Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Blog Entry #100... a Mystery

These days I’m fortunate enough to be living within walking distance of one of Kauai’s most beautiful beaches. It’s an easy walk but it includes wading across a stream that’s anywhere from waist to chest deep, depending on the tide. Some of the signs in the area are confusing and a lot of tourists end up driving down the road I walk to the beach. They stand next to their cars and stare across the river, wondering how they ended up on the opposite side as all the other people enjoying the beach. Over and over again I give directions on how to get there by car, but many of them simply follow my example and plunge in. It’s not cold after all.

Recently, I noticed a path on the side of the road heading off into the jungle that I had never seen before. Thinking it might be a short cut to the beach, I plunged down the steep embankment to see where it went. A few feet down the path I saw a piece of wood propped up on a log. It looked like a ramp kids might have made to jump with their bikes.

I continued down the path where I saw several other small ramps and a machete stuck into a tree. Small trees and branches had been cut to clear this path.

A little further down the path I came across a much larger ramp constructed of pallets and stumps that rose up to a six foot high platform made of scrap lumber and attached to trees.

Beyond the platform the path continued for a while before ending in an impenetrable thicket. It did not continue to the beach as I had guessed. The only apparent purpose of the path was to get to the ramp and platform. But what was it? Someone had gone to considerable trouble to hack a path through the jungle, bring in all that material and build this mysterious structure. The smaller ramps suggested a course for bikes but the larger combination ramp/platform did not really make sense for jumping bikes. The ramp would make a good jump, but why the platform. I’ve been discussing the matter with friends and housemates, but no one can divine its purpose. Any ideas?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Molokai Moments

People come from all over the world to Kauai for quiet and relaxation but have you ever wondered where those who live here go to “get away from it all?”

When the crowds, traffic and hectic pace of life on Kauai finally get to you, consider Molokai; this sleepy nub makes Kauai downright urbane.

There aren’t many people living on Molokai but the census bureau still has to count them so off I went to wander the dirt roads looking for plywood shacks and asking the friendly residents for their mailing addresses. That’s a more complicated question than you might think on Molokai. Folks may not be too sure about such details as house numbers or names of streets, but if the UPS driver is your cousin and the mailman used to date your sister, what difference does it make?

There are no stoplights on Molokai. The airport runway is too short for jets so it’s propeller planes only. Outside the airport an old man forwent any greeting or introduction and spoke to me as if we had been traveling together. He was having trouble opening the door to the car that a friend had left for him in the parking lot. The windows were broken or stuck open and the interior had been stripped. I reached inside and pulled a heavy-gauge wire that looked like it might open the door. I helped the man with his suitcase and sent him on his way. His friend had left the keys in the ignition.

Even the minimal formalities we observe talking to strangers on Kauai seemed to be unnecessary on an island where you might bump into the same person several times in the same day. So I was only mildly surprised when using the computer at Molokai’s only library, a man sat next to me and without even looking in my direction started talking to me about the online surf report on his screen. I studied it with him and we discussed surfing conditions for a few minutes before he actually looked at me and realized that I was not his friend David Garcia. I was just someone who looked a lot like him. We both got over the surprise soon enough, however and it really didn’t seem to matter much to either of us that I wasn’t who he thought I was. I imagine the conversation would have been pretty much the same if I were David Garcia.

There weren’t even really very many tourists there, actually. Most visitors to Hawaii stick with “the big four,” Oahu, Maui, Kauai and The Big Island. I did see hula dancers one evening as I dined on a garden burger at one of the island’s few restaurants, but they didn’t have costumes. They were just a couple in the audience who knew the guitarist playing that evening and got up to do a little dance they knew.

I ate a lot of garden burgers, actually. The woman behind the counter at Molokai Burger treated my vegetarian order no differently than any other. She told me that she would call my number when the food was ready. She looked down at the receipt and informed me my number was “zero.” There was one other customer in the restaurant at the time. I guess when you get a crowd of that size, you better start giving out numbers. I wonder what the other guy’s number was.

