Nelson Puailihau the Ambassador of Aloha Moloka'i, Hawaii
Moloka’i is the most traditional island in Hawaii and the mana, life force, there is felt as soon as you arrive. I was blessed to visit Moloka’i. I was following my heart, looking for a new home, a headquarters for my work of reconnecting to Nature and healing mother Earth. I love Alaska and it is my home, but the cold dark winters are too much for my spirit which longs to be beneath the warm sea. I had to go follow my heart and jump into the unknown. The leap led me to Moloka’i. Through a series of synchronistic events I horse traded a sculpture for the opportunity to stay at a beautiful little condo on the East side of Moloka’i for two months. As I spoke on the phone with the condo owner, my accountant, he told me about the landscape and culture I was about to experience. As he spoke the love and connection he felt towards the island flowed into my open heart. He spoke of the two ancient fishponds that were located directly in front of the condo, how he watched humpback whales breech and frolic with their young from his linea, or patio. He painted the picture of paradise and it contained all the elements I was searching for: the whales that migrated from Alaska to Hawaii, ancient tradition and technologies to capture food and live in balance with nature and resilient people who protect their culture from the wrath of globalization and materialism. Moloka’i has strategically kept tourism and development at bay. They have done this through the legal system, such as not allowing any building over two stories on the island. But more impressive, at a grassroots-unwritten law level, collectively they have not sold out their lands, their family lands or personal properties to outsiders who have flashed millions and millions of dollars in front of them. When I listened to my accountant talk of the place, I knew that I would learn a lot from the people, the land and the power of the spirit of Aloha.
A restored fishpond in Moloka'i
Before arriving, I set an intention in the form of a prayer to Moloka’i island herself to meet a teacher, one who could show me the ways of Hawaiian traditional living, fishing, gathering and of course to teach me about Aloha. I arrived at the condo, a beautiful place and I began to make myself at home. Two wonderful native Hawaiians, dear friends of my accountant, had picked me up at the airport and helped me settle into the condo. I slept well and woke to the rising sun. It was a beautiful day. I looked outside from my linea and there in the water I could see two people, they looked like they were fishing with nets. I saw whales jumping beyond the reef. It was glorious. I quickly ate and went outside to walk the compound. Coconut trees, hibiscus, plumeria trees and every type of flower you can imagine burst from the gardens greeting me. I walked to the ocean and saw the underwater remains of the fishpond stone walls that once were above the high tide line to keep fish inside to rear their young and to be harvested. I practiced my Qi Gong by the water gathering in the energy of the ancient site I was now living in. I spent an hour connecting to the energetic fabric of Moloka’i and breathing in the magic of this unique and sacred place. Walking back to the condo I heard some loud talking and contagious laughing. I turned around in the parking lot to see a wild looking man with a gill net and a bunch of fish slung over his shoulder. His hair was a reddish, brown color and he had big wild eyes, a huge toothy grin, and an earring dangled from one ear. My accountant had mentioned his neighbor named Nelson and he told me that Nelson was…“different” and that it was just better to meet him than explain anything over the phone. The two Hawaiians that had taken me to the condo also mentioned Nelson, the wife saying, “you just wait, you guys are gonna be best friends.”
“Wow, look at those beautiful fish,” I noticed that one was a bonefish, a prized sport fish. “I love fishing,” I declared to the fisherman in front of me. The fisherman, standing in his wet suit, hair wet and wild, about shoulder length and flopping over part of his face, the sun glistening all around him like a magical wardrobe looked me up and down and abruptly burst out in a laugh that tickled my heart and soul. His energy was contagious. He said to me, “You like to fish eh?” “What are you doing here in Molokai?” he asked. I am here to learn about Aloha, I replied lowering my eyes in a sign of respect that was ingrained within me due to the customary manner in greeting elders in Fiji. Nelson pulled back and looked me over of a moment or two. “I can tell you are a spiritual being,” he said lifting his hand to his heart, “I can feel it.” His words rolled into my being like a wave, a gentle wave but with a message informing me that I had met my teacher. From that day forward Nelson and I were best friends. He began to teach me how to fish and how to be a Hawaiian. He had an inner tube as a boat. “Every fisherman needs a boat,” he would tell me laughing his heart bursting laugh, “and this is mine.” We used the tube to float the net out to the sea and deploy and retrieve it. He had a mesh bag which he wore on his waist to store the fish. Nelson loved hunting octopus, what they call squid on Hawaii, with a spear. But his favorite thing to do was catch crabs, the big Samoan mud crabs that lived in the fishponds. He adopted me as a daughter and my training began immediately. I learned how he patched nets, how he stalked octopus and how to deploy his net. I followed him around day and night. My love for my teacher grew deep like the Piololo Channel between Maui and Moloka’i.
