A Year in Review: Makahiki / Arrival / Farewell to Max / Working on a Building / Hilo and Kehena / Ed's Party / The Search for Pele's Vagina / Makahiki Redux
Laurie is up and out of the house at four forty-five Saturday morning to attend the makahiki (the coming year) ceremony at the big heiau (temple) in Wailuku, a pagan tribute and chant to the rising sun. The ancient Hawaiian god of war, Ku, is put to rest for four months. Weapons are laid aside while a period of feasting, games and leisure is observed. The benevolent god Lono is now in charge. Come March, Lono will be ousted by Ku and the people will be free to go back to war, flailing away at one another with lethal cudgels embedded with shark's teeth and the like.
In other countries there is a ceremonial changing of the guard. Here in Hawaii we have a ceremonial changing of the god. If it's a significant cultural event and it's happening on Maui, it's a good bet you'll find my wife nearby. If makahiki has a western culture equivalent, it would be Thanksgiving, as difficult as it might be to imagine a pa`ina (feast or banquet) with four months of Thanksgiving-like feasting. It might, though, answer a few questions about the immense physical dimensions of many Hawaiians, some of whom claim eating until they're full isn't the point; rather, they eat until they're tired.
We arrived on Maui in November of 1996 to find our new home, for all its years a rental unit, in serious need of some TLC. The front two acres of the property was a jumble of weeds, guava bush, mixed jungle and blue-flower, a home for horses. Cane grass, tough and prolific, established colonies reaching 10 feet and more. Scraggly ti (pronounced “tea”), planted as ornamentals, struggled to maintain life. Cactus-like century plant fronds overgrew walkways. Crab spiders claimed title to the front porch while swaggering cockroaches of startling dimensions roamed the kitchen with a cocky air of authority. Towering eucalyptus trees spewed their by-product over the landscape and overhanging branches were cause for concern. Windows and toilets hadn't had a proper cleaning since the “World Series” Quake of '89. Curiously, there wasn't a single door-stop remaining anywhere in the house. A couple of doors had holes punched in them. So did walls where missing door-stops allowed doorknobs to act as wrecking balls. Towel hangers matched the number of bathrooms: two. And there was no garage. In Ha`iku, where it's known to rain “ … slightly more than somewhat,” absence of a garage can be terminal to an automobile. Things were austere, on the threshold of dismal. The prospect of work stretched out before us like a desert highway, no end in sight. And work we did. Laurie's green thumb brought new life to old plants while new plantings became a daily occurrence. I was the handyman-in-residence and part-time mule. I could usually fix what needed fixing and dig pukas (holes) for new plantings. I waged my own private war on guava root, weeds, blue-flower, and cane grass.
Farewell to Max
We were just starting to see progress when we got word that Max, our beloved `ohana (family) mainstay and champion, was in the hospital in Hilo. We didn't need to be told it was serious. Max wouldn't walk into the industry of western medicine of his own accord; he'd have to be carried. A week later he was still in ICU with no improvement. We were on the next plane to Hilo, both of us sensing an urgent need to be with Max, maybe for the last time.
Sadly, it was. We had opportunity for visits and closure but his lion-heart was soon to beat its last, leaving all of us who knew and loved him less than what we used to be. I had always looked to Max as the Keeper of the Fire, an earth-grounded conduit to life lived on its own terms. Even in his mid-70's, the spark of youth remained—you could catch it in his eyes and hear it in the music of his voice. He always seemed to be in charge, ready and capable to take on anything that might come down the pike. He carefully forged an existence that somehow wasn't subject to the incessant demands and forced conformity of our government and society. He was one of my father's closest friends and confidants, filling that role for me when we lost dad 35 years earlier. Both were members of that special generation often referred to, accurately in my opinion, as the “greatest.” Max was a man of great spirit and courage; we will celebrate his life always and strive to maintain the flame he left us.
Working On a Building
Back home on Maui I undertook to design and build a garage that would hold 3 vehicles, a shop, and an attached `ohana unit for my mother. It was my first ever such undertaking. Since I lacked the practical experience and many of the required skills, I had to go about it slowly, simply and methodically. Trees were felled and ground was cleared and leveled. I parked our cars where I figured the garage should be, staked it out and measured things. I drew the plans the same way, applying common sense and basic drafting technique learned in a junior-high mechanical drawing class.
My first draft was rejected by the building department. I had to be more detailed. I went back with my second set of drawings and sat down across from a sour-faced young woman who so completely lacked even a hint of humor or passion, I thought I might be dealing with an alien species. She looked at my plans as though I had handed her a pornographic manuscript. I was soundly rebuked for spanning a 10-foot reach with a 4 X 8. Didn't I know that required a 4 X 10? Where's the roof detail? And what about this here … do you intend to have a door between the garage and the studio? You haven't noted a firewall. And so on. Try as I might I couldn't get this woman to smile, but I learned things from her and thanked her warmly for her assistance. A couple of weeks later I had a building permit. When I arrived at construction stages, I hired a skilled builder to assist me.
