Tag Archives: Hilo

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?


I’ve always had a rebel streak in me. Got it from my dad, a grown man who relished finding ways to break rules without technically breaking them.

Dad liked to say he didn’t “play according to Hoyle,” a reference to the famous book of rules for card games (see According to Hoyle). Clueless at the time about the Hoyle reference, I knew from context what dad meant: he liked to do things his way.

How dad navigated our expressway tollbooths speaks volumes about him, and by extension, me. He’d always have exact change in hand when pulling into what was then considered an automated tollbooth (long before the days of ipass scanner technology). He’d toss in his coins without coming to a stop, punch the accelerator, and race toward the tollbooth red light, his goal, to trip the alarm before the light turned green—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

And on the rare occasion the green light beat dad to the punch, he was visibly disappointed, a lost chance to stick it to the man–or at least tweak him–without technically breaking any rules.

I still remember asking dad why he did it. His answer was borderline blasphemous: “I don’t have time to wait for the goddamn light to turn green—I’m a busy man!”

And with all due love and respect to my dad he was full of shit; he blew those tollbooth lights because he didn’t play according to Hoyle.

These moments are still etched in my memory forty years later. And even with all the teenage relationship issues I had with my dad at the time, every time he’d trip those annoying tollbooth bells, I remember thinking he was about the coolest guy in the world.

With that kind of role model it’s no surprise I turned out the way I did. And not so outlandish that I ended up in Pahoa, a place where folks don’t play according to Hoyle.

From Outlaws to Barefoot Hippies With iphones


Pahoa has an outlaw reputation that was well earned back in the 1970s and 80s during its pakalolo heyday. Pakalolo (literally, “crazy weed”) is still around of course, but the heydays of yore are well behind Pahoa–for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

Hoyle and his rules notwithstanding, Dad wouldn’t have liked the old outlaw version of Pahoa, nor would he have been thrilled with today’s version either; way too many hippies for his liking, and not a single tollbooth to violate.

But dad would surely have appreciated the historical significance of Pahoa Town, and grudgingly acknowledged its funky Bohemian charm.


Interestingly Hawaii’s own locals are harder on Pahoa than most mainlanders. Shortly after moving here it surprised me to learn that Pahoa’s reputation extended to our neighboring islands. I still remember exchanging business cards with a client in Honolulu who, upon seeing my Pahoa address, asked with tongue in cheek, “Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?”

I’ve even heard of folks born and raised in nearby Hilo—just 30 miles away—who have never in their lives been to Pahoa Town, not even the Puna district, because of the bad rap we get. So bad is our rap, that even Dog the Bounty Hunter’s crazy wife Beth once warned viewers that, “Puna is a place you don’t want to be after dark.”

There’s a story behind Puna’s outlaw reputation, a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the “Wild East” days of Pahoa Town are well behind us, but the reputation lives on.

Last time I ventured into Pahoa there were no outlaws, no bounty hunters, just some barefoot hippies drinking lattes and gazing at their iphones. (But let’s not tell Dog and Beth.)


Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?


If my circle of friends is any indication, people in their “right minds” actually do live in Pahoa, but they tend to stand out. The good news is, Pahoa tolerates normal people too.

For context it’s worth touching on local demographics. In addition to the native Hawaiians, Pahoa and the surrounding area is populated by locals of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, many of mixed heritage, many third and fourth generation Japanese. Being that this is their turf and all, the local folks would logically represent “the norm” in this context–which by default makes the rest of us the oddballs.

The area has also had a new influx of transplants from around the world over the past decade, mostly from the mainland. Last I checked Caucasians are still in the minority in the Puna district, and that’s fine with me, as my former life in Japan taught me to embrace being the only white guy on the block.


It’s useful to think of Puna locals as a completely different culture, richly diverse, but generally much closer to Asia than mainland U.S.A. The fact that the locals speak English can almost lull you into thinking otherwise, but deep below the familiar linguistic surface, culture gaps abound.

