THE HEART OF HAWAI‘I

A VISIT TO THE IS­LANDS OF LA¯NA‘I AND MAUI RE­VEALS THAT NA­TIVE HAWAI­IAN TRADITIONS ARE ALIVE AND WELL IN AMER­ICA’S ALOHA STATE.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Joe Yogerst

A visit to the is­lands of Lana‘i and Maui re­veals that na­tive Hawai­ian traditions are alive and well in Amer­ica’s Aloha State.

or­ange earth and the shreds of black plas­tic (used to re­tain mois­ture in the soil) that blow across the roads. Be­yond the caldera, Lāna‘i re­mains re­fresh­ingly empty and un­spoiled, slowly de­volv­ing into the wild Hawai­ian land­scape that ex­isted prior to the 1920s when the first pineap­ples were planted.

On the is­land’s north shore, I took a long stroll down Ship­wreck Beach to see the rusty hulks of sev­eral ves­sels that still lan­guish on the reef, walk­ing un­til there were no other peo­ple in sight and mine were the only foot­prints in the sand. From there, I cruised in­land to the so-called Gar­den of the Gods—a Mars-like land­scape of boul­ders and rock tow­ers cre­ated by an an­cient vol­canic erup­tion—and on to the Pali Ka­holo, a stretch of sheer sea cliffs on the is­land’s south­west coast.

Kepā Maly had told me that in olden days, the waters here were a stag­ing point for jour­neys to the rest of Poly­ne­sia, with voy­ag­ing ca­noes hun­kered down in the cliffs’ lee wait­ing for strong winds and good weather to carry them down to the Mar­que­sas and Tahiti. As dusk closed in, I could see a sparkle in the hazy dis­tance—the set­ting sun re­flect­ing off the ob­ser­va­to­ries atop Mauna Kea on the Big Is­land, more than 160 kilo­me­ters to the south­east. The best part? Once again, I was com­pletely alone, af­ford­ing me a small glimpse of what these is­lands must have been like even be­fore the first Poly­ne­sian set­tlers ar­rived.

Over on the larger is­land

of Maui—a 45-minute ferry ride to the east—I kept run­ning into peo­ple with sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments about blend­ing mod­ern and old ways into a new Hawai‘i for the 21st cen­tury.

“You know, it was once il­le­gal to speak Hawai­ian,” said Kaimana Purdy, a cultural guide at the year-old Westin Nanea Ocean Vil­las re­sort in Ka‘anapali, on Maui’s north­west coast. “If you were caught by the mis­sion­ar­ies or the plan­ta­tion own­ers, you’d be pun­ished for sure.” And not just for speak­ing the lan­guage. Fol­low­ing the ar­rival of Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies in the early 19th cen­tury, any num­ber of tra­di­tional prac­tices were banned or sup­pressed, in­clud­ing the Poly­ne­sian re­li­gion, hula danc­ing, even out­rig­ger ca­noe­ing.

Born and raised on Maui, Purdy is an alum­nus of ‘Aha Pū­nana Leo (“Lan­guage Nest”), a net­work of pri­vate, non­profit schools that strives to teach Hawai­ian to a new gen­er­a­tion of is­lan­ders, re­vi­tal­ize indige­nous cul­ture among the youth, and foster a stronger sense of Hawai­ian iden­tity. “My par­ents wanted to do their part, to help re­vive Hawai­ian cul­ture,” Purdy ex­plained. “And they fig­ured that put­ting me through im­mer­sion school was maybe the best way.”

Purdy has put his lan­guage skills to work as su­per­vi­sor of the Westin Nanea’s Pu‘uhonua o Nanea Cultural Cen­ter, a small mu­seum and ref­er­ence li­brary that also serves as a stag­ing ground for guided tours of a hotel gar­den planted with taro, kukui trees, and popolo berries. He is one of many ‘Aha Pū­nana Leo grad­u­ates who are now “spread­ing the word” about Hawai­ian cul­ture in the tourism in­dus­try.

Although ini­tially de­signed for preschool­ers, ‘Aha Pū­nana Leo now of­fers pro­grams that run all the way through uni­ver­sity level. It has also come a long ways from the 1980s when the first im­mer­sion schools were il­le­gal and largely un­der­ground, to the point where the pro­gram is now a strate­gic part­ner with the Hawai‘i State Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and has its own of­fi­cially ob­served day, Oc­to­ber 24, which rec­og­nizes ‘Aha Pū­nana Leo’s con­tri­bu­tion to pre­serv­ing and nur­tur­ing the Hawai­ian lan­guage.