Nelson with three freshly harvested squid or octopus
How did Nelson teach me? Like most good teachers he taught through action. I am an experiential learner so action is my game. Nelson is a man of action, constantly in motion, he raises with the sun and unleashes his aloha constantly throughout the day. A throwback to an earlier time, he is utterly wild and feral, unconventional and liberated. He cannot be defined. Instead he defines his environment and creates the world around him and I was blessed to be a part of that world. I had come to Moloka’I to go more feral. I wanted to live in the elements, study them intimately and to be with the whales. Nelson shared my connection to the sea, he was closer to the squid, but he encouraged my connection to the whales. As we moved around Moloka’i together he energetically imprinted me, much like a mother goose with her ducklings, to be feral and sovereign.
About 2 weeks into my apprenticeship I was tested. I did not know I was being tested at the time of course, as any true master would do to his disciple. We had deployed the gill net early in the day during low tide, at around 3pm, just in the entrance of the northern fishpond of the condo. I was told that we would go retrieve the net at nine that night. It was the first time we went out at night. It was a new moon, meaning no moonlight, which nelson said was the best time for fishing. We put on our wetsuits, head lamps, water shoes, gloves and headed out. The stars were everywhere above us, a hundred thousand, thousand stars. With very little light pollution, none on Moloka’i, and just a bit from Maui, the night sky was one of the best I had ever seen. As we approached the water Nelson explained that the stars were our ancestors. We set out to get the net. Early during deployment we had set the net rather deep and as we approached the gill net I soon realized that we were already over our waists in water. Nelson was laughing and singing as we mindfully stepped over corals and fish wall stones to approach our net.
Nelson and I headed out to set the net
We reached the net and Nelson lifted it. She was full of fish. Nelson gasped in surprise and happiness, “its choked with fish!” His eyes sparkled in the starlight and a laugh of gratitude boiled from his belly. He started picking fish from the net and I followed him. He had not given me permission or taught me the methods to pick fish from the net, but being an Alaskan and having worked as a fisheries biologist for years, I knew a thing or two about picking fish from nets. Many of the fish were still alive and difficult to free from the net. I saw Nelson struggling with so many fish. In general, Nelson never lets people he takes fishing pick the fish as he had previously explained to me during other fishing trips. As the tide was coming up and I saw the amount of fish we had to gather and secure before the water was too high for us to touch the bottom I took the bold move of stepping forward in front of my teacher and began to pick fish. I have picked a lot of salmon from nets in my time and in cold water, so being in warmer seas with shining stars above I was in my element and filled with joy. Nelson allowed me, watching for a moment before returning to his work. If some of the fish were still alive, I would practice a technique I learned in Fiji from the village women, bite them in the head and kill them. Nelson watched as I fluidly picked fish from the net and when he saw me stick the head of a small bonefish in my mouth and kill it with a chomp, he said, “I should have known.”
