In Hawaii, you'll hear a lot of people refer mystically to the "mana of the 'aina." Say what? Mana translates as something like spiritual force, and 'aina means land. The ancient Polynesians of yesteryear and the 50th state's modern-day residents agree on one thing: The towering, incomprehensible islands of Hawaii, arising from an empty space in the vast Pacific, are nothing short of transcendental.
The circular island of Kauai, dangling off the western edge of the main island chain, oozes mana. For five years I lived at the opposite end of the chain on the turbulent, volcanic, and rocky Big Island, and whenever I set foot on cool, neon green Kauai, it always felt composed and unruffled, like a wise grandmother compared to a melodramatic teenager. No wonder travelers from the world over make the long journey to this fertile isle to bask in her healing glow and explore some of the most untrammeled natural spots in the Aloha State.
"We Hawaiians believe in an active spirit that is alive," Nathan Kalama explained to me as we strolled through his thriving backyard, brimming with papaya trees and coconut palms. "We have connections to the past, and to the spirit world."
Nathan is an out gay man living on Kauai, with long hair tied in a ponytail and a laugh like an infectious giggle. The deep lines in his face echo his native wisdom. Nathan is a kumu hula (a mentor of hula dancing), and founded the island's celebrated Mokihana Festival, a weeklong explosion of traditional dance, chants, games, storytelling, and lei making held every September.
Hawaiian culture, outlawed by the missionaries and underground for decades, is now in full renaissance. The near-defunct language is being taught to children in schools. But it's the arts, particularly dance, that is at the forefront of the islands' way of life.
"Hula is the lifeblood of the Hawaiian people," Nathan made sure to emphasize to me.
I understood that the mahu, or gays, had been a vital force behind the preservation of the art form. Like Nathan, most kumu hula I met during my time in Hawaii were proudly gay, harking back to ancient times when homosexuality was not only tolerated but revered.
Kauai is considered the birthplace of hula (although the isle of Molokai also claims the title), adding to the island's mana. I spent time in Kauai driving out to the end of the northern shore, where the highway abruptly ends at the otherworldly Kee Beach. I drove past Lumahai Beach, where Mitzi Gaynor vowed "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair" in the movie South Pacific, and past Kealia Beach, where the burgeoning local LGBT community holds popular Friday night bonfires, since Kauai (with a population less than 60,000) has no gay bar.
But nothing prepared me for Kee Beach, framed by the soaring 2,500-foot ridges of the Na Pali Coast. Kee is home to the most important hula heiau (temple) ruins. Legend has it that hula apprentices had to swim across the shark-infested waters and chant above the roar of the ocean at the temple to become a full kumu hula. (Talk about a tough internship.) To this day, hula dancers travel here to pay tribute to Laka, the patron goddess of the dance.
Kee is also the gateway to one of the most dramatic coastlines in Hawaii, if not the world. You've probably already seen the Na Pali (literally meaning "the cliffs") Coast, since it's been featured in many movies including King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ornately carved by millennia of rain and wind, it's believed the sharp peaks and deep valleys housed the very first Polynesian settlers on the island. Although now the area is devoid of inhabitants and part of a state park, the place is brimming with stories of the hippies, lepers, and hermits who lived here as recently as the 1980s. They all came to hide in the remote region's overwhelming nature that swallows up humans like tiny goldfish.
Part One | Part Two