An Omicron Christmas

People don’t go overboard with holiday decorating in our part of Peru. There are stalls in the market selling artificial trees, garlands and ornaments, but there’s not a lot to see along the streets. Since Christmas falls at the beginning of the summer, there’s an emphasis on having get-togethers, going to the beach, and celebrating with family.

Snowman made of paper cups, available from this vendor, in case you’d like to make your own.

This year, there’s a lot of wait-and-see in the holiday equation. During most of the summer last year (2020-2021), people were not allowed to go onto the beach, nor were they allowed to stroll the sidewalk along the beach. Now we are able to go on our daily walk down the sidewalk and return along the beach, but there are rumblings that gatherings of any size will be forbidden between Christmas and New Years, and that the police will patrol the beach to enforce the rules. This is particularly threatening in a place where the police are known to pad their salaries with fines collected from members of the public.

New regulations appear to be issued every evening, as every morning, our driver Carlos tells us what the latest additions to the list have been. The government is trying to avoid a huge surge of illness after the holiday, though it is an uphill battle to convince people that they should avoid large family gatherings. People come from all over the world to visit family at this time of year.

As of Dec. 23, 2021 we have:

  • No overnight camping on the beach
  • Curfew from 11 pm to 4 am on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31. Social events and gatherings are not permitted to include more than the occupants of one dwelling.
  • Sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages on beaches, rivers, and at swimming pools is prohibited on Dec. 25, 26, 31, Jan. 1, and 2
  • On the days mentioned, restaurants need special permits to be open and cannot sell or serve alcohol.

Normally, 20-60 people camp overnight on the beach between Christmas and New Years, drink beer and other adult beverages in restaurants, on the sidewalk, and on the beach during the day and in the evenings for the entire holiday season. There are no sanitary facilities for campers, plus there’s danger of broken glass, and occasional drunken revelers on the sidewalk early in the morning. Those of us who live along the beach may not appreciate campers, but it is a local tradition. We are not sure what is going to happen with the new rules, whether they will be enforced, or circumvented.

Peru has had an overnight curfew for some time, from 1-4 am. Moving the curfew earlier, especially before midnight, is HUGE. In Peru, on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, people may attend midnight mass, or stay home to celebrate midnight with family, and then they go out. Overnight celebration is a very big deal and involves lots of people. Discos and dance halls get to stay open all night, and revelers buy grilled meat, stuffed potatoes, chips, and soda from sidewalk vendors. Closing down at 11 pm suggests there will be no celebration at all. One memorable New Year’s Eve, when we were new to local customs, we strolled down the street at 11 pm tut-tutting that business was so poor, and the bars were not going to have much going on. We returned home and went to bed shortly after the turn of midnight. Within about a half hour, there was loud music from multiple locations that continued all night long, and when we got up the next morning and opened the shutters facing the street, there was a naked man sleeping on the sidewalk across from our front door. The party definitely revved up after midnight.

Closing restaurants at this relatively late point before the holidays will affect all the small places that have been straightening up, painting, and purchasing food this week. Many places planned to open on Christmas Eve, then stay in business as long as customers turned up. Many don’t even make it to Easter, traditionally the end of the season. The Christmas tree in front of Tato’s Restaurant, probably the best known eatery in all of Barranca, suggests they are ready for holiday crowds, and not planning to be closed. Many businesses make 25% or more of their annual income during the next two weeks.

Despite the lengthening list of prohibited activities, vendors are selling toys in stalls up and down one of the main streets. Yellow underwear is on sale, ready for anyone who needs to get some good luck by wearing it on the 31st. It is customary to give household help a turkey for Christmas, and we went to collect the two we had reserved, and found the chicken vendor overwhelmed with turkeys in all states of processing. In Peru, you know where your food comes from.

We have a live Christmas tree that will eventually be added to the back yard. It’s a Norfolk pine, a variety that grows well here on the beach. I’ve made a few holiday cookies, gingerbread with a bit of frosting, and sesame shortbread that is very good indeed. I’ll share a few with my neighbors, the man who delivers the newspaper, our local lifeguard, and our household helpers.

My Christmas creche consists of a lot of tiny animals I’ve collected over the years, and the Christmas family, magi, and several baby Jesuses. They all get to come out and celebrate.

