June 28 - May 18 2012 / Hawaii: Ancient Culture, Ever-Renewing Land
In Which We Visit Three Islands, and See the Transit of Venus Across the Sun
So we are flying first class, which turns out to be pretty nice indeed—not worth the extra money we would have had to pay—we are using miles—but quite nice since we have, in a sense, already paid for it.
Doesn’t matter, though—takeoff is still horrible. I do my usual trick of finding something GREEN to look at in the magazine, usually an ad of some kind. I stare at an image of green to calm myself, and now I use my mantra, Green Trail, too, saying it over and over.
The improbable metal tube lumbers down the runway and as soon as we are airborne, is surrounded by thick gray, enclosing us and all our thoughts.
Then I see vague cloud patterns and then o joy a blaze of rising sun right into my eyes. There are ripples and waves of cloud below, and I imagine what they might look like from the ground. We joke about our luxurious seats, and try to find out how to get the “tray-table” to work. A slash of robin-egg blue now pierces the gray, and land is faintly seen through the haze. I decide against looking just behind my window at the engine and the wing, which quiver and bounce disconcertingly.
We rise to 38,000 feet and above the cloud layer the neon blue sky, darkening as it rises, frames the landscape. There are cloud islands below, like intricately-patterned fish seen while snorkeling.
Ahead is a strange cloud formation, I guess it is clouds although for a while I try to make it a fine landscape of a bluff and snow-covered peaks, and soft piles of rock like hoodoos. The still-low early sun makes shadows of erupted cloud towers.
After a while the tidy forms of farmland appear, cut with regular irregularities, like strange Escher drawings. There’s a huge river! We don’t fly this route often, if ever, so it is unfamiliar, this terrain so elegantly revealed. I notice that there seems to be farming in the wide river-bottoms, the flood plains I guess those are. You can see it all, laid out, from up here.
So now at Dallas, hated and despised Dallas (if you are of my generation you do not forget), I got myself a giant and totally sinful chocolate milkshake for breakfast. ‘Course, I had steelcut oatmeal and artistically-arranged fruit on the plane in our first class. It’s funny really—we are both first class people and steerage people. OK, so eight hours and some to Honolulu, overnight in an airport hotel, and tomorrow morning a short flight to Kauai.
Oooo, a long long flight yesterday, from Dallas. But the first class seats, weird though they were (wait! Where are you taking my feet!!! you poke the little raised virtual buttons and suddenly are moved all about, sort of like a hospital bed)—anyhow, in spite of those nearly-reclining seats, and the dark (dismal, for it was actually lovely daylight outside and the ocean there to study below), in spite of that, I slept only really a few minutes. One steward—they were absurdly attentive—one guy, nervous, barely contained (was he on something?), wore a long lei of kukui nuts, those brilliant black nuts that my precious Mother brought me so many years ago—he wore one, and I commented on it, but turned out it was plastic, the real ones fall apart so fast you know, he told me. There was a wee crying baby and a stoic and nice man next to it and its mother, but the rushing white noise cancelled that out, and anyhow it wasn’t my problem to deal with. Nice meals, real “china” and napery, endless [real] glass of wine, etc. etc. Wish we could have this on the twice-as-long flight in the fall to Bali.
Then landing, messy transfer to hotel as usual, why can’t they organize these better) and the room, and collapse. Later, having half an egg salad sandwich and a banana each, out in the blowing palms by the pool, at dusk. Fan palms, gorgeous forms, cocoanut palms and several others I do not know. Growing hugely in this corner of land. A couple of birds flew darkly to their evening roosts. I am just locking up now, says the security man diffidently, politely. Oh ok, we say, and gather the remains of our little supper. Thank you so much he says as he locks up behind us.
A couple of large oily Samoan men are in the hallway, speaking a language I do not understand.
Announcements are in Hawaiian at the airport. Here is a glorious array of races, so mixed up to our haole eyes but I am certain that the real people here can tell at a glance. This place is its own and really should not be a United States state, you know.
