First Light

SPIRIT OF ALOHA March/April 2007


I am lying on the floor of the balcony where I will sleep when I can stop watching the stars that burn through the cold black scrim covering the Earth. Though a massive bed whose height of plushness reaches to my belly waits inside, and though the moon's light soaks through the gaps in my closed eyelids forcing me to turn away, I lie out here. Waves pummel the volcanic rock cliff directly below; windows rattle.

I am back outside, a year later, abandoning another bed in a swank room. I have yet to sleep inside in Hawai'i. This time, I am farther north than the Kona Coast. Stars are white coral stones on a black sand beach. My skymark is there—I can always find it—the constellation whose Western name comes from the ancient Greeks, the belt of Orion. Three stars suspended in a vertical line. Wind howls here on the Kohala Coast, shaking palm fronds, whistling through gaps in the door that leads to the calm inside. I wake up more than once and locate the Big Dipper in different positions, as constellations seem to circle the Earth, the pot upside down, pouring celestial liquid from an endless well. When the sky is a big bowl of guava juice, I am aware I have slept by the residue of dreams that must have been inspired by rushing water and gusting wind.

This is my vacation, but some routines are mandatory. I go in search of a cup of coffee to help me focus. Stars and cosmos and sterling conjectures can wait. I walk through the lobby of my hotel. The air, gentle now, is free to move about this place that could hardly be called a room, lacking walls or doors. Everyone says the familiar mahalo and aloha. In front of the hotel, a black road stretches forward. I walk the road that winds through high piles of sharp 'a'a rock, layers of black on black, another black space in which little points of white lie—human fabrications of bleached stucco and concrete.

Morning sun is as sharp as 'a'a; I sit with my back to it. I have finished my coffee and looked through the newspaper at the corner café's sidewalk table when I hear a high, descending whistle that sounds like a hawk's cry. I recognize it instantly. My brother, Big Al, rolls up in the rented minivan with others of my clan—sister-in-law, nephews, mother—a constellation of characters connected by the same last name. Side panel door slides open; I hop in; like a comet, we are off. We give instructions to the Big Kahuna at the wheel, and with some grumbling, the man who comes to Hawai'i to stay out of a car and in the water, obliges. Big Al pulls the minivan off the road and into the parking lot at Lapakahi State Historical Park. With my nephews orbiting their mother, we hike a trail that links the ruins of ancient Hawai'ians—homes, burial places, family heiau and ko'a representing religious sites and fishing shrines. It is a place of many stones and few trees, irrigated by anachronistic black rubber hoses.

Some families ('ohana) moved inland to grow crops of taro and sweet potato. 'Ohana from the shore (makai), traded with 'ohana from upland (mauka)—fish for taro, taro for fish, salt from the sea for fibers from plants. A trail connected the sites of farmers and fisherman into a cluster of islands. Across the ocean looms one hazy peak of a range of volcanoes that stretches upward from the sea floor, and northward for 3,500 miles to Kamchatka, Russia. That peak is the island of Maui, and another peak is the Big Island we stand on, and peaks we can't see from here are Lana'i, Moloka'i, O'ahu, Kaua'i, Ni'ihau, points we've clustered in our imagination and called "Hawai'i".

We lean into the wind, which could almost blow us into the aqua below. Gusts rip through palm fronds; crackle, snap. In warm, dry air, under sky blue and bright as a Hawai'ian shirt, we are feeling wet. When a wave shoals, building up and up and up until it curls over, wraps and begins its collapse, the wind drives a plume off the crest and sends sprinkles to fall over us.

We pile back into the minivan and continue on the black line that links our hotel, through miles of coastline, green grass and meandering cattle to another little center in another little town serving a smattering of domestic satellites. When the Big Kahuna stops for a break, half of us walk the boardwalk in a place out of the Old West. This is the historic plantation town of Hawi. On a table in the bakery lies a book entitled Hapa, Hawai'ian for "part" or "mixed", and as I skim through, I see photo after photo of beautiful mixed-race people, all whose ancestors came from disparate places. One shows a man who claims to be one of a few Icelandic Thais.

I hear that Andy, my seven-year-old nephew, has ordered an amazing slice of key lime pie, which he is unable to share because he has eaten it all before I return from the restroom. Just by looking, I can see the pastry artist's French technique. I tell the blonde woman behind the counter to offer to my praise to the creator of the beautiful desserts. The blonde woman tells me I can tell her myself. I peer into the kitchen where a black-haired woman is mixing ingredients, and I offer a greeting. She leaves her bowl, and joins me.

Maria Short, the proprietor of Short 'N Sweet Bakery and Café, tells me she studied on the East Coast.  Of the mainland that is. Her husband built the beautiful cabinets that contain her cakes out of mango trees. She looks hapa to me, half Asian, a citizen whose ancestry, background, professional training, and residency span continents. Like most of us. The green apple my Armenian mother buys from the kind Filipino grocer in this town is an ordinary act. But to think of the origins of the man, the woman, and the apple, and to trace the stories that brought each to this island is extra-ordinary.

We are back on the Akoni Pule Highway, zooming through another little town called Kapa'au. From the vehicle, I see a brown man in a yellow cape. That's King Kamehameha I's statue, the original, rescued from its shipwrecked depths. With beautiful posture, bare torso and legs, the long cape, he reminds me of the actor The Rock, a hapa star of Polynesian and African descent. In circling the island we circle the globe, represented by the ancestries of people we meet. When my brother drives us as far as we can go on this highway, to the very northernmost point of the Big Island where we can look west across the water or east across the misty Pololu Valley, it occurs to me this very thing we do, all of us, is space travel.

From the time of the Polynesian ancestors who left islands in canoes, navigating open seas by looking up to the stars, and long before that and all over the place, people have been traveling across spaces, creating stories in the realms above and below the cold black scrim, seeing constellations in the stars, and villages and countries and continents in our communities. And we mix, and we share, and we mix again.

From the top of Mauna Kea, 13,796 feet above sea level, the tallest mountain in the world (measured from its base at the sea floor, it is over 30,000 feet), astronomers of many nations treasure their turn to look through world-class telescopes to peek at the dim galaxies at the rim of the observable, rapidly expanding universe. It is night-time once again on the balcony. Without a telescope, my view of the stars is much shorter than the professional stargazers'. Because of the anatomy of my human eyes, when night comes, color goes, and I see everything in black and white. Night-time sets the stage for the repose that most who come here are looking for. Eyes rest; mind is ready to relinquish linear thought. But before I do:

Below, water leaps and folds back on itself, again and again, pounding, slapping, exhaling. Above, waves of turbulent air blow across the atmosphere, a gaseous ocean full of oxygen and nitrogen particles that make life possible. Spherical stars send out light in all directions but here, from my vantage point, it appears the light is coming only my way, surfing through the ocean of space, bouncing in on those waves of air, twinkling as it comes. Black sky, bright little pebbles that orbit there, moving through space by gravitational forces that cause coconuts to fall, waves to rush, and stargazers to stay planted on Earth, able to float upward through our fluid imaginations. This contemplation prepares me for the circadian phase when the limits of my consciousness dissolve in sleep.

When Big Dipper fades, and guava-pink metamorphosis begins above clouds that lie on the volcanoes' peaks, I know night is over, and nocturnal sojourn concludes as it always does—dictated by cosmic schedules not under my control. Black sky brightens with first light, and this is true repose, delivered: rediscovering color in the morning sky, re-examining the tingly feeling the brew of roasted beans makes on the tongue, sensing the shudder once again on the beach as the water pushes up and falls back on itself, over and over, creating perfect waves that build, curl, wrap and collapse.