Dec 2011,

I left Volcano on Christmas day, heading to Waipio: 80 miles of winding roads away. I figured if it got late, I could just stop for the night in Puna. Rides were exceptionally fast that day (including one from my department’s chair to get me out of Volcano!) and I definitely could have got to the valley before the sun started going down, but for some reason, the warm ponds of Puna beckoned. Or maybe I just wanted to take a break from back-country camping. No rush anyway, Waipio would still be there the next day.

Puna, my introduction to the Big Island, and one of the rare instances where I was reminded to not always go with first impression. During my trip in the summer of 2007, I spent the initial few days there with a CSer. To me it was the definition of local laid-back Hawaiian style. Drivers stop in the middle of the road to say hi to each other; and you should simply take your time waiting behind while they finish their quick catch-up – absolutely no honking. Roadside stands with veggies and fruits fresh from the owners’ gardens. And of course it’s beautiful; narrow drives weaving through lush gardens and forests. There are black sand beaches (including one with lots of hippies on Sundays), volcanically heated warm ponds, tide pools with great snorkeling and not a soul around. (I snorkeled for the first time and didn’t even know how to swim then; the underwater marvel made me promise myself that I’d learn).

Over the years, I’ve learned that the idyllic nature belies a more outlaw reality. People rolled their eyes when I told them how fond I was of the area. One “why” after another, I came to grasp with its Wild Wild West reputation. Though the crimes and drugs are not too atypical of rural communities, the calming green, the sedating wind and rain makes me wonder how people could turn violent instead of being lulled into earth-loving hippies and stoners.

It’d been raining non-stop for almost 2 months, and finally when the sun came out that day, the locals didn’t miss the chance. I never saw so many people congregating at one spot in Puna. Only at such moments did you discover all eccentricities of the residential mix-up. I sat down on a table to attack the pack of fruits I’d picked up at Hilo farmers’ market, and half a turkey that my ride had been kind enough to offer me, in the spirit of Christmas.

Sun went down, people thinned out. Time to pitch my tent and take a shower. No more buzziness, the calm was what i’m more used to in this part of the island. There are a few camp grounds around here, but Isaac Hale is the only one with a guard. Even with all my naivete, I knew enough to not venture the night in an unguarded site.

The guard went the round to collect camping fees (and make sure everything’s in order), and then settled here for the night. “No worries, no one around here bothering you, not till early in the morning when the boat guys come,” he said. “Boat guys?” “Yeah lava tour guys.” I always saw boats parked in this park but simply thought they were for leisure. I’d heard from volcano folks that lava had been oozing out big the past few days. The big-bellied guard was offering to hook me up with the crew he knew when rolled in a truck and out stepped the mentioned guys. Turned out they got charted last minute by a businessman from NYC for a Christmas night special with his family. We talked story as they got the boat ready and waited for the customers. It didn’t take long for the captain to share how he was taken to see lava since he was little, and he and his family would dive to see the flow… underwater!! I could not hide the envy. Offhandedly, he offered to take me out on the charted tour at a deep discount rate, as long as I pretended to be one of his crew. No problemo, I almost jumped from excitement.

I didn’t have a camera this whole trip, and didn’t bring my phone on the boat knowing that I’d get soaked standing in the back. I almost wished i did, but the spectacle was so out of this world that it etched into my mind anyway.

If only words could recapture the awe. The sight, the smell, the heat. For a moment I was at a lost. My body, my brain didn’t know how to react. The energy overwhelmed all my senses. Lava rivers poured down and sizzled when they touched the cold ocean. And right there in front of my eyes, new land formed. The earth was on fire, illuminating the whole sky. I was witnessing CREATION. Exactly at that moment I understood viscerally why Hawaiians revere Pele with such fierce devotion. In her majesty I too felt small.

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