We are doing our best to keep spirits bright during this season, and we wish you all the company of good friends and family.

Song of the Garbage Truck

In Barranca, Peru, trash is collected seven days a week. We often say that the collectors should be among the highest paid employees in Peru. They make the rounds every day and are often faced with conditions that would make the rest of us run for cover. As you read the rest of this post, listen to their song (click below).

Song of the Garbage Truck

Household trash can be delivered to the truck as it drives through the neighborhood, or garbage bags can be set streetside, though there is a strong risk they’ll be shredded by loose dogs or seagulls. Large collection bins were introduced about three years ago, but the trucks are not capable of lifting and emptying them, leaving workers to spread a tarp on the ground, empty the bin on it, pitch the trash into the truck, dump the remains into the truck, and move on.

During the pandemic, people stayed indoors, and for many months were not allowed to stroll the sidewalk along the water (malecon), or to walk on the beach, at the risk of a hefty fine. Cooped up indoors, and facing fines for going out, the trash collectors had difficulty in getting people to put out their trash at the correct time. This resulted in a lot of mess on the street from broken bags and garbage strewn along the sidewalk. The city, and all of Peru, came up with a clever solution. Each community has a lively song that is played by the garbage truck as it drives through the neighborhood. It urges people to bring out their trash, place it in an appropriate bin or hand it to garbage collector, stressing this will keep the city clean and help keep everyone healthy. In prior years, a man banged a shovel on the side of the truck to announce the arrival of the garbage truck. This is much more musical, and seems to be effective.

Ruraq Maki, and other pleasures

Twice a year is an event we look forward to, Ruraq Maki: Hecho a Mano, one of the only juried craft shows in all of Peru. One edition appears during Fiestas Patrias, the celebration around July 28, Peru’s national holiday. The other edition comes up this month in the lead up to Christmas. At this moment, Ruraq Maki is scheduled to take place in person, Dec. 10-19, 2021, and I am planning a visit.

[The photo at the top of this post is from Catacaos in northern Peru, an example of extravagant metalwork.]

Held in the building that houses the Ministry of Culture in Lima, the event brings together craftspeople from all over the country, and there is competition for the space allotted to each region. We have seen spectacular weavings there, creative pottery including some of my favorite colonial reproduction style pieces, lots of woodwork, alpaca knits, basketry, and metalwork in both sheet metal and silver. Visiting this display is one of my favorite activities.

[The objects above all come from the Ayacucho, one region among several.]

We have purchased simple clay dishes to use around the kitchen, tin work that hangs here and there, and colorful weavings. Though some of our other artwork comes from trips we took to the various source communities, it is the quality of work that can be found at the Ruraq Maki event and that distinguishes it from a lot of the tourist arts and crafts that can be found everywhere in Peru. Ruraq Maki has been so successful that it now takes place simultaneously in cities all around Peru (Puno, Ayacucho, Huancayo, Trujillo, Iquitos). This gives people who live in these centers an opportunity to see the best handicrafts available without having to travel to Lima. I imagine it also gives vendors who cannot make the trip to Lima (age, children, family) a chance to show their wares and make some sales.

This year there are also online sales from Ruraq Maki:

Museo Pedro de Osma, Barranco

If you happen to be in Lima this month, there are other wonderful Peruvian treasures to be seen. The Museo Pedro de Osma, in the Barranco suburb of Lima, has an exhibit of colonial silver work that looks to be quite impressive and shows off a newly renovated gallery. The museum consists of a mansion originally constructed as the summer home of the Osma family, and retains much of its nineteenth century grandeur. The collections include a family collection and materials loaned by other Peruvian families.

Since you will be in Barranco to visit the museum, it is very much worthwhile to walk inland a block and stroll Av. Paseo Saenz Pena parallel to the coast until you reach Dedalo (at #295). This is arguably the best gallery/craft showroom in Peru, with a range of objects made all over the country, and clever as well as creative items in every medium imaginable. There is now a cafe and a food shop associated with the gallery, making it an excellent place to browse and then have a rest stop and a bit to eat.

Detail of weaving below

Should you lack the time to go from your hotel in Miraflores all the way to Barranco (It’s very close), you can still visit the holiday handicrafts market being held in Parque Kennedy in Miraflores. Sponsored by the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism, this year the sale is divided into six regions that correspond to regions of Peru, each featuring objects from the region, a mini-tour of Peruvian products. There is no shortage of hand made goods, as the supply chain goes from farm and field to maker to seller. I look forward to seeing what is new and what is better than ever.

