It’s almost four in the afternoon when we make it to the Whakarewarewa village, just in time for the last tour of the day. There’s a big white arch that greets us as we walk in, and on top of it a sign reads “Te hokowhitu-a-tu.” I wonder what it might mean.
My interest in the Maori language is more than mere curiosity, there’s something about the way it sounds, the way things are pronounced, that reminds me a lot of Spanish, my mother’s native tongue, and my one too. It makes it feel familiar in a way, and yet so exotic. It sounds even better coming out of Tane’s lips...
The tour guide comes over to greet us by the entrance; she’s a lovely Maori lady, probably about 40 years old, with a really thick accent that I struggle to understand every now and then.
“Welcome to my home,” she says. “My name is Kahurangi Anahera Tuhana Wairua, but you can just call me Ana.” With that, the whole group laughs, and we start to follow her around.
At some point, we get to a Marae, which she explains is a Maori meeting house used for religious and social purposes. It makes me think of a Church at first, but then I realise it’s got a feeling that’s so different to that of a Church. This feels more inviting, like it’s calling me in.
The walls outside are white, with every other structure being painted red, which she explains is the colour of blood, lineage and the homeland. This is why the colour is widely used by Maoris, being really popular even in their everyday clothing.
“Every part of the house symbolises a different part of the human body,” she explains. “The koruru, which is the figure at the top of the gables, represents the head.”
I look up to the red rectangle that she’s pointing at, which has a face carved in it. There are two diagonal red bargeboards that lean to each side, which she tells us represent the open arms, welcoming us in.
“The ridge beam represents the backbone,” she continues. “And the rafters signify the ribs. The windows to each side of the door, as you might imagine, represent the eyes. And there’s even a red column inside, to represent the heart.”
When she finishes explaining it all, I just stand there, marvelled by the amount of symbolisms one single building can contain. I feel like there’s so much information being shared around, that I’m just staring at everything wide eyed, trying to take in as much as I can.
We walk for about an hour, and we are shown some pools where they bathe with thermal water, we walk to a platform from where we can see part of the thermal wonderlands we were at earlier today, and then she tells us how a hangi is cooked. After all that, she guides us towards a stage, where she explains we will be enjoying a performance of traditional dances.
Before Ana leaves, I decide to approach her.
“Thanks,” I say to her, “I just wanted to thank you for everything, it was an amazing tour and I learned a lot.”
“All good, mate,” she says as she smiles widely. “You are a Maori, aren’t ya? I was surprised to see you here.”
My heart swells a bit at her words, and I have to swallow back tears.
“I am, only half though and I wasn’t raised here. My dad, who was Maori, passed away when I was really little, so I don’t actually know much about our culture, I grew up in South America,” I explain.
“That makes sense, I thought you didn’t sound kiwi at all, aye.”
With that, she walks away, and I head over to sit by Em’s side, who’s already waiting for me with a curious look on her face.
Once the performances start, I feel like I can’t even blink, or else I’ll miss something. First, they do a kapa haka, which they explain is an integral part of their culture. It combines waiata -song- with the haka -dance- and is an ancient traditional war dance made to intimidate the adversary. The songs are so strong, the sounds of the wind rushing through the instruments giving me goosebumps during the whole performance.
The dancers show such a range of emotions, their eyes wide open, their tongues poking out, and their palms hitting their chests and legs with such strength that their skin is visibly red by the end of it. At one point, they suddenly break into a passionate war chant, sending shivers up my spine as they scream and growl.
“That was so cool,” Em says once the dance is over.
“I know,” I whisper back. I have no words to describe what I’m experiencing.
What gets to me the most thought, is the ladies that dance with the poi. These are round weights at the end of tethers, that the women swing in ritmical patterns as they sing and dance. The swinging of the poi is hypnotic, and I find my eyes unblinking as I look from one lady to the other. Their voices are deep, and I get this feeling of concern as I listen to them, as if I was listening to a terrible and tragic story. Then the youngest of the woman who was at the back, steps over to the front. She must be around my age, her long dark hair cascading over her shoulders. She looks fierce and strong, but as she opens up her mouth, a sad sound fills the air. Her voice is so full of emotion, of sadness, but also hope, and even if I can’t understand her words, a part of me feels like I can feel every emotion she’s feeling.
