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August, 2009:

Beach Safety is No Joke

Kauai is notorious for it’s crazy riptides — they took a Polish tourist on August 29th and every year, there are terrible tragedies as beach goers get swept out to sea. It’s not just about being a good swimmer, it’s about awareness of the dangers of the sea and the surf.

Kauai Beach Explorer is one of the best sites I’ve seen for educating visitors about beach safety. Back when I was working on my little guidebook, I spoke with one of Kauai Beach Explorer’s editors — they pleaded with me to include a section on safety, peppering me with stories about recently married brides watching their grooms get swept away or family members standing by helplessly when one of the kids disappeared. On our last visit to Kauai, the rental place declined to set us up with snorkel gear because the surf was doing something dangerous and was predicted to do so for the next few days. I didn’t get to see the fish, but hey, I got to live another day. For that, I say thank you, Kauai snorkel gear rental place.

It’s almost too awful to think about, but denial is not the solution. Read up, don’t swim alone, ask about the conditions and act upon that information, visit beaches with lifeguards, and pay attention. Better to stay dry than, oh, the worst case alternatives are too heartbreaking to bear.

Google Says Aloha

Well, I don’t know what half the labels mean, though hovering over them with the mouse to reveal the destination links helps. My lousy grasp of Hawaiian aside, it’s still freaky cool that Google now speaks Hawaiian! Ryan Ozawa’s indespensible Hawaii Blog has the full story, here.

Hawaiian for Travelers: It’s About the Vowels

Aloha and mahalo. Those will get you out of the gate in Hawaii, though it’s also handy to get a good grasp on mauka — inland — and makai — towards the sea, just in case you find yourself getting directions from locals.

A few more words might make their way into your vocabulary, especially when it comes to food — there’s poke and poi and ahi and ono. I learned how to say no problem or thanks — a’ole pilikia — from a park ranger and I can read Hawaiian out loud with a halting conviction, but there’s no way I understand it. I still stumble over directions and streets signs — Hi’ilawe and Ali’i and Ala Wai and Kapiolani and Kalakaua — they all start to run together in this haole’s mind. We were going where, now?

To complicate things, pidgin is still widely used in the islands — it’s a Hawaiian slang that uses lots of English with Hawaiian words mixed in. My ears don’t know what to do with this stuff — it can take me five minutes to respond to a simple “Howzit!” — “Hi, how are you?” — because I’m running it through the poorly built universal translator in my brain. I try to keep a simple aloha handy, just in case.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting a kupuna — elder — who sings traditional Hawaiian falsetto music. “You have to listen,” she said, “you don’t need to know the meaning of the words to hear the music. Hawaiian, it’s all about the vowels.” I laughed, but I knew what she meant. I can sing a few simple Hawaiian songs but don’t ask me to translate them for you. I’ll settle for trying to go the right direction, saying please and thank you, and finding my way without the usual consonants to guide me.

Purple, Pasty and Protected: Poi

I headed to Hawaii intending to learn to like poi, but I never did acquire much of a taste for it, finding the texture too much like that of a mushy apple. I don’t mind the flavor, it’s not like I’m offended by it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it. When I mentioned to a host at dinner — she was an immigrant to Hawaii — that I was determined to master the purple paste, she gave me this advice:

“Don’t bother. It’s like oatmeal or grits or any other staple food — if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s never going to taste that great.” I’m guessing she’d done some time herself trying to master this essential part of the traditional Hawaiian diet.

Poi is in the news. More accurately taro is the news-maker, or kalo — that’s the Hawaiian name for the crop and it’s what poi is made from — because of Native Hawaiian efforts to protect the plant from genetic modification.

