I had never been to the Merrie Monarch. As much as I love to capture Hula. I am not much for crowds and epic hula events much preferring to capture smaller more intimate performances that are often powerfully Beautiful, to preserve memories for the dancers and kumu, and to help sustain and share the incredible Healing Spirit present to a larger audience than those in attendance.
I was invited to attend last year by a Beautiful Kumu from Maui to help capture her hālau, but I am the fortunate owner of a triple hernia now that sometimes can be debilitating. So I never made it. Such that my son, Elliott, who gave up just about a full-ride at Columbia University in New York, to stay here at home, to help our Hawaiian people who suffer from high rates of chronic disease, was blessed to join an awesome hālau, and perform for the first time at the Merrie Monarch, was a dream for him.
Despite all of that, I didn't think I was going to be able to make the trip. Work. Health. Kuleana. Exhaustion. You name it, and I was making excuses. Someone finally told me, "You need to be there for your son." I realized that I needed to man up and go despite a litany of reasons why I couldn't. I was blessed to make the airline reservations and even get a rental car. I was apprehensive about what to expect. Committing to help his kumu capture their performances was another daunting pressure.
The night before my flight, about 10:30pm, I was packing everything including my camera. I happened to go out onto our balcony, and saw the heavy cloud laden sky above Honolulu. The previous night, I saw the same thing, and took a couple of wide angle photos. When I looked at the photos in the camera, I saw a massive face in the clouds.
So I thought I should take a few photos again before I needed to sleep and get ready for my flight the next morning. I went outside and tried to take my photos. The camera didn't do anything. I turned the power on and off and tried again. Nothing. I checked the battery level. Full. I tried again. Nothing. My heart started to pound. I ran into the bedroom where there was more light. I started looking at the camera. Turning it on and off. Nothing but an error message. I popped the batteries in and out. Switched lenses. Pressed every button I could think of. It was dead.
I stood there in horror. I looked at the clock. It was now approaching 11:00pm. I immediately grabbed my laptop and started Googling camera rentals, camera shops, etc. in Hilo. Nothing popped up. I tried Hawaii Island and a camera shop I knew of on O'ahu had a Kona location. I thought I could drive over Saddle Road and buy a camera then make it back to Hilo. When I clicked on their website, the shop had gone out of business like their O'ahu location.
My mind raced, as to where I could get a decent Canon camera 11:00pm on a Thursday night. I was mad at myself because my only camera, my workhorse Canon 5D Mark II, the one that I used for years, that had all of my Mana in it, that had been all around the islands at so many cultural events and ceremonies, had been acting up in the past week. I actually had to pop the batteries out and pop them back in, while shooting, to fix error messages.
I had actually thought about renting another Canon 5D Mark II, III, IV, whatever I could to bring with me as a backup camera just in case but failed to get my act together. Now here I was with a dead camera headed to Hilo to ostensibly capture my son's hālau at his first Merrie Monarch. Epic Failure.
I decided to head out into the night to Walmart and Target to see if they had any decent Canon cameras that could fit my lenses that I had invested in.
I went down and got into my Toyota Corolla and started the engine. I had recently found a local rock station that I had been listening to for the past few weeks. I hadn't listened to any rock stations for about twenty years. As soon as the engine started, a song had just started. It was so familiar and I soon recognized it. AC/DC "For Those About to Rock." It was one of my rock anthems in High School as I entered College and my Rocker days.
It actually calmed me down and empowered me. For Those About to Rock. We Salute You. I felt like no matter what was going to happen, I could handle it. Keep the Faith.
I made it to Walmart, and scoured the electronics department. No decent DSLR cameras at all. After my disappointment, I shot over to Target by the Stadium. Hoping they weren't closed, I made it there and scoured their electronics department. They had two Canon T6i cameras. I started Googling it to see how good it was and whether it would fit my lenses. I knew it wasn't a full-frame sensor camera which makes a difference with the lenses I had but I was desperate.
The clerk there was super helpful, and helped me Google around. He admitted that he worked in the toy department but was covering the electronics department that night. We laughed. We talked about toys and video games which he was very excited about, while I researched the camera as fast as I could. I didn't see any other choice, but to buy it right then and there. My new friend and I parted ways and as soon as I got to the car, I opened the box and read the manual. I realized that it didn't take the same memory cards that my 5D did, and had to run back into the store and buy a 128gig card.
As I went home, Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" came on. This was the song I played for Brownbags to Stardom in high school with some classmates and friends. I relived that disaster of a performance in my head as I drove home to pack my bags. I couldn't help but laugh.
