The Road to Hana

By Tami Schlies

I missed the October meeting this year, but with good reason: I was in Hawaii with my family, basking in surf and sun.  No, I am not writing this to rub it in, but to share with you my sense of the vegetation and especially the fruit.  Our first island was Maui, which was surprisingly dry and brown when we arrived.  This was my first visit to the islands, and I admit I was expecting lush, green jungle, so I was dismayed.

Then I learned that we were on the dry side of the island, which made sense since there were cacti, of all things.  They stopped growing sugar cane on much of Maui 4 years ago, and the vast fields spreading up the hills that had once been green due to irrigation were now nothing but dead, brown grass.  No trees, no shrubs, no cacti – just grass.

On our last day on Maui we were given the opportunity to enjoy a driving tour to the rainforest side, otherwise known as ‘the road to Hana’, by a local named Nobu.  Nobu has lived on Maui all his 78 years, and knows scores of people along the way.  He is well read, and full of tidbits of information he was more than happy to share.  One item of interest to me was that Maui has always been known for its dryness, and that settlers wrote of dust storms sweeping across the middle of the island and covering everything in thick layers of red topsoil.  People complained about the smoke from the sugarcane, but now that they are no longer irrigating, people are complaining about the dust!

Sugarcane is interesting in itself.  The plants get to be about 30 feet tall, though you would never guess because the canes fall over and then curve back up to the sky again.  They are VERY thirsty, requiring one ton of water in order to produce one pound of sugar.  In order to harvest the cane, they burn the field, since the stalks do not burn, which removes the sharp leaves and other vegitational debris before the machines move in.

The other crop we tend to think of from Hawaii is, of course, pineapple.  My son, who does not like pineapple because it “hurts his mouth” discovered that he does like pineapple in Hawaii, likely because we were eating Maui Gold pinapple.  Maui Gold pineapple is well known throughout the islands.  It is a very golden color, matched by a buttery flavor low in acid (so it does not burn your mouth).  We made sure to visit the farmers market several times to replenish our supply.

On the way to the rainy side, we stopped at one of Nobu’s friends houses in the higher elevations and picked a fresh chermoya.  You may have seen these fruit at extraordinary prices in the specialty section of the grocery store.  I had never known what to do with one before now.  It is a funny looking scaled green fruit, best served chilled.  When ripe, it is a dirty green and yields to the touch like a ripe peach.  You peel it and remove the big black seeds, then eat it!  Mmmm.  Rather like tangy custard.

Before reaching the rainforest, we traveled through land belonging to the native Hawaiians that was still natural and undeveloped.  Even the road became unpaved and narrow.  The beginning of October is the beginning of their rainy season, but the rains had not come yet, so much of the vegetation was dormant and leafless, making the desert even more desiccated looking.  It was dry red earth, filled with large black volcanic stones.  The ancient Hawaiian kings would parcel out land to their nobility, and the boundaries of each parcel were outlined with short walls built of this rough stone.  Many of these walls still stand today, without the aid of mortar, running from the tops of hills clear down to where the breakers meet the coastline.

The view to our right was fantastic, undisturbed coastline and black lava flows out into the ocean.  There are no water sources on a year round basis in this area, so the few meager houses had rainwater storage systems (okay, big covered pits with signs warning water thieves away.)  Water was a feast or famine situation, here, for flash floods had carved deep ravines through the land from mountain top to ocean, but they held no water during our tour.

The line between rain forest and desert was abrupt.  A line of green appeared ahead, and suddenly the wiliwili trees that had been bare around us were the lime green of new growth.  Things only got greener from here on out.

We passed by numerous celebrity homes on this side of Maui, though I cannot remember specifically whose (Nobu was not friends with these people!)  I do remember multitudes of mango trees, with fruit popping under our tires.  I held my hand out the window, joking that I would catch one, until Nobu pulled over and I scoured the fallen for acceptable snacks.  Oh, I have never had such wonderful mango in my life as those small, freshly fallen gems.  I pulled the thick flesh away with my teeth and didn’t even mind the strings that caught between my teeth as I slurped the pulp from the seed.

With a few mangoes in my backpack for later, we continued on, Nobu now realizing how into the FRUIT I was, as much as the scenery.  He stopped at a wild lilikoi vine (we call them passionfruit) and pulled several for us, cutting them in half so we could savor the tart, pulpy seeds inside.  He rambled on about lilikoi chiffon pie and preserves that he made which I would not get to try because we were leaving tomorrow.

We stopped at a church to use the restroom and Nobu picked some fragrant plumeria for the ladies to tuck behind our ears.  A wild noni plant grew at the edge of the cultivated graveyard on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  The fruit of this plant has long been used medicinally by natives, and is now gaining more popular and scientific scrutiny as to its properties.  It contains a natural healing element called ‘xeronine’ and has been used for everything from sore throats to fever reduction to bruises.  It grows on a shrub, and the fruit is called a syncarp, which is the result of many flowers developing into one fruit.

