Lei, the symbol of the spirit of aloha

In the summer my lifelong friend came to Hawai’i, as she and her family have for as long as I’ve known them. Her mom was Bea’s Konawaena classmate, and they coincidentally both ended up raising families in Southern California less than a mile apart. There were quite a few Hawai’i transplants in the area.

My friend’s daughter’s birthday took place while they were here and several of us were meeting for Hawaiian music and dinner. I used the occasion to try and make my first maile-style ti lei. I used a dried one I had received for my birthday to try and reverse engineer how it was made. Not perfect, but I learned something, and the overall effect was good enough. The lei didn’t have to be as long as an adult’s either. It was really a symbol of my effort in making it, and thinking of her as I made it.

She was delighted to receive it. Her mom took a photo of us, and moments later it was gone. It was tucked away in her large purse. The leaves made her itch. I forgot she has sensitive skin.

Her grandma was Bea’s classmate, in the era when the school year was skewed for the coffee season, so the kids could help pick coffee. When the family now comes to Hawai’i, they always spend some time at the “mauka house,” the family coffee farm in Holualoa proper. [Our mailing address city is Holualoa, but we’re actually in Honalo, a Census Designated Place].

Apparently, last summer L picked red coffee cherry while they were on island. And the grandparents explained to her how to process coffee fruit. [You can pull down to Wet Milling and Dry Milling from this website’s About tab to see what we do.] So she took off the fruit to get the seeds/beans. Soaked it. Took it back to California. And over some period of time, sometimes forgetting it, she dried it, had parchment, dried it, removed the parchment, husk, and silver skin and had green coffee. And then grandpa pan-roasted the coffee at Thanksgiving, I believe. The adults were all pleasantly surprised at how good that coffee was. They all told me about it this summer. So they were hoping to do it again this year. I heard Grandpa was even motivated to do the same after he experienced L’s success.

One night after dinner at their rental condo, I saw little bowls of coffee in process. They had picked fruit that day, and she had removed the seeds and was soaking them. I got snippets of what she had done, but there were always a lot of people around and many distractions. I’ve asked her to describe to me in detail what she did last year. I’m hoping she’ll write a guest blog post someday. It’s how great recipes sometimes get invented — you follow the general principle, but you don’t strictly follow a recipe. Or maybe you try to follow a recipe, but mistakes are made. Sometimes the end result is something enjoyable, maybe surprising, and something new has been discovered.

Friends were moving off island earlier this month. Rather than have a sad goodbye party, they had an engagement party. So it was another occasion calling for leis. I decided it was an opportunity for more practice with the maile-style ti lei.

By the way, you can get maile leis at Safeway here. We were going to the 1-day’s notice Norwegian wedding and looked at the leis available. We finally settled on two maile leis, which we thought each was $59.99, or something like that. Expensive, but I knew maile leis were expensive. When it rang up, each lei was $159.99, and I quickly intervened and questioned that. We looked very closely at the pricetag on the clamshell enclosing the lei. Somehow both Hubby and I had not noticed that first digit!! So we had to return those. Apologies to the people in line behind us. Luckily the wedding package included leis for the wedding couple, like we figured. They were common orchid leis you can pretty easily find here. I’m curious who buys such expensive maile leis from Safeway. “Honey, can you get some milk from Safeway? Oh, and pick up a maile lei, too.”

Back to the engagement party … I was surprised that there weren’t many leis given. It wasn’t like high school or college graduation where the graduate is just buried in leis, which seems wacky and a bit of a shame, really. You can have an incredibly special, delicate, time-consuming-to-make lei buried under a string of candy or seed or joke leis. Do an Internet search on “Hawaiian graduation leis” and you’ll quickly get the visual idea.

In the photo below the couple are both wearing the leis I made, but the guy has a second ti lei that was made braided vs. twisted. You probably can’t quite see it, and it’s not important; I just noticed how they differed. Another guest brought a very special lei, the Ola’a Beauty, which he had his special-lei lady make. I had never seen such a lei. It’s a dense collection of violet pansies that were originally found growing wild in Ola’a, near Hilo. WOW!! So delicate and perishable and SO MANY flowers! [The photos below are low resolution and were taken by their professional photographer, which I cropped for privacy].

Since I’ve gotten on the lei subject, I’ll close with a few other photos. We had a family party and Aunty made purple and white crown flower leis. Cousin made a ti lei in a style I hadn’t seen before. Impactful, big and bold. It didn’t require first heating/softening the ti leaves.

Bishop Shugen Komagata of the Soto Mission of Hawaii, wearing a plumeria lei, flew over from Honolulu for a special ceremony at Daifukuji the other weekend. He was the 8th minister of Daifukuji; the current minister, Jiko, is the 12th. Here he’s talking story with UH, who refers to himself as a nonagenarian. Bishop Komagata, whom we think is a septuagenarian, said he used to have coffee with my great uncle who used to live at the property neighboring ours.

Lastly, Reiko’s birthday morning. This is the lady who will get up at 4am to freshly harvest leaves or flowers, with a flashlight, to make a fresh lei to be given in the morning. Most people (hello!) would make the lei the day before and refrigerate it. Worse, I gave her a crochet lei, recycled. Ha ha! It is so antithetical to Reiko. I didn’t have the skills or floral materials to make a lei worthy of my teacher. I told her it can be the under-support for the fresh leis. [I did make her a few other things, just not a lei.]

One friend had gotten up early that morning to pick pink plumeria for her lei (made at least before 7:45am). Another friend gave her a delicate bundle of ti hair string leis and also the white Tahitian gardenia lei. Our Tahitian gardenia has maybe five blossoms, if that. Half the flowers were from the gifter’s plants, and the other half were from some plants near Old Airport.

Leis are so special. So many beautiful plant materials can be used to create an impermanent work of art. You have to work with what’s available and in season. The Hawaiian friend who made the ti and the gardenia leis was generous about my slight self-consciousness about the recycled crochet lei. She said they have unique history and take on stories from each regifting.

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