There are three new features that come to Rotorua for the first time, like us:
a widespread and intense sulfurous aroma, the great concentration of native inhabitants and an unexpected profusion of Maori cultural spectacles.
The last two, more than the first, attracted us to the city, but we were still miles from its entrance when the sulfur particles in the atmosphere invaded our nostrils.
Mile after mile, we penetrated into New Zealand's most dynamic thermal zone, dotted with geysers, thermal springs and explosive mud puddles.
Meanwhile, the reeking odor took hold of the interior of the car, our clothes, luggage, as well as the streets and the room in which we stayed.
That same roadside shelter set a limit to the idiocy we'd found ourselves in for months, carrying a purchased camping tent in Perth, in the distant western end of oceania.
The tent had already made us suffer a lot to avoid paying fines for being overweight from the airlines. We decided to get rid of it and the Cash Converter we found seemed perfect.
"It gives me the idea that they haven't put it to much use!" shoots Jonas, the young Maori bartender, after the inevitable kia of welcome and with a good mood and a strong glow in his eyes.
As he did so, the clerk continued the conversation frantically.
Under the famous passion Maori by the brazilian korero (chatter), he talked about himself and his family without any ceremony or complexes and questioned us, in an innocent and interested way, about us and ours.
We lost almost 70 dollars in the deal but we profited from the confirmation of the Maori people's friendliness and vivacity, a notion that we had begun to form, in HobartAt Tasmania, in contact with Helena Gill, an immigrant hostess at the back doors of Australia.
And, in other contacts in the vast South Island, where both the general population and the Maori are much smaller than those of the neighboring North.
We only knew the Maori from those first contacts and, like most people who set foot in New Zealand for the first time, from “Piano” by Jane Campion – with Harvey Keitel playing Baines, a retired sailor and ranger who had adapted many of the indigenous customs including the eccentric facial tattoo still used by many Maoris.
It was time to find out more.
Rotorua, a Volcanic and Plague Core of New Zealand Maori
Even if in business, nowhere else in the country did the Maoris exhibit their customs and rituals as much as in Rotorua. Faced with the inexistence of a true festival or ethnic event for those days, we settled for one of the shows.
At the entrance to the themed village, warriors armed with batons confronted us with their warlike movements and frightening grimaces, used over time to keep unwanted visitors at bay.
Once the threat was over, a village chief greeted the newly appointed visitor representative with a welcoming brush of noses.
The Maori and European Colonization of Aoteraoa, the Islands of New Zealand
Once our presence was validated, we wandered from house to house in the alleged village to admire various customs, arts and crafts, some narrated and explained by their protagonists.
This was followed by a musical and dance show that included the most desired of performances, a haka carried out by men and women.
Today, less than 40% of Rotorua's nearly 70 inhabitants are Maori, a percentage well above 15% of New Zealand's total.
This is believed to have been the last stop of a diaspora of more than two thousand years aboard large canoes waka that led the Polynesians from Southeast Asia to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, French Polynesia islands and Cook, Hawaii e Easter Island.
In the centuries following their arrival in Aoteraoa – as the Maoris call New Zealand – they forged their own culture, differentiated from the rest of Polynesia by its isolation, temperate rather than tropical climate and befitting nature.
After the landing of James Cook in 1769 – 127 years after the pioneering arrival of Dutchman Abel Tasman - depending on the zones and heights, relations between the Maoris and the Europeans fluctuated between a convenient cordiality and the New Zealand Land Wars.
This particular conflict was unresolved in 1840 by the controversial Treaty of Waitangi.
In it it was established that the settlers recognized the Maoris as the true owners of their domains and properties and that they would enjoy the same rights as the British subjects.
The natives remained in the still rural strongholds of their tribes. But by 1930, work in the field was already scarce. Many indigenous people migrated to cities founded by Europeans.
This confluence led to the abandonment of tribal structures and the Maori assimilation of Western ways of life.
And the Intricate Ethnic Coexistence between Maori and European Descendants
Even if less obvious than in the great cities of Auckland and the capital Wellington, when we drive around Rotorua and Taupo – where we take small steps towards humanity subsumed in the sulfurous mist of the Craters of the Moon.
And for other smaller settlements, we find that the coexistence of Maori and settler descendants is just evolving.
Despite the agreed upon in Waitangi, the settlers had already seized the best lands, with an obvious advantage in the modern life that they imposed on the nation.
This supremacy left the Maoris in social and economic predicaments, starting with the difficulty in accessing higher education and having qualified and well-paid jobs.
Accordingly, most native families are concentrated in peripheral neighborhoods with far more precarious living conditions than those of the middle class of British descent or of many Asian and other immigrants.
In far too many cases, they depend on social security checks, are more prone to illness and domestic violence, and make up more than half of the prison population.
Growing Respect for Maori Territories and Rights
But since 1960, the situation continues to improve. In that decade, a court declared colonial land confiscations illegal.
Shortly thereafter, the government returned to the Maori people their sacred places and natural resources.
For many Maoris who consider themselves guests of the whites, only then did the long Earth Wars end.
The number of Maori representatives in parliament has increased and the value of Maori culture and the Te Reo dialect – which already appears on road signs, maps, etc. – has increased. etc. – soared with the abrupt increase in foreign visitors to the kiwi islands.
A recent network of kindergartens, schools and universities now ensure Maori language education complemented by a national chain of radio stations and TV channels owned and managed by the Maori themselves who are gaining more and more notoriety.
The World Notoriety of the Maori People, for Their Mighty Rugby
As we were writing this same text, the rugby world championship was taking place in the land of the old English settlers. As is almost always the case, New Zealand was the team that stood out and attracted the most.
It even makes us interrupt its creation to watch the French massacre at the arms of the All Blacks (62-13) in the quarter-finals. Seven of the All Blacks players present in the competition are Maori.
All games in the national team Kiwi start after haka exuberant that the Maoris granted that they were also danced by players pakeha and that even intimidate us.
In fact, a few years ago, when the Maoris decided to introduce a new haka, the entire Pakeha rugby community got involved in the debate, something that helps to exemplify the seriousness of the inter-ethnic commitment we have witnessed day after day across New Zealand, when the Maori identities and pakeha they dissolve under the fusion of genetics.
On the way out of some beach showers in Whangarei, we meet Renee Lee. In the middle of the verbiage, the young tattooed surfer asks us the complex question: “Maori...?
I never really know if I'm Maori or pakeha. My father is Maori and my mother is Dutch.
My daughter is blonde… Tell me, what do you think I am?”