It was a rough start. It rained daily for several weeks—as you might guess, slightly more than somewhat—clearing for an hour here, an hour there. We labored in the muck, setting piers, beams and joists. Then we were “out of the mud,” a cause for celebration: we had a sub-floor. And then walls and a roof. Gimme shelter. I felt the war was won—bring on the rain! But summer soon kicked in and it rained very little (perhaps less than somewhat) in following months.
Occasionally something out of the ordinary would happen and slow things down. I was working on the roof when I saw a car under tow delivered to the front of the property and recognized it as belonging to someone who lived at my brother Peter's property. I paid little attention to it but later noticed it had been moved from where the tow-vehicle had left it. No concern of mine, I gave that little thought as well. At lunchtime, walking across the `ohana property to visit with mom, I spied something that stopped me in my tracks: there was that car, upside-down, resting at the bottom of the gulch that more or less divided the front half of our property from the rear. I checked the car for a possible occupant and found none. What the hell? Maybe the parking brake wasn't set and a strong gust of wind set the car in motion, driver-less, but following the gentle slope of the land. With no conscious hand on the wheel and powered by gravity for about the length of a football field, it was funneled by swale, dips and the lay of the land, finding its way between royal palms and newly planted citrus, and into the gulch on a steep and narrow dirt entrance, overturning as it neared the bottom. There was no witness to whatever had happened, but I could come up with no other way to explain it. With the help of a tow-truck equipped with boom, winch and cable, the rest of that day was devoted to returning the car to upright and removing it from the gulch.
It was a normal day in Ha`iku where unexpected events could rearrange your day—or night—without warning.
The building project consumed most of my energy and attention for the first year of our occupancy on Maui. A good deal of money as well. With Thanksgiving again upon us, I had only carpet and tile to bring things to completion. The structure is square, plumb, sturdy and pretty much how I envisioned it. It looks better than fine, it looks as though it belongs, a companion building to the one we live in.
Hilo and Kehena
Laurie's wanderlust and love of Hawaiian culture would often lure us away for a few days. April found us again in Hilo for the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, a competition sometimes referred to as the “World Series of Hula.” We stayed with Max's now widowed partner, Maureen, at her home in the coastal village of Kehena which literally translates as “bare-assed.” I guessed that it was named for the local beach where you see a lot of that, but Laurie assures me the origin lies elsewhere.
We've always been drawn to the wild and natural beauty of the Puna coast and the Kalapana area, although the absence of Max created a huge hole for us. In earlier years, when we were living in Berkeley, we came to Hawaii often to visit family on Maui and Max and Maureen on the Big Island where we likened their off-the-grid home environment to “living on the edge of the world.” Kehena is just a few miles from the devastation of Kilauea's on-going “east rift zone” eruption and so distanced—if not in miles, then in spirit—from the rest of civilization that it felt we must indeed be very near the edge of the world. The volcano goddess, Pele, was at work nearby creating acres of brand new real estate. At night we'd listen to the ocean crash against the rocky coast, sounding as though breathing as it receded, spellbound by the shimmering glow of the volcano reflecting off the underside of clouds while the spirit of Pele hovered all around us. A few days without electricity, hot water, TV and the rest of it is part of living on the edge, doing without and finding that modern convenience is nota requirement for a rich and fulfilling existence, although a good book and a decent glass of wine can help considerably.
We returned to Hilo and the Big Island in July for Ed Olson's annual party at his spectacular property overlooking the Wailuku river in Hilo. Everyone is welcome at this grand pa`ina and invitation is by word of mouth. Bring a friend, it's okay. For over 20 years, Ed has hosted his annual “deck-party” and put on the ritz, Hawaiian style, for his friends, neighbors, employees, and those Big Island residents in the know. Large stones are super-heated in a fire pit called an “imu” which is then covered with dirt, burlap and banana leaves to hold in the heat while pig and turkeys cook to a smokey, tender perfection in this underground oven. Fishermen bring a fresh catch of ono (wahoo) and ahi tuna, prepared on a grill and passed around the tables, along with macadamia nuts and various produce from Ed's orchards. There is a coffee bar representing his plantation and mill in Ka`u. A full bar is staffed and well-stocked with spirits and a number of non-spirited beverages. Fruit and dessert tables are piled with contributions by many of the guests. Pies, cakes, cookies and other treats sparkle with invitation. By the end of the day, three or four hundred people are fed from the imu, served up with an array of complimenting Hawaiian side-dishes, everything gratis. Entertainment by local musicians includes solo artists, groups, hula dancing, and a lively Tahitian group. The evening closes with skilled musicians playing contemporary pop and rock.
