Monday, July 7, 2014

Mahalo, Hawai'i!

View of the crater trail from the Crater Rim Trail.
Can you find the tiny people?
High on our list of things to see in Hawai’i was an active volcano. Even though the locals assured us that our expectations of volcanic explosions and lava geysers were woefully inaccurate, we still decided to take a few days off and camp at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Tane generously offered to drive us the two hours to the park, and even stopped in at the Southernmost Bakery in the United States to let us try their famous malasadas (a Portuguese doughnut). On the way to the park we were amazed at the variety of terrains we drove through. We had heard that the earth has 12 distinct biomes, and the Big Island of Hawai’i has 10 of them, but driving a third of the way around the island really showcased that fact. We passed grasslands with stunted trees reminiscent of the African savanna, rolling green hills dotted with farms that looked like the Scottish highlands, rocky desolate lava fields that looked like a black moonscape, and rainy forests that reminded one of the Pacific Northwest
Fur from the giant tree fern, used to be cultivated and
exported for mattress stuffing
Giant tree fern
Once we arrived at the park, Tane gave us a quick tour. First, we went right to the active crater, and saw what lava there was to see, which was none. The crater was billowing sulfur dioxide, but the molten lava as 300 feet down in a pit and impossible to see. Inside the nearby museum we learned about the geologic history of the area, saw beautiful paintings of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddes of fire, and jumped to see our weight affect a seismograph. The next stop was the Thurston lava tube, which seemed like a good place to check out since it had started raining. The hike down to the tube entrance plunged us into a tropical rain forest, complete with tree ferns 30 ft tall. The tube itself was roughly 12' in diameter. 
Lava field
As active as the volcano was
Randy was prepared for a caving adventure with his headlamp at the ready, but there was a paved path with overhead lights leading the way. A lava tube forms when a lava flow travels underground. Lava frequently travels in underground "rivers," but for a tube to form a "skylight" needs to occur. This direct opening between the tube and the outside allows the lava to drain out of the tube rather than simply solidifying where it is. After our trip through the tube, Tane dropped us off at the backcountry camping office, and wished us well before heading home. At the office we picked up a map, a permit, some water, and a sense of the enormity of the park. 

We realized we wouldn't be able to get to any of the backcountry sites that night on foot, so we just headed for a campground in the middle of the park. The Crater Rim Trail was a beautiful hike through lush rain forest, which occasionally gave way to vistas of barren rock-strewn plains in the Kilauea crater. Five hours later, when we finally arrived, exhausted and hungry, to the campsite, we couldn't get our stove to work. So, we ate cold canned beans, rice, and avocado, and went to bed. While staring up at the crystal clear night sky, we realized how complete the silence was, without the familiar coqui frog obnoxiously serenading us to sleep.
'Ohi'a Lehua tree, one of the first
plants to grow out of new lava 
Sea arch
Holly embracing her dorky homeschooler heritage
The next morning we woke up slightly sore from our hiking expedition the day before, and were perfectly ready to sacrifice a few sights for the sake of our legs. Luckily fate had other plans, and we ended up catching a ride with a friendly family of Wisconsonites, who let us tag along as they toured the park. First we got to see a fissure from a fifty-year-old eruption, which was a yonic, deep, narrow chasm with pink and purple walls dotted with ferns. Our inner geology nerd was further excited by our next stop, where we hiked out onto a lava field and saw "tree molds," these are the formations left behind when lava flows around a tree killing it, and it later decomposes, leaving a hole, sometimes several feet deep. Then our impromptu tour guides went all the way down the Crater Rim Drive to the ocean, where for centuries lava flows have terminated at the sea. We saw a pretty impressive sea arch and caves, both formed by the waves eating away at the lava cliffs. While we were watching the sea, we turned around and saw some of the elusive nene, Hawai'i's endangered state bird. The nene are a naturalized relative of the Canadian goose, who have lost the ability to fly through cushy island living. There are many signs around the park explaining that the nene are wild animals that should not be given handouts, proclaiming that "a fed nene is a dead nene." Holly thought that this was unnecessarily macabre "propagander." 
Crazy lava colors and formations
After a long day we thanked our Wisconsin friends, and got dropped off near the campsite. Holly relaxed and read while Randy roamed around the nearby lava fields. That night we enjoyed our rice, beans, and avocado while watching the glow of the crater in the distance.
Cutting down the
cinnamon trees
The next morning we woke up, broke camp, and started our epic hitchhike home. Some of our neighbors at the campsite kindly drove us to the park entrance, where we started walking down the highway. Four rides and six hours later, we finally arrived at the mile-long hill up to Tane's. We dreaded walking up the steep incline, but luckily a friendly neighbor picked us up. He worked at a B&B next door, which was started by the artist whose paintings of Pele we had admired the day before at the volcano museum! He dropped us at Tane's just in time for us to grab a quick shower before heading to the beach for a barbecue. While enjoying a potluck sunset dinner, a whale graced us with its presence, only about 100 feet off shore.


