Next week, I’m set to help the locals dig up an ancient Chinese cemetery. Or something along those lines. I know there will be digging and clearing and probably some metaphysical protocols observed, at least beforehand. I know there will be graveyard nightmares to follow. Hopefully, the cool horror-movie kind. I know there will be good food and an entire community coming together to do this work for free, just because it needs to be done. I know I’ll discover the rest when I get there. For most people, an adventure like this would fall on the peculiar side of disturbing. For Hakalau, it’s just a day in the life.
Two days after the election, I arrived in the dark. A deserted local airport after a layover in Honolulu, the only souls around dressed all in white to administer my second Covid test of the journey, the new welcome ritual. They drifted through the enormous empty terminal meant to hold multiple tour groups and one of them stuck a six-inch Q-tip up my nose. 30 minutes later, I was pronounced negative. I could have told them that ahead of time and saved them the trouble. I’m usually pretty negative. Then: straight down a long, lonely highway and into the forest.
I’ve been staying in the village for a week and a half. I feel like I’ve fallen off the world and landed someplace better, but not someplace normal—if by “normal” you mean the venomous meltdown of 2020 election America. And thank goodness for that. This village is old. It’s in a jungle. But that doesn’t quite describe it. It doesn’t feel like America. The houses are aged but well cared for with creaky floors and screened-in windows that haven’t been closed in 50 years. Bright green geckos abound. Beetles crawl the ceilings in the middle of the night. Spiders bigger than your thumb. Chirping coal-gray coqui frogs until dawn.
During the day, you’ll catch the scent of jasmine and you’ll decide to quit buying so much food. It’s too humid to overeat and oranges, papaya, limes, and breadfruit dip down over the paths like a constant parade of gifts. You’ll immediately realize that all you’re missing is tea. And there happens to be a lot of that around as well. Now and then, you might make an extraordinary effort to get some rice.
Tea and incense. Rice and ulu. At 3:00 AM, I wake in order to write fiction at a rickety wooden table in the corner of my enormous empty living room. Enormous for me. Perhaps less so for the wealthy tourists who sometimes rent the place to get away from it all—not realizing that you can’t just stay in Hakalau for a week and say you’ve been there. It’s like learning “French for travelers.” All you remember a month after your visit to Paris is oui and Où sont les serviettes? There’s an ageless feeling here, some kind of eddy in time, and it defies easy answers.
How I came to this place and where I’m going next, whether it’s back to Kyoto or Northern Thailand, has to do with my other life as a writing instructor and communications specialist. And I’m still a fiction writer. I look in the mirror and still see my tired fiction-writing face, the writerly gray coming in over my ears, but now there’s something else. I spend time looking at the old hand-carved statue of a Buddhist monk by the door. He’s holding a begging bowl. His eyes are half-closed and he’s smiling gently, aware that everything is in its proper place. Maybe that’s it.
At ten-after-five, I walk across the road in the dark to practice an hour of Rinzai zazen in the village zendo. Later, I’ll walk down a series of abandoned flower-strewn trails and condemned bridges to an inlet of broken rocks and stare at the ocean. And I always have the same thought: if this is all I do between now and the day I die, which could be in the next ten minutes or in the next 30 years, I’ll go with a smile. I don’t need to get into paradise. Just let me stay in Hakalau.