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Māoritanga: Keeping The Māori Culture Alive

There’s no visiting the geologically fascinating land of Rotorua without delving into the historically fascinating world of the Māori culture.

Maori new zealand

What is the Māori Tribe?

Going in blind, all I knew of the Māori culture was their intimidating war chant and the face paint (which I learned later are actual face carvings) the men and women would wear. That’s about it. We were eager to learn a bit more. Who are they? How did they come to be? Are they still prominent today? We were eager to know and there was no leaving Rotorua until we did so.

If I were on my own, living in New Zealand for a while, I would get to investigating through the locals I end up befriending. But since I was on my own, with three friends and limited on time, the best way to learn about the Māori culture is to go through one of their special tours. Now I’m usually not a fan of regular ol’ tours, generally speaking, so we made sure to find one that was the most “in your face” as possible. After speaking to a friendly local in a travel center, he suggested we try out Tamaki Māori Village.

The tour would begin hours later in the day with plenty of hours to spare beforehand. What shall we do before?

“Have you guys gone luging yet?” asked the friendly travel guide.

“Luging?” I mumbled perplexed. “What the heck is that?”

Welcome to RotoVegas!

All it took was a simple gesture of a brochure and a recommendation from a local friend of mine who suggested luging to me briefly prior, to decide that it was the thing to do. There is a hill nearby that hosts an attraction called Skyline Luge Rotorua in the heart of the weirdly named RotoVegas. Why is this place called RotoVegas? It doesn’t resemble the real Vegas even in the slightest, but whatever. I was just glad to luge down a hill—something I’ve never done before. Chelsey, Mike, Ryan, and I each bought a ticket for three downhill runs each. One for the beginner, intermediate, and advance course. A gondola and a ski lift was our ticket to the top of the hill.


Helmets waited for us at the top. They were color specific according to head size. I immediately went for the orange one, the biggest one for my watermelon noggin.

The courses were straightforward—linear paths down the mountain with a few light turns here, some banks there, and a couple sharp turns painted with yellow Slow Down warnings. Steering the kart was easy to learn too—push forward to accelerate, pull towards your body to brake, and steer by turning the handles.

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We first went down the beginner course, next the intermediate, and finally the advanced. With each course we gained confidence in our steering and thus our speed increased which meant more fun!

Processed with Snapseed.

We took the gondola back down and drove to the Tamaki Māori Village Center our gateway to the Māori.

Enter Tamaki Māori Village

The Tamaki Māori Village Evening Experience, that is what they call it. Compared to other Māori culture tours, this one is completely immersive from start to finish—which is exactly what we wanted. A charter bus whisked us away from the heart of Rotorua into the Tamaki Māori village, huddled in one of the regions many forests. A group of us entered the sacred grounds and greeted fiercely by warriors practicing their ancient ceremony of welcome before entering the main grounds.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

After the welcoming ceremony, our big group was split into several smaller groups and directed to different parts of the village where we would learn different aspects of the culture. The first area was warrior training where all the men in the group learned a quick series of motions for intimidating the enemy. The poi dance area is the one Chelsey got involved in. Poi dance is the art of swinging spherical weights attached to a small rope in different patterns and circular motions. Of course, Chelsey was a natural.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

Other areas of the village involved warrior training, games, weaving, and face/body markings (almost like a tattoo).


What stuck with me about the markings are that men usually get a permanent face marking called a Ta Mono, carved in a distinct pattern on the skin. The men practically cover their faces while the women mainly get them solely on their chin as not to cover their natural beauty. Captain James Cook, a British explorer who was the first to record a circumnavigation around New Zealand, described the markings as follows:

“The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same, no two were formed alike on close examination.”

maori rotorua

The markings on the Māori people who hosted us put on a full display when they put on dazzling, yet fearsome performances involving song and dance for the crowd.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

The village ended with a giant feast of sorts. Actually, it is called a hangi buffet meal mixed with New Zealand desserts. Since we arrived a little later to the village, we missed the whole process of how our hangi meat has been cooked from beneath the ground. What mattered to me more was eating it rather than learning how it was prepared anyways.

