Thursday, April 29, 2010

Practice Aloha


The word rolls easily off the tongue and conjures up mental images of exotic islands floating amidst azure seas, brown skinned beauties adorned in sheer grass skirts and tropical blossoms - their arms beckoning sensually in the graceful movements of the hula. It brings to mind the sounds of gentle waves, of steel-guitars & ukuleles. Yes... aloha is all of this and yet so much more...

Aloha is also a way of life, a way of dealing with others whether they be close friends or complete strangers. And, while this way of life, this practice may not be entirely unique to Hawaii, I can think of no other place on this planet where it is more in practice than in these islands.

In my years on these rocks, I have met many wonderful practitioners of the art of Aloha. At the top of that list, I would have to place Mark Ellman, the hard working Chef, Restauranteur and all around nice guy. Mark arrived here just a few years after I did and quickly established himself with the long gone and sorely missed Avalon Restaurant in Lahaina. Mark was one of the original thirteen chefs in Hawaii at the forefront of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement back in the late '80's & early '90's, a tend in dining that refuses to die and remains popular throughout to this day. Mark, never at rest, has gone on to found the chain of Maui-Mex taquerias  known as Maui Tacos with outlets found all over the mainland, a homestyle itallian pasta joint called Penne Pasta and now, two other excellent eateries operating under the name Mala Ocean Tavern.  Mark is also the guy I call the "patron saint" of food photographers in these islands. He was the first the demand high-quality food imagery to promote his restaurants back when there were no photographers specializing in food still-life. My early mentor rose to the challenge and learned how to produce those sumptuous photographs of food and as his assistants at the time, I followed in his wake. 

Never one to sit still, Mark has again thrown his hat into the publishing ring. After penning a couple of successful cookbooks, Mark has undertaken the monumental task of compiling a soon to be released new book to be titled Practicing Aloha where he compiles personal anecdotes from island notables across the state, sharing their experiences & their definitions of what practicing Aloha means to them. 

In preparation for publishing this book, Mark has assembled a crack team of writers, editors and contributors. I have been blessed with the opportunity to contribute as de facto photo editor on the project, as a contributing photographer and now, as a writer. Yesterday, I was asked to contribute a short blurb about my experiences with Aloha for inclusion. In today's blog entry, I thought I would share with readers the text of my submission... with thanks to co-writer & editor Barbara Santos for the clean editing. Read on...

Isles Of Smiles
Tony Novak-Clifford

Maybe it is because I am a photographer, but one of the first things I notice when visiting a place for the first time is whether or not the people I meet are smiling. That is the thing that stands out most in my mind about my first encounter with the Island of Maui, an island where I have been privileged enough to have remained a guest for almost thirty years now.
People smile here. OK, people may smile everywhere, from time to time. At least their lips curl up on each end. People in the islands, however, seem to have this perpetual grin that is ear-to-ear big, teeth-flashing big, deep from every fiber of their being big. It’s as contagious as it is disarming, I’ll have you know.
I admit that I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. It threw me off. Here I was fresh off the boat from the east coast, a place where people you pass on the street seem as grey & stern as the weather three-quarters of the year. To suddenly arrive on the shores of a tropical island with mountains sharp, angular, and green; surrounded by water the color of precious gemstones; and breezes scented with plumeria was already an amazing transition for an uninitiated new arrival like myself. It all seemed so exotic & completely foreign to me.
And then there were these PEOPLE… these amazing people. They were big and beautiful; they were brown & golden; and they were smiling!  Well, not so much a smile as it was a giant opening in the face, roughly where the mouth should be, curled in an upward direction on each end. A smile like that can swallow you whole and then spit you out again a new man (or woman, as the case may be). And that’s exactly what happened to me.
The first time one of those big brown faces reached out and took my small, pale hand into their giant brown hands, clamping ever so gently, so warmly, in a gesture of welcome, the giant, tooth-filled grin spreading from ear to ear, I was immediately besotted… a complete goner.
The weather, the scenery, the sensual surrounding sea… these things alone were enough to make me linger in these islands for a while. It has been the people that have made me want to stay here forever.
After arriving in the islands, I had to look for things like a job, a place to live, a bed, a bicycle or car.  I remember back in those early days, going from shop to shop on Front Street in Lahaina, looking for work, inquiring about rentals and some of the other creature comforts one is forced to leave behind when flying to an island on the other side of the world. I remember some of those shopkeepers; some of them remain friends to this day.  If they didn’t have a job available or one of the other things I may have inquired about, they would stop whatever it was they were doing and pick up a telephone to call an auntie, a cousin, or a friend. Speaking into the receiver in that exotic, sing-song dialect we call pidgin, they would ask the person on the other end: “I get one malahini haole boy heah, you get one bed you like sell?” Or maybe it was a bicycle… or maybe an ohana cottage for rent. What I remember most is that they took the time, expended extra effort without giving it a second thought, to extend kindness to a stranger. That kindness always came bundled with one of those enormous smiles.
You can call that—aloha. No other word, in my mind, comes close to encompassing the feeling one gets from just hearing the word. Certainly no other term sounds as magical and musical. Aloha.
Several notable Hawaiian authorities have lent their knowledge on the subject of aloha to this book. I am neither Hawaiian nor a scholar. I am only an observer and a guest. When I first washed ashore, I was armed with only a very basic knowledge of Hawaii, it’s people, practices, and culture (and most of that garnered from the Michener novel). It was the feeling of immediate, almost unconditional, acceptance of those that I encountered and continue to encounter that were my first experiences with what I will call aloha. Their sharing of backyard fruit or fish or game, their invitations to join them under dusty carports to strum along to impromptu chang-a-lang music sessions and the ubiquitous passing of cold beer and fresh poke… in my experience these are not everyday occurrences in most places. And then there were those smiles… always those smiles.
Though the scholars may disagree on certain points, these are the things that have come to define aloha for me. Aloha is a spoken embrace and a bestowing of love. It is a sense of warmth and an acknowledgement of family that reaches beyond bloodlines. It comes, always, wrapped in one of those heroic smiles.I

Even more than this, Aloha is a practice… or maybe it’s a mindset. 

You can find out more about the Practice Aloha project here.

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