The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mele Kalikimaka

I've been away for a while. The last eight months of my life haven't given me much that I want to write about publicly. Privately I've filled several pages, but it will be a long time until I'll be able to shape this year into something that makes sense.

I want to come back to writing, though, and blogging is an easy way to do it. I'm traveling again, so I figure now is as good a time as any to start back up again.

Dad, Seth and I decided that this year we should do something different for Christmas. Some friends of ours invited us to Maui, and we all thought that sounded like a pretty good idea. Seth's girlfriend Kim also thought it was a good idea, and decided to join us. We left Christmas Eve morning from the small airport in Bentonville, Arkansas (for some strange reason, it's cheaper than Springfield). We arrived in Maui around 3:00 in the afternoon, local time, and the humidity in the airport just about knocked us over. I folded up my coat, put it in my suitcase, and left it there for the rest of the week.

A few hours later, after settling in at our hotel, we had Christmas Eve dinner at a beachside grill. We were very tired, but we wouldn't rest for very long. I had heard that one of the best things to do on Maui was to go see the sun rise from atop Haleakala crater, but you had to get up at 2:00 in the morning to do it. Someone suggested that we do it the first day after arriving, because our internal clocks would be wacky anyway. I figured that made sense, and I also figured that riding a bicycle down a volcanic mountain was about as far away from our traditional Christmas morning as you could get, so I booked us on a tour to see the crater and then ride 6,000 feet down the mountain afterward.

Getting up in the dark when we were already exhausted from the flight was rough, and standing on top of the mountain in the freezing darkness was rougher. Everyone had said that it would be cold up there, but I have to say I didn't really believe them. I mean, they live on Maui, right? How cold could it actually be? Trust me, it was effing cold. If you ever do this, really, seriously, it's cold. Bring a sweater, hat, scarf, gloves, blanket, snuggie, whatever, it's cold. The tour company I booked was really good, I have to say. They knew no one would dress properly, despite the warnings, and so everyone was issued jackets and long pants to wear at high elevation. I had worn clothes for biking with a ¾ sleeve hoodie thrown on as an afterthought, and I was hugely grateful for the extra clothing. I was also wearing thin sneakers, which are great for cycling and crap for standing on a cold volcano.

Seth, Kim and I huddled on the rim of the crater, staring hard at the horizon. It was dark. It was cold. It was windy and strange, and even though we were surrounded by lots of other people, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. As the sky started to lighten, we could make out the shapes of clouds around us. They weren't above us, but out to the side, just beyond the edge of the mountain. We waited for what felt like forever in the freezing dark, anxious for the sun to rise and bring us light and warmth. The sky grew gradually lighter, and suddenly a cry rang out from the silenced crowd. Our guide had told us that a Hawaiian woman often comes to do a sunrise prayer from the top of the crater, and in Hawaii they pray in chanting songs. A moment after her voice sounded, a small blaze of orange broke above the distant clouds. The sun flared in our eyes, growing steadily larger, as her bittersweet song echoed across the crater. I didn't understand the words of her prayer, but the sound of it pulled forward all of the grief and hope I had struggled to contain that year.

In the end, it was perfectly fitting way to experience that Christmas morning. I feel like I've been waiting in the cold dark all year for a little light to return.

A few minutes after the sunrise, we got back in the tour bus and were driven down a few thousand feet to where we could get on our bikes. The summit of Haleakala is about 10,000 feet, and it rises that high from sea level in just 37 miles, making it the highest elevation gain in the shortest distance of anywhere in the world. We got on the bikes at about 6,000 feet, and followed the mountain road through its hairpin turns. On the straightaways we could glide along steadily enough to take in the view from the mountain all the way down to the coast. The air became steadily warmer and heavier as we descended, and soon we cast off our extra layers as the morning air thickened around us. We rode down through several climates, breezing past rocky slopes, then cattle pastures, then eucalyptus groves, and finally lush flower gardens filled with birds of paradise. As we flew past each grove and field, the scents of each new growing thing filled our breaths.

We ended our ride in a small town at the foot of the mountain, where we stopped in a cafe for a much-needed breakfast. I had fresh guava juice and crab cake eggs benedict, which, while a little slow to arrive were worth the wait. After stopping back at the tour company's headquarters, we were driven back to our hotel on the other side of the island. I felt like I had accomplished more than a full day's worth of adventure before noon, and decided to take a well-deserved rest while Seth and Kim went down to the beach.

That evening we went down to our friends' condo for dinner. There was plenty of grilled meat, along with baked potatoes and green beans. It felt more like a summer cookout than a Christmas dinner, but that was fine with me.