Monday, May 7, 2018

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time I fell in love with a handsome, young, blue-eyed man named Charlie. An imposing Yugoslavian once described him to me as "the nicest guy in Bethesda" and I was inclined to believe him. Lucky for me, he fell in love with me too. Twelve years have gone by since then and that young man and I have accomplished more than I could have ever imagined. We have traveled to numerous countries together, eaten (and cooked) some of the best food on the planet, laughed, cried, declined to suffer fools gladly, and shared our life experiences with many other earthlings, you readers included. Five years ago we did what felt natural and good and got married. To commemorate that event this year, we decided to take a little overnight trip to Nye Beach in Newport, Oregon. Here's the story of our brief adventure:

For those not in the loop, we moved to Ashland, Oregon in September of last year. To give you an idea of our geographical position, we're so far south in the state that we're only about 30 minutes from California. Thus, getting to Newport is about a five-hour affair. We rose with the sun, which obnoxiously shows its face around 6:00 AM this time of year. But it was nice to lounge around, get caffeinated, and have breakfast without feeling rushed to get out the door. We made salami and Swiss sandwiches for the road and loaded them into a grocery bag with beverages and a huge bag of salt and pepper flavored Kettle Chips. These chips have a sentimental significance to us because we had them on our first beach trip together at the beginning of our relationship, to Long Beach, Washington. Since then these chips have made an appearance on many a romantic road trip. Charlie even brought them all the way to Spain once!

Our first stop would be just twenty minutes from home at Cigar Cave in Medford, one of the only two reputable cigar stores in the Rogue Valley, both of which happen to be owned by the same person. There Charlie picked up a few goodies with which to while away the hours, including an aptly selected Padrón Family Reserve 50 Years anniversary cigar. Tobacco in hand, we hit the road for real.

Our second stop was a place I had been dying to revisit since my childhood: Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. My parents, brother, and I visited it when we were just kids and we have always reminisced about it fondly. I remembered ostriches coming right up to our car and pecking at the window, trying to get at the plastic straw sticking out of one of my parents' drink containers. My dad remembers rolling down the window at one point and hearing a voice come over a loud speaker commanding him to roll it back up. I half expected to be disappointed by this excursion, just because childhood memories have a way of aggrandizing themselves in our consciousness. Nevertheless, I was excited to go just for the prospect of seeing some neat animals.

When we got there, the place seemed much larger, greener, and better equipped than I remembered. In addition to the drive-through safari feature, it now boasts the second largest captive cheetah breeding program in the world and offers "Enrichment Encounters" where you can get up close and personal with cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, and bears. And where they once forbade rolling down one's window, we now had the option to buy feed cups with which to coax deer, emus, and other more docile animals. It was buzzing with business due to some "Discovery Day" event happening. We were fortunate that we didn't have to wait long though, and quickly paid our admission and entered the park.

The first creatures we saw were two magnificent giraffes eating leaves off of some tall trees very near the road. Just meters from them stood two large turkeys gobbling away. It was an odd juxtaposition. Having seen YouTube videos of people provoking turkeys to gobble by imitating them, I gave it a try. It proved ineffective and just reminded Charlie of what a dork he married.

 Handsome creature

The park was organized by continent, and we had begun in Africa, which meant we got to see many more exotic creatures. Three big handsome male lions and a sleek lioness lounged in the grass (behind a protective fence, of course, because humans are stupid). Gigantic grey elephants roamed around flapping their big ears and swinging their trunks lackadaisically. Zebras, water buffalo and wildebeests grazed or snoozed, clearly at ease with the apex predators behind bars. The ankole-watusi defied physics with their impossibly long horns. A hippo's snout and tiny ears betrayed its location in a murky pond.

 Greeting the visitors

In the Americas, imposing dark brown, serene-faced buffalo shed their winter coats. Tall elk approached car windows anticipating that visitors might want to share from their feed cups. Two rotund brown bears had curled into balls and were napping in the long grass, looking too cuddly to be as dangerous as they are. Hundreds of Canada geese mixed in with animals of all continents, some leading around lines of darling goslings, still puffy with down.

