I grew up with my father’s stories of Hawaii, a 1970’s Mai Tai-lined vision of youth, freedom and discovery. His first bananas and Coca Cola as a child born in 1948 England, pineapple scented breezes, an unending supply of locally grown marijuana. It is a vision which I would covet with nostalgia as a millennial longing for that seemingly lost paradise of the 60s and 70s – decades of peace and love consciousness when an end to war appeared perhaps, at least in the minds of those campaigning for it, fleetingly possible.
Hawaii’s existence at a strategic military position in the mid-pacific and the draw of profit from its rich exports – sugar, sandalwood, pineapples – have long driven American colonial interests. The islands were formally annexed to the USA in 1900, and granted statehood in 1959, which along with the advent of jet travel, secured Hawaii as a major holiday destination and gave birth to what is now Hawaii’s most profitable economy – tourism. In 2014, in contrast to the 1.42 million permanent residents calling the islands their home, there were a staggering 8.3 million visitors to Hawaii.
But, boarding the plane which would carry me from New York to Los Angeles, and onward from LA to Hawaii, little of this was on my mind. I carried with me a small bag (my boyfriend and I would spend the next 3 weeks living in a VW camper van) and all the inherited dreams of this island “paradise.”
What follows are a collection of thoughts and memories from my time on Maui.
The end of the road for cars, we slept at At Keone’o’io Bay (La Perouse) under violet electric storms, close enough to the ocean with the back of the van open to almost feel the sea spray, sleeping hot and heavy through the gradual soaking under rainstorms of our van which would eventually dry in the next day’s heat. The site of the most recent volcanic eruption on Maui and the first point of contact with Europeans, this area was once the home of a native Hawaiian fishing village decimated by the last eruption. Away from habitation, some moments with the wind alone, balancing impossible towers of stone and walking naked across the rocks – a part of the island that almost refused us and in doing so appeared to have preserved itself. I walked barefoot watching the occasionally heavy sandaled family of tourists pre-warned of the rugged conditions transverse the coast road, limited in their spread by the worn path.
Kaihalulu Bay – Red Sand Beach, the same iron that’s in our blood pulled up from the core of the earth to form a huge cinder cone and broken down to sand in its negotiation with the ocean. A deep bay protected by an offshore reef, blunted swells roll in, water milk-blue from turbulence. We arrive in gentle rain, skirt a crumbling cinder path with the texture of just extinguished fire, a texture that makes you anticipate lingering warmth, and clamber down into the half moon bay. There’s a man who’s made an alter of fruits naked, sheltering under a tree.
Red cliffs cut away, populated by iron wood trees, gently crumbling – the aperture expanding. A sense of geological time, a sense of being pulled out to sea, past the opening in the reef, into the open water.
Ponzi, native Hawaiian, stood next to me surveying the bay at Ho’okipa – reef break scattered with surfers and the shore populated with resting sea turtles. Bare foot, 6’3”, and exuding an ease which came from his intimacy to this place I watched him watching the ocean. “You should walk barefoot whenever you can” he tells me, placing his feet with intent on the ground, illustrating his connection to the energy of the earth. “Mana,” great cycling power – continuous between body and land, ocean and sky.
Driving past fields of sugar cane, their collective surface rippling in the wind, I ask where all the pineapples have gone? It turns out that Hawaii no longer produces pineapples for the global market, out priced by Asian suppliers – Thailand, the Philippines. I sense a sting of loss – the connection to my father that would’ve come through smelling that same smell. Now I see this as a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live through the daily life of a deeper history in this place, collective memories and ancestral ties. Looking out at the acres of cane fields, Todd – a Maui resident and the supplier of our much loved 1979 VW camper van (Maui Westy Campers), talks about the cane as a “placeholder” – the point is clear, the production of sugar, like pineapples, will become economically unviable – and in the end, in the never ending pursuit of profit he feels that this land will be handed over to Hawaii’s most profitable sector – tourism and development.
Collecting wild guava in the long neglected Ke’anae Arboritum, dripping in jungle – fertile, over ripe, we begin to drip too. The weight of reproduction heavy on branches, in the leaves, rotting on the ground, surrounded in green. Later we find mangoes, on the dry south side of the island, golden and fragrant, we pack our non-functioning camp refrigerator with them and eat them in various stages of decay over the next days, increasingly sweet, betraying boundaries.
David, who describes himself as a “long term resident” of Maui, approached us in Kihei. Among the kid-friendly beaches, surf schools and resorts, Kihei had become a stopping off point for us to gather supplies between the north-east and south-west of the island. We gathered our fruits from the wild, and vegetables from the small stalls which line the country roads on Maui – the land being so productive that even a small plot produces an excess that can be sold (often very cheaply). Food elsewhere, however, is very expensive, with Hawaii having the highest cost of food (and overall living) in the USA, importing up to 90% of its food from the mainland – in part to meet the enormous demand of visitors. David asked us if we had anything to spare and we did. In his single suitcase were all his belongings and he described how he spent his days and nights drifting up and down this small part of the coast, occasionally joining gatherings of others who were also constantly on the move. When I questioned him about local politics, he answered with the insight I have come to expect from those living on the margins: “I guess we just haven’t quite decided that we are all human yet.”
