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May 2012,

Strange. Is the one word I’d use to describe Moloka’i, the friendly island. People were certainly friendly and embracing, in the way that only island people can be. But there is something else, hard to put my finger on.

Moloka'i, sunset, Lanai, Hawai'i, Alii beach

sunset over Lanai

At first I thought it was because of how local the place is, with Native Hawaiians accounting for more than 60% of the population and so few visitors (barely 200 a day on average, while nearby Mau’i is 3 times bigger and gets 35 time the number of tourists). I was walking along a beach park in Kaunakakai when I came upon a hula group practicing to the tune of Wahine Ilikea. (I never saw any hula practice at the beach on other islands). People talked about when to go out for an outrigger paddling session and where to go for the best shells at the moment and what they had found recently – Every single person I met was excited to discuss shells! In island-style, locals identify strongly with the area they’re from and live in (east/windward, west/leeward, north shore, south shore, and central). It’s even more extreme in Moloka’i and borderline incomprehensible given how small the island is. This lady in Kaunakakai told me how generations of her family have lived in central Moloka’i and how much she loves it there and she couldn’t remember the last time she went all the way to the east end. All the way to the east end! It’s 25 miles and 40 minutes down the road. I didn’t know how to respond.

Moloka'i shells

A Moloka’i obsession?

I was picked up by: a local Hawaiian who works in the helicopter patrol (looking for marijuana farms) who drove me all the way to Halawa valley; a mixed Brazilian-American who works for the county TV station and has the most adorable 4-year-old boy, whose neighbor is a famous fishing spear maker; another local Hawaiian, this time a medical kahuna, who took me in his home and convinced me to change my flight back to Oahu to a few days later so that he could talk more traditional Hawaiian medicine stuff with me, who fed me delicious pink Moloka’i mangoes that grew thick in his garden and gave me lomi-lomi massage every morning and once drove me up in the middle of the mountain where I got another lomi-lomi. Maybe this is why Moloka’i was so strange to me.

It is worth noting here that world over, Moloka’i is famous for the leper colony founded by Father Damien. In Hawa’i, the island was (is?) renowned for its powerful kahunas, or priests, sought after by kings from other islands in matters of spirits and sorcery. Many believe this explains the distinct mana of the land.

Halawa valley, East End, Moloka'i

Halawa valley, East End

Halawa valley, East End, Moloka'i

Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, leper colony, Father Damien

Kalaupapa, the most scenic leper colony in the world

leper colony, Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaii, Father Damien

fish pond, Moloka'i, Hawaii

ancient fish pond on south shore

The people that I remembered most fondly were the 2 brothers that let me camp near them for safety on a desolate west end beach. When I told the younger one, still a teenager, that I’m from Vietnam, he asked: “oh, there are lots of scooters there and you all go crazy on the road right?” I was taken aback; I didn’t expect anyone on Moloka’i to know anything about contemporary Vietnam, let alone the traffic. Turned out he talked with a girl from Singapore on the internet who sent him youtube videos of southeast asian countries. Vive the internet! The older brother was living off the land; he caught some fish to grill and share with me. The teenager came to spend the summer with his brother, away from all the troubles at school where he had difficulty fitting in. There’s lots of love on these islands, and lots of broken homes. Their hearts are right, and I hope they have found, or will find, their way and their place.

West End trail and beaches:

West End trail, Moloka'i

West End beach, Moloka'i, Hawaii

West End beach, Moloka'i, Hawaii


Early 2012 when my class went to Big Isle for a field project, Nancy organized a night manta ray snorkeling group and asked me to join. I reluctantly said no, opting to spend that weekend with Col. It didn’t take long for them to report back on the trip with raving reviews, and Col said he’d take me to a better swim with the mantas than any of the commercial tours. That took 3 years to happen. And my first and only manta that night was a baby chilling right by the pier; we saw it before even setting foot on the outrigger canoe, and long before I tried to shoo away the disappointment that the crew only provided a wetsuit top instead of a full suit, took the deepest breath and dropped off into the cold water. Col and I were the first to wimp out after barely 10 minutes hanging onto the surfboard-as-floater looking down at plankton and blue needle fish, blaming our intolerance on our upbringing in the tropics.

But the ocean was still kind. As we sat shivering in our towels back in the canoe, thoroughly disappointed at the lack of warmth, manta rays, and hot chocolate that the crew had promised but then forgot to bring, we got unexpected guests. The best kind 🙂 Dolphins! My first time seeing them in real life actually. A playful pod of 7 bottlenose that didn’t seem to get tired of circling us. For a moment I was tempted to go back down in the water and swim with them, ’cause they came so close, within 10 feet of the canoe, but staying dry won out. I was happy enough to just sit and watch them going round and around. Such elegance when they glide in the water, and such delight when they jump one after another (it’s so hard to imagine that they’re capable of some horrific acts). I would like to think that it was just as exciting and entertaining for them to check us out as it was for us to watch them. Later as we headed back to shore, the captain woman in an attempt to steer away from the failure of the night decided to chase the dolphins to give us a few more show minutes. I was abhorred at such harassment and any of my positive feeling for her promptly dissolved away. But I didn’t say a thing.

