The far side of Paradise

Wilson Tsoi
/ Source: Islands Magazine

Just before sunrise, off the eastern coast of  Maui, clouds stack up on the horizon and drag their shadows across the glistening Pacific. Waves born four time zones away move in softly and then thunder into the black lava cliffs. Somewhere in Ki¯pahulu, the last settlement before the pavement turns to dirt, a wiry old Hawaiian named Eddie Pu sits meditating in front of his house. An ‘apua-kea lets loose—the name Hawaiians give to the predawn showers—and then moves up the mountainside, cleansing everything in its path. “Eddie, come inside!” Beverly Pu, the daughter of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, calls to her husband. “What do I care,” Pu calls back with a laugh,  “This is Hana.”

The town of H¯ana has two stores, one gas station, and a coffee shop. It has the H¯ana Ranch, with 2,000 head of cattle, and the venerable and lovely Hotel H¯ana-Maui, which reigns discreetly over town like a Queen Mother. There is a historic church, a few small inns and guest houses, a cultural center, and a harbor. But to most people, “H¯ana” refers to the eastern bulge of Maui, starting where the Ke‘anae Peninsula juts out from Haleakal¯a’s lush volcanic slopes and encompassing H¯ana town, Ki¯pahulu (and its famous waterfalls), and the dry ranchlands around Kaup¯o.

H¯ana is as much a state of mind as a place. Though it has been colonized by pot-growing hippies and New Age organic farmers, reclusive rock stars and working artists, it still harbors the old soul of Maui. Polynesians arrived here between a.d. 500 and 800 and discovered that H¯ana was the perfect place to grow taro and other crops. By 1883 there were six sugar plantations, and by 1940, H¯ana had a population of 3,500. When the cane operations shut down, so did the town. As of the 2000 census, 709 people lived in H¯ana, most descendants of Hawaiians and Polynesians.

H¯ana is a place where most of the native Hawaiians still live off the land, and money rarely changes hands between neighbors. Fishermen share their catch. And if you break a bone, run a fever, or are facing irreconcilable differences with your brother or your spouse, you turn to a kahuna la ‘au lapa‘au, or native healer. The phone book lists no therapists, and the nearest hospital is a two-hour drive away.

Eddie Pu may not be a kahuna, but he is a legend in H¯ana. “I am just a simple Hawaiian,” he says, like a refrain, as he talks story one morning at the H¯ana Ranch coffee shop. “I wake each morning before sunrise and meditate to thank the land, to thank my ancestors for what they have given us.”

Eddie pu has the lithe, proportioned body of a man who has always worked with nature. He was hired in 1972 as one of the first park rangers at ‘Ohe‘o Gulch, a series of pools and falls now part of Haleakal¯a National Park. Over the years, he saved many lives, including those of the Saudi ambassador and his wife and son, who were swept out to sea. Pu dove into the waves and rescued them one by one, though he ended up in the hospital for several days. Later, the “simple Hawaiian” was flown to Washington to be thanked in person by President Ford. In the decades Pu stood guard at ‘Ohe‘o Gulch, where flash floods in the mountains catch seaside bathers unawares, no one drowned. Since he retired, seven people have died.

It is hard to guess Eddie Pu’s age. His long gray hair is pulled neatly back and kept in place by a ti-leaf headband to ward off headaches. In a few weeks, he tells me, he would set off with a towel, a walking stick, and a bag of dried fruit to do what he has done nearly every birthday for more than 25 years: Walk around Maui. On November 25, he turned 75.

Pu always walks the nearly 200 miles alone. “A spiritual walk to heal my soul,” he explains, and his secret route changes from year to year. He might walk past Hotel H¯ana-Maui’s H¯amoa Beach, where he lifeguarded for 21 years, out past the flower farm his son owns and then to Kaup¯o, where the last abandoned church stands sentinel. The road moves inland here, spiraling up toward Haleakal¯a’s crater, past the wineries and lavender farms of Kula.

