Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Last Day -- The Sky Cries and the Sea Complains

It is our last full day on Hawaii and it seems to be protesting our departure. Or trying to get rid of us. One or the other.

Yesterday as we made our most ambitious exploration of the coral encrusted lava pools that have been our front yard for over a week, complete with fins to make short work of any currents we might encounter near the outer reef, a gentle rain fell on our backs from time to time from a bright enough sky. I was watching a goat fish tease a meal out of a rare sandy bottom with his chin whiskers until I spotted the biggest puffer fish to date, about the size of a football. I tore after it over a shallow belly bumping shelf into the the best coral “bowl” on the reef, only to have him disappear under a shelf draped with lettuce leaf coral. Popping my head up to reorient myself and spot my husband’s snorkel, I saw a wall of black sweeping in from the open ocean. Concerned that there might be lightning to go with that storm, we put the fins to good use and shot back in to the inner pools at record speed and danced across the lava boulders, reaching our house just as the first lashings of hard rain hit. Grateful we’d had an exceptional few hours in the water we retreated to lunch and our books, and a good afternoon of watching the rain from the covered lanai.

In the evening it had cleared to the south and we decided to explore the coastal road, Highway 137, cutting over to the end of the road on Highway 130, terminated by a lava flow many years ago, and hike out to see the lava and steam where in entered the ocean. The road itself turned into the adventure of the evening. Paved, but narrow and twisting and unpainted, the black asphalt merged imperceptibly with the black lava soil, at places canopied by trees so dense you needed headlights. When we arrived at the entrance to the lava viewing area we were turned back by the park attendants -- the wind had shifted and the sulfurous steam clouds smothered the area, making it unsafe to be there. By bedtime there was quite a storm brewing, with rain lashing the windows and the ocean breaking hard on the reef.

This morning the storm was still with us. The gray and heaving sea was dotted with whitecaps. Waves rearing up over the reef were the color of aqua milk glass, skimming the tops off their sugar white foam, leaving it in the wind behind them as they rolled on. Coupled with an increasing tide, the sea pushed into the coral pools to the point that it seemed we were only on a rocky shore, not a chamber laced miracle.

It cleared a bit this afternoon and we were able to snorkel the coral pools one last time, visiting the fish to see how they were reacting to all this excitement. Between the cloudy skies and the turbulence, the visibility wasn’t quite up to par, but we could still see clearly for 20 feet or so. Plenty clear enough to see the large sea turtle we flushed out of the hanging coral shelf he was sheltering out of. He peered out, realized we weren’t going anywhere as long as he was lingering in the same small pool we were in, not five feet from him, and the last we saw of him was his tail end, booking over a shallow buckle of smooth coral, back towards the open sea. We realized it our time in the water wasn’t going to get better than that, and we let the current take us back to shore.

Tomorrow we’ll head back to our beautiful dry desert, just in time -- I feel odd growths on either side of my neck that could be developing gills. A 90% reduction in humidity and some time in the sun should sort me out. But I will not be surprised when I dream of floating, suspended over a watery world populated by fish well-named parrot, trumpet, and butterfly. Hawaii has not seen the last of us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coral Pools, Frog Choruses, and Returning to the Womb

Where do you go for a special occasion, such as a fifth wedding anniversary, when you live in the desert and spend weeks each year (soon to be months) in the Colorado Rockies? That’s right.

Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii. We are in “outlaw” territory, Puna, far from tourist shops, hotels, restaurants, and anything passing for a crowd, perched on the eastern tip of the most southernly and biggest island in the Hawaiian chain. I’m sitting on the third floor lanai of the house we’ve rented at the edge of an island looking out over the Pacific that is uninterrupted until it hits Mexico. The freshest air in the world is caressing my face. The house is named Kaheka Ko’a (Coral Pools) for it’s location a few feet away from the Wai’opae Marine Preserve of dozens of pools formed from lava spilled from flanks of the most active volcano in the world, Mauna Loa.

There’s oceanfront and then there’s oceanfront. I lived for 15 years in the Caribbean, all of it with a view of the sea, much of it on the edge of it, some of it over it, but this is an amazing spot. This unique little community sits on the edge of a lava flow that wiped out a whole town not 40 years ago. This tiny triangle with its collection of houses ranging from modern luxe renditions of Robinson Crusoe tree houses (like this one) to funky little beach shacks is sandwiched between two sizable lava flows, one from 1955 and one from 1960. It is impossible to ignore the geologic origin of this island. The lava formed pools on our ocean side are countless at low tide, but high tide marries them into just a handful. The view changes constantly, but is consistently stunning.

