Sunday, January 15, 2017

Shangri La

I travel so often it's impossible to remember where in the unmarked Kahului, Maui airport lot I've parked, so I try to stay in one general area and just wander around hitting the "lock" button on my key fob until I hear Puck's aggressive nasal bark from the next row, then wind my way towards him, honking.

I've also driven so many rental cars I often do the same thing in library and grocery store parking lots on neighboring islands, having forgotten what I was assigned by the rental agency, anything from a nondescript beige Hyundai to a convertible New New Beetle to a Mustang with seat heaters and coolers. Hawaiian parking lots are full of Mustangs.

Recently I was on a plane, seated as usual in the window seat, and as we began to taxi I looked out at the rain-wet gray tarmac and it took me a full thirty seconds to remember which island I was leaving and where I was going next. Wet asphalt looks a lot alike no matter where in the world it is.


It's a gray, drizzly Wednesday in early April on the north end of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I'm sitting barefoot at a client's table with my laptop, notes, and manuals spread out before me, drinking tart homemade ginger turmeric kombucha. The living room has a soaring two-story beam ceiling with odd angles, the kitchen is in the same room but partitioned by a low wall with an open top and doorway, and the dining area where I'm ensconced is tucked in an alcove near the back door, where I can see a shotgun leaning. There's a mudroom with a washer and dryer, piles of muddy boots, and hooks holding rain gear and gardening tools. The house is surrounded by a wide covered deck on both stories and old, thick shade trees beyond, so although I'm sitting next to tall windows overlooking the fenced yard, the room is dim.

But it's cozy... rustic hand-woven tapestries line the walls, the living room beyond my table is stuffed with comfortable furniture and books, a clock is ticking cheerfully in the quiet, and everywhere there are figurines, photos, and paintings of goats. Outside in the yard soggy goats lay in the grass, and around the back of the house a shaggy herding dog slinks with one of Kauai's famous pervasive chickens clamped in its jaws. Beyond the porch is a wide grassy field and the blue of the Pacific arcs in the distance.

I haven't seen the goat farmer for at least an hour when she stomps in the mudroom door, overalls dripping with rain and smeared with what I'm pretty sure is ungulate afterbirth. She is panting but cheerful, a compact woman passing middle age, springy. She has cropped gray hair and rough hands and her reaction to everything I say is a grateful sigh. She sells cheese and soap made in a long workshop in front of the house, and always sends me away with a ten-inch grapefruit that hardly fits in my bag.

In the fall she will pass her Level I Distribution exam having only known about the complex water industry for a single year, one of two board members of an agricultural cooperative who stepped up to learn when their water source became a regulated public system. The other board member who steps up will get the highest score in the state on that round of exams.

He is another charming farmer with old mainland secrets to outrun, a sly pirate grin, and a small curly dog named Panda who follows him everywhere. On my first visit, we stop at his home to take a water sample. In the pineapple field that flanks the driveway he plucks a ripe fruit from between the spines of its ground-growing mother plant. When he hands me a slice it is sun-warm, white, and the sweetest natural thing I have ever tasted, so sugary it makes my head spin. We flush the water line and share pineapple with Panda, whose white fur is stained rust orange from the pervasive red dust of disturbed Hawaiian soil. His wife tries to hire me as a farm worker; the hippies never stay long. He sends me away with a bag of sweet, candied pineapple.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.


July finds me on Oahu, headed to a system belonging to the Catholic church. It's run by a smart, friendly Swede who gives me a tour of the whole diocesan center (but not the convent), including an exquisite dining room overlooking Maunawili, the wide Kawanui marsh, Kailua and Kaneohe Bay. At the end of the main drive is a marble courtyard with a fairy tale well and a statue of the Virgin Mary draped in leis. His workshop is full of vintage handmade woodworking tools to tend to all the hand-carved koa wood features in the chapel, including the massive, ornate doors.

