Travel Letter #1 - Kipahulu, Maui, HI

Originally published on February 4, 2013

The Lush Green of the Jungle, the Blue Crush of the Ocean

Aloha from Kipahulu, Maui! It's been a couple of months since you first heard from me by way of this newsletter, so I figured it was time for the sophomore effort. First, on the administrative front, I decided to quit using because of the weird reply mechanics: they force replies to go through their server by default, which I don't agree with at all for practical and privacy reasons. So instead, I'm just going to maintain a contact list manually, which means you'll just have to let me know if you don't want to be on the list anymore. I also took the liberty to add a few more people for this update, so if you didn't get that first newsletter, that's why.

Oh, and as usual, there is a link to a photo album at the end, whose contents will make more sense afterwards. Unfortunately, I haven't been as good about bringing a camera this time around, so the photos won't match up as well with the narrative as they did last time.


Today's story is about an awkward (-in-a-funny-way) exchange I had with a middle-aged lady at the beach who gratuitously took pictures of me surfing and then showed them to me when I got back on land. But context is everything, so let me first fill you in on the past few weeks of my life, which will comprise the first four parts of this five-part tale.

Part 1: The Southern Slopes of Haleakala

Just a little over two weeks ago, I arrived at Box 149 on the Hana Highway in southeastern Maui. The "Highway" part is actually a joke because we are talking about an unpainted, sometimes-not-paved road that is just two cars wide (except at many bridges, where it is just one lane). The speed limit for this road peaks at 30 mph, and is often as low as 10 or 20 mph. The speed limit is also self-enforcing because of the precipitous cliffs, sharp turns, and crazy-driving locals. Indeed, the road to Hana is stressful enough for first-time tourists that there are commemorative t-shirts sold in Hana that proclaims "I survived the road to Hana."

Box 149 is a steel-colored mailbox with big red digits in a round font. I suppose it is meant to be easy to identify---it's hard to miss if you're looking for it. From the entrance off the highway, however, it is a pretty steep quarter-mile climb into the lush jungle before you see any signs of recent human activity. The concrete-like material of the driveway runs as two strips about the same width as most road vehicles, and is dotted with purple goo from splattered berry-like fruits.

The first clearing on your right is home to a family of palm trees and some abandoned-looking vehicles. Keep going and you'll eventually see the edge of the first banana grove and a couple of large compost piles. Shortly beyond that is the packing shed, where stalks of bananas hang from rafters, much in the same way that a slaughterhouse might hang beef.

Continuing the expedition up the slope, you'll notice that the scenery eventually starts looking like that of a fruit orchard. The next clearing to the left is the one I'll call home for two months of my life in 2013. An edifice inspired by the classiest shanty-town architecture is the common space created, maintained, and shared by my fellow WWOOFers. Before I take you further up the mountain, I do want to pause and contemplate the sheer culture shock I experienced on that first day when I arrived at ONO Organic Farms in Maui.

Part 2: Culture Shock

I thought it would be dry and sunny, but the jungle is actually rainy and overcast during the winter months. But the days that are indeed sunny and dry are as good as any on Planet Earth. I was greeted by one such day on January 17th.

I walked up the very same driveway I described in the previous part, and at the packing shed, I met my first three fellow WWOOFers. From a distance, what I thought was a topless girl actually turned out to be a very androgynous 20-year-old guy with long hair and short shorts. Weird. Then a tall 28 year old who looked like he could be a model immediately asked if I were Chinese. I said yes and he greeted me in Mandarin---it turns out he spent the last four years in China performing as a circus high-diver. Weird. Finally, the last person I met at the pack shed was a shorter Chinese-Canadian guy who seemed to demur after an initial greeting. I would later learn that he wasn't quite fond of the farm work here, even though he is a great guy by all other measures. Reasonable. These were my first impressions, but it's amazing how deep these relationships will grow when you live and work together all the time. Actually, to summarize these new friendships in the way I just did is unfair and I'm only doing so for storytelling's sake; indeed, I would meet five other fellow WWOOFers throughout the rest of that first day, none of whom I could do justice with a single sentence, so I won't even try.

