Friday, February 1, 2019

On the Road Again, Hawaii: Part 1

Rob Yagi stands with a surviving Wiliwili. (Photos (c) by Bonnie Schupp)


Chance encounter

provides a lesson

in forest conservation

 Hawaii gives us the (Wili)willies

Timing is everything. Take, for example, our encounter on our first full day in Hawaii with the keeper of the Wiliwili trees.

His name is Rob Yagi, and Bonnie and I met him by chance near an odd roadside sculpture of sorts pointing skyward northeast of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Bonnie was taking pictures and I walked back toward our rental car, exchanging waves with a chap who had just pulled up in a small work van. I pointed quizzically at the sky-pointer above us, and Rob stepped toward me to chat.

As best he could tell, the artistic piece harked to directional beacons of early Hawaiians, pointing to stars used for navigation. Then we chatted about the area, and about Rob, who it turned out works in tree conservation for a small nonprofit organization called the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative.

This valley between a pair of long-dormant volcanic peaks was once inhabited by a "closed canopy forest" of Wiliwili  trees, which in this dry climate (9 to 12 inches of rain annually) are relatively short in stature, have an orange shade of bark (a defense against high sun exposure) and a wide reach of thick branches. Yet the wood is extremely light -- used years ago in construction of native outrigger canoes.

Then came the goats and sheep -- brought to the island as a gift to the king a couple of centuries back, and protected by royal order. So the critters multiplied rapidly, enjoying in their flora buffet the bean-like seeds dropped in abundance by the Wiliwili, a prolific member of the pea family.  Eventually, ranchers got into the goat and sheep business, clearing out much of the forest for pasture land. And the Wiliwili, once a dominant feature of the landscape, largely vanished. They number now only in the dozens on the Big Island.

Rob led us down a highway to a narrow, bumpy asphalt lane, leading to the initiative's enclosure of about five acres where he is the caretaker. It is fenced to keep out wandering goats. Just inside the barrier stands one of the rare survivors. It even has been given a name, Hi'ialo, which means "Beloved," Rob says.

From our vehicles parked outside the fence, we walk along the lane past other rare foliage including shrub-like uhiuhi trees -- a cousin of the Wiliwili, but with a hard, dense wood, of which Rob says there may be only 50 remaining in the world, eight of them growing here in the preserve.

Finally, we reach the nursery inside yet another fence, where the 32-year-old Rob, with volunteers including young area school children, propagate seeds and plant little trees in an effort to recreate a piece of the closed canopy forest.

The Wiliwili is an odd tree. The leaves drop in summer, and when barren it flowers in orange leaves, and eventually drops twisted-pod beans to the ground. In the nursery, a couple of dozen baby Wiliwili trees are sprouting in tiny pots for eventual planting. And perhaps, in 25 years or so, some of those spreading branches will meet 15 or 20 feet off the volcanic ground... a rebirth of sorts for a little patch of Hawaii.

Getting here was (mostly) fun

We fled Maryland on Wednesday evening, Jan. 29, soon after rain turned to snow, and temperatures began plunging from an approaching polar vortex. Our Alaska Airlines flight was slightly delayed for cleaning and turnaround from the the international pier at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, then we sat on the ground for a thorough de-icing before clearance for departure to San Francisco on the first leg of the journey.

But we were quite cozy in unexpected comfort, reinforcing our love for this airline.

We had arrived at BWI more than three hours earlier. The airport seemed deserted, perhaps the weather a factor. We used our Global Entry trusted traveler cards for the first time, not having to shed shoes and belts in passing through screening, and settled in to wait for boarding time. Having managed to secure upgrades from coach to better coach (4 inches of extra legroom, free drinks and snacks) on our previous two flights coming back from Alaska in 2016, I chatted up the nice lady overseeing the boarding gate counter to ask whether I might get lucky again.

It would be a nice gift for Bonnie, I said, noting this was our anniversary trip and the 50th state of our travels during  nearly four decades together. She asked for our boarding passes and said she would see what she could do.