So why the picture of the phone booths? It just struck me that they aren’t many phone booths left. These ones on the wharf have probably been there a long time. They never got worn out. They never got vandalized and no one ever bothered to remove them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More on Cat Toes

Recent advances in camera battery charging technology have made it possible to bring you these stunning new photos of cat populations in the Anini-Kalihiwai area. The top photo documents Binky’s unusual toe placement. Cat experts throughout the Northern Pacific are baffled by this strange phenomenon.

The second photo captures Domino and GM (the neighbor’s dog) locked into one of their regular starring contests. GM (which stands for Gypsy’s Mom, since we don’t know her actual name) has been known to drool during these bizarre battles of will.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Closer to Home

Well I haven’t been to any exotic countries lately, so in the tradition of many greats in the blogosphere allow me to tell you about two cats I recently came to know. Meet Binky (sleeping in photo) and Domino.

A noted cat expert on Kauai recently observed that Binky has six toes, but it turns out he actually only has five per paw (for a total of 20). It’s only the unusual placement of one toe only creates the illusion of the “sixth toe.” Planet Haolewood efforts to photograph this phenomenon have so far been stymied by a dead camera battery. Binky’s interests include napping and attempting to persuade anyone passing him on the porch to feed him.

Domino shares Binky’s interest in both napping and food solicitation, but he has also branched out into climbing the screen door and lengthy, intense starring contests with the neighbor’s dog. Once he caught a rodent and ate most of it on the porch, leaving the tail as a demonstration of his awesome hunting skills.

The only real impediment to total fulfillment as cats for these two is the local human population’s stubborn denial of their god-given rights as cats to go anywhere they want anytime. They are not allowed inside the house. Binky has identified cat sympathizers within the human community and manipulates them deftly into letting him in on occasion and while Domino has mastered the art of opening the screen door himself, he often hesitates to actually enter, preferring to sit outside and quietly contemplate the open door as a symbol of feline rights.

Be assured that Planet Haolewood will provide updates on this important new topic.

Monday, March 23, 2009


“How was India?” The question kind of stumped me when I got back. “Good” seemed a little anti-climactic. “Great” is how you might describe a vacation where you scuba dived and sun bathed. Like India itself, my experience there was many things at once. The best I could come up with for a one-word answer was “different.”

Maybe that’s what those who travel independently to far away places are looking for. Wanderlust is a kind of boredom with the familiar, a desire to experience something genuinely different. Difference wakes us up out a pattern of relating to the world we already know. Instead of being able to anticipate what was coming my way each day, I was forced rely on my senses and react to events as they unfolded one moment at a time. On Kauai, I already know what’s around the next corner, but in India I had no choice but to relate to the world as it actually is instead of an idea of the world that already exists in my mind.

Wanderlust doesn’t run all that strongly in my veins. It had been 12 years since I’d left the country. While rewarding in the long run, the difference was exhausting. Indians looking to scam tourists are adept at recognizing this kind of exhaustion in their potential victims. I had been warned that the Deli train station was a particularly bad area for these con men but I was still fooled, if only temporarily. As I walked from a cab toward the massive and chaotic station a friendly man asked me what train I was taking. When I answered he told me that train was nine hours late but if I followed him he would take me to where I could exchange my ticket for another train that departed shortly. Like an idiot, I followed him even though he was walking AWAY from the station. It only took a few moments before I came to my senses, stopped following the man and headed back toward the station. Even more incredibly, when another man approached me with a similar story seconds later, I started following him, too! Again I did not go far before realized my mistake and ditched my new “friend.” Needless to say, my train turned out to be right on time.

Why was I so vulnerable to these con men? I’m not really that stupid and I knew enough about traveling in India to know that they were probably trying to scam me. Of course, I only went along with them for a few moments, but even that is amazing considering the implausibility of their stories. Here’s my explanation: I was somewhere truly different and had no idea what to expect. Anything was possible. How could I even entertain the possibility that a strange man would approach me in the parking lot of the train station, know that my train was late and offer to help me exchange my ticket? Because stranger things had happened.

