Thursday, August 8, 2013

Feeding the Fish


Larry the Hawaiian Santa Clause

For those who followed my personal blog when I was in Hawaii,  I referenced Larry a long time ago. For whatever reason, I haven't gotten around to giving him a proper introduction until now.

In September of 2010, I had just settled into my apartment on the North Shore of O'ahu.  I went down to the beach to soak it all in, where I found Larry down by the water making hats out of palm fronds.  When I first saw him, I wondered if he was homeless. I don't know if it's because his clothes were all tattered, his skin worn by the sun, his unguarded and overly-friendly demeanor, or the fact that he was chillin' on the beach making hats for the tourists at 2 in the afternoon on a weekday. But he also had this sagacious presence that reminded me of Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies.

My backyard- Aweoweo Beach Park

I saw he had a few fishing lines in the water, so we started talking about that.  I bragged about how I had become an accomplished spearfisher in Samoa.  His response was, "oh well me, I don't do all that.  I don't even like to say I'm a fisherman.  I'm just out here feeding the fish."  My boyfriend at the time brought us some beers to celebrate our move, and the next thing you know the sun had gone down and Larry was my friend.   Over several months, it became ritual that I surfed after work, but if it was flat, I'd go "feed the fish" on the beach with Larry.

The bike path
 One time I was jogging down the bike path and he pulled over in his white van that had red carpet and always smelled of fish and incense. He honked a few times, and from his window came a freshly sewn plumeria lei (pictured below in a dried-out state). He yelled, "maybe this help you smell mo betta!"

He was always giving me food--  macadamia nuts, fresh fruit and veggies from his farm, fish, leftover plates from BBQs, etc. He even hooked up all these starter plants with local herbs and fruits for my apartment-garden.

Starter plants gifted by Larry
Over time, he taught me how to be a more graceful and patient fisher-woman. I had a goal that I wanted to become skilled in catching prawn. We went out several evenings, but we and always ended up making too much noise to catch anything. Even though I returned many nights covered in mud and empty-handed, he taught me the skills required of a decent water-person-- patience and grace  (sometimes, you're just "feeding the fish"). 

He gave me a ride to Costco once, and if pushing a cart around a Costco in Hawaii during sample hour isn't hard enough, he stopped to talk to nearly everyone in the store who called him by name. He was a celebrity! He, in turn, remembered everyone else's name and their kids' names.  After he helped me unload everything, I tried to give him a big tub of macnuts, some chocolates, and a tub of fresh poke (raw marinated tuna).  It was nearly impossible to get him to accept anything!  When he finally did, I watched him go down to the parking lot to offer the bounty to some people returning from work. 
Waialua Sugar Mill

After several months of "feeding the fish" with Larry, I found out later from my boss at Surf N Sea that Larry was a reputable legend.  He basically ran the electric operations at the Waialua Sugar Mill before he and thousands of other immigrant workers (indentured servants) were laid off. The whole history behind sugar plantations in Hawaii is heartbreaking. They were bought out by big American  companies, and the industry imploded when the supply couldn't match the demand. Waialua, the city where we lived, is something of a "ghost town".

Why did I think he was a bum?  Why/how is the definition of "affluence" so different between Hawaii and the Mainland?

The Economy of Aloha

Ray demonstrating how to remove the beak of the octopus
The more time I spent on the island, the more I realized that Larry's giving nature was not uncommon.  There was Ray, the octopus wrangler with blistered hands who would give me his freshest catch. There were the girls at work who made musubi, baked cupcakes, etc. to share with everyone.  The guy who appeared out of nowhere, gave me a beer, said "aloha" then walked away when I was crying over a breakup on the beach.  The bus driver who pulled over and let me on the bus when it was raining even though I didn't have enough money.  I could dedicate an entirely new post to all the random acts of kindness I received.

With American roots in a Protestant Ethic, it is easy for tourists and transplants to dismiss these happenings as fate, or good karma returned.  But living with this kind of assumption is the reason why haoles have bad reputations.  Aloha isn't just a spiritual belief, it's built into the economy. 

Aloha in itself is an economy.  It literally means, to exchange, or be present in breath.  Aloha means exhaling as effortlessly as inhaling.  It's an economy based on the understanding that the air we breath out serves to nourish the land, and in turn, we are nourished by the land.  It's about our relationship to the wealth around us, and understanding that caring for our community and our land is caring for ourselves.

In America, a land of haoles (not just white people, but literally- "without breath"), I see so many people in an uncertain economy figuratively "holding their breath". What would it take to return to an economy of breath, of abundance, of aloha?

Maybe it's a solution as simple as "feeding the fish".
one of many hats and leis Larry had given me

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