I charged the camera battery while I finished packing everything up and then went to bed. The next morning I caught my flight. At the airport, I continued to research my new camera and was horrified to learn that some people reported that the battery didn't last long. I tried to think of where I could get another battery in Hilo for the camera and the only place I could find was possibly Battery Bill. The thought of running out of battery in the middle of shooting the hula terrified me as well. My old 5D set up had a double battery pack camera grip just because of the amount of juice I can use up while shooting 4000 to 5000 photos at a long event.
I landed in Hilo and made my way quickly to the rental car kiosk to get my car so I could find out where my son and the hālau were an meet up with them. I also needed to get my photographer's pass from the Merrie Monarch people, figure out where I would be parking, sitting and where I would go to take the photos of the hālau once they performed.
The Merrie Monarch organization has prohibited any photo or video recording of any portion of the performances due to abuse, commercialization and monetization of hula photos taken of individuals and hālau. Unscrupulous photographers kind of ruined it for everyone. If a hālau designates you as their photographer, you are allowed to go to a corner of the stage and capture their performance from there. Only there performance, no other hālau. You also sign your Life away that the photos are for personal use and for the Kumu and Halau. I was more than happy to agree to that to be able to capture and preserve the memories.
I arrived at the rental car desk and the nice girl started processing me as I pointed out my name on the rental agreement sitting in their rack. She typed away and talked to the lot attendant back and forth. She finally asked me, hesitantly, if I would be willing to take a Jeep Wrangler. They were short on cars. I had reserved a compact. I asked her if there was a trunk to lock my bags in. She apologized and said no. I am always too accommodating and told her it would be alright. I would take the Jeep.
She asked me for my driver's license and credit card. I pulled them out of my wallet and handed them over the counter to her. She grabbed them. Somewhere between her and I, in that process of transfer, we both fumbled and the cards fell. The license landed on her counter. My credit card went down the small dark slit between her counter and the raised part where I was leaning. I looked down in horror. Her eyes opened wide as did her mouth. Oh no!
I leaned over and looked down the dark crack for any sign of my card. Nothing. You couldn't pull the kiosk apart. It was all one constructed piece. She actually got down on her hands and knees and grabbed a broom from behind the door, and then laid on the floor sweeping around in the blackness under the counter. Papers, dust and a set of car keys came out, much to her astonishment, but no credit card. She peered all over, swept more. Nothing. We had no idea where my card went.
She said she was so sorry. I was going to have to cancel that card. I thought, "What?" That is my main card for this whole trip of which I made sure had enough credit to carry me through. Meanwhile, a line was forming behind me of other people wanting to get their cars and get on their way.
I told her I had another card, and pulled out my only other card. She ran it through the machine. It declined. I had just made a payment on that card and quickly accessed my card account on my phone. I checked the balance and let her know what it was. Unfortunately, the car rental and hundred dollar hold was more than my card could hold since my payment hadn't processed yet. I was greatly embarrassed.
I looked at the growing line behind me and told her that I would just go sit down and wait until she processed everyone else and then try again.
So I sat there. For over an hour as people kept coming and coming. I saw a young couple try several cards over and over, and after quite awhile, were told sorry as they walked away. I guess they couldn't hold the charge either.
A European man went up and complained that the car he had had a slow leak in the tire, bad breaks and a host of other problems and he wanted to exchange it. I saw some other hula families picking up there cars too. I sat there thinking first my camera broke, and now my credit card was lost and I was stuck at the airport with no car. Kahiko night at the Merrie Monarch was hours away. My son's first performance. What a disaster.
Well after an hour, the line was thinning down, but new flight arrivals were bringing a constant stream of people. I actually heard the agent ask one customer if he was willing to take a Jeep Wrangler to which he hesitantly agreed. I thought to myself, "Hey! You just gave away my car."
I stood up and got back in line to at least make it to the counter again. She told me that she called her Manager and let her know that she fumbled a customer's credit card and it fell into the black abyss. I tried to see if I could decline the coverage on the car, or even return the car earlier in the day Sunday to cut down on the charges. It was still pricey and my card still would't hold the charge.
Finally, exasperated and desperate, I asked her if I could come behind her kiosk and try to look for my card. She hesitated, and then said I could. She said she looked all over and didn't see it. I thanked her for getting down on the dirty floor and trying.
I brought my bags around the back so nobody would walk off with them, entered the kiosk, and got down on my hands and knees. I grabbed the broom from behind the door, and then paused. I did the one thing I knew I needed to do. I prayed.
I quietly and humbly asked Ke Akua, my 'aumakua, my Guardian Angels, my kūpuna, to please help me find my card. It was critical for the whole trip. I prayed quickly, quietly, but hard.
I then turned around, crawled to the counter, and laid down on the ground while the rental agent curiously watched me. Then without thinking, I opened up a cabinet that was right in front of me. I looked at the three shelves full of boxes, bags and packages. I started pulling these small zippered black bags out of the second shelf, about ten of them. When they were all out, I saw this card on the back of the shelf. My Heart pounded. I grabbed it and pulled it out. It was my credit card.
