KALAPANA, HAWAII >> It’s early evening not far from “End of Road” in what used to be Kalapana Village until 1990, when the small town and nearly every house got wiped away by lava.
In the sky to the west, a dipping sun casts a golden sheen filtered through vog.
Toward the northeast, an orange glow soon will rise from Pahoa 12 miles away — where radiance from a 200-foot-high dancing lava fountain reflects off clouds as dusk sets in.
And here, amid the few remnants of Kalapana Village and vast stretches of long-hardened lava fields, there is an oasis in the land of Madame Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawaiian myth.
Princess Kuahiwinui is behind the bar serving beer. A band plays Hawaiian music on stage. Pastele stew is cooking. Plates of smoked meat are being served. Banana or pork lumpia are three for $5. People are free-dancing. Then they are doing hula.
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On this Wednesday night, the scene is kind of a throwback to an earlier time when the Keli’iho’omalu family along with friends and neighbors used to gather and have jam sessions, or kanikapila.
It is a special scene because of two things. First, the Keli’iho’omalu family and some others in attendance lived through the destruction of their village from lava, which covered parts of the 8-acre Keli’iho’omalu homestead but spared their house nearly 30 years ago. And second, residents are here from Leilani Estates and Kapoho, where lava has claimed at least 467 homes since the start of the May 3 eruption — and these folks aren’t here to dwell on the devastation or to worry about where the lava might go next. They’re here to revel in a good time.
It’s a “release,” explained Barbara Chow, a Nanawale Estates resident whose mother lost her Leilani home.
“This is the only time I go out,” she said as two Keli’iho’omalu brothers and other members of the Kalapana Awa Band played.
“There’s nothing like it,” added Andy Andrews, a Leilani resident still living near the flowing lava that has claimed the homes of about 130 neighbors in the rural subdivision.
Uncle Robert’s Night Market, also known as Kalapana Night Market or even just Uncle’s, happens every Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m.
“Uncle” Robert Keli’iho’omalu Sr. established the precursor to the nighttime farmer’s market in the 1990s with an awa bar next to his house that was one of only eight homes not destroyed by a series of phased lava flows from or around Puu Oo Crater in Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone that began covering residential property in 1983 and claimed most of Kalapana in 1990.
That eruption destroyed 178 homes, a church and graveyard, Kalapana Store and Drive Inn, the Waha’ula Visitors Center in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, a famed black sand beach and bay at Kaimu along with a premiere surf break called Drain Pipes.
The last advancing lobe of lava stopped on the Keli’iho’omalu homestead.
Uncle Robert, who died in 2015, started the farmers market around nine years ago, and other features were added as it became more popular with visitors.
The musical side of the event was an outgrowth of family members playing music and partying on weekends. “It was just like a natural party on the weekends — every weekend almost,” said Sam Keli’iho’omalu, one of 11 children of Uncle Robert and late wife Philmen “G-Girl” Keli’iho’omalu.
The awa, or kava, bar was relocated to another spot with a thatched roof and rock walls, and its original space became a traditional bar. At first, the crowd was pretty much all area residents. Then as more vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfast establishments took over much of Kapoho, visitors started coming and word kept spreading so that tourists from as far as Waimea and Kona regularly came to Uncle’s.
Sam Keli’iho’omalu said 1,000 to 1,200 people would be an ordinary crowd, and that sometimes the turnout would go as high as 2,000. “This place used to be pumping,” he said.
Over the last six weeks, however, Uncle’s has been limping along because of guarded road checkpoints that allow access to Kalapana and surrounding areas only to people who live there.
That hasn’t been good for business, or morale in the greater community.
On the first Wednesday after May 3, only about 50 to 75 people — mainly good friends and area residents — came to Uncle’s. “The regulars,” is how Primo Keli’iho’omalu, another son of Uncle Robert, described this group.
Four weeks later on June 6, around 200 to 250 came, according to Sam Keli’iho’omalu. “They stay coming back slowly,” he said.
SENSE OF NORMALCY
Still, that pace of recovery is painful for market vendors.
Kara Rivera, operator of the soup, salad, tea and “any kind pie” stand, Karuna Foods at Uncle’s seven days a week starting with breakfast, said her daily revenue dropped to between nothing and $30 after the eruption.
Only in the last few days, she said, has business begun to increase as more people come. “I’m not a fan of the blockade situation,” she said. “It’s quite ridiculous.”
The blockade’s purpose is to prevent thieves from looting homes of people who fled the lava threat, and to also keep people away from the first wide flow that ran into the ocean last month at Pohoiki.
But Rivera, who also has a massage booth and shell jewelry kiosk at Uncle’s, said there can be other ways to guard homes and fresh lava while letting the general public come to Kalapana and Uncle’s.
“This is giving us our normalcy back, and making us feel like we haven’t lost everything,” she said.
Thomas Manago said his daughter’s food stand Healani’s Kitchen, featuring lau lau and pastele stew, has been at Uncle’s every Wednesday since the eruption despite the anemic customer base. “Right in this time since the lava started, we not making money,” he said. “We just come out to feed people. We’re trying to bring back a state of normalcy.”
The number of vendors selling food, handmade crafts and other things at the night market can be as high as 75 to 80. On this past Wednesday there were only about 15. And next door, Kaimu Korner Store is operating on reduced hours.
Still, Sam Keli’iho’omalu isn’t complaining, because he knows what people displaced by lava are going through. “We are counting our blessings over here,” he said before joining his brother Robert Jr. on stage.
Kuahiwinui, the bartender and one of three daughters of Uncle Robert, added that it wasn’t an option to close the weekly event. “I’m sure we are hurting,” she said, “but we just have to carry on.”
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