This dawn is like being front row center for a Rorschach version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade -- a train of enormous cumulus clouds (oh look, that one’s exactly like an elephant -- see the trunk?) is drifting by just off-shore heading down the island, some with veils of rain dragging on the ocean’s surface. The sun has not yet made an appearance, but the backdrop of striped coral and aqua sky marks the spot of her entrance, all reflecting in the maze of pools like a freeform mosaic. The coqui frogs' night-long symphony has given over to the chatter of birds. The gentle surf rolls over the outer reef a few hundred feet offshore.

On morning #3 (out of nine) we are beginning to feel “belongers” here. We know that the man with the long white hair will appear with the sunrise, spread his yoga mat on a flat spot just off our lanai, and do his own version of a sun salute consisting of the same ritualistic stretch routines and meditation. We know the red haired mongoose will scamper onto the lava rocks for a few moments before running back into the tangle of hibiscus trees and coconut palms that he calls home. We pretty much know that every day will get into the low 80's with humidity to match and that there will be sun and shade and a gentle shower that lasts five minutes and then the cycle with start again. Having lived on an island for so much of my life, half a lifetime ago, this is like hearing an old song you haven’t heard for a long long while. You know all the words but can’t quite remember the way you used to dance to it. I’m remembering. It is as close to returning to the womb as you can get after being born. We are up before the show of the dawn starts and struggling to stay awake after 7:30, a battle we give up around 8 pm. The hushed roar of the ocean, the music of the frogs, and the soft onshore breezes billowing the gauzy curtains in our third floor bedroom with its view of the moonlit sea might have something to do with it. We don’t remember sleeping so long or so deeply.

After my initial (and ritualistic) meltdown during my first foray into an island grocery store -- I can almost understand the $5 gallon of milk, but bananas at over a dollar a pound???!!! -- we visited the Hilo farmers' market on Saturday morning and all is once again right with the world. We followed that by a visit to KTA, the Food City of Hawaii, where I scored thick ahi tuna steaks for $8 a pound and some local grass fed beef. Last night I made mahi-mahi, sauteed with butter and the fragrant local lemons and fresh spring onions. With it we had local pumpkin stewed with coconut milk, fresh ginger, a little Asian chili sauce, and cilantro and a salad of all local produce -- lettuces, green and red, arugula, an avocado the size of a grapefruit, and red and yellow tomatoes, dressed with that amazing lemon and macadamian nut oil. The nearest restaurant is over 10 miles of dark deserted road away -- certainly do-able -- but nowhere on this island could beat our ambiance, and there’s no worry about that extra glass of wine so long as you can navigate the stairs to the bedroom.

When we want to snorkel -- every day, often more than once -- we put on suits, swimming shoes, and grab our masks and our fins (though we often don’t bother with those in these pools of calm water). Down the stairs to the ground floor lanai and out across the lava for a hundred feet or so where we drop into the first lava pool. It is like finding yourself in a huge tropical aquarium. Fish are everywhere, and the pools are flocked with corals of every color and description. Large draping corals like castaway petticoats cover the sides, huge globular corals rest on the bottom, finger-like corals reach from lava shelves. Soft peach, every color of beige and taupe, bright pinks, tea-stained orange, deep lavender, periwinkle blue, acid greens and yellows. Giant multi-colored parrot fish munch on the coral with their beak-like mouths. Trigger fish who look like swimming paint-by-number artwork. Eels with green apple fins. Spotted trunkfish maneuvering their rigid box-like bodies with fins that move like hummingbird wings. Huge horned unicorn fish. Un-puffed puffer fish. Butterfly fish with raccoon masks, “eyes” on their backs, herringbone designs, and the elegant yellow, black and white Moorish Idols with their long trailing thread of a dorsal fin. There’s more than you can possibly take in -- each pool is more beautiful than the last -- but we’re going to try by spending hours in the sea every day.

The biggest problems we’ve encountered are keeping track of our flip-flops and remembering to put sunscreen on that little strip of forehead just above your snorkeling mask. Today we will motivate ourselves to get in the car and head to Volcano National Park where we will hike across a lava field that is hardened but still venting steam through its cracked surface, through a lava tube, and into a rain forest. I feel like I’ve waiting all my life to see molten lava, and today is the day I get to see it spilling into the sea.

Tomorrow we’ll resumed our long snorkeling communion with the sea and its fishes.