The sense of heat still in the ground. Young land, pulled up from the ocean floor by demigod Maui’s fish hook, bone baited with bird feather and caught under the lip of the world. The heat is real and the islands owe their existence to an abnormally hot spot under the crust of the earth, one that bursts forth deep below the surface of the ocean. We speak of the Hawaiian islands as isolated, but they are in fact the visible peaks of an immense and ancient seamount chain which stretches 3,600 miles under the pacific ocean – we didn’t realize it then, but were playing on the spine of a giant.
Piilani highway wends its way east from the capital, Kahului, through ever-lessening degrees of development, 52 miles to Hāna on the east tip of the island. We listen to local radio fade in and out of service as we follow the winding coast through lush forest and the occasional leaf framed glimpse of dramatic coastal views. Crossing streams on narrow bridges, always damp, single car lane – they remind me of where I was born. A series of valleys dropping down to small deep bays, waterfalls carry the rain which falls constantly high on the hills back to the ocean. The smaller of these are marked by parked cars which line the road in clusters at their access points, but Ohe’o Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools), now a major tourist attraction has all the infrastructure you’d expect from that label. We hike, ever upward, I try to pretend we’re alone and fail, then try to come to peace with the other people – they, after all, have as much of a right (or not) to be there as I do. M has dragged me through the parking lots on a promise, one that is fulfilled as we find our way, sweating in the heat and pausing only momentarily to take in the views of cascading water, to a pool off the trail. Our bodies thank us for the water, we are quiet, scaling rocks. When we walk down wet I am happy, being extended by contact – I feel like I’ve participated in something rather than consumed it – I hope I have.
At Baldwin beach I lose M to the ocean, a dot on the far horizon, his kite powered by the wind, constant in the days of summer and decreasing only at the full moon, which accelerates as it channels through the low land separating the east and west peaks of the island. A favorite kitesurfing spot, I take refuge from the midday sun in the rough pines that back onto the beach. A barrier reef wall forms a shallow cove at the west shore of Baldwin known as “baby beach” for its sheltered and relatively safe waters. Deep as the tide rises and increasingly shallow and separated from the ocean as it falls. Warming in the heat of the sun. We sleep several nights in the van on the lava flats which form a kind of parking lot for Baldwin, moved on by the local police one evening but happily looked over by them the next. I get used to the morning routine, waking warm and inevitably sandy, boiling water on our twin ring stove to make sweet camp coffee. The morning we walk down to baby beach there are dark shadows in the water – sea turtles, sheltering in the shallows but now trapped temporarily by the low tide, gliding the length of the reef wall.
Paako Cove (“Secret Cove”). I’ve been thinking about paradise. The word comes from the old Iranian “paridayda” meaning walled enclosure. I decided long ago that paradise was a feeling, one that came from an experience or relationships between things – something both shared and bounded, but also expansive. Islands have long been associated with paradise – protected, contained, but also vulnerable – an elsewhere free from the intrusion of our everyday worlds, but not immune to it. There’s something important in the etymology of the word, the walled garden – safe, protected, perhaps a trap but one we’d willingly enter. At night we drive south, past Paako cove and along the coast at Ahihi Bay. Looking west out of the van window and into the vast dark of the pacific, the stars touch the horizon. I sense an echo of knowledge once held – an understanding of those points of light, lost in endless night.
Traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoes, paddled west towards the setting sun. The day’s reflection on the water. Land radiating warmth. We’ve lived another revolution of the earth together. Maui’s not a paradise behind walls, we’ve carried all of our experience here, to this moment. The island speaks of such arrivals, successive waves of beings drawn to this place by an idea. The future of the islands lies in the balance of intention – to care for, or consume? My own senses register loss perhaps because i’m wired for rebellion and everything i’ve been told to feel seems candy-coated in relation to the reality I perceive. I want to honor the voices of those who still fight against «illegal occupation» by the USA (www.hawaiiankingdom.org), and those for whom colonialism comprised and continues to enact an unimaginable violence, people for whom the now booming tourist industry can be perceived as nothing but an extension of such force. At the same time, I’m left with a sense of deeper connection, somewhere a potential common root, a way out of polarization and into the messy lived present where the lines of belonging are not as clear cut as ideology would have us believe. Driving to the airport through Kahului on more time i’m confronted with an immense blank building the side of which has been plastered with letters : “Paradise Self Storage”. The irony hits me two fold. No thanks, I think – I want to participate in the world, not wait for a better moment to emerge. This is all we have – and it is, despite us, beautiful.