I flipped over onto my back, while still laying down, held the card up in the air, looked at the girl as she looked down at me. I exclaimed, "Thank you Jesus!" She said, "Oh my God! How did you find it?"
I said, "I prayed and then found it!" She said, "Wow. That is amazing! You prayed and you found your card!"
It took some exertion to get back onto my feet, and dust myself off. She asked again, "How did you know it was on the shelf?" I said I didn't. I just prayed and was led to it. That has happened before."
I can't believe it she said. "I called my Manager because I felt so bad."
I had actually been looking at home once for a very critical and important identification card that my wife had lost. We tore up the apartment looking for hours. Frustrated. Panicky. Exhausted. I resorted to Prayer. After praying, I walked up and opened a cabinet drawer where she had last seen her card, and where we had searched at least twenty times through the cluttered drawer. I closed the drawer, and walked away. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks, and without even thinking, walked back to the drawer, opened the cabinet below the drawer, bent down as far as I could, and look at the bottom of the drawer. In the back of the drawer, I saw the tiniest white triangle peeking down behind the drawer from underneath.
I reached back, pinched it, and pulled it down. It was the tiny envelope that held my wife's Alien Registration Card that we do desperately needed. It was in the drawer, but somehow over time, became stuck to the outside back portion of the drawer. We never would have found it there. I can't explain how I found it, as if I was just guided and led to it.
Here again, prayer worked. It led me to my credit card.
We finished the rental agreement and she was looking through the leftover diminished inventory of cars. I was so happy to get a car but resigned myself to probably getting that returned car with flat tires, bad brakes and a host of other problems. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from thinking my credit card was irretrievably lost, and my Merrie Monarch trip a disaster.
I followed the girl into the parking lot and wasn't paying attention at all. We wandered a little bit and then she stopped and asked me, "How is this car?"
I looked up and there in front of me was a brand new shiny white Ford 5.0 GT Mustang. I stared in disbelief. I looked again and read "Mustang" on the side and looked at the white paint. I immediately thought about my favorite car I ever owned, my 1966 White Ford Mustang that carried me through college and law school.
Here it was. The new and improved version. I actually felt emotions well up and had to stop tears from pouring forth. It was such a Beautiful affirmation from the ancestors. From God. From my Angels. I was humbled to no end.
She gave me the keys, wished me well, and I got in. When I started her up, the deep throaty rumble of that V-8 through the exhaust was music to my ears and my Soul. My rock and roll muscle car. I was in disbelief. From the minute I exited the rental car lot, and entered the main road, I couldn't help but punch the throttle a little and listen to that deep roar.
I quickly found the rock station and song after song transported me back in time to college. I felt the confidence I hadn't had in decades. College, days when I pushed the edge to find myself, and take rebellious risks to test, and forge my character.
My new camera, the Canon Rebel seemed particularly fitting right then.
I went to Battery Bill who unfortunately had many camera batteries but not the one I needed for my model of camera. They were super nice so I enjoyed making new friends however. I then tracked down the hālau and made it to the venue to get my photographer's pass just in time. The staff and security were so helpful and the night ended up being magical in so many ways. I didn't have time to figure out all the bells and whistles on my new camera, and prayed a lot before and during shooting the hālau's kahiko performance.
I just did what my Mother told me to do, four months after she passed away, when she visited a gifted friend of mine and I while sitting at a beach in 'Ewa on O'ahu. She told me to listen to my na'au more, my guts, my visceral instincts, my Hawaiian Heart. Trust in it. Don't over think everything.
So I set up my camera on my instincts. I felt lost without my workhorse camera which I have shot hundreds of thousands of time with, of which I knew how to adjust and change settings on the fly, while shooting, to adapt to changing lighting, speed, and other conditions. I wondered how much of my skill and magic was due to my camera.
Now I had a new lesser model camera. There wouldn't be any time during the performance to view the photos and adjust the settings in the chaos. The thought of shooting the whole performance and ending up with dark, blurry bad shots weighed heavily on my mind.
So I set up the shots how my na'au told me to. Having the Merrie Monarch photographer Bruce Omori next to me, and his kindness and Aloha, made a World of difference to me.
I was exhausted at the end of the first night, but on a Energetic Spiritual High like never before. As I scrolled through shots on my camera lcd screen to check them after the performance, I saw captures that made my Heart stop. Tears welled up in humble gratitude to Spirit's intervention. I take no credit for the captures. Timing is everything. I desire to produce Beautiful Spirit filled captures, not for my own aggrandizement, but truly for the dancer. The Kumu. For Laka. To Honor all of the months, and even years of practice and refinement, energy and commitment, that hula requires. A Spiritual endeavor that helps sustain the Healing Spirit of Hawai'i. Of Aloha.
