Ok, I’ve faced it. Travelling anywhere short of by sailboat, horse, foot or bicycle is not sustainable, neither is it environmentally friendly. The huge carbon footprint that I just left over the Pacific Ocean is regrettable.
But it has taken me to a land rich with sustainable opportunity. Astounding beauty. Friendly people. And delicious, locally-grown food. I often wonder what it would have been like to “discover” a land like Hawaii. To live on an island with no large predators, no dangerous snakes, no central heating, and so many micro-climates it is possible to suntan in the rain. The glorious splendour of lush green plants, wildly flowering shrubs and trees, and acres of tropical fruit. A land where you can literally travel from a desert to a rain forest in a few hours. An island that is ever changing, ever burning, and ever beautiful.
Several days spent in Waikiki remind me again that I am not a city girl at heart. Watching a 50+ story hotel go up in flames, homeless people sleeping in the streets, and constantly keeping my children from dashing into traffic was enough for me. Yet I found little treasures in the city. Ocean surf at the doorstep. Solar panels on hotel roofs. Rooftop gardens. Dr Brommers’ Soap in ABC Stores. And local farmer’s markets tucked here and there.
The Hawaiian Islands have no lack of challenging hikes. Koko Crater. The hike itself is a grind. 1000 steps straight up railway ties to the top of the crater. Not exactly a tourist attraction with the sun and humidity pounding mercilessly down on you, a gun range snapping bullets nearby, and nothing to look at except your feet going over trestles raised 20 feet or more above ground… but the view at the top is worth the climb.
Once you’ve been passed by Iron Man twice (he does the hike in half the time or less than I do) you reach the top and what a top it is! Botanical gardens down one side of the crater. A panoramic view of the ocean and the city below. And the knowledge that you have to get yourself back down those steep railway ties and across the trestle again, staring past your feet through the gaps to the green bottom below. Truly stupendous. I crab-walked over the trestle.
A city is no city without a Sworovski Crystal store. But my truly green 2 year old daughter, after walking past the store, pipes up “Daddy look at that recycling store!” After all, what do we do with glass at our house? That’s my girl!
On to Big Island. An island still forming. Lava still glows red and steams as it touches the ocean. An island with a mountain so high there are snow storms on it. An island rich in farm land and productivity. An island with wild goats, boars and chickens that run free. Stunning, thick rain forests and pounding waterfalls. White, green and black sand beaches. Rainbows and sunburns. Here, I feel calmer and strangely more at home than Waikiki.
Big Island offers us a rented Hawaiian home to stay in, complete with kitchen. Big kitchen. Now we need groceries. I mentally scorn the large grocery stores but here, I am pleasantly surprised. Locally-grown beef, salad mixes, papayas, bananas, sweet potatoes, seafood, avocado and much more are here. Organic staples are readily available. We load up with good food and head back to our Hawaii home.
Day two on Big Island brings us to an old, old friend of my in laws. Auntie Violet, with her long grey-black braid and dark eyes, lives in Kona up high on the hill. Her house, an eclectic combination of ancient black and white pictures, rusted flower pots, an ancient piano with candelabras and termites, and bowl full of Halloween candy is open to the Hawaiian breeze, chickens, and honey bees.
Her house, as old at least as she is, seems a part of the hill and held together by no more than age, Hawaiian soil and collectables. Parts of the house have tumbled down already, and as I enter I wonder at the live ability of the building. It is compete with running water and electricity however: a single crystal chandelier missing pieces of glass hangs from a wire in the ceiling. As we sit, a shake and a rattle remind us of the ever-active fault lines running beneath the islands. The locals don’t do any more than glance around so I ignore it.
Sitting on a table is a book called The Green Pharmacy’s Guide to Healing Foods. We are kindred spirits, I am sure. When we leave, we pass through thousands of honeybees who have made their home in the side of her house. An old world Hawaiian visit. There’s nothing like it and I am enthralled.
Dinners are made of locally-caught mahi-mahi, ahi, or island grass-fed beef, local sweet potatoes, locally-grown salad mix served with local strawberries and tomatoes. Plenty of island-made ice cream for dessert. Eating in Hawaii can be done very sustainably. This is what I work so hard for all summer in Canada! Here, it is available year-round. Restaurants, like Sam Choy’s in Hilo, advertise that they use local, in season products when possible. Oh, and Kona Brothers Coffee Shop has compostable coffee lids. Need I say more?
