Fire on the Mountain

From the moment we stepped onto the island, it was all about the volcano. The lava fields surrounding the airport were stark and spooky, stretching out for miles in every direction. The heat was gripping, but not oppressive. The air tasted alive.

We checked into our hotel in Kona just in time to register for their luau, which sounded super cheesy – Firenesia! – but how could I visit Hawaii for the first time and not go to a luau? Especially since the Kozlet is crazy about hula dancing? We knew he would love the show because it  followed a storyline meant to link the various Polynesian cultures and mythologies – and was all about fire! The Kozlet was, as expected, completely enchanted, and Mr. Koz and I were also very satisfied with the show (although the bottomless mai tai’s didn’t hurt a bit).

We spent three nights in Kona. Thanks to the three hour time difference, I was up every morning to watch the day break over the lava shoreline while mongooses slinked across the well manicured strip of land which separated our hotel from the sea. The lava was ever-present,  jutting black rocks with life springing from every crevice, making me feel solemn and joyful at the same time. It’s said that to remove pieces of lava from the island will bring bad luck to the thief, and every year numerous packages arrive by post rattling with returned rocks, accompanied by tales of woe and profoundest apologies.

Our first day trip was to the Place of Refuge, which had once been a royal retreat, with a heiau (temple) where a condemned Hawaiian could go to receive a pardon for breaking kapu (taboo). True to its name, the place was an oasis of tranquility; still those black rocks were there, speaking boldly of not so distant fiery origins.  In the gift shop we were all drawn to a beautiful little book about the volcano goddess Pele, by the artist Herb Kawainui Kane. We decided it would be a good souvenir for the family to share.

The next day I got seasick on a day cruise. At first I was fine, watching dolphins from the big glass-bottomed boat, but then I went into the hot and confining bathroom and felt the pitching of the ocean without a horizon to steady my gaze upon. I might have recovered if not for an outrageously spoiled toddler on the boat who seemed to make a special effort to scream near my head any time I tried to lie down. The boat guide kept on pointing out various locations along the shoreline that had been favorite haunts of the Hollywood elite in the 1920’s and 30’s, but I didn’t even want to think about Hollywood at that point. There was a very nice kid-oriented hula show on board, which I managed to sit up through long enough to watch the Kozlet ham it up in a grass skirt. Once we got off the boat we walked around downtown Kona, which was very nice, but I ended up with a headache that lasted the rest of the day and half the next. Back at the hotel, that jungle smell was starting to get to me. I spent a lot of time in the tropics when I was a kid, which I’d generally rather not think about too much, and smells have a way of jetting you back in time. I was ready to move on. Luckily, our itinerary had us leaving the next morning for the other side of the island, where the volcano lives.

On the way to Hilo, we decided to stop at a place called Laupahoehoe Point, for the simple reason that the Kozlet once danced in a hula recital to a song about the happy boy from Laupahoehoe. I didn’t actually know what to expect from the place. We followed the road until it ended at a dazzling spot where the lava met the sea. Huge boulders lay silhouetted against the sky, which reflected back in mirror pools at the ocean’s edge. The view was both soft and stark: fluffy clouds and jagged rocks, a young tree sprouting from a crevice near the eerie remains of what had evidently once been a train station, crumbling there at the edge of the lava’s flow. I’d never felt so strongly the presence of that archetypal chthonic earth mother, with her power to create as well as destroy. I felt safe in her arms right then. My headache disappeared as the sky seemed to open, and the setting sun washed over us, turning the rocks golden for a few glorious moments before dusk set in and the biting insects arrived.

The next day we set out for Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to see the crater. We got there early and went to the Visitor Center, where they showed us a vintage film reel that was weirdly soporific in its effect. As soon as the lights dimmed, I was transported back to junior high, being lulled into a stupor by an old documentary with a formal, passionless male voice narrating the scene to a dramatic Wagnerian soundtrack. I’m sure the great lava fountain that erupted in 1959 must have been very impressive if you were there, but throughout the duration of the program I kept finding myself waking up with a start.