I was disappointed that we didn't see any rhinoceros, maned wolves, or tamarins, but that's to be expected when animals have more than 400 acres to go where they please. All in all, it was a fascinating experience and I was very happy to have done it.

Once we exited the safari, we pulled into a parking lot and had a first round of sandwiches and Kettle Chips and took the opportunity to stretch. Then we were back in the car and on the road for another few hours. Fortunately, I had carefully crafted a post-punk/new wave music playlist for us to jam out to on the way.

Some 50 miles from Newport we found ourselves in need of a pee and a stretch, but were in the middle of nowhere. We happened upon a tiny dark wood-paneled general store outside of Blodgett called the Burnt Woods Store. It seemed like it was trying to look like a relic of the Old West. A single decrepit gas pump stood out front and I wondered how well it worked. Inside the store was dark and dusty and looked like half of it was in use as the owners garage/general storage area. The fellow behind the counter seemed normal enough. He wore a dingy t-shirt, jeans, glasses, and was munching on a bag of chips, probably from his own stock, and watching The Office on a small TV. Charlie and I took turns braving a dark, creepy hallway to use the establishment's single, foul-smelling restroom. Once sat on the toilet, the user was eye level with a small sign that said that this was not a public restroom, they had bills to pay and would the user kindly support the establishment by buying something. Fortunately for us, we forgot our toothbrushes, so Charlie bought a couple of those, a small tube of toothpaste, and a bag of fragrant gummy worms, just for good measure. On our way out the door we were met by a large yellow labrador sprawled out in the shade. I made stupid baby voices at her, and she raised her sleepy head to examine me. After a quick sniff of approval, she curled her paws up to fully present her belly for a rub. Once back in the car, we confirmed to one another that the place did indeed have a weird vibe and then continued on our journey toward the beach.

As we neared Newport the sea rose far above the continental horizon like an infinitely wide purple plateau. Within a few turns we had arrived at our destination: the Sylvia Beach Hotel, housed in the historic New Cliff House above Nye Beach. Charlie's parents had introduced us to this literary themed hotel some years before and we immediately fell in love with it. Its rooms are what I call "lightly" themed for different authors; that is, they don't necessarily go all out with stylistic decor to match an author's magnum opus, but rather add subtle classy touches to the room for an interesting if not necessarily immersive experience. For example, on our first visit we stayed in the Shakespeare room, which was decorated in dark reds and dark ornately carved woods, with props from different plays hanging tastefully here and there. This time we stayed in the Tolkien room and its topical decor mainly consisted of a map of Middle Earth on the wall and several quotes from different works, either painted or hung around the room. As far as I can tell, each room has a collection of its author's books and a writing desk and chair. The hotel has no TVs or WiFi, but on the third floor is a cozy library with lots of comfortable armchairs. Visitors may borrow from it at their leisure and spend as long as they want there. The hotel also has a charming golden tortoiseshell cat named Shelley, who cuddled in bed with us during our first visit there. As we checked in we informed the concierge that if Shelley happened to be looking for a place to sleep that night, she was welcome to join us in our room.

It was late afternoon so we dropped our things in the room, had another quick round of sandwiches and Kettle Chips, and headed out to the beach. It was very windy but warm, and many people flew kites. We ended up walking some four miles on the beach that day alone, leisurely strolling up and down the shoreline. The sand was firm and warm and in places littered with the corpses of purple trilobite-like mole crabs and half-eaten Dungeness crabs. The seagulls must have had a feast.

The seabirds were here.

Of course, Charlie took the opportunity to smoke the special cigar he had just bought and from that experience I present to you the latest episode of Smoking in the Park! 

We made our way back up into civilization and looked around for a place to have dinner. It was Monday, so a lot of places were closed, as is customary in the industry. We were starting feeling resigned to our fates of eating greasy fish and chips at an Irish pub when we happened upon a small, casual Italian restaurant with an intriguing menu. We decided that it looked like our best bet and headed back to the hotel to get changed. As we entered the hotel's patio, we found Shelley the cat excitedly pursuing some small birds that must have had a nest nearby. They did not fly far to flee her and instead perched atop the building and chirped angrily in her direction. Shelley deigned to let me give her a moment of affection and then resumed her pursuit.

