The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter VI.

Hilo. Hawaii, Feb. 3.

My plans are quite overturned. I was to have ridden with the native mail-carrier to the north of the island to take the steamer for Honolulu, but there are freshets in the gulches on the road, making the ride unsafe. There is no steamer from Hilo for three weeks, and in the meantime Mr. and Mrs. S. have kindly consented to receive me as a boarder; and I find the people, scenery, and life so charming, that I only regret my detention on Mrs. Dexter’s account. I am already rested from the great volcano trip.

We left Kilauea at seven in the morning of the 1st Feb. in a pouring rain. The natives decorated us with leis of turquoise and coral berries, and of crimson and yellow ohia blossoms. The saddles were wet, the crater was blotted out by mist, water dripped from the trees, we splashed through pools in the rocks, the horses plunged into mud up to their knees, and the drip, drip, of vertical, earnest, tepid, tropical rain accompanied us nearly to Hilo. Upa and Miss K. held umbrellas the whole way, but I required both hands for holding on to the horse whenever he chose to gallop. As soon as we left the crater-house Upa started over the grass at full speed, my horse of course followed, and my feet being jerked out of the stirrups, I found myself ignominiously sitting on the animal’s back behind the saddle, and nearly slid over his tail, before, by skilful efforts, I managed to scramble over the peak back again, when I held on by horn and mane until the others stopped. Happily I was last, and I don’t think they saw me. Upa amused me very much on the way; he insists that I am “a high chief.” He said a good deal about Queen Victoria, whose virtues seem well known here: “Good Queen make good people,” he said, “English very good!” He asked me how many chiefs we had, and supposing him to mean hereditary peers, I replied, over 500. “Too many, too many!” he answered emphatically — “too much chief eat up people!” He asked me if all people were good in England, and I was sorry to tell him that this was very far from being the case. He was incredulous, or seemed so out of flattery, and said, “You good Queen, you Bible long time, you good!” I was surprised to find how much he knew of European politics, of the liberation of Italy, and the Franco–German war. He expressed a most orthodox horror of the Pope, who, he said, he knew from his Bible was the “Beast!” He said, “I bring band and serenade for good Queen sake,” but this has not come off yet.

We straggled into Hilo just at dusk, thoroughly wet, jaded, and satisfied, but half-starved, for the rain had converted that which should have been our lunch into a brownish pulp of bread and newspaper, and we had subsisted only on some half-ripe guavas. After the black desolation of Kilauea, I realized more fully the beauty of Hilo, as it appeared in the gloaming. The rain had ceased, cool breezes rustled through the palm-groves and sighed through the funereal foliage of the pandanus. Under thick canopies of the glossy breadfruit and banana, groups of natives were twining garlands of roses and ohia blossoms. The lights of happy foreign homes flashed from under verandahs festooned with passion-flowers, and the low chant, to me nearly intolerable, but which the natives love, mingled with the ceaseless moaning of the surf and the sighing of the breeze through the trees, and a heavy fragrance, unlike the faint sweet odours of the north, filled the evening air. It was delicious.

I suffered intensely from pain and stiffness, and was induced to try a true Hawaiian remedy, which is not only regarded as a cure for all physical ills, but as the greatest of physical luxuries; i.e. lomi-lomi. This is a compound of pinching, pounding, and squeezing, and Moi Moi, the fine old Hawaiian nurse in this family, is an adept in the art. She found out by instinct which were the most painful muscles, and subjected them to a doubly severe pounding, laughing heartily at my groans. However, I must admit that my arms and shoulders were almost altogether relieved before the lomi-lomi was finished. The first act of courtesy to a stranger in a native house is this, and it is varied in many ways. Now and then the patient lies face downwards, and children execute a sort of dance upon his spine. 13 Formerly, the chiefs, when not engaged in active pursuits, exacted lomi-lomi as a constant service from their followers.

A number of Hilo folk came in during the evening to inquire how we had sped, and for news of the volcano. I think the proximity of Kilauea gives sublimity to Hilo, and helps to lift conversation out of common-place ruts. It is no far-off spectacle, but an immediate source of wonder and apprehension, for it rocks the village with earthquakes, and renders the construction of stone houses and plastered ceilings impossible. It rolls vast tidal waves with infinite destruction on the coast, and of late years its fiery overflowings have twice threatened this paradise with annihilation. Then there is the dead volcano of Mauna Loa, from whose resurrection anything may be feared. Even last night a false rumour that a light was to be seen on its summit brought everyone out, but it was only an increased glare from the pit of Hale-mau-mau. It is most interesting to be in a region of such splendid possibilities.


13 “Reef Rovings.”

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