We worked the net quickly, the water was coming up fast as well and soon we were floating. We still had 30 feet of net left and Nelsons bag was nearly full. Nelson and I are about the same height. In fact, I might be a bit taller than him. Being a better swimmer, a fact Nelson admits freely, I took the lead and finished the last stretch of the net. For the past few weeks of training with Nelson, I had learned the correct method to gather his net using the inner tube. So I started recoiling the net in the deep water swimming with the tube and returning to where Nelson was standing. He began singing and remarking how this was the best fishing he had enjoyed in a long time. Together we collected the net and floated back to shore. By the time we made it out, we were both cold. One would think the warm water is in Hawaii but it’s not. Its winter and after a few hours of being in the water, wind and night….even an Alaskan gets cold. We had a big haul and it took both of us together to carry our fish back to his condo. His condo was a fisherman’s condo with cutting boards, buckets and knives for processing all types of sea creatures. We both stripped out of our gear and took hot showers and began to clean fish for hours into the morning. Nelson drank coffee the entire time and told stories of fishing in times past. It was clear I had passed his test. He said I far exceeded his expectations as a fisherwoman and that he had never seen anything like it. He was completely shocked when I took the lead and began to pick fish so smoothly and then when I bit down on the head of the first bonefish he knew I was a true fisherwoman. “Soon,” he said, “I will take you to fish for crabs and I have never taken anyone fishing for crabs.”
Squids and crabs. Teacher and apprentice
As Nelsons apprentice I observed his schedule and adjusted mine to his. The first thing Nelson would do everyday was sing. He would go out and watch the morning sunrise from a bench in front of the condos and he would sing at the top of his lungs belting out all sorts of tunes from the depths of his unique soul. He sang everyday he told me because it was good for his soul and he had to care for his soul and do what made him happy regardless if others appreciated his wild tone or not. His second practice of soul nurturing was going into the ocean everyday for his healing as he called it.
The Fisherman's condo and his squid
More than a feral fisherman, Nelson worked at the elementary school as a janitor everyday from 1-4pm. He loved the children of Moloka’i and was honored to clean the school, it brought him great joy and he took pride in keeping the place tidy for the kids. In the afternoon, when he was off work we would go the beach, I would snorkel with the turtles and listen to the singing of the whales. Nelson would sit guard on the beach and sing more…at times I swear I could hear him under the water harmonizing with the whales. In the evenings, when we were not fishing, we would walk. Sometimes just around the compound, other times to the school and often up the trail into the mountain. At these times he would share his inner soul story with me. He told me how he was a terrible addict most of his life. That he was a drug dealer in Maui for years, how he raised his kids and took care of his wife who was also an addict. He described how they had to live on the streets for two years under a tarp which he would roll up every morning and unravel every night. He told the story of his sobriety and recovery. How he had to recover his soul and about an angelic woman who helped him find the light of true aloha. He always spoke of the healing energy force of the ocean and his deep connection to it. He shared his childhood where he was raised by his grandparents in Moloka’i and spoke of his training to be a wild Hawaiian. As a youth he learned to make traps to catch birds to eat, how to hunt fish, throw a net and gather shellfish.
Then, as a young adult, he moved to Maui, to see what life was about. That’s where he got caught up in the drug scene. When he spoke of the past he would laugh at himself constantly. He told me about the big Cadillac he had for years in Maui. It was a beast, big tires, big engine, he loved it, and he spent a lot of money on it and said he had a lot of money since he was a dealer. He would rally that car up and down the roads blaring his music and blurting his soul song. Even though the police knew he was a dealer they could never catch him he told me, he was too cunning, fast and ….lucky. He spent time in jail, lost everything and soon realized he was living in the material world. He knew his soul was loosing its mana, his life force. It was when he finally came back to Moloka’i that’s he recovered his lost identity and reclaimed his soul through reconnecting to the land and the sea. He got sober. He stayed sober. He forgave, he loved and he sang. Since then he daily practices the art of Aloha, of loving everything and everyone, and as he continually taught me, he focuses on living in the spiritual world and not the material world. I am learning to follow in his footsteps, to forgive myself and others, to love unconditionally, and listen to the ocean and breath in the aloha.
Nelson taught me to follow my own joy and to do what I wanted and disregard others expectations or opinions. I've always been a free spirit, I am unconventional and uninhibited, but Nelson it seemed gave me permission from the realm of the elders, he ethereally handed me an energetic certificate to be wild and to help in the legalization of true freedom. Indeed it seemed that Moloka'i herself was backing him and us, the island wanted to share the her knowledge, to heal us and bring us back in harmony with Nature...back to our souls’ wildness.