LAHAINA >> Pa‘ele Kiakona is not ready to go back to work. Still reeling after August’s wildfires ravaged his hometown of Lahaina, he doesn’t want to serve tourists, pouring brut champagne or topping their mai tais with honey- lilikoi foam.
“I’ve seen people dead on the street,” Kiakona said. “My grandma’s house is gone. My whole town died.”
The 28-year-old Hawaii native who worked as a bartender at a farm-to-table restaurant north of Lahaina is wary of fielding questions, including what he says is now the ultimate dreaded icebreaker: “Did you lose your house in the fire?”
In this moment, he said, visitors aren’t the ones who need his care.
“Our aloha is reserved for our family right now,” Kiakona said. “It’s not just endless aloha.”
Hawaii is famous for its aloha spirit, a concept rooted in Native Hawaiian culture that long ago was commodified into the guiding philosophy for resorts and other businesses catering to tourists. More than a chill tropical greeting — an exotic salutation used in place of hello and goodbye — aloha is defined by state law as “mutual regard and affection” and extending “warmth in caring with no obligation in return.”
It’s a spirit that’s been in abundance among locals as people help each other after the fire. But as tourists return to West Maui, edging closer to the charred ashes of a disaster in their search for paradise, some Hawaiians are reassessing what aloha means to them, and how much of it, exactly, they want to give to strangers when so many in their community have lost homes and loved ones.
They’re not withdrawing aloha, they say, just redefining and redistributing it.
“Aloha has commercially been sold as mai tais and a good time, and that the arms will be welcome and ready for you,” said Kaliko Kaauamo, 37, a taro farmer and curriculum writer for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. “Aloha, it’s not always happy and sunshine and rainbows. … Sometimes having aloha is screaming and crying and being there to hold people in their grief.”
At least 100 people died from the fire that raged through the historic town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, destroying or damaging more than 2,200 structures. In October the state reopened West Maui, even though many blue-collar residents say it is too soon to greet visitors with warm smiles, aloha and fresh flower lei.
Hawaiian hospitality is a core part of Maui’s economy. With nearly 40% of the island’s gross domestic product linked to tourism, Gov. Josh Green has argued that thousands of jobs and the region’s economy would be jeopardized if West Maui resorts remained shuttered to visitors. But a significant number of workers say they should not be expected to welcome tourists at the hotels and condos north of Lahaina until they have schools and stable housing.
More than 6,800 Lahaina residents are sheltering in hotel rooms or rental condos with no firm reassurance of how long they will be able to stay.
Kiakona, an organizer of the grassroots activist group Lahaina Strong, warned that tourists who flock to the golden sand beaches and hotels with swim-up grotto bars and spas offering $200 massages could face backlash from locals who fear they will be priced out of their hometown.
“We made our plea. You decided not to listen,” Kiakona said. “The blood is on your hands.”
As one West Maui resident wrote on a sign to protest the reopening: “Fresh out of aloha.”
The allure of aloha as a slogan only grew after 1959, the year that Hawaii became a state and Pan American Airways inaugurated jet travel to Honolulu — part of a campaign by state leaders to reduce economic dependence on plantations by expanding tourism.
Today “aloha” is printed on cheap souvenir T-shirts, shot glasses and postcards depicting women in grass skirts. It is etched below a rainbow on every Hawaiian vehicle license plate. It is even part of a job title as resorts hire “aloha ambassadors” to share traditional Hawaiian cultural practices.
But aloha goes deeper for many Native Hawaiians. “Aloha” literally means (alo) “presence” and (ha) “breath.” Hawaii’s government introduced the Aloha Spirit law in 1986, an effort inspired by Pilahi Paki, a Maui-born poet and philosopher who spoke of the aloha spirit at a 1970 conference on the islands’ future.
At a time when the U.S. was entrenched in the Vietnam War and many Hawaiians felt they were losing links to their history, culture and language, Paki argued that “the world will turn to Hawaii as they search for world peace because Hawaii has the key … and that key is aloha.”
This idea of aloha as a radical act of love with no conditions attached has some wondering whether it allows outsiders to take advantage. Some Hawaiian cultural experts say aloha is a complex and fluid idea, too often misconstrued as a sweet and servile way of tolerating visitors.
“To suggest that Hawaiians avoid direct confrontation out of fear or some false notion of aloha is to ignore the whole set of operative values that Hawaiians respected, such as aggressiveness, courage, dignity, honor, competitiveness, and rivalry,” Kanahele wrote in “Ku Kanaka — Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values.”
After the fire, Kaauamo said, Maui residents were resetting boundaries.
“It’s Aloha 2.0, in that as much as we serve others, it’s time to serve the self,” she said. “And as much as I give so freely to strangers, I will now give that to my neighbor, to people closer in the bubble.”
Still, some residents who lost their homes are welcoming tourists.
Beberlyn Aveno, a 56-year-old Filipino immigrant, was back selling puka shell necklaces at her kiosk at the Whalers Village shopping mall in Kaanapali recently. She wished more tourists were back; some days she made only $20.
But Aveno said it wasn’t just the money that kept her working; she would go crazy, she said, if she stayed in her cramped, temporary hotel room.
“It’s good to get out and have people to talk to,” she said. “I accept everyone. It’s healing.”
Grace Tadena, a 55-year-old Filipino immigrant and front desk agent at the Ritz Carlton 10 miles north of Lahaina, said she was glad the resort had reopened for tourism.
“It is the bread and butter. We can’t survive without our business.”
Among locals there is no shortage of aloha.
In the days after the fire, as little aid came from the government, Lahaina schoolteachers, surfers, lifeguards, bartenders, roofers and carpenters rallied to help their neighbors.
They hauled in water, gas, air purifiers and respirators in boats, trucks and dugout canoes. They set up a network of relief hubs in parks and front yards offering displaced residents fresh water, cans of Spam and bags of rice, diapers and medicine. They provided massages and acupuncture and story time for kids.
Local fishermen hauled in blue striped snapper from the sea; hunters caught wild boar in the mountains. Cooks fried up the fish and roasted pork for their neighbors.
The bonds between islanders, Naiwi Teruya said, had gotten closer.
“I don’t want to serve everyone who has everything,” Teruya said after finishing a shift frying fish at a distribution hub at Honokowai Beach Park. “I would much rather take care of people suffering.”
Still, even though Teruya preferred that West Maui remained shuttered to tourists, he said he would keep on giving aloha to everyone.
“We have a sacred aloha,” he said. “We say it because no matter how down we are, we can still deliver the greeting and the feeling behind it, because we’re not a weak people.”
The word sets the tone, Teruya said, and it reminds people, even strangers, that they’re part of a community.
“The word ‘aloha’ is not just this thing you do because your job tells you to do it,” he said. “It’s our way of saying, ‘I can see you, you’re a person. And I’m also a person.’”