After months of looking at the horizon of this adventure, we are finally in it. Our feet are firmly planted on new ground and we are walking our way through new places.
We left the United States (from LAX) at 4 pm on July 26 and we landed in Auckland at 5 am on the 28th. The flight from LAX to Auckland is 12 hours. I won’t make you do the math, but what that all means, given that Auckland is 18 hours ahead of Denver, is that we lost an entire day of our lives in the journey.
Sujata and the kids slept through most of the flight, god bless them. I can hardly sleep in a comfortable bed, let alone sitting up in a cramped airplane seat, so I just read and watched movies the whole time.
After we staggered through Passport Control and Customs in Auckland, we took a taxi into the City Centre. It’s winter here, so it was still very dark, but by the time we got to the city, the sun was shining. We found a little café near the University of Auckland and the Art Museum and I had my first flat white coffee. The coffee here, from what I can tell so far, is much darker and richer than what we are used to in the States. I like it. New Zealander’s preferred coffee is called a flat white. Here’s my first flat white of our trip:
Sujata found us an Air B and B a few blocks from the Centre, so we made our way there and relaxed until noon. Here’s the view from the deck:
After we roused ourselves, we decided to make our way to the Auckland Historical Museum and on the way, we stopped and had a delicious bowl of ramen.
There is a large Asian population here in Auckland, so ramen, sushi and and Chinese restaurants abound.
We took a city bus to the Museum. Happily, the drivers give you change—why can’t they do that in the States? The ride from the Centre to the Museum took us through the middle of Auckland University, which seemed like a lively and diverse place. From there, the bus climbed up a long commercial avenue and then dropped us off at a residential neighborhood just a mile or two beyond City Centre.
Even though it’s winter here, the weather is mild. It rained a bit, but it was, like they say in Ireland, a ‘soft’ rain and, in fact, it feels a lot like Ireland here.
The Auckland Museum sits on a grassy hill that overlooks the City and provides a stunning view of Auckland’s wharf. Here’s a view from the top:
As we were walking up the hill to the Museum, we were chatting about where were we were going and a woman who got off the bus just in front of us, turned and asked, “Are you going to the Museum?” We said, yes, and she replied, “Come along, I’ll take you there.” Her name was Elena and, as it turned out, she was a guide at the Museum and as she was an hour early, she gave us a private tour of the Maori section.
I’m going to get to some of the things we learned from Elena in a moment, but first I just want to pause to say that this little encounter with Elena was pretty much representative of the encounters we had with Kiwis on this, our first day in New Zealand. All of them: the taxi and bus drivers, the wait staff, passersby on the street and the barkeeps, were kind, polite and helpful.
Elena was particularly wonderful. As we walked through the exhibits she told us about her own history and artfully mixed that with the larger history of New Zealand. Elena told us that the island that we call New Zealand was the last large island to be settled by humans. The Maori came down from the Cook Islands, via Taiwan, around 950 AD. That’s pretty late, given that in Europe and Asia at that time a pretty elaborate, if violent and unpredictable, set of political, economic and cultural structures were set up.
When the Maori did arrive, there were no four-legged animals on the island. What you had, then, was an avian-dominated island. The most famous of those creatures was the Moa. With the human colonization of the island, though, four-legged animals came to dominate the natural landscape and, gradually many of the ancient species, like the Moa, went extinct.
The Maori term for New Zealand is Aotearoa. Any American visiting New Zealand can’t help but wonder at the role that Maori culture and history plays in the life of contemporary New Zealand. That’s to say that, unlike the way that the United States decided to ignore, eviscerate and grind down its indigenous peoples, New Zealand has made, its seems to me, serious efforts to honor and preserve Maori culture. And it’s evident beyond the exhibits in the Auckland Museum. All public signage, for instance, is written in English and Maori and last night when we came home and huddled in front of the television, we watched the official Maori channel for some time.
The Maori descend from the Lapita people who came to the Pacific region some 3,500 years ago, and they speak a language that is part of a larger set of Polynesian languages that have been spoken throughout the Pacific region for millennia.
As Elena walked us through the exhibits, she told us about the New Zealand wars, or the English invasion of New Zealand in the 1850s that culminated, 30 years later, with the establishment of the English colony here. I was struck by one part of the exhibit that told the story of a Te Pokiha, or Major Fox. This is Major Fox, on the left and his young wife on the right:
During the New Zealand wars, Te Pohika colluded with the Brits and allegedly brought in the last remaining Maori rebel to the British forces. For his loyalty to the Empire, Te Pokiha was rewarded handsomely and he decided to conspicuously demonstrate his wealth by, among other things, building this ornate structure and using it to maintain his political influence:
Te Pokiha’s story reminded me, to a degree, of the great Crow warrior, Plenty Coups. During the “Indian Wars” of the American West, the Crow, who had been squabbling and fighting with the Sioux for decades, decided, under Plenty Coups’ influence, to side with the United States government in the US’s attempt to control Sioux land. We all know that went badly for the Sioux, but few Americans have ever heard of Plenty Coups or even the Crow, and that’s because Americans are more interested in violence. The difference, though, between Te Pohika and Plenty Coups, it seems, is that Plenty Coups used his political power to help the Crow thrive. If you want to know more about Plenty Coups, check out Jonathan Lear’s great book, Radical Hope. Here’s a photo of Plenty Coups:
But of course the thing that you are most drawn to when it comes to Maori culture is the art, especially the wood carvings.
I’ve seen photos of these carvings, but seeing them up close is something entirely different. Elena told us that the carvings acknowledge the ancestors of the iwi (tribe) and each notch in the columns represent a different ancestral generation. The salient feature of most of the carvings, of course, are the tongues of the ancestors—generally they are sticking out of the mouths in an act of aggression. Or is it defiance?