Issue 7.2: April/May 2004

Global Village

story by Julia Steele
photos by Erik Aeder

Today Paia is a small town, but it was once one of Maui’s largest, a thriving plantation town with 10,000 residents, four movie theaters, an extended family of mom-and-pop shops and a sugar mill that ground cane and belched smoke over it all.

The old Paia helped create the new Hawaii, and though the town has shrunk and morphed since its sweet heyday, it remains a fixture in the Island consciousness, a relic and a seed, something both vanished and vibrant. Paia tired in the ’50s after sugar sapped its soil and then took a trip into psychedelia with the hippes in the ’60s. In the ’80s, windsurfers from around the world blew into town and in the ’90s, big wave surfers dropped in on the place. Now Paia is a mix of all that’s come before, and despite the fact that its population came in at just 2,499 on the 2000 Census, it has become, person for person, Hawaii’s most cosmopolitan town, an international concoction, a Paia paella.

By the time I’d been there forty-eight hours, I’d met people from Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Canada. By the time I’d been there seventy-two hours, I could add Chile, France, Turkey and Spain to the list.

Paia sits on Maui’s north coast, with the Pacific on one side and the green of Haleakala’s lower slopes on the other. Most of the action in town centers around lower Paia: Read the paper-packed notice boards and you’ll see this is a place of belly dancers, yoga teachers, massage therapists, naturopaths—and realtors (sign in one realtor’s window: "se habla espanol, portuguese italiano"). Read the bumper stickers and you’ll see this is a town with global concerns: "Free Tibet," "Boycott Burma" and "Keep Ireland clean—throw your rubbish in England." But it’s not all new here: the mill still lends its hulking presence and one of Hawaii’s oldest Japanese temples sits surrounded by a cemetery on the outskirts of town. The post office is named for Patsy Takemoto Mink, who grew up in Paia in the ’30s, and went on to become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress. Patsy—or "Pink Mink" as her conservative colleagues called her—was brilliant, passionate, always at the vanguard, a steadfast crusader for social and economic justice. She was elected to Congress for twelve terms—not bad for a Paia girl.

Paia is full of windsurfers —people trying to be, as one French aficionado put it, "ze bird, not ze feesh." In the early ’80s, windsurfers discovered Hookipa, a beach just five minutes out of town where wind and wave collude to produce what many claim is the very best windsurfing spot in the world. Word got out, boards got packed and today odds are better than three-to-one that if you ask someone what they’re doing in Paia, they’ll tell you they came for the wind. You’ll find people from everywhere, all with the wide eyes, wide shoulders and great tans of perpetual sailboarders.

 Kevin Pritchard

One night I meet Kevin Pritchard, friend of a friend and windsurfer about town. I’d wanted to talk to someone about Hookipa, but I didn’t realize what a pro I was dealing with until Kevin casually mentioned a few minutes into our conversation that he’s held several world titles in the sport—including world champion in 2000. (He’s also famous for his blond über-healthy looks, which earned him a spot on FOX’s Temptation Island and led People magazine to name him one of America’s most eligible bachelors.) Kevin grew up in California in a family mad for windsurfing—he still remembers the first time they came to Maui and bypassed the condo to head straight from the airport to the beach. "It was like a dream," he says. "Warm water, waves and so many unbelievable windsurfers." When he graduated from high school, Kevin moved to Paia and turned pro. "This is the Mecca of windsurfing," he confirms. "It’s where everybody from all over the world dreams of coming. All pictures are taken here, all the companies do their research and development here. I go around the world to compete—to the North Sea, the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean—and the worst thing about it is having to leave Paia."

There are two streets in lower Paia: Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue, which snakes upcountry to the old mill. Walk along Hana Highway and you’ll pass swanky boutiques like NuageBleu and Biasa Rose. Walk up Baldwin and you’ll pass Alice in Hulaland (where you can buy a pair of Danang cargo pants for $140) and The Enchantress (which specializes in fairy-tale dresses and has a sign up warning that shoplifting causes bad karma). The Hemp House sells hemp everything: lotions, soaps, clothes, accessories, even a philosophy or two.

