May Day is Lei Day

Time to celebrate Hawaiian culture with lei. Myself, I haven’t done anything special for the occasion, and in my limited goings about, I haven’t seen anything marking the day. But I know it’s celebrated and observed.

Today’s the appropriate day that they’re measuring the Guinness World Record attempt for longest lei. This article by Big Island Now was written back in February, but it tells a good story about this Guinness attempt. Reiko and I made our contributions last week when we went to Waikōloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa and wove ti leaf lei for a half hour or so. It was fun. Reiko should have been the activity director. She talked story with the tourists learning lei-making, explaining the symbolism and importance of ti plants. The employee seemed rather introverted and shy. I contributed later by spreading the word a bit, so our friend’s guests went and contributed a few days later.

We didn’t get to see the hose reel with the lei, though. It has been stored in the freezer for months. Someone connects the daily contributions. We heard the reel has gotten really big and heavy. A friend saw it yesterday when it was brought out for display during Waikōloa’s Second Annual Lei Day celebration, but he didn’t take a picture. There’ll probably be something in the media in a day or two, I imagine. I read on the hotel’s Facebook posts that the “first official measurement” (new is the qualifier “first”) tallied just over a mile, two miles short to even tie the record. They plan to carry on.

We finished off April with 10 days of rain in a row (dry, April 29-30, though). I always wonder what tourists do when we have a lot of rain. I guess they can make ti leaf lei indoors, for one thing. Ten days of rain for us doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere in West Hawai’i. There was a day or two, though, where it rained from before noon and it looked like rain was everywhere, which is unusual. On Friday we got four inches of rain from noon-4:30pm. When we reached the 3-inch mark, I exchanged texts with our friend who lives down the hill and less than six miles away. He only had 3/10 of an inch at that point. That is just so crazy to me. I visualized a cartoon of me sitting under my own personal storm cloud. We both got an inch in the following hour. Anyway, four inches is a lot of rain in a day for Kona, and April had almost 14″, which is a lot in a month. So the coffee land is looking a lot greener and the trees, plants, and weeds are all happily growing.

I’ve been wanting to write more about agroforestry, but that will be a future post. I’ll leave you with a related teaser. The most recent stay-informed email I received from our neighbor, the Hawai’i ‘Ulu Co’op, had this photo of our friend Berta quizzically examining an ‘ulu. The photo was a link to The ‘Ulu Co’op Story in 5 Minutes. She movingly opens the video with Hawaiian storytelling. We see her at Kahalu’u most times we’re there. I always learn from Berta, about marine life, ‘ulu, farming, the past, etc. She’s an amazing, knowledgable, generous woman. I’m sure she’s someone who’d appreciate a special lei.

The three keiki return, almost two years later

The keiki are nine years old now, and they visited at a different time of year. They were disappointed that there weren’t any lychee to pick. (I’m happy, however, to see how much lychee we will get in three or four months, since last year was so sparse.) I had to review my post about their last visit before I wrote this one.

This year hubby got right to it the day they arrived and started on a high note … riding in the truck bed and picking bananas. Towards the end of their last visit and this visit, I had the kids tell me their Top 5 list of trip highlights. We’ve noticed that the most recent activities often bumped earlier activities off. But bananas were the first thing mentioned by two of the three kids, and bananas stayed on the list and even appeared twice on one child’s. The brother said something to the tune of, “You’re wasting your Top 5 since you have bananas twice: bananas and throwing banana peels. I just have bananas which covers picking and throwing.” He was the one who didn’t like a Top 5 list; he wanted to have Top 10 (which they also gave me).

The day before they left, during lunch hubby ate a banana and threw the peel from our lānai into the coffee land. There’s gravel below the lānai and a rough rock ledge that separates the house area from the coffee land. The goal is to throw the peel beyond the gravel and ledge so we don’t have to see yellow peels all around. If your peel doesn’t make it, you have to go down and throw it over the ledge. This “activity” was a hit. The kids kept eating more bananas so they could throw the peels. Who would’ve thunk this would be a top activity in Hawai’i?

This one had a long conversation on her banana flip phone, concluding with, “OK, bye. I’m about to peel my phone.” Then threw her peel over the railing.