[The weaving is a contemporary hanging with imagery taken from ancient Nazca pottery. The plate in the upper left is from Cajamarca.]

Incertidumbre means Uncertainty

I began hearing the word “incertidumbre” when we arrived in Peru, and have seen it in the newspaper repeatedly. Politics, the economy, and now the Corona virus Omicron variant, are all conspiring to make the circumstances around the world uncertain. How is a traveler to plan?

Peru’s national elections were held in July 2021 and at the time, I knew they were controversial. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-president Alberto Fujimori, and representative of the status quo, ran against Pedro Castillo, a teacher and union leader from northern Peru with no political experience. Castillo prevailed, and his win was hailed as a chance to combat corruption and self-dealing for which the presidency is known. At every event, Castillo wears a big straw hat with a high crown that is characteristic of farmers and ranchers in northern Peru.

The Washington Post summarized the issues that arose following Castillo’s inauguration at the end of July (click to see the article). It seems that President Castillo has no idea how to make legislation happen, nor do his advisers. Each time he appoints a cabinet minister, they promptly take a bribe or make a wholly inappropriate act or statement, and are removed. The average duration of cabinet appointees is running at around one month. Four months have passed, and more controversy than ever swirls through the corridors of power in Lima.

An effort to remove the president is beginning. It may take several tries, as government is highly factionalized in Peru, but the general tone seems to be that until Castillo is removed, the country will be rudderless. The situation may continue even longer depending on who and what comes next. With politicians attention fully focused on removing Castillo and keeping themselves on the payroll, there is little time to conduct the business of state.

Incertidumbre marks the economy of Peru, as well. El Comercio, the conservative main newspaper of Lima, describes business on the rebound, but notes that uncertainty is a watchword. Reports describe companies as planning to distribute dividends to stockholders over the next twelve months rather than doing any reinvesting or expanding, because investing during such unstable times is not worth the risk.

We see the result of this uncertainty locally, even here in Barranca. Inflation affects everyone, as food prices seem to be those most rapidly rising. The dollar is near record highs, which doesn’t help people who have made purchases in dollars that must be repaid at the higher rates. Several of our friends and neighbors invested in real estate over the past few years, and now find that just as they are completing construction of new apartment buildings, people do not want to buy, uncertain of what the future holds.

When we arrived in Barranca twenty years ago, it was nearly impossible to buy property along the beach. This year, the combination of Covid deaths and uncertainty has changed things. There are four properties with For Sale signs on them, a property for rent (With permit for a disco!), and two other houses that are for sale but not marked with realtors signs. Beach houses are to be had, and yet the market appears to be on hold this month.

I follow the blog of the Senior Nomads (click to see their blog), and look at the facebook page they host. It is full of comments from people who are traveling right now, in Croatia, Turkey, Slovakia, Slovenia, and other places that do not limit tourist stays to 90 days. People who are traveling now appear unconcerned about the future, whether they are visiting historic towns or skiing in new places. Are they wise or foolish?

Every day, we take time to walk down the seafront to the far end of our beach, and walk back along the water’s edge. At some point during our walk, we usually touch on some aspect of our future planning, trying to decide whether to pick up our European plans from 2020 and try again, or whether to spend the spring and summer of 2022 exploring places in the US where we might settle permanently. Though no one wants to hear an “organ recital,” many of our concerns are health-related, as we weigh returning to Chicago for another round of tests and visits vs. assuming all is well until November 2022.

In the meantime, every day is just a little bit sunnier than the last, as summer works its way down the coast toward us. There are always breaking waves to appreciate, birds floating overhead, and neighbors to greet. We’ll keep walking up and down until we decide what comes next.

Return to Barranca, Peru

We landed at 1:45 am, got to the gate by 2 am, were waved into the priority line (white hair?) and through immigration by 2:15 am. Our luggage showed up at 3 am. Fortunately, we’d decided to stay overnight in the Lima airport hotel, and we were in bed by 3:30 am. A long day of travel concluded successfully.