Charlie and I got halfway gussied up and then set out for dinner. The restaurant was called Sorella. The decor was unassuming but clean and pleasant, and there were few people inside. We nestled into a corner booth and began to peruse the menu. As an appetizer we shared an excellent burrata served with whole roasted marinated tomato, basil, roasted tomato oil, spiced vinegar, and grilled ciabatta. I had never had it before and found it delectable. For our mains Charlie had one of their pizzas topped with pork belly, fingerling potatoes, English peas, ricotta cream, and ricotta salata. It doesn't sound like it should work, but was surprisingly tasty. I went with the old trusty bucatini carbonara served with pork belly confit, garlic, pangrattato, egg yolk, and pecorino. I ate every last bite.

The service was excellent and when our server came to inquire as to whether we wanted dessert, we quizzed her about the different ingredients and preparation methods of our dishes. It was then that we found out that everything was handmade in-house! The quality and variety of dishes were impressive. We then opted for a black coffee (Charlie) and a shared scoop of buttermilk vanilla gelato served atop some kind of lemony crumble. It was honestly the best gelato I have ever had. If you ever find yourself in Nye Beach, this restaurant is definitely worth a visit.

After dinner we ambled with our full bellies down to the beach to witness the colorful sunset that was quickly approaching. Charlie indulged in another cigar as we paced along the shining sand and watched the sun melt into the horizon. We stayed out until we could see the pulsing of the beacon atop the faraway Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Thousands of unnerving sand fleas were beginning to emerge and ricochet against our lower legs and we worried it would become too dark to safely tread along the unfamiliar terrain, so we headed back to the hotel.

Goodnight, Earth.

Despite the relative quiet and comfort of our room, we both slept fitfully and rose with the sun. We've never been good at sleeping away from the comfort of our own deluxe bed. We dressed and packed and then headed down to the hotel's dining room. On the way we found Shelley the cat enjoying her bowl of cat food atop a bookshelf in the lobby. We gave her a few scratches and let her be. In the dining room we were joined at the table by a friendly German man named Jürgen. As we dined, he told us that he and his wife were driving from Seattle to San Francisco and then back up to Vancouver, Canada, stopping periodically to take in the sights. We strongly recommended he take a small detour to see Crater Lake since it is easily one of the most impressive natural landmarks in Oregon. We excused ourselves after taking in as much coffee and sad scrambled eggs as we cared to, and headed back up to our room. On the way, I found Shelley sitting on the stairs and so sat next to her and tried to pull her onto my lap. She resisted, but allowed me to pet her. The attention must have worked up her appetite because she quickly returned to her food bowl.

We had plans that morning to visit the Hatfield Marine Science Center, a part of Oregon State University. A friend had told me that they had lots of cool creatures there and a pacific octopus exhibit with a baby octopus! We were extremely excited to see these wonderful things, but as we pulled into the parking lot Charlie noticed a sign that said it was closed that day. I swore I had checked the hours before, but they have different hours for different seasons and I must have looked at the wrong one. At any rate, we were incredibly disappointed. Taking advantage of our early start, we hit a drive-thru coffee stand and made our way to the highway.

A little after noon, we found ourselves hungry and nearing Eugene, a city that neither of us had visited before. I told Charlie to google a taquería where we could stop for lunch and he pulled up the promisingly named Taquería Mi Tierra, just a short distance from the interstate. We found the place and had to circle the block a couple of times to find parking, making note of the interesting neighborhood in which we had found ourselves. There were enough unsavory and generally unhinged characters walking around that I wondered aloud whether our car would be there when we returned. Even so, we decided to brave it and were glad we did. As soon as we entered the restaurant we knew we had come to the right place. The aroma of carne asada and fried masa hit us squarely in the olfactory organs. Mexican music and Spanish conversation floated in the air. The place was nearly full and the clientele all appeared to be Latino blue collar workers. We approached the counter and a friendly woman took our order in Spanish from behind the two huge horchata jars perched there. We each ordered four tacos filled with carne asada, carnitas, chicharrón, and lengua, and our total was only around $12.00. Within minutes a friendly man with a huge black mustache brought out our food, we collected a few accessories at the salsa bar, and happily ate one of the best Mexican meals of our lives.

