A Long Post

This is going to be a long one, since I haven’t written a blog in quite some time. My plan is to start at what’s happened most recently, and work my way back to the farewell dinner, right around the last time I blogged.

I’m currently sitting in my hostel room in Rotorua. I don’t have internet access because I refuse to pay ten bucks for 24 hours of access. So, I (and many of my friends) have been walking to the local McDonald’s and using the 50 MB of free wifi offered there. I’d rather pay $3 for a large diet coke and free internet. This will be posted when I have access in Auckland, when ever that is.

The group just got back from a two-night stay on a Marae just outside town. It was a fantastic experience. A Marae (Muh-Reye) is a traditional Maori meeting house. It’s sort of a combination of church and town hall. It was traditionally the center of the village, with all the houses around it. Maraes currently serve as the centers of cultural life for Maoris. When we got to our marae, we were told to stay on the bus, as our entering was going to be a bit of a ceremony. The women went first, and the men followed (women are sacred in Maori culture, and sending the men first can be interpreted as a declaration of war). Jen called us into the Marae with a song in Maori. We paused halfway to allow all of our ancestors to follow us (gotta let those old guys catch up!). We then were welcomed into the Marae itself, first removing our shoes. The women sat in back, the men in front (on the “front lines”). Sean welcomed us in Maori and in a song. We then shook hands the Maori way: clasp hands, touch noses (to share a breath), touch foreheads (to share our thoughts, there are no secrets among friends). This was a sort of strange and uncomfortable experience for us Americans. It’s pretty unusual to allow someone into your intimate space in American culture. To share that space with a person you had just met? Eee. We then were invited to share a song from our culture. We had some deliberation on the bus and chose “God Bless America” (easier than the Star Spangled Banner and more people knew the words to it than “America, the Beautiful”). It felt a little awkward and nationalistic, but I guess the whole point was to show pride in our “tribe”. We then met Garry. Garry led the discussion we had for the next several hours. It ranged from pest control and invasive species to the evils of pharmaceutical companies. We challenged his radical views, he challenged our radical views. Cultures clashed and whirled and swirled and every once in a while we’d look around in the resulting dust and think “What the hell just happened?” It was an intense and interesting day, and it was pretty amazing how open and honest everyone was. That night we had some amazing kai (the Maori word for food/meal). All the meat had been hunted or raised by Garry’s family.

The next day we headed out for a fun-filled day of bushwalking and white water rafting. I was frankly a little bored with the bush walk. It was short, and much of what we heard from the guide we had heard already from John Hall (who presented it better). White water rafting, on the other hand, was awesome. I had a great team and an amazing guide. The scenery along the river was fantastic. The rapids were not too challenging, but enough to give “Warrior Vanessa” some time in the spotlight. That night, the men learned a haka. The haka is performed to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, as well as get the tribe pumped up. It was traditionally performed before a battle, but in modern times is used most often for sports. While the men were learning the haka, the women did yoga. We felt that we were balancing the energies on the Marae. Today we broke into 3 groups. My group started at the river behind the Marae. We listened to an Elder speak about the work the tribe has done to improve the water quality of Rotoiti. After a quick morning tea (I’m definitely going to miss that when I’m back in the States) we went out to learn how to paddleboard. That was so much fun, although it made me realize how little upper body strength I have (need to work on that). We went back to the Marae for lunch, then out for a walk with a medical herbalist to learn about bush medicine. We walked into the bush a little, and she pointed out different plants and their medical applications. We also saw another group of white water rafters who went down a giant waterfall. The last boat in line flipped over and everyone fell out. That was pretty funny to watch. When we got back, we had to wait for the paddleboarders to return. Matt and I took the Marae’s kayak out for a spin. We saw a pair of black swans with their babies (so cute!). Then we got on a bus and headed back to Rotorua.

Before our stay at the Marae, we spent three days in Tongariro National Park. The first night we just got settled in. We stayed in tiny two person cabins that were really cute. On Thursday we hiked the Tongariro alpine crossing. It was a 19 kilometer hike up and down along an active volcano. (“Just up the hill and back down the hill” I told myself.) It was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. The higher up we got, the colder, wetter and windier it got. I had a pretty bad cold, and at points I felt like I couldn’t breathe. That’s when the emotional challenge started. Luckily, I was hiking with my friends Alex and Ben as well as our professor, Meghan. Meghan was amazing at keeping us going and keeping our spirits up. It was a pretty awesome feeling to finally get to the top of the trail. We paused next to a rock that offered some shelter from the wind. We had a snack and some water, and Meghan told us that we should be next to Blue Lake, though we couldn’t see it in the fog. Just then, we spotted a patch of blue sky. It spread over us, and like a veil being lifted, the fog parted and we saw the lake. It was so beautiful and felt like a huge reward for all of our hard work. Of course, we were barely halfway there. The weather finally broke and it was gorgeous as we continued down the other side of Mount Tongariro. However, when we stopped for lunch, I felt awful. I was freezing cold, shivering, had a pounding headache and felt sick to my stomach. I realized I had only drunk half a liter of water. I quickly finished the bottle and poured myself some more and put on an extra layer of clothing. Once we got moving again I felt much better. A little further down the mountain I started shedding layers until I was only in a long sleeve tee shirt. We later joked that we experienced all four seasons in one day. It was cool, crisp and fall like in the morning at the start of the hike. As we climbed, it got colder and started sleeting. With our descent, it got warmer and at the end of the trail it felt like a summer day. The crossing was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to do it. It was very beautiful and it kicked my ass. In a word, awesome. Oh, the best part of the story: yesterday we found out Tongariro erupted. The crater we had seen venting steam threw volcanic ash two kilometers into the sky. 50 people were hiking the crossing, but no one was injured and there was no need for search and rescue. Pretty crazy to think about!

The last day in Tongariro we went to a hydroelectricity plant. We learned about the work they’ve done to restore the population of Blue Duck or Whio that are found within the hydro scheme. The speaker was really informative. Then we went to the town’s hot spring. Most of us went in the public bath, which was essentially a giant swimming-pool-sized hot tub. The water is heated through heat exchange with the nearby volcanic hot springs. It felt so good to soak our weary muscles in the warm water and splash around. Some kids paid extra for a private bath, which is untreated water straight from the hot springs. We were warned that you can’t put your head under the water because there are microbes in the water that can cause meningitis. I decided I didn’t want to pay extra for the privilege of contracting a fatal brain disease and stuck with the public, treated pool. We went back to the lodge after that. Every night we would hang out in the lounge, playing cards, playing pool and watching rugby and the Lord of the Rings. It was so cool to watch the movies after hiking Tongariro, which was the basis for Mount Doom. It was a nice time of togetherness for the group and I really enjoyed that. We spent a last night in the national park, then drove to Rotorua where we had a free day to explore.

Before our stay in Tongariro, we spent a few days in Wellington. Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, although it’s really a pretty small city, especially by American standards. During this time we took field trips to a wind farm and a landfill and heard a lecture from two local professors.  Wellington was a cool little city and I really enjoyed our time there. One of the highlights was visiting Somes Island, a predator and rodent free island just offshore that acts as a biodiversity sanctuary.

My trip to Cairns and my last days in Brisbane will be detailed at a later date. For now, studying and planning for my final final exam!