Sunday, March 29, 2009

Are you going to Okains Bay?: Banks Peninsula, 2

As my travels continue, I've been exploring my personal travel style, learning what I like and don't like, my preferred pace, how many museums versus parks versus restaurants I can handle before it all gets to be too much. Spontaneity is one ideal I've maintained-- I say "ideal" because often being spontaneous causes me a lot of stress and anxiety, but I try to persevere because it means being able to take advantage of the random opportunities that sometimes present themselves on the road.

I left off last entry at one of those opportunities, the chance to see a Maori-centric celebration of Waitangi Day at Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula. I had planned to return to Christchurch after one night until I heard of the celebration, and so I had to scramble to find accomodation. All of the hostels in town were booked up, but I finally lucked into a free room at a local SERVAS host's bed and breakfast. When I arrived at her house, up a steep hill outside of town, it was immediately clear to me that the lady, whose name was Val, was significantly batty-- not in a malevolent way, just enough to prattle on about the discovery of Atlantis, past life regression, and the coming golden age brought on by a Buddhist Jesus figure as we ate her delicious vegetarian curry for dinner.

That evening I walked down to town, watching the sunset and trying to figure out how to get to Okains Bay, about 20 minutes away by car, the next day. In the US, such a celebration would warrant shuttle busses, or at least taxis, but I could find evidence of neither. In fact, the single taxi driver in Akaroa told me that she had advertised for a shuttle service and had had no responses. She apologized, but if there weren't any more takers the trip would not be worth her while.

I was flummoxed. It seemed incredible to me that such a big-deal celebration happening nearby would merit no public transport, but as it stood I would have done better to go all the way back to Christchurch and then get a bus to Okains Bay the next day, rather than stay in the immediate area of the celebration. But now that I had committed to stay, I was determined to figure out a solution. I started asking around in the restaurants and shops in town, and most of them recommended hitchhiking. I decided I might try my hand at it for the first time as a last resort, but first I would ask to see if there was anyone in town who was already planning to attend and had a free seat in his/her car.

And so I did. Akaroa's single main street is about a mile long, lined with little stores, galleries, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. And I went into every single one of them (well, the ones that were open past dinner time) and asked the waitstaff, the clerks, and sometimes the patrons if anyone was planning to go to Okains Bay. It was a difficult task: I'm not a big fan of talking to strangers, in general, and this required me to continually break the stranger barrier for two hours. But I was generally greeted with politeness and friendliness, although this was always followed by apologies. When I reached the town's main pub, I stooped to asking every single customer. Finally, a well-dressed man seated with a group looked me up and down. "I'm not planning to go to Okains Bay," he said, "but I'll run you over if you like. You don't need a ride back, do you?"

I said I didn't: ironically enough, my Christchurch host, Theresa, was planning to drive down to the celebration and had agreed to give me a ride back to the city.

"Great, my name is Robert," he said, and extended his hand. "Do you like a fast ride?"

The next morning, after I had said goodbye to Val, I saw what he had meant. Equipped with a coffee for myself and one as a gift for Robert, I climbed into his beautiful blue Porsche at 9 am on the dot. We took the winding roads from Akaroa to Okains Bay at at least twice the speed limit, and he explained that he had a beach house on the peninsula, that he had started a factory business with three friends and when they weren't sure if they'd do well they'd agreed to each buy a Porsche if they succeeded. He paused to throw the car into third gear. "Well, two of us bought them. The third fellow didn't because he's Fijian Indian, and if he drove it people would think he pinched it," he said. I opted not to respond to this comment, instead silently admiring the car, which was all curves and growls.

View from the road to Okain's Bay
Out of breath from the speed, we arrived in Okains Bay, I thanked Robert and hoofed it down the road to the town's marae (remember, that's the Maori word for meetinghouse), the center of the day's festivities.

The beautiful blue Porsche. See what some determination and two hours of asking everyone in sight for a ride can get you?
At the marae, things were just getting underway.

The Okains Bay Waitangi Day schedule
The day started off with a powhiri, or formal welcome ceremony, in which a Maori representative challenges the visitors to prove their intentions before they are allowed on the marae. That day the powhiri was purely for ritual's sake, as there were no tensions to be resolved, but the sight of the chosen warrior stomping his feet, bugging his eyes, and sticking his tongue out angrily was still affecting. I looked around the crowd, which was filled with both white and Maori faces, rapt at attention. And for the first time I saw a Maori woman with a moko, or traditional chin tattoo. According to what I've read, moko used to be used to indicate rank and identity. They disappeared for a long time but now are making a comeback.

Performing the powhiri

Maori woman with chin moko

Once the powhiri was completed, we settled in for a lengthy program of Maori language and English speeches, discussing the history of New Zealand (Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, where virtually every important Maori chief agreed to become a subject of the Queen, creating modern New Zealand-- just what "becoming a subject of the queen" meant to both sides was where the problems started) and emphasizing the importance of understanding and peaceful coexistence between Pakeha (White European) and Maori. In between the speeches, a group of Maori girls performed traditional songs, an interestingly diverse group (note one red-haired singer in the group below) in one-shouldered dresses swinging their hips and arms to the beat.

Maori girls waiting to perform
Following the speeches, we got to watch a NZ citizenship ceremony, which I thought was a very cool and moving way to observe the holiday. As we looked on, families from Samoa, Fiji, and South Africa recited oaths and started new lives. Each family was also given a tree to plant near their new homes, representing the roots they could now put down.

The rest of the day presented an earthy, down-home version of Kiwi culture, akin to going to a small-town Independence Day celebration in the States. There were sheep-shearing demonstrations, blacksmithing, arts and crafts. And intermingled with that, in a comfortable, unforced sort of way, were Maori traditions. Okains Bay has a fantastic museum of Maori artifacts, and lunch was a hangi, a traditional Maori meal of root vegetables and meat baked underground.

Cooking a hangi for 500+ people in the ground

A hangi lunch: sweet potato, pumpkin, chicken, pork, bread, and carrots all cooked in underground oven. Mmm, delicious.
Through it all came the voice of the day's announcer, a sharp Kiwi accent flowing continually through a PA system thredded across the entire festival site. He commented on the weather and current events, told jokes, and occasionally recommended that we go see a certain event, his disembodied voice assuring us with a classic Kiwism that this or that was "well worth a look." The sound of his constant patter added a lovely texture to the already fascinating day.

The afternoon ended on a fitting note, with a waka (traditional Maori war canoe) making a trip up the river feeding into the bay. The canoe paddled in from the Bay, with the occupants singing traditional chants in time with their strokes-- but those occupants were both Maori and Pakeha volunteers, and the revelers who packed close to the bank to watch the canoe come in were mixed as well, watching traditions made, stories celebrated, and centures of struggle not resolved but certainly remembered.

Paddling the waka

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