To an outsider–even folks from Honolulu–the Puna district seems like a strange, exotic foreign country. But most Puna locals I know, within the context of their own cultural norms, tend to be a socially conservative lot. So let’s forgive them for thinking us newbie transplants are a little strange and not quite right.



But all bets are off for the rest of us who moved here in search of Hoyle-free horizons. We colored outside the lines of our respective cultures, and were just crazy enough to move to the world’s most isolated landmass at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. I think Pahoa is a better place for it.

After living through two disasters in just the past three months, you’d think I’d be ready to pack up and run for the hills. Amazingly these disasters have had the opposite effect: after being on the receiving end of so many kindnesses–through hurricane Iselle and now this sputtering lava flow–I’ve fallen deeply in love with my community.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Pahoa has more than its share of warts: crime, poverty, alcohol and meth addiction, spousal abuse, homelessness—the same stuff we had back on the mainland. So if you’re looking for trouble in Pahoa–or anywhere in Puna for that matter–it’s easy enough to find.

But if you’re looking for good-hearted people who have your back when the power goes out or the lava hits the fan, well, they’re even easier to find, and sometimes they find you. (Learned this firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle, when on three different occasions during a 5-day power outage, folks showed up at our front gate with free ice, two of them complete strangers.)

No matter what happens with our ongoing lava flow, no regrets moving here: so much good has come to my family, so many new friendships formed, such a rich, meaningful life we live. Did I mention the weather is awesome? No, we’re not going anywhere.

And if my dad were alive today he’d tell me what a dumbass I was to live at the foot of an erupting volcano in a house anchored to a concrete slab sitting in the path of a lava flow. If he put it that way I’d have to agree with him. But I’d remind him that I don’t play according to Hoyle either, and he’d understand–at least I’d like to think so.

Stay tuned for more ramblings on Pahoa. If you like classic rock from the 60s and 70s, check out these two jams we stumbled onto in our town’s main parking lot behind Luquin’s one lucky evening.


We ended up hanging with a bunch of old hippies, the real deal. (Unlike dad, I’m totally chill with the hippies). Together we took a musical trip down memory lane while we lamented the passing of Pahoa, now looking like a premature eulogy with the flow front stalled. But here’s what things looked like from town back then!


What the clips below mean to me, is that Pahoa has the magic–the mana–to make a group of strangers hold hands and feel like old friends. (And please forgive the dark image, I took this at night with an iphone; but hopefully the spirit of the moment comes through):

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

The Kellogg’s Network: a Parody of the Social Network

This post is clearly outside the boundaries of the Intercultural Twilight Zone. But I was so impressed by the video my son and his friends produced (a group of college students at UH Hilo), that I wanted to share it with you. It’s for a contest they entered on-line. They chose to do a parody of the current hit movie “The Social Network”. After viewing it, if you like it and are so inclined, please go to this link to vote. Either way, I think you’ll be impressed!

Big Island Candies: the Ultimate Benchmark for Retailers Serving Japan

My admiration for Big Island Candies is no secret: in my opinion they are one of the best retailers in Hawaii–and in all of the U.S. for that matter–in delivering quality products and services to the finicky Japanese market. So here’s my standing invitation to all my clients in Hawaii: come to Hilo, I’ll pick you up at the airport, and together we’ll go shopping for cookies!

(Note that I have no affiliation whatsoever with this quality organization: just an avid admirer of their wonderful business model. Ditto for another great Hilo retailer, Sig Zane, a worthy topic for a future post. )

But since not everyone has the time and resources to visit Big Island Candies, I decided to bring them to you via the magic youtube. Enjoy and learn from the best!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010

Straddling Paradigms: Redistribution of Wealth Through Grassroots Capitalism

A friend recently told me I “straddle paradigms.” Never thought of it that way but my wordsmith friend elegantly captured a fuzzy notion that’s been floating around in my head for years, I was just never quite able to articulate it. Thanks for crystallizing that idea, my friend! (You know who you are.)