Creating Awareness

The Māori are settlers from Polynesia who arrived by canoes between 1250 and 1300 CE. Today, most of the Māori people live in New Zealand with much lesser populations living in Australia, the U.K, United States, and Canada among others. A popular expression in New Zealand is “kia ora” , which is of a Māori language known as Te Reo, literally means “be well/healthy” or can also be translated as an informal “hello”. We’ve been saying “kia ora” all over the place in New Zealand, which indicates a certain respect for the Māori culture exists to this day. With advancements in human resource and technology, invading age-old systematic, the Māori culture has been in a state of decline involving matters of economy and social sustainability. However, strong recognition in the importance of the Māori culture and it’s relevance to New Zealand as a whole is of value and efforts have taken place to preserve their unique and mythological culture by creating awareness such as the Tamaki Māori tour, which I highly recommend!

maori rotorua

We ended the night with full bellies and an eagerness to explore more of the North Island. We could have stayed a few extra days in the sulphuric odorous region of Rotorua with plenty more to do, but other areas of interests peaked our curiosity. The area that peaked the apex of my curiosity in New Zealand takes place in Waitomo, an area to the west known for its many glowworm caves. Inside those caves is something that I have been hankering to do since 2011 that I’ve heard about from another traveler while in Peru.

Get ready, it’s legendary and it’s item number four on my A.T.L.A.S.

Teacher from Outer Space

Sometimes strangers from strange places come into your life and change it forever. For this group of young Guatemalans, I was that stranger who came into their lives from out of nowhere.

When I arrived in Guatemala back in December, Roxy and I were the very first teachers of a new after-school English teaching program. We were thrown into the trenches of a mix of different locals, some with excellent English but most with little to none. Now, six weeks later, my very short stint was coming to an end and I’ve grown completely attached to all my youngin’s.


The past couple of weeks at the school, new volunteer teachers have been introduced. I’ve had full reigns of every class prior but had to give up some classes to the new guys. Since then, I’ve become something like a principal of the school. I assigned each student to their permanent classes, observed the other teachers to make sure they were teaching properly, and handled any problems associated with attendance and classroom structure. Principal Sellers at his finest!


For my last day at the school, I wanted to take a break from teaching and put together a fun time for everyone. It was also Ben’s last day, so he and I took the chicken bus to Alotenango early and loaded up on sweets and treats. We bought two piñatas for the younger classes and filled them with an assortment of colorful candies.



Soon the students began to arrive, knowing full well that it was my, Ben, and Luke’s last day with them. “No class today!”I told them much to their delight. We spent all afternoon with music, snacks, photos, and ultimately piñatas.



The oldest class arrived later. I’ve kept them as my own class since the very beginning and got them used to a weekly structure of new material. Each of them improved quite a bit since. I didn’t have a piñata for them, but instead we played games involving lots of candy, cookies, and cans of cokes as rewards.

The older class. I kept them since the very beginning.
The older class. I kept them since the very beginning.

I laid down the foundation for future volunteers to follow. A couple of the newer teachers have been spending the past few classes observing me and my methods. Hopefully everything Roxy and I started on the first day will trickle through from here on out: to learn English, but to have fun doing it!

Just like every time I say goodbye to my students in whatever country I’m in, it’s mighty tough. I did what I needed to do here and once that goal was accomplished, it meant that it was time to me to move on and meet others who need a little inspiration from this stranger from a strange land.


I only have a few more days left in Guatemala before I set my eyes on the next phase of this global journey. With me, I’m taking all the good memories that came from this school and adding it to my plethora of memories from my teaching experiences all around the world.

I’ll have some information to reveal later as far as to what the next phase of this worldwide adventure has from me.

And when I tell you, you’ll think that I’m absolutely insane!

The One

The whole volleyball tournament I put together for the students was a lie. I already knew which team was going to get the prize before I even established the teams. I knew from the very beginning that every team that participated was going to “win”. The tourney was just a giant ruse I used as an excuse to pump some much needed athletic competition into this school. I didn’t tell them that though. I wanted them to play to win. And after it was all said and done, I’d say it was a big success. The rivalries ran rampant between the older classes during the days where we didn’t play.

I also knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do something special for these kids. Volunteer teachers come and go here, but I wanted to make sure that I stood out. I wanted to be that one teacher, the students would never forget. Previous volunteer teachers have given to the school itself: a new computer, painted walls, even a new classroom. I donated money to the school to help setup a Wi-Fi connection, but that’s something I fear the students won’t even get any use out of at all. It’s mainly for the teachers–and what they will do with that is beyond me. So instead of donating something else to the school, I wanted to do something directly for the students. These students who go to school six days out of the week and spend a good chunk of their time at home doing homework and village chores. I wanted them to be a kid for a moment. And I thought throwing them a giant party they would never forget would do the trick.


