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.
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.