Scraping off the outer bark
Ceylon cinnamon drying
Pounding the inner bark to
loosen it
Tane has a few cinnamon groves, and is beginning to expand the production and marketing of delicious organic cinnamon. On a few occasions we were able to help harvest and process the cinnamon. First, Tane would choose a good branch and cut it into foot-long pieces. Then we used a knife at a 90 degree angle to the log to scrape off the thin outer bark. 
Raw inner bark
Next we pounded the inner bark with a hammer to help it separate from the wood, which enabled us to peel off the cinnamon bark with a knife. Then the cinnamon was dried, and shipped to the mainland to be ground up and packaged. The rhythmic tones of people pounding on wood coupled with the sweet cinnamon aroma was reminiscent of some forgotten primal communal handicraft.
One day Tane and Maureen were heading south to check out a friend's new farm, and they kindly invited us to tag along. The farm happened to have the distinction of being the "southernmost organic farm in the US." The farmer had only had the land for nine months, and already had an incredible amount of produce growing. He was even planning on implementing an impressive aquaculture system. After our visit wrapped up, we all decided to go check out the southernmost point in the US, since it was so close. As we approached the coast, we noticed that all the trees were bent almost double from decades of relentless wind. The spot was marked with an official sign, and a platform positioned over the cliff's edge for daring jumpers.
Southernmost point in the US
Once you've seen one southernmost point in the US, you've seen them all.
Holly and Mary
Honey the puppy enjoys watching
Scrabble from a comfy vantage point
When we weren't gallivanting around the island, we enjoyed relaxing evenings of dinner and board games with fellow farm worker Mary and her husband Jared. It's always exciting to find other board game enthusiasts to play games with. Their game of choice was Scrabble, and many nights were spent joyously reviewing the two-letter words of the English language while eating bowls and bowls of guacamole.
On March 31st, we said goodbye to our big-hearted Big Island friends, and set off for our next stop: New Zealand.
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Bak choi with oyster shell and sand
The rainforest in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Tane and Maureen, our super kind and knowledgeable hosts

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Around the Big Island

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Snorkelin' time
Tane and Maureen have gone out of their way to show us the island. They knew any trip to Hawai'i wouldn't be complete without a day at the beach, so we all went down to Two Step, their favorite nearby snorkeling spot. Contrary to our preconceptions, the Big Island of Hawai'i is not surrounded by tranquil sandy beaches. There are a few, but most of the shoreline is rough, jagged lava rocks with assertive waves.
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Typical Hawaiian beach
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A sea cucumber and sea urchins in a tidal pool
While Two Step isn't a sandy beach, there are two convenient platforms descending into the surf, hence the name. The snorkeling was incredible, the second you were in the water it was like swimming in an aquarium, flying over a coral reef surrounded by parrot fish, angel fish, trumpet fish, and other colorful denizens. It was Holly's first time snorkeling, and as breathing through a tube got a bit tiresome, she went and relaxed on the beach while Randy continued exploring to his heart's content. One potential danger when swimming is sea urchins, which inhabit most crevices and stick their barbed spines into your unsuspecting appendages. We both got stuck at different times, and although it hurts for the first ten minutes, after a while you can't really feel it and the spines dissolve in a few days.
Randy
A few days later Tane had heard that two feet of snow had fallen on nearby Mauna Kea, and he wanted to take a look from afar. On the way there he explained that it is not uncommon for people here to drive to higher elevations and see the frozen phenomenon. Some would even pack snow into their pickups and haul it down to the 85 degree coastal towns, where they quickly build out-of-place snowmen and pelt unsuspecting passersby with snowballs. Unfortunately, the cloud cover obscured our view of the snow-capped peak from our roadside lookout. Luckily, by simply turning around and facing the ocean, we were able to see several whales frolicking in the bay.
A zipper spider, named after the
telltale white zigzag in its web
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Edible flowers (dianthes, nasturtium
fuschia, marigolds, pansies)
We also spotted a small herd of goats grazing on the sparse grass in a nearby lava field. Since Hawai'i is an island and relatively young (only 400,000 years), there are no indigenous wild mammals. However, rats, goats, boars, donkeys, and cows have jumped ship or fence over the years, and have fully embraced island life. Rats were stowaways in the days of wooden ships, and having no natural predators, have taken over the local ecosystem. In an attempt to control this outbreak, mongooses were introduced to the island in 1883. However, mongooses, being diurnal, rarely crossed paths with the nocturnal rats (two ships passing in the night, or day, as it were), and now the mongooses have developed into a similar scourge. A more recent example of invasive species to the fragile Hawaiian ecosystem is the coqui frogs (stowaways on potted plants), who now dominate the evening cacophony. Hawai'i's native fauna consists mostly of birds and insects, 90 percent of which are endemic (existing nowhere else in the world). Although they are not native, we have especially enjoyed observing the ever-present geckos as they scamper around (possibly on you if you sit still long enough).
Dragonfruit resembles a cactus-kudzu cross
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Tree tomato
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Jackfruit
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Rambutan