About an hour later, we had an upgrade -- ending up, briefly, in premium class, just a row behind the majesty of First Class, and with an unsold seat that gave us a whole three-seat row to ourselves. Free drinks, too, and maybe even snacks during the six-hour flight across America.

I say briefly, because we were there settling in to the black leatherette seats for just 10 minutes. Then our Lady of the Boarding Gate stepped onto the plane and asked if we would like to.... hmmmm.... move up, just a row, to First Class. "Happy anniversary," she said.

And even if our actual anniversary would not be happening until Feb. 10, nearly two weeks into the trip, it was a great start. We even figured out the personal entertainment units that lift out of holding bins on the right side of the creamy-beige, wider, almost fully reclining seats with footrests, watching the movie "Crazy Rich Asians." We felt crazy rich.

For dinner, served on real plates with real cutlery and cloth napkins, I had ravioli and Bonnie the roasted cod, each served with veggies and a foil-wrapped Seattle Chocolates truffle. And she also had a couple of  (glass) glasses of white wine.

While Bonnie napped later, I enjoyed a second movie -- "The Post," which nearly brought me to tears in the 1971-era scene of the type for the Pentagon Papers story being clanked out from a pool of lead alloy metal on a Linotype machine, assembled in a page frame known as a "chase," and finally, after the tense scenes of high-level debate on whether The Washington Post could or should risk publishing it, the order being given to start the press run.

The jetliner began its descent into San Francisco, rumbling slightly as the press speed increased in the movie moment -- perhaps a little more rumble than the slight vibration i remember from that time in the Baltimore Sun's long-ago fifth-floor newsroom on Calvert Street when the first-edition press run was underway.

Our main steward on the flight, Taryn, handed us a card wishing us a happy anniversary, signed by her and two crew mates, before our speedy exit from the plane to baggage claim, just in time to catch the shuttle bus to a nearby Travelodge and a nap during the trip's only drawback -- a 14-hour overnight layover before a noon flight to Kona.

I think of it as a price paid for the other bargain. After our Alaska trip, we had opted to take the airline credit card with its $75 annual fee, earning in the process the deal of a buy-one, get-one for just taxes and fees, and a free checked bag apiece. And we could not schedule in a multi-day layover to visit friends in San Diego. It had to be a single itinerary with identical departure and destination airports, and the best-priced version available landed us overnight in 'Frisco. (The homebound trip will run 17 hours, from Kona to Sacramento to San Diego to BWI.)

The flight from SFO to Kona was fully booked, no upgrade possibility, and we squeezed into standard coach seats in Row 29, near the back of the plane. (Our seatmate on the aisle was a nice woman traveling with more than a dozen other family members from Utah to a week-long Hawaiian vacation. We chatted a bit about our respective lives, then worked at figuring how to activate our previously downloaded inflight entertainment app to watch movies on our respective iPads. (No back-of-seat, or side-of-seat screens on the older plane, alas. Just coffee, soft drinks, a cookie.)

That said, our round-trip deal came to just a tad over 800 bucks.

An otherworldly arrival

We landed at Kona International Airport in mid-afternoon on Thursday, disembarking on a ramp down to the tarmac and walking into an open-air village of sorts. People are sitting at what seemed like picnic tables near the incredibly informal gate.

The baggage arrived quickly, as did the Hertz rent-a-car shuttle to retrieve what we expected to be a Camry-like vehicle. As a Hertz Gold Club member (free, but you have to sign up for it), we found my name on the electronic greeting board directing us to our waiting car in Space 14. It was a Nissan Rogue SUV way bigger than what we wanted, and lacking a trunk to store stuff during adventures.

Inside at the counter (no waiting line in the Gold Club lane), an amiable lady clerk checked what else was available and offered up a "full size" Nissan Altima that felt just a tad bigger than an "intermediate" Camry, but pretty nifty. And off we went to check in at the Kona Holiday Inn Express, our home for a four-night stay.

