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Kauwela, Kalawe, & Kalae: More than a Molokai Haircut


By Alicia Gorwin, crew of the Safari Explorer

After traveling for over 24 hours, I was overwhelmed with excitement as I observed the Hawaiian Islands from a bird's eye view on a clear day. I was comparing how the Islands were similar to other places I had traveled. Upon comparison, I realized there was much to learn about Hawaii.

As the plane descended into Molokai, it was to my surprise that the island was a lot smaller than I had anticipated. The pilot gently landed the plane on one of the smallest airstrips I’d ever seen.

Upon arrival, I approached the front desk of Molokai Airlines to inquire about potentially getting a haircut. A woman named Kauwela began to recollect the locals in town and soon called to a nearby coworker who also started naming a number of individuals that could cut hair. As they sifted through the names it appeared that everyone was out of town.

Kauwela then said, “What’s your name?”

I said “Alicia.”

Kauwela: “Hold on, Alicia”

She begins to look through her contacts on her phone and dials a number.

Kauwela: “Sister! What are you doing? ...Can you cut Alicia’s hair? ...20 minutes? ...Okay.”

She then dials another phone number.

Kauwela: “Mom! What are you doing? ...Can you pick Alicia up and take her to sisters house? ...Okay, bye."

Ten minutes later a woman named Kalawe comes speeding around the corner in a 1988 Toyota Pickup truck. She has long peppered hair and a tribal tattoo across the left side of her face.

She says, “Are you Alicia?”

Me: “Yes.”

Kalawe: “Let’s go”

The 10-minute drive turns into 20 as Kalawe shows me her property with the rainbow-colored tree trunks, explains the close community within Molokai, the struggles her and her family face living off the land and what they are doing to keep traditions alive. Kalawe lives in a van, her son and his family live in a bus nearby, and her daughter (Kalae) lives in a small house that we soon arrive at.

Kalae greets her mother and introduces herself to me. I am happy to meet her and admire the large bun with a tropical flower lying upon her head. She introduces me to her two young boys, both of which have long beautiful hair. We briefly discuss the haircut and she fixes me a seat on her front porch.

Kalae is very talkative and begins describing Molokai in the same fashion as her mother. She is also driven by a communal art project, a mural, that she is participating in at the local middle school.

Using two equally dirty mirrors I examine the haircut and am pleased with the results. I can’t thank Kalae enough for giving me her time and using her sewing sheers (that she initially didn’t want to use) to give me a great haircut. She then invites me into her home for a large plate of curry. We talk about our families and find many similarities between one another. She then insists that I come see the mural that she has been talking about so much.

With no hesitation, I help her sons into the car and the four of us head to the middle school. Upon arrival, I meet her two other children as well as six other individuals working on the mural. The mural displays the face of a man closing his eyes with water in his hands. His left side is decorated with native plants and his left is decorated with the solar system. The mural holds the story of a man who worked day and night to bring water from the waterfall to the people of the village.

As the late afternoon arrives I once again thank Kalae and ask her how she would like me to pay her. She tells me; “Have the taxi driver take you to the hotel. The hotel has an ATM. Give $20 to the driver and tell him/her to bring it to the airport. They’ll know who to give it to.”

Arriving at the hotel I do exactly as Kalae instructed and hand the driver $20 to take to the airport. The next morning I give Kalae a call to make sure she received the money and she reassures me that she did.

The interactions I’ve had with the locals in Molokai have been nothing short of kind and entertaining. They are incredibly giving, informative and lighthearted. I think I’m going to like it here.

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