Hawai'i is many things to many people. To my parents back in the early '60s, it was the most romantic interlude of their 58 year marriage. (So much so, that when I broke my mother's heart by falling in love with a Native Hawaiian that moved me 6,000 air miles from Baltimore, she resisted...but she understood.) To many a tourist, it feels like such a calling that they wind up packing up their homes in California or Oregon or Minnesota and relocating permanently. (Hence, the population of Kaua'i was 40,000 when I arrived in 1997, and is closer to 70,000 now.) But when you press a good many of those who've relocated, they sum it up as, "Beaches and sunshine," both of which are available a great deal closer than Hawai'i.
Those who know me; those who've read Grandmothers Whisper or The Return Voyage know that those were not my reasons. My ideal mix includes seasons and a vibrant cultural scene. But without a doubt Hawai'i for these past seventeen years has been my home.
'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani and I are nearing the end of our six-months encamped on Kaua'i this year. We're beginning to sort our minimal goods for the flight to the District of Columbia, and for our winter and spring traveling and speaking across the broad American continent on behalf of my husband's aboriginal culture and the wisdom within it.
So, over breakfast yesterday, looking out at the lush green swath of hill and mountain here in Hanapepe Heights, we began the litany of things that make us giggle - the idiosyncrasies, and yes, idiocies - that make home home for us (though, we suspect, go completely unnoticed by passing observers).
Here is our, off-the-cuff list (if we wore cuffs in Hawai'i), compiled over our morning eggs and coffee.
* The rich and elaborate carport/garage life on the Island. The garage (door wide open) is where local folks entertain. Coolers of beer and a big-screen TV are pro-forma on a weeknight. This is garage-as-family-room. But weekend entertaining is another thing: picnic tables sprawl under tarps extending the reach of possibilities from garage to driveway to the edge of the thoroughfare. Welcome!
* We were privileged to be home for both the primary and general elections this year, and truly, these Islands give new-meaning to the word "grass-roots." We have only one major road on Kaua'i - one. We have a few lesser roads that run off that highway, but not many. And so, politicking on Kaua'i looks like this: the candidate, his mother, his children, and if he's blessed, a few friends as well, stand on the side of that one road holding signs and waving at friends (and not-so-friends) in passing cars on the way to the grocery store. After the election - win or lose - they stand in that same spot with signs that say: "Mahalo" or "Thank you."
* On the more poignant end of this story are the car wrecks. We have one major road, and in my seventeen years here the population has doubled - but the one road is still the one road. We have traffic fatalities, and because we are, after all an Island, a very small place - we know the teacher or the plumber or the landscaper or the homeless woman; we know the parents of the kids who tragically died. And everyday for months afterwards, that spot on the side of the road will bear flowers, crosses, teddy bears... It's a measure of the intimacy of this place we call home.
* But if you are looking for consistency here, you'll be stymied. In the land of "Aloha," you'd be hard-pressed to take a stroll anywhere, north to south, east to west, and not be ferociously growled at or charged by some very mean dogs. 'Iokepa walks ten miles a day at high noon; I walk for a couple of miles in the evening. Makes no difference when or where - the cacophony of barking canines (restrained or not) are facts of life. For the record, 'Iokepa and I have a history of loving dogs. Again, in the land of aloha (meaning: in the presence of God in every breath), an inordinate number of folk don't seem to trust divine protection.
Oh the list...mostly sweet, always idiosyncratic, Island behaviors:
* Local men universally roll their t-shirts up under their armpits - walking, sitting, shopping, going about their daily lives. I thought it might represent an act of vanity, an effort to reveal a nice, tight, six-pack of muscle. But nooooo, the revealed gut doesn't support that theory. So, is it the heat? Again, the nice cool trade winds seem to make no difference. These same men ride unfettered in the backs of pick-up trucks from one end of the Island to the other, with no restraint and absolutely no chance they'd be stopped by a police officer for any kind of infraction. Comfort and safety having a slightly different meaning on the Islands.
* First birthday parties on the Island are the equivalent of a debutante's coming-out party in New York City or Palm Beach. By equivalent I mean: money spent as proportion of family annual income; and number of guests invited. Here, they are outdoor affairs in park pavilions: catered, decorated, filled with flowers, music, and they include a cast of hundreds. You want to be invited - they are wonderful in every way. (And frankly, if you find yourself in the park where the party is happening, you will be invited.) I speculate that these celebrations date from a very sad time of a tragically high rate of infant mortality (post European contact), when the first birthday of a child felt like a miracle.
* Finally: there is the music; there is the hula. I am speaking not about hula as entertainment at a pay-your-way lu'au, or music on a concert stage. I'm speaking about the impromptu, every night, every public space songs (no tip jars) that play perpetually in the Native Hawaiian heart, and infect every space and every soul born into it. Accomplished twelve year old girls and boys play ukelele alone on park benches - unselfconsciously, with or without an audience. Hula halau practice their moves daily under the swaying coconut fronds that their motions imitate. The music, the dance, the public nature of this life of ancient rhythm is ubiquitous and inextinguishable. It is Native Hawaiian. This is our home.