From SNEEZE NO.19 spring/summer 2013
Each winter, the North Shore of Hawaii transforms into a three-ring circus, from a sleepy tropical haven, as thousands upon thousands of surfers and tourists descend to witness, or test themselves against, the most powerful waves the Pacific Ocean can heave landward. And each year those same people retreat to their urban homes to tell tall tales of their experiences. The surf media loves to play up the rough and tumble aspect of daily life, where if the ocean won’t kill you, the natives surely will. Apocryphal tales of rampant “localism” abound, painting a place where the beaches are roamed by mad dog psychopaths, xenophobic thugs who will happily beat a visiting surfer into the ground and retire to the shade of softly swaying palm trees to laughingly recount instances of their degradation of the human spirit. Fortunately, this notion is far from the truth of daily existence, Hawaii’s denizens are as warm, kind and welcoming as the land, and only rarely as tough and unforgiving as the ocean that surrounds it.
Hui O He’e Nalu, translating as “the wave sliding club,” and known colloquially as Da Hui, was formed in 1976 by a group of North Shore surfers wanting to deal with the exploitation of the surrounding area, and almost immediately began to lose the subsequent PR battle that would define its continued existence. Driven at least partly by a racist tendency of a media establishment to frame Da Hui as group of thugs wanting to deny access to a shared natural resource, what were commonly overlooked were the transgressions of the supposedly aggrieved parties. Despite a popular perception, shared by surf culture and those outside it, of surfers as laid back, happy-go-lucky, sun-tanned and salt-toned pacifists, the reality of surfing is one of self interest, greed and, often, near pathological levels of arrogance.
The “Busting Down the Door” generation of Australian professionals, by and large, created their own misfortune. Fueled by adolescent levels of testosterone, and encouraged by a national media which hailed them as conquering heroes, their behavior, a me-first mentality that is firmly at odds with the Hawaiian ideal of aloha, lead to multiple conflicts in and out of the water. Further exacerbating the situation was a burgeoning competitive system, one that, in addition to enriching the pockets of its proponents, served to effectively privatize many of the best breaks during the winter season. While Da Hui’s actions in regulating and discouraging said privatization were decried as mafia-esque, it was, in actuality, an effort to retain some control of their own backyard. And, in the end, it was an effort that, ultimately failed, as demonstrated by the Triple Crown’s decision to reduce the prize money that local wildcards to surf at their own breaks.
But most of this took place decades ago, and in the following years, the North Shore changed drastically. Multi-million dollar rental properties sit beachfront, languishing, empty, until the tourist rush fills them out. Tour buses create traffic jams on Kam Highway, and limousines hired by Japanese tourists gleefully double-park in their quest to wring more tip money out of their clients. Gentrification has displaced the majority of the original inhabitants, and the lineups are filled with a nasal Californian twang. And these changes, occasionally, cause problems. A common inability on the part of visitors to affect a temporary change in demeanor all too often takes the form of discordant behavior that strikes at the heart of some of that which embodies the Hawaiian culture.
Kala Alexander, a legendary big-wave surfer who has recently found success as an actor and model, does a good job of expressing what it’s like to deal with rampant tourism. “For one, it’s necessary, the tourism. But some people seem to bring some of their stresses here, which is crazy, because you’d think that’s why they’re coming here, to let that shit go, to relax and chill. But, some people can’t do it. So they drive fast, and aren’t very friendly. But, you know, it’s not really their fault. They grow up in a place that isn’t so friendly, or maybe where it’s not wise to be friendly, and you kind of need to be more guarded. Hopefully, what we do here, the way we are, and our aloha spirit, rubs off on them.”
It’s nearly impossible to consider Da Hui without having three men called to mind. Despite being comprised of dozens of members whose societal standing cross racial and economic boundaries, Eddie Rothman, his eldest son, Makua, and their lifelong friend, Kala, are, rather unintentionally, the face Da Hui presents to the outside world.
Oahu has treated the Rothman clan well. Their compound, located near Velzyland, on the east end of what is generally considered the North Shore proper, is a gorgeous place, decorated in hardwoods, blending into the surrounding environment in a way that the current wave of newly built McMansions do not.
