30 June 2010:
The next morning, after an early breakfast at the hotel, we took a three hour bus ride south from Auckland to Rotorua. The scenery here is incredible. It is by far the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The diversity of the plants and countryside amazes me. One moment you will be passing through the rolling hills of florescent green farmland, reminiscent of the Hobbits’ shire in Lord of the Rings, and the next plunge into a dense forest, complete with moss and giant prehistoric-looking ferns, similar to palm trees. I did not know it was possible to see trees that resemble firs, ferns/palms, shrubbery, gorse, tall oaks, and cypress along a single stretch of roadway. Seconds later, you are back to hillsides speckled with sheep. Driving up into the winding hills, you can see down into the valleys, where mist hangs low, hugging the hills like a mystical blanket. No wonder the New Zealand word for Maori is "Aotearoa" - land of the long white cloud.
Fun fact: There are more sheep in New Zealand than people, approx. 10 sheep to every one person.
We arrived in Rotorua at KiwiPaka, a backpackers hostel, set up like a complex of two story cottages, with a hot pool, kitchen/café, and bar/lounge in the center. Rotorua smells strongly of sulfur due to the geothermal activity throughout the area. You will see steam billowing out of a hole by the roadside, clouds of smoke near the river beds, and hundreds of naturally heated hot pools. A huge and gorgeous lake lies at the center of Rotorua, a favorite of tourists, as it is home to many extreme sports and an extremely strong Maori population. You cannot swim in the lake, however, because it is highly acidic.
Later that afternoon, we assembled in the lodge to learn the Haka, the traditional war dance performed by the Maori people before battle, in welcome, in celebration, or lament, such as a funeral. There are many different Hakas throughout New Zealand, but we learned “Kamate,” which is performed by the All Blacks rugby team before their matches. We learned the significance of the dance, as well as some of the movements, donned traditional outfits and applied face paint, like the Maoris’ intricate tattoos. Traditionally only men are meant to do the Haka, but we all participated, struggling to make the faces/imitate even a small fraction of the emotion and fury with which you are meant to perform this compelling war dance.
1 July 2010:
The next day, we went to Rotorua Boys High School to give back to the community. The school is 65% Maori and striving to improve this portion of their students’ academic achievement, which has been consistently lower than some of the Pakeha boys (New Zealanders of European decent). The boys conducted the traditional welcoming ceremony for us (speeches in Maori) and performed the Haka. It is amazing how intimidating it can be. One by one, we sat down with some of the Maori boys to conduct a survey and ask them about their classes, their teachers, and their goals. I was inspired by the school’s efforts to try and strengthen relationships between teachers and students, after all, one amazing teacher can make all the difference. It was a bit hard to talk to a few of the students, seeing as they are 13-year-old boys (we all know middle school as awkward) who have never met an American, let alone an American girl.
During the afternoon, I wandered into town with two girls who were going to one of the Wellington schools, and found a farmers market. Highlights: a mussel fritter cart, where they fry up gooey mussel batter like a pancake and put it on toast, and golden kiwis, a bit more tart than the fuzzy ones at home, but with an apple-like skin that you can eat without the furry mess!
That night we went to a recreated Maori village for performances and a traditional Hangi feast. Before dinner, we explored the Maori village, modeled after the way the tribe lived centuries ago. The buffet dinner was similar to that of a Hawaiian luau, except the food that is buried underground, is heated and cooked by the natural hot springs! I swear, the famous kumara (sweet potato) tastes like a classic cake doughnnut. There was a meringue/kiwi pudding-type thing for desert (kind of a strange consistency).