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Hana road, take me home
April 29, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
Somewhere around the 18-mile marker on Hana Highway, the song came on the radio. It was Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles ripping into “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” Their sweet growling voices twined around the harmonies, the beat pounding with the urgency of an anthem.
KDLX was the only station coming in on that jungly section of the road as it clung to the cliffs. But having just read Ethan Hawk’s epic Rolling Stone profile of one of Hana’s favorite residents, Kris Kristofferson, the country station seemed fitting. After all, Hana is cow country. Among other things.
Accompanied by tires hissing over a mirror roadway slick with rain, with waterfalls pumping and the ocean stretching out lazily to the horizon, even cowboy music gains a spiritual backbeat.
In this setting, the rollicking twangy refrain of “who says you can’t go home?” sounds less like a Chevy truck commercial than a Zen koan.
Hana’s not home. But even if you only get there once every couple of years, it still feels like it is. Must be something in the water.
Calling the famous road the Hana Highway is like calling a canoe a jet ski because they both move people around on water. Between the scent of wet ginger, the 20-mph pace, the panorama of the Wailua shoreline and the danger of not knowing what’s around the next blind corner, you don’t just drive to Hana. After crossing those 59 historically registered bridges, it’s more like you earn it.
The road may be Hana’s lifeline to Costco, but it’s also the remote community’s moat. It lets the residents out, and keeps the rest of us out, too. It’s what keeps Hana Hana, a tropical Brigadoon, a spiritual vortex hiding from modern times, a place so verdant and vibrantly alive that nature and magic are just two different words for the same thing.
The annual East Maui Taro Festival is always a good excuse to pay a visit. Since ancient lore holds that taro, or kalo, is the older brother of the Hawaiian people, this celebration feels less like other festivals around the island, and more like a family reunion … with a plant.
Under and around the familiar blue and yellow striped tent — Hana’s portable cultural center — the taro festival is a throwback. It’s the tropical equivalent of a church social a century ago.
There’s entertainment, ancient to modern, all day on the stage. There’s lots of food to eat and ag displays of where that food comes from. There are T-shirts that help support the event. Actually, they’re more like pilgrims’ mantles, proof that you were there on this particular, always mystical, day.
So that covers food and clothing. Shelter may not be addressed directly, but one of the first people I run into is Francis Sinenci. The Hana-born master builder teaches new generations to build Hawaiian hale. Hale building is about spirituality as much as construction engineering. It goes all the way back to the beginning of time in the islands.
That’s the thing about taro, too. It all stems from the first plant. It’s nourishment — the taro fest showcases a multitude of uses — but it’s also the connection tying everything together.
Kaahumanu’s hometown festival is the real deal. It’s the Maui of fantasy, the dreamscape tourists come searching for, but which exists nowhere else on the island. Or on the planet.
It’s about families, tutu, kids, kupuna, folks lying spread-eagle on the grass, letting the slack key notes wash over them like anesthesia. Here, talk story is the highest form of communication.
I keep running into friends. Most of them are artists. Especially for those not island-born, there’s something here challenging creative souls to try to express it. It’s not a matter of ego, but just the opposite: gratitude. It’s humbling, actually.
Hana is not immune to society’s ills. Drugs. Economics. Abuse. A fishbowl isn’t the easiest place to live. Trust funders don’t make the best neighbors. And when contact with the outer world consists largely of answering the same stupid questions from tourists over and over, some attitude might sneak in. Those “I survived the road to Hana” T-shirts get the experience 100 percent wrong.
I’m not even sure about “Thank God for Hana” bumper stickers anymore.
Seems to me, it’s more like God lives in Hana. It’s fine with Him if you want to stop by for the afternoon. As long as you appreciate the hospitality and don’t trash the place, He’ll be happy to party with you.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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