Progress in Pahoa

The construction elves have been hard at work on the new shopping oasis outside of town.* Even so, Pahoa still has vestiges of a cowboy town, aging traces of its sugarcane past. The main street that runs through town has a section of dilapidated wooden sidewalk flanking false front businesses: a couple of restaurants, arts and craft shops, a tattoo parlor, of course. On the outskirts of town, there are abandoned outbuildings lurking among the vines. The heads of rusting machinery watch over the parking lot at Ace Hardware, a local version of dinosaurs unable to find a passage back to the past. All of this lends the town a certain charm, a sense of permanence among an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool.

In 1955, Pahoa was almost destroyed by a fire. Right in the middle of town was a tofu factory that had a wood-fired furnace. The owner usually banked his fires before he went home, but that night, the fire got out of control. It burned all the way to the main alley. Luckily, a papaya farmer who had water loaded on the back of his truck saw what happened and extinguished the fire, saving Pahoa from destruction.

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There’s a strong hippie/alternative lifestyle vibe here. I’m pretty sure that many of the folks who were at Woodstock in 1969–and are still alive–landed in this area. It is not uncommon to see bodies adorned with tie-dye and fringe and grey ponytails and beards framing wizened faces at the local market.

All of this lends the town an alluring charm, a sense of permanence within an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool. But with the new mall going in, we have a slight pall of doom hanging over us. Passing through town today, I saw a couple of businesses preparing to close. Signs in front of the development say there will be a Pizza Hut and a MacDonald’s, both places I vow never to enter, but there will also be a Goodwill and a Banzos falafel, both reasons for good cheer. They’ve installed traffic lights between the turnoff for Long’s and the entrance to the mall, just past the traffic circle. This will either prove to be a feat of fine engineering or a monumental disaster.

The development was originally supposed to open at the end of last year, but the lava decided that was a bad idea. We shall see how Madame Pele feels about all of this. As always, she gets the final say-so.

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*Disclaimer: To be fair, I’m taking some liberty with the word ‘town’. The population of Pahoa is only 945 souls, so technically it’s a village. When people say they’re going to ‘town’ they mean Hilo (pop. 43,263), which is about half an hour from here, home to the airport, Walmart and Target and several supermarkets. We go there to shop and then, quick as we can, escape back to paradise.

Christmas in Pahoa

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Today we witnessed the annual Pahoa Christmas parade.

We were amazed by the number of cars our sleepy village had attracted. I had assumed we could park at the catholic church, but the lot was overflowing. We managed to slip Six into a small slot behind the high school.

We found a good spot to park ourselves toward the end of the parade route. In leisurely Pahoa time, the mayor passed by, then the VFW marching band. Close on their sweaty heels came the Puna Rebels football team in purple jerseys and flip-flops. There was one float, a flatbed decked out in palm fronds and exotic flowers, not the familiar tissue paper blossoms of my youth. (I know how to make those!) Next came the Puna Ukulele association, a group of somewhat grizzled men and women strumming and singing That’s Amore, what I thought was Me and Bobby McGee but turned out to be Bill Bailey, and Mustang Sally. Oddly, none of it felt odd which was odd in itself. Next were girl scouts dressed as boxes of cookies (Thin Mints! Tagalongs!) and looking sweet enough to eat. Then the Horse Owner’s Association, their mounts festooned with tinsel and jingle bells. Toward the end was a power shovel adorned with glittering Christmas finery, its shovel filled with brightly wrapped gifts. It slowly lumbered its way down Pahoa Village Road, seeming to grin as it enjoyed its reprieve from shoving volcanic rocks around.

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But the spice in the curry is the people of Puna. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, a variety of delights like the cheese and salami selection at a large Italian market. There are hippies, both wrinkled, gray-haired Woodstock survivors and neo wannabes, so young and bright, vegan crystal worshipers unaware that fringe and dreadlocks were once innovations. There are seniors, one-time owners of a Nebraska car wash, missing their kids now grown and flown, the lady in sparkly purple tennies muttering to her dog, the slim lady who JUST CAN’T STOP dancing the macarena. And there are kids, lots of kids, running and playing and chasing their butterfly dreams flitting among the hibiscus flowers.

I stood at the side of the road watching that rainbow of life pass by and felt it reach out and wrap my belly in a sticky web of memories and gratitude so thick I could barely breathe. I felt the charm of the village community event despite the challenges it had faced, the enormity of the changes in our lives since we left Japan almost four months ago, the fact that I was alive and well and breathing freely, supported by the strength of my own two legs. Safely hidden behind my floppy hat and sunglasses, I wept, and as I did, a little boy ran up to me and handed me a flower. At least I think it’s a flower. It could be a garage door opener for all I know, which makes it that much more charming. I laughed at my middle-aged self discovering life like a small child: a crack in the lava, the scent of an unknown flower, the pointed tongue of a neon green lizard watching me do yoga. It’s all new, all exciting, all needing to be investigated. I delighted in my own innocence.

parade flower

The parade petered out, so we wandered toward the community center and watched our taiko drum group perform a few songs. They even did Hiryu, the same song our beginners’ class is going to perform at our recital on December 14. (If you’re going to be in the Kea’au area, do drop by Hongwanji around 6:00. We’ll really try to get some of the strokes right. And there’s a potluck after!)

By the time we’d absorbed the spectacle of the parade and its people and the pepper-pop throbbing of the drums, we were ravenous. We dragged ourselves to the Black Rock Cafe where I devoured a club sandwich and fries, still exotic foods in my Tokyo tainted mind. And then we came home, exhausted but replete, where all of us dropped into an afternoon nap as sweet as the pink pads on the bottoms of Monkey Boy’s feet.

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There are twenty-four more days of holiday cheer ahead of us. I’d best gird my loins.