A Happy Welcome to Moloka’i Followed by Near-Disaster

Day 7: Hawaii to Moloka’i

Today was a travel day, which is boring. All airlines lead to Honolulu to catch flights to other islands. Our plane to Moloka’i (I have always pronounced it moh-lah-kai, but here it is pronounced moh-lah-kah-ee) was a small prop plane. We crossed the channel from Oahu to Moloka’i, and I had the window seat, graciously ceded by Tom, even though his window seat from Kona to Honolulu was right next to the jet engine, which blocked the view. It was easy to see that the water in the channel was extremely rough, and the little prop plane wobbled a bit as we landed in the adorably tiny airport at Kaunakakai, which is the largest of Molokai’s three towns. And by “town,” I really mean “hamlet,” although they are not especially quaint. The wind was whipping the palm trees around, and leaves were flying everywhere.

We entered the airport. The rental car offices were right inside the door, and a line had formed, so I sat down on what appeared to be a convenient metal bench. After a bit, I began to wonder where the luggage was and asked a pretty, brown-haired woman sitting next to me.

She patted the “bench.” “This is where they put it,” she said cheerfully. “Give them a few minutes.” She asked me where we were staying and why we were here. When I told her, she gave me the following information:

  • Where to find the best meat and produce
  • Where to see hula and music performances
  • Which grocery stores to go to, and their hours
  • -Where and when the farmer’s market was
  • The name and contact info for the local experts on ancient Hawaiian protocol
  • The Aunty who knew the most about local mythology
  • Who the best boat captains were and how to get to the best snorkeling
  • Where and when and from whom to get a hula lesson
  • How to greet people properly in Hawaii (lean forward, touch the right cheek with your right cheek and kiss the cheek once)
  • How to address persons older than oneself, or indicate respect (aunty, uncle)

Needless to say, I was amazed and grateful. I said I would send her a copy of “The Obsidian Mirror” as a way of thanking her.

It took almost no time for Tom to pick up the car (again, I had specified el cheapo mucho, but we got a Jeep instead because they were out of Sparkies), and I had to drag two suitcases and all carry-ons a mere 10 steps to the car. We set off for our rented condo on the west side of Moloka’i.

But before we get to my personal observations of the island, let’s talk a bit about some factors the Moloka’i kama’aina (residents) are facing.

Molokai is one of the least-populated islands. The majority of the state’s citizens live on Oahu, primarily in Honolulu, therefore the political power and money is centered there. The Molokai (I have to stop using the apostrophe to indicate the glottal stop because it’s just too hard to type it  frequently on an iPad keyboard) Ranch Corporation owns virtually all of the leeward side of the island, where most of the arable land is. They used to operate a farm, ranch, hotel, golf course  and other amenities here. The Ranch decided to build some luxury condominiums on the west side near where we are staying.

Molokai kama’aina (Yea! Autocorrect did it for me!) objected to this plan. They don’t want the island to be the next Maui or Oahu, with high-rise hotels and tourist luaus. They like it small, slow, and old-fashioned, a place for the ‘ohana (family). They were successful in blocking the Ranch’s development plans.

The Ranch, the largest employer on the island, retaliated by shutting down ALL operations on Molokai. The ranch land is idle, the hotel is shuttered, the golf course overtaken by weeds and trees. All Molokai employees were laid off.

I am far from being anti-capitalist, but this just seemed incredibly spiteful to me.

Then about two years ago, a power company wanted to put windmills on the west side to generate power, running a cable undersea from Molokai to Oahu. Hawaiians in general seem to agree that the political system here is completely corrupt, largely because of the imbalance of power between Oahu and the other islands. Politicians and money were lined up behind the windmill project, but the Molokai kama’aina objected.

“How reactionary!” you might say. Renewable power is a non-trivial issue out here in the middle of the Pacific, where every drop of fuel must be shipped in.

However, the issue is that NONE of that windmill-generated electricity would be made available to the people of Molokai. You would think that the power company would build one or two extra just to placate the residents by providing them with cheaper electricity, but no. The windmills and cable project were blocked, but wtf?