On tv we watched a bit. In a park by a lake in Honolulu the Buddhist lantern-lighting and floating on the water ceremony, in memory of those now not with us. Our daughter Susannah and her husband Craig did this for their lost baby Wilder, that first year, at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston…I could hardly bear to watch. All that grief. A few snippets of Hawaiian life: growing and grinding taro. Hula. Music. Canoe-making.
To behold it we are here.
This morning, after some sleep, to a small breakfast in the dining room, kind and cheerful server lady. Coffee, toast, guava jelly. In the van to the airport, a couple from Calgary on their way to a wedding in Fiji, which will take five days. A pleasant conversation. We are ships, ships gliding by each other on this small earth.
On arrival in the airport yesterday, spicy sweet scents immediately.
Now to Lihue airport on Kauai, get the car, to the condo, get some groceries, and then settle in and possibly, I hope, a small hike. We are not the young people we were in 1991 when we first came here but we should still be able to do this.
I love it here and wish I could be a part of it. The torment of places of which you can never be a part.
Later now, installed in our glorious little condo, having had our drinkies on the lanai, and dinner, all is good. The brief flight to Kauai went well although we were all trapped in the plane after arrival, for about 25 minutes, due to some kind of weird power outage in the gate area. People were calm although the lady pilot was distressed. “So I don’t know any more than you guys do, and I guess all we can do is pray. Mahalo [thank you].” Much laughter.
Finally we got let off, walked from one end of the small airport to the other looking for the bags, then an interminable wait at the car rental place for the car, but finally to this fantastic place. A small room, little sofa, bed, kitchen and all, and the surf just outside below our lanai. Long rolling breakers, dashing white, navy blue, cornflower blue, long long rolls of implacable power.
We take a bit of a walk along the shore, on a bike trail. There is a glory of vista across the water. I see some discreet holy places marked by small cairns (as before) and flowers, and once a memorial to two young men, artificial flowers, their pictures, some beer bottles, some now-dried leis, their friends’ gifts to them. Surfers? Possibly.
A final resting place, a square low platform built of black volcanic rocks, and a sign saying kapu [forbidden, taboo] to interfere here. Just like the same in the South Pacific, of course. Volcanic bombs with ruffles of lava around them. A place where monk seals nest though there were none; they are mightily endangered.
Everywhere a certain tone of respect. A land and sea respect.
I feel the mysteries just below the veneer, the otherness of it.
We watched surfers and some whatever you call those people on a surfboard pulled by the parabolic kites, back and forth across the waves at high speed, apparently fearless. After our walk we sat on our lanai and watched them, and drank our wine.
The seascape, those rows of breakers, vast and apparently featureless as the savanna in Africa. But Lars our guide in Tanzania said, impatiently to my long-ago stupidity, well if you lived here you would know it all. Would recognize it all.
Great water sounds fill our room. We are only about a hundred feet from it. All night long, all week long, all year, all millennium it will roll.
In the night, as we slept in our cosy bed, a large pale gray seal swam near the shore, perhaps sick, perhaps exhausted, perhaps confused, and found himself stranded on the sand down the way, in front of a small resort. He could not free himself. Perhaps he was tired, too tired and confused to find what to do, and there he lay in the morning. Someone came and strung yellow tape around the place where he lay, and people came and looked, respectfully, pointing, talking, standing silently to see him. We watched from our verandah through binoculars, and once John said, He moved, I saw his flipper, he moved a little bit. But then he lay still, that beautiful big big seal, and when we left he was still there, but when we came home, he was gone, leaving no trace.
We drove to the north coast, where we rented a bright yellow siton plastic kayak, and paddled easily down the Hanalei River for a bit, until it became too shallow to go on. There were a lot of others there too—in kayaks, or standing awkwardly on a kind of board and paddling that way; it was a crowded stretch of river. But no matter. We saw many turtles, some with yellow striped heads, and others, larger, with black heads. Sitting as they do, taking the sun, on logs, in turtle piles.
There were fish seen below, a silver one, dark ones, spotted ones, shadowly moving in their element. Egrets, and once a duck, and other birds gurgling and whistling. Here and there along the course, branches hung low, and we passed through them. There were smells, sometimes faintly but piercingly sweet, some oaty or grassy. Smells of water, of tropical air. Sweet, sweet.