I drive from Honolulu to the system over Highway 61 and take a right onto Nu'uanu Pali Drive. It's not marked as an alternative route to the Nu'uanu Pali State Wayside (pali, of course, means cliff) but I figure since the names match I'll risk it, because there's a building visible from the highway that I want to see closer. It turns out to be the Toho No Hikari church and it is worth the detour, a bizarre white construction at the top of a stepped garden hill, with a massive curved platform supported by spindly columns fronting what could be a tidy white two-story 70's apartment building. I continue up the side road and am rewarded with a slim, winding drive along Lulumahu Stream, shaded by a tunnel of jungle, with plenty of muddy hiking trails I'll attempt on subsequent trips in inappropriate footwear.

It should be noted that Hawaiian folklore holds that it's bad luck to carry pork over the Pali Highway due to a feud between the goddess Pele and a half man, half hog god named Kamapua'a.

I make it to the Pali overlook and park among the other rental cars and tour buses. A sign warns, "Beware of bees in high wind." I assume this is because it agitates them, but later realize it turns them into pellet-sized projectiles that nearly bruise when they hit you, and there is never not high wind at the Pali. The trade winds are so strong up the canyon that tunnels had to be built in the hillside to bypass it. You can lean into it and not fall forward.

The view of the valley and the windward shore is immense. Towering cliffs rise on either side of the canyon, parallel to the water, and the drop is 1,000 feet straight down. The wind is the only sound and the trees grow horizontally. I realize why it feels so haunted when I read that here King Kamehameha I won the island of Oahu when his warriors drove nearly 800 of the defending men over the cliff to their deaths. He had cannons and artillery given to him by Captain George Vancouver. Excavations to build the highway below uncovered countless skulls.

At the edge of the Pali parking lot there's a gnarled tree with low branches full of wary feral cats.

Despite this, there are chickens and roosters everywhere.


In August Joy and I make our way through Volcanoes National Park from Hilo towards the southern tip of the Big Island, somewhere near Pahala. To reach the home of the board treasurer, we pass the Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling Buddhist temple, where the Dalai Lama keeps a room (that he may or may not visit), and cross several dry creek beds with no culverts, winding up a single-lane road into the rainforest. The big island of Hawaii has at least nine different climate zones, and can look like northern Nevada or deepest Amazon in a matter of miles. Right now the 13,250-foot summit of Mauna Loa is closed due to snow fall and the many bulbous (and controversial) telescope facilities are hunched in the drifts.

This is another agricultural cooperative, and to get to this kitchen table we have to pass through what the farmer laughingly calls a "chicken airlock," another cardboard-lined mudroom with two doors so if one of the hundred friendly chickens from the yard get in the first door they can be shooed out before opening the second. Inside we kick off our flip-flops (slippahs), as in all Hawaiian homes, and I make friends with a large orange cat.

Like the first farmer, this one is a marvel of pioneer spirit and ingenuity. She tosses back her long graying braids and makes us coffee she grew, harvested, and roasted herself in a massive iron drum in the backyard. The flavor is rich in ways I can't describe, dark and spicy. She gives us liquid sugar stripped from her own cane and goat milk and fresh cookies made with flour she and a neighbor grind themselves from bulk wheat, eggs from her own chickens, home-churned butter (goat or cow, who knows?) and chocolate nibs from, yes, her own cacao tree.

She and another board member, a sweet, genuine fellow who is ostensibly also a coffee farmer but more likely grows pot, describe their problem and we work out a solution to appease the State. The rain starts coming hard and heavy and we have to leave before the road washes out. They are frequently stranded for days at a time, so I suppose it pays to be self-sufficient. She sends us home with coffee beans.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.


On a brutally humid September day I'm hiking in the jungle of West Maui. Recent heavy rains have demolished roads leading to tanks in the foothills of Haleakala, and I'm walking a thin tightrope of gravel above an 8-foot drop on either side, supported only by a 4-inch water main. The truck is behind us, hidden behind uncultivated banana trees and monstera, palms, invasive albizia and tulip trees draped in vines, and other jungle plants.