As I stood in line at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, a friendly man approached me and asked if I had my cell phone charger in my backpack. He explained security would not let me enter if I did. Cell phones and cameras were permitted but not ipods and cell phone chargers. He offered to take me to a cloakroom where I could leave any prohibited items. As it happened I did have my cell phone and charger with me. I left my place in line and followed the man for several blocks to a deserted looking building with a sign in English, a couple of men sitting behind a desk and some lockers.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How could he be so naive?” But it turns out the guy was telling the truth. Cell phone chargers and ipods are not permitted in the Taj Mahal. When I arrived at security, they were turning away confused people who had these items with them and sending them to the deserted looking cloak room several blocks away which was in fact totally legitimate. There was no scam to steal my cell phone charger. I collected it without incident when I left. The man who helped me had hoped to gain my trust so that I would agree to hire him as a guide (which I did not).

How about another example of strangeness involving cell phones? I bought a SIM card in Mumbai and the man who sold it to me told me it would be activated in a few hours. My brother in law had bought a SIM card from the same man and his phone was working, but mine wouldn’t work. We had left Mumbai so I couldn’t go back to bought it. I found a help center and asked if they could get my phone working. The woman working behind the counter had a cold. It appeared to be near the end of her shift and she did not seem very excited about the challenge of figuring out what was wrong with my phone. She typed on her computer and fiddled with the phone, all the while sniffling and shaking her head. She told me I’d have to take it to the call center in Mumbai. When I told her I couldn’t do that she fiddled with the phone some more and then passed it around to several other people in the office, including, bizarrely, one of the other customers waiting for help. They all spoke to each other gravely in Marathi and shook their heads. I had been there quite some time and I was loosing hope. Finally she handed my phone to one of the other help center workers, who looked at it disinterestedly, pressed a few buttons and handed it back to me. “There’s a network problem. Try it tomorrow after four. It should work then.” I surmised this was the guy whose job it was to get me out of the office. I gave up. It seemed clear no one there was going to help me.

I did not have even the slightest hope the problem would magically go away the next day as the man had told me, but I tried my phone anyway. It worked and it continued to work without any problems for the rest of my trip.

What had seemed so improbable had turned out to be true. In other cases it was the other way around. A friendly woman at the tourist information counter at the Deli airport reassured me how easily I could catch a bus into the city but I wandered around in the chaos outside the airport and asked many people where the bus stop was. All I succeeded in finding were other confused people looking for the bus stop. I couldn’t get back into the terminal to ask the woman because I didn’t have a ticket. Eventually I just took a cab. What had seemed like a slam dunk turned out to be impossible, and that collision of expectations with reality is the difference between a trip and an adventure; it’s what creates the heightened awareness that I think so many of my friends with wanderlust like about international travel.

The day I left the ashram a boy approached me as I walked to the bus stop. He asked for my autograph. It was toward the end of my trip and the absurdity of the request registered only dimly in my mind. Dozens of foreigners walked up and down that road every day on their way to and from the ashram. I signed his notebook and continued on my way. I was getting used to the strangeness. Had I stayed in India longer, the feeling would have faded as that reality became more familiar.

Maybe it wasn’t a “great” trip or even a “good” one, but I got a lot out my travels in India. If I had it to do again I would have skipped the floundering and gone right to the good stuff, but that’s not how life works, is it? The floundering was an absolutely necessary part of a process and what I learned was that I’m more flexible and resilient than I knew.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Taj Mahal

For my last few days in India I totally abandon my practice of avoiding cities and tourist destinations. I took a two hour bus ride to Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, spent the night there, flew early the next morning to Bangalore, then to Deli, the capital of India, traveled by train from Deli to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the single biggest tourist destination in India, spent the night in Agra, went back to Deli the next day, spent the night there, flew to Taipei, spent the night there, took an overnight flight to Honolulu and arrived there the next day where I caught the short flight back to Kauai. That’s a lot of moving around!

