Fitting In

On Sunday, we went to a birthday lunch for a friend. It was at Hilo Burger Joint, one of a half block of creaky wooden buildings, vestiges of Hilo’s heyday as a cowboy town. When we walked in, it struck me as the runt of the TGI Friday’s litter. It had the same kind of menu and jolly atmosphere, it was just smaller. Our waiter was perky but not festooned with buttons and stuffed toys. And it was just as loud as its Tokyo litter mates.

The Big Island seems to have everything other places offer, they’re just smaller. Instead of Kinko’s, we have Paradise Business Center, which is gray and dusty and run by an equally gray and dusty skeleton of a man, but he takes Amazon and UPS drop-off without too much complaint. Instead of Costco, we have Cost U Less, which is much more manageable in scale and has tiny birds fluttering around inside it, a delightful addition to the shopping experience. The Hilo version of the Apple Store Genius Bar is a second floor back office with two computer dudes slouching on folding chairs, but they get the job done and you don’t need an appointment. Our Walmart and Target may be smaller than some, but they sometimes have what you want. And if they don’t, there’s always Amazon, which takes a week instead of a day but where’s the rush anyway?

At the Burger Joint, I discovered that the menu carried an involved discussion about how their burgers were made with wagyu but not Kobe beef because only beef from Kobe can be called Kobe beef and theirs is wagyu from Colorado. The editor in me was wondering why they had to bring up the concept of Kobe beef at all, as I heard split hairs gently fluttering toward the floor. Their standard burgers are made with local, grass fed, hormone free, Kulana beef, which sounded lovely to me, wondering why people make such a fuss about Kobe beef anyway. It’s fatty and tasteless, but that’s just my opinion.

Overwhelmed by the beef dispute, I focused instead on the company, which proved to be well worth the drive to Hilo. It was a jovial groups. I counted two sets of hearing aids, one cane and more than a few age spots. When we were done, it took all of us a moment to leverage our creaky knees off the hard wooden chairs, but everyone was alert and eager to communicate. It never really sank in when we decided to move here that we didn’t know a solitary soul, but over the months, we’ve birthed a litter of our own, all interesting people who’ve done interesting things with their lives, all coming from Somewhere Else and now coming from Here. Local people are called kama’aina and we’re included. I’ll never be Hawaiian any more than I’ll ever be Japanese, but I do feel welcome. I feel at home. We’ve been lucky, I guess, or maybe the Big Island just attracts the sort of people we want to know. Part of our continuing adventure will be finding out more about that.

Soursop

Our neighbor Jimmy has been described as an 85 year old hooligan. I can’t comment as to his hooliganism, but I do know that he’s appointed himself the local fruit distributor. He has trees of his own, and friends with trees, and checks on the trees belonging to people who aren’t here all year. A couple of times a week, he pulls into our driveway in in his creaky old Toyota, his creaky old dog Peanut perched on the seat beside him. He climbs out of the truck on his creaky old hips and hands us a paper bag containing that day’s loot. Sometimes it’s a cutting of green bananas. Or maybe sweet Meyer lemons. It could be papayas, a deep orange variety that giggles its way down your throat. Or a pineapple that fills the kitchen with its perfume. He sometimes brings the creamiest, smoothest avocados I’ve ever tasted.

And one day he brought a soursop.

They’re odd, lumpy looking things, discolored and prickly, which rather appeals to my own odd, lumpy, discolored and prickly self. Just as you mustn’t judge me by my foul mood, you mustn’t judge a soursop by its cover. The magic is on the inside. But getting to it involves peeling off the skin, removing the toughest of the fiber and squeezing out the slippery seeds. The first time I did this, I used a fine mesh sieve and a suribachi pestle and was ready for a massage and a long nap when I was finally done.

The second time around, though, I discovered that my friend Leah, who has excellent taste in kitchen ware, had a food mill she was willing to lend me. This is also brings back childhood memories of old ladies processing fruit for applesauce and I think my hippie aunt used to use one to clean the seeds out of her her pot so I am in good company. I did have to drop by the University of the Internet and take Cuisinart 101 to figure out how the spring load mechanism worked, but I learn fast and was quickly on my way.

In two shakes of a gekko tail, I had a bowl full of creamy pulp, both tangy and sweet.

Now, what would I do with it? Most of the recipes I found were Jamaican in origin and involved sweetened condensed milk. While this was interesting from a cultural perspective, it was not what I wanted to do with my soursop.

And so we hop onto the limited express bound for Smoothieland. I’ve been making these for years, long before the word Smoothie became part of the popular lexicon. I always called it Super Juice and it was really just a sensible way to use up borderline bananas. Since moving to the tropics, though, my Super Juice has moved into the big leagues. The current batch in the fridge is a blissful blend of papaya, pineapple, mushy nectarine, coconut milk and a touch of turmeric for color.

I used to be an Olympic sleeper, perfect 10’s across the board, neither night owl nor early riser. I just prefer to be in bed. But over the course of the past year, I have morphed. I go to bed early because I am sleepy and I get up early because I want to. I never before lived in a place where the sounds of morning could entice me out of bed, where the list of things I need to get done seems less daunting because I want to open my eyes and see what the day has in store. Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise, the birds will sing and, among other things, I have soursop to look forward to. I can think of worse ways to start the day.

Tree Massacre

When you’re trying to focus on some really boring proofreading work, what’s more distracting than a guy with a chainsaw cutting branches out of a tree next door?

