Going Green

After a mere seventeen months and a rather impressive stack of paperwork, Rochi finally got his green card. We were disappointed to find that it isn’t actually green, but let’s not quibble. The little card represents freedom for both of us. I no longer have to nag him to behave himself and he can get into as much trouble as he likes; I have the option to bail him out or let him stew. Either way he probably won’t get deported.

We had to go to Honolulu for his final interview, something neither of us wanted to do. It seems to me that the process should be more perfunctory for people who have been married as long as we have, but America is the Land of One Size Fits All Legislation (unless you’re very wealthy) so we both adopted a “Sir, yes, sir!” attitude toward the whole thing.

Two things I learned:

Judging by the limited bits of news I see, the official policy of the Tangerine-tinted Buffoon and His Propaganda Machine is that all foreigners including toddlers are highly suspect and America hates anyone who wasn’t born here unless she has very large breasts. But as it turns out, the official stance and the reality are different. The officer who did the interview was perfectly civil. Rochi didn’t have to sing God Bless America and I didn’t have to swear to what brand of toothpaste we use. The officer even showed some interest in us personally, which leads to the second thing I learned.

Japan has taken on some sort of mythical, mystical status here. Again and again, baffled faces have asked why we left Japan to move to Puna. My equally baffled answer has been that Tokyo is noisy and crowded and smelly; Puna is paradise. The immigration officer, of Okinawan descent by the way, went one step further, asking why we chose Puna instead of the razzle-dazzle of Honolulu. We both snorted, respectfully, saying, “Why not just stay in Tokyo? Last night, we went to sleep listening to Honolulu traffic. In Puna, we sleep to a chorus of coqui frogs. We were at the center of everything for years and years and both avoided the razzle-dazzle. Puna is exactly where we want to be.” I don’t think we convinced her, but if she drew the conclusion that we’re both a bit batty, she’s probably right.

I have developed a theory about the Hawaiian attitude toward Japan. In the late 19th century, waves of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work the sugar cane fields. They thought they would make good money they could send back to their dirt poor families, eventually returning home themselves. The reality was that the guys were put to back-breaking labor for which they were paid pennies. But mostly they stayed, married and propagated, harboring memories of Japan as a sacred homeland where all men are equal and mice never raid the rice bin. Japan hovers just past the horizon, the gleaming ideal of all that is just and good. The bad things that happen here never happen in Japan. This is classic Japanese willful naivete, a cultural characteristic that hasn’t changed much to this day.

Vestiges of Japanese culture remain, mostly in food. By far the best supermarket in Hilo is KTA, started by a Japanese couple in 1916. It’s the best because it has a wide variety of food, American junk, of course, but also Asian and European and Hawaiian and almost any Japanese thing you could want, although it sometimes has a Hawaiian twist. They have kamaboko (steamed fish paste), for example, but it comes in a surreal shade of pink. (There are also sureally-colored hot dogs. Both make me a bit nervous.) There’s a nice selection of expensive European-style gourmet cheeses and meats in the deli section but in the dairy section, they have processed cheese and cheddar–only cheddar. This is just like KTA’s Tokyo counterparts, where most stores have processed cheese and Gouda–only Gouda. There’s also a Safeway in Hilo but it only offers bland Americana.

(I have discovered that Safeway has $5 Fridays. I was warned to stay away because of the terrible crowds. But being ornery, I had to see for myself, and when I did, I nearly wet myself with giggles. If that’s crowded, I’ll eat my flip-flops. Anyone who thinks $5 Fridays at Safeway are crowded has never been to a Tokyo supermarket in the final days leading up to the New Year holidays, when normally polite and gentle Japanese people turn into shopping maniacs foaming at the mouth as they fight over the last package of sweet beans or fossilized fish eggs. But I digress.)

I met a nice lady who works at Bank of Hawaii. I would guess she’s in her mid 60’s. She has a Japanese name but told me she’d never been to Japan and was very excited about her upcoming first visit. I returned to the bank a few months later and asked how the trip had gone. She sighed, disappointment written all over her face. “There was a lot of walking,” she said. I felt really sorry for her. Imagine the expectations she’d built up in her head, possibly based on stories heard at her grandmother’s knee, compared to the reality of modern Japan. A friend once said to me, “If you don’t have any expectations, you can’t be disappointed.” Wise words.

