On my last day at Nu‘alolo Kai, I rose early and made my morning sojourn to the composting toilet, climbing the dozen or so stairs to its apex—you might say throne—and following the veteran Cheryl’s advice, leaving the door open to enjoy the view.
Then, I walked to the nearby picnic area and introduced myself to a man with an easy smile and a beautiful weathered face as radiant and warm as any of the sunsets we had witnessed over the past four nights. “Sit. Sit,” he said to me and patted the bench next to him. He had spent the night here, in the open air, making the table his bed. I sat, and he buttered a Saloon Pilot cracker, careful to spread the butter evenly. He offered the buttered cracker to me, “Like?” A portable radio played Hawaiian music. Steam rose from his instant coffee in the plastic cap of an old thermos.
I shook my head. “The ‘Āina team is coming out today,” I said. “There will be a big feast. You should join us.”
He asked what was for breakfast, whether Yumi would be cooking, and he said, with no judgment whatsoever, “She cooks ha‘ole food,” meaning the kind of food preferred by white Americans. Funny thing, though, Yumi is Japanese-born. She served rice with our scrambled eggs, not hash-browns. Later, I would learn this soft-spoken man was a caterer of Hawaiian foods—foods like kalua pig, laulau, lomilomi salmon, poi, and sticky rice. He wasn’t part of our work group, but everyone knew him—respected him, honored him. And he did plenty of work in Nu‘alolo, making sure the landing’s walkway was cleared and safe each spring after winter’s heavy surf, repairing or replacing picnic tables, and instructing some of the crew from the tour boats to dismantle the mini-breakwater they built with rocks from the shoreline.
He comes from a west Kauai family who trace their roots to Nu‘alolo Kai. The next rock wall to be rebuilt by The Masons--a mammoth work in width, breadth and distance—has already been named after his family: Malama.
In the Hawaiian language, one translation to English of mālama is “to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect, beware, save, maintain.”
By the time I walked back to camp, Sabra was already up, looking majestic in the pink of the morning light and standing sentry on a rock as waves broke all around her. She’d picked her way along the rocky coastline to Alapi‘i Point—where the infamous 35-foot ladder made of plant fibers once led to a short and narrow ledge and a well-worn path to the slim, hanging valley next door.
Sabra called Nu‘alolo ‘Āina the breadbasket. “No,” she corrected herself. “The taro basket.” Nu‘alolo ‘Āina is a slim valley that twists, turns and climbs with its bisecting stream some two miles to a dead-end at a vertical wall. Remains of multiple, terraced and hand-built rock wall structures run along the length of the stream. In the 1980s, a team conducted an initial survey of the valley, noting the presence of ancient structural sites and plotting their locations on an overall map. Now, a crew, led by an archeologist from Oahu, was doing the fine, detail work of mapping each structure.
Moana reads rocks the way I read a book. She notes their lines. She looks for shapes. She identifies the place of greatest impact. She took one look at a possible grave site discovered by Micki and said nope. It was a new structure, maybe a month old. Probably some masons practicing their craft.
The day we arrived at Nu‘alolo, Moana and her team had strapped their dry bags to boogie boards and swam around the point—some 200 yards—to climb out of the ocean where the surf broke onto a rock boulders—big ones—and trek through lantana, criss-crossing the stream and scrambling over rocks about a mile to their work site. No easy feat.
After four days of work, they had radioed the night before to let us know they would be heading our way after first light—before the ocean picked up, before the winds starting whipping, before it got too treacherous to attempt the swim.
I stood beside Sabra as the pink dissipated. She eyed the ocean. She counted the swells in a set. She hummed. She called to an unseen Moana, “C’mon, Moana, where are you? Let’s go.” It’s an image that sticks with me today. One of strength. Concern. Care.
Whenever we ventured out from camp, Sabra made us take radios with us, so we could keep in touch. Throughout our five days together, I would see her counting heads. I would hear her asking someone’s whereabouts.
Sabra told me about her first visit to Nu‘alolo. She was with a group re-interring the first bones that had been collected for scientific purposes decades ago. A friend looked around--saw beyond the overgrown and invasive weeds, plants and trees—and said, “Someone needs to take care of this place.” Not me, Sabra thought, I’m too busy, and now, as she has for the past 15 years later, Sabra has been leading work trips to Nu‘alolo and taking care of the place.
In National Geographic, Sabra quoted a Hawaiian saying--'Ma ka hana ka 'ike—that translates to English as, “In the work is the knowledge.” Sabra herself was quoted as saying, “If you want to learn about this place, you have to take care of this place, and then it will reveal itself to you.”
It was two weeks ago that our work team of 14 arrived at Nu‘alolo Kai. A part of me cannot believe two weeks have already passed. Another part of me has forgotten I was even there. But I think about what Nu‘alolo revealed to me:
1. I’ve seen ‘a‘o, Newell’s shearwater, foraging out at sea. I’ve scooped them off the side of the road. I’ve performed necropsies on them. But I had only heard one pair, briefly, before my visit to Nu‘alolo. There is nothing like the raucous sound of the endangered seabird as it bounces off amphitheater-style walls of Nu‘alolo.
2. The rare Hedyotis st. johnni high on a cliff wall.
3. The mysterious green flash at sunset.
4. The image of a pueo, owl, in the cliff wall.
5. The art of meditation in the act of weeding. When the sun slanted in the afternoon sky and threw the nursery in shade, I grabbed my hand sickle and—with Micki’s expert guidance—started weeding. And I re-connected with the part of me who enjoys getting her hands dirty—though we were wearing gloves—and the artist within. Weeding, for me, turned out to be much like drawing or writing. I vacated my left brain—the side that makes lists and serves as my inner critic—and slipped into my right brain—the side of creativity and the subconscious.
6. A new way of looking at rocks. As we sat waiting for our boat to pick us up, Sabra passed around sticks of wauke, paper mulberry, which she harvested to make a kapa skirt for a Kauai hula dancer who will wear in next year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, dancing to a chant written by a Kauai man about Nu‘alolo Kai. Short of knives, Moana disappeared and returned minutes later with a handful of “flakes,” shards of rock that had flaked off when someone “worked” a rock who knows how many years ago—days? Dozens? Hundreds? They looked like ordinary pieces of rock to me. I used the sharp edge of one to shave off the outer layers of bark and quickly discovered this act, like weeding, was another way to tap into my right brain. Interesting, how some physical acts can energize the mind in such a way. Surely endorphins were firing left and right.
7. The generosity of so many who shared their mana‘o—thought, idea, belief, opinion, theory, meaning—with me.
And now that I am home, I still find Nu‘alolo revealing itself to me in different ways. When I go outside each evening before bed to walk my dogs, I look up at the night sky, locate the Big Dipper and, from it, using Cheryl’s instructions “arc to Arcturus, Hawaii’s zenith star known as Hōkūle‘a, and use the base of the dipper to find Hōkūpa‘a, the North Star.
I also realize I went five full days without electricity, cellular service and Internet. And I did not miss it one iota. No thought tickled the back of my mind enticing me to check my email. No twitch in my thumb made me want to dig out my cell phone. But my bed with the three-inch memory foam topper? Yep. I missed that.
(This concludes my series on my weekend at Nu‘alolo Kai along Kaua‘i's Nāpali Coast. There are plenty more stories to share, but I just returned from Hawaii Island, and I have things to share from there! I'm interested in knowing what you thought about this series on Nu‘alolo Kai--what interested you, what you remember the most, what you'd like to read more about. So, please feel free to make a comment or two below. I'd appreciate it. Thank you for reading. Mahalo.)