Iteration #2. First iteration having been swallowed whole by a passing shark (or a bad keystroke).
For me, after a new experience, it is helpful to decompress through writing. I am not much of a travel writer. Or in reality, I have never tried to be a travel writer. However, having just returned from my first trip to Maui I am feeling compelled to write a travelogue of our adventure. This is the story of our trip, though my eyes.
Hawai’i is a complicated place with a relatively recent history of upheaval that still remains a very real part of its culture. After this visit, I not only have an appreciation for Hawai’i’s fragile diversity of abundant life (both on land and sea) but also for its people and their traditions and language. Traveling can do amazing things for a person. It may be the most important form of education. It is one thing to read books with lists and dates and facts and figures and a very different thing to witness living reality with your own eyes. I am always grateful when life allows me the chance to expand my horizons. This trip has been one of my favorites. It has changed my heart and if anything I have left the islands feeling more compelled than ever to lend myself toward their conservation (which ultimately, relates to a planetary-wide mindset of conservation). Hawai’i sits in a precarious position. Without an awareness of and a desire for a change in anthropogenic habits, the decline of Hawai’i seems as inevitable as the loss of polar ice or the expansion of the great American deserts.
Aloha and Mohalo Maui. You are an incredible gem. A paradise; proof of the profound beauty our earth is capable of. Thank you for sharing your treasures with me.
Prologue: The Plague
For the record, this trip was nearly cancelled due to natural circumstances. Leading up to departure, Leif succumb to a bout of stomach flu, Ingrid developed a 102+ fever and I came down with a mild cold. Fortunately, we persisted and everyone (except me) made a miraculous recovery just in time for travel. Illness did not re-appear until our return to the mainland (and a return to 20F nights).
Day 1: Meeting Stella
After an overnight on the backside of Tiger Mountain with Jeff, Lisa and Isiah, we are immediately swallowed up by the early morning rainy Seattle commuter traffic (When isn’t it rainy in Seattle in November?) on our way to the airport. A stop-and-go session leaves us 45 minutes behind schedule, yet we survive the late airport parking shuttle, the understaffed airline check-in counter and the ridiculous (yes) process of homeland security before being essentially forced to run to our gate. Breakfast is not a possibility and I make promises to the kids of on-board snacks (peanut M&Ms for breakfast…no problem!) as we become the last family to board our mid-morning flight.
Flying is uneventful and both Willy and I are amazed at how well the kids handle 6 hours of being strapped into their seats like sardines. Apparently the years of training them to survive 12 hour car rides to Salt Lake City have paid off.
We land in Kahului around 2 PM and are hit with a sweet-smelling wall of heat and humidity as we leave the plane. Birds fly through the open-air sections of the airport and banana trees reach for the sky all around us. We catch our shuttle to Kihei where we first become acquainted with our home away from home for the next 6 nights; a 1989 Steel Blue Volkswagen Westfalia pop-up camper van. Brandon, her owner*, briefly acquaints us with her quirks and shows us the location of several essential features including the jumper cables and an extra screwdriver….just in case…. We throw our packs in the back and prepare for departure. As I am about to turn the key, one of the mechanics knocks on the passenger side window. Willy rolls it down and the guy throws us a big smile…. ‘Her name’s Stella!’ he shouts through the window. We promise to take care of her and head out in search of a grocery store and a place to spend the night.
After stocking up on groceries, ice and guava-papaya juice, we end up heading out toward West Maui in search of an ‘official’ campground. We miss our turn and our turn-around ends up being a roadside fruit stand, which is a good omen for us. We stock up on pineapple, star fruit and strawberry papaya. The dude who runs the stand, although mildly sketchy, is friendly enough and gives us directions to the campground.
We arrive at Olowalu after the office has closed for the night and pull into an over-flow parking area that is currently under construction. There’s orange ‘Caution’ fencing everywhere and a shitload of torn up palms and vegetation stacked on the margins of the platform. Not exactly what I had envisioned when dreaming about camping on Maui but a perfectly acceptable option for the night*.
We exit the van and wind our way down to the beach to enjoy the sunset and wet our toes. Approximately 20 minutes in, Leif has the good fortune of stepping on an extremely thorny branch which alerts us to the fact that the trees overhead are littering the beach with shrapnel. ‘Note to self, wear shoes’ is the take home message of the evening.