Cocoanut palms heavy with their high-hanging fruit. A thick wall of some kind of smallish tree which was thick with a yellow flower like a hibiscus. It looked invasive to me. The spent flowers fell, pale orange at death, onto the water, and collected in swathes on the opposite shores.
After our paddle we ate our picnic lunch at the kayak rental place—laid-back like similar places all over the world, a fellowship of such people. One of the ubiquitous jungle fowl, looking like handsome domestic roosters, milled around hoping for a handout, now and then bucking softly, pushing his luck as I shooed him away. They are everywhere, many more than I remember from before, by the roadsides and everywhere. I learn that these, called moa, were brought by the first Polynesians, so they have been here for a long time.
There is more Hawaiian here too than I remember, spoken and written. That is good but it makes this place even less a part of the rest of the country than it might be. Good for them. I say, those Polynesians came here in their great canoes and settled here, with its fresh water and fertile valleys and sacred places, and we should leave it to them.
We then looked for a hike I had planned, but were turned back by a business-like looking No Trespassing sign (my hikes book is 6 years old) and so we did another one instead, crossing a tiny ditch on a walk- way, its sides labeled with the name of the trail (which I now forget). We climbed up a steep red trail, through head-high grass, then peeling paperbark trees, pink and purple and orange, soft bark we could penetrate with our fingernails. A young woman came up behind us and rapidly passed and disappeared on up the trail.
Underfoot are the scimitar-shaped leaves of the koa tree, whose wood is so prized, and you are not allowed to harvest it. It seems that this tree, an acacia, has typical feathery acacia-like leaves when young, but as they mature they turn into these handsome robust curves, with parallel veining.
And here’s a pine forest, appearing promptly at its favored altitude, of Norfolk Island Pine, elegant in form and robust in strength. Here’s the young woman back again, coming down already. We stop to talk briefly, and she confirms that these are Norfolk Island Pines. I’m struck by how tall they are; at home they grow in a pot, exceedingly slowly. It turns out that our informant had attended school in the Boston area and knew our neighborhood, so we have that nice surprise to share before we part ways.
There are tiny purple flowers on a kind of mintly plant; little orchids; roots everywhere for the soil does not offer much nourishment and you have to get out as many roots as you can. Up high here, at the edge of the ridge, we admire vistas of neat taro fields, flooded like rice paddies, and Hanalei Bay.
There’s a last haul up, and a small summit. I am wondering now if this is Mt. Kaukaopua, which is about 1300 feet. That seems about right. On the last bit to the summit there is a German family, two boys in their 20’s, a long-suffering wife who appears not to be happy with the steep hiking, the gratingly hearty father, showing us proudly the “goo-ava” which he thinks he has plucked from a tree, and eaten.
And when we came home, the seal was gone without a trace…
At breakfast on the lanai this morning, there was a handsome black and white and scarlet Brazilian cardinal, with the sun brilliant on his red crest.
Soon after breakfast we drove around to the west coast, to Eleele town, to board Catamaran Kahanu. Catamaran Kahanu belongs to Captain Lani, and in 1991 we went out with him to view the Napali coast. He is still at it and I was delighted to sign up with him again. A small very clean catamaran, a careful young crewman called, improbably, Christian though it seems he has a fullblood Chumash Indian great grandmother. Christian carefully and politely explained the safety rules, how to board without falling in, how to move around the little boat without falling in. Captain greeted us and we pulled away.
The spray set in and there were small shrieks. One girl of 13 immediately felt sick and her mother, who looked about 20, comforted her. A woman with two long thick grey braids and her impossibly lean daughter went to the bow to sit in the spray. There were others, a grossly fat man with his belly hanging pendulous over his waist, and his wife, both sitting in direct sun and very brown. But I forgave them because they were kissing, and they were Older.
We sprang and lurched and thudded into the water, and made our way along the coastline. There were the old sugar fields, now deserted and gone to Central America, and the workers in the sugar gone too, on to something else one hopes. There was the 17 mile long beach, the longest in the Islands, and part of it a naval missile installation of some sort, with antennae and oddly shaped buildings, and a fence on the beach. The dried-up waterfalls, dry since their sources were diverted to serve the sugar plantations, and never restored.