We had a little break in the middle of their visit when they went to see Volcano National Park and the east side of the island. I, too, saw the east side of the island. It was Merrie Monarch week in Hilo! It was the 60th anniversary of this week-long cultural festival centered around hula. I had always wanted to go, but somehow hadn’t managed it. Tickets aren’t easy to come by, crowds, the COVID-19 disruption, etc. Luckily, Reiko wanted company to drive to Hilo and back, so she scored a ticket to the ho’ike portion of the festival for me, the only non-competitive night of dancing, the night before the competitions start. Ho’ike tickets used to be free, but now they are a whopping $5. Tickets were available on a day in February starting at 9am, first-come, first-serve, limit of two per person. Reiko had driven 1.5 hours, lined up at 5am and waited for four hours. Merrie Monarch is a BIG DEAL.

In any case, for the ho’ike day, I just put my life in her hands. I drove, but whatever she wanted to do, I just went along. She was familiar with the whole scene. I was completely new, so any experience would be my learning experience. I had very few expectations and had a great time. This was contemporary Hawaiian culture and fashion. Inside and outside the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium were many vendor stands selling crafts, clothing, shell leis, fresh flower/greenery leis, hula equipment, food, books, books completely in Hawaiian, etc. And there was a constant line-up of live performances.

It was great to be there with Reiko. She knows what’s what and who’s who. Without her, I would have only picked up a fraction of what was going on. She kept pointing out or introducing people to me (famous, older kumu; her former hula brother; son of the fashion founder who’s a swimmer, etc.), hugging/kissing, talking story with people in English or Japanese, and singing! She loves to sing along, loudly, gesticulating. She warned me. She said I might not want to sit with her. She’s such a character! She’s the one who clued me in that Melveen Leed had just sung during the day at the Civic Auditorium. “She’s REALLY FAMOUS!!” she said. I just looked confused and ignorant. She told me to tell my mom. THEN I finally realized who Melveen was. My mom would play her songs and talk about her when I was young.

Reiko felt I was wearing too much black, and I really needed a lei. She kept asking if she could buy me a lei. She’s so generous. The majority of my lei po’o (head lei) was comprised of ‘a’ali’i, dodonaea viscosa, in the soapberry family. My lei was definitely the best part of my outfit.

A little Master Gardener public service aside: ‘A’ali’i is one of many native flowers that are increasingly being used instead of lehua, the red blossoms of the ʻōhiʻa tree. Lehua is highly culturally significant, associated with Pele, the volcano goddess, among other gods. There were many public service announcements on the radio during Merrie Monarch week about NOT transporting any plant matter associated with ʻōhiʻa. Rapid ʻōhiʻa death, ROD, is a fungal disease which is rapidly killing this most ecologically and culturally significant native tree. This 2016 article from Hawaii Magazine talks about the issue.

We lined up at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium for the ho’ike one and a half hours ahead of time. By then the line was already wrapped around most of the stadium and on the opposite side of the entrance. The people watching was great. I didn’t notice any tourist aloha shirts or patterns. People were wearing Wahine Toa, Livinghula, Kaulua’e and such designer lines. I find them to be bold, graphic, contemporary designs expressing indigenous values of Hawaiian culture.

I found this 2019 article, a few years old at this point, which touches on the next generation of Hawaiian designers. I hardly know anything about fashion or Hawaiian fashion, but I know I just saw the largest group of people modeling it than I’ve seen before. We live in the country. Hawai’i island is not O’ahu. Sorry, I didn’t take pictures in line. I’m a person that snaps a few photos at once at some point, then I’m done. Usually someone else takes more photos than me, and I’d rather just experience things.

I grew up in California, but even I have danced hula. So far I’ve danced hula in three periods: for a few years from age 5 with Nonosina’s Polynesian Dance Studio in Southern California; at UC Berkeley for the Hawaii Club’s annual  lūʻau; and in the late 90’s with two different hālaus in the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out this crazy long list of hālaus in just the San Francisco Bay Area. If you’re not familiar with an activity, you may find it shocking how many people/organizations might do it and practice/train to a surprising extent.

