We were spoiled at the Waterfront in so many ways, with the sounds of the ocean audible even from our rooms, and fantastic company. By far my favorite conversation there, though, occurred with Tem, the Maori housekeeper. She was the one who noticed us walking by the first night, after 10pm, with a “No Vacancy” sign in the window, and convinced us that there might be a room anyway. The only reason anyone was even at the front desk that night was because two guys had called and booked a double – but then never showed up. Manny was about to give up on them and go to bed, but we swaggered in and took the room, and he gladly gave it up. The other two never showed up, but it was kind of them to book ahead for us. Tem said it was meant to be.
Tem is an outgoing, smiling, friendly person – to give you a sense of who she is, here’s a quick example. Amy’s birthday occurred while we were there, and Tem gave her several sterling-silver bracelets that didn’t fit her anymore (which were really beautiful), but Tem was still sad because it was an off-pay week and she couldn’t buy Amy a “proper” present. That’s Tem.
We had a long discussion about many things Maori, which I was really excited about; I had seen Te Papa, which had a lot of Maori artifacts, but I didn’t really know much otherwise. I didn’t shell out for the touristy “hangi” celebrations (native meal) in Rotorua, and I hadn’t had a chance to really ask about the culture. Since we were at Waterfront for a full week, I got to talk to Tem a lot and we were able to push through the small talk eventually. We sat on the beach together, watching the waves. She spoke about the language first. There are two Maori “languages” at current – not dialects, necessarily. One is the original language (the “true” language), which flows from the tongue like water and even an untrained listener (me) can hear the rhythm in the words. She sung a few sentences, and it was magical. The other language is “Mainstream Maori,” and is being taught in schools and has been rewritten and changed by the state, according to Tem. She knows someone in Maunganui who lost their job on a Maori radio station because they refused to speak the Mainstream way. She spoke a few sentences in that, too, and it was clunky and hollow. It sounded like a series of hard edges instead of a wave. There is a theory about Mainstream Maori that sounds a little sinister; it starts with the fact that “true” Maori was one of the only languages that was never able to be broken by the codebreakers in WWII. The theory goes that Mainstream, which is easier and less connected to their culture, was created to ensure that if something like another war broke out in the future, the Maori would not have an unbreakable language that they could rely on. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s interesting.
We also talked about the culture itself, and the animistic, ancestral beliefs. Lake Taupo boasts a small, rocky island in the middle of the lake, which is sacred to the Maori. They are not allowed to set foot on it (or at least, not the general Maori population) – it has greenstone on it, and is the burial place of some ancestors. When Tem was 9, she and a friend canoed out in the lake, much further out than they should have, and closer to the island than was necessary. She remembers the canoe making a strange sound in the water, as if it had grounded for a moment, and then it capsized, flipping the two young girls out into the cold water. They sunk like rocks, and Tem saw giant trees with huge tree trunks – she says she knows there is a whole forest under that water. She absolutely believes her ancestors looked down on her, shook their heads bemusedly, and saved them, flipping the boat (which was stuck upside-down by some sort of suction) back and helping the girls out of the water. She doesn’t know how else she could have escaped. They rowed for the Taupo shore as quickly as they could.
According to Tem, no one knows how deep Lake Taupo is. There was a submarine that was sent down years ago, small and round, but it was lost. Many divers who have tried to determine the depth have been lost, and none have been successful. She stated their family canoe, the Nguarahoe (named after the volcano, as they all are), was swept into the lake in a storm and lost. Half of it washed up on the shores of the lake. Months later, the other half was found washed up on the shores of Napier – the ocean. How is that possible, she asks, unless there is no bottom, it ends in a channel that goes all the way across and under the islands? Tem believes this is so.
The beaches at Napier are dangerous ones – only a few months before we came, an entire family was lost. They were walking on the sand (not even in the water), and a great wave came up. When it receded, they were gone. A mother, father, and two children, gone. The riptides are legend, and the warning signs don’t lie. Tem swims in the water anyway; she says they are taught to know the water, when it is safe and when it is not. It is gut feeling to her, instinct. She says she has an affinity with the water, because all take from it, but few give back. She says I will think her silly, but that if she takes anything from the ocean, she gives a part of herself back – a piece of nail, or plucks out a strand of hair, and gives it to the waves. She says it keeps her safe. This I don’t find silly at all; I think it’s beautiful.