I told Zahra all about the idea to throw a giant picnic/feast/party for the kids and she thought it was a great idea and thankfully I had her to help me set this up. We went down to the city center of Pokhara and to the supermarket. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for exactly but I had an idea. I knew I was going to purchase a lot so I emptied both my big and small backpacks and brought it with me to fill up. There were exactly 50 students who “won” the prize and that’s a whole lot of mouths to feed. The party isn’t for a few days still so I couldn’t buy anything cold because refrigerators don’t exist in the village. It would all have to be dry food. This was going to be harder than I imagined.

After a couple hours in the supermarket, I wound up with six 2.5 liters of party size pepsi bottles, 10 loaves of white bread, 4 jars of peanut butter, 4 jars of jam, 60 paper cups, 3 giant bags of chips, 2 tins full of cookies, a giant sack full of assorted sweets, and three cans of chicken sausages. It was a lot of stuff, but I still needed more! I went upstairs to the toy department looking for something I can explode in the air. Low and behold, there were bottles of silly string, canisters of snow spray and tubes of confetti and rose petals that burst in the air when you twisted them. I bought it all! The kids would love it!

The hardest part was lugging everything back up to the village. My bags were filled and super heavy. We also had to be careful not to squish the bread and not to crush the chips. We spent the evening before the party making 50 peanut butter and jam sandwiches. We took that and the rest of the supplies up to the school the next morning.

Zahra and I hard at work!
Zahra and I hard at work!

I asked grades 7, 8, and 9 to come down the terrace fields near the school as soon as seventh period starts. I found the perfect spot for the picnic party, along the bottom of a series of terraces, overlooking this portion of the mountain and Fewa Lake down below. The scenery was great, the weather was warm, and the sky was cloudless. I don’t think I could have found a better spot nearby. During sixth period, Zarah and I took all of our supplies down to the terrace and started to setup. We found a large rock that had a flat top that we used as our table to pour all the drinks.


Soon, we saw the students starting to make their way down to us, carrying the large speaker box the school uses every morning for their national anthem. I asked the students to bring it down to play music.

The students making their way down the terraces.
The students making their way down the terraces.

We handed each student a cup of pepsi and a sandwich. We had plenty of pop to spare for seconds and even thirds. I handed out a bag of chips to each grade and tossed the cookies to the crowd, along with the chicken sausages. After eating, I gathered all the students in a large group around, played the music which was upbeat club music the kids here listened to, and twisted some of the party tubes I bought until confetti exploded in the air and danced all around them. They really loved that!


As the music played, I handed Zahra one of my many bottles of silly string and told her “Do with this as you want!” Or in other words, spray the living $h!% out of the kids! As some were still eating or drinking or dancing, Zahra and I ran around the students and sprayed them all over the place in which they screamed like giddy little kids. The good kind of screams. Many of them wanted to try and spray for themselves but I knew they would try and spray me if I did that.



I also had bottles that sprayed “snow” in the air. I lifted up two bottles, pointed them into the sky, and let em rip!



Out came streams and clumps of white stuff which looked like soap suds. The kids really loved this part. They’ve never seen anything like it before!




After several minutes when the suds began to disappear, I stood on a platform with a sack full of candy and gathered all the students around.


I reached into the sack and pulled out a handful of sweets, chocolates, gums, and fruit flavored candies much to the kids amazement. I threw it up into the air over the crowd of school uniforms. They rose their hands in the air as if they were going to catch some! None of them did.



The candy fell all around them and as it happened, the kids buckled down to the ground, pushing, shoving towards the sugary treats. As they did that, I threw more and more candies into the air, in different spots. The kids were scattered all over the place, scrambling and lunging over the grass. I’m not sure who got how many of what, but I do know that everyone got something. I had bought a whole lot of candy to ensure everyone got something.



After the candy fest, I filled up the kids with more pop and started smearing extra peanut butter on their faces. That quickly backfired when they would smear it back onto my face! I smelled like peanut butter for the rest of the day, but all in good fun. We turned up the music louder and now that everyone was sugared up and in party mode, more dancing began within the girls while the boys played makeshift soccer with the empty cookie tins.




Everything was gone. All the drinks, the food, the sprays, the sweets, the explosives, all gone which was meant there was nothing to carry back up! I managed to gather all the students out for a giant group photo. These guys are great!



Time flew by and before we knew it, we heard the cowbell ring. School has been dismissed but these kids wanted to continue dancing among the terrace. As they did, rows of tiny school children looked on from way above. I felt a little bad that the rest of the students couldn’t experience this, but this wasn’t cheap! I could only manage to handle the older classes that I knew the best. Mina looked on and waved us to comeback. I think she needed the speaker back to lock up in the office. We all climbed back up the terraces. Zarah and I had large bags of trash in our hands going up the whole way while a group of students lugged up the heavy speaker.

