Posts Tagged With: kailua

Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-060-Edit

Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

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At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

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Downtown Kona

“Kona” is technically a district on the Big Island, whose largest town (and the population center that people tend to refer to as “Kona”) is Kailua. It’s small, with a population of about 12,000, though it swells briefly to 35,000,000 every Wednesday when the cruise ships dock. The larger Kona area — it is hard to think of a town of 12,000 as having suburbs — is home to about 36,000 people. The tourist life of the town proper is of course centered on the waterfront that you see here.

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Then hotel at the far right is the venerable Royal Kona hotel, which is designed to look like a ship. And the not-so-gently sloping horizon is the southern flank of 14,000′ Mauna Loa. As you can see, Kailua’s “skyline” is very un-Waikiki-like, which is very much to our taste.

A few days ago Ali’i Drive, the main drag along the water, was blocked off to auto traffic in order to hold a street fair where, as usual, local vendors showed off their wares and slack-key guitar players were abundant. Hawaii having both a large share of eccentric characters and a lot of tourists would lead you to predict that one would find an array of colorful personalities in such a setting, and you’d be right. So here are a few.

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I call your attention to the fact that lady on the left in the third photo is wearing antennae. And judging from his hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, I am guessing that they guy she is with is arranging a contract hit.

But the real point of discussion here is the impressive tattoo spanning the back of the lady in the bottom photo. It reads “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono“, which is the state motto of Hawaii and officially translates as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. However that translation is — and can only be — approximate, since Hawaiian is a language rooted in mystical reverence for the land and suffused with nuance. One of the big points of contention in this case is the fourth word, “Ea“, which in the official motto translates as “life” but can also be translated as “breath” or — and here’s where things get sticky — “sovereignty”. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a vocal Hawaiian sovereignty movement powered by the considerable array of historical injustices that led to (a) Hawaii being a U.S. state, and (b) only 1-2% of the population still knowing how to speak Hawaiian. (And even that is a big improvement over recent years: as recently as the year 2000 the number of speakers was only one-tenth of what it is now. So the language is enjoying a real resurgence.)

Hawaii is not about to be granted independence any time soon, but is certainly increasingly the case that the original language and culture are enjoying a lot more attention and respect than they did. It is not unlikely that the lady in this photo is part of the sovereignty movement.

So amidst all this diversity did we actually buy anything? Of course we did, though not a lot. We enjoyed another round of homemade fresh lilikoi-banana popsicles (seriously, those things are to die for), and Alice bought a table runner with a Hawaiian pattern. And there was of course food to sample, the most notable being a variety of hot sauces made with local ingredients. My favorite was one made with pineapple and scorpion peppers, which was like a fruity version of boiling lava. Incidentally, the Hawaiian word for “scorpion” is “kopiana”, which if you say it aloud sounds suspiciously like the English word; I find that a little strange since scorpions do exist here and so I’d expect a more Polynesian-sounding indigenous word for them. But never mind — I’ve got to go stuff some aloe leaves into my mouth now.


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We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Winter

As I type this, here is the view out our front door:

snow pan

Snome, sweet snome.

…and it is still snowing. All of which will become irrelevant, if all goes according to plan, since in about a week we will be exchanging it for this view out our front door.

2016-01-23 13_49_57-An Artist's Home on the Big Island - Houses for Rent in Kailua-Kona

Now we’re talkin’.

This is because we have decided to transform into snowbirds this year, about to sojourn in Hawaii for nearly six weeks. Our goals are to escape the winter, do a lot of snorkeling, visit the volcano, hike around, and make our friends jealous.

There is an element of homecoming on this trip, as I lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s as a postdoc at Mauna Kea Observatory. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Hawaii, here’s the picture:

2016-01-23 14_28_01-Hawaii - Google MapsWe chose Kona because it is on the sunny, leeward side of the island. The Big Island is far and away the most diverse of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. Its size is one reason, though at its widest point it is only 93 mi (150 km) across. More importantly, the presence of two 14,000′ (4300m) mountains in the middle of the island, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, break up the terrain into a remarkable number of distinct climate zones. For our purposes the important fact is that the trade winds blow from the east, pick up lots o’ moisture from the Pacific, and collide with those two mountains when they get to Hawaii. That causes the winds to dump all their moisture on the eastern side of the island. Result: Hilo (where I lived) is very rainy, averaging (wait for it) 156″ (4m) of rain a year, whilst Kona gets about 1/3 as much. The temperature is pretty steady throughout the year, with lows of about 70F (19C) and highs of about 82F (28C).

This is an El Niño year, as you may know – one of the most powerful on record, as it happens. What that means for Hawaii is slightly warmer water temperatures than usual (about 80F/27C) and more cloudy days. But we can live with that.

We’ll be enjoying a pretty steady stream of visitors during our stay, and I hope to take a lot of photos, a sampling of which I’ll post here along with the occasional brain dump about Hawaii’s history, geology, etc., along with our own experiences.


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