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Going from visitor to friend in one breath

March 11, 2010

It was an evening of song, dance and food, where a group of visitors to New Zealand met for the first time and learnt some of the country’s indigenous culture. I had spent two weeks planning a cultural event for a group of  international students recently arrived in the country. The group had attended a traditional dance show/meal with a local Maori group and now it was time for their verdict.

When the last song had been sung and the last tongue stuck out, I turned to my group of well-educated articulate students and put the question to them.

“Did you enjoy it?”

One by one the comments came — all positive, thankfully. The food was different but enjoyable, the songs beautifully sung, the people very friendly and the dances captivating.

All but one in the group gave me their views. I turned to a tall handsome (naturally) Colombian sitting next to me.

“Alfredo, did you like it?”

No reply. I could see Alfredo was working his way through the evening’s entertainment mentally rating each event before giving his answer.

“I liked everything but the nose kissing.”

“Nose kissing?” I asked, very aware that my quiet voice had just increased by several decibels and risen in pitch.

Alfredo calmly stood up and faced me, gently grabbed  both of my shoulders and moved  his face slowly towards me — and pressed his nose with mine.

“Nose kiss” he repeated.

Smiling, I sat Alfredo down and took him through the journey of the nose kissing action.

The Journey

When Maori greet friends or strangers — traditionally — there is no formal handshake or suffocating bear hug, instead they lightly press their noses together to exchange a hongi.

The significance behind this greeting is the exchange of Ha — the breath of life. Through this exchange the visitor is welcomed and considered tangata whenua, the people of the land. After this greeting both people share in responsibilities and duties for the remainder of the event or stay.

The sharing of breath is believed to come directly from the gods as often told through Maori folklore:

A woman was created by the gods moulding her shape out of the earth. The god Tane (meaning male) embraced the figure and breathed into her nostrils. She then sneezed and came to life. Her name was Hineahuone (earth formed woman).

When the story ended I could see Alfredo was mulling over my words. Although he was full of life and volume around his friends, he was very conservative with strangers. After a short time, Alfredo stood up and exchanged a hongi with everyone in the group including myself. He admitted this was something he couldn’t get used to but wanted to share the new experience with the  group. And maybe, Alfredo took this moment back with him to Colombia. I’ll never know.

The hongi goes much deeper than I’ve written here. I’ve found a short video that can tell you much more than I think I ever could.

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. March 11, 2010 6:59 pm

    It is magical touch which turns a strange visitors into a friend.

  2. March 12, 2010 11:51 am

    I didn’t know the story/meaning behind the nose kiss. Interesting. Reminds me of the recent post I did on how people show love abroad.

  3. March 13, 2010 6:30 pm

    rainfield and Erica – do you have similar things in your countries?

  4. Erica Johansson permalink
    March 14, 2010 10:02 am

    Not that I know of. When greeting friends, we usually just hug. 🙂

  5. March 14, 2010 9:19 pm

    I like this. My daughter and I do that sometimes. Kind of a nice way to be close to one another… From childhood, I remember an “Eskimo kiss” that involved rubbing noses back and forth.

    Heather – just found your comment in the spam box of all places! I remember doing something like this as well. It must have been a global expression between kids.


  6. March 15, 2010 10:58 am

    That picture is absolutely beautiful! I would frame that and hang it on my wall if I were you!

  7. March 20, 2010 1:46 am

    Makes so much sense, the logic behind the ‘nose kiss’. The image is wonderful, serene, and so organic now that I know the story.

  8. March 22, 2010 8:07 am

    Loved this post. Its amazing how much more a cultural act is appreciated when the meaning is made clear.

  9. March 23, 2010 4:17 pm

    Sarah – it is a good picture but I can’t take any credit. In fact I couldn’t find the name of the photographer. Nicely done though isn’t it.

    Anil – Thanks 🙂

    Deb – so true, once you know the meaning things open up and become enjoyable. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. March 26, 2010 12:06 am

    Such a great post – thanks for sharing 🙂

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