Friday, April 7, 2017

Ego in Arcadia

‘I forgot my mantra!’ [1]

'Versailles had been horrible.  They were all blind there.’ [2]

Readers of this blog know that I usually write about the Bronze Age. But I recently returned from a trip to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, a home-coming of sorts, and I wrote the following post:

Nail salons, dive shops, curio emporia (including a dozen different places that sell sea shells), chiropractic clinics, over-priced art galleries and jewelry stores, surfboard rentals, tattoo shops, bakeries, and fly-by-night snackeries operating out of the backs of trucks.  This is the essence of the modern Hawaiian economy; tourist-based, service-oriented, and as sturdy as a meringue.

Lahaina is the worst town on Maui.  It’s chock-a-block with tourist traps.  Hordes of tourists wander aimlessly around the hot streets trying to find something to do.  But there is nothing to do beyond shopping; none of it having anything to do with Hawaii.  Marx has never been more obviously correct when he speaks of capitalist commodification.  Every tchotchke that could possibly tempt a hot and bored tourist has been commodified, manufactured in China and sent to some tumbledown building in Lahaina or Pa’ia.   

The unfortunate aspect of all this is that there is something uniquely Hawaiian in Lahaina.  There is, right on the edge of the tourist district, the royal compound of the Hawaiian kings who, for a time, ruled Maui and then all the Hawaiian islands, from it.  Today it’s a large empty space, airless and hot, with occasional breezes that stir the red dust.[3]  You can see it here on Google Earth.

Royal Compound located just on the south edge of Lahaina on Maui.

  Not one tourist in a thousand even knows about it and no one bothers to visit it.  I’ve explored this space twice and both times I’ve had it to myself.  Its importance cannot be overstated; it is strongly reminiscent of similar royal compounds in Tonga.[4] But these days it is bare and denuded; the unwashed tourist horde trudges on, uncaring, oblivious.

Just up the hill from Lahaina town is Lahainaluna School which was founded in 1831.[5]  It was here, early in the nineteenth century that the chroniclers of Hawaiian customs and history began that great work of oral collection that saved much of Hawaiian history and tradition for posterity.  At that time Hawaii had the highest literacy rate in the world.  Today the pathetic remnants of a once great people cling to the shreds of what they erroneously suppose is their culture.  They are led by opportunists, charlatans, and crooks and they have no higher purpose than to make nuisances of themselves at public hearings.[6]

The first time the North Koreans launch a missile that comes anywhere near Hawaii – mark my words - the entire tourist economy of Hawaii will collapse.  No one would willingly fly into a nuclear missile target zone.  Absurdly expensive shell necklaces can be purchased just as easily in the Caribbean and since the tourist industry carefully strips away any specifically Hawaiian content from its bubble there is no other reason for the average tourist to visit the islands.  Selfies can be taken anywhere.

Sometimes being on Maui makes you feel like a spy on the 1%.  I wanted to go on a true sailing ship while we were here.  S. arranged this and so, one late afternoon, we boarded the Scotch Mist II out of Lahaina harbor.[7]   Most of the other passengers looked as though they’d stepped out of a Lexus commercial and my immediate seat mate was the retired owner of an insurance business.  My 99% confreres will be happy to know that during the entire two-hour cruise the other passengers discussed the finer points of golf courses on Maui.   This while the opioid plague devastates Middle America and the House Intelligence Committee is busy drowning itself in a morass of offensive and imbecilic lies.  But, no harm, no foul, I guess.

One important thing that I’ve noticed in Hawaii is the virtual absence of local people from the shops.  Shop after shop, no matter where you go, is staffed by Caucasians.  This is disturbing;  I was raised in the islands and I can assure you that this does not reflect the Hawaiian reality.  I first noticed this on Kauai, a couple of years ago.  Even on the North shore of that island, deep in the country and far from the crowds of Lihue, every shop was staffed by caucasians, oftener than not women.  Where are the local people?  They’ve gone to Las Vegas, Reno, or Sparks in Nevada.  They’ve gone to Los Angeles, the Central Valley, or the Bay Area in California.  They’ve left Hawaii for what they hope are better jobs on the Mainland, abandoning the islands to the Uberati, those denizens of the gig-economy who spend part of the year wandering and surfing and the other part in gigs at the store-front businesses I mentioned at the beginning.  Crap economy, crap life-plans.

I met such a young man yesterday in a coffee shop in Makawao.  He was from Taiwan, he said, and was taking the day off from his employment as a massage therapist.  He talked to me about his extensive travels in south-east Asia and on the US mainland.  He uses massage to earn money when he needs to.  He was a good example of the kind of floating new age spirituality that's so common now.  He ranked the several Hawaiian Islands in terms of their spiritual power, spoke of the healing powers of Atha yoga, and minutely described his chakras.  He was quite serious about all this.  I don’t doubt that, had the opportunity presented itself, he would have prestidigitated a Tarot deck and told my fortune.  He was an energetic and amusing talker; at one point he demonstrated his massage technique on my left hand and, although it felt great, it was all I could do to repossess my own hand.  (His fingers were like steel rods.)  But, all the while, I was thinking to myself, ‘there go thousands’.

