sacred; taboo; holy; forbidden
Look, I’m not going to pretend to know very much about Native Hawaiian culture or history or religion or language. I live here, grew up here, took the required Hawaiian history classes in school, and gave the docents at the Bishop Museum my full attention during field trips like a good little girl should. But as I’ve mentioned, my grasp of the concepts of belonging and identity are tenuous at best. I’m definitely from Hawaii; I was definitely born here and so were my parents. But I likely know as much about Native Hawaiian culture as the average person from the mainland knows about Native Americans: not a lot, frankly.
The tragedy or not-tragedy of the fact that this is pretty much standard for most of the people who now reside in the islands is a discussion for another day (and to be honest not one that I’m likely to volunteer for, being overwhelmingly ignorant in most things, myself). Still, I’d like to think that I’ve managed to live out the majority of my life in a way that doesn’t step on too many people’s toes*. One of the few exceptions to this toe-treading rule is hiking.
Hawaii is loaded with hikes. Bursting at the seams with them. From lush, verdant ridge trails that top the high and misty mountains, to valley hikes that lie hidden and quiet between their peaks. Dry trails and damp trails. Rocky and muddy and dusty and cliff-y. All sorts.
A good chunk of these are perfectly illegal to do now.
Whether it’s because they’re too dangerous or a nuisance to the neighbors, they’re illegal. Gated off, often. Totally not allowed.
Needless to say, people do them anyway.
Not that I’m promoting this sort of activity. Certainly not, not me.
The “okayness” of other trails is… vague. Take Kaniakapupu, for example.
The Kaniakapupu Ruins, whose name means “the singing land of the shells,” are the remains of the summer home of Kamehameha III. At some point in the mid-1800s the old house appears to have fallen into ruin, but before it became a part of ancient history it was a place where royalty lived and dined and entertained guests. (pacific worlds)
Royalty. Kings took up residence there. So it would have been kapu, right? Back in its day.
And now? Now that the walls have fallen and nature has come to grow wild in green patches over the stones?
I want to go. So we go.
The way there is dark and muddy and mosquito-infested, but it’s a short walk beneath the cover of the trees that opens up into a small clearing where the sun shines down as though it’s smiling. I abandon my completely mud-encrusted slippers on a small patch of grass to dry, and tread quietly, barefoot and warm in the sunlight.
It’s eerily quiet save for the far-away murmurs of a troupe that is very obviously a family of tourists. The floppy hats and trek-worthy backpacks give them away. A middle-aged woman in a bright pink t-shirt and oversized khakis snaps away with her camera as her children pose, all smiles, in the dilapidated, moss-covered doorway to the once-great household. A father waits patiently in the shade. We wait our turn.
“Agh, fuck it.” They’re taking too long, and Kylie marches up to the sign in front of the ruins to read their history. Jess joins her. I stand by with my own Nikon strapped across my shoulder and watch the mom as she carries on.
Click click. Click.
Shit, I think bitterly. I hope that’s not what I look like.
Eventually they leave. I take my pictures, silently, hesitantly, still unsure if what I’m doing is sacrilege or perfectly acceptable. Horrified and conscientious about whether or not I look like a tourist. We wander around, staring, contemplating, wondering. It’s peaceful here. Having finally arrived after a slight misdirection down a muddy hill upon which I got stuck in the muck and nearly lost my footwear as well as my sanity, I start feeling pretty bad about being so grumpy at my companions. It wasn’t their fault none of us bothered to look up proper directions, opting instead to wander around rather aimlessly in the jungle. It was my idea and therefore my bad. My mud-covered hands and feet, drying finally in the warm sun, are my payment for being a lazy idiot.
(I still have mud under my nails, I swear. Honestly, wandering around that place mud-covered and grime-covered and barefoot, I must have looked like some orphan out of Oliver Twist if orphans from Oliver Twist carried SLRs.)
Before making our visit, I did (to my credit) read up on the historical site (though not how to get to it lolololol). Varying reports claimed that Kaniakapupu is illegal to visit or not illegal. We need permission, or we don’t need permission. I could not for the life of me figure out which it was. Seriously. I still have no idea.
I am fairly certain now that it isn’t illegal to visit the ruins. Whether or not it’s cool with cultural authorities, however, is still up for debate. I am not, as I said, any sort of expert in Hawaiian history. I haven’t the slightest of whether or not going to Kaniakapupu is kapu or not. The most we can do, as people visiting and people interested, is respect the place. Understand what it was and what it is. And what it means to the community.
As we turn to leave, my thoughts turn bitter again. I’m angry at the family we saw there for treating the place like an exhibit at Disneyland, posing goofily for photos in a place so rare and unique and with such a sad history. But how different are we, really? Didn’t I go there to gawk and stare and pretend that I felt some sort of connection to the place, camera flashing?
We hop over the muddiest parts of the trail as we head out, squelching as we go. In front of us a group of students take to the flora with clippers, pruning the brush and laying down leaves and small branches on the otherwise untraversably muddy path. They’re likely kua’ana student volunteers there to care for the area. And dammit if I’m not a little embarrassed to be seen there, clearly someone who doesn’t belong.
*I am neither particularly tall nor particularly muscular, and a girl’s got to look out for herself, you know.