I thought I was going to get lost, at least after reading the directions I got.
“Waipa is about 1/2 mile past Hanalei town (after Wai`oli bridge…a one lane concrete bridge) on the left. Look for a stop sign and 2 lane paved driveway. When you turn in you can park where the other cars are on the grass on the right where the road splits. Just walk over to the poi garage and ask for me if I don’t walk out to you.”
OK. Half a mile from Hanalei Town. After a concrete bridge. Somewhere on the left.
I was hoping Stacy Sproat-Beck, the executive director of the Waipa Foundation, a nonprofit that perpetuates the Hawaiian culture and manages a 1,600-acre ahupuaa (ancient Hawaiian land division) in Waipa on Kauai’s north shore, had given me enough detail to find the place.
Because it’s not that easy to find.
First off, the “2-lane paved driveway” isn’t really paved, at least not in the Honolulu sense. And there’s really no stop sign that you can see right off. The nonprofit is really in a couple of old homes set back from the road and surrounded by trees and a huge grassy yard where people had parked their cars. From a distance you could see the “poi garage,” really an open two-car garage where people gathered for the foundation’s weekly Poi Day, where volunteers come to join the kupuna (elders) and staff in making poi using the kalo (taro) grown on the island. But to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I had found the right place until I walked right into the garage and saw the taro myself.
But the long drive from Lihue Airport — after getting up at 4 a.m. that morning — was well worth it.
Waipa is fascinating.
In ancient times, the mauka area of the ahupuaa was known as Wao Akua, or the Realm of the Gods. People rarely visited here. This is where you’d find wood for canoes and bird feathers for capes for the alii (royalty). Today, the foundation is restoring the native forests — an integral part of the ahupuaa system — which had been destroyed by the sandalwood trade, cattle ranching and non-native species that have taken over the area. Just in the past few years, more than 2,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted here.
Below this is the kula zone, the foundation is creating and restoring the wetland and dryland farming areas. There is a 2-acre loi (irrigated terrace) here farmed by Waipa staff and volunteers.
And below that is the ocean, where the foundation has restored one of seven acres of the Halulu fishpond, already teeming with mullet and tilapia.
At every site is a learning opportunity — and the Waipa Foundation maximizes their value to the community. They cultivate the land and restore natural habitats — and share that with anyone who wants to learn.
Poi Day is a great example of how this organization helps its community.
Not only is everyone invited to participate — poi-making starts at 5 a.m. and ends around noon with a lunch prepared by the staff — but the poi is then distributed to local families on Kauai. The weekly gathering was started more than 20 years ago by the Hawaiian families along the island’s north shore to feed themselves and others in their community.
Bags cost $3 a pound, $1 a pound for kupuna. The nonprofit isn’t trying to make money — they’re trying to keep this staple available and affordable to local families. And in the meantime, the staff and kupuna are sharing their knowledge about kalo and poi and their Hawaiian heritage.
It was an experience unlike any other.
Growing up on Oahu to a dad who was raised with his Hawaiian cousins, poi has long been a staple dish at home. We eat it all the time — with beef stew, with kalua pig, by itself. It’s what we grew up on.
But I had never seen poi being made like this, never seen an entire community come together to prepare this taro dish. It was interesting and humbling at the same time.
I helped clean the taro, removing warts and other imperfections with a butter knife. And I helped bag the taro in 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-pound plastic bags. I wasn’t there longer than a few hours, but it was enough to show me what it means when people say, “It takes a village.”
These folks are living proof.
Poi Day, Waipa Foundation in Hanalei, Kauai. Every Thursday starting at 5 a.m. Wear casual clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and comfortable footwear. (808) 826-9969.