By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Latin music permeated the air as the barista churned out lattes and “flat whites” for caffeine-craving clients. I treated myself to tea and a custard slice. It was spring 2007 and I found myself sitting in the café of Wellington’s public library.
My husband was hiking one of the green paths traversing New Zealand’s capital city. Our daughter, a visiting fifth grader at Karori Normal School, was attending youth group at a local church. Caroline, the energetic college student who facilitated the fun, plied the middle schoolers with candies and cookies as they played team-building games while learning a little about faith.
Pen in hand, I prepared questions for an interview with the director of a faith-based unit at Rimulka Prison. After working with incarcerated women in Vermont, I felt eager to learn about Kiwi reintegration strategies.
Audrey proved gracious and patient, thoughtfully answering each of my questions. I learned that the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, represent a disproportionate percent of inmates. This is not unlike Blacks and Native Americans in the United States. Repeated devaluation and disparagement of a culture—by a powerful, dominant class—penetrates deeply, impacting the collective psyche of a people.
Communal living, sustainable agriculture and a rich tradition of ancestral storytelling revealed themselves as expressions of Maori cultural values. The restorative justice movement is actually inspired by the practices of the Maori and other indigenous peoples.
We visited a Marae, a Maori meeting house. These gathering places evoked a church-like reverence. They are places of celebration, mourning and lessons in accountability when a community member commits an offense and must face his/her people to seek forgiveness.
My vegetarian family passed over meats at a Hangi, a traditional Maori feast. We indulged in bowls of kumara (sweet potato) soup and root vegetables simmered in a pit of heated stones dug into the earth. We practiced, but did not perfect the Haka, a Maori war dance now closely associated with the rugby team the All Blacks.
We visited the Franz Josef Glacier—it was melting—and waded in the Tasman Sea. (The sand fleas were irritating.) We hiked 72 km on the Queen Charlotte Track, fighting off hungry weka birds trying to steal our humble trailside lunches. We spent countless hours at the Wellington Public Library reading books and downing hot chocolate with pink marshmallows.
Our daughter learned she could land in a new school, city, country, and continent and, somehow, find her way. She adjusted to her teacher’s very different teaching style. She experienced “American foreign policy” as more than mere words—it impacted how some people perceived her. Myth-busting and defying stereotypes was part of the gig. Friends like Aperva, Luhama, Charlotte, Emma, and Darin warmly welcomed her into their circle, assuring her a spot in playground games.
Reading, writing, learning, exploring, volunteering and connecting formed our New Zealand to do list during two months that flew by at lightning speed. This was our second sabbatical, following a similar stint in Poland when our daughter was five.
These experiences proved life-changing as we reassessed personal priorities and material needs. Sometimes life feels too busy to sit down and seriously ponder what we hope to accomplish, see and experience in this life. None of us knows how many grains of sand remain in our hourglass.
The “travel bug” seems to cause a persistent itch in our family. Five years have passed since our New Zealand sojourn. Our now 15-year-old daughter asserted herself, spending this year studying at an overseas high school. With leaves secured and backpacks packed, I bid you adieu with plans to send my next dispatch from somewhere along the North Sea. Thanks for reading.