The fluted cliffs began to appear, at first covered softly with vegetation, then higher, bare, layers of lava stacked like thick harsh pancakes, and now and then an intrusion from bottom to top. Narrow valleys between, very narrow, claustrophobic even. Twenty thousand Hawaiians used to live up them, including Captain Lani’s people back to 1630, according to Christian. There are tiny pocket beaches where the sand flows to the water. A few sea-caves, blue-green water in the light under their arched walls.
Captain slows the boat as we encounter or are encountered by a group of large dolphins. They stay with the boat, knifing under it down the empty middle between the two hulls, leaping nicely out front and alongside. He says they like to rub themselves on the boat. I don’t get a picture, but I have a picture in my mind. They are large, sleek, confident. As we turn away, four at once leap in perfect synchrony from the water.
Captain only takes around 20 passengers on his boat; it’s intimate and personal. He sets the tone and sticks to it, talking in a laconic but forceful way that makes you pay attention to him. People took the leaping sea okay, and laughed when he remarked on how calm it was. A true water person, professional to a great degree, reading the sea like a lover.
There is snorkeling, and although I suit up nicely and am pleased about that , when I go in I see it’s not really worth it; the water is turbid and sand-filled, though I am pleased by the sticks or pillars of sunlight that shine straight down, riding on sand grains. There is a small school of black dorgon with their electric blue racing stripes, and some good-sized yellow and silver fellows who look familiar from Guam but I do not remember their name. Otherwise, nothing. But still, I am snorkeling, once again, and for that, thank you lord.
Then a nice lunch, delicious bread with a modest tray of meat and cheese, macaroni salad, fresh pineapple, a large cookie and soda. Captain says he is the only boat which does not serve alcohol. Captain is active in rescue operations and doubtless has seen more than he would like of alcohol-fueled foolishness, death even. He is delighted to learn that we went out with him in 1991, and at lunch, he says that ladies must serve themselves first, and offers me his hand to the lunch table.
On the way back, zodiacs bound and slap and lurch in our wake, and their passengers with them, and no PFDs in sight. A disturbing affair. Captain does not seem to mind them taking advantage of our wake.
There is a fire, somewhere up on the cliffs, and we see a helicopter (that’s a good friend of mine, he says) flying very low indeed, just above our heads, in order to scoop up a container of water to take over the fire and drop. I just realized: we are planning to hike up there somewhere tomorrow, I wonder if we will be able to.
The palisade of cliffs is truly remarkable. Their flutings so delicate, their height—several thousands of feet at the tallest—awesome. The Hawaiians went up those narrow valleys, farmed a bit, caught fish, lived. Now we go by in our racing boats and take pictures of their homeland.
All the farmers are gone—rice, coffee, sugar, pineapple. What are we doing to our small home planet?
It’s our last night in our little condo here by the rolling surf. We came in from our expedition today, John cleaned off our hiking boots of red mud, I packed, showered, he showered and packed, we had our wine on the lanai and looked around, and read, I cooked up the small dinner and we ate it and now he is washing the dishes, wonderful husband that he is, and soon we will tuck in though it is early. The constant ocean, the energetic birds, our little meals, how quickly we establish a routine (and how well we do together).
The roar of water in the night. Not much we HAVE to do, and so sleeping sweetly, on our own schedule.
This morning we drove to the west side, to Waimea and then up the Waimea Canyon drive, through a heartbreakingly lovely landscape, at first reminiscent of Southern California, yellow grasses, the soft blue sea, and the red, red soil, then into forest, all of it unfamiliar. We saw and drove across that slope, that angle of repose which I remember so well from here before, and from California, that slope that wasting material takes as it slowly slides down from its parent place.
The road was amazing—countless hairpin turns, the steepest incline I’ve ever seen on a road (“Crest” the sign warned just ahead of it), a narrow road, and in some places red from the volcanic soil, that has come up from within, so horribly and unimaginably within, and risen to the surface, and been rained upon, and blown about, and rusted and reddened. At our summer retreat on Cape Cod I say, There are three colors, blue, green and brown. Here it is blue, green and red. Dried-blood red, or russet, or red-orange as a crayon.
