December 26, 2014

Last days in New Zealand : Maori grounds

The title of this post is all kinds of wrong.
First, because the first tribal settlers of New Zealand don't like to be qualified as Maoris, which is a western word – they prefer to be called by the name of their tribe. I should be speaking of Ngapuhi. Second, because technically, all of New Zealand is maori ground – most of it has been confiscated from the tribes a long time ago and never returned. I'm not changing the title because I am trying to write this as fast as I can before the cabin officer comes and tell me to shut down my laptop. So here you go.

My last days in New Zealand are blurry. I feel like everything is moving too fast, but I also feel like running, and sometimes everything seems to slow me down. I race across the northern part of the country, hitchiking to the very northwestern point of Te Rerenga Wairua. It is a sacred place for the maori, where two oceans meet, creating a shift of blue in the water, and where the souls of the dead embark on their final journey, using the Te Ara Wairua, the Spirits pathway. I head back down on the long strip of the ninety miles beach, and we gather some tua-tua shells on the way while the coming tide chases us.

I stop to catch my breath in the Hokianga Harbour and the place is so beautiful I end up staying two days, in a lovely, quiet house overlooking the bay. I visit the Waipoua forest at sunset with a maori guide, who sings to the trees as we go along and show me the plants his people has used as medicine for hundred of years. As the light decreases, we go pay our respects to Te Matua Ngahere, the lord of the forest, the biggest tree I have ever seen – a small forest is growing inside his body, life inside life ; and his son, Tane Mahuta, the tallest kauri alive. As we head back, my friend gives me a small piece of kauri amber, and I hold my new treasure tightly in my fist, opening it from time to time to have a whiff of the intoxicating smell.

Near Kaitaia, a Ngapuhi family opens its home to me for two weeks. The father, Hone, is chief of one of the biggest communities in the north. Before entering his home, he greets me with the traditionnal pressing of noses, and chants a welcoming prayer, so that I know that I am protected under this roof. I have long conversations with him, and he shares One night, Hone and I take the car to the hot springs. On the way, he stops his reckless driving and pulls over quite abruptly to show me how the tall fern, with its small stems growing from the inside, represent the family. That night, while we are sitting in the boiling muddy water and the smell of sulphur, he points at the sky and shares stories about Papatuanuku the earth mother, Ranginui the sky father, and their son Tane Mahuta, who separated them from their tight embrace, so that his siblings could escape the darkness of the newborn world. Hone tells me : my gods are real. They are not hiding in the heavens or in the stars – the god of the forest, Tane Mahuta, provides me with wooden furnitures, Haumia Tiketike, the god of wild food, offers me berries and roots when I walk through the woods, and I always know Tangaroa (the god of the sea) is angry when there is a storm. Then he explodes in his enormous, deep laugh that I love so much. On my last days, I go with his team to row one of their war canoes down the Paihia river, arms hurting but spirit uplifted by their rythmic cries. It may feels like it all belongs to another world, but they live deeply assimilated with the western culture, and I sometimes catch Hone's face darkening when he speaks about how difficult it is for him to make sure that the traditions will be taught to the next generations.

Soon it's time for me to head back to Auckland. I hug my friends, promising to come back, and I hitchike down, for the last time. Four different drivers, all adorable, bring me to the doors of the city, and it feels like everything has come full circle, wandering in the grey city again. On the bus that takes me to the airport, I press my forehead against the window and I close my eyes. The images flash in my mind and I am so thankful for these three months. The time has come to leave again and I couldn't be more excited for my next destination.

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