We walked two short blocks down to the Pacific waterfront promenade for our first Hawaiian sunset, and dinner at a restaurant recommended by the front desk -- the slightly pricey, but very gourmet Fish Hopper. We split a $38 "Island Platter" of jumbo coconut fried shrimp, dungeness crab cake and blackened mahi-mahi, with sauteed veggies and sweet blue mashed potato, with a couple of glasses of wine for Bonnie and splitting an enormous slice of chocolate passion fruit-cream cake. It was all terrific, but the latter perhaps over-the-top unwise. Burp!

We were asleep by 10 p.m. Hawaii time -- about 3 a.m. back home in Maryland.

More adventures on the open road

An open-air breakfast
Breakfast is free at the hotel, the usual buffet of omelettes, sausage, muffins and biscuits, cinnamon buns, orange juice, coffee and fruit. But at this Holiday Inn Express, the poolside breakfast nook is open-air. Birds fly in for crumbs, and an occasional fly buzzes around looking for a landing zone on strawberry jam.

Well-stuffed, we were ready to take on the Big Island -- and solve a little problem.

Triple-check the stuff you pack before taking a long trip. Bonnie, in reconfiguring what went where, left a little plaid purse with two important prescription meds, medical insurance cards, a medical history printout, and her lifetime seniors National Parks pass.

We managed to arrange for her doc's office to fax prescriptions for short-term quantities to a pharmacy in Kona, only to learn that the CVS affiliate could not fill them for those particular drugs from an out-of-state physician. The pharmacy tossed out the faxes. So on our first full day of exploring, we happened upon an Urgent Care office and in a stopover of a bit less than two hours obtained a Hawaii doc's prescriptions, filled them at the CVS affiliate nearby, and while waiting there found Bonnie's tasty New Zealand wine from the Fish Hopper dinner on sale for 10 bucks a bottle.
Spam (and imitators) at the drug store

At the checkout counter, we also encountered a Hawaiian couple purchasing about a dozen cans of Spam --  introduced as a convenience food for American soldiers in World War II, now a much-loved staple in the local diet, and easily stored on a shelf for emergencies. It is even served as a breakfast item at McDonalds here, they noted. 

Other than not having the parks pass, life was back to normal -- and back in the car, we found our way northeasterly across a mountain road to elevations of about 3,000 feet above the ocean, drove through occasional clouds and rain, savored the impressionist-looking sight of trees enshrouded by mist, and inspected bits of dead coral washed up by the ocean.

A great rainbow view in the eastern sky.
And as we stepped out of the car near waves crashing into volcano-deposited black boulders on a west-shore beach, a brilliant 180-degree rainbow graced the sky east from the setting sun.

Back at the hotel about 6:30 p.m., we asked our friendly desk clerk for another restaurant recommendation, perhaps one more modest in price where locals eat. She pointed across the the parking lot, across the road, to The Island Grill. It was packed, with six groups waiting for tables, and most of the patrons were Hawaiians, many with children in tow.

Dinner was unusual, to say the least -- a dish named the "Moco Loco," with the most elaborate and costly version at $14.95 featuring a bed of steamed rice topped by two scrambled eggs and the choice of three items from a list of other garnishments.
Dinner at The Island Grill

 We picked fried shrimp, panko-crusted pounded fried chicken breast and a corned beef patty, with a glass of Pinot Grigio for Bonnie and a cup of Kona-blend coffee for me. With tip, it came to just under $30.

A bit of travel philosophy   

Bonnie, with camera and coastal view
Dealing with the prescriptions problem was the reason we intersected at that roadside sky-pointer with forest conservationist Rob Yagi.  As I noted at the top of this blog post, timing is everything. And you have to be open to possibilities.

We may have planned flights, and rental cars, and places to stay on three islands before we get back home, but from day to day, life happens. And we seem always to be the better for it.

Tomorrow: An octopian encounter


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