What’s Right With Tacoma: Kauai, we love you like a mango

  • 12th MAN IN PARADISE. From Waimea Canyon to Hanalei Bay, you could find a wise Western Washingtonian in any clump of Kauai tourists. (Photo by Kathleen Merryman)

Had you gone to any pool at any resort on Kauai last month, it's a fair bet you would have found a Washingtonian there.

“You people are everywhere,” one Midwesterner told me in the hot tub at Kapaa Shores around Christmas a couple months ago.

That begged the question: “Why aren't you people everywhere here? You're the ones with the polar vortex. How come you didn't put an escape plan in place last June? Did you ever consider that you might not have a football team in the playoffs, and you might need to recover out of town? Or off the continent?”

Not that I actually said that. I'm almost ashamed I thought it. It was not, after all, in the Aloha spirit.

If you are all Aloha, you don't brag on your region's superior vacation planning. If someone wants to cut a hole in a lake to fish instead of surf-casting at Kehaka, that's fine. Baffling, but fine.

But that woman was correct. We were everywhere on the Garden Island, and probably still are. We of the Great Northwet (CQ) shift onto Kauai as if it were our second home, the one with 'ulu and mango trees in the yard instead of apples.

'Ulu, in case you were wondering, is breadfruit. The trick is to let it ripen until it falls off the tree, nab it before the bugs do, then eat it when it is soft. The scientists at the Breadfruit Institute on Kauai think it may solve world hunger. I think it makes lots of ants happy, and that the Koloa Rum Co. should try to distill it into vodka.

Kauai, like our green and fertile land, is all over the farm-to-table trend, with microbreweries, restaurants that list the farms and towns where their greens, lamb, fruit and beef grew up. People arrive half an hour early for the farmers markets, and the farmers are staging more markets to meet the demand.

We recognize that exercise in sustainability, honor it with our tourist dollars and build daydream schemes that convert us into locals. We test out the other islands, but we come back to Kauai, our sweeter, slower county (CQ) cousin, the one who, as Tony the gardener said, leaves the light on for us.

It's not that the island is free of care. It has plenty.

Our children and grandchildren live there, and tell stories of treacherous landlords, expensive everything, battered vehicles, fickle tourism, neighborhood druggers and big rains. The island can kill you without any human help at all – the coconut to the head, the rip tide, the slippery rock, the flash flood.

But it is drenched in Aloha, the culture of getting along in a place where the only way out is an airline ticket. If you make trouble on Kauai, you're going to get caught, or at least earn the stink eye. So you try not to make trouble. You try to make friends. You cherish the best of your friends as ohana – family.

You cultivate patience and practice planning. You are nice, even to strangers. And you pick a mellow soundtrack.

Like the one-bridge Tacoma Narrows, Kauai is a guaranteed traffic jam twice a day. At the choke points it switches from three to two lanes and sticks. You can wait so long so often that you can begin to recognize the inmates gardening, playing volleyball or having a picnic at the county jail, which is barely fenced. The cars aren't going anywhere, and neither are the prisoners.

The radio suits the situation. Rent a car, and the music is almost always set to Island 98.8, an ambling mix of slack key, reggae and ska.

“Trust in God and Listen to Your Mama,” The Shival Experience sings about twice an hour. Otherwise, you'll end up in that situation, playing volleyball.

If you don't heed the “No Ice in Paradise” song, you might end up in the tough jail, by the courthouse in Lihue, or worse, in a contract prison in Texas.

If you stay good, you could get Kauai's most steady job, on the Kuhio Highway's three-lane stretch: Picking up the traffic cones that create two northbound lanes for the commute, then, later in the day, switching them to make the two southbound lanes.

Nobody honks. If you are waiting to enter the road, someone will let you in, and you'll return a shaka wave. It's a small island. If you're mean to a motorist, you might run into them on the way back up or down. You don't want that rep.

You want to be like the big man with two little dogs in a white Ford pickup. He saw us trying to stuff a new Schwinn beach cruiser into a small rental car in the Kmart parking lot.

“Want me to take that for you? Where you going?” He asked. “The dogs are barking 'cause they like you.”

We were headed north. He was headed south. He left with our thanks then circled back. He'd take it north for us after his errand, he said. We would have taken him up on it but we got the handlebars in as we were about to say yes, and mahalo.

There was a new story, like a kukui blossom, every day.

The Foodland checker, the librarian, the massage therapist, the Cap'n. Andy's pitchman, daughters' friends, all living aloha, all treating us as ohana, all inviting us to return the attitude.

“Drop Baby Drop” was our radio soundtrack from Kapaa to Wailua to the airport at Lihue.”I love you like a mango,” The Manao Company sang.

We believed them, and grinned like pineapples.

We of the chilly Northwest have a lot to learn from Kauai's warmth. That's why so many of us keep going back for refresher courses.


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