Saturday, January 20, 2007
Farming in Hawai'i
Happy 2007, friends!
I've just returned to Boston from a month in the Puna district of the big island of Hawaii--working on an organic farm.
Although I'm sure I would have envied anyone spending a month in Hawaii before this adventure, I'm sorry to report that it was not at all what we had hoped for.
Kiki and I went on this adventure to learn more about tropical agriculture and the economic dimension of processing, marketing and distributing tropical crops. Despite the best possible communication and planning, we landed in an unfortunate situation--a farm that once had a glowing reputation, now run by a very disorganized, alcoholic couple. Though we did learn to harvest galangal and turmeric from another volunteer, we received absolutely no instruction from our hosts and instead found ourselves unwittingly in a very bizarre community of people wealthy enough to escape society and live a kind of lawless, drug-induced existence, which they call "spiritual".
Having academic duties to fulfill, (I had four term papers to write and an exam to prepare for and take) it was very difficult to pick up and leave to find a better situation, so we stuck it out the best we could. We had chosen Josanna's Garden based on its previous reputation as Andy's Organics and also by the fact that we would have our own cabin with electricity and internet access (essential for our studies). It turned out that we had about one hour of light each night and had to use internet in a mosquito-infested swamp under a mango tree. The outdoor shower and composting toilet were in plain view of the garden and kitchen, respectively, with very little privacy until Kiki insisted that new woven palm mats be installed. Oh, and we couldn't drink the water. Oh, and we weren't allowed to pee in the toilet--we were supposed to "water the trees."
You know, I feel a little strange about complaining so much. After all, I'm part of the "tough-it" family, as my dad always reminded us as kids. We learned to pee in the woods and to respect bugs. To some degree I pride myself on being able to adjust to different cultural situations--I was a Peace Corps volunteer after all! How could I be defeated by a bunch of hippies?! But I think this situation was more challenging because of the judgment and hypocrisy of those around us. It was a very stressful environment for us. What we ate and the way we ate it was under scrutiny (sandwiches, god forbid. How unnatural!), our dependence on electricity, internet, even soap (!) was questioned. We didn't conform to the "open", "natural", "spiritual", "energy" of the place. It was remarkable to me how judgmental and conformist these people were who thought of themselves as open and spiritual. They all spoke the same new-age language like zombies.
The worst of our judges was named "Olucean," a name he had chosen for himself because he disliked the name John given by his family. Olucean was connected to mother earth, a self-proclaimed permaculture specialist (meaning he does nothing to the trees--what kind of specialization is that?), and moves like a dry banana leaf in a mild breeze. He was the self-proclaimed fruit manager at Josanna's Garden. Olucean was full of judgment and contradiction. He admonished our use of peanut butter, but then I caught him spreading some on his baked bananas. He sneered when I asked if he ever made jams from the star fruit or mangoes..."fruit is meant to be eaten off the trees--fresh!" but he would bake a cake of Ulu and Plantains every night. It was Olucean who explained that the trees needed our urine for their well-being. For him, everything should be as "natural" as possible. The next morning, we saw Olucean walking around with an iPod and big headphones pulling back his long blond curls. "What's with the technology?" I asked. "Oh, the local birds have been killed off by humans and imported predators, so in their absence, I need some music to listen to." When my computer was repeatedly unable to connect to the internet "hotspot" under the mosquito tree, Olucean said the problem was my "old computer." "I never have a problem with my new Mac," he said. I felt comforted by the fact that none of the other volunteers were on Olucean's good side either. He apparently affirmed his identity by proving to himself that he possessed superior spirituality and openness compared to those around him.
It was really funny for me to go from Cambridge, MA--where I generally find myself feeling like the unsophisticated country bumpkin at Harvard--to being the complicated, uptight, demanding representative of "the Man" to the self-called "Puna-tics" of the Big Island. It's so interesting to be such different things to different people--without changing anything about myself but my physical location!
The whole experience was a good lesson in conflict for me--something I generally like to avoid. It was helpful for me to come up against an environment I couldn't adapt to. It helped me to define a boundary, my limit. I am many things, perhaps, but not that. I'm only learning these things in hindsight. I wish I had been more agressive, actually, in standing up for myself as Kiki did. Not taking any shit from Olucean or bending to his will. I was more deferent, as we were already dislikable strangers in their midst. My tactic was not to make things worse than they already were.
Finally I finished my work and we were able to spend a few days touring the Island before having to return to our respective campuses. We visited Hilo, Captain Cook, Kona and the Kohala coast. My favorite part was seeing sea turtles and touring coffee farms. Here are a few more photos from our trip...the best four days of the whole month!