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Waimea to Hilo plus - 4 April 2013


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Travel is always an adventure

Under the secretive watch of Mango the feline Innkeeper, we had our last delicious breakfast at Aaah the Views, saddled up, and drove expectantly to Hilo.

"Expectantly" being the operative word. We were in for a shock. We had reserved (or so we thought) a room in a B&B in one of Hilo's older neighborhoods. When we got to the address, we found a run-down looking plantation house, slippahs by the door, a bedspread covering a window. Nobody home. The next door neighbor said he never heard of a B&B nearby. 

<p>Manalani Mili Hokoana English, winner, Miss Aloha Hula 2013</p>

Manalani Mili Hokoana English, winner, Miss Aloha Hula 2013

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We don't have a cellphone, so we go downtown and find the Big Island Visitor's Bureau where we tell our sad story. The receptionist makes a copy of a phonebook map and shows us where Lehua Street is -- where we have just been. Rochelle is by now in a tailspin, and I'm just barely holding it together. The HIVB lady tells us we can't use her phone, but there's a payphone across the street (50 cents a throw, and it feels like a one-armed bandit slot machine.)

A kindly fellow named George comes out of his inner office and says he overheard our story. He has a couple of suggestions. When I confess that we are technologically disadvantaged dinosaurs -- no cellphone -- the receptionist covers her mouth (very Hawaiian) before she laughs. George says when he retires in a few weeks he is going to join the ranks of the technologically reclusive. I fail to cover my mouth when I laugh.

The long and the short of it is that this kind of travel experience is (1) to be expected from time to time, (2) something that is particularly stressful as it always seems to happen when at first there appear to be no options with the possible exception of death or sleeping on a park bench, and (3) invariably (at least so far) leads to experiences of local kindness that bring tears to the eyes and usually broaden the travel experience immeasurably.

But this third point is seldom remembered in the heat of the moment. Rochelle melts down completely. I have a hunch, and we go back toward the neighborhood, to a hidden nearby hotel, likely one of Hilo's oldest, named the Dolphin Bay, where I tell our story to a pair of kindly aunties. After assuring me that they are booked solid, I ask, "If your brother came to Hilo today, what would you do?"

"I'd tell him to sleep on my living room floor, but, Sorry, I can't offer that to you," one of the ladies replies. "But please, set up your computer right here, use our wireless, see if you can find anything."

By some sort of dead reckoning possibly somewhat akin to inspiration, I calculate that nothing within an hour's drive of Hilo is going to be booked, and so I start looking outside that radius ... almost all the way back to Waimea where we just came from. Volcano is southwest; that's where we stayed last time (2005), and the hour plus drive through dark forests and housing tracts was a drag. Try the other way: back up the Hamakua Coast. The only place that was ever big enough to have a hotel is Honoka'a, one-time sugar capitol of the Big Island. The sugar operation shut down in 1996, and the town, like Caspar, emptied. People commute to Hilo, or are retired, or sell snacks and give 4-wheel-drive rides to folks looking to go down into nearby Waipio Valley.

I call, and yes, there's an ocean view room, $99 tax included. The sweet fellow who answers understands our plight and agrees to leave our key in our room and the front hall light on for us. I start breathing again.

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What is so special about Merrie Monarch?

<p>Pounding Kapa</p>

Pounding Kapa

David Kalaka'ua was King of Hawaii for a short time just before American entrepreneurs (that is, as we know, a nice word for pirates) stole the Islands from him. He was indeed a merry monarch, much more interested in eating well, singing, dancing, playing with his children, and enjoying life. One can easily imagine him sitting on his throne in the I'olani Palace watching the Stars and Stripes unfurling from a flagstaff out front and saying "Oh, well..."

It didn't take long for the God Squad to take over Hawaii, bringing with them an overburden of guilt that buried the Hawaiian Spirit for a hundred years (while stealing the Island's riches surreptitiously.) 'Nuff said 'bout DAT.

Luckily, the traditions of a great people may lie buried for a century, but they don't die. It was illegal to speak the Hawaiian language. Outside a tourist show, it was illegal to dance the hula, thought to be erotic. In privacy, the spoke and danced. In the 1960s, during a time that brought us the Voting rights Act and the Viet Nam war, killed two of our precious Kennedy's and our only Martin, something came over us white eyes. We began to understand that heritage is precious, and there is value in different languages and cultures worth preserving and encouraging. 

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Hula was welcomed back, along with its long suppressed traditions of kapa making (known elsewhere in the Pacific as tapa), lei-threading, and bodily decoration with the native plants of the Islands. Seeking an "anchor event" for Hilo's tourist economy -- Hilo is on the windward side, often cloudy and rainy, and singularly devoid of beaches, and the tourists want golden sands and reliable sun.

And so, the Merrie Monarch Festival sputtered into existence, the brainchild of a county promotional officer and representatives of the hotels. Today, we attended the 50th anniversary celebration, the second night of a four night Festival that draws dancers and artisans from all over the Islands, and from halaus in California, where many Hawaiians go to find a living, but strive to preserve their identity through dance and "living Aloha."

My little camera doesn't like the TV lights, and so I took only a few pictures. Our favorite dancer was also the judges' and so one of my pictures was of the winner of this evening's contest, the Miss Aloha Hula. She will travel for the next year as "an ambassador of hula" to Japan, the mainland, and to all the islands.

With an hour's drive ahead, we left the festivities at intermission, and arrived in our Honoka'a hotel in time to watch the rest of the dancing on television. (I must admit that their cameras see better than my eyes, and, like many such events, watching on the screen is more immediate and at least as satisfying as being in the big tennis stadium surrounded by hooting halaus of enthusiastic dancers enthralled with the rebirthing of their traditions. You can "be here too" if you like, and watch the Friday and Saturday events streamed live on Honolulu Channel Five beginning at 5:45 Hawaii Standard Time.)

There's more to the lodging story -- to be continued -- and also to the Merrie Monarch story. After the King and Queen are ceremoniously seated on their thrones, someone sings the Star Strangled Bananner -- last night, a lovely child with the voice of a 28 year old. Everyone continues to stand respectfully, and applauds, but the sense is that the applause is for the singing child, not the song or what it stands for. (A disproportionate number of Hawaii's young men fight and die for "our country" and this is not lost on the Hawaiian audience.)

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But then the little girl sings the Hawaiian Anthem, and suddenly the stadium is alive with beautiful voices singing the words. (Listen to it here.) Everywhere I look, lips are moving -- Hawaiian faces, haole faces, Asian faces. Everyone (but us.) Even writing this, I can barely find the keys through eyes blurred with tears. There is something very special about loving your country. I think many of us states-siders remember this feeling from when we were younger, before the greedy stole our nation. Earlier in the day, driving down the more-colors-of-green-than-are-possible Hamakua Coast, Rochelle asked if I thought the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement would achieve its goal: restoring Hawaiian Nationhood. Listening here, tonight, to this varied, rapt audience singing out their love, I felt sure of the answer.

<p>The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness</p>

The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness

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If you evah need a place to stay in Hilo, my friend Uncle George at the Big Island Visitors Bureau -- Thank you, Uncle George! May you enjoy your retirement! -- says, call up Petra at 808-965-7015. She runs a B&B network on the Big Island, and was able to find (after the fact, oh well) three places we could have stayed. 

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