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Trip to Kauai offers taste of real Hawaii

By: Ryan Maye Handy The Gazette
February 17, 2014 Updated: February 17, 2014 at 11:40 am
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In Hawaii, there is no rabies.

It's nigh impossible to bring a pet to Hawaii - it requires blood tests, paperwork and quarantines galore - because there is no rabies.

I learned this while on Kauai, the oldest and farthest west of the Hawaiian archipelago. A good place to learn it, too, where you can at least have the comfort of knowing that the feral cat that bit you doesn't have rabies.

Yes, there are feral cats. More about that later.

On a trip to visit a friend in the city of Lihue, I learned that Kauai is a place of such oddities. A place of strange "haves" and "have nots." A mythical place without rabies, without fences (in some places) and without locally produced eggs. A place where jet skiing and parasailing are banned.

But it does have invitation-only cock fights, relatively deserted beaches, a lovely jail (once again, relatively) and the wettest single spot in the world.

Don't get me wrong, I was utterly enchanted by Kauai. Having only been to Maui - locally known as the tourist-trap island with fake, silky-sand beaches - Kauai with its reefy-ocean waters and local vibe was delightfully different. If a bit eclectic. As a local bumper sticker proclaimed: "If you love Kauai, send your friends to Maui."

I admit my viewpoint is skewed slightly with a unique source. I stayed with a friend and her husband who moved to Kauai about a year ago from Alaska to work for the airline industry. They live in a small, older neighborhood in the island's main city, Lihue, where they are (so I understand) some of the few people who have lived there less than a few decades. They are also a minority - more native Hawaiians live in the area than non-natives. No one really talks to my friend and her husband.

There, the houses are airy, built to take in beach air with adjustable slats that cover the windows. The roofs are tin. The washers and dryers are outside. Red dust covers everything, and metal rusts like it's in a time warp.

There are no fences. Instead, spongy-green grass separates homes where property lines are assumed. The neighbor's garden starts vaguely over there. A few dogs are kept leashed in their borderless yards, their leashes pivoting off a carport pillar.

Native Hawaiians, my friend tells me, do not erect fences. White people do.

There is a word for white people, too - haoles. On Kauai, haoles live on the island's north shore, where the wealthiest homes are known to be. The island there is breathtakingly lush and the homes are built stories high on stilts.

The haoles have their beaches, their looks - they come out at night when the tourists abandon their preferred beach fronts. I watched the sun set from a north shore beach one night, and as the tourists pulled out of the beach parking lot, dodging feral cats and chickens, the locals streamed in, taking the beach over for the night.

And that brings me back to the feral cats and chickens. Sprinkled throughout the island are signs, "Do not feed the feral cats and chickens."

In 1992, Hurricane Iniki loosed the island's domestic chicken population, which went running wild through the Hawaiian jungle and reproduced like mad. Chickens and roosters everywhere. As island lore has it, the local solution was to likewise release cats, in hopes they would slaughter the fowl.

The cats slaughtered and they flourished. Twenty years later, the island is covered with colorful roosters crowing and strutting through the jungle. Cock fighting is popular - then again, it might always have been - but invitations to fights are hard to come by, if you're not local. Kauai is a place where knowing someone gets you somewhere.

The roosters, as far as I can tell, still outnumber the cats. Every day at 3:30 a.m., a flock of lustful roosters crowed at the approaching dawn outside my window. On my last night, a mewling cat in heat woke me up. With the slats of my bedroom windows pushed open to let in the air - natural air conditioning - I could hear everything.

Funny that an island with so many chickens doesn't produce eggs. I mean, I'm sure someone somewhere has eggs, but eggs are not produced commercially on Hawaii. They are flown in, unloaded and shipped to stores, where customers shuffle around the cartons looking for an uncracked dozen.

Which reminds me, at any given point, Kauai has three days of fuel reserves. Fuel, too, is shipped from the mainland. So, were a hurricane to hit, isolating the island from cargo for more than three days, residents would be in a tight spot.

Locals don't want the policy changed, my friend tells me. They like things to be done the way they always have been done.

Change comes slow on Kauai. Hurricane Iniki, the same storm that created the feral chicken population, destroyed the famous Coco Palms Resort when it blew through. Twenty years later, the notorious spot of Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" still sits in utter shambles, with tilted lampshades haunting the windows and pictures clinging to the walls. No one has rebuilt it.

New hotels have sprung up, though. Tourists, regardless of local mettle, still feed the economy. But, to keep the hordes at bay, the island has outlawed renting jet skis and parasailing equipment.

But some outside influences have snuck onto the island. The Hawaiian islands are ideal spots for GMO testing, where odd plants and vegetables can be engineered in isolation in a lush forest that can grow everything. Around the island, locals post signs - "GMO free zone" - and set up honor-system fruit stands by the road, where passers-by can pick natural growing fruit and leave money in exchange.

In the 1990s, there was a movement to connect the islands by a ferry. It would have transported cars, cargo, people - possibly connecting the Hawaiian islands in a chain of experiences, blurring the lines between local cultures. It could have brought a lot of money, perhaps, and a lot of change, if it had not been shut down by popular demand.

Stalwart Kauai - the last island to be "conquered" by an island king years ago - would have lost some of its pride. Maybe eggs would have been easier to come by. Maybe the Blue Hawaii hotel would have been rebuilt already. Maybe the chicken population would have been curbed.

But I liked the chickens, with their proud plumage. I liked the haunting hotel. I liked the special locals discount at the rental shops and stores. I liked the way people's demeanors brightened, ever so slightly, when they saw my friend's Hawaiian driver's license.

I liked them not only because they gave me something to write home about - I liked them because they were real.

Between the resorts, Kauai is real. It's a place divided between west and north, between native and non-native. It's a place with backward ways, with construction workers who smile and wave, with a jail that has a volleyball court and a large garden. It's a place where being native means having been born and raised on the island by generations of people who were born and raised there, too.

It's a place in paradise filled with human imperfection. And that makes it kind of wonderful.

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