As we rise—to over 4000 feet eventually, we stop at some overlooks. We look over Waimea Canyon, almost 2800 feet deep. It is called the Grand Canyon of Hawaii, though it is 200 million years younger. Those Hawaiians lived in it, among its fluted sides, its lush constricted valley. It opens to the sea, whereon are tiny puffs of whitecaps, as seen from up here. A mighty wind boils up from the depths of the great canyon, as if from another world.
When we come down from the overlook, by the sign announcing this place stands a fine manly person, wearing a “grass” skirt over some brief red garment, the sides of his lovely legs elegantly tattooed, his chest bare. He is there to tell things to the tourists, to let them have their pictures taken with him, and to earn a little money. On the rock wall next to him are some objects—a kukui nut necklace, a spear with edges serrated with broken shells, and some other things. He has a perfect body and his skin is a warm shade of brown.
I hang back, waiting to talk with him but not with the tourists about. They are cringe-making, horrible. But still, here they are. We talk. I ask him about the kukui nut necklace, and tell him about mine. We talk about the land, about the Hawaiians. I tell him about seeing the tiny cairns in sacred places, and about ovoos in Mongolia, similar. I tell him how in 1991 (he remembers the eclipse, they had little glasses they wore to look at it) I could feel the power and spirit just under the veneer and it is still here. He is pleased by this. He says that he has begun to see signs, he sees signs, they speak to him. Yes, yes so. Two things have destroyed the Hawaiian culture, he says. Money (he gestures) and American culture. He is not strident, but thoughtful, and firm.
At the end, do I want a picture? No, no, I find it disrespectful—though I put some money in the large gourd for him. Aloha, I tell him. And he says Aloha nui to me, and sends me away with other words which I do not understand but do, so.
We arrive at the end of the road, to the trailhead. We’re to hike in about a mile and then go somewhat less than a mile to reach the Swamp Trail, which was the first place I picked out from my hiking books that I wanted to see, a year ago while beginning to plan this trip. It begins with strange rounded lumps and humps eroded as if stairsteps, and every bit or so the underbrush on either side clears, and we can see that we are on a narrow ridge, with fine long views. I am happy for a while, to be on the trail. Wisps of cloud blow up and over the red ridge.
Coming down the trail towards us is a group of high school kids, or junior high, out for an end-of-school outing. It’s not that much fun really for some of them. One boy fell right down into the mud; I could see he was miserable and nearly in tears, a big boy and thus embarrassed by that. Well, in days to come he will brag about it and make the story even bigger.
Well but it doesn’t work—in the end, I took fright and could not finish. It’s too steep, too slippery, too long (at least a ten foot incline or more), and I cannot raise my legs high enough to get to the tiny stepping places. And were I to get up there, how would I get down? I am too old to risk falling, into mud or otherwise, and so I give up. Haven’t done that very many times, but I knew it was right, this time. We saw good things though—majestic and improbable overlooks to the sea, down four thousand feet from our lunch stop. Ohia trees and their red-orange puffs. Our road came up on a ridge, and this trail is on a ridge, a narrow ridge, but trees on either side hide the fright of it.
The road down so steeply and gingerly, down the 4000 feet, gives us a chance to see the staggering extent of the sea and fields vista—as if larger than one’s ability to perceive in one view. All this, and the fresh rivers, the fertility of the red soil, the fish, the safety of an isolated island (although King Kamehameha did conquer them all, and unite them, but--)—all this they were a part of, and all a part of them, and life proceeded as it should for all the organisms here, and all the water and the rock, all in harmony. What prodigious loss!
The dead sugar plantations lie below, green and red and yellow. There is the sea soft and muffled at its horizon. There goes Captain, carrying his burden but defiant in his power. There stands Aloha Nui, making a small living and yearning for the good, a quiet intense missionary for his people.
There rolls the great sea, there lies the new earth.
At night, the moonlight on the surf seemed scary, but the Hawaiians would not have found it that way. They would not have thought of it at all.