A whimsical tunnel of monkey pod and mango trees on Pohoiki Road is my first close encounter with the wild beauty of the Big Island of Hawaii. I’m breathless. Jungle vines hang so low they slap the windshield and snake along the top of my black Jeep. The air is refreshingly moist from the storm that blew through the last couple of days. By the time I reach the red road – named so because it used to be paved with red cinder gravel – the sun sets. I see only shadowy silhouettes of the black-sand coastline that the scenic road is known for, but the sea spray against my left cheek lets me know it’s there.
For miles and miles I drive narrow, undulating country roads with no streetlights and few other cars in sight, in search of Uncle Robert’s Wednesday night market in Puna, an off-the-beaten-path district of Hawaii where active lava flow meets rainforest. (This was the area hit hard by last year’s Kīlauea Volcano eruption.) Finally, there are parked cars lining the road sides, and a few pedestrians, so I pull over. It’s eerily silent, but I wander toward the darkness anyway.
Within seconds I see lights tucked away at the end of the road, then the boisterous scene reveals itself. I pass a farm stand with mangoes and avocados the size of my head. In the main area of this open-air market, I’m shoulder to shoulder with tourists and locals eating Hawaiian barbecue, drinking beer, and shopping crafts and Kona coffee.
I grab a coconut cream–based vegan chocolate ice cream cone from Nicoco. It’s truly a dream. The best I’ve ever had, even to this day. From the edge of the dancefloor I watch a band of old Hawaiian guys playing vintage island tunes while a woman dances hula. Above the dancefloor is a sign that says “Respect our aina.” (Aina translates to land.)
Flying solo to the Big Island
I traveled to this island alone because I wanted to think; to explore a place where the people hold a special, spiritual relationship with their land; where indigenous islanders are keeping their culture intact, and what that looks like as they coexist with people from the mainland who crave a piece of their aloha. Over two years ago I started to experience a re-education of sorts. The political climate forced me to face and become hyper aware of the effects of the United States’ history of colonization at the expense of indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, their cultural traditions, and the lands that they have stewarded for generations.
One of the issues that caught my attention at the time was the billion-dollar Thirty Meter Telescope that a group of universities and the governments of Japan, China, India, and Canada have planned for construction at the summit of Mauna Kea. This is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the seafloor, and a sacred place for native Hawaiians. Protests started at the groundbreaking in 2014, and construction was halted in 2015. Last October, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the telescope, but it’s unclear still if and when construction will start again.
Visiting Mauna Kea
I wanted to visit Mauna Kea, but only if it was possible to do so respectfully. I’d seen Mikilani Young, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, speak at an event where she was being honored among other indigenous women. I was magnetized by her deep knowing of self and her ancestry, and the way she honored it loudly and proudly. I reached out to her to learn more. She became my hula teacher for a short while and taught me some of the virtues of hula – that it’s actually a form of prayer, not meant for show the way it’s marketed to tourists. She’s been an activist fighting for native Hawaiians and Mauna Kea for as long as there has been something to fight for, which is basically forever.
I’d asked Mikilani what to do. She said to make an offering at the altar in the parking lot across from the entrance at the foot of the mountain. If possible, it should be something considered sacred in my ancestral land (the Philippines), she said. If not, then something that’s sacred to me. The only thing I could think of was the fragrant sampaguita jasmine that we used to string into leis for holy festivals, but I didn’t know where to get the flowers or if they’d make it to my destination alive. I could offer a song that I wrote instead.
So I sing to the mountain:
What came before me
I cannot tell
The past arousing
I came to find a flux
The perfect swell
Will I ever find it
in the deep blue spell?
The deep blue spell
Skimming across the tide
Rolling along the lonely wild
Majestic reefs below
could end this in a single blow
There is a story
that I can’t tell
This giant body
The mystery of the perfect swell
is curious to me
Flooding into my eyes
Looking to find my greatest high
If I could fly too close
could end this with a single dive
If I just fly too close
could end this with a single glide
My wings are weary
But winds are fair
Help from the moon and stars
If I fly coast to coast
on my own time
The sea would be the host to my vagrant mind
Who would hear me?
Who would see me?
Who’s gonna stop me?
My jeep zips up a winding road on the mountain, the world below feeling farther and farther. The visitor center buzzes with tourists acclimating to the elevation before going up to the summit (13,802 feet above sea level) where the existing telescopes are, only reachable by four-wheel drive. Mikilani had also said that she, along with many native Hawaiians and activists, ask that people not go past the visitor center and up to the summit. Judging from the bus loads heading upwards every few minutes, it’s clear that most are oblivious to the conflict. A girl working in the visitor center tells me that she’s Hawaiian and she supports the telescope. It’s not a secret that this is a very polarizing topic for those who know the story.
I’d already decided I would respect Mikilani’s wishes. Instead, I hike up a steep hill to a viewpoint across the road; a handful of others have the same idea. From the top, I get that mortal feeling and the tingle in my bones that one does when you realize that one misstep could be the end. But I can see 60 miles clear to the ocean off the Kona coast and Kīlauea in the distance, so that’s cool. Clouds below obscure much of the landscape; it feels quite literally like I’m up in the heavens.
After watching the technicolor sunset over the Pacific, I hike back down for an astronomy presentation. (There’s a reason why astronomers like this mountain: There’s zero light pollution and it’s high enough above the clouds to ensure an unobstructed view of the stars). I stay for as long as I can before the cold starts to bite the way it does at 9,200 feet in the air. (It does snow up here, by the way, so pack a coat along with your swimsuit). Plus, streetlights are practically nonexistent on Hawaii, so it seems safer to head home at a reasonable hour. I drive carefully down the mountain at a snail’s pace, high beams bright.
Below the clouds, it’s pouring rain. I continue slow and steady for over 20 miles through the wet, dark, and lonely stretch of Saddle Road, passing maybe two or three cars along the way, until reaching civilization again.
Once back at my rental house off Pohoiki Road in Puna, I’m surrounded by nothing but pitch-black darkness and the deafening chirp of a million types of insects, reptiles, and amphibians. I’m scared, especially of the big shadow of the tiny gecko on the curtain of the outdoor shower. I already knew, but I would be reminded moment to moment that this is a living, breathing island growing before my eyes.
This is part 1 of a 4-part series about my solo trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, and 4 featuring Waipio Valley, Volcanoes National Park, Hilo, and more.