It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and by the end of it, my eyes are full of tears.
The spell is broken when the performance ends, and although I wish I could see more, I’m not sure my heart could cope with it.
“Are you all good?” Em asks as she watches me wiping my tears away.
“Yes,” I say, and despite it all, I realise I am. I am more than good.
Ana comes back and rounds us for a final farewell. She leads us all the way to the arch in the exit, and I’m gutted to think this is goodbye. A part of me wishes I could stay here forever.
“There’s one more thing I want to show you before ya leave,” she says as she points to the words on the arch. I didn’t see the inside of it before, but it reads ‘Kia Maumahara’. Then she walks us around to the other side, and points to the words I saw before on our way in.
“This means,” she as she points at the words. “The more you remember.”
She walks around the other side once more, and points to the words on the inside.
“And this means: the least you forget.’
Her words hit me like a punch to my stomach, and I find myself sprawled on the forest floor, wet leaves and bushes all around me. I can smell smoke, and I look over to my feet for some reason. They look small, too small, and I’m missing a shoe. I look at my tiny hands, and find them covered in blood. What on Earth is going on?
“That was amazing!” Em yelps, suddenly standing by my side. The arch is back over us, and Ana is walking away and back towards the village.
“I highly enjoyed it!” She says as she loops her arm around mine. “Let’s head back, I’m starving! Should we pick up some fish and chips for dinner?”
As I walk into the common kitchen of the hostel, I find the girls sitting at a table eating dinner.
“Hey!” Em yelps, catching my eye. “How was your day?”
“Yeah, alright,” I say with a nonchalant shrug.
“Well,” Em adds, “Our day was amazing, but I’m done here, and I’m exhausted, so I’m going to head to bed, and Sam can tell you all about it.”
With that, she gets up and walks away, throwing the wrapping paper from her dinner on the rubbish as she walks out the door.
“Fish and chips?” I ask as I grab one of the few chips left and sit next to Sam, trying to act like my normal self.
“Yes, we’re trying to take in as much of the culture as we can,” she says with a smile.
I grab another chip, and munch on it as I look at her. She looks so much brighter than she did last night, almost… happier. And I can’t help but notice that she’s got the Koru hanging in plain sight now. I wonder what changed.
“Are you okay?” she asks me.
“Just family drama, sorry,” I say. “Things have been complicated and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do to make it better.”
“Em told me your brother was around, right?” She asks.
“Yes, he’s still around, somewhere, we’re trying to sort a few things out,” I explain, being more honest than I expected myself to be.
“We all have family dramas,” she says after a moment of silence. “For instance,” she says sounding a little nervous, “I only just found out who my dad was.”
“That’s rough,” I say as I reach over and grab one of her hands in mine.
“That’s the reason I’m here,” she says in a small and broken voice.
“What do you mean?” I ask, genuinely confused.
“Well, I just found out a couple of months ago that my dad was from New Zealand, he was actually Maori, like you… and like me, I guess.”
My eyes widen before I can hide the shock of the news, but I compose myself as fast as I can.
“I thought you looked half Maori,” I say, trying to fake some excitement at this. “But because you didn’t say anything about it, and it was clear you were raised far away, I just assumed you might have ancestry from some other Polinesian country. Or that it might be a distant link, like your grandparents or something.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she says, and I can tell she really means it. “I didn't want to talk about it, I’m only just coming to terms with the news myself.”
I can’t believe she’s still holding my gaze, and I’m scared to push in case she runs away or closes up again, but I need to know.
“So what happened?” I ask as I lean a little bit closer to her. “Did he and your mother split up?”
“Something like that,” she says with a shrug, trying too hard to seem unconcerned for it to feel real. “My father actually died in an accident when I was little. I was there, but nothing happened to me.”
I look deep into her eyes, and then I look at her pounamu. The sound of rustling leaves and the scent of pine filling up my mind. I want to reach over and touch it, but I’m scared to do so. It’s like the memory is right there, but I just can’t find it in between the other thousand memories.
I stand up, her hand still cupped between mine, and I tug a little on her arm.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I say looking around at the many people still lingering in the kitchen and having dinner. I’m going to need some privacy for this.
