Let me begin with an acknowledgement: Almost eighteen years ago, I arrived on Kaua'i for a ten-day vacation from Portland, Oregon. I journeyed here for much the same reason that almost every other visitor flocked to the Hawaiian Islands - sun, beach and respite. Two days later I met, a handsome Native Hawaiian, 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani. Six months later I packed up home and family and joined lives with this man. So the ground that I stand on to deliver this passionate diatribe is neither higher nor more holy than any other. I truly cringe at the "close the barn door behind me" defense.
But I admit, too, that I am preternaturally predisposed to shun excess, as in jewels, spangles, man-made climate alteration, gas guzzling cars, wasted food, and the ambitious questfor an uncontainable more for the sake of more.
If you have not, I suggest here that you might want to read a very recent Ever Changing Post: "Na Ka'a Mea - Change In The Winds." In sum, after ten years living an example of Native Hawaiian cultural faith in tents on public beaches, and eight more years from house-sit to house-sit - my husband and I were gifted our first home together.
Just two months ago, we returned to Kaua'i from a six-month, continental book and speaking tour, to our new home. Our lives for these eighteen years have been surrendered to 'Iokepa's Grandmothers - to their guidance and their gifts. Of course, we remain grateful for every generous soul in these years who has tendered a meal, a bed, a book, a plane ticket, a car - but our dependence is always and only on these Hawaiian ancestors, and on Ke 'Io Akua, our Creator.
For these two months we have each offered our thanks at least a dozen times a day. In the morning on our lanai, sipping mango smoothies with trade winds in our faces. In the afternoon, viewing our "daily rainbow" from the same place. Again after dinner, ogling the incredibly huge full moon rise over the hills and jungle. We've been grateful for the silence and privacy after eighteen years of a very public life. We've been thankful for a chance to plant endemic shrubs, fruit trees, and tropical flowers. We've been filled with emotion with every meal we share with others here, every deep discussion that is sparked by this comfort.
And then the more mundane. In truth, we were like a pair of kids, in those first days home, staring into our bedroom closet - realizing the miracle of every garment we owned on an actual hanger in an actual closet. If you haven't lived out of a car trunk for eighteen years, you might not know the thrill.
We were beside ourselves with giggles and accomplishment when 'Iokepa sank our first mailbox post into the ground in front of our house. We couldn't get to the hardware store fast enough to argue matters-of-taste about which house numberswe'd attach to that post. And then we stood for hours...days...admiring. You have no idea.
At What Expense?
We were gone only six months. But when we returned two months ago, it was not solely, or even most noticeably, to our miraculous house. We were welcomed home by jaw-dropping, far less welcome changes.
In the dead-center of the Island - where, in just my own few years here, we swayed to hula halau on the green grass under the palm trees, hosted Native American Pow Wow, and ate laulau and poi - now sprouts faster than the ubiquitous Hibiscus: Jack in the Box, Panda Express, Supercuts, Petco, Verizon, Safeway.
The traffic! Kaua'i has one road that encircles all but seventeen miles of our tiny Island. In most places that road is a single lane in each direction. The speed limits on that road rise and fall like a kite: 25 to 50 miles per hour. Traditionally, if a slow driver sits in front of you, you would have reminded yourself that this is an Island, and in fact you will not get where you are going much faster even if that driver disappeared. For some years, folks in a hurry avoided the only congested spot - the populated town of Kapa'a. There was a lovely by-pass road that took you through agricultural fields instead of town.
Over these years together, 'Iokepa and I have pretty much calculated exactly how long it would take us to travel any stretch on this 70 mile long road. We had a rather keen notion of the commuting times for Westside workers at the Navy base, orNorth shore shoppers in Lihu'e, or Kapa'a commercial traffic. No more. Only six months away, and we cannot find a single time of day or place on Island where we will not be sitting in a stopped-up stream of rental cars. Anywhere, anytime.
In our own sweet neighborhood, the favored local breakfast hang-out for catching up with friends over a good espresso - comfortably crowded for great conversation only on weekends - has become a zoo. Packed every single morning, with no seating available from 7:00 to noon. The line of tourists wends out the door. The place has been entered into the blue Kaua'i guide book, and now, if you are looking for a quick single pancake before work or a big brunch splurge late on Sunday morning, it will no longer be here.
On the two occasions when 'Iokepa and I decided to wait in the long line and hope for a seat-yourself table because - How can we not be loyal to the barrista who has my cappuccino ready the moment we cross the threshold? - on both occasions the entire ambiance had changed. Let's be real: Most people on vacation are not looking for lasting friendship among the strangers surrounding them. And when they are not, the intimacy and congeniality of the place is gone.
On the front page of today's Garden Island newspaper, there was this banner heading: "Headed for a record year: Kauai reports largest increase in year-to-date visitor expenditure" Let me be clear: this was not a warning; this was bragging rights. The article quoted the Kaua'i Visitors Bureau director, Sue Kanoho like this: "When visitor numbers are up, everybody wins."
Certainly, Ms. Kanoho wins - her job is secure. Certainly, the American corporate businesses spreading their profit margins to our little Island will win. When I moved here the Island population was 40,000. Now that number is 68,000. In the month of June alone - our first full month home - 107,929 visitors descended in rental cars on our roads, in restaurants, on local hiking trails. Try to imagine those numbers on a tiny speck of rock in the middle of the Pacific.
When I first arrived here, we called it Maui-ization - or the rape of Maui. It was the example held up by the good folk of Kaua'i as the exact opposite direction that this Island intended to go. There were "twenty-year plans" for controlled development, for economic prosperity that did not compromise the the natural beauty, the health of the land and people, or the ease of Hawaiian life that (ironically) many visitors left their cluttered cities to experience.
"My ancestors," 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani, repeats, "welcomed every malahini (guest) to these Island with open arms, open hands and open hearts." He is not proposing that this change. But the pain - watching his Native inheritance destroyed with unending development, eroding beaches, poisoned oceans, dying sea turtles, disappearing bird populations, invasive plant species overwhelming the endemic, and the the continuing degradation of the Native host culture to accommodate tourism. This is agonizing.
And yes, there is a final indignity. Imagine if you will, a visitor standing in front of a Native Hawaiian, or someone they mistake for Native Hawaiian (and this happens with remarkable frequency) demanding "Aloha" as a commodity that they paid for - as something that they are owed for the price of their hotel.
"Aloha" has a meaning in this community far deeper than the fake smile, the willingness to please, and the humility that is listed as one of the perks of someone's vacation here.
This is a powerfully ancient culture with a great deal to teach the rest of us. It happens to reside on a beautiful, fragile, and sacred piece of land. It is also an occupied nation. It is time to return this nation to it's proper stewards: the kanaka maoli - the original people.