Here, at the bottom of the bay, at the start of the winding two lane road to the North Shore, Kaneohe begins the country. This is where the real Hawaii starts, where the locals still feel comfortable, where few tourists come, and where there is no danger of a high rise going up any time soon.
Here is where the fierce Hawaiian pride starts to kick in. Further up a bit, on the road to the North Shore, the residents are constantly fighting against hotels that want to monopolize the space. “What a pity, no new city”, reads one sign. “Keep the country country” reads another. Kaneohe is as country as a town can get, and that comes with good and bad. Across our street lives Eddie, who has lived there for 30 years. He fixes lawnmowers for a living, constantly having people pull into his driveway with lawnmowers that do not start. Inevitably, a few hours or days later, it will roar to life.
His sister lives next to him, and his other sister died in our house, somehow losing her life on the seven stairs that go from our upper level to our lower one. (I don’t fully understand, but I didn’t question further.)
These people are fiercely Hawaiian. More than once my careful choir-trained Midwest diction has been mocked. “How long have you lived here?” is always the question I get here, and I am always aware that I am a ‘haole’ (white person).
If you want raw food and yoga and paddle boarding, you go to Kailua, if you want ‘what you do’ to matter, you go to Honolulu. But here in Kaneohe, you matter because you are here, you matter if you engage. You matter if you make friends with the local Firestone crew, you matter if you walk past a house every day and wave every time. You make your place here by recognizing the proprietor of the Chinese place and knowing where the owners of the bakery live. Our best restaurants are in strip malls and old warehouses, and, while beautiful views of the bay, there are no beaches. There is no Whole Foods, few sidewalks, and some overgrown lots.
Instead, there are mountains. Mountains that you cannot even see from Kailua, 10 minutes away. Tall and jagged and green, I had lived here a year before I learned that they are not even really a mountain range. They are the fragmented remnants of a shield volcano from so long ago. Here, we are surrounded by three sides of it, and my house sits in what was the volcanic crater. The fourth side slid into the ocean long ago, and now only the bay remains to cover it, curved and beautiful and calm.
In Honolulu, the local government makes regular and ever-changing rules to relocate and redistribute the homeless, trying to put a shiny face on for the tourists. Here it does not matter. There are few tourists and Kaneohe does not try to hide its difficult side. Here we see the same man in a broken down trailer in the park’s parking lot for the entire time we’ve been here, and nobody minds. Here at the other park my son and I talk to Malaya. Her matted dreadlocks reach her waist, but you can see how she loves the kids by the way that she smiles, and how much she needs by how eagerly she eats the food my son hands her.
It is important to us to live here, so close to the neighbors that we have heard both their fighting and their shower singing, where our neighborhood association has reached angry words a number of times, where out front many of the neighborhood walks down to work at the local grocery store.
We go to the store probably four times a week, and Joe usually stays outside with the dog talking to the local homeless while I get the bananas, milk, and potatoes from inside. He is always astonished by the secrets, conspiracy theories, and random knowledge that these people have, and it is always Hawaiian. What the old kings did, who still visits them in their hallucinations, and where they like to go to sleep (both the kings and themselves). Stories of ancient rulers who visited or found Hawaii, what they did when they got there, what they said to these people who now sit on their concrete stools, shifting eyes, and Taco Bell wrappers.
The mountains rise behind us, green, green green, up to their very tops. So close to the mountains, the rain falls here often. And when it falls hard and long it makes the steep drops on the mountains flow with silver, falling down in straight, long waterfalls. What an astonishing thing, that these mountains could be so incredibly steep that any water that falls on them has to fall, hundreds or thousands of feet, into the valleys and onto the tops of the trees.
Closer to home, our neighbor behind us judges us for using our giant trash cans to block in our children away from the street, instead of a nice, pretty fence. Next time he makes a snide comment, I’m going to tell him, “Look. You and your fence ideas belong in Kailua. This says we belong here.”
In a place where the graffiti stays on the concrete walls, the grass lots stay long, raging waterfalls flow unchecked down the mountains, and a man with a broken trailer lives in the park for over a year now, surely a fence made of trash cans fits right in.