Is there anything else worth-while on Maui?   Sure.  I recommend the drive to the south coast of Maui.  The south coast is not seen by many tourists as it has the undeserved reputation of being hard to access.  The maps which the rental car companies distribute all say that driving on the south coast of Maui may void your warranty.  This isn’t true but the warning is effective nonetheless and the average visitor has the whole south of Maui pretty much to himself.   The gateway to the south coast is not through Hana but through Ulupalakua.  

The road from Ulupalakua (L) towards Kau'po (R) on South Maui.
Click to enlarge.

To reach it you take the road to Haleakala and go south from Kula.  From there you proceed through Ulupalakua, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, and continue south.  You’ll find yourself on a newly-paved two lane country road driving towards the coast and down from the slopes of Haleakala.  You are now on the great south shield of the volcano with a glorious view to the east of miles of grassy and empty country.

South slopes of Haleakala Crater, Maui.

   On the south the whitecaps of the central Pacific stretch away to the horizon.  The wind here can be fierce since weather coming from the south is compressed between Haleakala and the uplands of west Maui.  This restricts the passage of air masses with a resulting increase in their speed of movement.  The winds of south Maui can more than match the Mistral which the Provençals say can blow the ears off a donkey.  

The view of this upland is unforgettable.  You can go all the way to Hana on this road but I don’t recommend it.  You can turn around after a few miles; perhaps you might like to go as far as Kau’po.  The old store in Kau’po is closed (condemned, actually), no matter what the guide books say and, a few miles before it, the road stops being nicely paved and becomes a broken asphalt track.  That's a good place to turn around for the return to Ulupalakua.

In ancient times this area of Maui was the scene of a great agricultural experiment in dry-land cultivation.  Thousands of Hawaiian people terraced and cultivated these vast leeward slopes into gardens for sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and yams.[8]  This is the dry side, the leeward side, of Maui and this type of rain-dependent dry-land agriculture was only pioneered late in the sequence of Hawaiian colonization.  All the well-watered lands of the windward sides of all the islands had to be filled up to the point where additional cultivation was impossible before the dry lands on the south side of Haleakala (as well as on the Kohala slopes of Hawaii island) were attempted.  As I said this area was the scene of a vast and successful agricultural enterprise and on these slopes you may still see the resulting field and plot walls.  In places they were quite dense as the Google Earth image, will show.[9] 

Linear features mark the remnants of field walls from the eighteenth century.
This is from Maui, near the town of Kau'po.  Cp. to Kirch, [2009], p. 272, fig. 4.

Coordinates are for the center of the picture.

Kirch estimates that these areas were not attempted at all until some time in the fourteenth century.

After 1778, with the coming of the outside world to Hawaii, the native population was severely decreased.  Nine out of ten Hawaiians died. The yam-bearing slopes were abandoned and turned over to cattle.  Today the fields and the people are gone.  The terraces and walls have nearly vanished through two centuries of neglect.  The immense, nearly forgotten, heiaus (temples) which the kings of Maui once built here are now covered by the invasive guava, kukuihaole koa, hala, mango, and jacaranda.  You, brief visitor, are in fleeting possession of what was once the bread basket of Maui.

As I stood there, gazing upwards to the Kau’po gap, I noticed that from the wind-whipped pili grass, which the ancient Hawaiians used for their huts and baskets, there arises the warm aroma of coriander.


[1] Allen [1977].

[2] Allen [1933] 527.

[3] Here: 20.869491° N, -156.674642° W

[4] Tongatapu described in Flannery and Marcus [2012], pp. 316-328,

[5] See this.  Lahainaluna School is here: 20.887623° N, -156.662754° W.

[6] Generally a lot of deluded, self-appointed, and self-important historical re-enactors who have no other motivation than money, free land, and notoriety.  The more deluded think that they will become 'kings' and 'queens'.  See this and this.  The Hawaiian Sovereignty movement would like to bring back the Hawaiian monarchy, traditions, and customs and they're willing to do it with Putin's help.  But here's my question.  When the first worker has his throat slit on the altar of the first reconstructed luakini (human sacrifice) heiau will his family be able to sue the new Hawaiian government for wrongful death?  A Hawaiian sovereignist may reply that human sacrifice is an outmoded and barbaric practice that would never be allowed in a 'new' and independent Hawaiian monarchy - thus exposing the sham nature of the entire enterprise.

[7] Here.

[8] See Kirch, et al.[2009]. Kirch [2010], especially 145-154.

[9] Kirch, et al. [2009], fig. 4, p. 272.


Allen [1933]: Allen, Hervey.  Anthony Adverse.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1933.  SBN 03-028400-7.

Allen [1977]: Allen, Woodie and Marshall Brickman.  Annie Hall.  1977.

Flannery and Marcus [2012]: Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus.  The Creation of Inequality; How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire.  Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, Massachusetts.  2012.

Kirch [2010]: Kirch, Patrick V., How Chiefs Became Kings; Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawai’i. University of California Press.  Berkeley, CA.  2010.

Kirch et al. [2009]: Kirch, Patrick V., John Holson, Alexander Baer. "Intensive Dryland Agriculture in Kaupo, Maui, Hawaiian Islands", Asian Perspectives, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 265-290. 2009.  Online here.

No comments:

Post a Comment