But Pu often follows the desolate, uninhabited coast, passing the remains of ancient fishing villages, traveling along the overgrown path of what was once the King’s Highway. He may walk for a day in the no-man’s-land of volcanic rubble and windswept dry grass before La Pérouse Bay comes in sight, and later, the clipped golf courses of Wailea; then the condos of Ki¯hei, the old whaling town of Lahaina, and the beachfront resorts of K¯a‘anapali on the westernmost end.

Along the way, he talks to the trees and the birds and plucks a leaf or two from plants he knows not by name but by their medicinal values. (Once back home, he sends them to the University of Hawai‘i for identification.) “These are healing plants our ancestors left for us,” Pu explains. “They planted what they needed at the shores and then moved inland.” Ancestors, I start to gather, means not the deceased great-grandfather or grandmother who often show up in his dreams to offer unsolicited advice, but the Polynesians who brought with them the canoe plants.

The Hawaiian Islands are the perfect vacation destination for travelers of all types.

Pu has come across sacred ruins and even human remains. “I bring no camera, draw no map—these things must be left there and not disturbed,” he says. He tells a story about how on his first two trips, all the film he shot came out black. After the second trip, he dreamed he must go to the island of Moloka‘i. A young girl met him at the airport and said, “You follow me. My great-grandmother is waiting for you.” They came to a home where an old woman sat on a porch chair, rocking and laughing.

“Eddie Pu, you should throw away your camera,” the old woman said, still roaring in mirth. “Your film will never come out. Your mind, that is where you must store pictures, so our ancestors will not be disturbed.”

Maui is a misshapen peanut, with volcanic mountains cracking the shells at either end and a flat isthmus of cane fields in the middle. The north side is lush and steep, the south side sunny and dry. At the east end is Ki¯pahulu, a settlement just past H¯ana that still has no electricity, and where, if you want a burger or a steak, you rope one of the wild cattle that roam the hills. At the west end is Kapalua, a resort where you can sup on filet mignon and a $9,000 bottle of 1961 Chateau Latour at the Ritz-Carlton.

There is only one paved road that leads to Maui’s east end. From the airport in Kahului, the H¯ana Highway runs for 52 miles of one-lane bridges, waterfalls, and dark bamboo forests, winding around the finger outcroppings of Haleakal¯a like a twisted telephone cord.

My first trip to H¯ana was in the 1980s, before the road had been repaved. It took three hours and several “I think I’m going to be carsick” stops before we reached the series of falls and pools of ‘Ohe‘o Gulch, marketed at the time as the “Seven Sacred Pools”—though the only thing sacred was the revenue they brought to town. We gasped at their beauty, clicked pictures, then rushed to get back on the torturous road before sunset.

The second time I went to H¯ana, I met up with friends who lived on Maui’s north shore. We rode out on mountain bikes, stopped at all the falls, and hiked into the riot of wild ginger, ferns, and flowers. We camped by the edge of the sea for a week, burning the soles of our feet on the black-sand beaches, free-diving for our dinner, and picking wild mango, guava, avocado, mountain apple, and pa-paya. I complained one evening that we had no lemon for the lobsters we’d pulled from the ocean an hour earlier. “Citrus tree at three o’clock,” replied Mark, the surfboard shaper. Minutes later, tangy juice was streaming across the delicate white meat.

The third time I went to H¯ana, I saw Jesus.

I drove out this time, and as I swerved around a blind curve (one of more than 600, it is estimated) on the one-lane road, I came up fast on a man walking. I veered and screeched the brakes. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the cliffs plummeting down to breaking surf and briefly wondered if the car would float. It came to a stop. The man, a Hawaiian in his 20s wearing a backpack and running shoes, seemed unperturbed. “Can you give me a ride?” he asked.