We spent the rest of the day looking at craters and lava fields. First we visited the smoking caldera of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, very home to the fire goddess herself. The crater steamed gently away from the viewing deck outside the Jaggar Museum, as if Pele were humming distractedly to herself while we walked around in her yard. It seemed like the kind of place where one ought to be quiet, so naturally just then a family arrived with a small child who had, regrettably, been given a plastic whistle with which to keep himself amused. Some workers were fixing a door right next to a reproduction of Herb Kane’s beautiful portrait of Pele, so I couldn’t get a good look at it. We decided to tour the rest of the park and come back to see the caldera again after dark. We drove around looking at steam vents coming up through lush jungle growth, interspersed with vast swathes of black rock, stopping periodically to get out and look at the landscape which had frozen in time, capturing the rolling, gushing, swirling motion of the molten rock. The barren fields looked timeless, but the signs dotted here and there told me that many of these lava flows occurred after I was born.

Usually when we go on vacation, we haul along the same old tunes and drive around listening to them in whatever format the car can play. CD’s, MP3’s whatever. This time, as we were packing, I made a last minute decision to leave the music at home. I figured I can listen to the Kinks any time, but this was going to be my only chance to listen to Hawai’i.  It was the right choice. All of us were more present and more attuned than usual. The island was full of beautiful sounds. Gentle music, ocean waves, rustling palms, birds, frogs. No helicopters. No sirens. I forgot those things existed. Compared to the volcano, nothing else seemed real.

A lava tube is a long cave that is formed when a fast moving river of lava cools and hardens on the outside while the molten center continues gushing forth, emptying out one end until all that remains is a hollow channel. The Thurston Lava Tube is easily accessible and partially lit up for visitors.  Beyond a certain point, however, the electrical wiring ends, and you are on your own. We had brought flashlights, and so ventured on into the darkness. It was damp and tree roots were growing in through the ceiling. Luckily I am not prone to claustrophobia, for the farther in we got the thicker the air seemed to grow, as if we were heading to the source of some unseen energy. Toward the end of the tube we agreed to turn off the flashlights and stood in the pitch dark for a few creepy moments. Peering around once again, my flashlight glanced across an unusual formation: a vertical niche in the surface of the black rock wall that shone bright red in its interior. It reminded me of a myth I had just read in our new book. Pele was with her sister Kapo, when the hog-man demigod Kamapua’a decided he wanted her. Kapo, quite conveniently, had a detachable vagina, and to save her sister she threw it aside, distracting Kamapua’a long enough for them to escape. It’s said to have left an imprint on a hill in Oahu called Kohelepelepe, which means “detached vagina.” Giggle all you like, but remember that natural yoni formations, viewed as symbols of life itself, were sacred to many ancient cultures, and the only reason people are embarrassed to look at them now is because of a few thousand years of patriarchal indoctrination.

After the lava tube we left the park and drove to the town of Volcano for lunch. A pretty little restaurant, called appropriately, if a little redundantly, Thai Thai, was where we had just about our best meal on the whole island. Their curry was wonderfully fragrant, artistically plated, and the service was excellent. I ordered my dish as hot as they could make it, “Thai hot” as they called it, “On a scale of one to ten, it’s a twelve.” It was delicious, but it wasn’t really that spicy. I had noticed that the local cooking doesn’t seem to use much chili, which surprised me, being accustomed to associating Asian cultures with piquant cuisine. Also conspicuously absent were dusty-footed children reaching up with outstretched hands, lepers lying on ragged mats by the roadside, and mangy dogs rummaging in open sewers. I kept having Asia flashbacks whenever I would smell the jungle or pass a slightly ramshackle house on stilts surrounded by papaya trees and sugar cane, but at the same time it never left my attention that I was still in the richest nation in the world. I knew I could stop anywhere and find a decent bathroom. There was remarkably little trash anywhere, in fact, much less than on the mainland.

After more sightseeing around the park and, by Kozlet’s request, one more visit to the lit-up portion of the lava tube, we headed back to the Kilauea caldera as the sun went down. If Pele had seemed like she was distracted or napping during the day, she was awake now. The crater was glowing in the darkness, illuminating redly the billows of streaming smoke. The workers had gone, and now Kozlet and I were able to wander the museum freely while Mr. Koz stayed outside to take pictures.