Bellies happy, we found our way back to the car, which had not been stolen, and continued our journey toward Ashland. About an hour from home we needed to pee, so we stopped at the first place that presented itself. Just outside of Wolf Creek was the Covered Bridge Country Store & Antiques (scroll through the photos on the Facebook page). Further down the lot was the Applegate Trail Interpretive Center and Museum, which appeared to be closed. From the road, the country store looked like another quaint Old West-style general store occupying the site of what was once a gas station or truck stop. As we pulled into the parking area where we could get a closer look, it began to resemble more of a backwoods dive bar. We went inside, which was very dimly lit, and were greeted by a quiet but friendly large bearded mountain man character. We grabbed a few snacks and had a quick look at the crowded antiques displays. We felt out of our element, but it wasn't creepy in the way one would expect. When we inquired about restrooms, he directed us to the decrepit shell of a gas station across the parking lot. This was where it got creepy. The building was completely run down and appeared to be in disuse except for the occasional tourist. There was no way to lock the women's restroom door. It was dirty and lacked any toilet paper, towels, or soap. One wall bore a fat magenta smudge of lipstick that looked like it had been applied by smooshing someone's face into it. I took care of business as quickly as possible and exited, running into Charlie in the corridor. He didn't look nearly as unnerved as I felt.

Despite our questionable choice of pit stops, we made it home in one piece and spent the rest of the evening eating junk food and watching Netflix. Not a bad end to a really special anniversary trip!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sun, Smoke, and Stars

We dilly-dallied in the morning and made it back over to Melissa's a little before midday. Mem wanted to go to the beach, so Mel led us to the sandy shores of Mount Maunganui. She said we could climb the thing but we opted for hell no. Instead, we climbed the smaller Moturiki Island, which used to house a water park. Now it is just trees, dirt, and boulders cascading into the sea. From there we could see down both sides of the beach. We watched surfers ride the big waves and wipe out repeatedly. Many people swam or paddle boarded. Many more braved the thin ozone and lay out on the beach with nothing between them and the radiation of space. Mel had brought a picnic blanket, so we spread it out and joined the other sunbathers for longer than was prudent. Once we began to pinken, we took our leave of the sandy paradise.

People enjoy the beach at Mount Maunganui

Looking southeast

Still cyan waters at the foot of Maunganui

A sailboat approaches Motuotau Island

BFFs for life!

Mount Maunganui


Next we decided to go have lunch. We parked near the Mount Maunganui shops and walked to a place called Gusto. There we each had large, filling plates of delicious this and that, for a reasonable price (for once). Sated, we wandered from shop to shop, just browsing, and picking up a couple of souvenirs. Next we went to the grocery store and got a few supplies for dinner.

We headed back to Mel's place where she and Anton had planned to cook us a mutton roast for dinner. We lazed around for a bit, watched some funny YouTube videos, and eventually dined on Anton's succulent mutton roast, root vegetables, and a hearty gravy. Afterward we felt pooped, so we headed back to the B&B for an early evening in.

The following morning, our last full day in New Zealand, we rose early and checked out of our B&B by eight, bidding adieu to our kind hostess with whom we'd barely had any time to socialize. We loaded up the car and drove back to the strip where we had shopped the day before in search of Gusto, where we had dined. We found it and each had a delicious bacon eggs Benedict with the kind of deep orange-yolked eggs you can't buy in stores in the US. It was perfect.

Next we went to Melissa's where we interrupted her yoga routine for the second time in three days. She welcomed us in for a bit and then we ventured out to shoot the actual smoking footage of Smoking the in Park. After extensive coaxing, Mel harnessed up her dog Dora and we set out. The cat, Zoe, saw us going for a walk and decided to join. Normally she and Dora fought like, well, cats and dogs, but on their walk they were friends. Zoe traipsed along at her own pace, meowing occasionally.

Mel leads the herd

Zoe inspects the tree

We got to the park around the corner from Mel's house, a large rugby pitch, and scoped out a place to shoot. Being novice cigar smokers, none of us really knew what we were doing, but I was able to competently cut and light the thing. We enjoyed it quite a bit, which surprised me since I generally don't like Cubans (too spicy). Once the cigar had run its course, which was fast due to its size and dryness, we went back to the house.

