressed in traditional reed outfits—skirts for the men, a straight-hanging strapless dress for the women—had emerged from the meeting house. Suddenly, there was a loud shout from the Maori and one man began to make his way toward us. In his hands, a long taiaha shaped like a very thin canoe paddle, which he swung broadly, high and low, with great speed and force. This taiaha, I saw, could remove a head from shoulders easily.
The warrior's approach to us was a dance, a ritualistic series of high steps, hops, turns to each side. The taiaha kept whirling around him. His eyes bulged more than I've ever seen eyes widen before, and he often stuck his tongue out in a poukena. The eyes and tongue, I remembered, were gestures designed to distract an opponent. Effective, certainly.
For maybe five minutes the warrior approached us, and even though I'm sure he was nearly blinded by the camera flashes pointed at him in the darkness of the evening, he was an intimidating presence. Kelly, to his credit, stood motionless. Newt stood by his side, ready to instruct.
When the warrior came within about six feet of Kelly, he threw a fern leaf at Kelly's feet, then slowly backed away a few feet. When Newt said it was okay, Kelly bent down and picked up the fern. Not a few of us, I'm sure, were imagining the possibility of his stepping on it, and there was an audible sigh when he held it safely in his hand.
The warrior looked at him, then made a slow sweep of the taiaha low in front of Kelly. The warrior then slapped his thigh and from the step of the meeting house, the other men and women began signing. A wonderful song, lilting and melodious, in the Maori language. We all began to walk to the meetinghouse, happy and feeling welcomed.
Once inside the meetinghouse, arranged like a small auditorium with rows of chairs facing a slightly raised stage at the far end, men filled the front row. We heard a mihi, a welcoming speech, in Maori, which was translated into English by one of the men on the stage. When it came time for us to offer return speeches of welcome, Kelly rose and said how nice it was to be here, how much he was looking forward to the evening. His speech was met with a loud Kia ora, which in English means both hello and an acknowledgement. A gray haired and bearded man dressed in khaki rose, explained that he was from South Africa and would like to give a greeting in the language of his place, Afrikaner, which he then translated himself. He made a point of the fact that New Zealand, Te Aotearoa, and South Africa share the same stars in the sky, perhaps a great deal more as well. His welcome was met with another loud and, it seemed to me, honest Kia ora. I rose and made a short speech, taking the South African's cue, about coming from a place where the stars are very different, yet coming to learn and share, about desiring to bring back with me something real to share in my own community. I'm sure I was guilty of sentimentality, at best. Still, the Kia ora made me feel like I'd said something good.
After the speeches, the Maori men and women sang war songs and sang love songs. The men demonstrated how to use various long and short weapons. There was an intricate choreography of stick throws amongst three kneeling women while the rest sang a happy song. The women untied poi, balls of flax on long and short strings, from their belts, and offered several songs involving swinging poi, the balls striking open palms in perfect unison and in time with the music. Then the Pakeha women were invited onto the stage to give a try at swinging the poi themselves. Pakeha women, we quickly learned, need practice.
The men were invited onto the stage to try a war dance or two, to stick our own tongues out in a poukena, to demonstrate our own need for practice, and the whole room was engaged in laughter, good feeling, a developing community. Each and every one of us in the room were invited onto the stage for a type of receiving line, for a hongi. In a hongi, you shake the hand of who you are meeting, and press noses as well. A moment of intimacy, nicely done.
The singing continued for perhaps an hour, after which we were invited outside to look at the uncovering of the hangi. The hangi is a feast cooked underground. Large rocks are heated in an intense wood fire then placed in a pit. These rocks toast in the earth, and on top of them meats and vegetables are placed in wire cages then covered by leaves or blankets and finally dirt. The juices in the foods mingle with each other and the rocks to create a steaming cooker. There is no seasoning. We had beef and pork and lamb and squash and pumpkin and then more vegetables and seafood. It was all quite good. And when the feast was over, there was a song of farewell. The Maori women running the dining room sang Amazing Grace. Then our coach was waiting for us.
On the way back into town, Newt had us singing every song he could think of. And we sang loudly, badly at times, forgetting a lot of the words, happily, enthusiastically.
Rotorua is the traditional home of the Maori. The feeling of home is the most illusive one for the tourist; yet here, with the people I share the least cultural history, the feeling of home was the strongest it has been throughout this trip.
Leaving the bus, thanking Newt for all his energy, I wandered back into the Four Canoes hotel too filled with the night to head straight off to bed. I decided to have a drink in the hotel bar.
There were two men already at the bar when I found my own stool. One was Polynesian, from Fiji, the other was Maori. They were married to two Pakeha sisters and while the woman talked about those things that sisters talk about, the men had retired to the bar to watch a bit of rugby on the television and to entertain each other with their memories.
"You were at a hangi?" asked the Fijian. "Did the food come in tin foil from the hotel kitchen?"
Tourism, I thought to myself, can create lies as well as access.
"No," I said, then told them the story of the evening.
They were a friendly pair, the Fijian talking a good bit more than the Maori, the type of New Zealanders that welcome you with an open and honest hospitality. Talking to these two men in the bar and explaining where I'd been and what I'd seen, it seemed perfectly natural that I would be invited to their homes when I got to Auckland. I believe the sincerity of their invitation. If I were to call on them, I am sure I would be invited for a meal of beef or lamb or pork, and a great many vegetables. And I would hear the stories of their lives in New Zealand, honestly told.
In Rotorua I've learned several things. I've come up against the one thing all countries share—a desire for the tourist dollar. In Rotorua, I have discovered some of the natural phenomenon that make up a volcanic island, or series of islands, as well as the ability to turn the inspirational beauty of a mountainside into something economically profitable. To turn a hill into a perfect site for a restaurant. To turn a steep hill into the Rotorua Luge. To create an opportunity both to profit, and for accident. Throughout New Zealand, bilingual English and Maori street signs have taught me there is a new language to be learned here—and not often taught at American universities. But before this place for tourists I knew nothing about Maori history, customs, ways of living.
Each of these things has brought me closer, I believe, to New Zealand. Not merely closer to a geophysical landmass, and not merely closer to some sociological set of data, either. In Rotorua, placed as it is near the end of this journey, I'm beginning to see the mix, the fluid motion of place and people and politics, the progress of everything.