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Stranger in Paradise

He moved to Maui with great expectations. Three years later he was back in Dallas, and glad to be here.
By Larry Herold |

SAILING TOWARD HAWAII’S SANDY shores, the English explorer Captain James Cook must have seen the lush valleys and tall palm trees and rejoiced at discovering paradise. If danger lay behind the beauty. he didn’t see it.

But you never can tell how Hawaii is going to accept a new arrival. The natives treated Cook like a walking god. Awestruck by his huge ships, they thought he was an ancient deity returning to Hawaii and they worshiped him…right up until the moment they discovered he was just a man. Then a chief stabbed the ex-god to death with an iron dagger, and the former subjects ate him,

In 1989, I, too, was enticed by that charming land. After five wonderful vacations on the island of Maui, I knew it looked like the ads in the glossy travel magazines, only better. There are swaying palms and fiery sunsets and vivid rainbows, and when you lie on the beach, the view toward miles of blue, blue water is broken only by another of the eight Hawaiian islands and the occasional cocktail waitress.

So when Dallas restaurateur Gene Street suggested I move to Maui to open a restaurant for him, I was thrilled. I’d leave behind the tensions of urban life for a plaee where it’s warm and breezy every day and life is relaxed yet modern. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island with an airport. How could living on Maui be anything less than perfect?

STREET HAD MOVED TO MAUI A FEW years earlier to ’”retire” after selling his Black-eyed Pea restaurants. He fell in love with a little beach town there called Paia (pronounced py-EE-a) and bought a piece of it. Street said Paia reminded him of Salado, the Texas town he grew up in. The retirement didn’t last (he was back in Dallas in six months), but he returned with a dream of opening a restaurant on Maui.

Street and I had met when I was waiting tables in a Dixie House in 1982. Years later, he asked me to help make this Maui fantasy come true.

We wanted to take advantage of Maui’s booming tourist industry. Hawaii was racing to an all-time high number of visitors in 1990, and heavyweights like the Hard Rock Cafe and Chili’s were lining up locations on Maui.

I was after something more. After growing up in Dallas and traveling all over the world. I’d never seen a place as alluring as Maui. I was after Paradise.

We talked to a handful of business owners there and concluded that opening on Maui would be difficult but feasible. I agreed to figure out where and how this restaurant would be built. Then I packed all my shorts and T-shirts and headed west.

While I began the long process of selecting a site, I took a job running another restaurant and tried to settle into a routine.

But awaiting me were a few surprises, like $1.70 for a gallon of gas and $20 for a very small bag of groceries. I also noticed that some of the folks who hung out in Paia seemed a bit strange: the barefoot girl who twirled down the street in the middle of town, fairy-like, playing the flute; the guy with dreadlocks who sat on a win-dowsill strumming his guitar and whispering to passers-by, “I’m your guru.”

I didn”t recall any of these people partying with Elvis in Blue Hawaii, but I figured every town has a few eccentrics. And after all, this wasn’t Dallas. It was Paradise. Relax.

Mauians have gotten used to uninvited guests like me showing up on their shores. Forty years after Captain Cook’s intrusion, the natives frolicking in the surf were once again interrupted. This time, it was the missionaries.

They arrived in ships from New England in 1820 to rescue the local population from a life of fishing, picking coconuts and racing canoes. They found a lush, green island with what looked like huge mountains on each end; in fact the slopes were the sides of the huge volcanoes that had created the island with hundreds of lava eruptions.

The missionaries also found that the rich Maui soil made the raising and selling of sugar cane and pineapple far more profitable than saving souls, and they soon convinced the natives to sell them most of their land.

The new land barons quickly exhausted the local labor supply. They sent ships to China. Japan and the Philippines to bring back workers to plow, plant and harvest the fields. Despite low pay and incredibly hard labor, these minority cultures stuck around, and they now form the majority, outnumbering both the small native Hawaiian population and the missionaries’ wealthy heirs.

Today the clash of those cultures would be enough to make Maui a volatile society, but there are other ingredients: thousands of windsurfers, beachcombers and veg-heads who live for the sun; the New Japanese, who bought much of the island in the ’80s; the Great White Developers, mora] descendants of the missionaries who came from California and Texas to save the locals from a severe shortage of con-dos; and the Moneyed Crowd, wintering on Maui in luxury homes. These unlikely neighbors are trapped together, 2,000 miles from the rest of America, on a piece of volcanic rock not 50 miles across.