The one thing I haven’t figured out yet though is why Hawaiians eat so much Spam. It certainly isn’t a Canadian thing and I have never tried it. You can buy Spam musubi, and children’s menus sport spam and eggs. In stores full of locally-grown, flavourful food you can find an isle dedicated almost entirely to Spam. Well, we all have our faults.
Driving up to Hilo and the volcano. On our way, we pass a small herd of wild goats. Here in Hawaii there are no large predators so feral chickens, boars and goats run free and relatively safely (short of hunting season) across the wilder parts of Hawaii. It makes me think about my own chickens and goats at home. Coyotes, bears, dogs and mink have all had their share of our goats and chickens in the past, and we are constantly attempting to outwit the wildlife. Again, I think about how much easier sustainable living would be in Hawaii.
Hawaii’s volcano isn’t the type to spew fire and brimstone into the air. Instead, it slowly oozes lava into the ocean and puffs steam out of vents across the lava fields. As a result, visitors can walk up to some of the vents and observe the sulphuric crystals, the dead plants, the black lava rock fields, and the distant crater billowing smoke and steam. The effect is, well, incomparable. Ever walked on the moon? Well, I think it would be much like the lava fields that have hardened into black rock.
The lava fields are dotted here and there with some green plants valiantly attempting to eke out an existence on the barren surface. When you think about it, it really is astounding. This island is still growing, and the early stages are black rock so hard and dense you would think it impenetrable. But slowly, over time, plants start taking hold and growing in a meagre dusting of soil in nooks and crannies. Eventually the rock will be covered with lush greenery and sandy beaches just as the other islands are. One feels rather… small when contemplating the volcano.
Driving back from Hilo you pass through smaller towns. Pulling up to a station for gas, we notice an old pickup truck with the back piled full of papayas. We offer to buy some from him. They look beautiful. He says we can take 10 for nothing: he just paid $10 for the truck load and will be feeding them to his pigs. Lucky pigs! We paid him $2 for 6 and enjoyed them the next day.
The beaches, naturally, are stunning. Head down to the end of the beach past most of the tourists and you can find spectacular, small, mostly private beaches with good snorkeling. Sea turtles glide in for a well deserved nap and warm up on the beach and rocks. They are amazing gentle giants to swim with! If you have good aim and a few rocks you can knock down some coconuts to have a drink and a 50 Foot Diet snack!
Mauna Kea. With a summit of 13 700 feet above sea level, and the world’s largest astronomical observatory this mountain is simply stunning. Higher than the clouds, the massive telescopes are housed in an ideal location. The information center at 8500 feet is easily accessible, and every evening there are telescopes set up to observe planets and starts. The air is among the clearest in the world up here, with no major city to provide light or atmospheric pollution for thousands of miles. The local towns and cities, by law, have orange street lights to cut back on light pollution. There is some disillusionment with the telescopes from the native Hawaiians, which is understandable. Lake Waiau, at the summit and near the telescopes, is rich in ancient mythology and sacred to the native Hawaiian culture. Even today, people climb Mauna Kea to dispose of the umbilical cords of their newborns. This has been thought to bring strength and fortune to the child. In any case, it is a very special place. Watching the sun set into an ocean of clouds is spectacular and moving. You are above the clouds and seemingly on top of the world.
One of the things that impresses me so much about Hawaii is its self-sufficiency. Hawaii is so far from the mainland that it is in their best interest to be self-sufficient. Everything that they don’t grow or produce themselves has to be shipped from the mainland 2390 miles away. The cost of fuel is somewhat prohibitive so they grow a lot of their own food. I love this. Fresh tropical fruit and vegetables, local grass fed beef, chicken, eggs, milk, and so on. It is very possible to make and eat good, reasonably-priced, locally-grown meals in the comfort of your Hawaii home. Eating out for 2 weeks would make me sick, with high salt, sugar and fats so a rental unit with a kitchen is worth the money. Splurge a few times at a restaurant serving local food for a treat. Roy’s will do! Try the Dynamite Scallops. Mmmm.
Finding public tours of sustainable farms isn’t an easy task although you can just FEEL that there are a lot of them on the islands. Farm produce stands are abundant and it is here that we found a completely self-sustained farm.
