With his dark weathered skin and crooked smile a familiar man approaches me, his eyes beaming with a calming sense of aloha that is reminiscent of a simpler time. His arms open wide as he greets me, holding the embrace much longer than most men. Yet, it is comfortable place to remain for a while. When he finally lets go and takes one step backward with his outstretched hands still on my shoulders, his smile conveys a message of contentment that leaves my cup overflowing.
This man, known fondly as Uncle Francis, began his love affair with West Hawaii as a child at his grandmother’s beach house in South Kohala in the late 1940’s. In the many years that followed, he has shared his love with locals and tourists alike in the form of scuba diving, fishing, sailing, and water sports of all shapes and sizes. Yet, I have not flown up from O’ahu to Kona for the fishing, as he has invited me on a different adventure.
“We goin’ collect ‘opihi and pa’akai (Hawaiian salt)” he says with a grin. “Grab your things–I’ll get the boat trailer down to the water and you back ‘em off.”
Having never gathered salt before I wonder about the specifics of our endeavor, but somehow manage to save my endless questions for later and gather my stuff.
I begin to laugh as I shoot a couple of photos of him as he climbs up into a bright orange tractor modified with a trailer hitch that sends the boat rolling briskly towards the ramp and into the water.
“Not like the old days” I shout to him sarcastically over the roar of the engine.
“No…But dis’ buggah is the way to do it. Dis’ today’s way to launch boats.” he answers with confidence. “But if you like see some of the ol’ days, there’s a 4 man koa canoe just down the beach under that hale over there that we just finished carving without any use of modern tools. Can check ‘em out when we get back later if you like…”
“Mmmm.” I think. “Perhaps itʻs better to talk less and start listening plenty.”
As we ride down the coast in the boat typically used to take tourists out daily for a scuba dive off shore, I make sure to stand close, careful not to miss the history lesson that accompanies each passing shoreline or pu’u in the distance. As we glide downwind, Uncle Francis speaks of days long before I was born, which families resided in each bay, how places received their names, and how he and his buddies kept themselves busy.
As we arrive at our destination, he is reminded of his early years when he would come by boat to this same particular salt and ‘opihi hunting grounds, anchoring off shore, and camping for days on end by himself.
His eyes gaze towards shore and a seriousness takes over his playful demeanor.
“I jus’ love this place” he states with sincerity. “It’s special place…you’ll see.”
“You goin’ first” he then says to me.
“I’ll get ‘em close, and you jump on the rocks and help everybody else get off. No worry bout the boat, I get um.” he says with a smile.
As expected along the Kona shoreline, there is no easy way to get off the boat onto the mix of pāhoehoe and ʻa’ā guarding the land from the sea, but he manages to find an outcropping of rocks and takes me forward. With precision accuracy, the bow of the boat is then maneuvered within a foot of the rocks and I quickly jump off and watch as the swells barely miss him as he reverses into safer water off shore.
One by one, each of the remaining passengers disembark in the same fashion and gather atop the hot, black lava shoreline.
With Ziplock baggie in hand, I set off in search of pa’akai. No one has told me what to do or how to do it, but I’m confident that I’ll know salt when I see it and decide to continue onward. At first I do not see anything and wonder if I’ve somehow drifted off course. I begin realizing that in all my years in and around the water on Oʻahu, I’d never actually seen large quantities of salt collecting on the rocks. I wonder how it will look, what texture it will have, and how much there will actually be to collect. Especially since the only Hawaiian salt I’d ever gathered before could be found next to the poi in a small plastic bag in the back isles of Foodland…
All of a sudden the reason for my lack of success becomes blatantly apparent. I realize I have not asked to be in this place. Nor have I asked permission to gather the gifts of the sea such as ‘opihi and pa’akai in this place familiar to my ‘ohana, yet foreign to me. I instantly feel things are not as they should be.
So I put down my belongings and speak aloud so that the trades can take my requests to the heights of Mauna Kea and into the heavens. “Thank you”, I start softly. “ I am blessed to be in this place, at this time, with these people. I offer my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to experience something so new to me. I humbly ask permission of ke akua to collect these gifts of the sea and promise to speak and act with the best of intention as I do so, as my ancestors have done before me. Mahalo” And left it at that.
Within a few seconds, I catch sight of my first patch of raw pa’akai in the black rolling folds of a large blanket of pāhoehoe. It is beautifully white and its crystals twinkle in the relentless Kona sunshine. From a distance, the salt resembles the look of snow on the contrasting black of the lava, much like the flanks of Mauna Kea in the December sun. The breathtaking black of the lava, brilliant white of the pa’akai, and the turquoise blue of the sea provides a backdrop that only those such as Lloyd Sexton Jr could possibly paint into words.
With each new found treasure I’m careful to maintain a positive and thankful intention as promised with every five finger scoop. The strength of the pa’akai amazes me as I am able to gather sheets as big as my hand, even holding them long enough for some photos. As I traverse over tide pools and in and out of lava tubes there is little else to think about. The hunt is on. Yet, for a short while, time appears to stand still. My senses are heightened and I have become surprisingly aware of every push of the trades and each splashing wave upon the shore. For a few short moments, life has become so simple.
After over an hour of gathering in the heat of the sun and managing to fill 2 small bags full of pa’akai, the ocean begins calling my name. My father, cousins, and friends have now managed to find Uncle Francis. He has anchored the boat just south of us and his hunger for ‘opihi has obviously outweighed his quest for pa’akai. As I make my way towards the group, I spot him down by the ocean’s edge. I realize that at 71 years old he has spent most of the morning scampering the shoreline with a knife in one hand, a bag full of ʻopihi hanging from his waist, and a smile that tells it all. My eyes move from him, glancing over at my father who answers with a nod, obviously sharing in my inspiration and admiration for Uncle Francisʻ zest for life.
“Get one knife ova dea.” he says. “You can help if you like.”
With knife in hand I wade into the crashing waves, carefully observing his old school ‘opihi picking technique. Slowly he scans the water line and within seconds is bent over a handful of ‘opihi exposed by the receding tide. He has sized up his prize, making sure they are at least an inch and a half in diameter, and with one swipe of the knife, POP! Up comes the shell in one fluid motion. With that he turns back to me, almost knocked off his feet by an incoming wave, and slurps up the contents of his mid day pūpū.
“Buggah’s winnah.” he says with a grin, giving full shaka with each of his hands.
My attempts at adding to his collection of ‘opihi are far from as graceful. As many ‘opihi collectors know, one’s technique is everything to success. If I fail in making one fluid motion, the ‘opihi instantly gets the hint and suctions down to the rock face with super glue like strength and the game is over before its begun.
I spot a shelf in the water that allows me to stand knee deep in the surf and gather from there as Uncle Francis scurries in ʻaʻama crab like fashion along the rocks above me. On numerous occasions I am thrown from the reef shelf back into the sea by the strength of the breaking waves. Yet, I don’t mind because I’m decidedly terrible at plucking ‘opihi from the reef. I’ve chosen to welcome each dip in the surf as an excuse compensating for my evident rookie status.
After forty-five minutes, my measly pocket full of ʻopihi fails miserably in comparison to the bounty hanging from the nimble waist of Uncle Francis. Yet, as he opens the bag and I pour in my ‘opihi, I can hear him mutter under his breath,
“Dis’ is living boy, dis’ is living…”
With paʻakai in hand and ʻopihi in the ‘ōpū, I couldn’t agree more.