July 2009

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One final dip in the ocean

This always happens to me when I’m on an island: I get to the last day and think, Crap, I haven’t spent nearly enough time in the water. Even if I’ve been in the water every day. It just seems like never enough.

Late this afternoon, after returning from a kayak trip up the Hanalei River (you can only go about two miles upstream until the water becomes too shallow to continue, but there are a couple of swimming holes along the way and it’s fun just to slo-o-o-w-ly paddle up this lazy river), I realized that this was it: My last afternoon on Kauai.

Fortunately for me, my hotel, the Ko`a Kea, fronts one of the best beaches on the island, Po`ipu. What I like about Po`ipu is that it’s got something for everyone. There’s a little protected bay right out in front that is perfect for kids and some excellent snorkeling around the point, and there’s even been some good surfing while I’ve been here.

Poipu Beach in front of the Koa Kea hotel. Photo by David Lansing.

Poipu Beach in front of the Koa Kea hotel. Photo by David Lansing.

While I was walking into the water I noticed some kids and their parents with their snorkeling gear heading into the water carrying a bag of frozen peas to feed the fish. The fish seem to love the peas but it isn’t really good for them since they’re not able to digest them.

If you feel like you really have to feed the fish (and I’ll admit it is fun to watch the colorful schools go crazy), either give them stale bread, sparingly squeezed through a hole in a sandwich bag, or, better yet, fish food available at pet shops or some drugstores. In any case, be sure not to leave the sandwich bags in the water as turtles, whose main source of protein is jellyfish, tend to confuse zip-lock bags with Portuguese man-o-wars.

Anyway, I got into the water and what did I do? Nothing. Just closed my eyes and floated on my back letting the small waves rock me about like a baby in a cradle while listening to the excited cries of children playing in the surf. Kayaking the Hanalei River, hiking Waimea Canyon, Zodiac tours along the Na Pali coast, an ATV trip to a hidden waterfall—it’s all good. But, frankly, nothing beats just bobbing along on your back in the ocean.


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Whenever I visit Auntie in Kauai, we go to Waimea Canyon, on the west side of the island, in hopes of spotting the rare flowering iliau, an exotic plant, 4 to 12 feet tall, that produces hundreds of tiny yellow blossoms just once in its life and then dies in a blaze of glory. Sort of the Heath Ledger of tropical plants.

We have never actually seen an iliau in flower which I think is just as well; I think it would make Auntie too sad. But we always find dozens of the plant, pre-flower, which only grow in the western mountains of Kauai, along with many other island rarities—like koa and hala trees—along the Iliau Trail, an half-hour hike in Waimea Canyon, a ten-mile long, mile-wide 3,600-feet-deep chasm that everyone calls “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” (I have been to the Grand Canyon. I have hiked down to the bottom and I have traversed through it on a raft, and while Waimea is a fine canyon as canyons go, it is not the Grand Canyon.)

On the Iliau Trail. Photo by David Lansing.

On the Iliau Trail. Photo by David Lansing.

It was cool up at the top, a refreshing change of pace after spending a bit too much time at the beach yesterday. There were some clouds overhead; still, it was clear enough that we could see Waialae Falls on the other side of the canyon.

After doing the trail (and, no, we did not see a blooming iliau), we drove up the highway a bit farther to Koke`e Lodge just so Auntie could get a slice of their coconut pie (I’m sorry, but I detest coconut pie).

Waimea Canyon just before the deluge. Photo by gohawaii.com.

By now it was late in the afternoon and the sky was starting to turn dark. I feared a late afternoon thunderstorm and suggested we turn around but Auntie wanted to drive to the end of the road to Pu`u o Kila Lookout. From here, the whole Kalalau Valley with its emerald green peaks rising up to touch the clouds, opens up before you. We were both just standing there, lost in our own thoughts, when all of a sudden Auntie spotted two Hawaiian geese, called nenes. She looked over at me and smiled.

“Okay,” she said. “Now we go home.”

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Baby dolphins all around

When you go off on a guided tour with a bunch of people the biggest decision you can make is where to sit. On the left? On the right? Up front? In the back? Sooner or later I’m going to realize that whatever my instincts tell me, I should do the opposite. Yesterday as we boarded our Na Pali Explorer 26-foot Rigid Inflatable Boat (better known as a RIB), I scurried to sit way up front. The better to, you know, see where the hell we were going. But the thing is that the nose of a RIB is the part that shoots way up over the crest of a wave and then slams down hard moments later. People in the back don’t even notice. I’m hanging on for dear life and they’re snoozing.

Oh well. At least I was the first to spot the pod of spinner dolphins that appeared as if out of nowhere right in front of us. We cut the engine and just bobbed up and down in the chop while the spinners put on a show for us, leaping into the air just feet away from our RIB and making spectacular mid-air spins (which is why they’re called “spinner dolphins,” right?).

