Latest posts by Sara @ Off The Map Travels (see all)
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- Off the Map Travels’ Founder, Sara Nakash, interviewed by Global Goose. - November 7, 2012
Different travelers have different preferences about how they experience the different cultures they encounter. Some travelers want to stay in luxury accommodations and experience the culture through exhibits, shopping, and delectable cuisine. Other travelers want to abide among the “common” people, eating their foods and experiencing their daily lives. While there are merits and drawbacks for each, one of my most treasured birthdays was spending the day among a Maori tribe of New Zealand.
The adventure started with a caving trip to Waitomo caves on the North Island of New Zealand. Four of us from the bus chose to do the Toomoo Toomoo Tubes and donned our wetsuits, gumboots, and helmets for the 27-foot climb down into one of the many caves in Waitomo. Once in the caves, we had to climb over rocks, swim in freezing water, and crawl through claustrophobic passages. In the midst of the climb, we got into black tubes, shut off our headlights, and formed a human chain.
When we looked around, we were “black-water-rafting” among thousands of amazing glow worms. Oddly enough, it’s not the worms that glow–it’s their waste products. But once you get over that part, it’s a really lovely glow that looks like tiny green stars–glow-in-the-dark green, to be exact.
After our phenomenal caving experience, we drove to Maketu. This small town is populated mostly by Maori people. In this village, we got to experience Maori culture, first-hand. To prepare, we “tattooed” our faces with black eye-liner. The men got their cheeks, noses, and chins tattooed, while the ladies only got our chins and lips tattooed, thus making us as “authentic” as possible, in keeping with Maori tradition.
Our driver gave us strict instructions to help us prepare for our visit. “Uncle Boy”, one of the elders of the Maori community of Maketu and the organizer of this cultural event, would give us three challenges and we would need to accept them all in order to be welcomed into the marae (central meeting space), continuing their tradition of how one tribe enters anothers’ marae.
Our first challenge was a simple one: to accept and eat the dinner presented to us–an authentic Maori hangi. Hangi is their traditional barbecue, which is pit-cooked. Of course, we had no problem with eating! Challenge accepted! During dinner, we also chose our chief. Keeping with Maori tradition, we chose the oldest male, who happened to be a fellow named Tom, from Finland. After the meal, the chief of Uncle Boy’s marae approached our group rather angrily, with a staff in his hand, ready to fight. He dropped the staff. Thankfully, we had been warned ahead of time that if they staff wasn’t picked up, we wouldn’t be allowed to sleep there that night. It was a good thing, then, that Tom picked up the staff!
After the first two challenges, we greeted the rest of the tribe with hongi, the traditional Maori greeting where you shake hands and press each others’ foreheads and noses together. Then, came the third challenge.We watched the Maori perform some of their traditional dances, using poi, or handmade props. Our third challenge was to learn our own dance. The men had to learn one and the ladies, a different one.
Later that night, before the 18 of us bedded down in one large room together–again in keeping with Maori tradition, my new Maori friends sang
me “Happy Birthday” in their language. Then, of of my travelmates, Claire, who is Irish, sang it to me in Gaelic and another travelmate, Aude, from New Caledonia, sang it to me in French. It was a special experience and the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had!
The next day, my birthday in the US based on the international date line, I overcame another personal challenge (my fear of heights) and took on a more modern New Zealand cultural activity—extreme sports—by skydiving in Taupo! So, for me, it was a doubly special and memorable birthday!
Just as I spent my birthday being challenged by the Maori, I challenge you to really experience the different cultures around you, whether you’re at home or abroad. But especially abroad, there’s no better way to really get your time and money’s worth out of it than by really immersing yourself in the culture, in whatever ways you feel comfortable. Obviously, remain safe and research well, but go ahead! Meet people and really let your eyes be opened to the world. It will certainly make for a trip you’ll never forget!
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