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How To Speak Hawaiian

Photographer: Tec Petaja

Hawaii is a long way from anywhere else, yet many words in the ancient language of the islands have meanings that reach across oceans. Discover them on a journey to both ends of the archipelago: Hawai‘i (aka the Big Island), and deep-green Kaua‘i

Photographs: TEC PETAJA

LIKE A PAIR OF FLUTTERING BIRDS, Maile Napoleon’s delicate, 78-year-old hands never stop moving. I’m sitting with her at a food court table in Waimea, an upland farming and ranching community on the Big Island, surrounded by green hills in paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country. Maile is chatting – “talking story”, in the patois of the islands – while her nimble fingers continually inter-weave blossoms with strands of dried raffia to create a woman’s head lei.

This master lei-maker is known as Aunty Maile in the Hawaiian way of addressing even your unrelated elders as aunty or uncle, and she is teaching me how to make a lei. But without realising it, she’s also schooling me in the meaning of aloha, the ubiquitous Hawaiian word of greeting and farewell that encompasses deeply-felt spiritual concepts of love, harmony, peace and compassion.

“My tutu (grandmother) told me that the best way to show the aloha spirit is to make something and give it away,” says Napoleon, who in just four weeks will leave the Big Island to live with her daughter in Colorado.

“I hated making leis when I started aged six, but, over time, I grew to love it,” she continues in her sing-song voice. “I put the best feelings in me into a lei, and people tell me they feel love like a kind of energy when they receive it.” She lets out a merry laugh. “I don’t know how that happens, but it makes me happy.”

Napoleon finishes the lei, hands it to me, and asks that I leave it as an offering atop the summit of Mauna Kea or give it to a stranger “with a sad face,” as she often does. “Giving a lei to someone without looking for anything in return,” she says, “that’s aloha.”

(Master lei-makers run free workshops every second Friday at Volcano Art Center Gallery).

DAWN WASHES THE KOHALA coast in a rose-tinged glow, morphing its clouds into scudding puffs of cotton candy. The breeze bears a whiff of the sea, salty and fresh, and the stillness of the early hour is broken only by waves lapping in a cove, and the resounding voice of Healani Kimitete-Ah Mow, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Hawaiian cultural ambassador. “Eala e, e ala e ka lā” (“Awaken and arise the sun”), she chants repeatedly, as she, I, and another hotel guest stand shin-deep in the surf, feeling the warmth of the sun on the backs of our heads as it peeks over mountains to the east. Honua, the world, awakens.

Honua is Earth,” Healani explains, wearing a floral head lei of orchids and fragrant, white plumeria. “But it’s also the place where you are, where you have a connection. Like my honua, the island of Hawai‘i.”

That evening, I winess Healani’s honua falling into slumber from the 4,207-metre summit of Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano revered by Hawaiians as the piko (belly button) of Hawai‘i island. Wearing a parka and gloves against the cold, I watch the sun slip below the horizon, then move 1,200 metres lower, where it’s less frigid, to gaze at stars. The constellations Cassiopeia and Scorpio – a frigate bird and the demigod Māui’s fish hook to early Hawaiians – sparkle overhead, and the Milky Way shimmers like radiant gauze. Peering through a telescope, I marvel at Jupiter and three of its moons and at the craters of our own moon. And as meteorites streak across the sky, spaceship Earth, the honua of us all, continues its voyage through the cosmos.

To know more about Hawaiian language, travel this trip NOW, check out LPMI’s  August 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.