 
Frenchman Jacques Pauvert
arrived in town from
the Tuamotus and opened up
the local hotspot, Jacques.

Great food can be found, too: crepes and curries at the sunny Café des Amis, tapas at the Moroccan-flavored Café Mambo, nuevo Mexican at Milagro’s and gourmet all-natural creations at the deli in Mana Foods. On the shore just outside of Paia sits one of Hawaii’s most iconic restaurants, Mama’s Fish House. Mama’s actually is what everyone thinks a Hawaiian restaurant should be: open-air, right on the beach, awash with tropical flowers, and filled with art and curios from throughout the Pacific.

The décor at Mama’s "is constantly evolving," says Bill Kohl, an architect from upstate New York who has leant the last twenty-five years of his life to decorating and developing the place. "It’s a living thing." Like, for example, the spectacular banyan arch that you walk through as you enter: Bill found that growing up at the abandoned Hamakuapoko sugar mill. ("It took twenty-two chainsaw blades to get it free.") Or the variegated hala tree grown from a cutting from the late George Harrison’s nearby property. Among the hundreds of other items: tapa shields from Tonga and antique Pacific travel posters. "It’s theater," says Bill. Then he laughs and adds, "But we can go a little beyond theater, because theater doesn’t give you a great meal." And Mama’s does. Its menu celebrates the flora of Maui: you’ll find breadfruit from Hana, avocado from Olinda, onions from Kula, pohole ferns from Keanae and starfruit from Kipahulu. And, of course, there’s the fish, caught fresh off Maui coasts every day: mahimahi, ono, onaga, ahi, opakapaka.

"It’s so much," says Mama’s executive chef, Perry Bateman, a local boy who started at Mama’s as a night pastry cook when he was nineteen and sliced, diced, sautéed and fricasseed his way to the top. He holds his arms wide as if to take it all in. "I tell you it’s a lot of food, man. We really depend on our farmers and fishermen."

In contrast to Mama’s Polynesian panache, Paia’s nouveau nightspot, Jacques, celebrates global funk—this is a place where a disco ball hangs over the sushi bar. Jacques is named for the guy who runs it, a windsurfing chef with a wanderlust who wound up in Maui after stints in Africa and the Tuamotus. Jacques Pauvert is part Jean Reno, part Robin Williams, all manic cool. He’s not a cook, he’s a culinary utopian. His words whip by faster than the winds at Hookipa—after ten minutes talking, I feel like either he’s on uppers or I’m on downers because in that time we’ve covered Beethoven, Prozac, the stultifying nature of formalized education, the Titanic and the circle of life. He laughs at me when I try to get him to answer a mundane question like how long he’s been in business. "You want me to go in a straight line, no?" he says. "But I go like zis, and zis, and zis," and his hands point off in all directions, following his thoughts. He will tell me that his philosophy of restauranteering is to enjoy what he does. "A restaurant is all about lifestyle, getting peepole to appreciate zat lifestyle and share it. You ’ave ten fingers, no? In a restaurant, food is only one finger—you also need atmosphere, price, quality. I try to geeve more zan just one finger."

 

 
Dave Kalama at Peahi,
circa 1995.

The day I flew over to Paia, the surf was huge. When we were over the west coast of Molokai, the pilot announced, "Look down and you’ll see waves at least fifteen to twenty feet high." I looked out the window—even from three miles up, I could see massive breakers pounding the wide, white sands of Papohaku Beach. "With a swell like this," the pilot continued, "they might even be surfing Jaws."

Jaws. In the last few years, it’s become one of the most famous waves in the world—maybe the most famous. It breaks far offshore of Peahi Valley, about ten miles east of Paia. And the pilot called it right. People were surfing Jaws that afternoon—including one of the wave’s most famous riders, Dave Kalama.

