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February 21, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
I paid a quick visit to New Zealand last weekend.
Not the actual New Zealand, but the Aotearoa village at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. We linked up with vacationing family in Kailua, not far from where the president and his family like to spend their vacations.
As opposed to entertaining family on Maui and getting to "play tourist," we were the real thing on our neighbor island. But talking to our Maori guide in the pretend village, we sensed the familiar ties that bind Pacific islanders. Not tourists; more like distant cousins.
The Polynesian Cultural Center, affiliated with nearby Brigham Young University on Oahu's lush, rugged North Shore, is a theme park by day, a feasting place at twilight, and a grand pageant after dark. Six nights a week it presents "Ha - Breath of Life," an epic stage production in an expansive, open-air amphitheater. Primarily through the languages of music and choreography, it fills its mammoth stage with colorful dancers celebrating the customs of their homes in Tonga, Hawaii, Aotearoa, Samoa, Tahiti and Fiji.
"Ha," culminating in spectacular fire dancing, is an engaging marriage of ancient customs and traditions with dramatic stagecraft and the latest tech. Many of the cast members and staffers throughout the center are representatives of their cultures, here on visas and scholarships to attend BYU.
This remnant of missionary days results in what may be the only Hawaiian luau where you can't get a mai tai. While it raises troublesome old questions about the true meaning of terms like "civilization" and "progress," it's a warm, welcoming, illuminating experience nonetheless.
It's also a reminder that the more deeply you delve into any one culture, the more you discover the truths of all cultures. The first Polynesian voyagers to land on the islands now known as Hawaii came from the South Pacific. Maori mythology holds that their earliest ancestors came from Hawaiki in the north. That same mythology of the islands now known as New Zealand venerate a cultural hero named Maui. The myths of the distant islands are eerily similar, despite the thousands of miles separating them, centuries before the advent of modern communications, much less jet planes.
Canoes were the rocket ships of the ancient Pacific, using celestial navigation along with a deep natural wisdom of waves, winds, birds and clouds to "discover" new lands almost a millennium before the Europeans realized the earth wasn't flat.
I've long wondered at how those first voyagers setting out toward an infinite horizon knew they were going to find Hawaii. The Maori believe that their first ancestors were natives of the land masses now known as the Americas. Research points to even earlier origins in Asia.
Watching happy tourists on the canoe ride through the Polynesian Cultural Center, it was hard to get the chorus from the Disneyland ride, "It's a small world, after all," out of my mind.
These days it's movies rather than canoes that connect us. "Whale Rider" is what got the conversation going in the pretend village of Aotearoa. This Sunday, the Academy Awards will once again mark movies as our universal language, the way the world now tells its stories and records its history.
A group of Mauians recently returned from Cambodia where they presented the second annual Angkor Wat International Film Festival. A highlight of the free screenings in the town of Siem Reap, which doesn't even have a real movie theater, was a program of short videos made by children of that country. They had been awakened to the magic and possibilities coming from holding cameras in their small hands for the first time.
These words were written in Kailua, on the island of Oahu, a few blocks from the shave ice stand the president of the United States likes to stop whenever he's in town.
Indeed. A small world after all.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
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