October 2011

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A gift of sacred salt

Me holding a handful of sacred salt from the Salt Ponds. Photo by David Lansing.

Two years ago when I was on Kauai I spent an afternoon at the salt ponds near Hanapepe and got lucky when I met a family that was working their pond, which had been handed down from generation to generation, who was generous enough to offer me a bag of just-harvested sea salt which I took home with me. Well, that bag of salt is long gone so one of the things I wanted to do last weekend was go back to the salt ponds and see if I could get lucky again.

At the salt ponds, the ocean water passes through salt water aquifers that feed wells called punawai. From here the water is either pumped or, using buckets, carried into ponds that are like shallow bath tubs, called wai ku (literally “water standing”) shaped by hand into the red clay soil. For several weeks the water is allowed to evaporate until a slushy layer of crunchy salt crystals form. This is then slowly raked into big mounts before being collected in 5-gallon buckets.

But the most interesting thing about all this is that this isn’t a commercial operation. In fact, it’s illegal to sell Kauai’s sea salt because Hawaiians have always considered it a gift from the sea (that said, it can be bartered). The other cool thing is that only a handful of locals—families who have been farming the sea salt for many generations—are allowed to work the salt ponds. In short, this is kind of like a sacred area (after the salt has dried, a small percentage of it is mixed with red volcanic soil, usually from secret valleys inland, and that red salt, called alaea, is considered sacred and is used for healing remedies that call for purification ceremonies. The alaea Hawaiian red sea salt you pay a fortune for at your local gourmet store is a commercial product that has nothing to do with the actual harvesting of Hawaiian sea salt).

The salt ponds, which are adjacent to Salt Pond Park, one of the best snorkeling beaches on the island, are marked off by green wind fences but that doesn’t keep tourists from just wandering in and sticking their hands or feet in the ponds which, as you can imagine, sort of drives the Hawaiian saltmakers crazy. It’s like having a vegetable garden where people come in off the street to squeeze your tomatoes.

Anyway, when I got to the salt ponds there was only one family out there raking the salt. Which didn’t really surprise me since the salt is generally only harvested during the summer months when the intense sun quickly evaporates the water in the ponds. I explained to a young guy out there working with his auntie that I’d been here two years ago and “Dwight” had given me a bag of salt to take home and how I’d really cherished that salt but unfortunately it was now all gone.

“Oh, you know Dwight?”

“Yeah. He’s the guy that gave me the salt.”

“You want some more?”

“Man, I would love that.”

And so the guy gave me a small bag of salt. True aloha spirit.

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Working in the sweet potato patch

Nicole, Jane, and At Peace With Flowers working in the sweet potato patch at the Limahuli Garden. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s what I decided to do in order to get back in the good graces of the Hindu gods: get on my hands and knees and pull weeds.

Yesterday morning before eight I drove over to the Limahuli Garden, one of Kauai’s national tropical botanical gardens, and joined their volunteer program. I met Katie, the garden’s manager, at the Limahuli Hale, and she turned me over to Nicole, a sweet twentysomething with a braced knee from a surfing accident, who outfitted me with some gloves and weeding tools before taking me up to the sweet potato patch to do some weeding.

Also up at the sweet potato patch were two other volunteers: Jane, who is from Florida, and Karen who told me that her Hawaiian name was Peace With Flowers (I’m not sure where Peace With Flowers is from). I told Jane and Peace With Flowers about my experience at the Kauai Hindu Monastery and they both agreed that doing a little penance in the Limahuli Garden pulling weeds was a good thing.

Let me just say this: getting down on your hands and knees and pulling crabgrass-like weeds out of rocky soil beneath a blistering tropical sun while small groups of well-heeled tourists walk the grounds is humbling. At one point two pasty-looking women with Texas drawls stood over me and said, “I don’t know why he even bothers pullin’ them weeds. Ain’t nothin’ but sweet potatoes.”