In the morning, Carlos collected us in our car, and we set off on a shopping trip to Wong, our mega-grocery of choice, filled the back seat with groceries, and headed for Barranca. As we drove down the hill to the beach, the sun was out after a mostly overcast day, lighting the ocean like a postcard. Our freshly painted facade looked quite nice, and we pulled into the back parking area to see blooming hollyhock, geraniums, and other flowers. What a welcome! The back yard is in spring bloom with the trees leafing out again, flowers, and birds twittering. Daily temperatures hover in the high 60s, and the sun is in and out depending on the breeze and coastal mist.

We arrived around 5 pm, to the crazed running around of the two dogs, and greetings from Fernando and Dalmira, our caretaker couple. It is good to be back.

The next day, as we were still shaking off the effects of travel, we took our usual stroll to the opposite end of the beach and back, noticing the new fish sculpture and construction that grew up during the pandemic. People kept busy by building a room here and a room there. Next door, a second floor has appeared.

Our neighbor Miguel is finishing up the beach’s biggest new development, a four-story apartment building, with eleven units looking over the water, and many more with the “garden” view. He is almost ready for people to move in, though the real estate market here is not as hot as in the US.

We are both surprised and amused to see a new cafe serving acai bowls here–so trendy.

We visit the market, still a very busy place, with 99% of people wearing masks. Many people in Peru wear double masks in stores, and the market is indoor-outdoor, with good air circulation. The number of vendors has decreased, the remainder spaced slightly farther apart. We bump fists or salute the people we recognize, asking after family members and the business.

A notable casualty of the Covid pandemic is our grocery store. Only a few years ago, there were no supermarkets at all in Barranca, and we purchased most of our dry goods at a store much like people did a century ago in the US. Standing at a counter, we read a list and the sales person collected each item from a shelf or somewhere in the back. The opening of a Metro supermarket was a landmark for us, bringing contemporary shopping to Barranca. The pandemic seems to have done it in, however. Metro, just as we arrive, is shifting its inventory to be a warehouse store. No membership, as in Sam’s Club, but no small packages, and very limited selection. The items we went to Metro to obtain are gone (freshly baked sesame rolls, peanut butter, cheese and deli meat, pickles), and instead there are ten pound bags of sugar, rice, and flour, gallon jugs of cooking oil, and loaves of white bread. For the majority of shoppers this may be useful, but not for us.

We return to our bodega of choice, Marlene’s, which has weathered the rise and fall of the Metro in Barranca, and we shop as we did twenty years ago when we first arrived. The good news is that they have some of the items we are looking for. Somehow, it takes the entire morning to visit the market, Metro, Marlene’s, and the hardware store, and by the time we get home again, I think it’s a good thing Jonathan enjoys shopping enough to go out and do it without me. I will eat anything he chooses to fix.

A street by the market in Barranca

The streets of Barranca are as crowded as ever. Congestion reached new heights during the pandemic, and two the main streets have been converted to one way. In general, it’s an improvement, though it takes a bit longer to get to specific places. The city is bustling as usual.

On the way to Peru

Today was a landmark day, finding us back on an international flight to Peru. It’s been 20 months since we were last in Peru, and when we left, we planned to return in early November, 2020, just over a year ago. Since then, we’ve lived in different levels of quarantine for the pandemic, gotten vaccinated, and then booster shots. To prepare for this flight, we also got Covid tests, though they are not required. Good thing, too, because our results are still not back, and our flight to Peru takes off in less than two hours. We also filled out a health affidavit for the Peruvian immigration authorities that took each of us about five tries to complete, save, email to phone, and make screen shot. (Now it’s done, and we’re checked in for our flight.)

Since we were last in South America, I turned 70 (how did that happen!?) and somehow all our aches and pains have gotten slightly worse. Our seats on the plane are a bit less padded, our stamina has decreased a little bit, and a full day of travel seems even more tiring than it used to. We face an uncomfortable question. Should we keep up our life of travel, or is it time to ease up? This is entirely our choice. We can still afford to travel, and we have always worked our various medical appointments into our plans. I still see an eye specialist every month, no matter where we are. Jonathan saw a bunch of doctors while we were in the US to track down the source of a nagging cough. He can continue with that when we are in the US, though most doctors would prefer to have him around for a test, a few weeks, a consult, a few weeks, another test, another consult. This gets frustrating for us, as there seems to be an open-ended procession of things to do and we’d like to set a departure date.