A word of caution to the uninitiated: Tahitian dancers, half-clothed lovely young maidens decorated with exotic feathered headdress and accouterments, abide by a Tahitian tradition I've seen carried out many times. At some point in their performance, unannounced, they fan out into the audience to grab unsuspecting males then drag them to the stage to learn (in about a minute or so) Tahitian dance. The captives are then cajoled into performing with their lithe and able captors to the frenetic beat of Tahitian drumming. This seizure of the innocent never fails to bring to my mind Trevor Howard's superb portrayal of Captain Bligh in the 1962 movie version of Mutiny on the Bounty. At an arrival celebration in Tahiti, the stiff and rhythm-challenged Bligh is mortified to learn that refusal isn't an option when invited to dance with the king's daughter. He then proceeds in what must be the most rigid, gawking, ungainly—and hilarious—attempt at Tahitian dance ever filmed, contrasted by the graceful and erotic Tahitian dancers surrounding him on all sides while the Tahitian royal court looks on aghast and unbelieving. Brando as Fletcher Christian, holding back his mirth, offers his sympathies as Bligh steps forward to accept his duty: “…it does seem a rather difficult dance, doesn't it Captain?”
I of course see myself as the clumsy Bligh whenever threatened by the possibility that I could be chosen by the maidens to put my own haole lack of rhythm on display. Sometimes insistent maidens will team up and grab some poor unfortunate, one on each arm, and pull him to the stage, ignoring whatever protest might be lodged. So I keep a keen watch on the proceedings, ready at all times to flee for sanctuary ahead of possible seizure and public spectacle. Long ago I formed the opinion that a majority of white males have had soulful dance movement, so evident and appealing in people of color, starched out of them by the historic and shameful attempt to define themselves as a “race above.” Here at Ed's party I am at least proud to have my gender represented by Troy Keolanui, Ed's handsome and smiling farm foreman and right-hand man. When captured by a gang of maidens, Troy stepped to the stage without concern and performed confidently to boisterous applause.
I've known Ed for over forty years and, like Max, Ed became and remains a cherished member of our `ohana. Like cousins, members of both `ohanas (Ed's and ours), recognize the ties that bind us together in friendship and allegiance. Initially a successful contractor (whose company is said to have constructed some fifty thousand swimming pools in Southern California), he became a real estate mogul and one of the nation's leading self-storage operators before becoming one of Hawaii's largest farm operators and land holders. I think Ed-as-farmer suits him well, someone who reaps rewarding gratification and personal satisfaction from the business and art of growing things. All that he does seems done on what my brother Robbin calls “The Olson Scale,” Ed's gift of seeing life and investment on an expansive and overreaching scale of measurement that seems to guide his decision-making process. His entry into whatever endeavor he may undertake has always reflected an ability and desire to play at a major-league level. Never a “fortunate son,” Ed has done it all on his own.
As he approaches his 90th orbit around the star we call our sun, it's apparent to me (for whatever the hell that might be worth) that Ed is where he belongs, preferring Hawaii's second-largest city, funky Hilo, to cosmopolitan Honolulu with its tall buildings and freeways that decry the loss of true Hawaiian values. I believe that Hilo and the Big Island called to Ed with an informal etiquette and the warm invitation of Hawaiian aloha. Here was a place to grow things and a welcoming community in which he wasted little time in becoming an important member: farmer, businessman, employer, and philanthropist. His counsel has always been valued and available whenever the need might arise. His respect for and support of the native Hawaiians and their culture is apparent where ever appropriate within his endeavors.
The Search for Pele's Vagina
Hawaiian mythology and lore is perhaps best exemplified in the stories of Pele, sacred goddess of the volcano. It is said Pele came to Hawaii from Tahiti, carrying at her breast the “egg” of her little sister Hi`iaka, to eventually make her home in Halema`uma`u, the massive crater at the summit of the Kilaueavolcano. Locally, stories and legends of Pele abound, especially on the Hilo side of the Big Island and perhaps even more so in the coastal regions of Puna, the site of recent eruptions and flows. Residents of this area have told stories of meeting Pele in the guise of an old woman who would mysteriously disappear after a brief encounter. Some believe Pele takes this form to monitor the behavior of residents toward travelers and those in need, a responsibility of her divinity.
Mythology also has it that another of Pele's sisters, Kapo, had a detachable flying vagina (well, why not?) that she used to distract the unwanted advances of the pig-god Kamapua`a who was stricken with his lust for Pele. The legend of Pele is fraught with stories of fierce battles between the families of Pele and Kamapua`a. Some, I am told, still worship the legacy of Pele, and I find myself wondering if there are those who persist in the worship of the pig-god? Fletcher Christian may have thought so, admonishing Bligh whom he is about to set adrift: “…you can thank whatever pig-god you pray to you haven't turned me into a murderer.”
