The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kauai, Part I: Settling into an island groove

Hawaii is the hang loose state, the great American anomaly. The place seems constructed by the Almighty for the sole purpose of relaxation and joy. The fruits are sweet, the animals are tender, the temperature rarely drops below the sixties, even at night in winter. Hell, the place doesn’t even have poison ivy. You can fall victim to mosquitoes in the wrong places, but even they aren’t local. They came as tourists and liked the place.

The sun is not too harsh, the water is mild and blue – it’s almost obscene, really, that a place like this exists, and people are enjoying it day after day while you live somewhere else. And yet it’s also somehow a miracle that fat cats and their harlot mistresses haven’t walled the whole place off for their private hunting and fucking pleasure. For the price of a ticket, you can still have your own Hawaii experience.

Kauai is the hang loose island of the hang loose state: 555 square miles, the vast majority of it inaccessible by automobile. Almost half of the shoreline is beach. About 56,000 permanent residents, nearly all of them somehow connected either to agriculture or tourism. You don’t see a lot of people putting on ties to go to the office. You don’t see a lot of offices. There’s a single main highway that circles about ¾ of the island and doesn’t connect with itself; every trip is either going to take you clockwise or counter-clockwise, but unless there’s a traffic light out somewhere it’s never going to take more than about two hours to drive from one extreme end to any other point on the island.

This is where you go to slow down, to abandon plans, to breathe and bake and soak and drink and let light showers pelt your face a few times a day. Within 555 square miles you find beaches, swamps, mountains, canyons, breathtaking cliffs, forests, grassy plains, gentle rivers, dirt trails, fresh produce, insects of shocking color, bikinis, resorts, luaus, buffets that have shredded pork for every meal, guided tours, mixed drinks, everyone wearing sandals at night, charter boats, charter helicopters, charter hang-gliders and two bazillion loud button-up shirts made of soft fabric. And it never feels crowded, and it’s all available, at a healthy mark-up, sure, but not so much that it’s out of Average Joe’s reach.

Sadly, until they perfect that matter teleportation device and eliminate those fly-mutation kinks, you don’t get to just wish for Kauai and appear there.

You’ve got to get on a plane.

More below the Jump!


My expedition to Hawaii is really a gift from the generous parents of the one and only Monkeygirl. Originally, they aligned their planned holiday so I could tag along and skip over to Maui for a couple of days for Princess Layla’s wedding. Then, the weather forced a delay and I missed the ceremony. Thankfully, even though my excuse for going was past, they weren’t about to withdraw their invite. So Monkeygirl, her Mama and Papa and myself packed our bags and sunscreen and camera and headed for the airport. At about 5:30 in the morning.

You can see the contrast helping later on. That gray, miserable morning light and the gray, miserable people standing outside in the check-in line, heavy with luggage and queasy from the unnatural hour; sure it would all be over soon, but that’s never a comfort in the moment. Hawaiian Airlines provides a trio to sing pop oldies a capella outside the terminal, but the surly don’t react well to the preternaturally cheerful at sun-up. No way, Jimmy.

On the plane there’s a kid screaming holy Hell in the row behind us by the window. Monkeygirl and her Mama want to throw chunks of Xanax at his mouth – even if they miss, there’s a chance one will land in his vicinity and he’ll get curious.

Every attendant on the flight could be on Xanax – they’ve got that same soft glow in their eyes, the same buoyant grin. But they don’t need the chemical replica, they get to mainline the real deal. Hawaii should be renamed “Xanax”.

They do their best to get us in the spirit, and that includes a generous beverage cart. I can’t even wait to hit terra firma before having my first mai tai. Besides, the lunch is terrible.


We have a long layover in Oahu, which includes a second effort at lunch in the terminal. Papa Monkeygirl loves the Hawaiian language, and he expresses his love by fixating on either real Hawaiian words or authentic-sounding gibberish, then substituting those words for everything. He’s half-Cuban and has a tendency to use Spanish and English interchangeably, so under the best circumstances I have a hard time following him.

Today’s word is “Poipu” – the name of a town in Southwestern Kauai. When our waitress comes by and greets us, he cocks his head and queries – “Poipu?” Later, when she checks if we need re-fills, he points at his glass and nods with a hearty and assertive “Poi-PU!” So far, as much as I can tell, spirits are high. Monkeygirl has warned me there is insanity ahead, and that we are due to discover much about our relationship in the next 10 days and nights.

I’m fine with that if it comes. But what I care most about is, in those 10 days and 10 nights, I get a thorough and well-rounded Kauai experience. I want to get up in this island’s grill.


Our taxi driver has a fantastic mole. Really just extraordinary. Our rental car is a Chrysler Sebring Convertible; just like the 20,000 other rentable Chrysler Sebring Convertibles on Kauai. There’s not enough room for four bodies and all the luggage. So Monkeygirl and I go separately in a cab. The driver is almost unintelligible, and it’s harder still when all you can focus on is….that…thing…on…his…face!