Their island is crisscrossed with two-lane roads that are only occasionally interrupted by a stoplight. A few small towns hug the shore, a couple more sit on the volcano’s slopes. Thirty-four years after statehood, most of Maui is still peacefully rural.

From the air, the sugar cane fields, pineapple plantations and golf courses that take up most of the land look like a rolling green deep-pile carpet. On one shore, the huge family hotels-the Westin. Marriott. Hyatt, Sheraton-stand shoulder to shoulder facing the Pacific. On another shore, the palatial resorts-the Four Seasons, Stouffers, Grand Hyatt, Prince-and their manicured grounds stretch for miles before giving way to an even longer strip of condominium complexes elbowing each other for an ocean view.

The constant swirl of tourists coming and going and the diverse local population combine to cause strange vibrations on Maui. Everyone, it seems, is in flux, always thinking of changing jobs, or getting a divorce, or moving away. A survey found that Mauians are the most likely of all Hawaiians to have five or more drinks at one sitting.

The most peaceful sight on Maui is a wave tinged with moonlight surging onto the beach, pausing, then shrinking back into the ocean. But the further back you get from shore, the less peaceful things become.

AT THE BEGINNING, OPENING A restaurant seemed a modest goal. In Dallas, the entire process, from sketching out a menu on a napkin to hosting the opening night party, can take as little as four months. Not so in Paradise. To guard their island against “becoming another Honolulu,” Mauians have devised a permit approval process for would-be developers not unlike the 12 tasks required of Hercules before he could assume the throne. The rules are vague and ever-changing, and progress is slow.

This was frustrating, especially when I drove around the island and saw how well other businesses were doing. For a place with only 91,000 inhabitants, Maui has an incredible number of shops and restaurants. The two million tourists who travel to Maui every year keep them busy.

All of which fosters the Paradox of Tourism: How do you keep a serene and beautiful place like Maui from attracting so much commercial activity that it’s no longer serene and beautiful?

Maui has been searching for the answer ever since the ’60s, when state officials decided the island would make a great tourist alternative to Honolulu. Mauians created hotel zones, set up a tourism bureau and invited travel writers to take a look. They were not prepared for the result.

In the 30 years since, Maui has become one of the most famous islands in the world. Thousands of couples honeymoon there. George Harrison and Richard Pryor have homes there. And the people who live there wonder where to draw the line.

Everyone on Maui has an answer. There are no-growth groups that want to shove the bulldozers and rent-a-cars into the sea. Construction workers’ unions say no growth means no jobs. Environmentalists say tourists’ Jet Skis affect whales’ migration. These groups and a dozen more are waging a struggle for the soul of the island.

Over the last few months the battle has crystallized neatly around one issue- Maui’s airport. Braniff flew directly from Dallas to Maui a few years ago, but today almost all airlines first have to stop in Honolulu. That’s because the runway at the Maui airport is too short for large planes.

The state wants Maui to extend the runway and let people from Dallas, New York and Tokyo fly nonstop. In an economy where 60 percent of the civilian population works in the tourist industry, this makes sense to a lot of Mauians. But the screams from the opposition are so loud, you’d think the proposal includes a nuclear reactor.

Opponents say direct flights will bring illegal drug traffic, create unbearable noise and strain the island’s outdated highways and water system. Those who favor it say Maui sold out to tourism a long time ago, and turning back now would be madness.

All this would be just background noise if Maui’s economy were still booming. But it’s not. The Persian Gulf war caused thousands of vacationers to cancel trips in 1991, and last year the mainland recession threw Hawaii’s tourist economy into its sharpest decline in 50 years. Economists say Maui could close five of its 10 luxury hotels and still not fill all the rooms. So while in the real world tourists who might enjoy Maui’s comforts spend their money at Aspen or Epcot Center, the debate over whether to make it easier for them to get to Maui drones on.

The runway debate surprised me. While the detachment from the rest of America was making me itchy, wondering what I was missing, the debate made it clear that many Mauians treasure their isolation from the rest of the world.