There we showed Mel the pictures of our travels thus far and she showed us some of hers from the South Island. It looked beautiful and we would have to return again someday in order to give it the attention it deserved. The two weeks we spent exploring the North Island was not even sufficient for that task.

One of my favorite people on the planet

Soon it was time for us to hit the road back to Auckland where we would stay in Epsom again with Rosie and John. The drive took about three hours and we were relieved to make it after sitting in a fair amount of rush hour traffic for the last few miles of the journey. Auckland traffic was a much different experience now that I could competently drive on the left. We unpacked the car and then headed around the corner for some "cheap" yakisoba and teriyaki.

We went back to the house and huddled up on a twin bed to watch What We Do In the Shadows, which I had been dying to show Mem. I had a feeling she would enjoy it since she liked Boy so much. When the movie ended it was still early and we began to sift through our travel receipts and records. In doing so, I stumbled upon the rain check we had received from Stardome Observatory when we first arrived. The sky was clear tonight so I called to inquire about whether we could cash them in for a telescope viewing that night. We could, and so we did.

Cornwall Park was dark when we arrived and so busy that it was hard to find parking. Once we succeeded at that, we wandered into the observatory and found the courtyard where the telescopes were set up. We spent a good hour going from telescope to telescope, listening to explanations from the apt volunteers who manned them. We were able to spot the southern cross, view and photograph the Orion Nebula, and Mem even saw a shooting star through the telescope while looking at the Jewel Box star cluster. It was the perfect bookend to what had been a wonderful trip.

The Orion nebula

Monday, February 20, 2017

From Te Puia to Tauranga

For our final morning in Rotorua, Tina had invited us to the Te Puia museum and geothermal park to meet one of her fellow Maori weavers, Edna Pahewa. We met up with Tina at the lakefront downtown and she escorted us there herself. We had only really heard vague mention of Te Puia and hadn't investigated it so we had no idea what to expect. When we arrived, the staff clearly recognized Tina and we were immediately escorted behind the scenes to the weaving school classrooms. There we met Edna, the head weaver, who instructed Tina to take us to the ticketing office for our day passes. Tina then led us around the outdoor area, which turned out to be an impressive thermal park full of mud pots, geysers, and colorful steaming pools. She pointed out plants and birdsong along the way, and gave us some history about the site.

Mud pots

Steaming mineral terraces

Tourists cook their butts on the hot stone.

Mud volcano

Tina and I enjoy the view.

After the tour, Edna met us in the cafeteria and treated us to lunch there. Then we were taken to the woodcarving school where young men worked on large-scale carving projects. Afterward, we went back into the weaving school where we looked at several completed garments and in-progress projects. Edna even showed us a few of her techniques as she worked.

Unfinished carvings at the carving school

A flax woven garment and mat at the weaving school

A feathered garment

Enda, me, Mem, and Tina at the weaving school

Now it was time for the cultural show, similar to what we had seen at the Tamaki Maori Village the evening before. Again we gathered with a large crowd of visitors and one man, Dan from California, was appointed chief to act on our behalf in the welcoming ceremony. Once inside the marae (longhouse), the villagers performed a series of songs and demonstrations, a couple of which we had seen the night before, and a couple new ones. I was particularly impressed at the martial arts demonstration.

The chief comes out to intimidate/greet us

Singing the famous love song "Pokarekare Ana"

Mem snuggles up to a fierce warrior.

Now it was time for us to part ways. We expressed our utmost gratitude for this special experience and took a few pictures together. Then Tina drove us back to our car at the lakefront and we said our warm goodbyes.

We got into our silver Cruze and programmed our next stop into the GPS: Tauranga. My best friend since kindergarten, Melissa, had just moved there with her Kiwi husband and we were going to spend some time with them. Once again the road was winding and it rained while crazy drivers rode my ass the whole way, but we arrived in one piece. We stopped by Melissa's in Mount Maunganui to say hi and have a chat, and then went to check in at our AirBnB due west across the water. We met our hostess Jo and her flatmate, received a tour of the dwelling, dumped our suitcases, and went back to Mel's.

