I am home less than 45 minutes before my next taxi arrives to take me to the ritual hula performance. I tell the driver I am actually headed to the Ulupo structure “although I’m not exactly sure what or where that is,” I tell him. He recognizes the name and tells me that it is a large stone structure called a heiau. There are heiaus all over the Hawaiian islands. They were each built for different purposes, some ritual, some sacrifice etc. and each rock has been placed there individually by men who carried them for miles.
We pull up the parking lot of the YMCA, it’s as far as cars can go, and luckily another car has pulled up along with us with two of the Japanese hula girls that I met earlier in the week. I pay the fare and hop out to follow the other two girls to the heiau.
We walk down a dark and rocky path into what seems to be the woods when we run into some of the other hula girls. They are all wearing white dresses and green tea leaf head crowns. They smile and say aloha, and we exchange the familiar kiss on the cheek. Next to them there is a truck with six men sitting in the back. They don’t look like they are here for the hula, and I soon find out they are here to escort us down another dark path to the heiau.
We say aloha to the men and some of them exchange kisses on the cheek. One man, however, presses his forehead and nose up against mine. I remember something about this from the Polynesian Cultural Center. He must be from New Zealand where that is how they greet one another, symbolically tying their minds and souls (through their brain and nose from which they breath).
I follow one of the men down the path and as we come out of the clearing I see an enormous mound of rocks, the heiau. Along the side there are a couple of people sitting down and tiki torches are lined up to illuminate the dancers and the structure. We are not allowed to speak anymore. This is a very sacred ritual. I lay down on the grass while we wait for the girls to enter and finally they do.
The Kumu Hulas and the girls process in with a chant. Two of the girls take a seat by the Kumus and play the gourd instruments and chant (one of these girls is being tested on her chanting throughout the ceremony). Meanwhile a young blonde girl is dancing. She performs and chants in Hawaiian. I understand some of the god’s names like Pele and Laka, but am lost otherwise.
Kumu interrupts the ceremony to say that her Kumu was a very devoted hula dancer, but also a Christian. She could appreciate the presence of a single higher power, but she also saw the necessity to keep the traditions of hula alive. That paradox of christianity and hula is something I had been curious about the whole trip.
After some more dancing the big group of girls in white dresses, numbering around 30, take a seat in front of the audience with wood pipes of different sizes. They beat them against the ground, making a noise similar to a PB pipe. The girl will also dance with the sticks you beat against your body for percussion and the maraca-like percussion instruments.
Kuma interjects again. She says that this is a very sacred ritual that was traditionally not open to the public. “At my own oolapa there wasn’t anyone there besides my kumu and immediate family.” She says that it was very important to her kumu to open up and share these things with others because it kept information from being lost and allowed others to appreciate what the hula truly is. “That’s why all of you are allowed to be here today. This is not something that many people see.”
The ceremony ends with the two girls being tested and their kumus standing in a close circle until kumu tells the rest of us to go home. On my taxi ride back Richard says “Wow. That was incredible. I’ve lived here my whole life and never seen anything like that. I haven’t even heard of that before.” I know I’ve moved beyond the tourist activities when I’m participating in things so authentic the locals don’t know about them.