Sunday Muddy Sunday

One week in Hawaii and I’m already blogging on island time–the calendar might say Thursday but I’m still stuck on last Sunday, just like some of the mud is still stuck in my ear from my exploits on that day of rest.

It all started so innocently–I had finally arrived in Hawaii, thrilled to explore the fiftieth and most tropical state in our union. Then I met my new travel companions–Ella, Anya, Liam, and Sarah–the four child winners of the National Geographic Kids Dare To Explore Oahu essay contest. Not long after, our merry band found itself shin-deep in a bona fide taro patch, our toes sinking deeper into the fudge-colored Hawaiian mud . . .

. . . and while I am the older, and thereby (supposedly) more responsible and appropriately-behaved adult figure/chaperone/host/example participating in this educational journey through Hawaii–and while the pastime of my hometown Washington, DC (namely that of prevalent mudslinging) is merely figurative–I might have (maybe) been guilty of firing the first shot in the messy mud battle that ensued.

In my opinion, the retaliation that followed was fundamentally unjust–two of the kids ganged up on me–though I maintained the advantage due to my age and size. My hands can hold substantially more mud than the tiny fists of mere undeveloped ten-year olds, and if the above-picture is any indication of the damage I caused in that taro patch, I would go so far as to claim that I won said battle of mud.

And yet, all these days later, I find myself digging my finger into my ears to remove latent bits of sticky Oahu soil and wondering if my victory in the taro patch was Pyrrhic. I imagine that ours was not the first battle fought among the green sprouts of this most Polynesian crop. From what I gather, the history of Hawaii has its fare share of squabbles over land and food.

As a food staple that traveled well on the long-haul canoe rides of the wandering Polynesians, taro represents the stability of home and family in Hawaii. The leafy green plant represents life, anchored in the mud with the purple root that Hawaiians pound and mash into their beloved gooey food known as poi . . .

. . . which looks (and tastes) a little like mud. Smooth purple mud with the consistency of baby food and the personality of tofu. Alright, that’s not fair: some people adore poi and most of those people are Hawaiian and grew up with it, so that eating a spoonful of the lavender gloop comes with lots of positive association and childhood memories.

Poi is one of those foods you love because it’s yours. Most cultures have such foods-that-only-a-local-can-love. As a red-blooded midwesterner, mine is peanut butter. Most foreigners find it purposeless and off-putting but I grew up with it and crave it. Such is poi.

Traveling with kids is a lot of fun. They are passionate, excited and they try everything, no questions asked–even poi. Frankly, we should all travel with such enthusiasm.

When presented with the task of planting taro at the Na Mea Kupono Lo’i Kalo, the National Geographic Kids contest winners all jumped right into the mud and set to work. Hot pink dragonflies buzzed along the warm-watered edge of the field and a curious heron hid in the long grass. I watched Liam, who lives on a farm in Wisconsin, as he dropped taro seedlings into the water and pushed mud up around each plant. In a few minutes, he had already planted about twenty taro plants, all in a row, as if throwing darts into the ground.

The other children chipped right in and their many hands made the work light and quick, leaving us ample time for a serious mud fight, followed by a cleansing swim in a sacred spring with water so clear and cool. In lieu of store-bought phosphates, we all cleaned up with ‘Awapuhi or “Shampoo Ginger”–squirting the honey-scented flower into our hair and on our skin.

I can’t think of a better way to kick off my first visit to Hawaii then with a Sunday afternoon mud fight, a flower-scented bath, and a lunch of poi and laulau (steamed pork wrapped in taro and ti leaves). Already I know that this will not be a typical adventure for me–normally I travel alone and only on very special occasions am I provided live targets to throw mud at.

And so thank you my new young friends. Traveling with you has already taught me all about the wondrous taro and its many culinary derivatives. Welcome to Oahu, so glad we are all here–keep clean and remember to always eat your poi–even if it does look a little bit like mud.