The long and short of all this rambling is that Rochi is finally legal. Ironically, this means he can visit Japan if he wants to, but he doesn’t want to and neither do I. Nor do we want to go back to Honolulu. Nor do we want to go anywhere, really. It’s just so darned nice here.

Saddle Road

We had to make a quick trip to Honolulu for a Very Important Meeting. We didn’t want to go, but it was Very Important. That meant making the drive to Kona Airport on the Other Side of the Island. Hilo’s population is much larger than Kona’s but most of the tourist stuff is over there so they got the bigger airport and the discount airlines. They also get most of the tourists and the hideous resort hotels, so it’s a fair trade.

The quickest way to go is Saddle Road, which crosses the island from Hilo to Kona. Our elevation at home is about 315 feet. On Saddle Road, we travel through a couple of forest reserves as the road rises and rises, eventually topping off at 6632 feet as we race past Mauna Kea, and then we drop down to Kona, our ears popping as we arrive at the airport, which is barely above sea level.

On the way there, an occasional wisp of cloud appeared in the distance, but overall the sky was crystal clear. The roads were dry. Donkeys and goats wandered about at their leisure. I remember commenting that it was my first time to travel Saddle Road when it didn’t rain.

We got to the airport, flew to Honolulu and flew back. We couldn’t wait to get back so we hit the ground running, so to speak, but caution is advised. There’s a sign at the entrance to Saddle Road saying there will be no sign of civilization for the next 50 miles. It’s no exaggeration. There’s the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, but that’s a long drive up the mountain and the temperature drops as the sun sets, quickly turning paradise into an arctic wasteland. Otherwise, there’s one filthy Porta Potty at the entrance to a hiking trail around the halfway mark. I advise you to hold it if you can.

As we began the ascent along Saddle Road, there were a few drops of rain, but only a few. Somewhere before the road leveled off, a thick, cottony layer of fog rolled across the road, in puffs at first and then in thick, rolling waves. Soon our only guides were the lines painted on the road and the taillights of the car in front of us. And then it started to rain, pelting sheets of water that blotted out the landscape accompanied by gusts of wind that threatened to toss our little Honda into the coarse lava at the side of the road.

Then the rain stopped and the fog returned, wrapping itself around us and muffling the strained hum of our engine. As we sped along the road, the outlines of spindly brush emerged from the mist, deployed in nearly symmetrical patterns, the ethereal ghosts of soldiers fallen in forgotten battles, forever wandering the moonscape of past lava flows. I imagined them raising spears above their heads, threatening retribution for past and future wrongs.

And then we emerged from the froth, the rooftops of Hilo welcoming us back as we gently sailed down the last sloping miles. The soldiers receded into the distance and the past as we drew closer to our house, our cats, our bed. Puna wrapped its welcoming arms around us and we sighed with relief. Home.

Maintenance Ms.

I had an appointment with my new PCP–that’s Primary Care Provider–who is a Nurse Practitioner. She’s very nice but I can’t figure out what to call her. She’s not Dr. Fields. Nurse Fields sounds condescending. I’d feel like I was back in high school if I called her Ms. Fields. The receptionist said I should call her by her first name, but I can’t do that, not after so many years of living in Japan. I really want to call her Sensei, which is a grand title: respectful, applies to anyone in a position of knowledge and you don’t have to remember an actual name. But If I call her Sensei, people will either think I’m showing off or that I’ve been watching too many Karate Kid movies. So I guess I will stick with mumbling.

At any rate, she gave me dire warnings about my A1c level. I am tempted to blame this on Hawaii and the enticing variety of colorful, sugar-laced delectables available here. To be honest, I have consumed more sugar in the past six months than I did in the previous three decades. Sweets were easier to avoid in Japan; they look pretty but don’t taste very good.

Alas, I have no one to blame but myself for the pickle I’m in, so I decided it was time to learn about food, to figure out the difference between fad diet miracle supplements and real food. I looked around locally, but this is Puna and all I found were Keto Paleo Earth Worship Vegetarians, which is all well and good but I refuse to be the sort of person who has to hide her Mac and Cheese mixes in the back of the closet.

Plan B: Check the Hilo Community College website, but all they offered was a medical nutrition course for nursing students. Plan C: Consult Mr. Google. What I found was what I already knew. Eat real food, food that comes from the earth, not from a can or a plastic package. Stick with the outside aisles of the supermarket. Don’t fall prey to shiny packages; if a color doesn’t exist in nature, it’s probably best not to eat it.

