Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Two years of anticipation - we finally meet our host families - Days 6-7

As we their team leaders observe our marvelous youth - and we are very proud of them, of their attitudes, of their behaviour, wherever we go - we are glad to see that so far our pilgrimage has been an adventure that manages to keep ahead of their expectations and is generally at a pace to match their youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy.... I can attest to that, no longer being so youthful myself!

I started numbering our pilgrim days at 0 for Wednesday and Thursday July 2-3 our travel days, with our first day on the ground here "down under" in New Zealand being Day 1. So then yesterday Wednesday July 9 was day 6 and we were off again to an early start, reporting at the breakfast area / conference room with our bags. The bus wasn't there and some of us became a little panicky, just a little, wondering whether we had gotten the time wrong, but no, David had gone with the bus to fuel up with diesel.

Many of the pilgrims bought the breakfast for NZ$13 and all who had it two days earlier got a $5 credit because they didn't actually provide enough bacon for everyone.... The rest of us opted to have breakfast from supplies we had accumulated these past few days. We were all in a good mood, in varying degrees of wakefulness, despite the third night in a row at or below zero, but we had gotten the knack of making the best of the room heater and layers of clothing. Some used their sleeping bags over their bed. Finally we were off exactly at 8:30 as scheduled, and our team leaders, guide, and driver were very happy about that, because we had an appointment to visit the Waitomo Caves at 11:00 a.m.

It was a long drive of over 2 hours away, and we observed magnificent landscape. In the far distance dark green tree covered mountains... at their feet rolling towards us energetic rolling hills covered with moist green grass kept quite short by flocks of sheep scattered all over the hill sides and tops, and around Rotorua, herds of dairy cows.... valleys and gulleys in between the hills and in some places brooks and little rivers, with sheep fences all over the place, and pretty little homesteads dotting the landscape here and there.

We pass through little villages and bigger towns, with picturesque and quaint homes.... We are told that in and around Auckland even modest 3 bedroom homes go for at least NZ$350,000. Nothing very big exists for less than that, unless you go into the countryside, but even there, it is hard to find anything for what we would consider a decent price. The cost of living is relatively high here. At first this was a shock to our pilgrims as we went out for meals or shopped at a food market for the fixings we needed to make a meal. However, since we rarely go out for three meals a day, we are remaining within the $35-50 range we originally told our pilgrims, which translates into NZ $45-65.

The Waitomo Caves are known worldwide because their ceilings are covered with glow worms that glow constantly as they burn their waste - they leave no droppings - and lower long sticky filaments with which to catch passing unsuspecting insects, which they then draw up to eat much as a fisherman draws up a fish caught on a fishing line hook. We had stopped just before arriving at the Caves because of the constant winding turns we were taking in the bus as we drove up into the hills, which caused a few to feel a bit noxious.... On arriving, we gathered outside the bus and lined up to await our guide.

I may not have mentioned before, but this is a good spot to do so... Whenever we have found ourselves waiting in line or in between activities, or for others to get back from something, our pilgrims naturally do as they do at home. They "swarm" together... in circles or in a row to chat, sit or lie down together, even nap together, like so many kittens or puppies in a litter.... When they are feeling more energetic, the "Haki Sak" enthusiasts gather in a circle of 5 to 8 or more to try to keep in the air without touching with their hands a little cloth bag the size of a golf ball, only it is soft and half filled with little beads.... It's really quite amazing to see them go at it for an hour on end, like when the first group had returned from white water rafting and had showered and changed and we awaiting the second group to return. The second group had hiked up the trail to observe the first group come over the 7 meter waterfall - not a 90 degree drop but more like a 45 degree rapid that goes down 7 meters - but once the first group was done, some hiked up the trail to observe the second group do it, while others just wanted to get out of their wet suits, boots, spray jackets, and fleece underneath it all....

Getting back to the caves, it was amazing to walk through the caves, up and down staircases put in after they were discovered, explored, and first opened for tours in 1889. Most of the caves are huge, as long as 40 kilometers - your eyes are not deceiving you - while the biggest one we got into here was a mere 80 or so meters long and 35 meters high. It is called the cathedral and has amazing acoustics since the limestone absorbs all the sound and leaves no echo. A number of famous singers have been here to sing in it: the Beatles, Tom Jones, and now St. Luke's Youth Choir! We kept going further down until we came to the home of the glow worms, and took two turns getting into one of two large aluminum boats capable of holding 25 or so. We sat down, did as we were told and kept very quiet and flashed no lights and took no pictures; so as not to spook the flow worms, lest they turn off their little lights.

It was so eerie and peacefully quiet down there, as we slowly drifted under ceilings of glow worms that looked like starry night skies.... When we finally emerged from the caves and walked back down the short trail to the bus, I couldn't help but notice the beautiful large trees in the gully dropping down fairly steeply on our left... for a moment I saw myself in one of the many scenes in The Lord of the Rings where the hobbits travelled through strange forests filled with living, moving trees.... It was so still, so calm and peaceful, so eerie in the half light of the shade under the canopy formed by the branches of the tall trees in the gully and the fern trees on the right.... I walked slowly, quietly, drinking in the sights, colors, stillness, fragrant moist air mixing the perfumes of the trees and plants all around....

One of those timeless moments you know will stay with you for a long time.... It was a kind of feeling mellow, as Helene said when we slowly walked away from the Polynesian Spa where we had soaked in that wonderful series of hot pools the other day... Well, that mellowness lingers with me, with us, and this is one of those moments where I was pleasantly aware of my whole body again in that mellowness, just from the sensory symphony of impressions in this place of marvels....