Fast forward. This post and these stories are getting long. After we were reunited with our visitors, we enjoyed a few evenings of watching the Merrie Monarch group competitions on TV. After it was all over, we had a morning when we made ti leaf leis. It was fun and relevant after having seen so many different type of lei and adornments on the dancers. While we were busy making leis, one of the adults were looking up which groups had won what categories.

The kids made leis for their grandparents, for three kids they were going to visit afterward, and just followed their creative impulses. To the tune of two long leis, the longest was 14 feet. I thought we had gathered way too many leaves, but they used them all and wanted even more.

I have since learned (from Reiko, of course) that a group is trying to set the Guinness record for longest lei. The standing record is 3.11 miles long, and they’re aiming for 5 miles. Too bad the kids have left.

In any case, back to the kids’ Top 5 lists. Here were this trip’s common items:

  • Bananas (picking; throwing peels)
  • Volcano (hikes, climbing lava rocks)
  • Spending time with a different local family, with kids

Two mentions of: Keiki museum

One mention each of: swimming; our cat’s tricks; relaxing/hanging out with everyone

I’ll close with a photo of our last evening when we watched the kids so mom and dad could enjoy a romantic dinner alone. Sunset pizza picnic at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Park. The kids didn’t seem to suffer.

All day at the Coffee Festival’s Ho’olaule’a

A Ho’olaule’a is a celebration or festival. For the 10-day coffee festival, it usually happens on the last weekend. This year I was recruited to help at the ti leaf lei making station, which Reiko has been volunteering to run for double-digit years. My creds are that I’m Reiko’s friend, and my English is better than hers. I only made my first ti leaf lei a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t too pretty. But it gave me empathy for what the newbies might be confused about or feeling.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve been to the Ho’olaule’a in years past, but I never stopped at that station or paid attention (sorry, Reiko). Well, we were busy from the start, and it pretty much never let up. We were so busy, I snapped a few photos early on, and then never again. For one thing, my fingers were always a little goopy with ti leaf juice, so I didn’t want to touch my phone. We had help from one of Reiko’s friends who helped the entire time except when she performed with the taishogoto (Japanese stringed instrument) group.

I was a bit surprised how much I enjoyed being there the entire time (the event was 9am-3pm). I liked having a role that kept me busy without being stressed-out-busy. I could hear/see all the multicultural performances by being there the whole time — petite Tahitian dancer, Scottish dancers in kilts, Mexican folk dancers with the big skirts, hula, Japanese instrumental songs, taiko drummers, etc. Every once in a while Reiko or her friend would pop up and start dancing hula right at our station when they’d hear a song they know and love.

I saw many people I know from the various things I’m involved with. And Reiko knows an impressive number of people, so I was introduced to many culturally influential people. It’s a casual event where people come and go all day long. I like that locals and tourists come to events, and that the town doesn’t get consumed by or overrun with the coffee festival like it does with Ironman.

Ti leaf leis symbolize positive blessings, protection, and good luck. Yet, ti leaves aren’t scarce items; they are very common and abundant. A hula kahiko (ancient-style) dancer will often be adorned with ti leaf leis (of a more elaborate style than we were teaching) on his/her ankles, wrists, head, and neck and a ti leaf skirt. Ti leis are worn by both men and women. It has no scent and thus are good for people with allergies.

The people who tried their hands (and a toe, for most) at lei making were all very appreciative, which was gratifying. The lei is made completely of ti leaves. Not even string or a needle is required. Some people were twisting their leaves so tightly, green juice was dripping out. They were wringing out the juice. I reassured them that when you make your first lei, you’re learning the process and the materials. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Try things, learn things. Once you know how to make the lei, you put in some effort, and you can create something to give someone.

Like most (all?) of the cultural stands and the performers, we volunteered our time, and there was no charge to attend or participate. The ho’olaule’a is heavy with that aloha vibe.

Beforehand Reiko had made a lei po’o (head) out of all ti leaves, some green and some yellow. It looked impressive. She put it on her head but soon took it off because it made her hot. So I wore it, along with a ti lei I had made a few days prior. So, of the three of us working the station, I looked like I was the kumu (teacher), but I barely knew what I was doing. But I was surprised how many people I was able to teach. You only have to know more than the ones who want to learn and be encouraging.

