Commentary: Kama’aina Blues

by Alan McNarie

Kama’aina: someone who’s been here long enough to look at a place in the present, see it as it once was, see it as it will be, and care deeply about all three.  I just spent two days on the Kona side for the first time in years–met my lady friend Kersten’s brother and his wife for the first time and enjoyed the visit, but that enjoyment was tempered by Kama’aina pain. They’d rented a time-share in Waikoloa. I took them to see Kalako-Honokahau National Historic Park, one of my favorite spots on the island: one of the few places left in the islands where, in the past, I’ve seen not just endangered species such as ae’o (black-necked stilts) and ‘alae ke’oke’o (Hawaiian coots), but whole flocks of them. Yesterday, though, all I saw were a single ‘alae ke’oke’o and a few sandpipers. On previous visits I’ve seen dozens of green sea turtles, either hauled out to sun or grazing on algae in the tide pools; yesterday I only saw three or four. I’m hoping that the birds and turtles were just displaced temporarily by the storm, and will return…. Yesterday evening, while Kersten nursed a migraine at our darkened room, I went snorkeling with Kersten’s brother at Anaeho’omalu. We saw only two yellow tangs; almost all 0f the few fish we did observe were small, drab species–probably thanks to the damned aquarium trade.

But one thing was getting more abundant on the Kona Coast:  shopping centers. New developments seemed to be sprouting like fungi all along Highway 19 from Waikoloa to Kailua-Kona. The whole North Kona Coast, which was the home mainly to feral donkeys, a few beach parks and the ruins of ancient Hawaiian villages when I first got here, appears to be on its way to becoming a strip city….

I’m sure many or most of the tourists who sunbathe and play golf at the Waikoloa resorts don’t share this kind of temporal migraine, this painful triple vision; they just see the luxurious cocoon of the resorts, without seeing how much the land is changing. The only glimpses they get of the past may be the petroglyphs along the golf course trails, the romanticized biographies of Hawaiian royalty on the plaques in the King’s Market, and the bowdlerized and inaccurate  “Hawaiian luaus” where they feast on roast pig and pineapple while “hula dancers” shake their hips furiously to the wild rhythms of Tahiti. I think Kersten’s brother and his wife are probably more sensitive than many to these conflicts of place and time; they edit a newsletter for their own community in Arizona, where some of the same conflicts must be happening.  But how could they know that the very place where they came for a happy getaway was arousing such deep conflicts in their resident relatives?  How can they guess that, when our smiles fade too quickly, the smile at seeing them is genuine, but the sadness comes from seeing the land? How can they possibly discern the difference between what we feel about this place and what we feel about them?

How many other visitors notice the tired scowls and forced smiles of the wait help, who likely caught the Hele-On from Puna or Ka’u in the wee hours of the morning in order to reach their minimum-wage jobs? How many of them realize that once, all along this coast, every bay and cove held a Hawaiian village instead of a luxury hotel or subdivision?  How many of them glimpse the pain of what was lost, and will be lost, to give them their few days in an artificial “Paradise”?

And yet it’s not their fault.  They’re trying to get away from their own troubles in their own homes in far-off places, and paying dearly for the privilege.  So we hide our pain and we smile, and some of us get a few dollars from the resorts’ corporate owners to help maintain the illusion.

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the day that I first stepped off the plane in Hilo. Since that day, I’ve worked first as a teacher, then as a paralegal helping the victims of family violence, then as a journalist, giving people information that they needed to know and might not have learned otherwise. I’ve celebrated local artists and local culture, have tracked off-island money in local elections, and have helped to provoke at least four full-fledged grassroots rebellions with the stories I’ve reported. I like to think that I’ve given enough back overall to earn my place on this island that I love so much, though sometimes I wonder.  For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been joking that I was “almost a kama’aina”–and would be until the day I die.

I’m going to stop saying that now.  I’m at least a novice kama’aina.  It hurts too much, now, for me to think I’m anything else. But I know that what I feel is only a scratch compared to the pain of those with older roots. How magnified would my sadness be, if my ancestors had lived in one of those vanished coastal villages–if they’d toiled for generations, piling the rocks of those mighty fishpond dikes at Kaloko-Honokahau? What would I feel if my great-great-grandmother had left my great-grandfather’s piko in one of those holes pecked in the pahoehoe beside what is now the seventh green, but I’m only welcome to come to visit that spot, now, if I’m a corporate employee or the guest of one of the guests? How would I feel if my ancestral village  lay under the foundation of a time-share condo?

There is too much pain, too much sadness deep in the bones of this beautiful island. Kama’aina are the ones who are gifted to feel it.


4 replies
  1. Handyman
    Handyman says:

    Aloha Alan McNarie,

    It is good that you see what we kamaaina’s have seen for quite a few generations, now. You now have wisdom that comes with this moment of enlightenment. The question is, How can this wisdom be applied as a solution to the devastation of what is occurring? I myself, have not come up with an answer. But I certainly want to be a part of the solution.

    Perhaps a meeting of like minded people? I’m always open for discussion concerning this matter. I look forward to the day when the destruction of this paradise comes to a halt.


  2. Puna Ohana
    Puna Ohana says:

    lol, interesting your reflection. I first stepped off a plane in 74′ in Honolulu, when they blew up the Biltmore Hotel in Waikiki. (Went down just like building 7)
    We were living in an apartment that gave us a box seat on the lanai for the show. That was in the middle of the first insane building boom 60-80’s on that island.
    Once upon a time, not even 100 years ago, Kapiolani Park was a swamp.

    Going further away from that madness, Maui was pretty rural in the late 70’s before they built the new sea wall and when Longi’s opened, The Blue Max was da spot. But then they started Kaanapali. The only thing down Makena way was da beach, now it’s a coast long town. Kahului is now like Orange County.

    Back then Kona was sweet. Spindrifter, Margaritaville?lol
    Eclipse for backgammon.They hadn’t focused that far out yet, but it was coming. But yea it’s been some years since I’ve been to Konaland. The new mall by the old airport looks like a cookie cutter replica of some Aurora, Colorado? mall.

    “They”, (big money) will build all these islands out incrementally, just like corporations do globally.
    I don’t want to mention his name but the idiot with the bad hair who’s running for pres. was rumored to be partially responsible for talking to Oprah in mentioning Puna for cheap land at the start of the RE boom 15 years ago.
    I think that was more rumor than fact but funky hair did run some little old lady out of her lifetime home on the East Coast to build some hotel he probably doesn’t even own anymore. So the possibility of the whole water front of HPP being bought up and made in to a resort isn’t beyond possibility. Any and all land regulations/laws can be changed and manipulated to suit who ever has the $$$$.
    The one thing we have going for us in Puna is the lava. Living on a flow plane is one place developers can’t get insurance for so we’ll be the last place developed.
    If it happened there, it can happen here.
    We have maybe 20 more years.

    Progress is like a cancer, the establishment can only treat it. The tallest structure in Hawaii in 1955 was Aloha Tower, which was 10 stories high.

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