For now, we are back on the road, weighing whether to spend the next travel season of March through October visiting Europe as we had planned, or whether we might do better to spend those months testing places we might want to settle in the US. We can rent for a month, or three months, or even a year, but we will have to move again at the end of each stay.

Last year, during our extended visit in California, we thought perhaps we’d look for a longer-term place to rent near Monterey. It’s beautiful, there are lots of trails to hike and ocean shore to walk. By the end of our stay, though, we realized that California is going to be short of both water and housing for the foreseeable future. Is that our best choice? Before we settle for living in a man-made environmental disaster, we’d like to try a few other places, starting on the east coast of the US. We haven’t given up on our desire to be near the ocean. We will spend many of our afternoons in Peru walking down the length of our beach and back, trying to sort our priorities. I’ll keep you posted.

November gets cold

There were a few beautiful days at the beginning of November when every day’s walk was gorgeous. Springbrook, Herrick Lake, and Greene Valley forest preserves have been our regular stops. Whether it’s midday or sunset, we always find something beautiful or interesting or both. We saw a bald eagle at Greene Valley, then chatted with a woman who said the eagles have been regular visitors for some time.

We go out almost every day, though I tend not to take pictures on the cloudy days. On one beautiful day we went into Chicago to see The Magic Flute at the Lyric Opera, and spent ten minutes on the bridge over the Chicago River watching a tall building under construction. A construction crane was perched about 20 stories up in the air on the central shaft of the structure. Its huge boom picked up a rectangular piece as big as a shipping container and v-e-r-y slowly swung it around the building, then brought it to the side under construction, where it gradually disappeared into the framework. Everything about it was remarkable. How did they get the crane up that high? What will they do with it after construction is complete. How do they get the huge piece into place and release it? Modern construction is an amazing process. The city is a forest of concrete and steel with its own wonders to observe.


It turned cold, I got my warm coat out of the storage unit and began wearing my heaviest shoes. We haven’t been seeing many birds lately. All the species that migrate south have taken off for warmer places. We still see the hardy locals: robins, cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, goldfinch, bluejay. As many of these pass through our yard as visit us on our bird walks.


We took a last stroll at Churchill Woods in Lombard, where we’ve seen many different birds on previous visits, and it began to sleet as we got to the far end of the path. We stood in the shelter of the trees and bushes for a few minutes, watching waves of sleet blowing along the surface of the river. We saw a pair of large owls fly to a tree on the edge of the woods, then swoop into the forest. Walking back along the river, a kingfisher perched by the river, vivid against the branches. The sleet let up long enough for us to play pooh sticks on the bridge, spot a woodpecker, and finish our walk.

As much as I enjoy our walks in the woods, and as much as we have appreciated the many parks and forest preserves in this area, I am ready to fly south for the winter.

[The photo at the top of this post shows branches of a black walnut tree that has dropped its leaves but not all its walnuts.]

October’s Bright Blue Weather

My title is from a poem I had to memorize in grade school, and it still comes into my mind almost every year when the light slants sharply in the late afternoon, and the trees change color. The month of October sped by. It’s always a month of transition, when we return to the US from our travels, visit family and friends, see a few doctors, and head to Peru for the winter.

Veterans Memorial Park, Naperville

Our plans often change during this period, and this year was no different. Initially, Jonathan was heading to Peru just a few days after we arrived in Chicago, and I planned to follow three weeks later. As it turned out, we have both been in Chicago for six weeks, changing our flights to mid-November. We planned to visit our daughter Lillian and her husband Neil on our first weekend back. It is always fun to see the improvements in their house in Champaign, and to taste Lillian’s cooking with Neil’s delicious home-brewed beer. Rather than that being our only visit this month, the silver lining in our extended visit has been the opportunity to see friends in and outside the Chicago area, and take some walks through the trees as they change color.

I took a swing around the eastern US, with a stop in Asheville, NC, where the trees were just changing, the farmers market was full of pumpkins, and the mountains are always beautiful.