An operator and I are trekking to a tank the State inspector couldn't (wouldn't) reach, having just climbed two dangerous tanks. The first tanks is 30-feet high via a questionable ladder with rusting welds and rungs, and so decayed the roof can hardly support the weight of its own iron hatch, let alone two people. We somehow manage to photograph and replace the seal on the hatch anyway, propped on the rim, despite the fact that there are pukas -- holes -- the size of softballs in the sides of the tank that any crawling or flying thing, gecko or bird or insect, could get into. The second tank is a cylinder on its side, 14 feet high via an unsecured ladder, so slick with rain-soaked algae we have to slide on our butts to get to the hatch on the curved surface.

As the road into the jungle ends we make our way through a field of waist-high yellow ginger blossoms that smell like heaven, citrus and peppery and sweet. The bees ignore us, drunk on pollen, and the jungle birds trill and shriek. We find the runoff from the overflowing tank, a heavy stream coming straight down what trail there is. We're ankle-deep in red mud but push on. At the tank we open the control cabinet and find a wire corroded through, interrupting the message to stop the pump. We have no tools (why?) but I pop the metal clip off my pen and we have a makeshift screwdriver, and manage to rewrap the connected end of the wire around the screw and tighten it in. Pump stopped. The tank is plastic, smart for the jungle (metal rusts, concrete dissolves) but old and beginning to crack and leak. I recommend to the State it be abandoned, which is no hardship for the system. It's too much of a contamination risk.

On the way back to town the operator points out Kris Kristofferson's house and in thick pidgin tells me a side-splitting story about being the guinea pig as his daughter learned cosmetic waxing. He takes off his shirt to show his completely hairless back and chest, lifts his pants to the knee to show denuded shins. "I don't say no anything free. Da kine call me mo'o [gecko] for da week." He also fell asleep drinking at a friend's kitchen table the night before and some little girls painted his toenails pink, which he proudly displays as he changes out of his muddy boots into slippahs. I'm laughing so hard I'm crying. "Feel some kane [man], eh? No mahu [homosexual*], no care."

Back at his home he offers me food -- you never go hungry in Hawaii -- but I want to make the drive back along the 300-plus hairpin turns before dark (later to realize it's actually better in the dark, because you can see oncoming vehicles by their headlights). He sends me home with banana bread.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.

*In Hawaiian, references to trans or homosexual people are not usually derogatory, and Pacific islanders in general have a history of accepting what they would have simply thought of as a "third gender" before the culture-crippling onslaught of Christianity and modern mainland influence. 42% of Hawaiians identify as religious, with the majority Catholic. (In fact the best time to go to Costco is Sunday when everybody's at church, after the morning liquor rush as the early flights from the mainland arrive and tourists stock up on rum and wine before heading to Kihei and Lahaina.) One's ability as a warrior or fisherman was the metric by which men have been measured, and before European invasion it was a matriarchal society anyway. This sits fine with me.


Anonymous Eugene K said...

Did you ever imagine you would be living in Hawaii? I recall when I first stumbled across your blog, it was all Wyoming all the time.

February 16, 2017 at 8:06 AM  
Blogger A said...

Funny... I can't remember when Wyoming grew too small for me. I've always had Dad's gypsy gene, and I love southern California beyond reason as well and had intended to head back there sometime. Still do.

Maybe when I met Brent and we decided to give it a go but also that Wyoming wasn't ideal. I remember looking at jobs in many places: Finger Lakes in upstate New York, Massachusetts, California, even Kansas... we wound up in Sacramento and then Tacoma, but I do remember looking at Maui as far back as that, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I had never been here and still thought Honolulu was on the Big Island.

My next stop might be Iceland. ; )

February 27, 2017 at 5:59 PM  

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