Rugby is a wonderful show: dance, opera and, suddenly, the blood of a killing. [Rotorua and Waitomo]

Rotorua is where the book version of Once Were Warriors is set, but without the film version I wouldn’t have a crush on Temuera Morrison so it’s probably a wash. The lake smells like sulphur as a side effect of all the amazing thermal activity in the area: they have the world’s best Polynesian hot baths (as ranked by Condé Nast), where we chatted with a retired firefighter and a prison psychologist originally from Ventura County and now working for the Department of Corrections in Auckland. The natural hot springs are so alkaline that there is signage to warn bathers about their silver jewelry tarnishing, but I know for a fact that my adornments are from the platinum group metals, thank you (and the Rat is stainless steel; it’s fine).

We spent several great days in the area, visiting Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (their own personal Yellowstone) and a morning tubing through the Waitomo glowworm caves. We took daily morning walks along the lake front with the red-billed gulls and the black swans—this is really the town that will have cemented birdsong as one of my multi-sensory memories of the whole trip—and read the Central Otago Times (or the local equivalent) while drinking Earl Grey tea in colonial delight. Jose deeply resents the town for having 24 hour supermarkets when even Boston still doesn’t, and resents the country as a whole for lacking an ozone layer, poor thing. The best bookstore is McLeod’s, 1148 Pukuatua Street, and the best breakfast is the Li’l Miss Bene at the Relish Cafe: a single poached egg on a hash brown with bacon, wilted spinach, and a side of Hollandaise.

A long afternoon gently slides into sunset at the Polynesian baths Yes it is really that color

One evening we went to the Te Puia cultural experience with hangi dinner, where they taught the women and girls how to spin poi and the men and boys how to dance a haka. We elected a chief to represent us to the warrior offering and perform hongi with the members of the iwi. Dinner was great and cocktails were supporting: gin and taha, where taha is like an indigenous ginger beer. After dinner we had your average run-of-the-mill 35m geyser and story time on large rock terraces warmed by steam, and they sang all both songs that I know from Hayley Westenra: Pokare Kare Ana and Hine O Hine. It also turns out that the master carver on this particular marae carved the Queen K house on Oahu for the Polynesian Cultural Center there, so he was a Big Deal.

Sometimes in the evenings we have a choice on hotel TV of Sky News (all rugby, all the time) and Māori broadcasting networks. Dora says Kia Ora! in Dora Mātātoa, and you can guess most of what SpongeBob Tarau Porowhā is saying even though it doesn’t get any funnier when dubbed. We like the show Lady Who Teaches You Stuff, sort of a panel discussion or quiz show or something where a friendly lady and some teenagers try and practice grammar in the Māori and everyone fails but laughs. It also has the weather, which is more great than it sounds because it has all the indigenous names for places and not “Dunedin”. Finally it has rugby, which is the most Zen-like of the dubbed experiences. The reason it is mindbending is that I understand neither the commentary nor the content and can therefore make very few of my patented clever linguistic inferences. Also one morning there was a heartwarming human interest story about a dual-ethnicity girl of Hawaiian-Māori descent who just won some traditional boat race and was proud to represent her two cultures. Or something.

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