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

These dolphins, which are pretty common in Hawaii, tend to hang out at night in herds of as many as 200 animals in the deep channels between the islands where they feed. Then in the morning, they break up into smaller groups and play in the morning and rest in the afternoon (if they liked cocktails, it would be my idea of the perfect life). So why do they jump out of the water and make these acrobatic moves? No one knows exactly, but I have to think that part of it is they’re just having fun. You know the joke about why dogs lick their nuts? Well, I’d say the punchline is the same for why spinner dolphins spin in the air—because they can.

What was really neat about these guys, besides all the acrobatic moves, was that there were a fair number of calves, some no bigger than a large loaf of bread, in this group. According to our guide, these babies are born tail-first with eyes wide open, and with enough muscular coordination to follow their mothers immediately. For the next year and a half to two years, they nurse on mom. Somewhere along the line, they dine on their first anchovy. That must be a rude experience after two years of mother’s milk.

What’s also interesting is that the young dolphin will stick with mom for anywhere from three to eight years before finally venturing off on their own. That’s a big variable. I guess just like people, some dolphins are just mama boys.

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Still waiting for Puff

I was out on a Zodiac, bouncing along the Na Pali coast not far from Hanalei, when I ran into Jackie Paper of all people. You remember Jackie, right? No? You don’t recall the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary (or PP&M as those in the know called them)? It’s November 1963. JFK has just been assassinated. And the number two song on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown is “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Hanalei

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff

And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail

Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail

Noble kings and prices would bow wheneer they came

Pirate ships would lower their flag when Puff roared out his name


That Jackie Paper. Guy must be, I don’t know, 55? 56? But he’s looks pretty good. Little heavier, but still has that innocent-looking face. He was hanging out on a boat in a little cavern with an arched entryway. I asked him what he was up to these days.

Jackie Paper just hangin'. Photo by David Lansing.

Jackie Paper just hangin'. Photo by David Lansing.

“Oh, you know. This and that. Make a few bucks giving tours of Puff’s old home, do a little surfing. That sort of thing.”

Wait a minute…Puff’s old home?

“Yeah, this is where we used to, you know, frolick and stuff.” He pointed to a cave where the rocks were coated in guano. “That’s where we used to play checkers,” he said. He gave a little laugh. “Dragon never won.”

I asked him what had happened to Puff and he just shrugged. “Hard to say, man. Dude had some serious issues.”

According to Jackie, the dragon got his nickname for smoking more than his fair share of Maui Wowie.

“That’s why I stopped coming around,” he said. “Stupid dragon was high all the time.”

Still, Jackie said, those were good times. “To be honest with you, I miss the dude,” he said. His eyes were misting up as he put on his sunglasses and started to pull away from our boat.

“Hey,” he called after us, “if you want a tour of the cave, maybe I could give you a discount. You know, for old time’s sake.”

And with that, Jackie Paper sadly slipped into his cave.


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Losing my religion

People don’t believe me when I tell them that my first grade teacher didn’t speak English but it’s true. And this was in Southern California. I went to a parochial school and my teacher was a nun fresh off the boat from Italy. Which is why I can recite the Hail Mary in perfect Italian but still have trouble recognizing when to use there instead of their.

I mention this because while at one point I did, in fact, want to be a priest, I guess you’d say that when it comes to religion, I’m a little bit to the left of Bill Maher. If that’s possible.

That said, yesterday Auntie persuaded me to accompany her and her male friend Albert (she doesn’t like to call him her boyfriend) to the Wai`oli Hui`ia (joyful waters) Church in Hanalei. I convinced myself that it was worth going just because the green shingled church, originally built in 1912, is so elegant and, having survived three hurricanes, a survivor. The most recent hurricane, Iniki in 1992, did significant damage, but the community came to the rescue and the ol’ gal’s restored belfry tower looks better than ever if you ask me.

I kind of snooze during the reading of the gospel and the accompanying sermon but perk right up when the Wai`oli church choir starts singing early Hawaiian hymns. Those beautiful Hawaiian voices rising up inside that little church—well, like I said, no one would ever accuse me of being religious, but listening to Auntie and Albert join along with the choir in singing Ka Pule A Ka Haku would send goose bumps up the arms of Bill Maher himself.

The other reason to hang out with Auntie and Albert is that afterwards we all go to the Hanalei Gourmet, in the old Hanalei school building, where Auntie gets a scooped-out papaya mounded with pineapple, mango, melon, and guava and I get the smoked local fish thinly sliced on a toasted bagel with cream cheese, tomato, and capers. Sunday brunch alone is reason enough to sit inside a church for an hour.

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