Supporters want taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, to remain pure. Generations of Native Hawaiians consider it disrespectful to even consider messing with the genetic make-up of the sacred plant.Legend has it Kalo sprouted from Haloa, the stillborn child of Wakea, the sky father, and Ho’ohokukalani, the star mother, to become the first taro plant thousands of years ago.Kalo provides the kanaka maoli’s life-giving sustenance, poi, and is seen as the older brother of mankind, according to Senate Bill 958, which would impose the temporary ban on genetically modified taro. –The Garden Isle

Hawaiians are passionate about their poi — I feel bad that I failed in my attempts to fall in love with it, but a less tropical upbringing sent my palate in a completely different direction. Even if you can’t eat the stuff, you have to learn about it because it’s such a critical part of Hawaiian history.

There are plenty of weird and wonderful websites devoted to poi — Poi to the World is a good place to start, and it features some rather healthy looking humans showing off packaged poi. You have to try it when you’re in Hawaii, it’s going to show up on a buffet somewhere, probably at a luau after the huli huli chicken and before the haupia.

I like both of those things just fine.

Waikiki Beach Boys

If you want to hear about the golden days of Waikiki, your best bet is probably to head up to the Haleiwa to the Surf Museum. Since I’m no surfing aficionado, I wasn’t exactly roped in by the displays, but I sure enjoyed the time I spent talking with the museum’s proprietor, Hurricane Bob. Ask Hurricane Bob about what Waikiki used to be like, and he’s full of stories.

I couldn’t help but think of Hurricane Bob, the North Shore and Waikiki when I stumbled over this short documentary about the Waikiki Beach Boys. It crams a whole sensibility about Hawaii, surfing, Waikiki, and beach culture into just over six minutes. Six minutes well spent, I’d say.

Pork on the Pali: Prohibited

There’s a Hawaiian superstition that says it’s forbidden to take pork across the Nu’uana Pali. Your rental car will die, you’ll fall off the edge, maybe you’ll be chased by bees or rocks will fall on you.

Who knows what bad luck you’ll encounter if you don’t leave your bacon on the Honolulu side. Here’s the story from Wikipedia, though it checks out with a bunch of other sources, too:

According to legend, the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele and the demigod Kamapua’a (a half-man-half-pig) had a turbulent relationship, and the two agreed not to visit each other. If one takes pork over the Pali, the legend goes, one is symbolically taking a piece of Kamapua’a from one side to the other, and it is said that Pele would stop that from happening.

Still unexplained? How Spam is transported from the harbor to towns on the leeward side of Oahu. Maybe it’s OK if you go the long way, around the south end. Whatever you do, finish up that Hawaiian pizza before you head up to see the view.

The Saint from Moloka’i

He wasn’t named Father Damien at birth. He was Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian, a son of wealthy farmers. He became Father Damien at his ordination, and in 1873, after a few years on the Big Island and Maui, he went to work on Moloka’i, caring for the forgotten people of Kalaupapa, victims of Hansen’s disease — then called leprosy — abandoned to their fate on a remote peninsula. Father Damien built churches and taught his religion, of course, but he was also instrumental in ensuring that the community had a working water supply.

There’s a bronze statue of Father Damien, always covered in flower leis, “up top” — it stands outside a church he built in spite of the fact that the Board of Health expressly forbid him to visit with those “outside.” Father Damien contracted Hansen’s disease and died at age 49. Because of miracles attributed to the Moloka’i priest, Father Damien will officially become a saint on October 11.If you go to Moloka’i, you can visit Father Damien’s churches and the settlement.

Kalaupapa is still occupied by people with the now very curable disease. There are all kinds of rules and regulations about setting up your visit — you have to have a permit from the Department of Health, no children under 16 are allowed, you can’t just go swanning about the place as though it’s any old tourist village. You can’t reach the settlement by car — you have to fly in or you can take the narrow track that winds down the side of a very steep cliff. The mule tour is fairly popular, but I’ve read you shouldn’t take it if you’re afraid of heights, apparently the drop off is kind of terrifying. The upshot is that your best bet is to go with a provider. You can hike the track on foot, but without the permit that’s organized by the tour operators, you can’t visit the settlement. Plus, you’d best have quads of steel for the return trip, it’s one big stair-climb, and I wouldn’t want to share the trail with a mule heading in the opposite direction.