From there, I went east to Syracuse, where I visited my mother (She turns 97 in Feb.). We ran errands, visited the cemetery, and decorated for Halloween. We were able to visit my brother Tim and his wife Margie at their home on Otisco Lake, a beautiful spot. I took a few walks around the property of The Nottingham, where mom lives, and found some lovely places. I made a short exploration into the Westcott neighborhood near Syracuse University in search of a resale shop and found an area full of wall murals and interesting shops. I’d like to go back when I have more time. In the evenings, I chatted with Sharon, friend of my sister Catherine, who put me up sight-unseen! We had a good time swapping stories. Ordinarily, I stay with mom, but that isn’t allowed in these times of Covid. It’s a good break to have to leave the Nottingham at night, and on my last night, Tim, Margie, Sharon, mom, and I went out to dinner together. It was an excellent visit.

The month wasn’t over yet. From Syracuse, I drove through a downpour to Nyack to visit archaeology friends. The rain didn’t bother me particularly, as traffic was light and the roads were not flooded. I got to see the Adirondacks full of rushing streams. Dave and Lori live in a wonderful old house, carefully restored by Dave over the years, and full of remarkable things they’ve collected. I turned to look into a sitting room and burst out laughing. “I haven’t seen a stuffed head that big since Hemingway’s house in Cuba!,” I choked out. Lori assures me that the moose died a natural death (really). I think it’s almost as tall as she is.

We had a spin around Nyack to look at historic houses, and incidentally, Halloweeen displays. It is a beautiful community, and the views out over the Hudson are spectacular. From nearby, we could see the new Tappan Zee Bridge, a long span across the river, stretching away into the distance.

I drove back the way I came, ogling the flooding of low-lying stream banks and flood plains, glad that the rain had stopped. The rain muted the colors of the changing leaves, and many were knocked down by the rain, but the drive through the hills is lovely, and a weekday drive through this region is pretty quiet.

I arrived back in the Chicago area in time to spend Halloween with our friend Peggy, who put on the lights in her front garden at dusk. A parade of trick-or-treaters stopped by, and we helped hand out treats. And so, as quick as a snap of the fingers, there went October.

So Much Hawaii, So Little Time!

I have written more about Hawaii than any place we’ve visited in quite a while. Part of the reason is because we had visitors (after a year!) and went to see many different things. It also turns out that I like the Big Island very much. The weather was perfect, 75 degrees F with breeze every day, morning and night. We had one day when it rained most of the day, and the rest of the time the weather was lovely. We had far fewer bugs than we expected from a tropical climate, too.

We left Hawaii after a month of exploring, and yet there are still many, many places that we haven’t visited. Keep in mind that our idea of a good time includes visiting every place along the shore that has a name, even if it turns out to be the edge of a cliff. We also like to drive to the end of every road and walk to the end of the trail from there. Not everyone would enjoy this, but we do.

We saw the rare Palila on the slopes of Mauna Kea (photo: Restore Mauna Kea

We did some bird watching, and even saw a couple of the rarer birds on the island. This pleased us no end, but so did seeing escaped cage birds here and there (colorful finches, parrots).

One last treat we tried, malasadas, came via Amanda, from a friend who has spent a lot of time here. Every day, two women arrive at the same pullout along the highway with a tiny blue house on a trailer. They heat up their fryers inside and open their window around 11 am. Every malasada (donut) is made to order. We tried malasadas filled with peanut butter, lillikoi (passion fruit), haupia (coconut pudding), pineapple, and mango, and one plain malasada rolled in Japanese powdered umeboshi (dried salted plum). “Malasada” in Spanish means “badly roasted.” I don’t know exactly how you get to donuts from that, though I read that it’s based on the contrast between their crisp exterior and soft interior.

I chatted with a man while we both waited for our malasadas. He and his wife were in Hawaii for their 20-somethingth visit, spending two weeks in several places, for a total of six or eight weeks, and he always comes for malasadas.

While we waited, we watched a young man opening drinking coconuts. He could balance the coconut and whack off a chunk at the same time, managing not to injure himself or spill the coconut.

We liked our malasadas well enough, but they are, after all, donuts. If that’s your thing, you’ll love them.

Considering the range of our activities on Hawaii, no matter what you like to do, you’ll find a bit of it here.

Historic Hawaii

Hawaii is known for beach vacations, surfing, leis, and mai-tais. There is a lot of interesting history here, too, and we had a chance to explore some of it during our visit.