Cold water in Hawai’i also brings another much loved group of immigrants: the humpback. Both dolphins and whales are considered manifestations of Kanaloa – god of the ocean, one of the four major gods in Hawaiian religion. I’d only heard their strangely soothing singing and seen their bumps far out in the water, usually a mom and her calf playing. Luck was on my side again during this trip. We went to pebble beach at the same time that a whale was patrolling along the coast. We saw her pump up a fountain as we drove down, and on the beach, while we were busy eating opi’hi freshly picked off the rocks, she came and flipped her tail up 100 feet at most from where we were standing. I was in awe.

Unrelated photos of beaches and sunsets:

picking opihi, pebble beach, Big Island, Hawaii

pebble beach, Big Island, Hawaii

sunset, Keauhou, Big Island, Hawaii


sunset, Mauna Loa, Big Island, Hawaii

Not many places where one can witness the earth as it breathes, destroys, and creates. I love Hawai’i.

It’s such a world apart: going from where you can’t escape the human presence to where it is nil. I’m typing this after having got back to Vietnam, looking out to see a constant stream of traffic and activities, at the hardworking masses and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be inside an anthill or beehive. I still have that fresh image of sitting on Col’s porch looking down at the ocean in the distance, with big ohi’a trees around, no sounds but the wind and the birds. Or of us walking on barren lava field, bristle crust breaking under each of our steps, Pu’u O’o steaming right ahead. Us walking in complete darkness except for the weak light from an old hand crank lamp, trying to locate rock cairns to bring us back to the trailhead. I love the Big Island, and there’s no one but you that I’d want to be with on lava field in complete darkness.


Big Island, Hawaii, Pu'u O'o

lava field, Big Island, Hawaii, Pu'u O'o

Pu'u O'o, Big Island, Hawai'i, 'ohelo 'ai berry

pioneering ‘ohelo ‘ai



July 2007: The first time I set foot on Waipi’o valley on the eastern Hamakua coast of the Big Island was during my short trip in the summer of 2007. It was my first time hitchhiking, and I was picked up in Hilo by a man called Frank. Frank was going back to his house in the cowboy Waimea and would drop me off in Honoka’a, a small town 10 miles before the valley. During our chat, Frank revealed that he was a Vietnam vet and had had some terrible nightmares. We connected, and the initial 40-mile ride turned into a 6 hour trip. He stopped to show me waterfalls, drove me down to the coast of Laupahoehoe wherethe waves are forever crushing down on shore, took me to his place in Waimea for lunch, drove me through the saddle road to go back to Hilo, and most memorable of all, he introduced me to Waipi’o. It was a typical misty day on the windward side; the whole valley was shrouded in a white mist. He drove his 4WD down to the valley and there we stood. It was verdant, moist, quiet. But you can’t quantify feelings. I took in deep breaths, listening to the soothing Hi’ilawe in the distance. Since then, I have always been very partial to the windward side of the Big Island, and Waipi’o has a special place in my heart.

Waipio valley, Hiilawe waterfall, Big Island, Hawaii

Waipio valley, Hiilawe waterfall, Big Island, Hawaii

April 2011: A quick trip with H. to the Big Isle the weekend before Merrie Monarch for a special project that H. was working on. We weren’t officially together at that time, but the tension was always there. We managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Waipi’o. Hiking down the valley and then to the waterfall in a late afternoon, we found the place empty, which was rare as it is a popular spot. Just the two of us. I went down to the pool, closed my eyes, kicked my feet gently and floated on my back. My body caressed, my soul lulled. The chute of the water, the sharp dropping into the pool, the leisurely widening of circles. My eyes softly opened again, and in that instant, part of me almost went up in the air to take a look down below, a look down at me, tiny in the giant arms of the mountains. We kissed, in a small nook under the stream, and again in the cave under Hi’ilawe. Intoxicated by beauty, by love’s sweet taste.

December 2011: A month long trip on the Big Island, going around to all my favorites, including Waipi’o. I found a small farm that lets people stay in exchange for a helping hand, and there I pitched my tent. Every day, I dug my bare hands into the rich soft airy black soil as puffy fat worms wiggled their way around. I strolled past houses with no one there except for a couple of quiet cats. I sat by the river swollen up after months of rain. I walked back into the lush mountains with dozens of waterfalls trickling down the slopes. We’ll be gone in no time. But this valley, this water, this energy will stay. Time is immortal.

Dec 24, 2011
Halape, Big Island, Hawai’i

This is the life and everything feels just right. How else could it be any better than this? Here I am immersed in the pure beauty of this land that I fell in love with the first time I was on it without even knowing why. Here I am by myself and just can’t – I don’t know what to say anymore. This is the life. To be with these beings and these elements, so old and so wise. To sit here and breath in. To realize how transient my life and everything that I possess is. The futility of superficial pursuit. The arrogance of those who are removed from the land and thus place themselves above her. The idiocy.

The beauty in simplicity, in this seeming eternality. Everything is just right. Here my soul is at peace. Here my soul is calmed, my heart lullabied, my feet at rest.

Uala ka lani
Uala ka honua
Uala ka uka
Uala ke kai

And here’s my chant
To the sky
To the earth
To the mountain
To the sea
To all the beings that once were here
And to all that are here now
I humbly offer my soul to be one with thee

I don’t ask for strength and clarity anymore, at least not here, not now.
I don’t ask for healing
I only ask for acceptance, to be part of this beauty, this grace.

Halape, Big Island, Hawaii

Halape, Big Island, Hawaii

Halape, Big Island, Hawaii

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). Read the rest of this entry »