A stereotypically beautiful Thursday afternoon finds three of the Rothman men at home, lounging about on a day when the surf is firing, exhibiting a surfed out air that is familiar with anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in the water. Koa, the middle son, lies on a long bench fronting a panoramic window that dominates the room, offering a view of the huge surf, the roar of which nearly drowns out conversation. An excellent surfer in his own right, with a professional career that is showing a huge amount of promise, already gracing magazine covers and fast becoming a dominating presence in the Pipeline lineup, Koa had, just hours before, undergone surgery for a broken collar bone, and was obviously in the grips of post op nausea. Makua, the eldest, had flown in from Australia the previous day, spent the morning surfing big Haleiwa, and was enjoying a moment of home before returning to his lifestyle as a globe-trotting musician and hellman big wave charger. A presence in the surf world for years, he gained notable notoriety in 2003, when at the age of eighteen, he won the Billabong XXL contest by riding a 66-foot wave at a terrifying North Shore outer reef. The patriarch himself, Mr. Rothman, is in attendance, providing guidance and experience. Though reluctant to speaking on the record, perhaps understandably so, considering past treatment at the hands of the mainstream media, his presence casts a shadow over the proceedings. Kala was otherwise occupied running errands in Town, chauffeuring his daughter. He is the owner of a fearsome reputation among the uninformed, due to an unfortunate series of well publicized, though under investigated and largely justifiable, incidents in his past. Despite a public perception that often paints him as the poster child for surf rage, he is, in fact, an intelligent, articulate, and sensitive individual.
The Rothmans are an imposing presence. Eddie, shirtless and barrel-chested is a man who, in his early sixties, still looks to possess the strength to crush coral in his bare hands. His sons, who share Hawaiian blood with their mother, are more slender. But they all share a similar burning intensity, and a familial bond so strong as to be unbreakable.
Says Makua, “My immediate family is fucking amazing. My dad, my brothers, my grandma, but my family around the world, my whole family, all my friends, everybody that I’ve spent time with, that’s awesome. I’m blessed. And if all else fails, fuck it, I had fun.”
One can’t overestimate the importance of family in Hawaiian culture, nor the rather unique definition of such. Notions of togetherness, and what that engenders, in terms of duty and respect and love, provide a concrete basis for an interpretation of the world. And the Hawaiian definition of family is markedly fluid, demonstrated by the idea of hanai family, in which a person is, rather casually, adopted. The hanai system, while difficult to define, creates a world which transgresses traditional notions of family, far reaching connections from which people can draw strength, safe in the knowledge that each individual is well loved and has a strong support structure they can depend on.
Kala sheds light on the subject, “You can attribute the amount of respect people show, it’s almost directly related to the size of the population. When you go some place with a smaller population, you have an identity, you see people, you know everybody in the community. If you’re an asshole, it really stands out, and everybody knows you’re an asshole. On the other side of the coin, if you’re in a place with high population, everybody’s used to getting stepped on. Everybody’s hustling, trying to make a dollar out of fifty cents, really just on a mission, because it’s so competitive. I think being in a small country town, it’s laid back, people are friendly, you can borrow stuff from your neighbors. I noticed, on the mainland, people live next to their neighbors for years, and have no idea what they do, or who they are. The thing about here with our kids, you know, my neighbors watch out for my kids, I look out for theirs, it’s more of a sense of community.”
Hawaii has, historically, suffered greatly at the hands of exploitative outside interests. Prior to attaining statehood, the Hawaiian people were treated as a slave race by plantation owners who controlled the majority of resources. While inclusion in the warm embrace of American hegemony has brought some small degree of self determination for local Hawaiians, the sad truth is that mainland corporations continue to view the islands as a captured state, one that, by nature of its isolation, can be used as a way of generating income without suffering undue pressure to behave in a responsible manner.
The latest battlefront is Monsanto Hawaii’s presence on the island, and what are seen as dangerous, and irresponsible methods of agriculture. While the PR flacks for Monsanto would like to portray a growing movement against GMO as an attack on agriculture in Hawaii, the truth is that this is just the latest battle in a fight that’s lasted over a century.
When asked, if he could make one change in Hawaii, Makua’s answer is definitive: “I’d get all the genetically modified food, and those big ass, multinational corporations, and get them the fuck out of here so we can grow our good food, and not have them poison our water, our kids, and our land. Fuck those guys. That’s the biggest change I want to see. All the houses, whatever. The guys planting all these genetically modified crops around here, they’re out of here, brah.”
Kala affirms the stance: “Monsanto, the seeds crops they grow, and all the pesticides they use, because it’s a seed crop, they don’t give a fuck what they spray that shit with.”
There is a saying that can, occasionally, be seen emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers in Oahu. It reads, “Don’t mistake aloha for weakness.” Aloha, like many Hawaiian words, is a vague concept, defying a single definition. “It’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture, it’s everything, it’s how I live,” Makua says. “As long as you embrace the spirit, be kind, say hello to everybody. At the same time, you’ve gotta be firm, too, sometimes.”
Aloha doesn’t necessarily make things much more concrete. But, at heart, it’s an ideal wherein each and every individual has the right and duty to show warmth and respect to others, while at the same time, it does not necessarily demand a capacity for pacifism. With aloha comes a duty to protect family and the island that is as much a part of a person’s identity as one’s own name. ♠