Indeed, straddling paradigms is what I do. It’s the essence of cross-cultural communication. And while today’s theme is clearly outside the murky boundaries of the Intercultural Twilight Zone, it’s all about straddling paradigms.

The On-Line Social Media Boom and Grassroots Tourism

Love it or hate it, on-line social media looks like it’s here to stay. Most folks I know seem to be passionately for or against: got some friends who believe Facebook is the Devil (digitally) incarnate, and others who swear by it (my two sons included).

My somewhat neutral–dare I say ambivalent–stance in the middle puts me in minority territory. Such is the life of a straddler of paradigms.

I’m a good example of someone who isn’t an online-social-networking personality. Sure I’m on Facebook–didn’t get the concept at first but after tinkering with it for a while am starting to see the value. Still, don’t spend much time there.

And I’ll fess up here and admit that I’ve even “tweeted” half a dozen times. But for the life of me I still don’t get it, at least not the value of using it on a personal level. Can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in reading about the mundane details of my life. And can’t believe anyone would “follow” me as my tweets are rare. If you’ve read other posts on this blog then you know that I share personal stories on occasion, but only if there’s a message, lesson or “moral” to the story. But the pointless, mundane details of my life are, frankly, no one’s business but my own. Folks don’t need to know what’s happening in my life real-time.

Conversely, I absolutely don’t care to hear about the mundane details of other people’s lives either, even if (no, especially if) you’re Brittany or Paris or Ashton. Got my own life to worry about thank you very much.

That said I do see twitter as a potentially powerful marketing tool, although I haven’t taken the time to make it work for me. But I can see how big-time social-networkers could revolutionize marketing, even capitalism itself. Precisely because of the relatively small investment in capital that it takes to “socially network” on-line, it seems to me that this is the ideal tool for driving grassroots capitalism. It’s actually perfect for the average Joe with limited resources since little investment in capital is required: to effectively “socially network”, all you need is a computer, power source, internet connection, and the motivation to put in the time and effort.

So getting to the meat of this post, a few months back Big Island blogger Damon Tucker started promoting the idea of bringing more tourists to Hawaii. We had a gentlemen’s disagreement on how dependent our community should be on tourism. For the record I’m all for tourism. But only if it fits into a comprehensive plan designed to make our communities sustainable long-term; and only if it makes our communities a better place.

So I got to thinking…

Before attempting to find answers, I pondered the following questions:

1) How might we “straddle” these paradigms? In other words, how might we take matters into our own hands and “redistribute wealth” (there’s a lightning rod expression if you ever heard one) through grass-roots capitalism, still be friendly to the a’ina, and in the process maintain our sense of place?

2) How might we bring tourists to our island without lining the pockets of middlemen whose added value is not commensurate with the compensation they typically receive? (You know, the cattle herders, sub-par hotels and such.)

3) How might we put this money directly into the pockets of the local populace and local businesses instead?

4) And most important, how might we put to work Damon Tucker’s on-line networking talents to create opportunities for our community and maybe even a job for Damon himself?

By all appearances Damon is the quintessential on-line social networking dude of all dudes. It’s his passion. So I say, let’s leverage Damon’s passion and talents to help our community!

Wanted: Big Island Locals for Grassroots’ “Adopt a Visitor” Program

Want to give “tourism” a unique Hawaii-Island twist? I’d like to see someone set up an “adopt-a-visitor” program based on the tried-and-true home-stay model.

The idea came to me after I started thinking about what added the most value to my vacations in Puna prior to moving here. It wasn’t the amenities of the rental unit; it wasn’t the weather, the palm trees, not even the scenery. It was the experience of interacting with local folks, sharing a small slice of their lives and forging new friendships in the process. And it hooked us after our first visit. So much so that we came back five more times on vacation. It was only natural that we eventually moved here.