I believe that each pilgrim has been soaking up such experiences, and many have taken the opportunity to share their impressions with others in twos, threes, fours, etc. etc. and when we are all together....

We finally got ourselves back on the bus and drove back to Otorohangha, I think it was, where we had stopped earlier, only this time it was for lunch. We walked off in little flocks... Matthew wanted to join the others up ahead I could tell, and I accompanied him, as do all the mentors paired with younger pilgrims, and left him with Louis, knowing that this was one time I just couldn't bring myself to eat fast food - Subway - as comforting as it is for them to find something familiar. So I backtracked and found another little flock had gathered in a local grocery store open onto the street in a market like full view entrance and picked up bananas, cream cheese, a pear and made my way back to the bus to get some left over whole wheat bread, a tomato, and an opened jar of pitted olives stuffed with red pepper. When David got back and opened the bus I got those items and sat down at first at a picnic table in the shade and realizing it was around 10 degrees moved into the sun near a coffee shop. Pleasant to eat when you're hungry and warming up in the sun.....

Gradually, all the sheep gathered around the shepherd, Michael, chatting with contented tummies and smiling faces, in little groups, taking photos, and made our way back into the bus for our long drive to Pukekohe and St. Patrick Parish, where we would meet our host families. On the way Helene gave us a singing practice of the French Canadian songs in our songbook that we will sing for our hosts this week. We had a lot of fun not only singing them, but carrying on lively conversations about all that we have been experiencing. It's a wonder that Helene was able to carry on the practice at all, with all the chats going on, and she called on Philippe McAnany, Catherine Millette, Patrick Renaud, and others to help....

As we approached the town, the excitement level noticeably rose and Michael asked us to put on our Canadiens shirts. On arrival Laura Ieraci representing the Catholic Times and the Diocese of Montreal set up her tripod and camera and then we all filed out. There was a delegation of all generations waiting for us on the steps of their Parish Hall and we sang "He Reigns - Awesome God" for them. An elderly Sister from the Convent next door sang a Maori welcome song for us. Words were exchanged, and we were welcomed into the Hall for afternoon tea. How civilized and proper! We got our things off the bus and brought our bags into the Hall and mingled and enjoyed tea, which means tea, coffee, or other drinks such as juices, and cakes and cookies.

After a time, we had a little singing practice and at the same time sang for our hosts, inviting them to join in. Some of their youth also going as pilgrims to WYD 2008 in Sydney joined us. We sang the WYD 2008 theme song "Receive the Power" and several other songs. It's fair to say we raised the roof and warmed many hearts. Then our host families arrived and we were called by name and assigned to our hosts and sent to a table to retrieve our Auckland diocesan Pilgrim kit and an instruction sheet. Once everyone was assigned and announcements made, we all went off to our respective host homes. Seven other pilgrims and myself, including Louis, were assigned to the Tyburn Benedictine Monastery of contemplative Sisters, where they conduct what is called Continuous Adoration, i.e. not perpetual because they aren't enough to cover the week.

We had a lovely supper once we got our things into our rooms and after supper settled in. We joined the sisters for Compline, Night Prayer, at 8:00 p.m. and then went to our rooms. From what I hear, all of the pilgrims are encountering cultural differences of all kinds, from entering into homes without central heating and just electric space heaters in their room, to different diets and different ways of going about domestic activities, to the different climate. It's already dark at 5:30 or 6:00 pm and doesn't get light till around 8:00 am.

This morning we got ourselves breakfast and prepared to be picked up - we are the farthest from the church at around 15-20 minutes - and we gathered around and then went into the church for morning Mass. I went to the sacristy and was warmly welcomed by Fr. Ikenasio Vilaliano, originally from Samoa. I was thankful I kept my woolen sweater I bought a few days ago but regretted taking off my jacket which I could have kept under my alb. I must remember to bring my church cap I wear at St Luke in winter -my head and hands were bitterly cold in this unheated church - it must have been only 5 degrees if that. Still, Mass was lovely, and Jesus was here for us.... The pilgrims broke out in lively chatter and flocked together in the aisle after Mass.

We gathered together outside, the pilgrims chatting and sharing stories, while the leaders briefly met to discuss a few issues experienced overnight. Then we all trooped off for a 15-20 walk (not far our host coordinator Vicky said, just two blocks). She neglected to tell us it was two New Zealand blocks..... to a park where we helped the local Council plant some plants and trees along the sides of a brook to beautify the park, which they have worked very hard over a few years to clean up. The youth and leaders really got into this labor, the first real work we've had to do since we left Montreal. Carly and others also got to hold Vicky's baby before and afterwards in the still moments. A few got their shoes and pants muddy, but nothing that can't be easily remedied, and we were then treated to hotdogs (local sausage) on buttered brown bread we heated on the grill ourselves. Two local young men had grilled and prepared the sausages and napkins. Simplicity, with ketchup, but so satisfying after a good work shift!

There were also lots of bananas, apples, and cookies. Everyone had their water bottles and extra had been provided for those who didn't before we came to the park. Then our group did what they do so well, gathering around, sitting, chatting, playing Haki Sak, a few even climbed a tree to sit and chat... Our youth have enjoyed taking in the local youth and pilgrims.... And now, they have been at the school across the street for a singing practice, which must be over by now. I will continue trying to upload some photos, which is currently happening, and transfer new photos to my memory flash stick.

God bless you, one and all..... Union de priere. Desole que tout est en anglais....

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