When you start asking questions opportunities have a way of presenting themselves to you and we scored a farm tour from one of the labourers. This particular farm is more like a commune, where workers drift from one farm to another, labouring for free room and board. Except there isn’t much more than a room on the entire acreage… the family with four small children live in a “house” the size of a travel trailer, with a wide awning stretching over a patch of land. Even with a year-round warm climate where outdoor living is possible, I must admit I prefer a house with 4 walls, bedrooms, and a bathroom. Not even a composting or a pit toilet exists on this farm. They apparently neatly take care of business in the bushes. With a live and let die policy, the chickens are used only for eggs, and they are clearly quite content to free range the gardens, fertilising and snacking at will. These people eat only food that is produced on the property, and I am introduced to two new magic plants to me: Noni fruit and Moringa. The soil is hand-tilled (without a rototiller) and is a fertile, dark red-brown. Taro, potatoes and beets are easily visible, and corn is grown particularly for the chickens. Papaya, avocado, coconut, oranges, grapefruit, bananas and more are all plentiful. Although not our style of living, definitely an exciting tour, and very sustainable. Right up our alley.
All corners of Hawaii are interesting to explore. Near Akaka Falls, a stunningly beautiful waterfall that plunges 442 feet to the rocks below is a small town, equally picturesque. Little stores such as Same Same But Different, target tourists with locally-made clothing, koa wood carvings, pottery, soap and more.
Another town, mostly burned up and buried by a lava flow some years ago, offers a separatist point of view and an Uncle Someoneorother, who seems to be the leader of the little “commune” made up of dope smoking young adults. Their restaurant is good, the ice cream is local, the flowers on the outdoor cloth-covered tables are real, and the little craft booths are made up of beautiful knickknacks.
Unique little offerings such as a volcano-warmed freshwater pool right on the ocean serves locals as well as tourists, although a 4 wheel drive is necessary if you don’t want to do the mile-long walk over hot black lava rock. Here, we chat with a woman swimming with her german shepherd, who says she has been living off the grid for 20 years or more. Which brings us to another interesting aspect of Hawaii. Renewable energy.
Hawaiian law encourages new homes to use solar heating for their hot water tanks. Subsequently, you see solar panels on all newer houses. Some houses sport solar panels for electricity as well. Hawaii dabbles a bit in wind power, and the beautiful, almost-silent windmills slowly turn while cows and horses graze below. The view is very pastoral, and is a picturesque combination of sustainable old world and sustainable new world. Hawaii has continuous wind like I have never known in my life. A calm day in Hawaii is a rarity. More often, the wind gets moving by the afternoon and is blowing strongly by evening. Air conditioning isn’t necessary since the trade winds keep breezes flowing through the houses day and night.
Steep, misty valleys with black sand beaches are common on Big Island. Much of the roads are higher up, and as a result, there are hikes down into these valleys. Lush, green rain forest grows thickly on the valley walls, and some of the valleys are almost inaccessible but for a path or a steep road. The valleys often sport stunning waterfalls though, and crashing waves on lava beaches. Feral cattle and boars roam freely. Debris is often well polished and washed up on the shore. We found a tub that three men must have gone to sea in at some point. (Actually it was an unidentified round fibreglass floating object but I thought of it anyway.) Ropes and driftwood abound, and earthy swings are hanging from tree branches for children and children-at-heart to play on. In one visit, some of us observed horses galloping past, with no rider and no human in sight. Well worth the effort to explore at least one of these valleys.
I dream about gardening in a land where you can grow produce abundantly and year-round. No canning, drying, or otherwise preserving food is necessary since you can grow it anytime you like. Naturally not all things can be grown here (they struggle with things like apples, peaches and tomatoes etc) but the Island of Hawaii CAN actually grow them in the exact perfect location. With 11 of the 13 world climatic zones, Hawaii can grow almost anything. The soil is rich in minerals and the regular rain and sunshine promote growth year round.
Unlike my coastal Canadian land where we battle too much rain combined with cold in the spring, too much heat with no rain in the summer, early cold, wet autumns and zero-growth, cold, wet winters. In Hawaii you can raise livestock with your greatest concern being building a good enough structure to keep the animals in so they don’t wander off. In Canada, our greatest concern is building structures strong enough to keep predators OUT. No predators short of hunters and neighbouring dogs bother the livestock. And surprisingly for a tropical island, the only poisonous things you have to watch out for are mushrooms, not spiders or snakes.
Beautiful, richly-abundant Hawaii is a fantastic place to visit, and living green even on holidays is possible. Locally-grown food is easy to find in stores and restaurants. It is easy to find houses to rent rather than less eco-friendly hotel rooms. The stores carry green and local products. Water is plentiful and air conditioning is unnecessary. Scooters, bicycles and snorkeling and surfing gear are readily available to rent. Now if we could only LIVE there instead of visiting by plane… Hawaii, you are a beautiful land. We already miss your fresh pineapple, your warm wind and your laid back culture. But not to fear,we will be back. Even if we have to swim there.