After our tour of Nature’s Most Beautiful Stinky Place in the morning, that evening we had one of the highlights of the trip for me – a hangi hosted by the Mitai family.

The term “hangi” has a few meanings. It can mean a cooking pit using hot rocks, the food cooked in that pit, or the social event that comes from eating the food cooked in that pit. For us, it was all three.

My American friends are probably already familiar with the Hawaiian luau, and this is somewhat similar – a celebration of a Pacific Island culture and an opportunity to entertain & educate outsiders on the broad generalities of that culture.

There are several Maori families in the Rotorua area that offer commercialized hangi (I think the plural of hangi is hangi); we picked the Mitai hangi because they have a package deal that includes a night visit to the Rainbow Springs nature park next door, where we could finally see a real live kiwi. After the evening was over I’m glad we made the choice we did.

The MC of the evening was a guy named John, who knows polite greetings in lots and lots of languages.  I can barely be polite when greeting people in my native tongue, so this was doubly impressive to me.  He went around the room to greet everyone and find out where we all were from, and we ended up with a “tribe” of 10 different nations.

One of the elements of a hangi is a greeting ceremony between the host tribe and the visiting tribe. So our “tribe” had to pick a chief to do the visitor’s part of the ceremony. John asked for volunteers, and like the wilting flower you all know I am, I raised my hand.

It turns out I was the only one to do so. Say hello to Chief Steve of the 10 Nations tribe.

Before going into the meeting place, John showed us the food we’d be eating after the cultural performance – chicken, lamb, potato, kumara (sweet potato), and English-style stuffing.

The hangi (food) in the hangi (oven) for the hangi (gathering)

Next he led us through the bush…

Don't mess with a dude holding fire

…to the stream that flowed from the sacred freshwater spring around which their tribe was founded. We heard deep chanting in the distance, and a waka (war canoe) moved upstream toward us.

The water in the stream was just north of freezing, but when the time came to dock one of the Maori jumped out and held the boat while everyone else climbed out.

Don't mess with a dude with no nerve endings

Next we came to the point of the evening, the performance. The greeting ceremony is called a powhiri (remember that in Te Reo Maori, “wh” is pronounced somewhere between”f” and “v”). As our tribe’s chief, I was first challenged by a warrior to see if I came in peace.

Don't mess with a dude with a taiaha

When I didn’t attack him (and get killed, which would have been embarrassing for everyone involved), he put a peace offering on the ground.

Those leaves are a peace offering. Don't smoke them.

I accepted the peace offering without breaking eye contact (which means I was honest) and gave an impromptu speech to the chief of the host tribe, thanking them for their welcome and for sharing their culture with us.

When all else fails, be polite.

Our greeting was finalized by the hongi, which I think literally means “sharing of breath.” Once you’ve touched noses with someone, you’re welcome in their house.

I'm glad I used mouthwash that morning

With that, my part was done. I sat with my Beautiful Chieftainess and enjoyed the show.

The chief explained that many modern Maori customs have their roots in their ancient lifestyle. The games they play as children are drills to increase stamina, strength, hand-eye coordination, etc.

The girls used to watch the boys doing a wrist exercise, and from that they developed poi, flaxen balls on strings that you swing around your body.

It takes more coordination than one would think to swing a ball on a string. Try it sometime.

I had seen poi before – at Burning Man of all places. There they set them on fire:

[I’m still embed retarded. Click this to see Burning Man flaming poi.]

The original poi aren’t on fire, but gain the ability to be used as percussion instruments by swinging them against your hand or arms. I couldn’t find footage of the Mitai poi performance, but here’s something from Te Papa museum in Wellington.

Almost all Maori are good singers – they grow up doing it. As was explained to me later, they think a person may or may not be lying when speaking, but when they sing you can always tell what they’re thinking.

The chief then told us about the moko, the tattoos they wear. Each person’s moko is a family geneology, and represents four flying creatures from New Zealand – the bat on the forehead, the parrot on the nose (only worn by those who are skilled orators), the owl on the chin (this is usually the only bird a woman wears), and kiwis on the cheeks.  Each of these tattoos has distinct meaning; you’re literally wearing your family, your personality, and your honors on your face.

Next time you see some d-bag with a "tribal" tattoo he picked off the wall in some cheap tattoo parlor, ask him if he knows what each part means.

The finale of the performance was the haka, the war dance. It’s probably not fair to call it a dance, because there’s nothing frivolous about it, but I’m not sure how else to define it…

Okay, how about this? It’s like a pep rally before a football game, if the football game was to the death, and the pep rally was frikkin terrifying.

They bug out their eyes and stick out their tongues, which translates roughly to “I’m going to kill you and eat you … and if you’re lucky it will be in that order.”

Speaking of eating, after the haka finale it was time to mangia hangi. (Don’t be confused by the eye-talian word I threw in there.) In the old times, we’d eat our hangi sitting around a fire; I guess the modern version of this is huddled near a space heater.

After dinner, we went on a guided bush walk to see glow worms and the sacred spring. Then we went next door and saw our very first real kiwi! Cece tried to fit one in her jacket but they wouldn’t buy her excuse that she had just eaten too much at the hangi.

Thanks, Mitai! Good times, good times.

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