Monday, August 04, 2008

Molokai Style

One night after dinner, circa 1986, my dad sat us all down and, unassisted by alcohol or peyote, told us that we were going to sell our house, buy a boat, and sail around the world. He had seven children, a flourishing CPA business, and apparently, a low tolerance for living out his days in Middle America. I was 15 and not impressed with this plan. If I could go back in time, I would smack my 15-year old self, because of course it would be incredible to live a life of globetrotting; but at the time, I was not thrilled with the dangers of the high seas. Sharks, pirates, and a lack of church dances left a bad taste in my mouth.

Fortunately, I had a plan. I suggested that before we do anything irrational we should probably rent the Harrison Ford movie, Mosquito Coast, wherein an eccentric and dogmatic inventor sells his house and takes his family to Central America – by boat – to build an ice factory in the middle of the jungle. He goes completely crazy. At least…I think he does. The movie was kind of slow, so most of us kids left my parents watching it while we went into the other room and watched a rerun episode of Who’s the Boss?, starring a pre-skanky Alyssa Milano and small screen sensation Tony Danza. Riveting.

The plan must have worked, and Dad must have recognized the dangers of going crazy at sea (as well as the dangers of assuming that all Harrison Ford movies are sensational—K-19, I’m looking in your direction), because he never brought up the plan again and simultaneously stopped insisting we answered him with an “Ai, ai, Captain” whenever he asked us to do something. Who’s the boss now?

But he was still restless.

Fast-forward to 1988. 

We had another Family Meeting. This time, Dad explained that we would be selling our home and leaving all things glorious in Southern California for the opportunity to move to a tiny Hawaiian island by the name of Molokai. While there were decidedly fewer opportunities to be attacked by sharks or pirates while on land (equal opportunities for church dances), I wasn't convinced this was a great alternative. However there were zero movies starring Harrison Ford about a man going crazy in Hawaii. Unless you count the original screenplay for Temple of Doom, which was supposed to take place in Hawaii instead of India. Which also, I just made that up.

I had no way to thwart my father’s plan.

Dad had some friends who were trying to set up a golf resort of sorts on Molokai, but none of them lived there. They collectively decided somebody involved should be there to have a “presence” on Molokai while the project was in production. Dad was involved in an accounting sort of a way (but really more of an emotional “take this midlife crisis and cram it” kind of a way), and he quickly volunteered to buy a hammock and check out of the Rat Race. So in August of 1988, we moved from Westlake, California to Kualapu’u, (pronounced, no joke, koala-poo-oo), Molokai, Hawaii. An island only six miles wide and thirty miles long.

When you tell people you lived on Molokai, you get one of two responses. “Never heard of it” or “ Isn't that where the lepers are?” You are correct on both accounts. For the most part, even people who live on another Hawaiian island raise their eyebrows and are most surprised to hear that there are people alive and well on Molokai. In short, you will not find Molokai in your Fabulous Hawaiian Vacation brochure. Unless you were hoping to see the lepers; but even then, there isn't much left of them. (Rim shot.)

August 1988 was the month before I started my senior year in high school. Do you know how hard it is to move out of the state just before your senior year in high school? Not nearly as difficult as it is to find people who will join your Pity Party, since you are moving to Hawaii and they are not.

I spent my last summer in California soaking in all that was available. The usual stuff (you can find my tribute to my California upbringing by clicking here), plus a concerted effort to date more, as my mom warned me that one really didn’t “date” on Molokai. No movie theaters, no restaurant chains, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe. As primitive as can be.

To get us acclimated to Island Life, Dad planned for us to spend the first couple of weeks island-hopping. First, a tour of Oahu, then over to Molokai for a brief introduction to our new home, then over to Maui for a few days, then back to Molokai to officially begin our slower-paced lifestyle.

To pass the time on our flight from L.A. to Honolulu, I did a great deal of blubbering. I blubbered over the girl I was leaving in California; I blubbered over missing the suburb where I grew up; I blubbered over being an entire ocean away from In-N-Out; I blubbered over the in-flight movie (Three Men & a Baby, an emotional rollercoaster of love, laughter, and life lessons); and I blubbered over the hits-of-the-day tunes on my Walkman, including Cheap Trick’s The Flame, Guns n’ Roses Sweet Child of Mine, and Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy. (I've never wanted to crotch-kick somebody more. Honestly, Bobby. You should worry; because if we ever meet, I am going to slap the “happy” right out of you.)

We spent a few days on Oahu doing all the touristy stuff we could manage to cram into our mini-stop – including the Polynesian Cultural Center, cliff jumping at Waimea Bay, walking Waikiki, flying in a glider plane, and touring the Dole Pineapple Plantation. It sounds like we were sitting in the lap of luxury, yes? But you forget. My dad had just taken a leave of absence from employment, he had seven children, and all these fun activities cost a ridiculous amount of money. How do you fund such an outing? Well, you do away with hotels and three square meals a day. That’s how.

We spent those first four days on Oahu in a minivan, my friend. We subsisted on bread and fresh fruit, purchased each morning. We spent the bulk of each day swimming at the beach, then driving around in wet swim suits, with wet towels (because nothing ever completely dries in humid places such as the Islands). By day four, I can’t describe the odious funk that permeated that minivan. Mildew-saturated towels and clothing, combined with old fruit rinds, combined with teenage body odor.  (Man, I missed church dances.) 