Hawaii is ripe with myth, legend and stories of mysterious events. On Maui in the late sixties, resident hippies would swear that flying saucers emerged from the Haleakala crater at night, “…I seen 'em, man!” In the small and shadowed little village of `Opihikao on the Puna coast, some residents claim to have heard, even seen, the Night Marchers, phantom apparitions of dead warriors who come out at night to continue the noisy march from where they had met their death in some ancient battle. I also heard a story of something called the Vagina Cave, wherein a lava-formed image of Pele's vagina supposedly exists in fine detail.
There's no telling who you might meet at Ed's annual party, but among the vips, business associates, neighbors, locals, Polynesian and Hawaiian natives, I met a fellow who claimed to know the location of the Vagina Cave. Though I'm generally a skeptic, I am open to exploration and the search for validity. How could I resist an invitation to explore a labyrinthine lava tube (said to connect the coastline with the summit of Kilauea) in search of Pele's vagina? Lieutenant JR, reporting for duty, sir!
The entrance to the lava tube lies hidden in a mix of sparse jungle, guava, orchids, and scrub vegetation under ficus and banyan trees, not far off a highway and in sight of nearby housing. But if you didn't have a good idea of where it lies, you could search for days and not find it. But find it we did and into the darkness we went, Laurie, Maureen and I, with our local guide who seemed confident he could find the object of our search. Our flashlights illuminated the rust-colored lava tube we were in, high and wide enough to accommodate an RV if you could get it in there. We wound our way through passageways and level elevations, sometimes descending, sometimes climbing. We followed what looked like a pathway on one side of the tube, but found out the hard way it was more illusion than pathway. It grew more narrow by the step and we soon discovered that it narrowed to the point of being a just a ledge, inches wide, and we found ourselves clinging to the lava tube wall about eight feet above the floor of the main artery we were following. Platoon reverse! There was barely room enough to turn around, but we managed.
We encountered several false starts as we explored off-shoots of the main tunnel. We descended another level and then came upon a large chamber-like room that was an obvious burial site. Several coffin-shaped stone outlines lined the chamber, suggesting they once held burial remains. High in the roof was a small opening to the forest above. The silhouette of gnarly roots traversed the opening like spidery fingers and we heard occasional songbirds, but it didn't provide enough light to see our way unaided. Water dripped here and there, an audible distraction adding to the humidity. We discovered another entrance to that place and saw that someone at sometime had hauled enough iron bars and cement down there to close off the entrance to this chamber with chain and lock.
It is unknown when and by whom this was done, but the absence of remains suggests the burials were moved to another site. Hawaiians are known for their aversion to the idea that occupying haoles might someday mess with their bones or the bones of their ancestors. Would they also harbor similar feelings about haoles gawping at the vagina of the volcano goddess, Pele? Probably. Sacred is sacred, don't mess with it. There was only the four of us and the idea among ourselves that we would behave other than respectfully was unthinkable. But where was the object of our search?
Just beyond the burial chamber, we climbed to another passageway that doubled back to a smaller room that, like a balcony, overlooked the main chamber. There was a musty stillness to the air here; if sacredhad its own feel this was it. Our lights then fell upon the object of our search: there on the floor in the center of this smaller chamber, six feet or more in length and intricately formed of smooth-flowing pahoehoe lava, was the striking three-dimensional image of a vulva, complete and detailed with rose-colored labia. If not belonging to Pele, then to whom? Unlike any old pole that might be labeled phallic or some cleft said to have a female nature, here the aspect and accuracy was life-like and stunning, enhanced by the lava-provided hue and coloring. There was no mistaking what was before you: the female organ and birth canal aperture. We turned our lights off and sat in silence for some time before leaving, taking care to leave everything as we had found it.
I trust that a little female anatomy is okay with you. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of that year and this here, you will recall, is most of a year in review.
Back on Maui it's Sunday morning, the day following the makahiki ceremony. Laurie has made the morning coffee and put the newspaper on the table. She is suspiciously chipper for this early in the morning. What have I done to deserve this fawning attention? And what's with this smirk she's trying to hide? I'm sipping my coffee and gazing off at Haleakala, not too focused on anything, and she's hovering nearby, a little too jaunty, still with that smirk. Okay. What is it? What am I missing here? I look down at the paper and there it is, front page and in full color. I could pick her out of any crowd. It's Laurie and the other attendees greeting the sun from the big heiau in Wailuku, a formal welcoming committee for makahiki and Lono.
It's official. Ku, is dispatched elsewhere for four months; Lono will oversee this period of peace, games, leisure and plenty. Laurie is pleased that this traditional ceremony is recognized so prominently in the Maui News and I find myself wondering, how do we keep Ku, this god of war, from coming back in March?