Dr Russell - Christchurch, New Zealand - 6 Mar 2011
Our last day before leaving and we had a day at a local Maori Marae (spiritual home). We weren't sure what to expect but had been told no mobile phones and no hats - that was about it. We arrived at the Marae which was close in appearance to a small church and were sung to by the congregation as we were walked inside in a slow procession. There was then further singing and prayers and verses in Maori, translated to English for our benefit. We were told of the Maori history and the link between the Maori and other cultures, including ours. We were welcomed in as part of a shared family and thanked for what we had done. We were 'invited' (we'd been warned!) to sing in return and a few songs were delivered including "Amazing Grace" and "You'll Never Walk Alone". Various individuals from the congregation, the Maori contractors we'd worked with, and our team, then stood up individually to speak about how they felt and what the last couple of weeks had meant to them. One of our ISAR team, Gareth, is an accomplished bass choirist and sang a beautiful solo of "My Little Welsh Home," winning a standing ovation and single handedly made up for the pretty terrible collective efforts of the rest of us.
When the ceremony was over, we moved as a slow snaking line along the congregation, starting with the senior elder and touching noses with everyone in turn following Maori convention, with many words of thanks and support being passed to and fro. Many commented that they found the day very therapeutic and felt happy, comfortable and settled as a result. It did strike me that this embracing of two (on the face of it) very different groups of people in this way was incredibly powerful and I wondered whether we'd have quite as much strength of community spirit in the modern UK after such a disaster.
Having left the building, the mood was lightened and we were treated to a meal cooked in the traditional Hangi: slow-cooked lamb, vegetables, eel and steamed puddings, in an underground oven over several hours. This was followed by some more singing and the hilarious spectacle of 60 firefighters being taught (with the elders' permission) the Haka. Many laughs all around.
Also had a chance to speak to the parents of one of the ladies who had died in the PGC building who spent the day with us.
After final photographs, we bade farewell and thanks to our tremendous hosts and left with a sense of both completion and well-being. A great day in many different ways.