Hairs are spiking out of it. Long, gray ones, splayed like squid legs, one of them at least nine inches long. Either this man has not seen a mirror in forty years, in which case he shouldn’t be driving a cab, or he is at peace with his astonishing growth, even proud of it.

You can make peace with a lot on this island.


Where we’re staying is technically a “condo”. By all observations I would have pegged it as a hotel, since there’s an ice machine and free towels for the pool and a maid who always knocks at the least appropriate time. But there’s some legal distinction I’m unaware of that means, since this is a “condo”, that we’re paying a lot less than if we went to a “hotel” for exactly the same accommodations. I’m not one to question the arrangement.

Getting a good picture of this ruined one of my most comfortable pairs of dirt cheap shoes

The ocean is so very close. The sound of it washes over everything else on its way to our balcony screen door. Soft breezes rustle our curtains, and if we’re not very, very careful, Monkeygirl and I are going to relax too much and forget to shut them when the island atmosphere creates a need for privacy.

After unpacking and unwinding, the family meets in the courtyard, meanders along the beach, talks about dinner plans. Thanks to a friend I’m in possession of this rather stupendous little book, and in the days to come it does not let us down once when it comes to a good restaurant.

Tonight’s repast is at
Scotty’s Beachside BBQ, actually opened by the writers of the above guidebook, since they’d judged Kauai’s only demerit to be the lack of a good BBQ place. Problem solved. We feast to bulging, and then get dessert on top of that – because when you’ve spent your whole meal watching parties at the other tables getting little portable fires to roast S’mores over, you’re by God going to order dessert no matter how much meat you’ve crammed down your gullet.


The next day is about orientation, plans, supplies. It is very, very important to Papa and Mama Monkeygirl that they locate the Target on the island. We need those disposable things that take up too much room to pack – beach towels and safe food (Mama Monkeygirl is not too adventurous, and Papa Monkeygirl can’t eat dairy). Monkeygirl and I intend to book some adventures.

There’s a shopping center right next door to the condo, and their breakfast café has a plate of banana pancakes with coconut syrup that will give you religion. While we’re waiting for our table Monkeygirl, Papa Monkeygirl and I explore the one kiosk that’s actually open (we’ll talk about “island hours” more later). The shopkeeper’s named Paula – she’s amiable, enthusiastic, makes jewelry out of cut glass. Every piece is unique and hand-fired. She used to ship to stores all over, but demand was too high for her to do it all herself, so now her little kiosk is the only place that sells her stuff.

Look at one necklace and she’ll take it out of the case and insist you look at it in the sun – to see how it flashes and leaps into 3-D. Then she’ll bring out four more that she thinks are suitable. Before you know it, you’re convinced that somewhere in that display is the one that was meant for you. If you’re into necklaces, that is.

Monkeygirl is into necklaces. We’re going to be back to this place before the trip’s over, and we’re going to be bringing Mama Monkeygirl, too. Standing patiently for this is how men pay women back for sports.

Decisions, decisions


After breakfast Monkeygirl and I borrow the car and drive north into Kapa’a, the nearest town, to make some inquiries at a tour booking service. I’ve got my own thick sheaf of suggestions gathered from the web and guidebooks on the lead-up to the trip, now we’re going to cross-reference them with the dozen brochures I grabbed at the airport and a little human intel and decide just what we want to do with our time, and how much can we conceivably drag her parents along for.

Jayne is our helper. It’s pronounced Jay-nee. Jay-nee stands proudly on the wrong side of the line between boundlessly optimistic and bonkers. She thanks us profusely for every single thing we do, and rains compliments down on our heads like rice at the most beautiful wedding in the world.

When we thank her for locating a particular van tour for us, she’ll say something like: “(Gasp!) Thank youuuuuuuuu! Look at how polite you are! Okay, just a minute and I’ll call to see if they’re available.” There’s a pause as she picks up the phone and dials, as it rings she gasps and says “Thank youuuuu!” quietly a second time.

The consensus is that we’re going to book a half-day van tour for tomorrow, which will cover a lot of ground, show us some of the major tourist-y spots, and get us used to the layout of the island while providing us some trivia to enrich the rest of the trip. Since it will be done in the middle of the afternoon, we’re also planning to book a luau for the evening, and thus handle all the square, conventional stuff up front, leaving the rest of the week for more thorough exploration.

Jay-nee is delighted to help with all of this.

It’s only four hours since we first visited Paula at her jewelry store, and already we’re back. There was no resisting it. We make an exhaustive search, and through deep examination determine the inherent color schemes of Monkeygirl and Mama Monkeygirl.

And it just so happens that Monkeygirl’s perfect necklace goes perfectly with a particular set of earrings. And it is perfect for me to seize on these items as a gallant present for her, since they’re about all I’m going to be allowed to pay for myself on this whole expedition.


The afternoon is awkward. With only one car, it’s easy for goals to collide with one another, and a jaunt into town for a burger can mutate without warning into a 3-hour miasma of forgotten directions, shopping and drunken angst. Monkeygirl and I are hungry. Mama and Papa Monkeygirl want to buy pants and shoes – these goals prove difficult to reconcile.

