Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Desecration of Mauna Kea

What is happening atop Mauna Kea is a tragedy and a slap in the face to the native Hawaiian people.

(Disclaimer: The author fully appreciates the irony and hypocrisy of taking a van tour atop Mauna Kea with a bunch of haoles and at the same time decrying the destruction and defilement of the mountain top.)

Recently, Tamerlane took a van tour to the top of Mauna Kea. I wanted to go there for a number of reasons, including:
-Test the altitude medication's efficacy before my long trek through the Andes (it worked but it made me piss like a race horse for many nights),
-Reach the top of the tallest mountain in the world (33,000 plus feet, measured from the sea floor up),
-Travel the dreaded Saddle Road (not as bad as I thought),
-See the observatories, and
-See the stars (I saw the Southern Cross for the first time in my life).
Though all of the reasons for my journey were fulfilled, the price was simply too high.

Mauna Kea (or White Mountain) is of tremendous spiritual importance to the Hawaiians. It is white because of the snow that often dusts the peak. It is the home of Poli'ahu, the snow goddess. This is contrasted by Mauna Loa (or Black Mountain), home of Poli'ahu's rival, Pele, the goddess of fire. The number of legends and heiaus (temples) on Mauna Kea speak to its importance.

So what have outsiders done to this sacred locale? They have installed 13 of the world's largest and most sophisticated optical, infared, radio, and submillimeter telescopes on its summit. The environmental degradation is obvious and tragic. Spills of ethylene glycol, diesel, and mercury are par for the course. It's akin to Dick Cheney going to Mecca and taking a massive dump on the Kaaba. I am an ardent supporter of science and thoroughly enjoy and appreciate astronomy. But choosing to plop all of these telescopes on Mauna Kea is the height of cultural insensivity.

But it's not just the nerdy scientists who are to blame. The tourists are doing just as much damage and defiling the mountaintop. When I was up there to see the sunset, there were at least a dozen 15-passenger vans filled with American and Japanese tourists. We all used one of two port-a-potties next to an observatory. They were overflowing with semi-frozen, foul, human waste. Pu'u Wekiu, a very small piece of land, is the highest peak and it is cordoned off and reserved for native Hawaiian ceremonies. But what did I see on my visit? A dozen Japanese 20 somethings ignoring the cordon and racing each other up and down the pu'u, screaming, laughing, and pushing each other. It was disrespectful and sad.

The piece de resistance of my field trip had to be the flame throwing hippy. On our way up, we were passed by four dreadlocked trust-a-farians in an old Isuzu Rodeo. Apparently, one of these no-shower-taking bums had the bright idea of doing a light show at sunset atop Mauna Kea by twirling a gasoline tipped baton. Though the sight was cool, it was a direct insult to Poli'ahu, whose arch-enemy is the FIRE goddess.

We've ravaged the islands enough. Kaho'olawe is uninhabitable due to naval bombardments. Niihau is a desert now. Waikiki is overfilled with hotel highrises. West Maui is more developed than Newport Beach. And,come September, a Superferry will be wreaking havoc from Kauai to the Big Island (and bugging the poor whales in the winter months with "special" whalewatching routes). Let's dismantle the observatories, clean up our mess, and leave the sacred mountain to the snow goddess and her people.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Big Island of Hawaii 5- Ono

Welcome back, loyal readers. Tamerlane spent a relaxing week on the Big Island and has lots to share. Today, I shall share with you my favorite eateries. Most are institutions, but there was a surprise or two. Without further ado, I give you my picks.

Chris' Bakery (Kealakekua)
Forget the malassada's at Tex Drive Inn. Chris' has the best. Every malassada is prepared to perfection. The moist part is moist. The crunchy part just crunchy enough. Never greasy. It's fluffy and firm, sweet and a bit savory. The sprinkles of sugar which adhere to the exterior of these buns are like magic fairy dust. Never mind that the doughnut holes are three days old or that the store ran out of milk on five out of the six consecutive mornings we were there. Just get the friggin' malassadas! With the elderly owner slowing down, the bakery will inevitably have to close its doors. So get them while they're warm, and still in existence. Because like a lot of things traditional, there will be no substitute once it's lost.

Manago Restaurant (Captain Cook)
Since time immemorial, the thrifty Big Island traveler has raved about the pork chops here. The food here is just like the adjoining hotel's rooms-- simple, inexpensive, but extraordinarily satisfying. Local pork is cooked in an antediluvian cast iron pan. With 1500 pounds of pork gobbled up every month and even a write-up in the New York Times, what more proof do you need? It's that good.

Verna's Drive Inn (Kea'au in Puna District)
When the late Verna Lehua Tsuruko Miller opened up her first of four Drive Inns, it was a simpler, and skinnier, time. When fast food restaurants served you a small soda, it was barely 8 ounces. Food portions, and waistlines, were much smaller. Bigger was not always necessarily better. The tradition continues. If you order a loco moco for about four bucks, you don't have to sign a Release of Liability Waiver in case of cardiac arrest on the restaurant's premises. You simply get a small bed of rice with one burger patty, one egg, and just enough savory gravy to cover (not drench) everything. It was not a lot of food; but it was enough. The Captain's Plate was impressive also. It contained a smorgasbord of deep fried seafood. But unlike other cheap-o dives where the ratio of breading to meat is always 8:1, the seafood is the star in Verna's Captain's Plate. None of the seafood is frozen and it actually has recognizable flavor! It's by far the most expensive entree on the menu, at almost 8 dollars, but well worth every penny.

Daniel Thiebaut (Waimea)

This establishment has been a foodie destination for almost a decade. In cowtown Waimea, where the paniolo tradition is being slowly eroded by mega-strip malls and astrophysics labs, there is a surprising number of upscale restaurants, e.g. Merriman's, Aioli's, Edelweiss, Waimea Ranch House. But Thiebaut reigns supreme. Its decor is tropical, relaxing, and yet chic. Its French-Asian fusion dinner entrees get all the hype, and deservedly so. But I recommend stopping in for brunch. For about $15 per person, you will enjoy what may be the best American-style brunch anywhere in the world. This is no Vegas buffet. All of the hot food items, except for the omelet bar, were laid out on a 10 foot long table. But it's quality, not quantity, that is the mantra here. The simplest items like bacon and steamed white rice are cooked to beyond perfection. A simple brunch here is an extraordinary, almost nirvanic, experience. With Al Gore being its most famous repeat customer, there is no question that the brunch shift will always turn a robust profit.

Royal Thai Cafe (Keauhou)

This was one of our best finds. Nestled in a shopping center with a movie theater and a drug store, one does not expect culinary excellence. But we were so blown away by the food, we went to dinner there two nights in a row. The yellow and red curries are extraordinary and authentic, especially given that the Big Island is thousands of miles away from the Thai metropoles of Bangkok and Los Angeles. The friendly and prompt service, coupled with the reasonable prices and neat decor, make this the perfect casual dinner spot for anyone renting a condo or couch surfing along the Kailua-Kona corridor.