There has also been an ex­plo­sion of in­ter­est in out­rig­ger ca­noe­ing. While the Out­rig­ger Ca­noe Club in Waikiki has been around since 1908—and is cred­ited with sav­ing the Hawai­ian-style out­rig­ger from ex­tinc­tion—the trend didn’t take off un­til the 1990s. To­day, there are more than 60 out­rig­ger clubs scat­tered across the ar­chi­pel­ago and nearly ev­ery ma­jor beach re­sort of­fers its guests some sort of out­rig­ger ac­tiv­ity.

An­nual ca­noe races like the Pailolo Chal­lenge (which tra­verses 42 kilo­me­ters of open wa­ter be­tween Maui and Moloka’i) and the Moloka’i Hoe (across 66 kilo­me­ters be­tween Moloka’i and O‘ahu) count among the state’s premier sport­ing events. Hun­dreds of ca­noes and thou­sands of pad­dlers take part in these races, about as close as you can come in the 21st cen­tury to the fleet of out­rig­gers that greeted the likes of Cap­tain Cook and French ex­plorer La Pérouse when they ar­rived in the is­lands around 240 years ago.

Hav­ing done quite a bit of pad­dling in other parts of the world, I wanted to dis­cover how the out­rig­ger ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fers from ca­noes and kayaks. Maui’s Ka‘anapali Beach, over­look­ing the chan­nel where the Pailolo Chal­lenge takes place each Septem­ber, seemed a fit­ting place to get my feet wet. I signed on for an early morn­ing pad­dle with Ali‘i Maui Out­rig­ger Ca­noes, a fam­ily-run busi­ness that sets up on the beach each morn­ing.

Be­fore push­ing off, owner Jamie Balin­git ex­plained the sig­nif­i­cance of out­rig­gers in tra­di­tional Hawai­ian cul­ture. “Nowa­days ca­noes are made from fiber­glass. But in the old days, they were made from the trunk of a sin­gle koa tree that had to be cut down in the high­lands and dragged to the coast by dozens of men. Only the finest crafts­men worked on ca­noes. And no­body was al­lowed to dis­turb their con­cen­tra­tion. Be­cause if you did, the pun­ish­ment could be death. It was a sa­cred rit­ual, with a kahuna [shaman] al­ways present.”

Balin­git gath­ered three young ca­noe pad­dlers, in­clud­ing his nephew Lee­land, to take me pad­dling on the La­haina Roads, the broad chan­nel that sep­a­rates Maui, Moloka’i, and Lāna‘i. Push­ing our out­rig­ger into the surf and leap­ing aboard, we pad­dled south along Air­port Beach, so named be­cause there used to be a land­ing strip be­hind the co­conut palms that line the shore.

As we glided about a hundred me­ters off­shore, Lee­land ex­plained how long ago, war­riors used to train for com­bat along this par­tic­u­lar stretch of sand. And that Elvis Pres­ley, who helped bring Hawai­ian mu­sic and cul­ture into the Amer­i­can main­stream in the 1960s, had once stayed at the old­est hotel on the beach.

“Out­rig­ger ca­noe­ing isn’t so much about power as it is strat­egy —how to read the swells and cur­rents, how to nav­i­gate by the stars,” he added. It also re­quires skill­ful pad­dling: deep strokes that make a swirl in the wa­ter when you re­move the pad­dle, and ab­so­lutely no splash­ing on the sur­face.

The wa­ter be­low us was translu­cent, re­veal­ing a mo­saic of coral, sub­merged lava flows, and sandy shal­lows where dozens of sea tur­tles were slum­ber­ing in the early-morn­ing

BE­YOND ITS CALDERA, LANA'I RE­MAINS RE­FRESH­INGLY EMPTY AND UN­SPOILED, SLOWLY DE­VOLV­ING INTO THE WILD HAWAI­IAN LAND­SCAPE THAT EX­ISTED PRIOR TO THE 1920S

calm. Lāna‘i was dead ahead across the chan­nel I’d crossed by ferry a few days ear­lier. Our des­ti­na­tion was much closer: a large vol­canic promon­tory called Pu‘u Keka‘a ( Black Rock). “It’s a leina a ka ‘uhane, or ‘leap­ing place of the soul,’ ” Lee­land told me. “Hawai­ians be­lieve this rock is the place where the dead leave their earthly ex­is­tence by diving into the af­ter­life.”

Pu‘u Keka‘a has also been a pop­u­lar cliff-diving spot since at least the 18th cen­tury, when King Ka­hek­ili ap­par­ently stamped his ma­cho cre­den­tials by mak­ing in­cred­i­ble leaps from the top. Not to be out­done by some by­gone monarch, Lee­land and his bud­dies swam over to the rock, scaled the ra­zor-sharp vol­canic slope in their bare feet, and dove from the sum­mit.

