Kuulei Santos walks boldly between worlds. She is one of the few Hanapepe salt makers, the dedicated descendants who continue the ancient Hawaiian practice of crystallizing the sea. The salt, called paakai, is used for cooking and preserving food, for healing and for blessing. When she’s not laboring in the clay and mud salt patches on the west side of Kauai, she’s writing a blog about the efforts to protect the salt-making, creating a bridge between an ancient tradition and modern communication.
"Facebook and blogging have added a new way of communicating to everyone that cares. It lets people understand my intentions," Santos said. "The old style was not to say anything because we want everyone to leave us alone. That wasn’t working."
Santos, 36, a lifelong Kauai resident, began working in the salt patches as a child. Her two daughters have also grown up in the tradition. Santos is a single mom with two jobs: she works as contracts manager for a construction company and does bookkeeping on the side. Summer is the season for making salt, but she keeps watch on the salt beds year-round. Last October she started the blog, mostly as an effort to educate people about the practice, but also to document her efforts to preserve the area.
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"It also helps fuel my fire to continue to do what needs to be done," she said. "I get a little frustrated by it all, and when I write and people comment, I know I am doing good."
The blog is anything but bland. Santos comes out swinging, calling people out and posting pictures. She goes from angry rant to the heartfelt words of a woman determined not to let something so soulful be lost.
"Some people will read my blog and ask me to change what I write ’cause it might hurt someone. I can’t," Santos said. "People can either admire my passion for what I believe to be true or move on."
You might not think updates on a muddy flat next to the ocean would make for an interesting read, but the ongoing story of the salt patches is full of drama. There are so many threats to the area, from cesspools and homeless encampments to feral cats and illegal dumping, so many battles that Santos and other salt makers have had to wage. The blog details each chapter, from the anguished fights to the glorious harvests, as the age-old epic continues to unfold.
"People come up to me all the time and say, ‘When’s your next post? Tell me about the cat people. Did the state clean up their mess?’ People care. People wanna know."
The 19 families who tend to the salt patches in Hanapepe never sell the salt. It cannot be purchased in any store. It is only given away, a gift that is both supremely practical and truly priceless. So why would anyone spend so much time and effort making something that won’t make money? That’s the stunning theme of the story Santos tells, day by day, on her blog:
"There’s something about being able to stand in the same place that your grandmother stood or in the same place your great-grandmother stood and do the exact same thing and you do it just because you love your tradition, you love your culture, you love the fact that you’re able to work so hard for something so unique."
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.