Sunday, December 21, 2008


I've gone from ha to hau (snow). It seemed appropriate since Portland has been buried in snow off and on for the past week, with the weatherman promising about a week more of this arctic weather. In fact, both hula class and 'ukulele class got canceled because driving to class would have been foolhardy, if not impossible.

I wasn't sure if I'd find much information about hau in Hawai'i. As it turns out, there's even a Hawaii Ski Club, based on O'ahu. But the club, numbering about 100 skiers, seems more interested in meeting for pau hana (happy hour) and planning trips to ski resorts in Canada, the mainland and Japan than in skiing in Hawai'i.

Skiing in Hawai'i really happens, though it seems like a lot of trouble. And the Hawaii Ski Club actually advises against it because it's dangerous and foolhardy -- kind of like trying to drive in Portland lately.

The only places it snows in Hawai'i are at the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai'i [pictured above in a satellite photo] and Haleakala on Maui. All three are volcanoes. Mauna Kea, which means white mountain, is 13,796 feet high. Compare that to Mt. Hood, just east of Portland, with its elevation of 11,240. At Mt. Hood, there's skiing all year. But at Mauna Kea, if conditions are just so, skiing is possible during the months of January or February.

However, there are no lifts and no services of any kind. People who are just dying to say they skiied in Hawai'i have to either have a patient friend or hire someone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle who will drive them to the top, then drive down to where the snow ends to pick them up and maybe repeat the process.

The only way to the top is along a service road built for astronomers. The summit of Mauna Kea, it turns out, is the world's largest astonomical observatory. There are 13 telescopes operated by 11 countries.

I read that the astonomers are sometimes called upon to rescue the foolhardy skiers. At that elevation it's common that someone not used to the thin air would get altitude sickness. Another problem skiers encounter is that when the snow runs out, there's volcanic lava rock below. People who don't brake in time can get pretty banged up.

But even the people who advise against skiing up there do recommend the view, just because it's so amazing to see in one glimpse the blue sky, the blue ocean, the white snow, the dark lava and the lush vegetation beyond.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Here is my Fun Fact for the week.

Ha! What a great Hawaiian word. What could it possibly mean?

How very logical of the Hawaiians. Of course, this expellation of air means a breath, to breathe, even divine breath.

At last night's hula class I pointed out to my classmates that the word ha is hidden in a few other common words, such as aloha. Alo means facing and ha means breath. In the old days, Hawaiians said hello by coming face-to-face with each other -- nose-to-nose, in fact -- and expelling their breath. My first Hawaiian language teacher, Tuti, claimed that it was a very practical greeting: in one moment you'd know if your friend was feeling well or not.

Tuti also explained the origin of the word haole, which is the somewhat derogatory term for non-Hawaiians. She said it originated with the first contact of Hawaiians with European voyagers, such as Captain James Cook. Captain Cook (who ultimately lost his life in Hawai'i) no doubt greeted the native people in a rather stiff and formal British manner. A warm handshake was probably the most intimate he and the other Brits could manage when meeting the chiefs. (Greeting the ladies was quite another matter.)

Ha means breath; ole means without. Thus, haole means "without breath." Originally, the word described people who failed to greet others in the Hawaiian way.

Ha appears in many words. I read that 'ohana, the word for family, means "many breaths," as in a whole bunch of heavy breathers, a clan. I haven't found a good source of Hawaiian etymology, so I can't vouch for that, having come to learn that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. For example, one Internet source claimed that Hawai'i meant "divine breath, divine water." However, according to my Hawaiian dictionary, the word Hawai'i comes from "Hawa Iki," which was the name of the legendary homeland of the Polynesian people who eventually set out in their sea-faring canoes and settled their new home, Hawai'i.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Feather Leis

We are back to hula class after a Thanksgiving break. My Fun Fact for the week is related to a show-n-tell our kumu (teacher) gave us during our last class. She had just returned from a hula and craft workshop in Honolulu, the International Waikiki Hula Conference, where she learned how to work with feathers for making leis or headbands.

I learned about Hawaiian feather craft when I visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu last spring. Pictured here is a museum exhibit of a feather lei that also bears a hook, traditionally carved from a whale's tooth, to indicate that the wearer was ali'i, or royalty.

No birds were harmed (well, not TOO much) in the collection of feathers for royal garments. The royal bird catchers, known as kia manu, spread sticky tree sap or gum from a tree upon branches where birds were likely to alight. Once the bird was stuck, the catcher would pluck just a few colorful feathers and then clean the sticky goo off the bird's feet and let it go. The red and yellow feathers were the most rare and therefore the most prized. However, any bird feather was considered special because birds were thought to have a great deal of mana, spiritual power. And because birds could fly, they could get closer to the gods.

Our kumu not only brought back from the conference new skills in feather craft (which she will teach us), but a new dance. I couldn't believe it when she said it was a mele ma'i, or genital chant. I talked about these chants when delivering my last Fun Fact, and I later wondered if I had gone a bit over the top. After all, I don't know my hula sisters (and one hula brother) THAT well. But as it turned out, kumu was happy that I had introduced the concept.

The dance she learned at the conference is called Ka Ua I Hämäkua, which means, "The Rain at Hämäkua." Although it's identified as a mele ma'i, the term is translated as a procreation chant. The subject is the conception of King Kamehameha the Great and now I better understand about the layered meaning of the Hawaiian language. See if you can get a sexual spin off of these lines -- "You are pierced at the mouth of the forest, By the thrust of the needle" -- and you'll understand why the most innocuous sounding poetry often merits a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

Kumu taught us a new step called the ne'e, for which we sort of stick our butts out and swing them back and forth. When we're not doing that we're doing the ami, which is basically a hip grinder. At one point in the chant, kumu calls out, "'Auhea ia?" (Where is it?) Then we cradle our hands in front of our (ahem) ma'i, if you get my drift, and shout, "Eia ma'ane 'i lä!" (Here it is!) This ain't "Lovely Hula Hands," folks, but I like it. Learning this mele ma'i deepens my understanding of hula. The words and the movements carry a world of meanings.