Progress in Pahoa

The construction elves have been hard at work on the new shopping oasis outside of town.* Even so, Pahoa still has vestiges of a cowboy town, aging traces of its sugarcane past. The main street that runs through town has a section of dilapidated wooden sidewalk flanking false front businesses: a couple of restaurants, arts and craft shops, a tattoo parlor, of course. On the outskirts of town, there are abandoned outbuildings lurking among the vines. The heads of rusting machinery watch over the parking lot at Ace Hardware, a local version of dinosaurs unable to find a passage back to the past. All of this lends the town a certain charm, a sense of permanence among an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool.

In 1955, Pahoa was almost destroyed by a fire. Right in the middle of town was a tofu factory that had a wood-fired furnace. The owner usually banked his fires before he went home, but that night, the fire got out of control. It burned all the way to the main alley. Luckily, a papaya farmer who had water loaded on the back of his truck saw what happened and extinguished the fire, saving Pahoa from destruction.

There’s a strong hippie/alternative lifestyle vibe here. I’m pretty sure that many of the folks who were at Woodstock in 1969–and are still alive–landed in this area. It is not uncommon to see bodies adorned with tie-dye and fringe and grey ponytails and beards framing wizened faces at the local market.

All of this lends the town an alluring charm, a sense of permanence within an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool. But with the new mall going in, we have a slight pall of doom hanging over us. Passing through town today, I saw a couple of businesses preparing to close. Signs in front of the development say there will be a Pizza Hut and a MacDonald’s, both places I vow never to enter, but there will also be a Goodwill and a Banzos falafel, both reasons for good cheer. They’ve installed traffic lights between the turnoff for Long’s and the entrance to the mall, just past the traffic circle. This will either prove to be a feat of fine engineering or a monumental disaster.

The development was originally supposed to open at the end of last year, but the lava decided that was a bad idea. We shall see how Madame Pele feels about all of this. As always, she gets the final say-so.

*Disclaimer: To be fair, I’m taking some liberty with the word ‘town’. The population of Pahoa is only 945 souls, so technically it’s a village. When people say they’re going to ‘town’ they mean Hilo (pop. 43,263), which is about half an hour from here, home to the airport, Walmart and Target and several supermarkets. We go there to shop and then, quick as we can, escape back to paradise.

Full Circle

3 year old me

In the dusty corners of ancient history, a tow headed little girl lived in a big brick house five miles outside of Berlin, Pennsylvania. As of 2016, the town’s population was 2006. It was a nice place to live. I remember a bank or two, a hardware store, an A&P, lots of churches, the potato chip factory, lots of farmers. There was open space, air to breathe. My mother was the original organic farmer, growing food chemical-free in her garden. We got milk from an udder, not a plastic bottle, learned how to make butter. An old man down the road kept bees and brought us honeycomb. The air was clear and sweet. It was its own version of paradise and a very good place to be a little girl.

But there comes a time to move on. Through the vagaries of time and chance, the little girl found herself living in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated places on the planet.


If you look at UN statistics, Japan is only #39 on the list of world population densities. But don’t let statistics fool you. Japan may have a measly 335 people per square kilometer (ppsk) but remember that the entire country could fit into the area occupied by California, with maybe a couple of toes sticking off the end of the bed, and 75% of the land is beautiful but uninhabitable mountains. So 127 million souls are crammed into a few ocean side cities. For comparison, the population of the United States is only double that of Japan with a population density is 33 ppsk, mostly in the east and west although a few misguided souls straggled away from wagon trains in the late 19th century and ended up in Montana and Wyoming where they remain to this day, still wondering how they got there.

population map

For the record, and since I know you were wondering, the most populous countries based on population vs. area are Monaco and Macau, but most of the people in those countries are either working in casinos or losing money in them so let’s leave them to it. Singapore, Hong Kong and Gibraltar follow closely on their heels, although perspective there depends on whether you ask the UN or the World Bank. Bahrain (#f6) is way up there, too, which surprises me. I feel like I’m constantly tripping people from China (#80, India is way more crowded at #28) but I’ve never met a single Bahranian, or at least none that admitted it. I have met several Montanans here in Hawaii, though, so I guess a few found their way out.

I had always thought of Berlin as a very small town and myself as something of a clod doodle for being from there, but now I find myself a resident of Pahoa, or to be more precise, I live five miles outside of Pahoa and the population has risen from 945 to 947 as of almost three weeks ago. Pahoa seems to be where many of the people who were at Woodstock ended up. There is organic farming out the wazoo. Honey is made by bees instead of bears. There are yoga classes at the community center, a serenity center, a yoga and meditation sanctuary. The air is clear and sweet.

The little girl, a little damaged but also a little stronger and certainly a little wiser, has learned that paradise is a state of mind, and she doesn’t mind one bit that she finds herself in this state, in every sense.

wine glass flower 4