Well, let me just tell you, these weren’t just sweet potatoes. They were ualas. Which (as Nicole informed me) were brought over by Polynesians who navigated across the Pacific in large sailing canoes sometime before the 3rd century A.D. Crossing the largest ocean on Earth and finding Kauai (in the most remote archipelago in the world) may well have been the greatest navigational feat ever accomplished. And here’s what’s even more amazing: In 2006, archaeologists uncovered chicken bones from the 14th century in Chile. DNA from these ancient bones matched that of Polynesian chickens. Which suggests that ancient Polynesian navigators may have voyaged east across the Pacific to South America and made contact with the indigenous people of what is now Chile. And if Polynesians introduced chickens to South America, it seems very probable that they brought the sweet potato back with them on their return to Polynesia.

So, ladies, these aren’t just some ordinary garden-variety sweet potatoes; these spuds are windows to the past. So there.

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Ganesha scuttles my sunset sail

The historic one-way Hanalei Bridge. Photo by David Lansing.

Well, obviously Ganesha and his gang of Hindu gods are still pissed at me for taking photos of the Kauai monastery temple. Things just seem to be going from bad to worse. The fact that I couldn’t get into my room at the Hanalei Colony Resort for several hours was just a minor inconvenience compared to what happened next.

Yesterday I was supposed to go out on a sunset sail aboard a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe with Trevor Cabell who owns Island Sails Kauai. Trevor keeps his sailing canoe moored just off the beach in front of the St. Regis hotel in Princeville which is only about four miles down the road from my hotel (I can see it from my lanai). Normally you’d give yourself 10 or 15 minutes to go that distance, right? But the thing is that not only is most of the road a very narrow two-lane country affair but between the resort and Princeville there are at least six one-way bridges you have to cross (seven if you count the double L-shaped bridges over the Wainiha River).

Trevor had told me to look for his red canoe on the beach just north of the resort and be there by 5:30. So I figured I’d leave my hotel at five (to drive four miles) to make sure I wasn’t rushed. So here’s the deal with the bridges: You stop in front of them and have a long, hard look to make sure no one is coming the other way, and then you cross. If cars are coming the other way, you wait. Island etiquette says after five or six cars pass over a bridge one way, you stop and let cars going the other direction pass over. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but generally everyone is pretty laid-back about things and you get a lot of shaka signs flashed from drivers on each side of the bridge.

I only mention this because even on Kauai’s North Shore, there is what amounts to rush-hour traffic around five on a weekday so it’s not the best time to be making your way over the bridges if you’re in a hurry. Which I didn’t think I was until I realized I’d been driving for half an hour and I still hadn’t cross the Hanalei Bridge, which is the last (and, I think, the prettiest). Anyway, by the time I got to the St. Regis, I was late. And then I had to find parking (they allow public access to the beach but the only parking lot is a little dirt affair outside of the resort that can handle maybe ten cars max). Luckily for me, a local surfer was just pulling out so I was able to grab a space. Then I started following the signs to the beach, bounding down the stairs in a half-run, only to realize there were a shit-load of stairs. To be exact, 240 (I counted them on the way back). When I finally made it down to the beach, it was about 5:45. I immediately spotted Trevor’s red sailing canoe just off the beach. But no Trevor.

I sat on the sand and waited and waited, watching the sun slowly sink over Hanalei Bay. A truly spectacular sunset. But not aboard a Hawaiian sailing canoe. Trevor never did show up so after the sun went down, I trudged slowly up those 240 stairs from the beach and back to my rental car. Knowing full well that Ganesha, that little punk elephant god, was laughing his trunk off at my mishaps.

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Hanalei Colony Resort

On my lanai at Hanalei Colony Resort after finally being allowed in my room. Photo by David Lansing.

