I am sitting on a balcony watching the sun rise over Hilo Bay, its light touching a cruise ship, the palms on Coconut Island and flowers in the seaside gardens. A tropical island is always a sensory experience like this: the smell of flowered lei, the strum of a ukulele, the rhythmic swing of a grass skirt, the odor of roasting pig. They are memorable images, but the morning news reminds me that other forces are also at work here on the island of Hawaii. The Big Island.
Volcanic activities are reported on the local news as regularly as the weather report and significant volcanic activity occurred in nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last night. Park rangers will talk about the geological forces at work on the Big Island, but Hawaiians will tell you that Pele, Goddess of Fire, rules the volcanoes. You won’t see Pele when you fly into this 4000-square-mile island, youngest and largest of the Hawaiian chain, but she is always busy around you.
Pele built this island, eruption by eruption, from a ‘hot spot’ at the bottom of the sea over thousands of years. She is in the cold lava fields, where high school students and lovers mark their names on the soft lava rock. She is with you when you walk the rim of the caldera around Kilauea, said to be the world’s most active volcano. We saw her work everywhere when we circled the south end of the of the 266-mile island circumference from Kailua-Kona on the dry sunset side to Hilo, here on the wet sunrise side. We will see more signs of her today when we complete the circle around the north end of Hawaii back to Kona.
Kamehameha the Great, first ruler of all the islands, ruled from Kona in the 18th and 19th centuries. He ruled by the laws of men and gods, especially the gods Kane, Lono and Ku, gods of life, harvest and war, and the Fire Goddess Pele. Tourists greet a costumed version of Kamehameha when he steps out of his royal canoe every night onto the Kona dock, ready to attend a luau in one local hotel or another.
We should never be too sophisticated to enjoy a luau put on for tourists, but the Hawaiian experience is richer and deeper when we know that many of those exotic pleasures are based upon ancient ritual. The traditional religious laws of Kapu, for example, which once preserved the hula as a sacred dance performed only for kings. The ancient rules of gods and men which once meant an automatic death sentence if your shadow fell over a king.
There are no human sacrifices today, but the gods still rule the island. It was only a 22-mile drive south from Kona to our first stop at the City of Refuge but we saw the work of the gods on every side. Ku, God of War, directed the spears that killed Captain Cook on the spot where today’s tourist’s scuba dive around the Captain Cook Monument. Lono, who rules the harvest, would be pleased to see the rich coffee plantations that lure us so often from the highway.
The laws of Kapu, which governed everything from the fishing season to marriage in the ancient world, were very visible at our first major destination of the day: Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. There, where sacred heiaus rose against the tropical sky and stories were told about 15th century Hawaiians who broke the laws of Kapu and fled to the City of Refuge with some hope of avoiding the death penalty.
Our second major stop of the day was in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the most visited attraction on the Big Island, whether travelers make a quick stop at the visitor center or walk the trails with a guide. Pele lives in a depression of the Kilauea caldera and looks across the island to the nearly-14,000-foot-high peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
We followed the fire goddess down Chain of Craters Road, past signs that mark major eruptions of the last century, to a place where we could safely join a ranger while lava erupted into the night sky. On these island volcanoes do not so much erupt as they ooze out of the ground, so they have been facetiously referred to as ‘drive-in’ volcanoes.
We watched where we placed our feet as we found a seat on a cold volcanic rock. The ranger explained that red molten lava gathered in a lava pool before flowing several miles through a lava tube towards the sea. By fading daylight we saw only the steam that Pele raised when the lava hit the sea. In the darkness, it was a dramatic show, better than any fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The molten lava burst out of the lava tubes to startle the night sky, paused briefly for effect and then hissed dramatically into the sea.
The risen sun is high and hot now as we visit a major attraction on the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus: Imaloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii. This is where the gods and science connect, when the Hawaiian Creation Chant meets the Big Bang Theory. This is the place to learn about voyaging canoes, hula dances and to take a simulated video climb to the Mauna Kea telescope, which searches for the home of the gods in the sky.
From Hilo we will circle north to Akaka Falls, Waipo Valley and Laupahoehoe, where a monument marks the black beach where dozens of boys and young men were swept out to sea by a tsunami in 1946. The gods at work. We may divert to century old Parker Ranch. We may climb high enough to look down on the resorts that line the west coast back to Kona, diverting possibly for a ride in a double-hulled canoe, its design as popular now as it was in the time of Kamehameha the Great.
We want to get back to Kona in time to see Kamehameha the Great climb out of his canoe and walk the dock to whatever hotel is offering the luau tonight. I love all the tourist touches of this traditional Hawaiian feast. The flaming torches. The roasting pig. The musicians, whether they play a traditional Hawaiian song or “ I want to go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii, where the humuhumunukuapauu goes swimming by…”*
Whatever the musicians play I know that the gods will be standing silently by. And that while I try poi, made from the taro root, the fire goddess Pele may be developing an angry snit a few miles away in Kilauea, preparing to change the flow of lava again before the sun goes down in a glory of gold over the Pacific.