The problem with the “seeing the sights” approach to tourism is that one becomes jaded and unable to appreciate even the most spectacular destinations. Since I hadn’t been seeing the sights, I wasn’t jaded and I arrived in a good state of mind to appreciate the Taj Mahal. It was worth the trip.

The first thing I noticed about “The Taj” as it is affectionately known, is its grand scale. The main building and its surrounding gardens are enormous. Its construction employed 20,000 workers and took 22 years. For comparison consider a wonder of nature such as a mountain. While its awesome size might take your breath away, there is also great beauty a wildflower you see as you walk along its base. So it is with the Taj Mahal. The great slabs of white marble from which it is constructed are inlaid with stones of various colors. In the interior the inlay work is done with brightly colored semi-precious stones. The amount of hand carved stone inlay work is staggering, it boggles the mind to think about how much time and careful work went into the construction of that building.

To my mind the scale and the fine workmanship are simply displays of wealth. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; it has no earthly function. Emperor Shah Jahan had a lot of money so he could afford to buy a lot of stone and hire all the best stone carvers. Anyone with that much money could do the same. What impressed me even more was the architecture. It is not known who designed the Taj Mahal but whoever it was had a kind of inspiration that money cannot buy.

It’s symmetry and singularity of focus are what really amazed me. It is as if all the beauty and careful work in every detail is focused on a single, unwavering goal, an architectural expression of the complete devotion to a single god so revered in Islam, the religion that puts the “mono” back in monotheism. While the gardens and the red of the surrounding walls and mosques are rooted in the earth the pale central building itself seems to float and shimmer as if it were almost perfect enough to simply float up to heaven at any moment.

Working hundreds of years before the invention of photography, the designers could not have anticipated how incredibly photogenic their creation would be. The urge to photograph is almost irresistible even when you know you’re taking the exact same picture that is taken hundreds of times a day and can be found printed with professional quality in books and on postcards everywhere.

It pleases me that people built such a sublime structure hundreds of years ago without the benefit of computers or modern engineering. Like all great works of art, it is a reminder that human genius is always present and that our age is no more advanced in its imagination despite all of our amazing technology.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hare Krishna!

Of all the places I visited in India my favorite was the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram. At least ninety per cent of the monks and other people staying at the Ashram were foreigners. Many of them were studying to become teachers of the Ashram’s particular school of yoga. The rest, like me were there for a “yoga vacation.”

The yoga vacation was a bit like boot camp would be if the point were to train for inner peace instead of war. Accommodations were Spartan. Vegetarian meals were served twice daily with seating on the floor and diners were expected to eat in silence. Attendance at all services, classes and lectures was mandatory. It felt safe, clean and friendly but it was by no means luxurious.

The typical day (and pretty much every day was typical) began with a wake-up bell at 5:20. At six, we assembled in the main hall for 20 minutes of silent meditation, followed by maybe 40 minutes of chanting in Sanskrit. The head monk would then read something from one of their guru’s books and explain some of the ideas he wrote about. Then it was time for morning tea. At eight we had a two-hour yoga class followed by the morning meal which they referred to as brunch. After eating it was time for Karma Yoga during which time we had the opportunity to improve our lot in the next life by raking leaves or cleaning toilets.

In the afternoon we had some free time followed by a lecture at two and then another two-hour yoga class at 3:30. Having finished that class we walked our limbered up bodies back to the dining hall for the evening meal. At 8 we gathered again for another round of meditation, chanting, and discussion of Swami Vishnudevananda’s (the spelling checker didn’t have any suggestions for that one!) teachings. Lights out at 10:30.

Are we having fun yet? Fun may not be the right word, but it was certainly pleasant. While I did not understand or agree with all of their ideas, living according to their routine had a very positive effect on my mind and body.