Two days later, at the Maui Yoga Shala on Paia’s main drag, I ran into Dave, who was looking very blissed out after his shivasanas. I recognized him from the movie Step Into Liquid ; could I talk to him about the wave? Sure, he said. And a few hours later, I was sitting on his couch. (Another amazing thing about Paia, that: The town is so low-key, and the people who live there are so mellow, that you can meet a hero of the surf world and it’s just no big thing to sit down and talk story for awhile.)

The Kalama family is originally from the Kaupo-Hana area, but Dave was born in Newport Beach and grew up surfing and windsurfing Californian waters. In ’85, he was en route to Kaua‘i when the plane took a detour to Maui. He looked out the window, saw the windsurfers at Hookipa and knew he was moving to Maui. He started experimenting with tow surfing in the early ’90s and towed in at Peahi for the first time in the winter of 1992.

 
Dave Kalama
"That wave is so different," he says, sitting in his small cottage, beer in hand, "travels at such a high rate of speed. Surfing it is like walking on the moon: You’re familiar with walking, but at the same time, everything about it is different." Dave describes the ride—the adrenaline, the acceleration, the speed, the total elation. "It goes from being the scariest experience of your life to being the best experience of your life, all in a matter of seconds," he reflects. "And, fortunately—or unfortunately—that feeling is one of the most addictive things in life, like air or water. To keep your sanity, you have to ride waves and some of them need to be big." Dave is now known around the world for his skill at Peahi—he even rode the wave in the opening shot of the last James Bond movie, along with fellow big wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Derek Doerner, in one of the most graceful displays of athleticism ever captured on film (even with the cheesy 007 night-vision goggles).

And, of course, beyond the riders is the wave itself. One day, another surfer on the North Shore, Willi McCormick, offered to take me out on his jet-ski to see it up close. We launched from Maliko Gulch to the west, navigated through swells and pulled into the channel next to the break. Shifting mountains of water swept past us, crested and fell to create a sublime wave: serene but fierce, transient but timeless. Kalama, who has caught the wave itself so many times, seems to catch its essence best as I leave his house. "It’s extremely purifying to ride that wave," he says, leaning back into the couch and cracking open another beer. "The closer you get to total annihilation, the more real everything becomes."

The Maui Dharma Center sits just up from Mana Foods on Baldwin Avenue, a little oasis of green and calm on the outskirts of town. Its sign is so low-key, it’s easy to miss; from the street, the center looks like just one more charming old plantation house. But inside—well, you’re thousands of miles away and about 20,000 feet above sea level. Inside is a stunning Tibetan temple, a riot of color perfumed by incense and a faint tang of salt from the ocean a thousand yards away. Every square inch of the place is covered: with silk thankas, gilded Buddhas, sacred scrolls, brocaded lanterns, and more. In true Paia style, there are also two cats, fast asleep on prayer cushions.

 

 
The Dharma Center's
Lama Gyaltsen is a Tibetan
Buddhist monk who came
straight to Paia from
a Darjeeling monastery.

In the temple, I meet Georgiana Cook, who is all calm and radiance. A devout Buddhist who lives at the center, Georgiana moved to Hawai‘i in the ’60s, discovered the Eastern religion and learned to speak Tibetan fluently. "I thought how rich and interesting to be in a modern Western world and mix in ideas of enlightenment, compassion, wisdom, service and giving up ego but being strong," she recalls. We kneel on the flowered carpet as she tells me the history of the Paia center: how the idea of it was planted in 1974 by the great Buddhist teacher Lama Rinpoche, how the teacher Lama Tenzin came to Maui in 1982, opened the center in 1985 and grew it to become a place, as Georgiana puts it, "that can be depended on for spiritual nourishment." As Georgiana and I talk, Lama Gyaltsen enters, bringing us tea and cookies. He is Lama Tenzin’s successor, only thirty-seven, and he has just arrived in Paia from a monastery in Darjeeling, where he’d lived since he was five years old. I ask him what he thinks of the town so far. Georgiana translates the question and then the answer: "He was requested to come here so he’s satisfied. He feels he has a sense of purpose to fulfill the practice of the dharma." Lama smiles as Georgiana translates; his English is good and getting better. I ask if, coming from Darjeeling, he has any interest in learning to swim. This one Lama answers himself. "I’m good at walking in the hills," he says with a smile.