Next stop was a house with a gigantic breadfruit tree in the front yard, the pavement before it littered with splotches where the fruit had fallen.  Nobu introduced us to Mr. Kestrel, who graciously gave me a ripe breadfruit and instructions on how to cook it.  We were told it tasted like sweet potatoes, which was not entirely untrue, but it tasted like so much more than that.  I have no words to describe it but ‘tropical.’  The native Hawaiians feed ripe breadfruit to their babies as a first food, and attribute it to ensuring the survival of their children.

To reach Hana, one must travel a one lane road around the twists and turns of the coastline, with a sheer wall on one side and a steep cliff on the other, reminiscent of how the Seward highway between Anchorage and Girdwood used to be before they renovated it.  Slim bridges cross multitudes of gullies and waterfalls, requiring a stop and a horn blast before crossing to alert any oncoming cars around the bend that we were coming.

Wild coconuts, guava, papaya, lilikoi, banana, coffee beans and many other fruits dotted the hills along with the beautiful, yet highly invasive introduced African Tulip Tree.  Hawaii has stringent agricultural restrictions because EVERYTHING grows there, and grows well.  I even saw cool weather crops – broccoli and cauliflower – at the botanical garden, and they were beautiful and flourishing.  The Hawaiians are fighting a serious battle against several plants that are taking over the native plant life.

Most of the fruits we think of as Hawaiian were introduced at some point in the past, even if it was ages ago by the Polynesians when they migrated to the islands.  I have never really cared for papaya, and found I did not like it any better fresh, not even the ‘strawberry’ papaya.  But I did learn that papaya are actually herbaceaous plants, not trees, though they can reach 30 feet in height.  They have separate sexes, with the male tree producing long flowers and the female short flowers, though most plants cultivated in Hawaii are bisexual.  The plants are interesting in that they just keep growing straight upwards, dropping their branches so they look kind of like palm trees.  New flowers emerge at the juncture of new stems.  The fruits cluster along the scarred trunk at the top.  A papaya plant reaches peak production at 18 months and is pretty much done by 4 years, so commercial growers tear them out and start over very regularly.

Once we reached the vicinity of Hana we were given a tour of the dump, of all places.  It was beautifully landscaped in such a way we would never have guessed it was a dump.  Instead, it looked like the yard of a plantation home, and while the operator/landscaper was not there for our visit, Nobu informed us that luncheon was a regular occurrence with locals at the operator’s invitation.

We stopped in Hana for a picnic lunch, sitting at a picnic table right on the crashing coastline.  The wind had kicked up, and Nobu suddenly told us we’d better gather up and run.  We could not see it, but his eyes were accustomed to interpreting a rainstorm.  Sure enough, before we even crossed the road to the car, a downpour had drenched us and our loaf of bread.  We laughed and finished our meal in our seats before beginning our tour of the agriculture of Hana.

An staple of the ancient Polynesians was the taro plant.  They ate the roots much like potatoes and cooked the leaves much like spinach.  It is the main ingredient for that famous Hawaiian dish called ‘poi.’  Taro has to be grown in continually refreshed (ie. flowing) fresh water, which is a lot of work.  It is a disappearing item in agriculture, as the young Hawaiians would rather be growing marijuana, according to Nobu.  We saw many abandoned fields of terraced water, but we also saw a few that were obviously in production (of taro, not marijuana).

Cattle also abounded on the lands around Hana, and the melodious mooing sounded almost like singing from the high hilltop we stopped at for pictures.  The town itself is very tiny, but the fields around it are vast.  Rooms are at a premium, running around $275 per night in the off season.  As much as I would have liked to stay and investigate more, I was glad we had not opted for an overnight.

Back on the road, we were going to complete a circuit of the island.  In the deep shade under the canopy white ginger grew in profusion.  Nobu stopped and picked a bouquet for the ladies to sniff the rest of the way home.  Rose apples lined the edges of the road, but overhung the drainage ditch too far for us to easily reach them, so I did not get to sample this.

There were several fruit stands we stopped at, selling everything from the giant Chinese orange to whole bunches of bananas.  I got to try ‘apple’ bananas, which are pinkish inside and tangy, and widely loved all over the island.  This type of banana grows shorter than traditional bananas and is less prone to the wind damage which is common on Hawaii.  I also ate ‘lady finger’ bananas, which were tiny yellow bananas with more starch than we are used to but very tasty, too.  There are many types of bananas, and not all of them are edible.  Flowering bananas are very popular landscape plants with beautiful flowers in many shapes, sizes and colors.  Other varieties are grown to use in ropes, cordage, paper, and cloth.

We completed our journey with a stop at Coconut Willy’s, where we picked up freshly baked banana bread still warm from the oven, some killer ‘coconut candy’, and the water of a green coconut.  These coconuts were sitting on a bed of ice in an ice chest with the top portion of the husk removed.  We picked our coconut, and then watched as the booth owner put an ice pick through the monkey’s “mouth” (look closely at the end of the coconut and you’ll see a monkey face.)  She then inserted a straw and we got to enjoy the fresh, sweet fluid before she cracked it open for us to try the “spoon” meat, which is very different from the meat of a mature coconut.

Bellies full, we headed back for the other side of the island.  I hope I was able to give you a little taste of my wonder and excitement on this journey.  If you travel to Maui, the road to Hana is a definite must see.