Have you ever heard of churches or religious orders offering a free meal? I guess the deal they are proposing is that they will feed you and in return they expect you to submit to their attempts to brainwash you. The situation at this ashram was the same except the carrot in this case was yoga instruction rather than a free meal. The whole package, including lodging, meals and four hours of yoga instruction daily cost about ten dollars a day. Most of the yoga vacationers were interested in those classes and feelings about getting up at six and chanting in Sanskrit ranged from enthusiastic to resentful. The chanting in particular seemed to rub a lot of the westerners the wrong way. The highly repetitive chants were mostly invocations of Swami Sivananda, his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda and various Hindu gods. Most of the yoga vacationers were not Hindus, did not speak Sanskrit and had never heard of Swami Sivananda or any of his disciples. So the chanting felt a little like a non-catholic might feel attending a catholic mass in Latin.

I personally didn’t mind. The chants were a bit boring and didn’t do anything for me but the tunes were kind of catchy and they started growing on me after a while. Besides, the monks and other volunteers at the ashram were not in the least pushy. In fact, they were very sincere and friendly. What I was being asked to do was not onerous and considering what I got in return I felt it was a good deal. The quality of yoga instruction was quite good and the effect of four hours a day of asanas on my body was amazing. When I lay down to sleep I would hear popping sounds from my back and neck

The monks at the ashram emphasized that they had a different definition of the word yoga than we have in the west. To westerners yoga is associated with certain postures and movements. It is a physical exercise for strengthening and stretching. To them the physical exercises are only one part of a way of living that promotes inner peace. They could describe it in more detail than I but suffice to say it emphasizes clean living, humility, devotion, and discipline in addition to the physical exercises. For some, but not all of the yoga vacationers those other aspects of yoga were a hard sell.

One of those aspects was karma yoga which they translated as “selfless service”. For my karma yoga I was assigned to help serve food at the meals. Perhaps in a previous life I was a glutton who gorged himself while others starved. I don’t know but I kind of liked the job and there was plenty for me to eat when I was done serving. Food came from the kitchen in stainless steal buckets with ladles to serve it. I would walk up and down the lines of diners seated on the floor with a bucket of curried vegetables, for example, and dish some more out to whoever wanted seconds. The tricky part was that no one was supposed to talk during the meal. People broke that rule frequently, of course. Often, they would say, “om” to get my attention, as if that were cosmically more appropriate than saying “hey, you with the curry.” Most of the communication was non-verbal, though. I would look for eye contact and when someone nodded at me I would slop some more food on their plate. When I was seated to eat and wanted seconds (or thirds) I found the most effective way to communicate my desire was to hold my plate up.

“Om” was actually a pretty popular word there. They told us what it meant but the definition was so abstract that it seems to have floated away from my mind. They believe that simply by uttering certain words, karma can be improved and one’s lot in the next life might be better, which I guess is why they’re so big on the chanting. But they even used the words in more mundane contexts, for example when I said hello to a passing monk instead responding with, “hello, how are you?” she answered “Om nimashyvaya.” At the snack bar, where one could order delicious fruit salads or “bliss,” which in this case was a little ball of mashed up dates, the volunteer who took my orders would ring her little bell and call out “om” instead of “order up.”

My first meal at the ashram was the final meal for the 180 students in a month long teacher training course. They had just finished some rigorous tests and their mood was jubilant. As they lined up outside the dining hall they enthusiastically clapped and sang out, “Hare Rama, hare Krishna.” I wondered what I was getting myself into. Over the next few days the teacher training course students left the ashram leaving just the yoga vacationers. With their departure the customary pre-meal chanting withered until it was just the poor guy on the microphone leading the chant with hardly anyone joining in. I felt bad for the guy and by the end of my one-week stay I was chanting and clapping and hoping more people would join in. I don’t know what to think about karma and reincarnation but why not just do as the Romans? It certainly couldn’t do any harm.

In the office there was a bin where people leaving the ashram could leave reusable items they wanted to get rid of and anyone else could take them. I lightened my load by leaving the lotus flower I had carved and as I made my way down the hill toward the bus stop I felt light hearted and ready for my next adventure.