Instead, let me just mention a few of the facts about this motley crew that caused the culture shock. Names are unimportant, and so is the judgment that these facts may inspire. In any other "normal" context, I would have never had the chance to befriend these people, and I am grateful for how my tolerance has expanded---and my prejudice shattered---because after these couple of weeks, I really like my new friends. To me, it shows that connection with and reverence for nature is the trait that trumps all petty human differences. And that's the way it should be.

The ONO farm crew presents:

  • A DUI conviction
  • Jail-time for marijuana possession
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Suicidal tendencies in the past
  • Emancipation at age 14
  • Psychedelic drug usage in the past
  • Rastafarian, dreadlocks and all
  • Liberal marijuana usage
  • Unconventional education paths
  • Conspiracy theorists, including lots of aliens
  • Fondness for astrology
  • Overt sexuality involving circus references

If it sounds like I'm living with a bunch of degenerates, then don't panic. I'm only pointing out the parts that caused culture shock in myself; that is, those things I found unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I don't think any of this makes a person inherently bad. I can tell you sincerely that each person here is fundamentally a good person, if only perhaps a misfit for the mainland American culture. Note also that the 80/20 rule applies: 20% of the people represent 80% of this list. As for me, I seem to grow only more straightedged in these kinds of situations, so I kind of appreciate the contrasting pressure.

I also had a bit of culture shock as far as accommodations went. I'm totally used to everything now (I've in fact embraced it all and now I love this lifestyle), but I remember the anxiety I felt that first day when I was shown my living quarters:

  • Several giant spiders dangling in my face
  • Fungus/moldy smell (I later swapped out the inner tent for a new one to remedy this problem, and increased the ventilation in my outer tent)
  • Snails with some disease that I shouldn't touch in anyway
  • Mosquitoes abound
  • Off the grid relying on solar and generators
  • Limited outhouse bathroom and shower
  • Minimal protection from the elements

It seemed impossible that I could handle this environment, but that was two weeks ago. Watch how things change.

Part 3: Life on the Farm

Brief confession: I had never done a full day's worth of manual labor in my life before until recently. When I got here, it showed. I honestly wasn't in good enough shape for the demands of a 40-hour farm work week, and it took about a week or so for my body to catch up. Aside from the workload, the only major pest here is the mosquito, which plagued me for about a week before my body stopped welting up. Two weeks in, I can now face all the mosquitoes nature can throw at me (does that count as a superpower?).

Concerning life on the farm, a favorite quote so far is from D, whom I asked whether he thought the days here were long (I sure thought they were, given how exhausted I was after just six hours of work on that first day). He said, "the days feel long, but the weeks go fast." Truer words have not been said.

The weeks here have a rhythm: Harvest, Project, Project, Harvest, Project. And this pattern repeats itself indefinitely. Mondays and Thursdays are Harvest days, which means we go out in the fields and harvest a wide variety of fruits: bananas, papayas, avocados, guavas, oranges, jackfruit, breadfruit---the list of exotics goes on. Whatever ONO sells, we'll eventually need to harvest.

Harvest days are fast-paced and goal-oriented. We need to ship n boxes and the sooner we get done, the sooner we can get on with our leisure lives. The packing shed works like an assembly line, with cutting, washing, boxing, weighing, stickering, loading happening seamlessly when willing workers are there. To be honest, due to the solitary nature of my work life so far, I've never truly felt the fulfillment that emerges from that kind of teamwork. This past Thursday I truly felt like I was part of the Dream Team at the pack shed with C, G, and N. We shipped boxes of bananas like it was nobody's business. A well oiled machine firing on all cylinders---it's a strange thought that it might have been the first time I've ever felt in flow with a team for a significant period of time. In short, I like harvest days.