I hadn’t considered it ahead of time, but it was an opportunity for me to just hang out with my two kumu. When they weren’t actively teaching people, they’d just make leis and fancier ti leis and adornments, to show people what’s possible. So I could observe and try other techniques when I had down time. Down time rarely lasted. When you’re doing something, people come and watch, and then they want to try, and you have new students again.

Reiko had to leave early because she had made plans to go to Volcano. She took the lei po’o off my head so she could offer that and other leis to Pele, the Volcano Goddess.

That’s a good transition for the last topic for today’s post … Mauna Loa. The previous weekend, a few hours before the event, I learned that the County of Hawaii Civil Defense was giving a community talk at Konawaena Elementary School about potential Mauna Loa eruptions. I don’t know why something so important wasn’t better publicized. I had read that Ocean View seemed to be caught off guard when the talk in their area was held, too. I’m surprised the Civil Defense didn’t announce it in the local paper’s events section. Many things are mysterious to me.

It’s a good thing that talks are being held, because we have to be mentally and practically prepared for the eventuality of an eruption. To be clear, Mauna Loa is not erupting or imminently about to erupt, despite the impression the mainland media was giving.

Hubby went to the talk while I was at the Donkey Mill Arts Center learning crafts. He learned about this USGS map titled, “Mauna Loa eruption response times.” We’re in Honalo, the northern part of that red “South Kona” box (but technically we’re in the southern part of the North Kona District). That blue line there indicates the border where the Mauna Loa and the Hualālai slopes are. We are located just north of that line, on the east/mauka (mountain) road north of that intersection. We were surprised to realize just how close we are to the Mauna Loa slope.

My aunty said the last time Mauna Loa erupted, the lava reached the ocean pretty quickly. Her father was fishing in South Kona and got cut off from returning home. He had to drive south, get gas at Na’alehu (the southernmost town in the U.S.), so that he could drive completely around the island to return home.

Apparently dynamite and bombs have been used in the past, or seriously considered, to divert lava flows. I found this New York Times article from 2020 about this topic, “The Army Bombed a Hawaiian Lava Flow. It Didn’t Work.” I know you all might not be able to read that, but you can search on diverting lava flows by bombing. It’ll bring up some interesting pieces.

We wonder if we’ll see Mauna Loa erupt in our lifetimes. And what will its impact be? On this island, you always have situations where you’re made aware that you, personally and humankind in general, only control so much. And there’s strong sentiment for letting Nature take its course, as Madame Pele wills.

Imua! The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Begins

Today’s Hawaiian word of the day: imua. To go or move forward, with strength, purpose, and spirit. The 10-day Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, unleashed from COVID, started Friday, and it has been more fun than I expected. It was a bit dreary and drizzly up in the coffee belt, and inertia was pulling hard. I wanted to go to the evening’s Lantern Parade, but I didn’t want to deal with parking, maybe it was going to rain, excuses excuses.

But we got our ‘ōkoles (butts) in gear and went. We even marched IN the parade. That contributed to inertia since we had to be there one hour before the parade. I definitely thought of my cousin, who was a grand marshal in the Fourth of July parade. But unlike her, we weren’t in a position of honor, just taking part.

It was fun! We marched with Daifukuji, meaning The Temple of Great Happiness, in Honalo, less than a mile away from our farm. Most of our group were the taiko youth drummers and their parents/supporters. It is fantastic to march with the drummers. It’s uplifting, exciting energy, and you could feel the spectators’ enthusiasm as we went by. (Unfortunately, my little video from the start doesn’t capture the best). The parade route was really short, what we usually walk if we go to breakfast after swimming at the Kailua pier. One and a half hour wait; 10-15 minute walk.

Hubby and I ate dinner near the parade end, then went into Hale Halawai to watch the entertainment. Each group seemed to get 15-20 minutes, so it just kept moving along. We walked in when a different group of taiko drummers were playing bon dance songs. What I really love about bon dances is that people of all ages just jump in and dance along. Some of the Daifukuji taiko drummers were dancing, seniors, the beauty queens wearing their crowns, young children, etc. Some of the songs are more classical Japanese bon dance songs, and some are more modern like Bruno Mars (he’s from Hawai’i; my grand marshal cousin was his kindergarten teacher).