Along that journey of discovery, I came across an unexpected opportunity.

Well, fancy that.

I have always been a big fan of new experiences and the past few years have excelled in that department. Among many others, I bought a house. I’ve never owned a house before; I’ve never owned much of anything. Until now, when the toilet acted up, I called the landlord. Now I own the toilet, and a whole bunch of other stuff, and I should probably know a little about how these things work. So I pulled up my big girl underpants and registered.

At $75 for six weeks of instruction, 8 hours a week, the class is certainly a bargain. We have two evening lectures along with four hours in the shop on Saturdays. Our teacher is terrific. She has a lively wit and an interest in pretty much everything. She’s one of the only female construction workers in Hawaii, a licensed welder currently working in drywall. We will spend a few weeks on basic carpentry and then move on to plumbing and wiring.

The other students are there for the same reason as me: we all want to have more control over our living spaces, and thereby, more control over ourselves. Yesterday, in our first shop class, we started making a sawhorse. I used a circular saw for the first time, and it was way more of a thrill than I expected. Then I learned how to pound in industrial grade nails. I’m proud to say I only whacked my knuckle once.

My First Cut

I now own leather work gloves, safety glasses, and a pair of ever-so-cute canvas work shoes. I’m loving the class, soaking up new vocabulary and touching things I’ve never touched before. At Home Depot, unlike at the supermarket, my eyes would slide along the rows of shiny tools appreciating their aesthetic beauty but having no further interest. It’s a whole different kettle of nuts and bolts when you’re running a tool yourself. This is power, in every sense.

And you can call me Maintenance Ms.

The Long and Whining Road

In 1854, William and Jane Shipman arrived on the Big Island, overdressed and intent on passing along the word of God to the locals. Very soon after their arrival they produced little Willie Herbert, who went on to buy the 70,000 acre ahupa’a (ancient land division) of Kea’au, where he made several fortunes growing sugar and coffee and fruit. At some point, he sold off a chunk of land that later became the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm. You may recognize the brand from the overpriced mini fridge found in better hotels everywhere. But we can’t blame Shipman for that. And his son Herbert singlehandedly saved the nene goose from extinction, so we have to give the family some kudos there.

Something Willie left behind is a rather lovely plantation house by one of the only white sand beaches on the island, which fringes a cove of water in extraordinary shades of green and blue. There is a road to the house, of course, but it’s private. The only access to the beach is an ancient path through the forest, the Historic Puna Trail. So four of us brave souls put on socks and real shoes and headed for the trail.†

Us with Mick and Leah, so innocent and free

One of the fascinating things about the Big Island is its diversity. We passed different types of foliage, from what looked almost like Southwestern scrub to towering banyan trees to bits and pieces of other parts of the world that I’d seen but couldn’t name, so many sights that looked almost like other places but not quite. And some defied description.

If you look closely, you can see the Swiss Family Robinson hopping among these branches.

There really should have been a nice Japanese lady arranging ikebana in this.

The path was fairly flat but very uneven, often paved with random scatterings of stones or interwoven tree roots or blocked by sludgy mud puddles that had to be skirted. It took us 2.5 hours to reach the beach and by then my legs had turned into noodles and my bunion was pounding. The beach was just as lovely as its reputation, but I was too tired to care about much except the return hike, which loomed at the back of my mind like an axe murderer lurking in the shadows behind an open door.

“I will not whine,” I repeated to myself, again and again, as we made our way back along the trail. And I didn’t, although after a while, I stopped counting the things that hurt and tried to count the ones that didn’t. When that got to be too difficult, I went into Clydesdale mode: clop clop clop. Just keep moving. And if you need to sit down on a mossy rock and sob for a couple of minutes, so be it.

As we plodded along, a young couple passed us, both very young, very pretty and very barefoot. One by one, we looked at each other to make sure we’d seen that right. Perhaps they were earth lovers, believers in touching the land and thereby being one with the universe. More likely they were too stoned to realize how much their feet hurt. I kind of wished I was.

We finally made it back, of course, but none of us ever want to return. That is, unless the Shipmans invite us to use their private road. And while they’re at it, I wouldn’t mind a nice cup of tea and some finger sandwiches.

It’s a trek worth making, but plan on taking your time, pack a lunch, and if you can make yourself twenty years younger before you hit the trail, that would help a lot.