Project days, on the other hand, are meandering and laid-back. The tasks are not as well defined, and often there is no "end" state to look forward to---one could prune banana leaves and flowers for an eternity here on the farm. Other projects have included picking and processing coffee, fixing up our living space, tending to the nursery, spreading fertilizer, weeding, fighting back the jungle, processing and fermenting cacao beans, and for me, some odd computer tasks. Mostly, project days for me have been an opportunity to connect with my fellow WWOOFers, and for that reason, I don't mind that the hours can drag a bit here and there. I'm guessing that the routine will get old after a couple of weeks, though.

We don't have wifi here on the farm except by the tour shed, which is further up the driveway past our campsite. That's also where the owner Chuck and his wife Lily have their house. By the way, you can read all about the farm and their owners on their website (, so I'll spare you the details here. The internet here is via satellite, and is probably considered pretty slow these days since it goes at ADSL speeds. The only carrier out here that works is Verizon, so my Nexus 4 with a T-Mobile sim is more like a glorified camera and flashlight. I also use it as a music player, I suppose.

As for food, I've been eating lots of fruits, mostly bananas, papayas, and avocados, of which we get unlimited amounts as per the WWOOFing agreement. We are responsible for our own food with our weekly stipend, which varies from $0 to $100 depending on the length of stay (my two month contract yields $30/week). Beyond the staple fruits, I occasionally get to eat a bunch of exotic fruits I didn't know existed, which are probably the more exciting ones. Imagine a big gourd-looking thing that is filled with chocolate pudding; or a yellow berry with a hard shell that is filled with blackberry jam. Or how about weird alien-looking fibonacci patterned shell things that are super soft and sweet on the inside? Thriving on a fruitarian diet seems imminently possible in an environment like this. In fact, to round out my diet, I've only had rice, beef, and greens.

Despite the (literally) sweet food situation, the bottom line is that working at ONO is real work, unlike many other WWOOFing arrangements. It's a full 40-hour work week in primitive living conditions which will break your sense of entitlement (check), and kill your inner diva (check). But it will also allow you to connect with the land on such a deep and meaningful level that it reflects in all aspects of your person. Since I've gotten here, I've felt healthier, stronger, faster, more patient, more focused, more present---the list goes on. In short, I expect that by the end of my two months here, I'll be in the best shape of my life---physically, mentally, and spiritually. In my best island accent, "It's dakine life, bra."

Part 4: Where Ocean Meets Land

There are many here I've met who say, "I'm never leaving Kipahulu." Of those who do leave, many come back time and again. Of course, there is a bit of selection bias here, since I'm only likely to meet those who come back to and/or stay in Kipahulu. But pedantic statistician aside, I do see why this could be a good place to call home.

Where the Pacific embraces the edges of Haleakala on the island of Maui, there is a kind of beauty that no manmade device could ever capture. There is no lens wide enough or microphone true enough to savor the coastline in all its majesty. You all know I am not into woowoo-type stuff, so let this assertion be even more powerful: the land here is alive. Consider that perhaps all land everywhere was originally alive like this, but that man's parasitic leech has all but killed it. This part of Maui is raw and uncensored. It is real.

I live with the sun now, so my days are governed by the sunrise (at 6:30ish AM) and the sunset (also at 6:30ish PM). With an eight hour work day and one hour for lunch, that leaves just a couple of hours each day (if that) to enjoy the surroundings. Surfing, which I originally planned as a daily ritual, is now at best a weekend pursuit. In its stead, I've come to embrace a stretch of coast known as Pryor's, which is owned by the Firestone (tires) family. It is private property, but in Hawaii, all beaches are state-owned by law, and all privately owned land must provide reasonable means for public access, which is good for a peasant like myself.

Just a three-minute run down the road from Box 149, the Maui Stables sign on the left indicates the turn and a quick hike down a grassy meadow gives way to a cliff which then gives way to a rock beach. Here, the ocean is unfettered and it is just man and nature. There are no manmade structures here within sight.

Many prefer to be naked here, and I can see why. Nothing feels quite like a naked backflip off a jutting rock into the ocean's crystal blue embrace. Those familiar with MovNat would be jealous indeed.