One of the local high schools, Kealakehe, has a large Polynesian club. They were injecting a lot of energy before, during, and after the parade. Every time I see them perform, I am so impressed. Just watching them all, maybe 100?, file in already impressed me. I like that they don’t have flashy, matchy-matchy outfits. They have the black club t-shirt, and everyone has a pareo (sarong) on. This little video clip is just the first bit they did after filing in, before their real performance. The speed, energy, preciseness with that amount of students. Whoa!! I suspect I’ll be seeing them perform again on the weekend at the Ho’olaule’a, when I’ll be volunteering at the ti leaf lei making stand. (I feel very unconfident, but Reiko says I don’t have to worry, I can just do crowd control and my English is better than hers. Ha ha!)

That was just Friday evening. Saturday morning, I packed a lot in. It was the Holualoa Coffee and Art Stroll, where you can taste different vendors’ coffee, look at art, and visit the various vendors with food and goods. As soon as we arrived, we got a friendly shout from across the road, “How were the grapefruits?” It was the lady we met at dinner the night before who had a big bag of limes and Ruby Red grapefruits she was handing out to any customer or employee who’d take them. Those of us with fruit trees are familiar with the “problem.” Don’t want good fruit to go to waste.

I’ve noticed the coffee vendors are becoming more sophisticated. There were more making fresh pourover coffee into their pump pots (vs. just making a big machine-brewed batch ahead of time). Some of the different tastings were of different processes (honey processed vs. washed), beyond just medium or dark roast. I appreciated one farm that had an informational poster with the location of their farm, their elevation, how they process, the types of trees they have, etc. I did hear a few vendors who said they didn’t have any coffee to sell, on-hand or online, because of this year’s extremely low harvest. They had saved some coffee to have available for this tasting event, but they didn’t have any more.

We only had a measly half hour to briskly walk through, no stroll, for us. I had signed up for two classes at the Donkey Mill Art Center, part of the cultural events in the Kona Coffee *Cultural* Festival. One was ‘olena (turmeric) dyeing a Japanese hand towel. The other was for making a lei po’o (head). I’ll let the photo gallery explain.

The one coffee and food vendor at Donkey Mill was also pretty sophisticated. For food, he had four or five different types of musubi that he and his wife had made. For coffee, he made it to order and had his Fellow kettle, Fellow grinder, and Hario pourover kit. Kona coffee is not Folgers and needs to be properly showcased. That coffee vendor is also almost sold out of coffee beans for the year. (NPR aired an interesting piece the other day, “Folgers, a throwback brand in the age of nitro lattes, wants to be cool.“) I’ve shared it before; Grandpa used to drink Folgers, not Kona coffee (too expensive).

Mana, Ironman World Championship 2022, and Leis

In Hawaiian mythology mana is a spiritual energy and healing power which can exist in places, objects and persons. Hawaiians believe that mana may be gained or lost by actions, and that mana is both external and internal. (Edited from Wikipedia)

Indulge me today for more of a personal, cultural, local flavor piece, which only very loosely relates to coffee. Maybe these types of posts are more interesting to you than coffee nerd posts anyway.

A few weeks ago Reiko asked me to join her on November 12 at the Ho’olaule’a for the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, a 10-day affair first held in 1970. She’s going to be teaching how to make ti leaf leis, and she wants me to help since I speak English. I said, “But I don’t know how to make ti leaf leis.” She said I can learn.

With the Ironman World Championship finally returning after its COVID-19 hiatus, I thought this would be a good time to learn. I could make some ti leaf leis for some friend finishers. It is a different event this year. It was huge, with over double the number of athletes as previous years and two days of racing. I’ve heard a lot of (justified) grumbling.

For example, the guy who cuts hubby’s hair, located in town, had to shut down both race days, as well as many other businesses impacted by road closures, some of them as long as 6:30am-1:30am (19 hours). And two large parking lots that had always been public and free, became paid parking lots, shortly before the race. $15/hour! This really rankled. Even the business owners that are there don’t get to park there. Luckily, race week corresponds with the public schools’ fall break.