I lead her out of the building, and head towards the waterfront.
The touch of his fingers running through my hair is sending electric waves all over my body. I can feel the strong muscles of his thighs against my cheek, my eyes half closed as his hand keeps stroking my hair and I feel myself wanting to fall into a deep sleep.
“Are you still awake, Sam?” His voice sounds so gentle. The night is silent around us, only the noise from the water in the lake gently brushing the shore. I don’t want to, but I know I should, so I sit back up, tucking my legs under my body as Tane runs his hand through my hair one last time and sets his arm over my shoulder. He pushes me lightly against his side, as if not wanting to let go.
I think I’m dreaming. And I love this dream.
I don’t know how long I laid there, or even how I ended up in such a situation. My memories feel foggy and vague, as if a veil of mist was covering the last few hours of my life. I remember we walked and talked for what felt like hours, but it could have been minutes, and I recall talking about my family, telling him my story.
At some point, we must have seated down, and somehow I must have ended up with my head on his lap. I felt so safe there, so contained. It was somehow so easy to talk to him, in a way I never managed to talk to Brad or any other guy before. I could tell he was actually listening to me, and he didn’t judge me at any point while we talked.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” Tane says, bringing me out of my daydream. I sit a bit straighter, wondering where the dream ends and reality starts.
“Oh, no, it’s okay, I wasn’t asleep.” I say in a small voice, not really sure if that’s true or not.
“Sorry, we should probably head back, it’s getting really late.” He gets up and offers me a hand, so I take it and he helps me to my feet.
We start walking back towards the hostel, his hand never letting go of mine. His skin’s so warm to the touch, that my hand feels like it’s burning. I can’t believe we’re holding hands, as I barely know this guy, but Em’s words from earlier today keep echoing in my brain, and I tell myself I can at least give him a chance. Maybe he wouldn’t mind moving to Argentina with me… Maybe I could move over here, I have a few houses that I own now, don’t I? No, I need to stop those thoughts, this is nothing. This is just… What is this? Does he really care about me? He hasn’t said he does, he hasn’t said much actually. It’s not like we’re treating each other like we’re together, right? He was just being nice because I opened up...
Once we get to the hostel, we go up the stairs, and standing in front of our rooms, Tane faces me. He cups my face between his hands, and we stay in silence for a moment, our eyes locked together. I wish we could stay like this forever.
He presses his nose against mine, the same way he did that morning on the beach, and after two full breaths, he pulls away.
His lips part, and I wonder if this is the moment where he kisses me, the moment when he tells me that he loves me and my perfect love story starts.
“You’re pretty special, Sam,” he says after what feels like an eternity. “Remember that,” he adds as he plants a kiss on my forehead, and I can feel my heart melting, but also shattering.
Before I find my voice again, he turns around and enters his room.
No one has ever kissed me so gently, and I don’t know if my legs will move again. But at the same time, I feel somewhat disappointed. He doesn't like me that way, why would he?
I close the door behind me and lean against it.
“So?” Rongo asks as he stands up. He was sitting at the foot of my bed, clearly waiting for me.
“No doubt, it’s her... I charmed her, and she told me her story... I remember now, I gave her the Koru,” I say as I rub my palms against my face. “She’s the reason all this is happening, right?” I ask. “Some kind of punishment for what I did?”
Rongo just looks at me, and I don’t need him to reply.
“What I don’t understand is why I couldn’t remember before,” I say after a minute of silence.
“It was all part of it, Tu’s idea actually. He said that if she mattered, then you’d remember,” he replies with a shrug, like he had nothing to do with it.
“There’s more layers to this than what I can see right now, isn’t it? I still feel like I’m missing something.”
“What do you remember?” he asks me.
“I remember everything that happened the day of the accident, but I just know it didn’t end there.” I don’t know how I know that, but I have this feeling that our connection goes deeper than what meets the eye. I know there’s something more there that I’m not able to figure out. I hide my face behind my hands, trying to let the darkness help my memories get back into place. “What do I do now?” I ask as I look at him between my fingers.
“Now you play the game,” he replies. “Now you do what you have to do to survive.”