I often find myself conversion with Spirit, and especially Laka when shooting hula. Quietly under my breath. Talking to the dancers as they move about. Thanking the higher powers for the captures. I even quietly chant "Ne'epapa...ne'epapa..." over and over under my breath to help keep everyone in unison. I know. I am a nut case. But the happiest nut case you will ever know.
When the hālau left to go back up to their accommodations to practice for 'auana for the next day, I headed back up the highway to Volcano.
It was approaching midnight by then. I found myself deep in thought as the rumble of the Mustang's engine reverberated my whole body. I drove. Mist and fog poured across the long dark stretch of road as song after song played. Rock songs that evoked memories of a different time. My whole family was still alive. I had so many Life changing adventures. This was life before I was burdened with the kuleana of so many Hawaiian tragedies. Caring for so many of our dead.
You hear about the loss of population. The epidemics that wiped away entire villages. But to see the bodies of the men, woman, children and infants is another stark reality. Those slaughtered in war. Those offered up onto the lele of the luakini heiau and deposited in the lua, or pit.
I went though college so disconnected from my Hawaiian identity. Even after graduating from a school specifically for Native Hawaiians. The last twenty-five years have been the most amazing Journey for my Soul.
Now my eldest son, Elliott, was living his dream. Spending time with the hālau for practices, resource gathering, assembling outfits, and other hula activities has only led me to grow very fond of all the dancers and Kumu. A Love has cultivated.
As I drove, deep in thought, lightning flashes in the sky flickered in the distant sky above Mauna Loa. At one point, I punched the gas pedal and the car took off like a rocket pushing me back into my seat with the G-Forces. It was exhilarating for my Soul.
I decided to go see akua Pele even though it was a little after 1:00am at that point. The road was wet where the rains had fallen. On the last stretch of straight away before the National Park, I couldn't help but punch the throttle again after making sure there were no cars in front of me, or behind me, or oncoming.
But this time, I hadn't factored in that the road was wet. My car took off like a rocket, and then the back wheels spun with all the torque, and the car fishtailed, and slid across the lanes onto the opposite lane. I thought the car was going to slide and crash into the lava on the side of Highway 11. I was able to regain control and maneuver the car back into my lane and bring it to a stop.
My heart was pounding through my chest. I thought I was going to die. I was mad at myself for doing such a stupid stunt. That is what I would do when I was in my twenties. Drive reckless. Risk so much. I apologized to all of my Spirit Guides and promised not to ever do that again.
I made it to Halema'ama'u and hung out with akua Pele until about 2:00am and then went home to sleep and prepare for the next full day of events and 'auana night.
There really are no words to express my gratitude for this Journey. What turned out to be a disaster with my camera, turned out to be a Blessing. If I hadn't seen the clouds outside of my lanai, I would never have tried to take a photo that late at night and discovered that my camera was dying.
I wouldn't have been able to acquire my Canon Rebel in time. I would have ended up in Hilo and the first time I tried to use my camera, and discovered it was dead, would have been too late to recover. I wouldn't have been able to capture the kahiko performance and would have been devastated. So it was a Blessing.
Then losing my credit card turned out to be a Blessing as well. It reestablished my belief in the power of prayer and the constant interaction I have with the Spirit World. It also gifted me the White Mustang. A car that gave me so much joy over that weekend. That Healed me in so many ways. That let me rediscover myself. That younger more carefree version of myself.
I always Dreamed of being the Knight on the White Horse. To come in and fight Evil. To Save the Day. To Romantically Sweep my Princess of of her feet.
That I survived in college very risky and dangerous times, surrounded by cocaine and guns and criminality in the circle I ran with, makes me even more humble and appreciative of the plan that Ke Akua and my ancestors had for me. Keeping me here, out of prison and Alive.
That I rode on Death's Pale Horse in 2012 only to be bucked off crosses my mind at least once a day in awed reverence for the Power of Divine Grace and Mercy.
So I thank Ke Akua, Christ, Laka, Pele, my kūpuna, my 'aumakua, my akua, my kupua, my 'uhane kako'o and my 'uhane alaka'i for such a magical Journey. For the Love of Hula. For bearing witness to the Power of 'ike Hawai'i, of 'ike Hula, of culture. Of Aloha.
For all of the Beautiful Kumu Hula and Hālau dancers who gave it their Beautiful All. For a World Wide Audience enchanted by all things Hawaiian.
And a Profoundly Beautiful Healing Journey on my White Horse. Yes, I was born in the Year of the Horse. And as a final affirmation, my Merrie Monarch ticket assigned me was in Section P, Row 5, and Seat 1.
And if you know, the P-51 is a fighter-bomber plane used in World War II. It is also known as the P-51 Mustang. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.
For Those About To Rock...I....Salute You...