Warm reunion

Being goofs

Forever friends

Forever dorks

Mel, her husband Anton, Mem and I piled into the Cruze and headed into the little strip of shops at the foot of Mount Maunganui. First we went into a small pub and had beers and potato wedges as an appetizer. Next we hopped to another nearby pub for more beers and a pizza. Afterward, we headed back to their place for more beers and to watch Melissa and Anton's wedding video. I was designated driver, of course. Our visit lasted late into the evening during which copious beer was drunk and much laughter and reminiscing was had. We returned to our B&B around midnight and slept hard.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Learning about the Maori

Judy served us another nice, full hot breakfast and then we ventured out, not caring what the weather might or might not do. It had rained on and off all night and was sprinkling in the morning. The clouds had thinned, however, so we took our chances with the Skyline gondola and luge ride. The gondola was only about a five-minute drive from Judy's house.

We bought our tickets, hopped in a gondola car and ascended the steep slope to the top. There we walked around the gift shop and café to see what they had to offer. Mem had a coffee while we walked the grounds and appreciated the view. It had finally cleared enough that we could see the distant hills over Lake Rotorua. Our timing couldn't have been better.

Swamphen sighting!

Having fun

Rotorua below

Mem is happy.

Presiding over the city

Before getting on the luge to ride down the hill, we had to put on helmets. This was the low point of the day because the different colored helmets (signifying different sizes) were all thrown into a couple of dumpster type bins. Most of them were wet from rain, sweat, and God-knows-what, and they smelled awful. It was a combination of gym bag and wet dog and I can't say we were particularly keen on putting one of these on our heads. We bit the bullet and did it anyway. I vowed to rewash my hair when I got home.

The luge ride was longer than I expected and an exciting way to travel back down the hill. Our little carts zipped down a two scooter-wide road and we had to break fairly hard to keep from zooming off the track at the sharp curves. At the bottom, we put our scooters onto a conveyor belt which then attached them to a chairlift seat designed to transport both people and carts back up to the top. We took our ride too, dangling our feet into the open air, and enjoying the view. At the top, we road the gondola back down to the carpark.

Even on a cloudy day it's too bright for me.

Chairlift feet

It was still early, so we drove out to the Buried Village of Te Wairoa, an archeological site à la Pompeii. It featured exhibits of volcanic mud-buried colonial homes and their contents spread over a large picturesque site. The cicadas were louder here than I had ever heard them, drowning out conversation and making me wish I had earplugs. The visit route had a scenic trail option that also took us to the beautiful Wairere Falls. Once again the signs lied saying that it would take 20 minutes, failing to mention that those 20 minutes would be spent traveling vertically up and down stairs and climbing over slippery rocks along precarious cliffs. If you stumbled off the edge, no one would ever find you in the dense greenery. It was well worth the effort though. The waterfall was powerful and its mist gave the appearance of rain all around us. The weather had more than held and it was now quite warm, so the spray was a welcome respite from the sticky air.

The kitchen

Reenacting the event (aka, being an ass)


Descending backwards so I don't die

Loud cicada!

This trail was a serious affair.

After climbing back out of the sloping trail, we rehydrated at the cafe and had a snack. We headed back toward Rotorua stopping at Lake Tarawera where several people bathed in the water and unperturbed ducks floated by them. I was still overheated from the waterfall climb, so I waded out up to my knees. Had we brought our bathing suits, I might have gone for a swim in the clear, refreshing water. After I dried off my feet, we hopped back in the car and went back to Judy's for a rest until our Tamaki Maori Village excursion. When we arrived, there was an unfamiliar car in the driveway. Judy came out to the balcony to greet us, carrying her toddler granddaughter in her arms. The little one immediately blew us kisses and waved from the balcony. We were instantly charmed.

