In the early 1990s, Paul Theroux wrote The Happy Isles of Oceania about paddling the Pacific islands. I found it a seminal book. I had just come back from working in New Zealand and had kept a good diary. For the first time, I understood modern travel memoirs. Maybe I too could attempt to write in that genre. Hah, Hah!
Everywhere that Theroux went, the locals asked
“Where is your wife?” She had recently left him.
In this regard, things haven’t changed much. Polynesians have large extended families. I was also asked,
“Are you traveling alone? How brave!” This is the United States, I felt like replying, but I accepted their compliments.
I came to Molokai, a small Hawaiian island between Oahu and Maui, to see Kalaupapa National Historical Park which I did on the first day. Details later.
Now I’m seeing the rest of the island with Doreen, my local guide, driver, and soon, friend. Doreen, who was born and bred in Molokai, can talk. Her life is like a soap opera. I learned about her children in detail, her cousins, and her friends.
We visited two churches built by Father Damien, a Catholic priest from Belgium, who came to Molokai to work at the remote Kalaupapa leper colony.
On the way, we spotted several nenes in a field. Nenes, the Hawaiian goose is said to be endangered. In Volcanoes National Park, we saw many signs for nenes but no bird. My granddaughters kept giggling that nene means “breast” in Chinese.
Then the tour really began.
I had casually mentioned that I was curious about the taro fields mentioned on the Molokai map.
“You want to learn about taro?” Doreen asked. “I can take you to someone who really knows taro.” And we were off to the extreme east end of the small island in the Halawa valley. By now, the road was down to one lane and the driver has to honk her horn to come around a curve. We saw few cars in the Halawa valley.
We parked and walked a path, clearly marked “private.”
“Doreen,” I said. “I’ll follow you anywhere on this island until I see dogs.” Sure enough, we did but they were tied up.
“Pilipo,” she kept yelling. “I really want you to meet Pilipo.”
She found his house and Pilipo Solatorio, a handsome 78-year old man, dressed in a colorful sarong over surfing shorts.
Pilipo grew up in the Halawa Valley, had a conventional career with various island resorts. Now he and his family run a cultural hike and tour of the valley.
“I was chosen to keep the family culture,” Pilipo said. He shows us newspaper clippings of various happenings on the island, including the life-changing 1946 tsunami that moved houses and cleared the valley of trees.
Pilipo tends several taro fields. He explains that the taro leaf is called luau.
“Taro is like a woman. What does the leaf look like?” He asks.
“A vagina?” That was the wrong answer.
“A heart.” Pilipo said. “It’s connected to a long stem like an umbilical cord to the young root, the baby.”
We walked down to his taro patch. He takes off his sandals to wade in the mud and pulls out a taro. He cuts off a chunk with a sharp knife.
“My youngest son came back from Honolulu to learn and keep the family culture.” He now leads visitors through the valley to the waterfall.
“Is he married?” I asked.
“Yes. His wife is still in Honolulu. She has an important job. I don’t know if she’d want to live here.”
It’s tricky. Women don’t follow their husbands anymore. How can his son balance his duty to his ancestors with his duty to his spouse and nuclear family?
Doreen and I took off to the western end of the island, the more “touristy” end. Nothing is touristy in Molokai; it only has 7,000 people. No chain restaurants, motels, not even a McDonald.
How do you find Doreen?
Doreen works for Molokai Day Tours. If the website doesn’t specifically mention Halawa, ask for it and for Doreen. Be flexible, be adventurous, and enjoy.