We talked for the next few miles. He told me how he walks to Kahului once every week (and around the entire island sometimes), and he told me about Eddie Pu. As the young man got out in front of the house where his father raises fighting cocks, I asked his name. “Jesus,” he said.

It had been ten years since i camped in H¯ana, and after dropping off Jesus, I stopped at my favorite haunts—the legendary cave at Wai‘a¯napanapa State Park, the small but impeccable H¯ana Cultural Center, and then the akule hale, an open-sided, thatched meeting house for fishermen that overlooks the bay. A sign was posted there: “All outsiders (non-residents), hunter, fisher, picker, gatherer, and real estate people, as of now all resources taken from the H¯ana district shall be regulated by the eastside hui. All your resources are being exploited and eradicated.”

I felt a pang of guilt for trespassing ten years earlier. And I had the sudden panicky feeling that H¯ana had changed.

Of course it had. Oprah Winfrey had acquired the coastline (or at least the most scenic 100 or so acres of it). Passport Resorts had purchased Hotel H¯ana-Maui, renovated it, and installed a stunning new spa. Park rangers had cracked down on illegal camping, and there was more traffic on the road. But as I pulled into town, everything appeared the same. Even the notices at Hasegawa’s General Store seemed as if they had been tacked there for a decade: Smoked Pork, $10 a Bag; Juggling Lessons, Tuesday at 7; UPS Pickups for…, and a list of ten names followed.

I checked into the hotel, made my way to the garden-front spa and, as

an attendant brushed a paste of spirulina and ‘awa (the narcotic known through much of the Pacific as kava) across my body, I began to think that maybe all was right with the world.

It could have been the lingering effects of the ‘awa, but I like to think it was H¯ana itself that set my mind at ease. There is nothing to do here—or at least nothing that must be done. The hotel has no TV and no newspaper on the doorstep. The town has no bars, no golf course, no parasailing. Each morning, I would wake at dawn, grind and brew the locally grown organic coffee the hotel genteelly provides, and then sit in the hot tub on my cottage deck watching the sun rise over the sea. Horses grazed in the fields beyond the lawn, and one day I rode along the craggy coast, crossing the land Oprah purchased from the H¯ana Ranch, including the sacred hilltop, Ka Iwi o Pele, where Pele the volcano goddess left her bones after she lost a fight with her sister, the water goddess, and her soul fled to the Big Island.

“How do Hawaiians feel about Oprah buying sacred land?” I had asked Eddie Pu, whose family once held large plots of land in Ki¯pahulu and who now lives on just two acres.

“Oprah came to me and to some of the elders and asked the same thing,” he said with a smile. “I told her, it is your land—you do as you see fit. So far, nothing has changed. Maybe it was good she bought it.” He shrugged. “But who am I to say? I am just a simple Hawaiian.”

Maybe it is luck, or maybe it is the long winding road with its one-lane bridges, or maybe it is the overpowering soul of the place that has kept anyone from developing H¯ana. In 1961, Laurance Rockefeller arrived with plans for building a resort. He bought 52 acres of Ki¯pahulu’s coastline and then, according to historian Russell Apple, decided that East Maui was “too beautiful and rural a community for commercial exploitation, with the social, economic, and environmental changes and other developments a major resort hotel would bring.” Later, he bought more land and raised money to protect the Ki¯pahulu Valley’s most important watershed. As a result, ‘Ohe‘o Gulch and its cascading pools, bamboo forests, and guava groves is now part of Haleakal¯a National Park and forms a crucial nature corridor to the volcano’s crater.

Remarkably, despite a series of corporate owners and a brief flirtation with a golf course, Hotel H¯ana-Maui has not grown beyond 69 rooms, half of which are traditional cottages. When it was renovated by Passport Resorts (owners of Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort), designer Hunton Conrad used local art, natural wood, bamboo furnishings, and fabrics inspired by traditional Hawaiian kapa prints. Douglas Chang, the hotel’s first Hawaiian manager, was brought in, and the townspeople—nearly all of whom have either worked at the hotel or are related to someone who works there—breathed more easily.