Two species of swimmers share Lake Tarawera

A couple hours later a red van pulled up to the end of the driveway to take us to our Tamaki Maori Village experience. Our driver made a few more stops and then dropped us at the office where another larger bus would chauffeur us out to the village itself, some 20 minutes out of town. I was a little apprehensive about this activity because, for complex reasons, I think it's problematic to go ogle another culture for mainly entertainment purposes. However, I was excited to learn more about Maori culture and to see some of their songs and dances (namely the haka), and the experience itself was highly rated, owned and operated by Maori people. While sitting in the office I overheard a Dutch man make disparaging comments about the modern Maori, and a woman in his party immediately called him out on it. I was glad there were people here looking to foster cultural understanding, to balance out those just coming to have a peek at the peculiar natives.

Our tour group was rallied and directed onto a bus, our "waka" (canoe) for the evening. Our bus driver, who had adopted the easier-to-pronounce English name Wallace, amused us on the way there. He appointed one of our group as chief for the night, whose duties would be to represent our group in the traditional welcoming ceremony and lead us from activity to activity. The person chosen had to be male (I wanted to be chief, damn it!) and Wallace chose, seemingly at random, the most unassertive and least chiefly person in the group, a young Welshman named Tyler. Despite his visual discomfort with his appointment, Tyler politely accepted the role and fought through his embarrassment to do what was required of him, apologizing profusely along the way.

When we arrived at the village, our group was herded together with all the other groups into a semicircle outside the village gates. A young man explained the meaning of the welcoming ceremony and the protocol for participating in it, advising onlookers that it was disrespectful to smile, laugh, or mimic the villagers. Soon after, villagers appeared on the ramparts, blowing conch shells and singing to signal the arrival of the warriors. They emerged on a long waka being paddled down a small waterway to the right of the gates. They wore flax leaf and feathered garments and bore long spears. Their faces were painted in the style of traditional Maori tattooing, and their bodies were covered with actual Maori tattoos, which covered their skin from just above the knee to the waist, and some had designs on their backs and arms as well. The warriors made intimidating gestures at the appointed non-Maori chiefs, gifts were exchanged as peace offerings, and once all formalities had taken place, Chief Tyler ushered us into the village.

A female villager signals the beginning of the ceremonies with a conch shell.

The warriors arrive in their waka.

The warriors intimidate the crowd.

The village Chief

Our group moved from hut to hut where we would receive a short educational lecture on a certain aspect of the culture. One was about haka and I was again disappointed that women were not allowed to participate. Others were about the waka, tattoos, poi dance, and finally, the hangi, a traditional meal cooked underground. We would partake in this meal later on so they wanted to show us how it was done. I have my doubts about whether all of the food served to the visitors was actually prepared that way, however. There was a limited amount of space in that hole in the ground, but the hangi was an all-you-can-eat affair.

Our waka's apprehensive menfolk learning the haka

A lecture on the significance of waka design

Two women demonstrate poi (which are swinging around so fast you can't see them)

Next we were ushered into the wharenui or "big house", a communal space where the villagers performed several songs, dances, and chants, including the haka. It was an exciting and moving experience for a music lover like myself. Afterward, our chiefs led us into the dining hall where we sat with our bus mates. By now people had begun to loosen up a bit, chat with one another, and bond as much as could be accomplished in the few short hours we would be there.

The food was nice and included lamb, chicken, and fish cooked in coconut milk, root vegetables like potato, sweet potato, and carrots, green salad, and the typical New Zealand dessert, pavlova. We ate to our hearts' content and then were treated to a few more songs as part of a short closing ceremony, sans warriors and maidens in full regalia.

We left the dining hall and got back onto our buses. Tyler was made to call role and then say a few words about his experience. He gave a short, funny, thank-you speech, and then sat down, relieved that his job was done. Wallace then told us we would be singing all the way back to Rotorua and that each country represented would have to sing a piece from their homeland. Our mix that evening included Waltzing Matilda (Australia), Gangnam Style (South Korea), It's Not Unusual (Wales), and Don't Stop Believing (USA), among others. We also sang "The Wheels on the Bus" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain". During the latter, Wallace took the bus around a roundabout a few more times than necessary to make his turn. By the time we got to Rotorua, everyone was in good spirits and feeling the camaraderie.

I was glad to at least learn a few things about Maori culture, no matter how brief it may have been, but I think it's every tourist's job to take the initiative to go deeper into cultural understanding by educating themselves about other people, rather than leaving it up to the historically disenfranchised culture to teach it to them by way of entertainment.