As they say:

He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is wise.
He who climbs Mt. Fuji twice is a nitwit.

Catalogs and Coconuts

Not so very long ago, a lot of shopping was done at home. The shopper would pore through the many pages of the Sears catalog, which was bigger than the local phone book and offered pretty much anything you could want. At one point they were even selling little girls.

In good time, the Wells Fargo wagon would rumble down the street laden with wooden crates full of hopes and dreams and cotton underwear.

We were still doing this when I was a kid. The Sears catalog was a wonderland. It was such fun looking at the pictures, dreaming of things we’d never order and making fun of the models and their goofy poses. “Yes, I’m standing here in my underwear, but I’m not looking at the camera, so it doesn’t count.”

Don’t you miss the days of shirt and sock sets?

On the growing list of things that no longer exist goes a stack of dusty catalogs; even the words ‘catalog shopping’ have been retired. All these years since Ma Ingalls turned to Sears mail order for her shoe button hooks, I turn to Amazon for everything I can’t find in Hilo. I sit in front of my computer instead of in an easy chair with a catalog cradled in my lap, but the result is the same. The squat mail delivery van, the brown UPS truck, sometimes even Lord Fedex himself–they all drop by my house bringing me hopes and dreams and cotton underwear. And if I squint my eyes and really concentrate, I can just barely hear the clip-clop of hoof beats fading into the distance.

Or maybe that’s just someone knocking together a couple of coconut shells. That’s much more likely around here.

No

When I moved to the States, I realized that I forgot to pack my golden Japanese credit rating. As it turns out, three decades of dutifully paying my bills on time meant nothing on this side of the pond. I figured my debit card worked fine but it would be good to have a credit card, just in case. (In case what? Earthquake, tsunami? I doubt a little piece of plastic will stanch an onslaught of boiling lava, but still, it’s good to plan ahead.)

Every store encouraged me to apply for a card, all offering tantalizing treats like discounts and cash back and pony rides, but one after another, they all refused. Macy’s sent me packing. Old Navy said forget it. The lady at Home Depot was very nice about it, telling me that I got a soft ‘no’, not a slam-the-door-in-my-face ‘no’, but nevertheless a ‘no’.

So I tried online applications. Hawaiian Airlines? No. Chase? No. Capital One? No. The bank where I’ve had an account since junior high school–and once happily gave me a Visa card? No.

I may be stubborn but I know when it’s time to circle the wagons. I applied for a Discover card. Much to my joy, they said ‘yes’ right away. A nice young man even called me on the phone. I could hear the treacle in his voice when he asked if this was my first credit card but at least he didn’t call me ‘sweetie’.

Armed with my $500 credit limit, I started using my pretty blue card, once again dutifully paying my bills. After six months they told me my credit rating had been raised to ‘fair’. And then they doubled my credit limit. And they they raised my rating to ‘good’.

About that time, Capital One changed its mind. At first, it was a casual invitation to apply for a card with an annual $99 fee.

‘No,’ says me as I dropped the envelope into the trash.

So they tried again the next day. This time saying $75 annual fee and I was ‘pre-approved’.

‘No,’ says me and the envelope joined its brother in the trash.

The next one had no annual fee but was slightly threatening, implying that if I didn’t accept I would be regret it for a very long time. With a heavy heart, I said, ‘No,’ and my trash can threatened to overflow.

Yesterday’s Capital One offer came in a much nicer envelope but had nothing original to say for itself, so it met the same tragic fate as its siblings.

Today, when the little truck from the post office stopped at my mailbox, I hurried out to see what the latest offer might be. Do my grocery shopping? Take the cats to the vet? Clean the wax out of my ears and the lint out of my belly button?

Alas, there was nothing. Capital One seems to have abandoned me. Although the environmental side of me was starting to resent the amount of paper they were wasting on me, I am oddly bereft. But will I miss them?

No.

Lettuce

It seems a little crazy to drive seven miles just to buy lettuce, but the Nanawale Community Center Bodacious Farmers’ Market only happens on Sundays so that’s the only time we can buy hydroponic greens from the gentle fellow with the toothless grin and thick beard who always gives us an extra bunch or two.

As the crow flies, Nanawale and it’s neighbor Leilani are much closer than seven miles. Fortunately, there aren’t any crows around here, just a couple of sleepy tanuki.