After leaving the Hindu Monastery I drove straight to Hanalei Colony Resort where it became immediately obvious that burning that paper with my confession about taking a photo of the temple had not successfully gotten me out of trouble. Then again, maybe there’s a time delay in solving problems. Maybe when you burn the paper to release your problem it’s like calling your credit card company to dispute a charge and you have to wait for the next available customer service representative and that can be anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Or maybe it’s even worse than that. Maybe it’s like the bank clearing a check you’ve just deposited and it takes three to four days.

Anyway, burning the paper did not solve anything because went I got to the resort, shortly after two, they told me my room wasn’t ready. Check back at three. So I went and sat in my little rental car and checked my e-mail and around three I went back in the office. My room still wasn’t ready. Check back at four. At four—well, you know. Finally around five, they said my room was ready. So I went back to the office to get the key. Only problem was, they didn’t have the key. And they didn’t know where it was.

Since my room was on the opposite end of the property from the office, the woman behind the desk told me to just drive over there and she’d meet me there and let me in my room. Which is what I did. Except the manager’s pass key (which is supposed to unlock all of the rooms, right?) didn’t work either. How could that be? It’s a mystery.

Now, if you were here with your loved one and had just driven an hour or so from the Lihui airport and couldn’t get in your room at five in the afternoon, you might be a little annoyed. But I wasn’t. I knew what the problem was. It was the damn photo I took of the Hindu Monastery temple. Not being able to get into my room was my just dessert for offending Lord Shanmuga or Ganesha or god-knows-who. I had this coming and it definitely wasn’t the fault of the resort (they were as mystified by these strange turn of events as I was; in fact, the manager assured me several times that nothing like this had ever ever happened before).

Eventually some phone calls were made, some people were recruited, and a key that worked was brought to the building where I’d been sitting on the steps for a good long time and I was allowed to get into my room. Even better, there was a nice gift basket waiting for me with a bag of nut mix and Maui chips and a bottle of wine. Maybe the Hindu operator on-line had finally become available and all my problems had truly been released. At least that’s what I was thinking as I sat on the lanai watching the sunset and drinking my wine.

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Getting into trouble

The temple at the Hindu Monastery. Forbidden photo by David Lansing.

So at the Hindu Monastery I burn a piece of paper releasing all my problems and not five minutes later I’m in trouble again.

What happened was that I walked through the garden, stopping to admire Lord Shanmuga, a six-faced Hindu god living in a banyan tree, and paid homage to Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles and God of Good Timing (he was so not the God of Good Timing for me), before moving on to the temple where a puja or worship ceremony, was taking place. There were eight or nine people in the temple, mostly women, all in colorful saris, sitting on a dusty rose carpet, chanting and singing and offering up prayers. Incense was being burned and flowers were being offered up and there was a stone bowl in the middle of the floor with a lot of colorful stone orbs, arranged like planets in a solar system. All very intriguing, all very colorful. So, of course, I thought I’d take a couple of photos. Not from inside the temple. Just from outside the door. Because I didn’t want to, you know, interrupt anyone’s puja.

So snap, snap. I take two photos while leaning again this 16-ton black granite Nandi Bull just outside the doors of the temple. Don’t want to overdo things. Don’t want to be intrusive. Just two quick photos. And no sooner have I done this then an older woman with very white hair wearing a green sarong comes out of the shadows and says, “You know it’s forbidden to take photographs of the temple.”

Oh, god, no. Really? And then here’s the bad thing: I lied to her. “Oh, I didn’t take any photos of the temple. I was taking photos of the bull.”

She glared at me. She obviously knew bull when she heard it. “It’s strictly forbidden,” she said. And then she disappeared again into the shadows. So now I’m really in do-do. I’ve got these two photos on my camera. At first I figure I’ll just erase them. But what good would that do? She said it was expressly forbidden to take the photos. Not to keep them. So what I do is hurry back down through the garden to the Mandapam, the pavilion where I’d originally written down and burned my problems. I get a fresh piece of paper and write, I took forbidden photos of temple. Then I light the paper with a match and put it in the urn. I’m hoping that takes care of things. We’ll see.

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