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The Tao of luau
February 2, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
It’s named for the ocean tide — Te Au Moana — for good reason.
Waves gently lapping the shore, a turquoise sky, a few wispy clouds and a sun morphing from yellow to pink to chartreuse at the the exact moment it disappears into the ocean are all members of the cast at Tihati Productions’ luau at the Wailea Beach Marriott.
It’s true that the first rule for savvy tourists is not to look like tourists. But for some of the locals, it’s just the reverse:
Being a tourist on Maui is fun!
That’s the foundation for what we hope is going to finally turn the island’s economy around. So it’s reassuring to go to a luau and be reminded it’s true.
Every year I give thanks for winter guests who provide the excuse to get us out on a whale watch. Other tourists on the boat may still assume that the whole experience has been a Kodak-moment show just for them — but that can’t diminish what happens when a person, any person, makes eye contact with a whale. Or the valuable reminder that we’re animals, too, as you watch a graceful 40-ton, gravity-defying arc out of the water, or a mother tenderly guiding her 20-foot-long calf to the surface.
The more whale watches you take, the more they feel like reunions with the cetacean branch of the family. For crew members on whale watches, it’s more like hanging out with the cousins.
Helicopter tour operators have told me the passengers who most appreciate the ride are the kamaaina. They’re the ones who know what they’re looking at. Seeing it the way a bird does just makes it way more interesting.
Last weekend, this fondness for playing tourist surmounted the last barrier when we took our visiting inlaws to the Marriott’s luau.
Utilizing the Wailea coast and hazy Kahoolawe as a backdrop, the meal and show both captivated and soothed. The tranquil mood had a lot to do with the show’s host, kumu hula Cliff Pali Ahue.
Soft-spoken, always suggesting rather than insisting, his production, Te Au Moana, conveys the same gentle qualities.
Following the imu roasting of the pig and the cultural demonstrations earlier in the evening, the luau carries on traditions that began long before there were electric lights to compete with the stars, or the first jet plane bearing tourists arrived.
The feast, the band, the hula dancers, the fire dancers, the echoes of the South Pacific along with old Hawaii all add to the seductive, exotic spell the island casts on visitors. They also add to the feeling of being full and content as twilight descends. The mai tais help.
In the dancing, the sensuality of hula that so upset the missionaries more than a century ago is still hinted at … but so is the innocent joy and wholesome beauty of watching new generations of young dancers learning the ancient wisdom.
This was one of those rare occasions when we were the youngest ones at the dining table. Our group included three women, recently widowed, from a town of 150 in rural Alberta. The temperatures they had left at home, along with long lifetimes of Canadian winters, made everything about Maui seem entirely unreal, and somewhat magical.
They found it fascinating that people actually live on Maui for more than two weeks at a time. We didn’t share certain secrets you learn when crossing that line from tourist to resident. About the hidden costs. About how, for an island so small, you sure drive a lot, paying the highest gas prices in the country.
About how there may have been more private jets than ever parked along the OGG runway over the holidays — but most of us aren’t about to give up the day job. Or the night job. Maybe working at a luau.
About how, in some ways, the plantation system never ended. The sugar barons may have been replaced by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and more lately by media moguls and moglettes, but the rest of us still get our paychecks at the company store.
Te Au Moana maintains the fantasy. But it does it respectfully, avoiding going to the the huki, huki, huki Hukilau.
In place of most of the do-it-yourself hula schtick is the grace and care with which Hawaiians — of so many different racial origins — live on these nurturing tiny dots of land in the big ocean. This way of living is one of the many things Hawaiians have to teach the rest of the world. If the classroom is a luau, all the better.
You get the lesson for free when you buy the luau ticket. It’s a gift from gentle, generous hearts —themselves the definition of aloha — served along with the poi and mai tais.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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