Bill Tavares is the Rosetta stone of Paia. He is eighty-two years old, the last living child of Antone Tavares, a Portuguese immigrant who owned and developed much of lower Paia in the early decades of the last century. Everyone in Paia told me if I wanted to know about the town’s history, I had to talk to Bill. When I meet him, I discover he is a supremely gracious and loquacious man, and to walk Paia in his company is a delight. "See that building over there?" he says when we first meet on Baldwin Avenue. He points to an old pink building. "That was the first bank in the Territory of Hawai‘i ever robbed.

 
Bill Tavares, photographed at
the spot named for his
father, Tavares Bay.

"Okay, let’s walk," Bill says. He spent nineteen years as the principal at Makawao Elementary School and still has a benevolent take-charge concern. We stop after just a few steps, though, at the launderette. "Such a big feature when it opened," Bill says.

"When was that?" I ask.

Bill looks around and asks an elderly Japanese woman who is walking past us, "Excuse me, do you know when the launderette opened?" They debate the year. The woman is Namiko Nakagawa and her house is right across the street; it’s on a piece of land that used to be called Soga Tract, after Dr. Soga, who ran a hospital there. Bill beams. "You got real history here now!" he says to me. "Make sure you write that down." Bill and Namiko chat a little longer. "You know me, right?" he asks, as they say goodbye. "Oh sure," Namiko says, "you’re famous." Bill laughs. "Infamous is the word," he says.

Bill knows what everything used to be. We walk past the Mana Ola Hui alternative health center, once Yamata’s Store; the Maui Hawaiian, once the Zane family store; and the Maui Dharma Center, once the Princess Theater ("I saw a lot of good cowboy movies there. And Tarzan and Charlie Chan").

Bill’s father owned and developed one side of Baldwin Avenue; the other side was owned and developed by another Portuguese settler, John Medeiros. "Not bad, two immigrants developed this town," says Bill. We walk past a gyotaku art gallery, once Antone Tavares’ office. Next door, now the Moonbow Tropics boutique, was the draft board in World War II. A few doors on is the former site of the Paia Clothes Cleaners, where "20,000 Marines would get their outfits cleaned during the war."

Near the Cakewalk Bakery, Bill says, "We’re approaching the site where a tremendous fire started on July 1, 1930. My brother Carl and I were asleep. My father woke us up and there was tremendous pain in his voice. ‘Bill, Carl, Paia is burning,’ he said." The fire raged for hours, destroyed dozens of buildings and left 150 people homeless.

We keep walking. We pass a boarded-up building with an antiquated "Drink Coca-Cola" sign in the window. "Once one of the best saimin restaurants on Maui," says Bill. Down the road, by the Shell gas station (which used to be a movie theater), is the spot where Bill’s brother-in-law became "the only person to surf a tsunami and live. He was driving to work on April 1, 1946, and this huge tsunami came over the road, picked him up and threw him into the cane field."

The memories flow as sweetly as cane juice, and as I listen I realize the Paia of old was in many ways the Paia of now, a place of hardworking, inventive newcomers in love with where they found themselves. I think of the people I’ve met here, how each of them seems to have found the value of life itself in what they do—cooking, surfing, windsurfing, meditating—and how Paia seems to be a place that frees people to write their own epic adventures.

"I have seventeen different ethnicities in my grandchildren," says Bill as we amble back to the Mink post office. "My greatest legacy is the fact that I am leaving behind grandchildren representing all of humanity coming together." I smile and think, what could be a more perfect legacy in this ever-more global village?