We head back to the van, pull together a make-shift dinner of fresh fruit, rice and beans and figure out how to pop up the top of the camper. Still unaccustomed to the tropical heat, we restlessly move through the van trying to figure out the best place to store gear and how to open the windows without blowing out the flame on the propane cook stove. The night is WINDY with gusts around 40 mph. Keeping the windows open is nearly impossible due to flying dust and so we spend a semi-uncomfortable night tossing around blanketless. I get up in the middle of the night to pee and am awe-struck by the clarity of the sky. The stars are bright and clear and the planets are easily visible and in near alignment.
The van continues to rock in the wind throughout the rest of the night but we are all too tired to care. However, even minor time differences are a bitch and by 4:30 AM all four of us are awake and staring at each other wide-eyed (but good humored) as we wonder when the sun will rise over the horizon. Renegade chickens begin to call from the forest all around us and at about 6 AM the darkness fades into daybreak. By 6:45 AM the van is converted back into a traveling machine and we are on our way.
Day 2: Beaches, Kings and Locals
We drive down South Kihei road and start to sus out the terrain. At the far end of the road we find a quiet public beach which technically falls into the Wailea district. It is 7:30 AM. We make some good strong coffee in the van, cut up some more pineapple for breakfast and head out to explore the beach. Ingrid begins to collect Plumeria blossoms like treasures and an older gentleman with an amazing tan shows us the overhanging avocado and banana trees in the parking lot. I nearly start giggling as I wade into the 80+ water. The sun is still low in the sky and everything is lit in a golden hue. By 8:30 AM the kids have already built a sand castle village and the beach is filling up with morning walkers and runners. By 9 AM the air is hot and we decide to track down some snorkeling gear. We end up at a Kihei pawn shop and purchase a snorkel and mask for $8 and a fishing pole and reel for $25. We head back to the beach and decide to start doing a little underwater exploring….
On my second snorkel of the day I have my first real-life encounter with a sea turtle. I will admit that I screamed briefly through my snorkel. As it approached out of the blue haze of open water, its size was immense. For a mainlander like me, you spend your life seeing pictures of these incredible creatures, watching nature videos and even visiting them in an aquarium now and then. However, the magnitude of their size is not truly tangible until you are face to face in open water. I am 5’3” tall and my first turtle was almost equal in length and certainly larger in stature than myself. It moves through the water with delicate ease and I feel incredibly clumsy in my false plastic flippers and artificial air. The turtle swims directly toward me with amazing speed and just as quickly changes course and heads off toward the far end of the reef. I exit the water in a state of bliss, with a huge smile and my body vibrating with adrenaline.
We spend the rest of that first day wasting time on the beach (it was still so novel!). Our pale skin starts to feel a little bit crispy from the large doses of UV and salt, so it is time to take on a new adventure…preferably out of the sun. We agree that camping on the coast toward West Maui seems like the best plan for the night so we head in that general direction. There is just enough time in the day to explore the Iao Valley and, as a last-minute detour, we crisscross the van along roads lined in sugar cane for a quick hike in this valley of kings.
The Iao Valley sits just to the West of Wailuku. Wailuku and Kahului tend to blur together into one, large suburb. This is where I start interjecting the not-so-pleasant observations of my time on the island…..
So, we drive North along HWY 30 and encounter the first historical signs of Hawaii’s most recent colonization; namely old plantations, a sugar refinery and some beautiful old buildings that are now home to a grade school and a historic church. The guidebooks claim that before the surge in affordable airfare the islands received about 500 outside visitors a year. After airlines started using Hawaii as a hub (and the US set itself up as a military power) that number jumped to nearly 7 Million. Alongside the older buildings and structures from another era are the pop-up neighborhoods one associates with the suburbs of any large American city, including their strip mall accompaniments. So one starts to ponder the immensity of resources necessary for maintaining a Western-style standard of living on a remote, Pacific Island. Honestly, if the tanker ships stop arriving tomorrow, the population of new-breed Hawai’ians will be forced to live off of sugar cane. There simply aren’t the on-island resources available to keep this many people alive without major environmental degradation and collapse.
