Hawaii: True taste of paradise

By Jim Eagles

Kalaupapa Peninsula, Molokai. Photo / Jim Eagles
Kalaupapa Peninsula, Molokai. Photo / Jim Eagles

Instead of a boring old postcard I posted myself a coconut as a souvenir of the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

Although coconuts are apparently mailed from Molokai to all corners of the globe I couldn't be sure mine would make it through New Zealand's border controls.

But posting home a nut is something of a custom on this tranquil island, and it is a place where customs are still important, so I thought I'd give it a try anyway.

It seems that an early postmistress at the tiny village of Hoolehua started the idea off by providing a supply of coconuts and marker pens for tourists who liked the idea of doing something original.

There's a different postmistress there these days but she keeps the idea going. The day I turned up there were coconuts of all sizes stacked along the wall of the tiny post office with a basket of coloured markers and a few imaginatively painted samples to provide a bit of inspiration.

"I don't know who started it," said the postmistress when I asked her. "It's been going a long time.

They do the same on some of the other islands but we were the first."

Unfortunately she was ready to close for lunch when I arrived - in fact the door was actually shut and she was initially a bit irritated that I had managed to sneak in - so there was no time for fancy artwork.

Instead I selected a nice clean nut, printed my address on the flattest bit and handed it in.

"Oh, no, you must put a return address," the postmistress said. "They won't take it if you don't have a return address.

"You have to fill out a customs form as well ... and" - she added emphatically as she handed me the form - "you must fill in that it's a coconut or they won't take it."

Umm, what return address should I put, I wondered, Hotel Molokai where I was staying? "Oh don't worry about that," said the hungry postmistress. "Your address in New Zealand will do for the return address as well."

Paperwork completed, I paid out US$16.95 ($24.18) in postage, my nut was covered in stamps and customs stickers, and the postmistress started it on the long journey to New Zealand by putting the nut into a bin.

The more I thought about it the more appropriate it seemed as a souvenir of Molokai. Long protected from invaders from others islands because of its reputation as a place of black magic, it is still today seen as the most Hawaiian of the islands, with almost half its people claiming native Hawaiian ancestry.

True, the coconut itself is not actually endemic, but it did arrive with the Polynesian voyagers some 1500 years ago, and it has certainly flourished. Molokai is ringed with these graceful trees and I gather there is a rule that no building on the island may be higher than a coconut palm.

Of course if I had wanted to go a bit more upmarket I could have posted off a coconut painted by a local artist.

Back in the main town of Kaunakakai, Teri Waros sells some beautiful nutty works of art from her library-craft shop-community centre which has the wonderful name of Kalele Bokstore & Divine Expressions. "Tourists seem to like them," she explained, "because they're something different."

Her shop is something different too, with a table and chairs in one corner and a couch in another, banana bread and sweet cherry tomatoes to nibble, coffee to drink and books to read, all to encourage folks to linger a while and chat. "I like people to come here and talk story," Teri said. "I want it to be a place they can come to exchange ideas and maybe to learn new things."

But as my wife discovered, while I was off posting the coconut, talk story - a common local expression - is popular all round the town. My Molokai coconut didn't make it past the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. About a week after I posted it a letter arrived in the Herald office advising that an item of mail - "one fresh coconut, 810g" - had been held under the Biosecurity Act. I could either pay $59.56 to have it returned to sender or have it destroyed at no charge.

I didn't bother pointing out that the sender was actually me and the return address was in Devonport. It will just have to be destroyed. Maybe next time I go to Molokai I'll write a message on a coconut and throw it into the sea. Coconuts quite often turn up on Devonport Beach.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu up to three times per week. Long-term airfares in Pacific Economy class are available from $1500 per person return plus airport and government costs.

Where to stay: The only hotel on the island is Hotel Molokai which has fairly basic rooms but a great bar and a nice restaurant.

Further information: For general information about visiting Hawaii see discoverhawaii.co.nz.

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

- NZ Herald

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