While Hawaii's island climate can be conducive to invasive species, it's also perfect for cultivating a plethora of tropical fruits. One of our main goals for this world-wide journey is to try as many crazy fruits and vegetables as possible, and Hawaii has risen to the challenge deliciously. So far we have tried rambutan, a spikier version of the unfortunately-out-of-season lychee; jackfruit, a 18" long latexey fruit filled with pockets of juicy-fruit flavored nuggets;
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Harvesting every last loquat
 passionfruit, as delicious as it is sloppy to eat; loquats, which you peel with your teeth and taste like dried pear; dragonfruit, which grows on a rambling cactus vine; tree tomatoes, a delicously sweet perennial member of the nightshade family; and longan, a nut-looking fruit that tasted like a less-sweet rambutan; and while we've tasted them before, nothing compares to papaya and mango fresh off the tree. We also collected one other fruit when we were in town.
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A noni fruit and a fan
When we described the potato-sized yellow-green spotted fruit, Tane and Maureen were unsure of what it was. But, when we mentioned its odor, they both emphatically exclaimed "noni!"
Randy was brave enough to try this rancid cheesy-vomit-smelling fruit, and was able to report back to Holly that it tasted like rancid cheese and vomit.
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Avocado aura
Noni is the newest "superfood," being bottled and sold as a panacea at exorbitant prices, but after one whiff, we agreed we would have to be pretty darn ill to swig the vile juices.
On a more delicious note, the farm has no less than three different varieties of avocado, and we have access to as many "avos" as we can stuff into our faces. We have not yet found the limit, despite having avocados every meal and snack except breakfast (we tried them on oatmeal and in pancakes, but they weren't that great). We have also collected an avocado-based mousse recipe we are looking forward to trying.

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Mac nut cracker
The farm was also home to a smattering of macadamia nut trees. "Mac" nuts are sold at the local health food store for $17/lb, and Tane wanted to explore the possibilities for this delicious nut.
Prior to our arrival, someone had collected the fallen mac nuts from under a few of the trees, totaling about 6 cubic feet. Dehusking and cracking mac nuts is a labor intensive process, but a nearby farm owned industrial machines for these processes, and let us take a crack at it. After a crash course in operating these machines, we got started. The machines were a bit of a mystery, shrouded in blue metal and hiding their mechanical secrets. Handfuls of the whole nut were tossed unceremoniously into the dehusker, which shot the husks out the front, and the shell-covered nut out the side into a tray. The whole process is about as loud as rototilling a rock garden.
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 The racket summoned the farm's two Muscovy ducks, who came running, eager to feast on any mac nut detritus that fell within their reach.
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Oh mac nut-stuffed Muscovies, what sweet livers you must have!
 From the dehusking station, the nuts were then dropped into the cracker hopper. A little conveyor chain shuffled them to the top, where they fell into the cracker. After much zinging and pinging, the machine disgorged naked nuts and shell fragments out its chute, like a generous Las Vegas slot machine. Our 6 cubic feet of freshly gathered nuts turned into about one cubic foot of processed mac nuts. For the next few weeks we enjoyed mac nuts in our oatmeal, our stir fries, and our favorite fare, handfuls and handfuls of the roasted nuts with a little salt.
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The dehusker

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Feeling like an elf in a mystical forest up the road

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Constructing a hydro table

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the bok choi cycle