“Numbah One day of Christmas, my tutu gave to me/One mynah bird in one papaya tree.”
–Hawaiian pidgin holiday song, Kenny/Magoon/Phelps (1959)
I first arrived on Maui 31 years ago, the Monday before Thanksgiving, just in time to body surf my way into the holiday season.
Stepping onto the tarmac at Honolulu Airport for the first time, I was caressed by the tropical humidity, laden with the combined aromas of plumeria flowers and jet fuel. The effect was intoxicating.
Back in 1977, the humble Kahului airport lobby wrapped around a large banyan tree. Each evening, a large ‘ohana of mynah birds would fill its branches with their fluttering and chattering. Suitcases were unloaded off to one side, not on the imposing metallic oval carousels of today.
My college buddy and I rented a car and set out to find a third college friend, who had ventured to Maui a year earlier. A block after leaving the airport, we were drawn into the T-shirt factory outlet store, seduced by the sign offering free ice-cold pineapple juice.
On our way up the palm tree lined Ka’ahumanu Avenue we picked up a hitchhiker who had been on the same flight. As we crested the hill into Wailuku town, she began to chant Hare Krishna. We had just passed the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, where Stillwell’s bakery now is located, and she said she was chanting for all the dead chickens. A few days later, we drove through Paia and saw that she had found her way to that eclectic haven.
On Thanksgiving we were welcomed at a feast in a Ma’alaea condo, overlooking the ocean on one side and the expansive fields of sugar cane, just beginning to throw their silvery tassels towards the sunlight, to the north. Someone cooked breadfruit, adding an island flair to the standard fair and we opened the bottle of champagne that I had been awarded for most closely guesstimating the halfway time of the flight to Hawaii.
Within a week, I found a job, waiting tables at Tony Habib’s La Familia restaurant on Vineyard Street (now Saeng Thai). Waiting at The Maui News for their afternoon paper to hit the streets, I perused the classifieds and found a 1970 Toyota Corona, robin’s egg blue, for $700.
Finding a decent place to stay proved a bit more challenging.
My buddy Jeff and I did a fair amount of couch surfing, including with a friend who was renting one of the Nona Lani cottages in North Kihei, which is among only a few places that have retained their quaint local character over the years. Eventually we found a two bedroom rental in Ku’au, priced at $325 monthly. However, it was not available until January 15.
So it was that Jeff and I found ourselves camping under the kiawe trees at Ma’alaea on my first Christmas away from home. Jeff found employment cooking at La Familia; we worked the lunch shift, played basketball or tennis, jumped in the ocean and body-surfed, then found our way to the popular nighttime camping spot on North Kihei Road. We had landed in paradise and were living humble, happy lives.
In keeping with the holiday spirit, our new restaurant boss gave all his employees a bottle of wine, even those of us who had only worked there for a few weeks. Jeff and I split a bottle of Valpolicella red as we sat underneath the starry skies, with the sound of the waves soon soothing us into slumber.
On Christmas Day, we cruised into Kihei, content to toss a Frisbee at the beach, in lieu of opening presents with family around the tree. At Charley Young’s beach, my college classmates ran into acquaintances they had met while working at the Hotel Intercontinental in Wailea, shortly after it opened the previous year.
Hearing that we had no place to go, they invited us to their Christmas feast. Their tiny Walaka Street apartment brimmed with the warmth and merriment of gathering and fellowship. Years later, one of our hosts, Kevin Cyr, would continue finding ways to bring people together through his work with Hope Chapel, while his son, Sam, grew and honed his skills to win the MIL golf championship.
That same December, we found a place where we could enjoy a college pastime—shooting pool—in the dark confines of Charley’s Saloon in Paia, behind the popular restaurant-by-day named after the famous Great Dane. We three not-so-wise haole boys from the Mainland may have been naïve in walking into this “locals only” hangout, but were nevertheless greeted with aloha—and a little curiosity.
One lanky, affable fellow took great care to instruct us in the proper pronunciation of the holiday salutations: “Mele Kalikamaka and a Hau’oli Makahiki Hou.” In the months and years that followed, I would sometimes see Eddie “Too Tall” Wilson playing his trumpet, sitting in with David Paquette’s barrelhouse, New Orleans-style stride piano at the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina.
A few years later, I worked a Christmas Eve shift at La Familia in Wailuku. On my way home to Ku’au, my 1972 Datsun 510 began to sputter as I passed the Humane Society at the bend of Ka’ahumanu Avenue and Hana Highway. I managed to pull off in front of the Gas Company and Hopaco, the car’s electrical system malfunctioning like a wayward strand of Christmas lights.
This was the pre-cell phone era, so I had little choice but to attach a note to my windshield imploring the police to have mercy and to hitch a ride home. With a bare trickle of cars passing, I walked to the Dairy Road intersection, beyond which the Hana Highway was a two-lane road. Soon, a kind gentleman gave me a ride to my doorstep. On Christmas Day we drove into town and retrieved my car, which mercifully had not been towed.
Years passed and I became accustomed to the subtle changing of the seasons in Hawaii. Pointsettias began to show their color, Upcountry residents and downtown merchants would wrap holiday lights around palm trees or plumerias and suddenly an onslaught of tourists would arrive the weekend before Christmas. The influx of green to the local economy was even more perceptible than after pakalolo harvest in the days before Operation Greenharvest.
Each year, Christmas meant cards and gifts mailed away, the crazy gift-exchange game at holiday parties with co-workers and friends and making repeated calls to family on the Mainland, only to be greeted with the automated reply, “All circuits are busy at this time…”
Fast forward to 1998, the year I met Heather. Soon after we met, she was off to India for a month, one of the musicians on an ambitious tour with a troupe of Tara dancers. Her adventures even took her to Dharmasala, where they received traditional kata blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Upon returning home, Heather was quite exhausted, and took a couple weeks to find her rhythm and recoup her energy. By then, the house-sitting arrangement I’d hoped would last through the holidays abruptly changed. Despite my 20 years on Maui and numerous friends to call on, we were unsuccessful in finding a home to share. As Christmas drew near, the prospects were dim. It seemed more and more like Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn.
Finally, I called friends in Makawao, who gave us a kama’aina deal on their vacation rental for a few nights while boxes of belongings were stacked in the garage of a former Haiku Community Association president. Thanks for your kindness, Paul and Charlene Santos and Sam Clark.
Heather and I joked that if we could get through being homeless during the holidays, we could get through anything. A year and a half later, we got married.
The following Christmas, we drove to a brunch gathering in Paia and stopped on our way home at the bluff just past Hookipa Beach Park. Monster surf was rolling in, and we walked out into the pasture to witness its raw power and sheer beauty. Our bellies full, we laid back in the sun and closed our eyes, feeling the waves thunder in the ground beneath us.
I awoke to find a very large cow licking my foot, her tongue seemingly as big as my head. An entire herd of curious onlookers had surrounded us. It was a totally unexpected scene that makes me laugh even to this day.
With our holiday cards and a gift or two already in the mail to Mainland family, Heather and I are planning this year’s Christmas Eve gathering. We have invited old friends and new for a potluck, singing and dancing. Our celebrations gravitate toward non-denominational inclusiveness, or “free-range” praise of various beliefs and paths. Thus, it is likely that we’ll sing to Lord Krishna as well as the baby Jesus, perhaps an indication that my own circuitous path through 31 years on Maui has come full circle.
Here’s hoping that this holiday season finds everyone with a roof over their heads, enough to eat and hearts filled with gratitude and love. MTW