Out on the lookout of Waip’io Valley, there is a placard that says: “He ali’i ka’aina, he kaua ke kanaka” (Land is chief, man is the servant). Looking down on the Valley of the Kings with its lush vegetation and green hills spilling into the sandy black beaches of the Pacific Ocean as the island of Maui looms overhead, you can’t help but understand the meaning of those words, struck by both a sense of awe and profound sense of peace.
At the bottom of the valley (a trek you can make either in a 4×4 or by foot) lies a series of taro farms and rice paddies, intermixed with signs warning tourists of trespassing (one of my favorites was “Forget the dog, beware of the owner”) and Hawaiian greetings, signaling at the conflicting interests that run deep throughout Big Island. While tourism is key to the economic survival of Hawai’i, there is also a fear that time and external influences will also erode away at the culture and tradition that makes up so much of the islands’ identity.
In Waip’io Valley — one of the most known destinations on Big Island — this apprehension of tourists often translates into local residents taking construction signs from other places on the island and strategically placing them on the public roads throughout the valley. On the single-lane road down to the beach, we ran into one such sign that warned of ‘dangerous road conditions’ ahead. But for those that do find themselves in the valley, you’ll likely find yourself greeted with the calm sounds of waves crashing along empty beaches and the occasional wild horse that finds its way to the main road.
And no matter where you find yourself on an island that boasts 11 of the world’s 13 ecological zones, it’s this common feeling of tranquility and general presence of the land that will follow you. Whether you are exploring the beaches or the famous Kona coffee farms on the western side of the island, making your way through generations of hardened lava flow, standing in the unforgiving winds at the island’s southern-most tip, or walking through the wind-torn fields along the islands north shore, you are constantly reminded of how fire, land, and sea have — and continue — to shape the evolution of the island and its lore.
People find themselves on Big Island for a multitude of reasons, for better or worse, but a general law they can’t escape is the role of nature itself on these islands and the respect you come to have not only for the land, but its history. Near the end of the Chain of Craters Road in Volcanoes National Park, there is a small collection of Pu’u Loa petroglyphs nearly a mile off the road. Here, in the midst of a seemingly endless lava field, you’ll find yourself transported in time as you look closely at the ground where etchings reveal a history of a people. In addition to the sketches of ships and fish, the most prominent petroglyphs are actually of what at first seem like non-descript holes. Scattered throughout, these holes (puka) were actually once used to house piko — or the umbilical cords of new-born babies. The hope here was that the energy of these ancestral lands would bless the children with long and prosperous lives, and root them to the land, Pu’u Loa, the ‘Long Hill’. Of the 23,00o or so-petroglyphs found throughout Pu’u Loa, about 19,000 are piko -related.
So yes, while Hawai’i is often tied to images of paradise with tropical breezes, lazy hammocks, and cocktail in hand, it is a very different sense of paradise that often greets the senses. Instead, it is one that as the Hawaiians so astutely observed, where nature is the master of ceremonies and we, as individuals, mere visitors. Aloha and mahalo.