Although hel­ter-skel­ter

de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues along much of Maui’s shore­line, the high­lands and off­shore waters are gar­ner­ing more pro­tec­tion and, in the same way as Lāna‘i, slowly slip­ping back into some­thing more akin to raw na­ture.

Gov­ern­ment re­serves like Haleakalā Na­tional Park and the West Maui For­est Re­serve are owed a lot of the credit for pre­serv­ing the is­land’s na­tive flora and fauna. But pri­vate lands are also part of the move­ment to re­turn back­coun­try Maui to its nat­u­ral state.

One such ini­tia­tive is the 35-square-kilome­ter Pu’u Kukui Wa­ter­shed Pre­serve near Ka­palua, just up the coast from Ka‘anapali. Still owned by Maui Land & Pineap­ple, which closed its cen­tury-old pineap­ple busi­ness in 2009, it’s the largest pri­vate na­ture re­serve in the Hawai­ian Is­lands, and ar­guably that com­pany’s great­est legacy—a size­able slice of pro­tected rain for­est and scrub­land that pro­vides a habi­tat for rare na­tive plants, birds, and gas­tropods.

I ven­tured up to one of the wooded ridge­lines that crown Pu’u Kukui with Peter Kekona, a burly na­tive Hawai­ian who guides for the Ka­palua Zi­plines com­pany. Us­ing an all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle, we were able to as­cend sev­eral hundred me­ters up the moun­tain­side. Even­tu­ally the muddy or­ange road pe­tered out and we con­tin­ued on foot along a trail flanked by gi­ant trees.

“These are sugi cedars,” Kekona ex­plained. “They were orig­i­nally im­ported from Ja­pan in the 1880s be­cause the wood was good for fix­ing ships dur­ing sail­ing days. But these never got har­vested— all of them are more than a cen­tury old. Yeah, I know. They’re not na­tive. But who’s gonna cut down a bunch of hundred-year-old trees? They’re an in­te­gral part of the for­est now.”

From a lofty view­point some 420 me­ters above sea level, we could look out across Pu’u Kukui, a vast green sea of ferns and trees that sprawls high above the busy beaches along the Ka­palua shore­line. This was also the start of a series of seven zi­plines that takes you hurtling back down­hill. With Kekona in the lead, we plunged into the void—and were soon soar­ing 100 me­ters above a jun­gle gully.

To see how en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion was far­ing off­shore, I headed next to Wailea Bay for a kayak­ing trip with vet­eran guide Deja Howard. The waters be­tween Wailea and the small, cres­centshaped is­land of Molokini are dou­bly pro­tected as part of the Molokini Shoal Ma­rine Life Con­ser­va­tion District and the much larger Hawai­ian Is­lands Hump­back Whale Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary. On this par­tic­u­lar day there wasn’t a whale in sight: wrong sea­son. But there were plenty of sea tur­tles, some of which were cu­ri­ous enough to sur­face and give us a quick look. We also caught a glimpse of the mul­ti­col­ored hu­muhu­munukunukua­pua‘a, Hawai‘i’s state fish.

“There’s a lot more tur­tles and whales than when I first started do­ing this,” said Howard, who’s been lead­ing kayak trips off Maui for 16 years. “And a lot more coral. Re­searchers tell me the coral in this part of the ma­rine sanc­tu­ary is grow­ing like one cen­time­ter per year. And peo­ple are try­ing to clean up the wa­ter in places that aren’t pro­tected—get rid of sep­tic tanks, stop agri­cul­tural runoff, and limit con­struc­tion that harms the ocean.”

Leav­ing the is­land be­hind later that to­day on a flight back to my home on the main­land, I kept think­ing about some of the things that Kepā Maly had told me dur­ing our meet­ing at the Lāna‘i Cul­ture & Her­itage Cen­ter.

“We’re al­ready light years ahead of where we used to be just a cou­ple of years ago,” he said of the move­ment to pre­serve the is­lands’ cultural and nat­u­ral in­tegrity. “And I have faith that we’ll con­tinue re­con­nect­ing our com­mu­ni­ties with their legacy. I see our fu­ture as a sort of ‘liv­ing class­room’ where peo­ple from around the world can see and learn how to in­te­grate their own cul­tures and traditions into mod­ern life and achieve the bal­ance that we have here on Lāna‘i.”

Top: Cultural spe­cial­ist Kaimana Purdy at the Westin Nanea’s Pu‘uhonua o Nanea Cultural Cen­ter on Maui. Op­po­site: A stretch of wild coast­line on Lana‘i.

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