Eventually us young-un’s are dropped off in Nawiliwili near the harbor, where cruise ships the size of knocked-over skyscrapers drift in every Monday and Thursday, spilling an ant swarm of tourists out over the docks to filter throughout the island for a day, then gradually get sucked back on to the boat – a little more sunburned and a little more broke.

We chow down on burgers at a little two-story shack by the road that tourists didn’t used to know about, until the stupendous little book I linked to above. I get a buffalo burger, which is not too much different from cow but seems more tender and flavorful.

Mama and Papa Monkeygirl are still on their quest for Target goods, so Monkeygirl and I wander nearer to shore to J.J.’s Broiler, a restaurant that sort of has it’s own eco-system.

I will explain.

Kauai has a rooster problem. Aside from the many birds kept by farmers, there’s a popular cockfighting underground within the Filipino community, so there’s always been a lot of fowl on the island. But on September 11, 1992, the Category 4 storm Hurricane Iniki passed directly over the island, destroying 1,400 homes and wiping out electricity for the entire island for weeks, months for many residents. It also wrecked the famous Coco Palms Resort Hotel, a favorite of Frank Sinatra and the place where Elvis got married in
Blue Hawaii. Miraculously, due to warnings and preparation, there were only a half-dozen deaths. But rooster fences? Gone with the wind.

The roosters – especially the aggressive, fighting-bred strains, have now multiplied and filtered into every corner of the island. Anywhere you go you can expect to hear crowing. Kauai also has a number of stray cats – the roosters beat the crap out of them, and you have to imagine the cats thinking there is something seriously wrong with the universe, dreaming of a place known only to their dim ancestral memory, a place where the birds don’t win.

Local restaurants, particularly the ones with outdoor seating, have a habit of making jokes about how fresh their chicken menu is.

At J.J.’s, roosters will wander inside and sleep in the corner by the bar when it’s raining. If you give off too passive a vibe they might hop on your table for a closer look at your food. It’s a queer sight to watch them trotting along the top of a hedge, poking around for nits and bugs, while tiny finches do the same nearby. You can imagine the little birds thinking – “What have you been eating, friend?

The roosters would eat the geckos, but the geckos have learned to only emerge at night. So when the sun starts setting, they’ll come scuttling, looking for sweet things. Our waitress tells stories about them slipping into Piña Coladas, clinging upside-down inside the glass with their little suction feet, or just diving into a slice of cheesecake and eating out a little hole for themselves.

I hope you’re all taking note of the fabulous earrings


Monkeygirl is convinced her Papa is sneaking cigarettes. The three of them all made the painful pledge to quit together this year, and she and Mama Monkeygirl have made cold turkey stick. They’ve gone through the bad moods and cravings, Monkeygirl still stands near smokers and wafts, once in awhile, but overall they’ve survived. Monkeygirl’s even gaining weight. She cleared 100 pounds. I call her Fatass now. She’s happy.

But she’s sure Papa is cheating, because he makes silly excuses to slip away and go to the car. He’s lacing up to go for a walk, but when we ask for the car keys he suddenly says that first he needs to go shopping and find some pants he likes. Monkeygirl bets he’s got them in the glove compartment.

We walk back to the marketplace, which has a little bar in the middle. And it’s karaoke night. Monkeygirl absolutely, positively does not believe I didn’t know about this in advance. Since we’re in another state three time zones away, and these people will never see me again, I go for the gusto. I request American Pie. I ask if it’s the full version, since most places cut it short. The host, a great round island man, gives me a dubious head tilt – “I got the full version if you want it.

I survive all six verses, and get some love in return. Two older women at the bar ask me to sing something else, I make a panicked gesture at my aching throat and go back to my drink. That song takes it out of you.

Tomorrow is an early call for our tour. In a way we’re thwarting the time zone effect – by going to sleep three hours earlier than normal so we can wake up three hours earlier than normal, we’re staying defiantly in our routines while the globe reorients itself. This is an ideal arrangement, and very cooperative of Hawaii. It knows so many other ways to make you feel welcome. Why not this as well?


  • A friend sent me this link. I'm glad to see Kauai hasn't become a mass of tourist resorts over the years. I lived in Hawaii for a year in the late sixties and it was such a gorgeous, quiet island. Nice to read your blog and revisit.

    By Blogger Pris, at 3:28 AM  

  • Thank you. Although my memories now are bittersweet (I'm no longer in the relationship described in the entry), I still had a wonderful time and saw many unforgettable sights. I eventually published a full set of pictures over at my other blog, if you are interested:

    Part One:

    Part Two:

    Part Three:

    Part Four:

    By Blogger Nick, at 7:26 AM  

  • Believe it or not, I just found that you'd replied to me. I had this post in a folder on my desktop and re-discovered it yesterday. Your photos were so much fun to see. Kauai has grown a lot in terms of resorts but it still doesn't look at all 'overgrown' like oahu. Thanks for sharing these links and I'm sorry that relationship didn't work out.

    This time I'm checking email notification in case you post more:-)

    By Blogger Pris, at 4:21 AM  

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