Only four years out of the New England Culinary Institute, John Cox got the coveted job as head chef, but not because of his résumé. “All the other chefs sent me long lists of the ingredients they wanted for their tryouts,” said Chang, who greets guests with “Aloha!” and a genuine hug. “John just asked what grew on the land.” The dinner menu might include squash blossoms stuffed with lobster caught that morning, grilled lamb chops dusted with coarse-ground H¯ana coffee, or a light, sweet sorbet soup, garnished with chunks of magenta dragon fruit from nearby Ono Organic Farms.

Most of the land surrounding H¯ana is still owned by the H¯ana Ranch, and cattle graze in the grasslands above the hotel. One day Kevin Coates, who runs H¯ana Bay Kayak and Snorkel, took me to the ranch’s highlands on the slopes of Haleakal¯a in his Unimog, a massive overland Mercedes that he uses for his ecotours. As we crossed the high pastures of the ranch, with views out to the Pacific, Coates told me how he was working with The East Maui Watershed Partnership (which includes the ranch, the state and the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy), to protect land that has the highest concentration of

rare and endangered birds in the United States. “The owners of the ranch are serious about the environment and the community here,” he said. “I don’t think this land will ever be developed.”

If you have to leave H¯ana, as I did the next day, the ultimate way to do so is by helicopter. From the small airport, we soared south, flying into deep canyons with six or more waterfalls spilling off the sides of cliffs, heading up to the moonscape crater of Haleakal¯a and then down the coast, pocked with ancient ruins. Then, too soon, we landed on the roof of the Hyatt Regency Maui in Ka¯‘anapali, stepping into the bright sunshine and tinkling mai tai world of beachfront resorts.

I had come here for LifeFest, an annual conference billed as an “empowering event about health, wellness, and you,” which was happening up the road in Kapalua at the Ritz-Carlton. The conference kicked off with the announcement that Kapalua Resort (presenter of Life-Fest) would partner with Miraval Life in Balance—the luxury spa and wellness center in Arizona that focuses on “mindfulness,” to grow the resort into a wellness destination. Speakers at LifeFest included medicinal healing guru Dr. Andrew Weil, best-selling self-help author Dr. Paul Pearsall, Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi, and one Kahu Kapi‘ioho ‘okalani Lyons Na‘One, a kahuna from Ki¯pahulu and cultural consultant on the Miraval Kapalua project.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt and sarong and holding a ti leaf that “had asked to be picked and brought here,” Lyons was one of a panel of three Hawaiians whose topic was “The Healing Ocean.” About 100 people—spa owners, massage therapists, and healing gurus of all denominations—filled the conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. In the back were pitchers of “pure” saltwater mixed with fresh, which the speakers were encouraging participants to drink as a natural cleanser.

“How do you find pure saltwater?” someone in the audience asked. While the other healers bemoaned how development had tainted the ocean, Lyons had a more enigmatic response: “You could take a fishing boat five miles out to sea and reach in to scoop out a glass of water. But you might be wearing suntan lotion; the fuel from your boat might mix with the water. So would it still be pure then?”

It was by coincidence, or maybe something stronger, that two days later I was back in H¯ana, holding hands in a circle and chanting with Kahu Lyons Na‘One and his two apprentices at Maui Stables. At LifeFest, Lyons had told me about the stables and the “cultural rides” he leads there. I wished I could ride with him, but he would not be back in Ki¯pahulu for a week, and I was scheduled to fly out. But

as I drove to the airport I had a strange feeling that there was something unfinished in H¯ana and I changed my flight.

As I pulled into the stables, just past the place Charles Lindbergh chose for his burial ground, Lyons was saddling up horses for the afternoon ride with two guests. He laughed when he saw me. “I changed my plans,” he said. “You too, it seems?”