Google tells me that the notion of “adopting a visitor” is not original. But I love the concept! And it seems to me that with the right strategy and coordination it’s something that could be promoted directly through on-line “social networkers” who could act as go-betweens in connecting visitors with local host families. The idea would be to sell our island as a “retreat” destination where visitors can live like a local, mingle with locals, and do it all in an a’ina-friendly way at a bargain price. Packages could include actual “home stays”. But for hosts uncomfortable having strangers in their homes the service could be scaled down, for example, a local person could meet at the visitor’s hotel or vacation rental, and act as a “local friend” on an agreed upon day or days. In the spirit of sustainability, host families and other local entrepreneurs would get fair compensation for their products and services.

Some might argue that legal issues and quality control concerns make this risky business. To give an extreme example, what happens if a visitor is inadvertently hooked up with a meth-head? It’s a valid concern. But I would counter that such a program could be modeled after existing cultural exchange/home-stay programs. The go-between would be responsible for “quality control”–easy if you’re introducing visitors to family and friends, much tougher when you’re dealing with host families you don’t know. That’s why doing it grassroots would seem to be the way to go, perhaps even work under the umbrella of local non-profit institutions.

The notion of “adopting-a-visitor” is not so farfetched. We’re currently working through several local educational institutions to promote something similar (education-themed programs for Japanese visitors that directly involve local residents). Our business currently doesn’t reach clients through on-line networking, but it’s a viable possibility in the future.

There’s absolutely no reason I can think of that the same concept couldn’t be applied to mainland visitors, or folks from just about any foreign country for that matter. And the beauty is that it breaks the traditional tourism mold by focusing on education, authenticity, sustainability, social consciousness, even community enrichment.

How It Looks Through the Pono Prism

How does the adopt-a-visitor idea fare under the scrutiny of Peter Apo’s Pono Prism? Let’s ask the 5 key questions:

How does the activity make Hawaii a better place?

It promotes human interactions that deepen relationships, encourage community-enriching activities, and brings money directly into the community.

How does the activity create opportunities for prosperity for all segments of the community?

It maintains our community’s “sense of place” since bulldozers are unnecessary. It involves the host community directly in commerce. If done properly it would also promote respect for local customs and the a’ina

How does the activity help connect the community’s past to its future?

A key role of local members of the community actually “adopting” visitors would be to educate their guests on the history, customs and traditions of native Hawaiians, as well as other ethnic groups that call Hawaii home. (Training would be required.)

How does the activity bring dignity to the community and the people who live around it?

It promotes local culture and local pride. As mentioned above, host families get paid sustainable wages (assuming a reasonable fee is agreed upon by both parties). And by circumventing big business, participants in the host community would receive substantially better compensation than minimum wage, since you cut out middlemen who line their pockets without adding value.

How does the activity insure that the people who live in and around it can continue to live there?

It offers host residents a means of earning reasonable compensation for services rendered, and taps into our sense of place.

The Bottom Line

Looking at it from a business perspective:

  • It creates tremendous value for the customer but doesn’t cost host families a penny since they would (in theory) factor costs into their prearranged agreements with visitors and receive compensation for their time, knowledge and (ideally) aloha
  • It’s an attractive, low-cost vacation alternative in a down market as it helps visitors offset the rising cost of airfare and lodging
  • It would distinguish our community from other travel destinations and travel packages, by cutting out the middleman and connecting folks directly with real people who live here
  • It taps into the value of Hawaii’s authenticity
  • It holds great potential for eco-tourism and education, even volunteer activities that could help the community
  • It bypasses the low-quality hotels and tour companies, and instead funnels money directly to the local residents who have the most to offer–and who could really use the money the most
  • It creates ideal conditions for authentic human interaction, a powerful driver of repeat business

So Damon…you ready to rock-n-roll?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

A Shameless Plug for My Favorite School

Full Disclosure: No objectivity in this post as I’m an unabashed fan of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa.

I’m a fan of HAAS because I’ve seen with my own eyes kids on the wrong path turn around their lives–thanks to the influence of dedicated teachers, a hard-working staff and the accepting environment they’ve created.