While I’m on the subject, there’s also the issue of island-to-island travel. Back in the day when Tom and I visited, there were kama’aina prices for inter-island travel, which were lower than tourist prices. There was also a ferry to and from some islands.

All that is gone (except for the ferry between Molokai and Maui, primarily to get workers to Maui). Kama’aina pay the same as tourists for airfare. Hawaiians who want to travel within their own state are stuck paying tourist-level prices for the privilege of traveling a distance that in other states could be easily accomplished by car, bus, or train. You can probably charter a boat, but that is hardly a cheap solution.

I guess my point is that the residents of Molokai are a pretty brave bunch of people. They stand up for what they believe in, even if it hurts them. And Hawaiians in general outside of the population center are being, to put it frankly, screwed over.

Back to our adventure. We drove to the west side where our condo complex is located. The land on this side is bright red earth, mostly covered with grasses and scrubby acacia. Where the earth has eroded, the bones of old lava stick up through it like rotten teeth.

Molokai was formed by two volcanoes, one on the east side, one on the west. Both have been  extinct since before human beings evolved. The one on the east exploded 1.5 million years ago and most of its remains lie at the bottom of the ocean. Its demise left the high sea cliffs (pali) that separated Kalaapapa, the leper colony, from the rest of the island.

Most people have heard of Kalaupapa because of Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who lived with and cared for these unfortunates until their own deaths. They were both recently canonized. Leprosy, or as it is known  today, Hansen’s Disease, is now curable. However, some of the very elderly lepers still live at Kalaupapa, even though they have been cured.

The story of Kalaupapa is a fascinating, terrible and inspiring story, but we will not be visiting. You can hike there or ride a mule down the sheer pali, which is not happening for several reasons, one of which is that Tom and I are both acrophobic (I caught it from him). You can take a helicopter there, which is also not happening, due to my first and only helicopter ride. It was a trip through Waimea Canyon on Kauai. The pilot was an ex-Vietnam fighter pilot who derived a sadistic joy from scaring the crap out of me. He succeeded. There are no boat tours. I don’t feel strongly enough about visiting to charter a boat. So sorry–no Kalaupapa.

Our condo is not near anything, which is great, but we needed to stock up. We drove into Kaunakakai, making our first stop at Paddler’s Inn for lunch. Paddler’s is a local hangout. It’s largely open-air, and like everything here, shabby and comfortable. We both had saimin and poke, and I had a daiquiri–one of the best I have ever had.

Then to the two grocery stores in the island’s largest town, Kaunakakai. The selection is a bit different in each store, and there are a lot of local faves, like Spam. We were a bit disappointed there was not more local fresh fish. We didn’t feel up to gutting and filleting the fish being sold out of a pickup truck on the street, so we bought Atlantic farmed salmon (which I normally never would do; I follow the sustainability guidelines issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium), and some other necessities. The liquor store in Kaunakakai had a wonderful selection, so that was good, having poured the last of our wine in honor of Joan and Casey back in Captain Cook.

We arrived at the condo complex, which is called Paniolo Hale (cowboy house). We found the condo and got the key out of a lockbox. Then we encountered our first obstacle: we could not figure out how to unlock the door. Our condo managers, Scott and Chad, had thoughtfully given me the number of the housekeeper, whom we called. Fern gave us the magic trick for opening the lock, and we walked in.

We have a two-story condo facing the ocean, which is a few hundred feet away. There is a screened lanai, separated from the living area by huge, louvered glass doors. It was hot and stuffy inside, so we immediately tried to open the louvres and encountered our second obstacle: they wouldn’t budge. I called Fern again, and she called Scott and Chad, and Scott said they would be there shortly.

In the meantime, we went upstairs, where there is a bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom has no windows facing the ocean; this amenity has been sacrificed in favor of the lanai. But it did have a small, screened-in balcony facing mauka-side. As the complex is nicely landscaped with lots of shady trees, this is actually pretty. It has some sort of fine, grassy groundcover that smells like dill when you walk on it.

