Distance Traveled: 135 km (Trip Total: 3213 km)
Today is my shortest riding day yet. To be honest, I’m a little glad for it. My knuckle joints hurt, I have a kink in my neck, and I have the faintest twinge of a hangover headache. Last night I walked down to the street to an English style pub and shared a couple beers with the real locals, sticking around until closing time at the end of the night. By locals, I mean an Aussie, a Kiwi and a Dutchman (James, Rob and Bob) who all live in Taupo. A lot of implants here. We all laugh and share stories, having a grand old time. This morning, however, I want for just a little ibuprofen, and have none. Oh well.
I decide not to linger around Taupo this morning so I have time to scope out my choices in activities once I get to Rotorua. It’s a short ride north, and I don’t bother to stop and take shots of more farmland. Sorry.
The town of Rotorua is relatively busy and quite touristy. Most buildings I see are hotels or motels or restaurants. The weather is nice and sunny, though, and stop by the information center inside a pretty looking, older building.
Inside, I have walls full of brochures to sift through to find an attraction that calls to me. A lot of them advertise various geothermal type activities, and Rotorua seems even more volcano-y than Taupo did. The air has a constant twinge of sulfur, even in the middle of the city.
I decide I want to do a little cultural tourism rather than geographic, and sign up for a tour of a Maori village attraction that I remember passing on my way into town. The Maori, are of course, the native pacific islanders that settled the New Zealand islands many centuries before the Europeans showed up. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn.
But, I’ve got some time to kill and it’s just a little too early to check into my motel. Time to get back on Olga and explore for a bit.
I pretty much ride around Rotorua for the next two hours, navigating by whim. I ride around some slow roads that border the lake and take some more pictures. Yet another majestic lake in a pretty locale. Ho hum.
I end up accidentally driving around some service roads behind random buildings and parking lots, and discover the Museum of Rotorua!
As pretty as the museum is from the outside, I choose not to go in. I want to stay on the bike and explore some more. As it turns out, the service road that runs around back of this museum borders an ultra-caustic looking geothermal lake.
Even just taking a few steps from the road onto the borders of the beach has a very large upswing in temperature. The air becomes incredibly sulfurous and stings my throat and eyes with it’s unexpected and sudden intensity. And look, real sulfur!
Mmmm-mmmm. Good stuff. Let’s get the hell outta here, while I still have one or two unburned olfactory nerves remaining.
After puttering about town for a while, I take the roads out of the city center and do a clockwise loop around the lake, taking in the scenery. It’s relaxing, and a great way to kill a little time before the Maori thing. Olga is better behaved out on the highway than in the city. With the stop and go driving, she decides to stick in neutral half the time instead of first or second gear, and I kick angrily at the shifter with my left boot in frustration. Once I’m up to speed, neutral is just a quickly fading bad memory.
Soon enough, the loop is complete. I stop for lunch, eat a delicious fish sandwich, and get settled in at the motel. A tour bus for the Maori village arrives to pick me up long after, and I’m greeted by a gregarious Maori driver named bill, who hands me my ticket. I am surprised at the very creative spelling they took with my last name.
On the way to the village Bill teaches us some Maori words and explains that we will see a ritual welcoming dance when we arrive. As part of this, the tour bus must select a male to serve as their “Chief”. No one is volunteering, so I go ahead and raise my hand. Bill says. “I knew it would be you, brother!”
I’m supposed to stand stoically with the “chiefs” of the other buses as the warriors to an intimidating battle dance to determine if we are friend or foe. After that, one of us will be selected to receive the peace token presented to us, and we will all greet the Maori chief by shaking hands, touching noses twice, and saying the Maori greeting “Kia Ora”. Kia Ora is kind of like Aloha in that it is a catchall phrase meaning “hello”, “goodbye”, and “be well”. By the end of this tour we are all experts at saying that phrase.
I hand my camera to a nice woman named Anastasia who serves as my photographer since the chiefs can’t be snapping pictures while they’re receiving the greeting.
There are people playing tribal instruments in the background while a trio of warriors emerge one by one and do a battle performance. They bare their tongues, bulge out their eyes and move with a rapid, frenetic, yet somehow very graceful movement, enabled by excellent balance and footwork.
The South African chief from another bus is chosen to accept the peace offering, and after I touch noses with the Maori chief the ceremony is over and we’re greeted in English and welcomed into village.
The small collection of open huts sit in a dense thicket of forest, and we are covered by a green canopy of leaves overhead. The people are broken up into groups to rotate about different stations where Maori demonstrate their ancients crafts and traditions. But I am a chief, so first I must lead the other men of my tour bus in the Haka, or war dance.
The Haka would be performed by warriors right before a battle to intimidate their opponents and also psych up the Maori for the imminent mortal combat. It’s not super super complicated, but it’s a lot to take in all at once, and we are not quite the most coordinated group of warriors on this planet.
We’re eventually released to cycle around the stations with the others. At one of them, they teach us a simple stick game, where the objective is to listen to commands, either Left or Right in Maori, and then release your stick and grab the one to the appropriate size before it falls. I volunteer to play.
It starts with 4 of us and eventually it’s just me and another man. I eventually win when he runs the wrong direction. ‘Murica!
At another station, they have some sticks laid out in a slender grid that they used to train for footwork and balance. I try to wait it out and give other people a chance to volunteer and participate, but none are forthcoming. Therefore, I must step forward as chief and represent my people. Eventually a young Russian man also steps forward, and we have ourselves a little Cold War battle of agility! Its a race back and forth, and you can’t touch the sticks. We start with stepping every other foot, and end with hopping rabbit style for the final heat.
It was close, but freedom prevails! ‘MURICA!!!