The students told me how much fun they had and thanked me for such a great time. They haven’t been able to do something like that before.

“You all deserved it,” I told them.


Mission accomplished.

Speak 2 Me

Another early morning at the Thapa household means another early morning being woken up by our human alarm clock, Aakash. I’ve almost come to welcome it. It’s not just Aakash but also his older sister Amisha who spits a million Nepali words a second, shouting to someone as if they were in another room 30 yards away. It’s all part of a typical morning at my home stay. I wake up, the kids bring me tea or coffee, I lounge for a bit, brush my teeth, rinse my face, get dressed, and eat dal bhat breakfast. I have yet to take a shower here in the mountain and I probably never will. The water is Antarctica cold and the shower isn’t really a shower. It’s a hole that just happens to have water come out of it. I’m a stinky smelly boy up here but surprisingly still I never smell half as bad as the students at the school.


“Dan…,” called Principal Aatma from the door of the computer lab. “The accounting teacher is absent. Can you teach accounting to grade 9?”

“Yeah,” I answered. I’m pretty sure I can just teach whatever is in their text books. I was just happy to have a class to myself.

When I went into the grade 9 room, the students asked if I were their teacher. I said ‘yes’ and received claps and cheers. I asked them to take out their accounting book. They told me they didn’t have an accounting book and that the teacher usually just teaches off the top of his head. I’m pretty sure the accounting here is way different from the accounting I learned back home, so I thought I’d scrap that and try a totally different subject: Public Speaking.

“Okay guys,” I said to them. “I’ve noticed over the past couple of weeks that when you read out loud in English, that it is very fast and to me it sounds like a completely different language.”


The students were as silent as the night, each with their eyes fixed on me as I spoke in front of the them. “When you move onto high school, you’re gonna have to give speeches and presentations in front of large groups and even when you’re a little older, you’re going to have to be able to speak properly and with confidence if you really want to stand out from everyone. It makes all the difference.”

The students showed me faces of agreement and when I called out the students that I mentioned spoke really fast, they laughed in shyness.

I doubt the students will learn about this in their high school courses. This was pulling off the top of my head, but I had the students jot quick notes and had a few practicing by talking a bit about themselves in front of the class, but using the tips I just taught them. Of course, I had to lead by example by telling them about myself. I’m not the don of public speeches. As a matter of fact, I hate speaking in front of groups of people. But when the times call for it, I know what to do. It’s different being in front of a classroom to myself. All my anxiety of speaking in front of others disappears. If these students don’t believe my presence when I speak in front of them, then they won’t take my lesson to heart. The period flew by and I had their attention the entire time. I asked them to keep their notes because for when their teacher is absent again, we’ll pick up where we left off.

I’d have to say the grade 9 class is my favorite so far. They are comprised of mostly girls, but man are they funny! The five boys in the class are quiet but always have their heads in the books compared to the boys in the other grades. Grade 8 would be one of my favorites too, but there’s one student in the class who ruins it for everyone. His name is Milan and he’s a troublemaker. He likes to talk back to the volunteers, but in Nepali so we can’t understand what he’s saying. He’s constantly chattering and arguing with the other students as well. He’s a good kid when he wants to be but most of the time he’s a pain. Then there’s the class of grade 7, another favorite of mine. All boys and only two girls.


The two girls have bonded together well since they are the only females representing grade 7, surrounded by a bunch of rowdy boys. The boys in this class have a tighter connection with each other than the rest of the grades and it shows especially when it comes to volleyball.


Over the past week or so, I’ve managed to rally the older classes together to hold a volleyball tournament over the next few weeks. Only grades 7 through 9 would participate, with the boys facing the boys and the girls facing the girls. Aatma welcomed the idea of a little competitive spirit and let me run the entire tournament. It’s nothing serious. It’s just something for the students to look forward to and will help give a much needed dose of school pride amongst Bal Prativa. Each Friday, school ends at 1:30pm so afterwards I invited the whole school out to the field for friendly matches. This would let me work out even teams, who can and wants to play, and to propose team captains to a boy and girl in each grade. I also invited a team of students from a rival school to participate with my students. The other younger grades showed up to support their respective schools when they played against the rival school. I played referee since the Nepali volleyball rules were jacked, I implemented organized, yet fair rules. Rallys and rotations. The day turned out to be a massive success!


Next week we would begin the official teams and begin the tournament with the older classes!