I won’t get into all the arguments for and against holding Ironman here. I get the sense there’s a strong local sentiment that the championships have outgrown their venue, and the community is exhausted hosting. Someone else host the party now.

This race depends on volunteers. And many of the volunteers are found in local clubs and groups. Your organization supplies the volunteers for some task, you all bond by working together, then later Ironman donates some amount to the organization. For example, my cousins in the Lions Club manned the Special Needs bag distribution on the run course. Hubby and I (not as part of any organization) did various volunteer jobs before the races and on the first race day.

I met a couple from Luxembourg (the lady hails from Japan) who are not athletes. Many years ago after marrying on another Hawaiian island, they made their first trip to the Big Island on what happened to be race week. Someone asked them to volunteer, and they asked if it was OK if they weren’t racing (yes!!). They loved the experience so much, for years they have been flying here (this year for two weeks) every year to volunteer. Wow.

Reiko, hubby, and I volunteered as Finish Line catchers. A volunteer gives each finisher a kukui nut lei, and two other volunteers give an athlete a towel and guide them back to the post-race area. At first it was a little slow since it was mostly only pros finishing at the start of our 4-hour shift. Reiko spotted legendary Aunty Mele at the finish line area, wearing a green volunteer shirt (a higher status volunteer). She was there already by 4:00 or so for her main job of singing Hawai’i Aloha at 12:30am! I saw a photo of her at the finish line singing with retiring Ironman announcer Mike Reilly. What endurance! I read in the Ke Ola article I linked to that she was an Ironman volunteer coordinator for 32 years. Reiko sang and danced for Aunty Mele before our work finally began.

After Race Day 1, I wanted to get started on the leis I intended to give some athletes before their banquet on Sunday. There’s a strong culture of giving and appreciation here. I often find it a delightful surprise when I’m bestowed with a lei. And although ti leaves are found all over here, they can be transformed into a gift. I like the idea of dedicating your efforts to someone else. You think of that person and why you’re making the lei. Ti leis have mana.

You do have to first prepare the ti leaves so that they’re pliable and twistable. I won’t give instructions here. There are many ways to make these leis. I like learning in-person. Reiko demonstrated and described, but encouraged me to just try things so I could learn and make my own mistakes, e.g., what happens if you use a too-young leaf. Mistakes were made, some lessons learned. I was initially planning to make the leis a few days beforehand and store them in the fridge. Reiko felt very strongly that leis need to be made on the day of gifting. It’s not uncommon that she gets up before the sun’s out to harvest leaves and make a lei to give in the morning.

So instead of making more ti leis, the day after learning about ti leaf leis, I made some bougainvillea leis (that I already knew how to do). It was a pleasure to give four bougainvillea and three ti leis (some were Reiko’s demonstration ones) to seven local first-time Ironman finishers at a community event at the pool the day after the second race. Their surprise and delight was a gift to me.

This year was a particularly special race for Rune and me. Two Norwegians, in their debut Kona races, and only the second Ironman-distance race for both of them, got first (and a new course record) and third.

Back in 2012 Rune wanted to race on Team Norway for the ITU (International Triathlon Union) World Championship race in Auckland, New Zealand. Winter sports are Norway’s thing, not triathlon. The Norwegian Triathlon Federation was just beginning to focus on cultivating triathletes, particularly their junior athletes. They wouldn’t financially support the “age group” triathletes like Rune, but with some minor requirements, they let Rune be on the team. Team Norway was three juniors and two age groupers that year. Rune also raced on Team Norway in London in 2013, a larger team since more Norwegians wanted to participate. Then he switched to Team USA for Edmonton, Canada in 2014.

It has been great fun to watch the fruits of the Federation’s labor. Blummenfelt won gold at the Olympics last year and won the 2021 Ironman World Championships held at St. George, Utah (because of COVID-19 and Hawaii’s situation). And now Gustav Iden won Ironman Kona and is seeking his Olympic gold. It’s a lot of fun to look back at this old photo and see these now very famous athletes in their younger days. Heia Norge!