I’m a fan because my son transferred to HAAS when he was sixteen, one of the toughest ages to transition to another school/life, and immediately found acceptance and support from students, parents and teachers. They not only embraced my son, they embraced our whole family.

I’m a fan because HAAS focuses on developing quality kids who contribute to the community, with an emphasis on “goodness” over pure academics.

I’m a fan of HAAS because students learn lessons that can’t be taught from books–like respect, appreciation for parents, family and friends, and compassion for those less fortunate than themselves.

I’m a fan of HAAS because academically motivated students can choose to go as far as they want by taking advanced classes offered, even college courses.

I’m a fan of HAAS because academically unmotivated students are respected, nurtured and encouraged to find their undeveloped talents in areas that include agriculture, the trades, community service, technology, theater, music and dance.

I’m a fan of HAAS because fiscally the staff runs the school like a business (I know because I sat on HAAS’s local school board for two years).

I’m a fan of HAAS because teachers and administrators think out of the box in seeking improved methods to provide top quality education.

I’m a fan of HAAS because it encourages sustainable lifestyles and self-sufficiency by respecting the aina and teaching students to grow their own food. (HAAS has its own vegetable garden where students get hands-on instruction.)

I’m a fan of HAAS because it’s a hub that connects our community.

I’m a fan of HAAS because it’s a school that encourages cross-cultural activities and foreign language study to broaden the horizons of its students.

I’m a fan of all the nice kids, dedicated teachers, and innovative programs that HAAS offers in developing productive members of our community.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

So now that we all know where my heart’s at…let’s move on to the meat of this post: for the 3rd year in a row we attended HAAS’s graduation ceremony. It never fails to move me. Here’s the basic format: each student chooses someone to introduce him or her–a teacher, mentor, parent or staff member–so all students get a personal introduction. Then each student gives a speech. Some are long, some short, some funny, some emotional. This year I noticed that all graduates expressed gratitude to parents, family and the school. They talked about what they learned at HAAS, and the value of the HAAS experience in preparing them for things to come. And they were all delightful, every one of them…got a little teary-eyed so had to keep the shades on to maintain my normally cool detached demeanor. 😉

One special graduate this year is a good friend of my son Grady (also a member of the same dance crew Cataclysm). His name is Tunji Johnson. Tunji has become the 3rd son that I never had, even has his own bedroom at my house when he chooses to spend the night. Some tidbits about Tunji:

His defining trait is a beautiful smile that can light up a room; when our paths cross he never fails to lift my spirits.

He is a natural performer with a stage presence and charisma that just can’t be taught.

He is an entertaining, high-energy dancer.

He is a gifted public speaker (as he demonstrated at the graduation with a smooth and witty extemporaneous speech).

But most important, Tunji is a good person. As a parent it’s heartening to know that my son knows how to pick his friends.

And we know where Tunji’s great character comes from: we’ve grown to love his family–all five siblings and lovely mom Teni. If you ever have the pleasure to meet the Johnson family, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Tunji–along with all his dance crewmates–is destined for the big time. He will attend UHH for a couple years then decide what to do next. We look forward to watching him grow.

We’re so proud of Tunji, Grady, and the quality kids they dance with. We’re proud of all the kids at HAAS. They are living proof that (contrary to popular myth) there are good kids in Puna.

Just a few pictures to commemorate the 2009 graduating class of HAAS. Sure would like to post pictures of the entire graduating class…but to avoid potential privacy issues we’ll stick to “family” for now:

Tunji and Grady goofing off for the camera

Tunji and Grady goofing off for the camera


Tunji "the ladies' man" and Samurai Wife

Tunji "the ladies' man" and Samurai Wife


Tunji and Teni (his lovely mom)

Tunji and Teni (his lovely mom)


Tunji and gangsta rapper "punafish"

Tunji and legendary gangsta rapper "punafish"


Congratulations to the entire class at HAAS!

Hilo’s Amazing B-Boys

Check out this amazing youtube video. Can you feel the passion and joy?