Thank You

Before I came to Africa, I knew I would spend a size-able portion of my money on getting the kids I met a substantial amount of school supplies, so I included that into my budget. I never thought to ask people for donations because…honestly, I don’t know why; I have no good reason. I figured I had enough saved up to buy a lot for them already. A couple of weeks ago, some friends read about all the great things I was doing for these kids and wanted to help out. One of those friends, Kelly Ellsworth, suggested I open a PayPal account so she and others could donate money and help out too. I already planned on getting these kids a lot, but now with their donations I could get them lots more! Thanks to all of you who have sent these kids money, I was able to buy them a few extra thousand Rand worth of goods in addition to the few thousand Rand I had already put aside for them! Now the next step was to find out exactly what these kids needed. How about everything haha! I personally asked some of the teachers at my school and they suggested a few things that they were in desperate need for. The main item: pencils!

You won’t believe how difficult it is to find a pencil with a rubber (eraser) on top of it in South Africa! In the States, you can go anywhere and buy a pack of reliable pencils, but not here; you have to hunt for them. I’ve bought pencils for a few classes before, but they would lose or break them within a day or two. It’s unsettling to know these children aren’t very responsible with their things, but hopefully at least with my elite eight, I can tell them how much money people have given up to get them nice things and hopefully they will be more careful with them and appreciate it more. I planned on taking an early leave from school on Monday to go into town and buy everything. Oh yeah by the way, on my way into town, three guys made an attempt to mug me. Let’s just say, they need to try harder next time. True story. But anyways…

I went wandering around Stellenbosch to see where I could get the most bang for my buck. I found a few places, relatively near each other. One of the places, Juves Bookstore, had a lot of things my kids needed and the manager was very cooperative and even game me a 10% off discount because I spent so much. I had bags and bags of stuff, too heavy to carry around. I didn’t even think of this fact prior to. I had to hire a taxi to lug me around town with all my things, and also make a few stops along the way to other stores. I bought tons of things though. Here’s a rundown of supplies I bought for them: packs and packs of notebook paper, piles of notepads, black and blue pens, coloring pencils, coloring markers, big rubbers, little rubbers, big pencil sharpeners, little pencil sharpeners, folders, filers, plastic sleeves, drawing paper, glue sticks, pencil cases, white-out markers, labels, backpacks, easy read magazines, highlighters, rulers, book covers, and a truckload of pencils, some with rubbers on top and some without. It wasn’t just all school supplies, I also got them each several dozen action comics (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, etc), Ben 10 stickers, bags of candy, and a couple of paperback books. These boys would be entering high school soon, so I bought them each some Axe Body Spray to attract the ladies and packs of minty fresh gum to keep those ladies around ;). Knowing these guys, the gum will probably be gone by the next day though. That’s not all, I owned a few things they liked that I decided I would give to them. My rugby balls, my portable speakers, my wrestling belt, and some shirts that had the University of Michigan logo on them. I even drew them each a picture of their favorite Dragonball Z character, with a personalized note from myself (I will give those out to them right before I leave.) The amount of school supplies I bought each of them should last for more than a whole school year. Besides taking care of my group of kids, I thought I should at least spread some love to my grade 6. I bought each learner in grade 6 and 7 a pencil and rubber and I even had enough to distribute to the grade 5 classes.

I couldn’t fit everything on this table.

After school on Monday, I told the boys to come over because I had something I wanted to show them. I never told them that I would be getting them all of this stuff. One by one they all came over and saw the table and floor full of school supplies. They looked like kids on Christmas Day! But before that, I took them all into Stellenbosch and got everyone one of my favorites desserts in the world, Cinnabons! They never had it before but loved it almost as much as I do haha! I took them to lunch, or probably dinner at this point to McDonalds (yeah yeah I know). Soon we made our way back to Zulu’s. I gave each of them a bag and distributed the items as evenly as possible. Over these past few weeks with them, I had to keep telling them to say ‘please’ and ‘ thank you’ because they rarely ever said it. That night when I gave them all those things, they were full of ‘thank you’s’, which I was happy to hear. I had to explain to them, that a few people, including myself have paid a lot of money to buy all these things for them so they needed to be responsible and take care of it all. I think they understood because they were silent and completely focused on me when I was telling them. Usually they stay over until around 8 or 9, but they all wanted to run home to their parents and show off their things, which was completely fine.

About a week or two ago, Chris came up with the idea to start some kind of education fund for these kids to help them out because they really need it. Setting up a PayPal was a baby step in the right direction but we are currently in the midst of figuring out the best way to execute the idea. That may take some time, but once we figure something out, we’ll be sure to let everyone know!