Part 5: "That's Definitely Not Me"

As far as the weekends go, I've decided as of today that I will keep Sunday for myself. A day of personal projects and reflection; today, for example, is newsletter day. My one and only kindred spirit left the farm this past Friday, so the energy of the camp feels more different now than familiar. As much as I enjoy my fellow WWOOFers, I do need some time to myself after these two high-energy weeks.

Saturdays have thus far been my surfing day. Every Saturday, we have some garbage disposal and propane tank-filling to do in Hana town, so we hop on the rusty old black farm truck and drive in. The past few saturdays, I've taken advantage of the owner Chuck's old longboard to try and catch a few waves at Hamoa Beach. Hamoa translates as "breathlike sand" or something like that, and the sand is as fine as hair with lots of black from the volcanic rock.

The conditions have been pretty different each time I've gone out, but my ability has remained constant, which is to say "nonexistent." Each week, my goal is to catch one more wave than before, so this past time, being my third outing, I got three and then got out. With these long work weeks at the farm, I'm actually finding my endurance to be lacking. If by the time I leave I can catch eight waves in a day, however, then I might even declare myself a surfer and all will be well.

Now, back to the original story.

The past few weeks I've noticed a little kid---maybe 10 years old or so---every time I've gone out. Every time, he smokes me. When the waves are big, he rules them with his tiny shortboard; when the waves are small, he cruises easily on his longboard. I think he secretly takes pleasure in sticking it to me (hey, what did I ever do to him?) because he keeps throwing sweet 360s in my face. If my mouth weren't so agape, I'd maybe yell some insults at him or something to let him know who's been alive longer.

So yesterday, I had the honor of being the first person on the water. (Another way to see this is that the waves were too small for the locals and pros to bother going out.) I thought the day was going to be pretty sweet when I caught the first wave I went for, but things quickly went south when I noticed those short little arms in the outer reaches of my peripheral vision. Sure enough, surfkid had come out to ruin my day again.

As I was struggling to paddle out against the break, his little weasel arms were at full speed, passing me easily by riding the cross current. By the time I was in position to catch my second wave, he had already caught three.

I rode my second wave all the way in to the beach, and when I got out, a middle-aged lady approached me, ecstatic that she had gotten some photos of me. Well, you can pretty much guess how this goes when she showed me the screen of her point-and-shoot.

"Whoa, that's me?"


"No way, that's not me."

"Sure it is! Look!"

She scrolled through her photos, and sure enough, there was one of me paddling, another one of me paddling, and another one of me sitting on my board, and then a super pro looking move bouncing off the lip of a perfect wave, arms out in the best surf-action stance I've ever seen.

"Uh, that's definitely not me."

"It is!"

"No, you don't understand. I don't know how to surf."

"Oh please! This is really you!"

I asked her to zoom in on the super-pro-looking photo.

"See this?" As I point at the silhouette of a head on the screen, "That's neck-length blond hair. It's that little kid out there."

After a moment's reflection, she seemed embarrassed. "Oh… well… yes, I guess it is."

I then asked her to see the next photos in the series, and hilariously, the last one was of me (actually me) falling off the board with horrible posture.

"Yeah, that's definitely me."

*Nervous look* "Oh well, it's hard out there with those big waves!"

"Haha, yeah."

*facepalm* -_-

(Note: I should have asked her to send the series to me, but I didn't think at the time that I'd make it the subject of my newsletter. Oh how I wish I had!)


Well, mahalo for reading all the way to the end! I hope you take a look at the photos below that accompany this newsletter (be sure to read the captions for more context). I'm here in Kipahulu on ONO Farms for another six weeks or so before hopefully heading to the Cook Islands in New Zealand. I like to think of the Cook Islands as New Zealand's Hawaii, so my stay in paradise might go into overtime if I'm lucky. I look forward to hearing how you're doing back on the mainland or wherever you are. I'm only two weeks into my round-the-world WWOOFing adventure, but so far, it's hard to imagine I ever thought twice :)