We started just down the hill from our house, at the birthplace of King Kamehameha (Kamehameha l or the Great). It’s the banner photo for this post. We didn’t realize how close it was at first, because the access road to visit the site is a lumpy 4WD track that parallels the runway of the tiny Opolu Airport and then runs along the shore until it ends near the site. What remains of Kamehameha’s birthplace are low walls of lava that outline a large compound with a few generous sized interior rooms that was the family home, originally finished with thatched roofs. There would have been easy access for fishing from the shore or boats, even chances to go surfing.

Very near by is the Mo’okini heiau (hey-ow), a ceremonial center that was the focus of large gatherings and offerings. There are many heiau around Hawaii, ranging in size from a single large rock on a stone platform, to huge enclosures. Mo’okini is distinctive as one of the oldest and largest heiau on Hawaii. It was also a luakini heiau, a place used for animal and human sacrifice. An associated tale recounts that the heiau was built of stone passed hand to hand across eleven miles from the source to the Mo’okini site. The structure is an enormous rectangle made of stacked dry stone that is roughly 250 ft x 120 ft in size. The walls are ten feet thick at the base.

Exterior of Mo’okini heiau
Entering the Mo’okini heaiu

It is still possible to walk into the Mo’okini enclosure and get a sense of how imposing it would have been to participate in a ceremony there. Some visitors leave offerings of flowers, fruit, braided leaves, rocks, crystals, and shells.

The story goes that due to intergroup conflicts, Kamehameha was moved from his childhood home to a more remote location in the Waipio Valley and grew up there, safe from family enemies. Captain Cook arrived just as the future King Kamehameha I was building his chiefdom, and provided examples of European warfare. Kamehameha hired European advisers, and began to use cannons, guns, and even had a 40 ton ship of his own built in Honolulu in 1796. Battles were fought among chiefs on Hawaii and after defeating his rivals to become King, Kamehameha I expanded his ambitions to the other islands, succeeding in uniting all of the Hawaiian Islands by 1804. This historic first made Hawaii a political power, as it was an important way station for whaling ships during the first half of the 19th century, and a port for trading ships heading from Asia to the west coast of North and South America.

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Kamehameha didn’t turn his back on tradition, using Mo’okini and also constructing another very large heiau at Pu’ukohola that was the site of battles as well as offerings. Though we were able to enter the Mo’okini heiau, Pu’ukohola was closed to visitors. There is a tall rack just down the hill from the entrance that is intended to hold offerings. As at Mo’okini, there were flowers and braids of greenery resting on the offering stand. Below Pu’ukohola is Mailekini heiau, a somewhat older structure that was turned into a fort by Kamehameha, lined with cannons that he purchased from traders when he realized that European armament was the way to stay dominant over the islands.

Pu’ukohola heiau on the hilltop, viewed from Mailekini heiau, near the shore

It may look like all of Hawaii is covered in heiau, but there were many villages along the shore. Land was allotted in narrow strips (ahupua’a) from the coast far up onto the sides of the volcanoes to give each family group a bit of each kind of land and the resources of each area, like fishing territory along the coast, farmland, forest for wood and thatch, areas with lava rock for construction, or fine grained stone and obsidian for tools. We visited the Lapakahi State Historic Park to see a village site. This area was occupied until about 1920 when the water table dropped so low they ran out of water.

A village of stone houses, now lacking their thatch roofs, with one fully reconstructed house in the distance. Lapakahi State Historic Park

In addition to the fortress-like heiau, and coastal villages, Hawaii has a number of places where people went to create petroglyphs, pecking and scratching shapes onto relatively flat surfaces of lava. We visited the Puako petroglyphs, an extensive area of shapes that are both familiar (men, women) and also abstract.

Puako Petroglyphs

No one is sure why these images were created, and petroglyphs are found in a number of different places around the island of Hawaii and on the other islands. Whatever the purpose, they are very durable, and great food for thought on a walk. It can be hot out on the fields of lava, and there’s lots of advice to take water with you. It’s an interesting walk through the trees to the site, and the variety of shapes is intriguing. It’s impossible to tell how long ago each of these was made.

From long before the days of King Kamehameha right up to the present, Hawaii has a rich history, unique to these islands, that is worth thinking about. People lived in an area so far from where their ancestors started out that they created new stories to describe their origins. They constructed a way of life that served them well for a long time, and many of their descendants are still part of today’s Hawaii.

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