Paniolo Hale

Paniolo Hale

Scott and Chad arrived and opened the louvres immediately. The problem was that Tom and I, both with Master’s degrees, had been trying to pull them towards us, but they have to be pushed out. Which reminds me of this wonderful Gary Larson cartoon, below.

Cartoon by Gary Larsen

Cartoon b y Gary Larsen

We asked lots of other questions and Chad went upstairs to open a stuck window in the bedroom. We could see huge, turquoise waves dashing against the rocks not far away–the same swell that had kept us out of the water at Honaunau. So I asked Scott if it is safe to swim here once the swell has subsided. The answer was that we could walk down to our right to Make Horse Beach (Dead horse beach. Romantic!), and that was much better, but that winter is a tricky time to swim anyway. I could see another long beach past a rocky point tooth elect and asked about it.

Scott gave me directions to get there. It’s a beach park called Papohaku. “After a big swell like this,” said Scott, “there are lots of shells. You don’t usually find shells there, but you might even find a sunrise shell at Popohaku.”

Well, Scott had me at the word “shell.” I adore shells, and have spent many hours collecting them on beaches around the world and getting seriously sunburned. The albedo of my skin is approximately that of new-fallen snow, so I have to be careful. I wear sunscreen all the time on my face, and when in the tropics, slather it everywhere, whether I plan to be outdoors or not.

Anyway, nothing would make me happier than shell hunting–and I particularly would love to find a sunrise shell. They are both rare and gorgeous. Mind you, I never buy shells or take a live one, because the commerce in shells is creating devastation among the world’s little shell-builders. The rarer the shell, the worse the damage. But any shell I find myself that is not currently occupied is fair game. Here’s a sunrise shell, just to show you how exciting it would be to find one (at least if you were a bit nuts, like me):

Sunrise shell

Sunrise shell

We sat and watched the huge waves for a while, reading and writing, until the sun went down. The wind was still fierce. I began trying to find my way around the kitchen. I wanted to roast some potatoes, but we had neglected to buy any oil (butter, but not oil), I found an unlabeled container of something I was pretty sure was coconut oil in the fridge, so I melted it and dribbled it over the potatoes. Then I discovered there was no salt, except for a bag of sea salt flavored with balsamic vinegar. I sprinkled this over the spuds and stuck them in the oven. I also steamed some broccoli. It was all delicious, and the coconut-balsamic-sea-salt potatoes were lovely.

We were both exhausted and went to bed early. One of my criteria for places to stay, if at all possible, is a king-size bed. Tom and I are largish people, tall and far from slender, so a small bed is uncomfortable. This bed is the softest I have ever encountered. It was like sinking into a humid marshmallow. I was afraid I would wake up with a sore back, but not at all.

Day 8: Molokai

The next morning, I woke early, with shells on the brain. It was still dark, but I roused my patient husband and told him we were going to Papohaku Beach to look for shells. (He really is a saint sometimes.) I should have taken more note of the massive surf still crashing on the rocks out front; the swell had not subsided.

We found Papohaku without much difficulty. It was a little after 7:00 am, and no one else was around. To get to the beach, you walk through a rather enchanting little forest of acacias. It looks like fairies might live there. The beach itself is a long, curving stretch of golden sand.

Fairy forest at Papohaku Beach.

Fairy forest at Papohaku Beach.

I walked along for a while, looking for shells. Of course, there were none–the swell was still going strong. I had a plastic bag with me and picked up the few pieces of plastic I could find. (More about plastic in the oceans later.)

Golden beach at Papohaku.

Golden beach at Papohaku.

I love the ocean. I grew up playing in the surf in Southern California. I am a good swimmer and learned very young how to avoid riptides and getting “boiled” in a big wave. I body-surfed. I used to be able to swim the length of a swimming pool and back under water, though I probably couldn’t do it now. I also learned not to turn your back on the waves, because sometimes a “sneaker” wave can come along without warning.

