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Saturday, 30 December 2006

Living off the land in Hawaii

Written by Jason Ference
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flightJust getting to this remote tropical island paradise was exhilarating in itself. The specific location of said paradise I shall not divulge per the request of our hosts, who prefer to choose their own guests. The hosts in question were my brother in law and his girlfriend and they have been living a Robinson Caruso-esque life on a Hawaiian island together for the past two years.


One of the first questions people ask is: ‘Do they work?’ The answer is yes, very hard, but not for income, for lifestyle. This fact alone puts them in the realm of a chosen few among us, living out the dream of being in a tropical island paradise without the need of a paycheck. The primary thing facilitating this is that they live on her family’s land.

Far from such civilized luxuries as roads, the options for us getting to them involved either a combination of a ferry, a car ride, waiting for an unreliable boat ride only to be dropped into hip-high water with all our stuff before getting back onto shore which still left us a half hour hike through jungle to get to them, or a helicopter from the main island directly onto their property.

We really wanted the experience of option number one, but were strongly encouraged to go with option number two. The exorbitant cost of chartering the helicopter aside, we truly did want to have the quintessential experience of getting to our brethren's abode the way they were so intimately acquainted with.


Hindsight proved them absolutely correct in their advice of the easier way for a long list of reasons, not the least of which was that if the weather had been bad, said boat would be out of commission, so there was the distinct chance of us spending most of the four days we had just trying to get to them.flight

With plenty of grocery goodies aboard our six-seated chopper, we lifted off for our thirteen-minute ride from the main island to their far less populated one. The lifetime memories began with the breathtaking sea and landscapes below. I only wished my wife’s brother and spouse lived further away so this incredible ride could have lasted longer. Beaches with windsurfers, gentle white-capped waves, rugged, steep coastlines delineated by some extremely big sea cliffs and typically perfect Hawaiian weather made for a truly remarkable ride.

Before we knew it, we landed on our host’s helipad, a terrace used for growing taro over 800 years ago. As elated to see us as we were them, we greeted each other with hugs and smiles and they barely let us put our stuff away before showing us their house, built of coffee trees, bamboo, tarp, rope and staples, and giving us a tour of their garden.

gardenIn a setting such as this, one’s garden takes on much more meaning than in ordinary civilization. It is what one grows that determines one’s vitality. No stores, no electricity for refrigeration and only the occasional trip for supplies make a competent gardener out of most anyone. And with a year-round growing season they are never without most of what they eat. Needless to say, they have planted numerous vegetables and fruits and if they don’t grow it, there’s a good chance the jungle does all by itself.


In fact, six months before they had discovered a well established orange tree within a quarter mile of their property. Within minutes of our arrival, we picked enough to supply juice for our entire stay. This is of course, not necessary if you would rather have fresh guava, which literally grows like weeds all over the island. And if it’s protein you’re craving- this Garden of Eden offers free-range deer, fish, crabs and prawns.

Dinner was prepared on a propane stove with supplies we brought in from the main island. In order to bake, they placed the batter in a pan, placed the pan in a larger iron pan with a lid and surrounded the pan with coals. Half an hour later we had cake. They make bread in the same way. Afterward, we sat and talked each evening as the sun set, eventually finding ourselves in the dark.


Conversation never ran dry as we had so many questions about life in the jungle, and they, in turn wanted news of their mainland-dwelling friends and family. Sometimes we listened to a rather expensive battery-powered radio they had for music and news, the latter ceaselessly confirming them as living the more civilized life, not us.

We stayed apart from our hosts, in a house built by a couple who share an interest in the land, but who teach on another island most of the time. houseOur guest quarters consisted of a “kitchenette” area, which included a water source, propane burning stove, a table with two chairs, and some shelves and a bed built on a bamboo platform. A large piece of thick foam made for a perfect mattress.


The structure itself stands on about 100 square feet of cleared jungle floor and is comprised of a couple large tarps snugly secured over a frame of bamboo and coffee trees-the latter being of such firmness that they are difficult to drive nails into when dry. There are no walls to speak of, just sheets of screen going from floor to ceiling. The house has seen some wear and tear from rainstorms and wind, like the one that graced us during our first night, but still provides more than adequate shelter from the tropical elements. Our hosts’ residence is at least three times the size and boasts a kitchen complete with a stone floor, ample storage space and a king size bed.

Showers, which are enjoyed weekly, are had by heating a large drum of water by fire and then attaching a hose to it which gravity propels down to a spigot. They have pristine artesian well water thanks to a source naturally occurring upstream from their property and a series of larger pipes extending to smaller pipes and eventually to hoses running to several points on their property, providing a never ending supply of clear, perfect water. They even brought in a sink for their home, so although the water is always the same temperature, the convenience almost makes you forget where you are.

During our days we hiked the mile or so to the beach, eating the fruits of the jungle along the way. We swam as the waves lapped against the black sand beach and a backdrop of hundred foot cliffs - a typical afternoon in paradise. There were a couple temporary tarp and bamboo structures about the beach – temporary in that if you leave it there during the winter, it won’t be there in the spring – as the “cold” months bring up to 40-foot swells that reshape the entire coast along this side of the island. We sat for a while in one, uninvited but surely welcome guests of our absent neighbors, and watched the ocean.


There are other people sharing this side of the island with them, too, but all are from one to three hour’s walk away. Visits are not common, though we enjoyed a pop in from another mainlander-turned-Caruso-wanna-be and had a lovely chat, looking out over the valley from our hosts’ living room.

poiThe most quintessential and traditional Hawaiian experience we had was making poi. Poi is made from the taro root, a potato-like root vegetable so intrinsic to the native Hawaiian diet that infants and elderly alike eat it.


After boiling the peeled root for at least one hour to rid it of its throat itching properties, it can be used the same way potatoes would be. To turn it into poi, however, it must be pounded for several minutes until the consistency changes to something akin to taffy or chewing gum. One-finger poi is better than two, two better than three and so on, denoting how many fingers one needs to scoop a decent sized mouthful. The longer you pound, the thicker the taffy.


What truly added a memorable element to this process was that the tray we used to pound the poi in was a gift to our female host’s father by the Prince of Tahiti, the details of this connection I cannot recall. Also, the poi “pounders” we used, which our hosts unearthed while clearing their land, were two of only three known found in tact anywhere - 800 year old artifacts used at the time this entire valley grew taro in the island’s hay-day.

Indeed there are concerns about living in such a secluded environment. The biggest of these is the question of what might happen if one gets injured. They do have a cell phone which only involves a hike to the beach, scaling a steep hill to the reception spot and of course a charged battery to use, but a helicopter would certainly be there…at some point. They may be in trouble if something life threatening occurs, but that’s a chance you take while living in paradise.

©Jason Ference

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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