In addition to exhibits of lava rocks, volcanic glass, seismographs, and the like, Herb Kane’s artwork graced a number of large photomurals situated throughout the museum. Our favorite was a depiction of the Hawaiian pantheon, which we had seen in our book: Pele in three of her guises at the center, surrounded by her sisters and brothers, and her consort Kamapua’a (she eventually got over her hang-up about guys with really hairy backs who can turn into eight-eyed pigs). I pointed out to Kozlet that the form Pele was taking that night, which we could see by looking out at the glowing crater, was Kaluahine, the Old Woman of the Pit. He was thrilled with the concept, and began to walk around chanting “Kaluahine, Kaluahine!” and stopping to tell everyone he met that we were really looking at Kaluahine. We rejoined Mr. Koz, who was pleased with himself for figuring out how to use the self-timer and night settings on our simple camera to capture some really nice shots of the crater glowing in the darkness, and he walked off with Kozlet to look at the murals so I could have some time to gaze at Kaluahine. A fine mist turned into a drizzle, and a breeze blew up, but I felt cozy and warm as I sat mesmerized by the pulsating pit. Finally it was time to go, and we headed back to the hotel.

Kozlet was tuckered out and I was reading in bed when Mr. Koz signaled excitedly for me to take a look at the camera. He was reviewing the pictures we had taken that day, and when he came to the night shots of Kilauea, he found something amazing. Right there, looking at us from the crater was Pele Kaluahine herself, the old woman in her pit. It was an electric moment, simultaneously astounding and terrifying, temporarily paralyzing us both in its breathtaking numinosity. Mr. Koz was beside himself. He had taken the pictures, so it was he Pele had chosen to reveal herself to. I found myself feeling a tad envious, then reminded myself that Pele doesn’t take kindly to rivalry, especially when there’s a man involved.  But he was possessed! He wouldn’t let the camera out of his sight after that, and all he could talk about the next day was Pele. Pele this, Pele that, Pele, Pele, Pele. Something ugly surfaced at dinner that night and began to fester between us in the tropical heat. We were at the purported best restaurant on the island, but I was unable to enjoy my local organic mushroom pie and dragon fruit cocktail, though both were delicious. Chocolate lava cake for dessert only served to make the evening more lugubrious.

GRRRRRRNNNNG. GRRRRRRRRRRNNNG. Kakui! GRRRRRRRRRRNNNNNG. Kakui! Kakui! GRRRRRRRNNNNNNG. That’s what it sounded like at night in our hotel room, with the elevator next door and the frogs outside. Kakui! Kakui! GRRRRRRRNNNNG.

On the morning of our last day in Hilo, I stayed behind to pack while Mr. Koz took the Kozlet to a tiny island in the bay called Coconut Island, little more than a big rock with a few trees on it, which was in view of our lanai. I watched the two little specks I love so dearly cross the bridge, stopping halfway to look at something in the water (it turned out to be a sea turtle). The little specks moved on to the island where they turned and waved at me. I waved back, only a little speck myself, but full to bursting with emotion. When they came back, Mr. Koz and I talked everything over, and the air was cleared. Pele moved her smoke downwind, and with her blessing we headed back to Kona for our last night on the island.

I have this to say about kava bars. Why aren’t there more of them in this world? It took us a while to find Kanaka Kava, hidden outdoors in plain view at a shopping center just down the street from our hotel, but when we did I felt like we had been granted a reward for getting through an ordeal. As soon as I sank onto the wooden bench, before I’d even tasted the drink, I felt my whole body relax, like I’d just come home after a hard day at work. The kava was mildly bitter, but not unpleasant, and after a few sips it was very pleasant indeed. A couple of coconut shells of the elixir, ladled ceremoniously out of a large communal bowl, with a platter of juicy tropical fruit to sweeten the palate, and a gorgeous view in either direction (the ocean or the bartender, take your pick) and that is what I call paradise.

Our last night was great fun. We stayed at the recently refurbished King Kamehameha Hotel, which was built in on the grounds of its namesake’s favorite homestead and personal heiau. The sprawling hotel lobby was like a museum, filled with glass cases full of old Hawaiian artifacts, photographs and historical placards, as well as a large painting by Herb Kane. The hotel was having their luau out on the grounds, so the dining room was completely empty when we went down for dinner. We could see the stage through the window from our table, and when a sudden downpour cut the show off in the middle of their fire dance and sent the audience running back to the hotel for cover, I felt grateful to be with my two favorite people on the best vacation I’ve ever had, and ready to go home.

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