Smooth and Rough and Smooth

Smooth and Rough and Smooth

The Big Island’s people are a great collection of ethnicities: Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Thai. Having lived in the multicultural Northeast for almost thirty years, we felt comfortable in the mix, readily absorbing new-to-us flavors. Locals were friendly and open, sharing island ways and styles and cookery with a smile, so we settled in. We were welcomed, if not quite adopted.

Kaua’i is different, though, in that many more residents are of Japanese descent. Despite small populations from Mexico and transplants from the mainland the small island has a different feel to me – more remote, more foreign, unknown. Polite without question, but closed off. We were lucky to attend Jamie and Max’s wedding, and so participate in the life of Kaua’i as an insider, for a bit. Despite feeling apart, I found whenever my interest heightened, questions were answered with quiet pleasure and acknowledgement. People appreciated our interest, that we stayed locally rather than in hotels. They knew what we were after, and gave what they could. I discovered an artist (printmaker) this way, and a quiet river, and exchanged pleasantries in Spanish at a food truck amid usual tourist go-to’s like swimming at Hanalei (oh the Pacific Ocean!), and completely wasting our time and money on a tour and tasting at The Chocolate Farm. Bird-watching was wonderful, everywhere.

Beyond northern Kaua’i our wide-ranging stay led us to Waimea, a small town in the southwest. Waimea is past all of the popular resorts and beaches on the south coast, and you know it surely when you arrive. The only nod to visitors are two small restaurants with outdoor tables, and a t-shirt store. Everything else there is made by and for locals, most of whom are of Polynesian heritage. We started to relax from the vibe, and began to acculturate, intuitively learning place.

We like to drive, and poke, and stop on a whim. Our next-to-last day we went north along the west coast, directed to the beaches there by the friendly housekeeper (who also shared family and architectural histories). The surf was high, and the sun already hot on the unshaded strips of sand, so we passed on stopping to swim or walk or sit. The road turned inland, and signs of habitation became fewer. It felt deliciously remote.Then a sign for Polihale State Park appeared and we turned in on the access road.

If you can call it that. The paving stopped after twenty feet. The unpaved path was wide enough for two vehicles but rough, deeply pitted and pocked, and our SUV not a 4-wheel drive. But who could turn back? Bruce rattled us forward. We caught up to a small red coupe painstakingly inching along. After a few minutes Bruce decided to pass, and then shortly, we were alone again. The road was endless and yet a siren call. The only sign informed us without irony, “ROUGH ROAD”. We were trending back to the ocean, but could see nothing but ranch land behind, and a wall of trees and brush along the infinite road, between us and the shore. Still we kept going. The road got rougher, and Bruce figured to keep two wheels on the verge to ease our passage a bit. Still no one else. At last we arrived at a small turnoff, marked with a welcome sign. We entered there, too impatient to drive farther, to the north. The roadway after the turn was just as rough, almost impassable on the right fork we took. But to go back now? Bruce backed up and we took the left fork hoping for better. It was a bit improved, but getting sandy. Trees and brush were to our right, also on sandy ground. We came to a decision point. Bruce expressed concern about getting stuck in sand. The road narrowed ahead. It looked firm but ran through what appeared pasture. To our right was a sandy steep hill. We stopped right there, committing, and walked up the hill … into a landscape of twenty-foot dunes, dotted with trees and shrubs, but a wilderness, a maze. We could hear the ocean, maddeningly out of sight. Still we went on, noticing tracks and dead branches marking the way like cairns. We added ours, climbing higher, and then there it was, steeply down to our left, gently down along peninsular dunes to the north – the Water. A beautiful, beautiful sight from that vantage. The view was plenty. We backtracked to the car, Bruce made a careful four-point turn and we headed out, satisfied with discovery. And safety.

But, lol, on the way back to the highway civilization met us and we gained another understanding of the place, as our reverse drive is inexplicably shorter, less bumpy, faster. The feeling of known is enhanced as we are met by truck after Jeep, Jeep after truck, all high off the ground on huge tires and filled with young local men. Dunes. Dune-capable vehicles. That’s why the road is unimproved – to allow rough-riders, to deter other uses, discourage other kinds of visitors – to keep the place Hawai’ian.

At the main road we had another choice: to go back to Waimea, or continue north, and we went north, just because, lulled by our knowingness. We were slow and content, easy and aware. We came to an odd intersection. The road we were on continued, but through a narrowed gateway of trees and brush, uphill, while an unimproved road went off to our right. Past the gravel, a feeling of private overcame us, and Bruce stopped. I wanted to go on but not to invade. So Bruce backed up and turned rear-first towards the gravelly dirt road. It happened that a very large mowing machine was parked there, in the shade. As we pulled alongside I saw the operator and smiled. “Aloha”, I said, waiting a beat or two to continue, in the island way. He smiled. “Is the road private?”, I asked. “Government land”, he said. “I just finished working back there.” I shook my head and said, “We won’t go there, then”. He nodded gently. “The state park is back that way”, he offered, pointing the direction we had come. I told him we had just been there, exploring the dunes. He registered our pleasure, our wonder. Then he gestured down the gravel. “There’s mango trees, if you want some. One here, one down there.” I grinned. “Just park on the side. The inspector went in there, don’t block him. So he can get out.” “He doesn’t care?”, I asked. The operator shook his head, and Bruce turned the car around.

It was MANGO season, the fruit gratuitously abundant, mottling the ground in every stage of ripe. Nature so generous it was hard to be temperate. We took less than ten, and turned around again. Now we were ready to go back. Bruce slowed as we passed the tractor driver one last time, and I laughed, “Mahalo nui loa!” His slight nod circled me, as the car turned. The day we left for home we made mango smoothies with vanilla ice cream, sweeter from the memory than any store-bought fruit will ever be again.

I think now the operator offered us the land and its fruit because we stopped: just because we thought and didn’t assume, because we asked permission. We showed respect – so important there – and he opened the door. We were welcomed.

What Hawaii can teach you if you are so inclined, is to just be. Most visitors consume – and we are no different, though we fight it best we can. Tourists conquer landscape with recreation and selfies and relentless documentation; they ravage resources, with everything from air travel to restaurant food to resort stays. Even culture is eroded, by Disney-fication and accommodation of outsiders. In Hawai’i it dies by luau and lei greetings, ukulele and hula, grass skirts and souvenirs. To know a place from the inside is of course every traveler’s dream, but the first step is often neglected: letting go of who you are, of what you know. The more of yourself you bring, the less you see what is there … and the more you change a place to be like you. On the other hand, the smaller you start the more you grow, and the better you see yourself in the end. New places bring everything into relief.

Time is an enemy, though. To go deep and wide on a standard American vacation, you have to go fast. And going fast is just about as far from the island way as you can get. If I go back to Hawaii, I will bring less, spend less, stay longer and do less. Everyday island life is what beckons, the murmuring under-voice, wave-like, nudging you to just be …. Hawai’ian.


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