Look out for the smell of rotten eggs! This is the advice given to everyone going to Rotorua, as if we were all brought up with malfunctioning fridges stuffed with unused eggs. I for one had no idea what rotten eggs smelled like, though after a week in Rotorua I know now. The warning are so stark and alarming that when you actually get there you end up wondering what the big deal was all about. Sure there's a bit of a whiff in the air, but nothing too overpowering. Of course after 6 months on the road our sense of smell has probably diminished somewhat a little. (And the commonplace about deficient senses being compensated by others has proved to be nonsense. My sense of humour, for example, is as poor as ever.)
A week is a long time in politics they say, but it's a fleeting moment in Rotorua (see??!!). Even in bad weather, the list of things to do is longer than the time you have to do it. The essence of the place might lie in the springs, mud and volcanic walks that together provide the famous aroma. But Rotorua is also home to a vibrant Maori culture that is very happy to share itself with visitors (well, rent itself out really), and there are a number of extreme activities that can be enjoyed or endured there. Zorbing (covered in a previous post) was invented in Rotorua, and is the only place in NZ that I know of where you can do this.
After 8 weeks in the South Island, with hardly a Maori face in sight, we were expecting to get a closeup view of New Zealand's indigenous culture right here. One of our first actions on arriving in Rotorua was to book ourselves in for an evening of Maori song, dance and food - the famous hangi (a method of cooking using heated volcanic stone and mounds of earth). There were many such events competing with each other, and we went with the recommendation of our motel host. It was run in a nearby hotel, and included transport to and from. From the outset of the evening, it was clear that this was going to be the kind of get-together that I would warn tourists visiting Ireland against. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be bussed in directly from Japan. And I learned more about the European travel woes of the Queenslanders with whom we shared a table than I did about Maori life and attitudes. It was the equivalent of a sightseeing bus tour through Maori culture, but you know, once in a while a open-top bus tour is a good start when getting to know a new place.
It didn't bother this particular musical snob that the singing was backed up with a gently strummed guitar - who would walk out on a trad musical session when somebody pulls out a 'foreign' instrument like a bouzouki or a banjo (I'll admit to getting antsy when a piano accordion is produced, but I'm of one mind with Gary Larson when he depicts that particular instrument as Hell's equivalent of the heavenly lyre). And I quite liked it when the poi dancers picked on Letizia and dragged her up on stage to learn a little about this most graceful of Maori activities. Letizia, being of a shy disposition, was not particularly happy about it at all, but she acquitted herself very well in front of her family, the Queenslanders and the small Japanese city. And if I may say so, she showed that an Italian woman can sway her hips was every bit as much allure as any Polynesian.
I wish the same could be said for my ability to perform the haka. As soon as Letizia was allowed to return to her place, the male performers came down into the audience in search of 'volunteers' to learn this warrior posture dance. If you follow rugby, or you read this blog regularly, then you know what I'm talking about. Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! Tenei i tangata, puhuruhuru! A menacing chant accompanied by much foot-stomping, thigh-slapping, eye-popping and tongue-protrusion. A quasi-musical performance likely to put the fear of a painful death into anyone watching (a bit like the aforementioned piano-accordion, now that I think of it). Maori people, on the whole, are beautiful to behold. The woman possess an appeal that is hard to convey but easy to appreciate. The men are tall, muscular and hard to argue with. This is how I ended up on the stage, alongside my haka mentor, squinting against the spotlights. It's hard to imagine a greater mismatch than this woolly-jumpered stick man set along side a man who clearly started life as a an enormous pair of pectoral muscles around which a human was generously constructed. I watched and tried to keep up as the warrior showed me the basics, but the results, far from being fierce and frightening were perceived by my watching (and filming!) family as oscillating between high comedy and low farce. All I had to show for my efforts at the end of the evening was a little tiki that I was given before leaving the stage (which I think I still have), and two badly bruised thighs (which I definitely still have).
We did lots of other fun and unusual things in Rotorua, which I won't bore you with right now (though I reserve the right to return to), including a trip to a mud spa, and a half-day wandering around the original Rotorua bath houses, now an excellent museum. In this last place, we learned that Rotorua is New Zealand first major tourist attraction and has been welcoming geothermal pilgrims for more than 125 years now. My guess is that more people have been to Rotorua than have had occasion to smell actual, real-life rotten eggs. In fact if humans were even close to being truly rational beings, people would be warned to check their eggs, and throw out any that smelled like Rotorua.