I avert my eyes from the new-found sprawl and divert my attention to the abundance of plant life that lines the roadside. The Pothos plant living in my house would be embarrassed to meet its tropical cousins! Hawai’i is a botanical paradise. Even mundane roadsides become exciting when a person stops to enjoy the diversity of species that call Maui home.
The road we are traveling takes a sharp left and begins to climb up toward a looming, cloud-filled valley ahead. Like all good roads on Maui, the driving becomes more involved as the road narrows. Corners become blind obstacles and all bridges become single lane right-of-ways.
We get to the entry booth for the Valley (which is now a protected State Park) and the guy inside looks at us, looks at the van and says ‘You local?’ We feel compelled to tell the truth and to pay our $5 entry fee…our small donation to keeping this place beautiful and accessible…..
Side Note: The Hawai’ian islands have become so popular as a world tourist destination that resentment has been building among the locals for some time now. After essentially having their royal government overthrown by a handful of white colonial sugar and shipping barons, there is still a strong negative emotion elicited toward the large population of visiting ‘Haoles’ (yes, this term is derogatory, and aimed strictly toward Caucasians). We knew this coming into the trip but decided that we would do our part to be respectful visitors and hopefully avoid being labelled too vigorously with this slanderous term.
As a consequence of the upsurge in visitation by the outside world, certain culturally significant and historical sites have been forced to check IDs; charging entry fees to off-island visitors while allowing the local population to continue to enjoy their home country free of charge. This feels completely acceptable to me. So even though, as it was becoming obvious that our family could pass for Hawai’ian locals, we were always honest about our origins and paid our way.
Immediately upon exiting the van, the Iao Valley swallows us whole. The kids run loose up the trail toward the overlook and I feel a little breathless as I marvel at my surroundings. The energy emitted by this valley resonates clearly with me and I understand why it has been set aside as sacred ground. We spend an hour or so wandering about on the winding pathways both up toward the needle and then down along the stream. We scan the treetops for native Hawai’ian birds. For the first (and only) time on the trip our bare legs are bitten up by hungry mosquitos. The sun begins to drop lower in the sky illuminating the foliage. Our stomachs are starting to grumble and we make the decision that it is time to leave and start heading toward our new camp somewhere out along the beach.
We had decided to camp ‘legally’ on our second night and bought a permit for the county park known locally as ‘Grandma’s’; an unmistakable strand that winds along the coast between Maui and West Maui. All of the sites are drive-in style with a bush or two delineating one camp site from the next. We find a vacancy and back the van in so that it is parked about 20 feet from the edge of the breaking waves.
Within a half an hour we meet our first locals, Jimmy and Chris. Both of them live on the beach. Jimmy, in his converted cargo van and Chris in his Previa. They come over to check out Stella. This is when we learn that Westies are a hot commodity on the islands. Very few are still in private circulation, forcing most Maui surf bums to convert older mini-vans instead. We knew that at some point during our camping adventure we would be running the risk of stepping on the toes of the locals. But Dirtbags love Dirtbags and we all hit it off immediately….our parking spot being located directly between both Jimmy and Chris. Jimmy had been living on the beach for probably 25 years, with his spot marked by the grave of lava stones dedicated to his dog Nuisance. Chris is an East Coast transplant who saved enough money to move to the island full time for its warm and sometimes ‘sharky’ surfing. We talk about fishing and turtles and surfing and winter and van life. Then, as quickly as our visitors arrived, they departed… Jimmy leaves to go turn off his TV (so he wouldn’t drain the battery) and Chris decides it is time to settle in for the night. The beach becomes quiet and dark as the sun sets and the sky lights up in a rainbow of color. Everyone turns their attention to the ocean, the sky and the soft warm sand.
During the night the campground is dark and quiet so we open up the back of the van and let the air move in off of the ocean. We fall asleep to the sounds of crashing surf. I wake myself up regularly to look around and soak it all in. This was going to be a great trip!
*Westfalia rentals on Maui available through Aloha Campers
*If ‘van camping’ on Maui, skip Olowalu. You can’t park anywhere near the beach. The tent camping is much more inviting here. We opted to not ‘pay’ for the experience of spending an overnight in their parking lot.