The nights were the worst, really. Dad would drive around until it got late enough that the police stopped patrolling the beaches.  Then he’d pull over and some of us would throw our towels out onto the sand and sleep, and some of the more fortunate souls called dibs on the seats in the van. It was a catch-22. Van seats weren't comfortable, but you ran the risk of being eaten alive by mosquitoes outside. I was so impressed when Dad handed that minivan back into Alamo Rental with a straight face.

Eventually we flew over to Molokai. One of my dad’s friends, Jim, owned a home on the west end of the island. Thank goodness he did, because when we landed, we found out that the home my parents had arranged to rent was up and rented or sold to some locals who most likely knew the owner and tipped the scales in their favor with some fermented poi. So we did not have a home to move in to. We stayed at Jim’s for those few days, since he was almost never on the island, and nobody was renting his home from him at the moment.

After a couple of days of frequenting Molokai beaches and driving around the island, we left for Maui to kill some time, and because other people were renting Jim’s place for the week. On Maui we parasailed, whale watched, swam…and wondered where we were going to live once we went back to Molokai.

We got back to Molokai with about a week and half until school started. My parents were on the prowl for a home to rent while we set up a refugee camp at the home of the Relief Society President. We  quickly became too familiar with her, her quiet and balding, egg-shaped husband (who happened to be a cop), and their nine-year-old daughter. It smacked of Reality TV, but it hadn’t been invented yet.  My parents slept in the spare bedroom, and the rest of us slept on the floor, spread out around the house. We were grateful to have a roof over our heads, but I wasn’t so grateful to hear the horror stories from our host, the cop, about how my brother and I were going to get the living snot beat out of us by the locals because we were A) Haole (caucasion), and B) Not from Molokai.

Here I have listed a few of my first impressions about Molokai:
  • It smells fantastic.
  • The dirt is red.
  • There are no stoplights.
  • There are barely any stop signs.
  • Nobody pays attention to the stop signs.
  • Everyone leaves their keys in the car ignition, because everybody knows which car belongs to whom. (Population: 6,000 folks.) Cars are never stolen…where would you take them?
  • Everyone picks up hitchhikers (same reason as above).
  • The east end of the island is lush, with lagoons and an almost jungle-like feel; and the winding roads to get there make the trip longer than anywhere else you could go on the island. The west end is almost desert-like until you reach the coast, where the white-sand beaches are amazing. The north end holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest sea cliffs – and at the bottom is a peninsula, where the lepers live. The south end of the island has the wharf, groves of palm trees, and some restaurants and residential areas.
My first couple of weeks on the island were unusually eventful. Especially considering there was nothing to do. We were fortunate to be LDS, because we made friends at Church almost immediately, and this led to not being pulverized by anybody else for the rest of the time we lived there, since they were like my personal PR agents, assuring everybody else I meant no harm.

Of course I wasn't so sure about these guys at first. One of my first nights there, some of our new “friends” took my brother and I for a ride into town. They convinced us to participate in some kind of juvenile behavior in the local cemetery (a very superstitious place, Molokai), and then follow them down an abandoned alleyway. It was late, dark, and foreign to me. I thought this was it; I was about to lose the original bone structure of my face. One of the guys stepped up to a door and knocked. “This must be where they put dead Haole bodies,” I thought to myself. Then, some scrawny, high-pitched gentleman stepped out and…took our order for famous Molokai Hot Bread. Baked fresh nightly. It was delicious, and, like, a million times better than a punch to the face.

My parents finally found a “home” for us to rent during the 9 months it took to have a new 2-story house built. It was down on the wharf, no more than 1,000 square feet, with bare concrete floors, an occasional door (but not many), and, as an added bonus, on Friday and Saturday nights, we were bequeathed with the melodious tunes of a local, drunk Hawaiian band, playing at one of the restaurants just down the beach from us. To be fair, we did have our very own coconut tree in the backyard. We also had a menagerie of island creatures that were pleased to see we had a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Worries, Bradda” policy in our home. Rats, centipedes…whatever felt like stopping by seemed to have unlimited access and felt quite comfortable in our living room and shower. It was one of the most surreal times in my young life.

Some things that made life easier:
  • I got to visit another island almost once a month, for some school, church, or family-related activity.
  • The local grocery store owner had Haagen-Dazs ice cream imported weekly just for our family.
  • The first video store on the island opened the same week we moved there. Coincidence? Not hardly.
  • I made friends that were more accepting than I had ever anticipated, and they kept me sane.
  • The beach, the beach, the beach.
I knew I was becoming localized when:
  • I no longer made fun of the high school mascot: The Farmers.
  • I ate sticky rice, poi, Portuguese sausage, and raw squid at 6:00 a.m. at Seminary Breakfast Parties.
  • I left my keys in my car ignition at all times.
  • I didn't always wear shoes to school.
  • Some of the local superstitions started giving me the heebie-jeebies.
I was only there the one year – my senior year of high school. After that I left for college and my parents later moved to Lake Tahoe while I was on my LDS mission. For the record, Dad never did go crazy. Also the golf resort was never built. But Molokai will always a hold a special place in my soul. And Harrison Ford will always have a string of blockbuster hits to distract us from Hollywood Homicide