Touring the Tamaki Maori Village, Rotorua, New Zealand

It's late afternoon, and we've finished seeing the incredible glow worms, stalactites and stalagmites in the Waitomo Caves in Raglan. We're now ready for an excursion to the Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua to learn about the customs, protocols, and stories, that have been passed down through the generations of the Maori people. This should be interesting!

Our guide in this country is a New Zealander. Since meeting him, I've noticed that Otto makes frequent reference to the Maori people, including their language and culture. Every day since  we've been with him, he writes Maori names and terms on a board, in order to familiarize us with their distinctive breeding. As we approach the gate to their marae, or tribal meeting grounds, it's clear that this people of Eastern Polynesian descent have gone to great lengths to protect their unique ethnicity.

Known as the tangata whenua, or indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori are thought to have migrated here more than 1000 years ago from Hawaiki. Today they comprise about 14% of this country's population, and are considered an integral part of the New Zealand identity.

Once in the marae, we go to one of the carved meeting houses where a young Maori man orients us to some of the myths and legends of his proud people. He explains to us the customary touching of noses that occurs when meeting one of his brethren. After about 20 minutes of give and take with this young guy, I start to realize how acculturated the Maori have become over the years, while maintaining a good sense of their language and traditions.

We are then ushered outside to the meeting grounds for our first hand experience with a powhiri. This begins with a wero, or challenge, in which a warrior from the tangata whenua, or hosts, detrmine if the manuhiri, or guests, are friend or foe. He carries a taiaha, or spear, and lays down a small branch, a token, that is picked up to show that we come in peace. All of this is done with great deference to women who walk in front of the men in a paced and quiet manner. The custom is to have them stop along the way to remember their ancestors.

Sitting in silence, the haka begins. This is an ancient Maori war dance that is traditionally used on the the battlefield, a fierce representation of a tribe's pride, strength and unity. I find the choreography to be amazing, with violent foot stomping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping. These actions are accompanied by a loud chant, with words describing ancestors and events in the tribe's history.

Twilight has descended on the powhiri, and it is now time to share food, or kai, in the Maori tradition of manaakitanga, or hospitality. The idea here is to demonstrate the caring of others, making guests feel at home. Looking after visitors, with special attention to how they are treated, is singularly important in Maori culture. "Mana-a-ki" loosely translates to "the power of the word," and reminds the host to be expressive and fluent in the welcoming of others.

It's night time now, and we're all tired from a long day and a big meal. Although the powhiri we've seen has been produced for tourists, the personal contact with the young Maori man in the meeting house at the beginning of the tour, really made this experience unique for me. I won't be forgetting the Tamaki Maori Village anytime soon.