Living off the Land in Hawaii

I’m on the Island of Hawaii (the big island) wrapping up a multi-state assignment. I padded the trip by a few days and managed to squeeze out a day in one of my favorite places in the country, the Waipio Valley. A lush, tropical valley on an otherwise barren, black lava-rock island, the Waipio is a sacred place, one of the top sacred places in all of the Hawaiian Islands. As an almost immediate selling point, almost everything you find in the valley is edible. You can’t imagine the scent that precedes the taste; pomelos, tangerines, avocados, star fruit, liliquoi, coffee, bananas and on and on. For each of those, there are a half dozen various species, each with their own unique flavor. What you can’t eat, falls to the floor and ferments, casting a scent reminiscent of a Napa wine cellar, though it often competes with the breeze of the nearby salty blue, Pacific Ocean.

All of that aside, the valley is an anomaly. It was once the place where King Kamehameha ruled over the Hawaiian Islands and is still considered an important place, culturally, with many of the jungle-laden cliffs adorned with more than just foliage and waterfalls but also the tombs of countless Hawaiian princesses. Against that backdrop is also the utter isolation and wild that comes with this far-removed place – only one road in and out and it is only passable with true 4×4 vehicles and even then, the numerous rivers you must cross just to get a mile or two may flood with little warning, stranding you on one side or the other.

Alas, once in, you may meet the crux of my story, Coconut Christopher. Once a Californian, Christopher decided – at an early age – to live a wild life in the Waipio. In 2002, he forgave the luxuries of modernity and went raw. Literally. A diet of only what he could harvest or seed in this lush valley. If picking his own food wasn’t enough, avoiding cooking it was detrimental to his philosophy. Today I met him for the first time, quite wild-eyed and full of charisma. He was intriguing, not just from his extensive knowledge of the flora around us, of which his gaze on a ripe fruit would cause a tangent in conversation, but also because this young man chose a life of  raw, wild living over one of technological-2011 prowess. At one point he recalled being cutting edge with one of the first motorola flip phones. Today he marvels at cross-pollination of species to bring out the vibrancy of flavor in a banana.

I didn’t have enough time to scratch the surface of this complicated jungle fixture but I was assured within moments that he’d be here for awhile and I might come back to catch up more. If he isn’t here, he’s probably on a multi-week sojourn to the farthest depths of the forest where he maintains his many “gardens” fruit, not-so-forbidden. In my only moment of possible photography, he offered me and my companions freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Essentially, sugar water. Lacking cups in the rain forest, he quickly procured his saw and fashioned cups from fallen bamboo. Within moments, we were modernized, jungle-style.

I couldn’t think of something more liberating than his life.  Imagine knowing you could walk for 2-weeks without a cell-phone or even a single ounce of food in a backpack. Would you feel safe? Secure? Coconut Christopher did. He shows that with knowledge, comes power and that knowledge has become a rarity of who we are. Without knowing where we come from, namely the land, how can we ever hope to understand who we are? I hope one day, we can all walk together, not for weeks, but forever into the unknown with nothing.