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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

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Easter 2010,

Oaxaca is 450 kms and normally 5 hours away, but traffic was expectedly congested so I figured it’d likely take twice as long. I decided against hitchhiking right outside of Mexico City. It’s never a good idea to thumb up at by a busy toll. Everyone’s pissed after sitting too long in the crawling traffic. And as people speed by, they tell themselves there’s a good chance the car right behind may stop. Plus, Mexico City is really not the nicest city on earth to just be hanging out on the road.

I spent an hour on the bus to Puebla, and took my chance there. Within 10 minutes of getting off the bus, I got picked up by a sales rep of a national milk company. He was going all the way to Oaxaca. Great, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting more rides. But I was a little nervous, not so much thanks to the forbidding threat from my supervisors when they found out I wanted to hitchhike, but because it was my first time riding for such a long distance. I have the good habit of falling asleep if I’m in the passenger seat for more than an hour. The steady speed at which the scenery passes is a soporific lullaby to my eyes. This spells trouble when hitchhiking long distance because a/it’s rude to the stranger driver – I should keep the person company even if no conversation is required, and b/it’s not wise to be unconscious on the road. The driver was nice, but we didn’t really click so conversation was mostly cordial. Sleepiness crept up; a couple of times I did find my head jerking ahead from almost nodding off, and immediately fought back by pinching myself and biting my tongue.

We left Puebla at 9 a.m and finally crossed into Oaxaca 8 hours later. Before dropping me off at the center, the rep drove me up a hill that offered a stunning panoramic view of the city and the valley below. The city is quite compact, and typical of colonial urban planning, you can see a prominent cathedral dominating the center.

Oaxaca, the land of the native. My favorite Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs was born here to her Mixtec mother. It was through her heart-wrenching soul-tearing songs that I was introduced to the region’s indigenous musical heritage. I knew that the culture was living strong here, but was still surprised at the number of native speakers that I encountered.

Oaxaca valley, MexicoOaxaca valley

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