At the next station I can finally reclaim my camera from Anastasia, who has rooting me on through each interactive activity. A Maori explains the method and significance of the wood carving they do. With traditional tools… carving the entrance to a hut could take years.
The sweeping arms that run along the edge of the roof are the arms of the ancestors. Each arm ends with three fingers, symbolizing the three stages of life: birth, life, and death.
Halfway through the next station, they blow the conch shell which is my signal as chief to go assemble with the other two so we can lead our tribes to the next area. It’s time to learn about cooking!
Part of the tour is a feast of food cooked in underground hot-stone ovens. The food is baked above hot stones in a pit covered with wet sacks and dirt to seal in the steam. The food looks pretty darn good as it gets removed.
The food smells savory and earthy. After we all ooooh and ahhh at the display, we are shuffled into another meeting hall type building where we get some more history lessons and are treated to a lot of traditional dancing and singing. The lighting was poor so I barely have any good shots, but it was actually quite impressive.
After a bit of dancing and performance, a man and a woman sing a very beautiful duet. The singing is accompanied by excellent strumming on an instrument which the colonists introduced to the islands: The Hi-Ta (Guitar). They explain ahead of time that the music is a Romeo and Juliet love song where two lovers from warring tribes fight to overcome the odds and finally earn their right to be together. Unlike Shakespeare, they don’t die at the end. Yay!
I took some video to capture the audio, though my camera’s auto exposure got very confused by the sunlight outside and a lot of it is incredibly dim. Pretty music though, I enjoyed it.
The meeting hall ends with a little DVD presentation that describes the history of the Maori people and the rather tumultuous times that they went through as warring tribes, and much more tumultuous times once the Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Needless to say, there was a lot of bloodshed for a long time, but the eventual signing of a treaty led to peace. Now, the Maori have guaranteed seats in the parliament and a voice in their own governance. Pretty much every sign I see in English also has Maori translation to accompany it. Bill, our bus driver, says that it’s only in the last 50 years, when the Maori embraced education that they’ve become a more powerful force for taking control of their lives and protecting their heritage.
Most encounters of colonists with native people haven’t had an ending like this. It makes me think about all that happened across America with the Native Americans, and how they must feel about it. Here in the US, the Cherokee do not have a seat reserved for them in the senate.
The DVD ends by asking us to think of our ancestors and the people that came before us. I do.
When the lights come back up, us chiefs lead the group to the dining area where we all get seated at tables for a buffet style “hangi”, or feast. Before we eat I run over to Anastasia’s table and talk for as long as I can. I thought she was Russian at first with her accent, but she’s actually ethnic Greek living in Australia.
Anastasia is a joy. I learn that her son is an aerospace engineer like me. He worked at Rolls-Royce for a while and is now at a small startup whose name I can’t remember, but it had the word “aerospace” in it.
I sit down at my table between a stern German couple and a friendly Irish couple (Edna and David). The Irish and I hit it off pretty quick and talk for the entire meal. They’re doing a couple weeks of vacation down here as well, only they’re traveling mostly by rail, which is pretty cool. They should be able to see all the sights without worrying about keeping eyes on the road.
While other people consider getting dessert, I wander around the small gift shop that’s right next to my table. On the bottom shelf of a display case I see a photo album for sale. The covers are made of wood, and in the center is the engraved shape of a butterfly. It reminds me of my dream.
When I get home, I’ll select my favorite photos and get them printed to put in this album. This trip has been filled with so many great moments, big and small, that I want to remember.
As I sit here this morning, drinking my coffee and finishing this post, I think about butterflies. They’re remarkable creatures. They can see a much wider range of light than we can. Some species migrate thousands upon thousands of miles, and their wings are actually made up of thousands of tiny scales. What I think is most remarkable about them though is how their life-cycle works, and how they turn into such beautiful delicate creatures from a very different beginning.
They hatch from their eggs and begin life as larva. Caterpillars that slowly squirm and inch their way around the world, bound to the earth. I wonder if the caterpillar has any notion of the sort of life it is destined for, not as a worm, but as a creature of flight. Perhaps it knows that it has a destiny from that start, or perhaps it is blind to it. Perhaps it does not know, save for the overwhelming urge one day, called forward by forces of nature which it cannot explain, to find a branch, hang upside down and build itself a chrysalis. After enough time has passed inside the protective walls of its pod, the butterfly emerges, a completely different creature, set to embark on an entirely different style of existence.
I can’t help but think about how their life is a metaphor for our own life. We start as children, crawling around this strange new world, completely unaware of the person we will grow to become. We age, we mature, and we become adults. We build the protective walls of our daily existence. Comfortable and safe, we live in a narrow world of daily routines, familiar faces, and familiar activities. But we are never meant to to remain in our chrysalises forever. We’re meant to find our wings as well. When we do find them, we suddenly discover, with the wonder of a child, just how vast and beautiful life can be when we fly.
I think that not everyone finds their wings. Some never even make it past the caterpillar stage. Children in adult’s bodies, they are not ready to accept responsibility for their lives and their duties. Others grow just fine into responsible adults, but they live life within their protective walls. They risk little, and lose little. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt: They live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. Perhaps it’s not a bad existence, but it’s not the life we are meant to have. We are meant to be butterflies. We are meant to venture out and explore our world. Not only the exterior world of physical wonders, but our interior world as well. I think this trip has helped me do both.
If my friend Farrah is reading this she would probably say something like “Geo! Stop being so profound!” Sorry Farrah, but that’s just how it’s gonna be.
To close the metaphor: I want to be a butterfly. I want to emerge from my cocoon, step out into the edge of my branch and dry my wings in the warming springtime sunlight. I want to look out into a world filled with color, beauty, and life. And when I’m ready, and the breeze is right, I will lift off of the branch, and I will finally learn to fly.