January 10, 2020 Hawera, Taranaki District, New Zealand
Our first Best Day Ever was six months ago in Waikoloa Village: hot roadside malasades (donuts), ancient petroglyph hike, and fresh roadside ahi we turned into our first homemade poke. It was amazing, but we were wrong.
The next Best Day Ever was our last week in Hawaii when our dear new friends took us to the Queens Ponds at Mauna Lani and showed us the little-known fish pond where we could enjoy (free & private) fish pedicures, while sipping champagne and watching the dramatic sunset illuminate the gardens. We toasted to what was surely one of our best days ever of the trip.
We could also declare Christmas Day 2019 as the Best Day Ever, which not coincidentally also involved new friends, drinks and soaking water—first the cold mountain stream, then their hot tub. I love that we seem to be collecting Best Days Ever, finding it hard to definitively pick one.
Now we have another perfect traveling day that could never have been planned. It began much too early at 4:15am during our workaway at Janet’s B&B in Hawera. The night before, we had met John, one of her regular guests. John is from Wellington but was in town again for business. His company has the distinction of receiving New Zealand’s first permit to plant medical marijuana. The field will be just outside of Hawera. It is on ancient Maori land, and New Zealand statute requires all building and agricultural projects receive tribal approval, which they had earned. He explained that the next day was to be the official Powhiri—the traditional Maori welcoming ceremony where the tribe will bless the land before groundbreaking can begin. It takes place just before dawn. Would we like to come?
This was an opportunity very few outsiders would ever get. This would not be a Maori tourist performance, but an authentic ceremony still practiced today to honor the sacred in everyday life. We couldn’t pass it up. So we peeled ourselves out of bed, threw on warm clothes, downed some coffee and followed John and his young son Luke out of town. We turned onto a dark road and pulled over with several other cars.
There were about 20 people: the tribal elders, younger men and women and several children. We were welcomed warmly as his guests from California. (Later we realized it was assumed we were some sort of medical marijuana experts or important investors. Ha! But we believe we would have been just as warmly received if they knew we were nobodies.) People were dressed in regular clothes—many of them would be leaving to go to work afterward. It didn’t look like an ancient ritual was about to be performed; it was informal and casual. The sky was clear and sparkled with stars in the dark southern sky. It was cold and windy but beautiful and peaceful.
The entire 30 minute ceremony was in Maori and we understood nothing, but that just made it seem more magical and sacred. It began with a prayer by the side of the road by the chief and chanting by the rest of the tribe as we processed through the field, following the chief and the elders. We listened as they sang and chanted familiar prayers, all seeking blessings from the ancestors, the gods and the land itself.
We have no pictures or videos of this event—we were fully present in the moment and it would not have been right to intrude by recording it. This was not for tourists; this was for the tribe. We were witness to ancient Maori practices which continue today as modern Maori balance between two cultures.
As the sun began to rise and the sky brightened, the chief gave a speech, followed by an informal and apparently more humorous one from another elder. I understood “meditation” and “California” and later learned we were being welcomed again, and he then made a joke about the tribal brothers who may go fishing on the land and come have a little “snack” for some “meditation,” as everyone laughed. John was asked to say a few words and thanked everyone for coming (in English), then invited the group to breakfast at the local café. I couldn’t make this up: at this very moment, a shooting star glided across the sky. Apparently the blessing was received; the ancestors and gods are happy.
Before we left the site, the chief and the elders formed a reception line and we all went
through to receive the Maori hongi greeting--just like the Hawaiian Kiss we had learned about months before. We were unbelievably touched, honored and humbled to have not only witnessed this sacred event, but allowed to participate and included in it. Watching Lucas receive the hongi from the tribal chief was a picture I will not soon forget.
The three of us chatted excitedly on the way to the café, amazed at our great luck in being able to do this. We were also reminded of how beautiful and special this land is—and we must always honor it, whether Maori or not. We remembered Hawaii and the power of the mauna which permeated the island. We have learned a lot about geology and ecology this year, but even more about the spirit that binds the people and the land together. We hope to take this with us wherever we go.
However, this was just the beginning of an incredibly long and special day. That afternoon after working hard to clear the extensive garden of years’ old weeds, we were fortunate to once again meet some of Janet’s friends: Alex, Jackie and their 14 year old daughter Yasmine from Auckland. They were immediately friendly and funny, and the wine soon started flowing as the adults prepared dinner together. The kids shots some hoops at the neighbors, walked the dogs, and played games with Janet. We had an amazing dinner:
simple and elegant homemade salads and fresh-caught salmon with Janet’s affogato for dessert (shots of espresso & coffee over ice cream).
We then retired to the elegant parlor for a game of riotous charades, as we all giggled and teased like we had known each other for years. Watching Lucas act out Janet’s Japanese Garden clue was my favorite. Around 10:00, I went to the kitchen to fetch a cheese plate and another bottle of sauvignon blanc and thought, “Wow! This is why we travel. This is how travel makes the world a better place, bringing people together. This is why we took a full year off and chose to spend time in people’s home and neighborhoods and holiday parks rather than hotels and guided tours. These are the moments I will treasure.”
So there it is, the Best Day Ever. It began in the wee hours of the morning with a cross-cultural spiritual blessing and ended in the wee hours of the night with a cross-cultural game of charades. It will be hard to top…but I am confident we can.