Local interest in activities on the mainland and beyond is minimal. The Olympics, Princess Di’s fall from grace, the presidential primaries are all equally tiny blips on the Maui radar screen.

Sheltered from current events, many Mauians are introspective and dreamy, like the woman who wanted to sublet my apartment while 1 was off the island. She was cheerful when she walked in and sat down, but she tensed when she heard footsteps from the apartment above. “I don’t like people living over my head,” she said, shuddering. Then she spread her arms out wide and began tilting her hands as if feeling for invisible walls. “Of course,” she said hopefully, “I am changing my concept of inner space and motion…”

Business people could be just as baffling. After Street made one woman an offer to buy her restaurant, she wrote him a note: “God forgive you for you know not what you do.” 1 think that meant the offer was too low.

I began to feel that I. like Alice in Wonderland, had stepped through the looking glass, and I found myself having conversations with playing cards and chess pieces.

One day I was chatting on the sidewalk with Ike, a friendly guy with a loud, deep voice, long, frizzy hair and a large beard. Ike was down; he’d just been arrested for helping arrange a drug sale.

“But I was happy,” Ike was saying, “that I’ve never been in trouble here before. ’Cause the first question they asked me was did I have any prior arrests.” A skinny guy in a tie-dyed shirt and sandals had wandered up to listen to Ike’s story. “Hey, man.” he added sympathetically, “we all got priors.”

Mr. Tie-dye was right. Maui’s location, far from the mainland and its conformity, makes it a magnet for misfits, dropouts and fugitives from reality.

Mingling with these lost souls is the New Age crowd, starry-eyed and full of psycho babble. My roommate promised to “unlock my hidden potential” by reading my astrological chart. A co-worker offered to take all my negative energy and “give it to the Earth.” Close at hand are psychics, herbal doctors, dream therapists and deep-tissue rollers. Finding someone on Maui to trace your past life regression is easy; finding someone with a lick of sense is not.

With so many diverse elements squeezed together, sparks often fly. One Maui debate was about whether residents should be allowed to slaughter and cook animals in their back yards. Among certain cultural groups, it is an accepted tradition to kill and clean a cow, goat, even the occasional dog right at home and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue,

Newcomers to the island are outraged by this, and the last time folks met to discuss the topic, it made the front page of th Maui News. In the chambers of the Count Council, old Mauians yelled about new coiners infringing upon local lifestyles, an opponents yelled about the sounds, sight and smells associated with back-yar butchering. Both sides left angry.

And it’s no wonder. The wide array of people on Maui makes it impossible for them to agree on anything. It’s Gilligan’ Island all right, except the Professor an Mary Ann aren’t speaking, Ginger’s chant ing her mantra and the Howells secretly wish the Captain and his little buddy ha drowned.

As my third year on Maui drew to close, I knew the moment to get in on the Maui boom had passed. The high cost of doing business in the islands, laughingly called the “paradise tax” during the good times, was no longer funny. Bankruptcie were up, tourism was down. The collaps ing economy scared me, and I never di< build a restaurant. A local man made Stree an offer for his property, and before you could say, "Mahalo, brah," Street sold it.

I knew it was time to go last summer Elections were coming up, and like Alice sitting in on the Mad Hatter’s tea party, could only watch while decorum gave way to high jinks. The chairman of the Count} Council resigned, then recruited his golf pro to take his place on the ballot, where he ran unopposed in the primary. Another council candidate wrote “swami” as his occupation, while a former state representative running for mayor issued a list of the “skeletons” in her closet before her opponents could discover them. She said she had unpaid taxes and an overdue mortgage payment and an outstanding citation for building a horse stall without a permit. And her house is, well, a mess. “There are cockroaches in my kitchen and there was grass from birdseed growing in my unvac-uumed carpet.”

I’d been on Maui too long to try to make much sense out of this. My expectations had been high, too high. It saddened me that for all its beauty, Maui is a place that can’t decide whether to take itself seriously or go to the beach.

I packed my flowered shirts and boarded a plane for Texas. Somewhere over the Pacific, I realized that Paradise, at least the idealized one I’d looked for, had never existed there. The parts of the fantasy that did exist-the fiery sunsets, the vivid rain bows-I was grateful for. But as the plane angled in toward Dallas, I was more grate ful that I, unlike Captain Cook, had been allowed to escape.

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