I joined them. As we rode along Lyons pointed out two frigate birds, iwa or warrior birds, and talked about his specialty in healing: ho‘oponopono, or mediation. Lyons is a specialist in Hawaiian martial arts, served in Vietnam, and spent some time in Los Angeles acting as personal bodyguard to a movie star who is well-known for his martial arts films. When he returned to Maui, he began teaching a course in Hawaiian culture and mediation, and married one of his students, a lawyer from Massape-qua, New York. Until 1988, Hawaiian healers were forbidden to practice, and healing had been a dying art. “Now it is time to teach a new generation,” Lyons said.

His apprentice, Awapuhi Pi‘imauna, seemed to have learned well: She  showed us the small purple flowers that taste like mushrooms and keep your blood pressure down; the red-berried trees whose crushed leaves taste like pepper; the noni, which is said to heal bruises; and the kukui nut whose oil is used as everything from a moisturizer to torch fuel. The 30-something single mother also told how her dogs had cornered a wild pig the other day. She had whisked the hog’s legs out from under it and slit its throat with her pocketknife. She had only lost one dog. “In H¯ana, we say the only people who buy food from the store are either lazy or stupid.” Ironically, Ki¯pahulu means “to fetch from exhausted gardens.”

In Hawaiian culture, ahupua‘a are pyramids of land that embody a variety of ecosystems: They begin with a mountain gully, slope down broad hillsides, and end past the coastline, encompassing the reefs and ocean waters. If it is cared for properly, each ahupua‘a can sustain a community. Reverence for the land and malama‘ aina, the care of nature, is central to the Hawaiian culture, Lyons explained. Before riding into the sacred, fenced off area of the Ki¯pahulu Gap, Lyons performed a chant to ask permission of the ancestors to cross the land.

“What will happen to this place? How can H¯ana survive?” I asked Lyons afterward. “We came here by canoe and we were not meant to stay here,” he said. “In 2012, the end of the 26,000-year-old Hawaiian calendar, we will plan our next migration.” He described his plans to build a double-hulled canoe in the year of the precession of the equinoxes, and go first, as was ordained by the ancestors, to Necker Island, eight miles from the Tropic of Cancer, on the solstice. “From there it will be decided where we go—possibly to an island in the South Pacific, to colonize a new place,” Lyons said. “The land here must be rejuvenated. We will find another island.”

Before the kahuna left to ride back to the stables, it occurred to me to ask him if he knew Eddie Pu. “He’s my godfather,” he said.

Driving back from the stables, I pulled into the parking lot at ‘Ohe‘o Gulch. It was late afternoon, and the light was sinking. I walked briskly up the trail that runs beside the Pipiwai and Palikea streams and the series of spectacular falls and pools. Strawberry guava grew all around, and the scent of ripe fruit filled the air. The two-mile path went past wild mangoes, past banyan trees with trunks the size of VW buses, and through a dense forest of black bamboo rising 50 feet high to form a tunnel of darkness. At the end of the tunnel I could hear water. Soon I saw it: 400-foot Waimoku Falls. I dove into the pool by the falls, washing away the dust from the ride and feeling the mist from the falls on my face.

It was almost dark as I ran down the trail, and the parking lot was nearly empty. A ranger was herding people away from the seaside pools. I snuck by him and soon had the lowest pool to myself.

I sat there, listening to the waves, watching the giant full moon rise over the Pacific, and remembered the chant we had done before heading up into the hills, a chant Native Hawaiians use to banish all negative thoughts:

   He mu oia (silence them).

   He mu (silence)!

   He mu na moe inoino (silence

     the subconscious),

   Na moemoe a (the conscious),

   Na pu nohunohu (the irritants),

   Na haumia (the filth).

   He mu oia, eli eli (have we


   He mu ia‘e (yes)!

   Noa (clear).

   Noa (clear)!

   Noa ka honua (the earth is clear).

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