Puna: Lost in Time and Still Wanting to go Back

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Lonely planet describes the Puna district as:

“the fastest growing district in the state, and home prices have doubled and even tripled since the late 1990’s. Most newcomers are mainlanders, many of whom are gay. It’s a maverick district, well represented by hippies, Hawaiian sovereignty activists, and pakalolo [marijuana] growers”.

It also makes mention of Puna being the Big Island’s pot capital. Just saying.

And judging by the people we have met and observed in the area, Lonely Planet pretty much has Puna’s number.

But digging a little deeper, Puna is home to an eclectic variety of people with a very different view of life than any other area we have been to.

This post was originally published in 2007. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

First, a little geography: Puna is the district that encompasses the easternmost point of the Big Island of Hawaii, and includes the towns of Kea’au, Volcano, and our closest and most familiar town: Pahoa.

Entrance to the Old Pahoa Village, in the Puna district of Hawaii
Pahoa main drag

The main drag of Pahoa is certainly lost in time. Resembling an old western town, complete with raised wooden sidewalks and small seedy-looking establishments with worn paint peeling from the doors, the narrow road sees traffic comprising of old beaten up vehicles, the majority of which are pick ups. Traffic lights are not even a glimmer in Pahoa’s eye.

Lonely Planet captures Pahoa nicely by saying it is:

“a ragamuffin town…caught in a wrinkle in time, where alternative vibes left over from the 1960’s mix with the beeps of ATMs”.

Walking down the street (there is only one) in Pahoa, I am likely to run into some local young Hawaiian “punks” hanging out by the skate/tattoo shop, smell incense wafting out from one of the surf and souvenir stores, hear music coming from the local bar’s open windows (a bar that is crowded at 11am too, I might note), and see hoards of hippies heading in and out of the organic grocery store.

Head up the road a bit, and we come to my personal favourite part of town: the market place, with the large Malama grocery store, and the Aloha Outpost Internet Café.

Many an afternoon has been spent at the internet café sipping excellent coffee, eating incredible fresh sandwiches, charging electronics, and doing my writing and surfing.

Aloha Outpost Internet Cafe

In talking with the owner LaMont, who is a networker extraordinaire, he has shared some great stories of how he came to settle down in Pahoa. The Puna Chronicles are his creation and well worth the entertaining read if you have a few minutes.

In it he mentions “Punatics”….referring to the odd characters you only find in places like Pahoa and Puna in general. I actually managed to work “Punatics” into a sentence once and got a riotous response. Not only did anybody who hadn’t heard it think it was very funny, but everybody understood it immediately too!

Such is life in Puna.

In “downtown” Pahoa, with no sidewalks, you see front yard with roosters roaming free.

But if living in the 1960’s wasn’t retrospective enough, I have met many a “Punatic” that would have us live even further back in time.

Hawaii in general is a mother lode of history, and it sees many issues between the indigenous people and migrants not dissimilar to indigenous issues in North America (and Australia too). Issues aside though, there is a general respect for the land and the history behind it. Sometimes the respect actually transcends political and cultural feasibility.

I accepted ride one day from a woman who has been here since the 1960’s, and said that Puna has progressively changed for the worse over the last three decades with the influx of people living here who don’t respect the land. And she was certainly not the first person to say this to me. She was more concerned about the fact that there is a shoe store in Pahoa now (I didn’t see one, but there is a store that sells shoes in one corner), than the fact that the increased population is helping Puna’s struggling economic system.

Closer to home, Rick (our host) is living a permacultural lifestyle, and would like nothing better than to see the entire world adopt the same way of life. Yesterday.

Another fellow I chatted with who has been here since the 1980’s is trying to reinstate traditional outrigger canoes as a primary mode of transportation, as was used before roads were built.

Although great in intentions, I wonder what reality these Punatics and others are living in. Many live off the grid (which is fabulous), and have an idealistic way of seeing life (which is also fabulous). But idealism fails in my mind when it doesn’t harmonize with realism.

The world will not revert to outrigger canoes and permaculture tomorrow, no matter how good it is for the environment, society, or island culture. Shoes are a basic necessity for most tender-tootsied people like myself, even though there have been many people here in the last hundred years who chose to go bare-footed.

So for an out-of-this-decade experience, Puna has it all: hippies, Hawaiian culture, homesteaders, canoe enthusiasts, and people like me – trying to figure it all out, and still remember what day, month, and year it is.

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2 thoughts on “Puna: Lost in Time and Still Wanting to go Back”

  1. Hope you don’t mind if I just say this in responce to your post (no reason other than it made me smile!) :

    We live in a society where pizza gets to your house before the police. 🙂


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