But I didn’t intend to even get my feet wet on this expedition. I was walking with Tom above the line where the waves were reaching, and forgot to be alert. A huge wave surged up the beach and knocked me down.

I lack the words to tell you how powerful the wave was. It felt like the inexorable hand of God, and I only a gnat spinning out of control. I fell to all fours and the wave closed over me and began to drag me out to sea. I was screaming, but Tom couldn’t even hear me. He grabbed the waistband of my shorts and held on for dear life. It was absolutely terrifying.

The wave receded, and Tom yelled at me to get up, but I couldn’t. I was as shocked and terrified as I have ever been, and weirdly weak. I did manage to crawl on all fours away from the water, and shakily regained my feet, completely soaked.

Tom said, “Did you bring your iPhone?” Of course, I had. I reached into my pocket and withdrew my phone, dripping and covered with sand. Dead. I told Tom that my enthusiasm for shell hunting had been dampened, and started trudging toward the car, dripping sand and salt water in my wake.

Tom said, “I guess the sea god is pissed off because you sided with Pele.” Ulp. I hadn’t even thought about that. I have always been a friend to the sea and vice versa. I somehow was still clutching my plastic bag with plastic debris in it–didn’t that count for something? I confess that I am still a little uneasy about this. After all, if I can accept that Pele has blessed me, how can I then reject out of hand that Kanaloa (the sea god and one of Hawaii’s four top gods) or Pele’s sea-goddess sister who hates her, Na-maka-o-kaha‘i, isn’t miffed by Pele’s blessing?

Scoff if you will. People believe in these things here, at least many do. I hope my iPhone, my dear companion of boring times when I have to wait in doctors’ offices or checkout lines, is sufficient enough sacrifice, but I am not taking any chances until I have had an opportunity to placate whatever is out there.

On my way back, I snagged a piece of white plastic the size of a toddler’s chair, intending to deposit it in the trash. (See, Kanaloa?) I stopped at the restroom in the park to rinse off. I had sand everywhere, but was able to remove only some of it. The rest had to wait until I could get into a blessedly hot shower at the condo, where I discovered sand in places I didn’t know I had places.

Having washed and recovered, Tom and I set off to explore. It was raining, which it did the rest of the day. The first stop was a grocery store in Kualapuu, where we bought a large bag of rice, intending to bury my iPhone in it. This sometimes will dry the phone out sufficiently to get it working again, but I have my doubts; it was completely drenched, and in salt water to boot. We went to the Kualapuu Cook House across the street for lunch. The Cook House is in a small building that, like most places on Molokai, has seen better days. It’s not fancy, and the green and white curtains are grimy. They are a cash-only establishment.

Tom ordered BBQ pork and I had a BLT, feeling the need for comfort food. Both were excellent. Then we started to look for the meat cooperative, said to be the best source of beef on the island, all grass-fed, and Kumu Gardens, the best produce stand. It was Saturday, and there are no stores here open on Sunday except for Misaki’s in Kaunakakai, and that closes early.

Both the meat coop and Kumu were closed on Saturday as well, as it turned out. So we drove into Kaunakakai to stock up. We lucked out and found a tiny farmer’s market there, just starting to pack up. We got into a lengthy conversation with two ladies in the market, who were delighted to share information about the island. People here are incredibly friendly. They know everybody else who lives here, and if they are native Hawaiians, they are also probably related to everyone else.

We returned to our condo with our spoils. Dinner was poke from the market, to which I added an avocado the size of a small balloon, plus some seasonings from the cupboard. I don’t know what all of them are, exactly, but it was great. I served the poke over the rice I didn’t use to bury my iPhone.

Tom said the swell was supposed to be gone the next day. I secretly planned to return to Papohaku Beach the following morning. And this time, I would be a much humbler and more cautious woman.

6 thoughts on “A Happy Welcome to Moloka’i Followed by Near-Disaster

  1. Another absolutely wonderful blog for phase 2 of the operation. I’m sure you could get a job with the Hawaiian Tourist board
    As always thank you for a marvelous read that I could use as a guide book. It’s nice to really get to grips with a place and learn so much.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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