Two guys with chainsaws cutting branches out of a tree next door, especially when neither of them are wearing harnesses or safety lines and the one higher up in the tree is wearing shorts and flip-flops…FLIP-FLOPS…so you just…can’t…stop…watching.

365 Days

Today, August 4, 2019, marks the one year anniversary of our move to the Big Island of Hawaii. I look back on the past year with wonder and awe: the things we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, the new sights and sounds and tastes and genuine sense of aloha all come together to assure me, again and again, that we made the right choice.

Man Against Palm Frond

Just the other day, we were walking through a parking lot and a rogue palm frond launched itself toward Rochi’s head. It missed, fortunately, and before you could say Kamehameha, a man had jumped out of his car and two other people came running from shops in the strip mall, all intent on capturing the offending frond and making sure Rochi hadn’t been decapitated. I was relieved, of course, and also deeply moved.

The Chicken Coop at Tim and Dottie’s

Later that same afternoon, we stopped by a friend’s place because we’re chicken-sitting while they’re back on the mainland. One chicken was roosting when I entered the coop and she gave me a fierce scolding fortified with a flurry of flapping wings and angry clucking. I could only smile and make my apologies. Two of the eggs I collected from the nests were still warm. I felt their warmth radiate from my palm directly to my heart. There’s an experience I never had in Japan, or anyplace else for that matter.

There have been so many new experiences that it’s hard to list them all and impossible to rank them in order of wonderment.
– I bought a car, learned to drive it and got a Hawaii driver’s license, in that order.

Lil Six


– We both took on, and conquered, the taiko drum…until it conquered us. But we were not too proud to admit defeat and took some valuable friendships with us when we left.
– I worked on costumes for the Kamehameha School’s production of Hairspray and then the U of Hawaii production of Rent, making more friends along the way and being grateful that my life experience came together in a way that made those experiences possible.
– I started to establish a credit rating even though I’m not sure I need one and took on the American medical establishment, which I wish I didn’t need, but not every day is rainbows and unicorns.
– I took a class in basic maintenance at the community college and learned a lot, earning along the way a renewed sense of empowerment, a very nice wooden tool box and more lovely friends.

Melissa the Welder and Teacher Extraordinaire

We’ve been to mountains and beaches and farmer’s markets and craft fairs. Food adventures are myriad, from the 85 year old Dutch Chinese man who brings us avocados and soursops to the barefoot hippies who harvest organic honey destined to sweeten my tea to Sunday breakfast and Friday night fish fry at the VFW to tomatoes and peppers and beans and pineapples and lemons and lemongrass all growing in our garden before my eyes as my fingers type these words. Just thinking about this bounty makes me smile, maybe even gloat a little.

It’s been a momentous year, challenging and exuberant and hard and thrilling in turn but all bringing out the best in us and helping us see the best in others.

I am practically drowning in gratitude.

Homemade Frozen Treats chez Leah and Mick

Drive the Forklift

The other day, a friend stood next to a forklift and asked me, “Do you want to drive it?” The me of not so long ago would have looked at it longingly, quickly convincing myself there were too many reasons not to, most of all that I was not good enough, not skilled enough, too much of a galumphing dork to handle the situation. The opportunity would have gone sailing by like the pleasant scent of strawberries on a summer breeze, so delightful, so inviting and so quickly gone. And then I would spend days and months and years mentally kicking myself for being such a loser.

But that day, instead of cowering like a lump of leftover cookie dough, I smiled, jumped into the driver’s seat and said, “Hell to the hell yes!” (a phrase I’d long wanted to use and was saving until just the right moment). I didn’t get to do anything macho like stack pallets or unload a semi, but my joy ride once around the empty parking lot was just that: pure joy.

A very important lesson I learned in 2017 was that bravery is not bravado. It’s courage, its facing something that scares you and doing the scary thing anyway. There may be sweaty palms and jello-wobbling stomach jitters involved, but you face the monsters hiding in the musty tunnel. In time, you find yourself standing taller and holding your head higher, because once you have to face those fears enough times, you get stronger, you stop being so afraid. The scary thing doesn’t become any less scary, but you learn to have confidence in your own ability to cope. You might emerge from the tunnel with spider webs in your hair and bits of monster guts clinging to your shoelaces, but that unpleasantness will come to matter less than you ever thought it could.

As I slayed my monsters and learned to trust myself, to be braver and less afraid, I also discovered a form of faith. I learned to believe in following my own instinct. Under the fluff and feathers of civilization and designer labels and technological gadgets, we are, after all, animals, and animals do pretty well by surviving on instinct. It is one of the gravest tragedies of the human condition that we have regimented ourselves to following rules someone else laid out for us, blindly believing that those rules are the one true way to success in life. We keep climbing the caterpillar tower toward heaven, always finding that there is no place left to go but back down to the bottom.

I have discovered that faith can take a lot of different forms. Changing our lives took a leap of faith into the unknown, trust in ourselves, our instinct, to point us in the right direction. All in all, our faith has held true and guided us through a winding maze of difficult decisions and overwhelming paperwork. For that, I am humbly grateful.

So when you have doubts, any kind of doubts, pull yourself up by your gut-encrusted shoelaces and drive the forklift. You’ll be glad you did.

On the other hand, do you think they’d let me drive the…um…boa constrictor extractor?

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.