I’m a rather a-religious person, though I like to visit places with historical significance — and missionaries are inextricably entwined with Hawaiian history. Father Damien’s miracles — those that led to his canonization — occurred after his death and though they’re not geographically specific, Moloka’i is the place most associated with Father Damien.I wonder if Father Damien’s sainthood will mean that more people visit my favorite island to see where the future saint gave his life to his work.

Our time on Moloka’i was short and we were seduced by the mellowness — we squandered hours chatting with a couple of guys who were waiting for the fish to bite instead of ticking off the few must-see sites on the island. I’m not sorry at how we spent our time, but I do think we have to make the trip down to Kalaupapa next time we’re there if only to get a better understanding of what it must have been like to be cast off, sick and scared, into a disconnected place.

Father Damien made life better for those people while he lived. To be a saint, you have to perform your miracles after you’ve died. In his case, I wonder why that was necessary.

The Unfortunate End of Captain Cook

The story of Captain Cook’s death — the anniversary of this unfortunate event just passed — is an object lesson in cultural misunderstandings. Cook and his crew first blew into Kaleakakua Bay while the Pleadies were rising, during the festival of Makahiki. Hawaiian custom deemed that during this time, there was to be no fighting, no conflict of any kind.

It was a time when all wars and battles were ceased, tributes and taxes paid by each district to the ruling chief, sporting competitions and contests between villages were organized, and festive events were commenced. Several of the rigid kapu (regulating religious and social laws) were eased or temporarily set aside to allow more freedom of activity and easy celebration. It was a time of rest and renewal in preparation for the next growing season. —Uncle Charlie, Hawaiian Storyteller

Some stories say Cook was mistaken for the god Lono, the god of peace associated with Makahiki. Mistaken identity or no, Cook’s people were greeted with kindness, generosity and a willingness to overlook their transgressions. After a brief stay, the ship departed, returning some time later to make repairs in the bay which had received them so hospitably the first time.

Someone should have checked the festival calendar. The season of peace was over. The formerly placid Hawaiians stole a canoe. Cook’s crew attempted to take the King of Hawaii hostage as incentive for the Hawaiians to give it back. No longer passive, the Hawaiians put up a fight, and Cook was killed in a skirmish on the beach on Feb. 14, 1779. It’s simplistic, but I can’t help but wonder if someone — anyone — had bothered to ask, “Hey, anything going on now that we should know about?” Maybe, with a few well-placed questions, the inelegant end of the great explorer could have been avoided.

Time Travel to Honolulu

It’s politically incorrect, not entirely accurate historically, and oddly, the producers chose to intersperse “Aloha Oe” with “The Skater’s Waltz” in the sound track. But the boards are huge, the leis are fluffy and plentiful, and the footage of Waikiki Beach? Wow, it looks nothing like what I saw last year:

A caveat: The film comes from The Travel Film Archive and you could very well lose your entire day in there. If you make the mistake of clicking through, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Iz, Gabby, and the Sounds of Hawaii

Big Iz’s “Over the Rainbow” is an iconic ukulele track –it’s often the first thing folks ask me to play when they learn I have a uke. If you’ve heard the full track — it slid into U.S. consciousness a few years back via a toy store advertisement — then you’ve heard the bit at the beginning where Iz says, in his perfect, soft voice, “K, this one’s for Gabby.”

Iz is referring to Gabby Pahinui. Even though Gabby died in 1980,he’s credited with being the master of slack key. You can take his title as the father of Hawaiian music more literally, too: three of his sons, Cyril, Martin, and Bla are recording artists. For me, Cyril’s sweet falsetto and the sound of slack key guitar evoke the islands like nothing else. I’ve had the good fortune to see Cyril Pahinui on the mainland and in the islands — he’s often on tour with Led Kaapana, another slack key super genius.

If you want the academic take, Dancing Cat records has A Brief History of Slack Key that includes a lot of arcane information about tunings and the harmonics and why it’s called slack key. But I’d skip all that and go straight for the the sound of the rain on Maui, the surf, the wind, and Hi’ilawe.