Keeping Kauai's Hidden in Hiding
The week before I arrived on a research trip to Kauai, a friend's sister–in–law (and a mother of a toddler) followed the advice of a certain guidebook that I will not name, hiked an unkempt trail, and fell to her death. Local people were in an uproar, blaming the guidebook, blaming tourism, and throwing up their hands to the many gods that protect them. Their relationship to tourism and ultimately to tourists was being challenged dramatically. How can they respect the people whose money sustains them if the people cannot respect the land and people of Kauai?
This became my mission when researching my book. I met the stink eye of locals with a smile. When I contacted a local writer asking for Kauai advice and he turned me on to an anti–tourist website he had created, I thanked him kindly and informed him that no, I would not be sharing his thoughts on throwing tourists to the sharks with my readers. But I will show them how to do their part to be mindful of their footprint on this fragile island.
Not an easy feat I soon learned. This dichotomy between local's love and hate of the tourism industry runs deep. Not only do they have a collection of well–intentioned mainlanders turning farmland into bed and breakfasts, but there are also destinations the Kauaians want to remain hidden. As one local transplant informed me, "When we want a day off, we don't want to have to deal with stupid tourists doing stupid things." Though this might be a tad harsh, she is right.
Kipu Falls, for example, happens to be one of those Kauai gems that guidebooks don't have to twist your arm to visit. Hordes of tourists hike the short (and privately owned) trail to get to this waterfall that locals have been using as a diving board for years. Unfortunately, visitors do not understand the water levels or mood of the water flow and have (on more than one occasion) plummeted into some serious doctor bills. Because of this, locals are very territorial of the falls—which you can tell by the graffiti scrawled on the rocks. Who wants to clean up some drunken Iowans bloodied body on your day off?
So what do we travelers do? How can we respect the land and still have our authentic experience? I had to start with changing my perception of travel here. Usually I am the gal who wants to hike every secret trail to every secret beach, but in Kauai, that might not be a safe or welcoming experience. As a mainlander (and a San Franciscan) I may not understand the idea of being territorial about a place—how am I going to get all worked up if some visiting Brit's kid is on the swing at the playground or some stroller is hogging the trail in Tennessee Valley? But in Kauai, they only have so much room, and each day that space is lessening due to development. This land literally is their land. It is what they have, love, and believe in.
Some places are sacred to their roots. And where an Oregonian may see a pile of rubble, a Hawaiian will take a moment of peace and pray to Pele for her gifts. Where a New Yorker might hike through patch of native plants wearing boots that have wandered through trails near Rye, a local might see invasive plants brought in on well–traveled shoes that strangle, deplete and ultimately kill the native ones. If we as visitors to this sacred and fragile land cannot understand the impacts of our footprints—both positive and negative—we have the potential to destroy Kauai. Not something any of us want to think about with a Mai Tai and a Technicolor sunset.
Michele Bigley is the author of the guidebooks Great Destinations Kauai and Northern California: An Explorer's Guide as well as the iPhone travel apps Family Friendly SF and Napa/Sonoma With Kids. She currently lives in the sunny part of San Francisco with her family.
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