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Losing Lahaina: I’m Overwhelmed By Memories of My Hawaiian ‘Shelter-in-Paradise’

Losing Lahaina: I’m Overwhelmed By Memories of My Hawaiian ‘Shelter-in-Paradise’

  • For those of us who have had the privilege of spending time in Hawaii, please donate at this time of dire need.

My heart is heavy — with sadness, anger, and hopelessness. Even as I write, I feel a lump forming in my throat, and my vision blurring with the tears that well up in my eyes. As I get ready for my morning routine, I grab my Dakine backpack and am reminded of the shopping mall, next to the Lahaina Safeway where I bought it. I wear a pair of shorts from a small boutique in Napili, which is, thankfully, not burning. I grab my favorite baseball hat and am reminded of my beloved hat shop, “Chapel,” on Front Street. Yesterday, I watched images of shops burning on Front Street and saw the Chapel sign, just mere feet away from the flames. By the time that video had aired, Chapel was long gone. 

I am reminded of West Maui multiple times in my daily life. I was married in Maui, and have celebrated so many anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays there, and in my young adult life, I bought a small vacation home in Ka’anapali (one beach over from Lahaina). It was one of the first significant financial investments I made with the intention that even if it didn’t end up being a profitable one, it gave me the excuse to go out there. It did end up being a profitable investment and has been a considerable source of income for me and my family for the past 14 years. 

During the pandemic, my parents were “stuck” for two years in their new beach villa in Ka’anapali. “Shelter-in-paradise,” we joked. Having my parents living in Maui solidified that it was home. I called it my “maiyka,” a term used in Hindi to describe a woman’s maternal home after marriage. 

I have countless memories of Lahaina; more and more keep pouring in as I mourn its loss. The great, historic banyan tree grove amidst the downtown shops — hundreds of years old, magically weaving one into another, making it indiscernible to know which was the original tree that spawned the others. The submarine trip I took my 4-year-old on, where he stared with wonder at the deep blue waters, an abandoned sunken ship transformed into a reef and the abundant sea life around it. My son’s first horseback ride. A whale watching trip on Christmas Day, that was great for the first 45 minutes, and nauseating torture for the remaining 2 hrs and 15 minutes, where both my husband and son puked off the side of the boat. This morning, I chose my son’s t-shirt for school — bought that same day after the tour, a keepsake whose profits contributed to the preservation of the honu, or turtles, of Maui. 

I remember being dropped off on Front Street by my husband so that I could roam the shops at leisure. For anyone who knows me, I detest all shopping (except for groceries). To me, it’s a waste of time, or perhaps, a luxury not afforded to me in my daily grind. But on vacation, I love to shop. Most clothes I wear were purchased while on holiday and thus I find myself wearing the daily Maui wear every day. I did my Christmas shopping there two years ago, purchasing a beautiful shelled ornament, Maui Jim polarized sunglasses (matching him & her!), custom hand-painted surfer towels that don’t get sand stuck in them, and folded down to the size of a hand towel. 

The Hawaiians live simple lives, compared to our Bay Area hustle. They don’t live in big houses with big backyards. Their land is the island — not a fenced demarcated square behind their house.

My awesome braids from a street-side vendor; countless meals at our favorite restaurants – FuLin, a family-owned Chinese restaurant; Frida – Mexican food right on the water – it felt like you were sitting on a cruise ship, but right on top of the water. Getting bored during my mom & husband’s shopping binge, and walking over to the garlic knots restaurant for, well garlic knots, and a local beer. Our most recent discovery of an Italian restaurant on the far end of Front Street — Kapena — which translates to “Captain” in the Hawaiian language, which is run by the retired owner of the “Trilogy” boats, an omnipresence on all docks in Hawaii during the 1990s, around the time my family first discovered and fell in love with Maui. And Island Cream – by far the best ice creamery in all of the lands. 

But this is just my loss. A rather superficial loss (though it feels like so much more). The real loss is that of the tens of thousands who have lost their entire homes in a matter of hours, even minutes. I don’t think it’s possible for me, sitting here, safe and sound, typing away at my computer on a beautiful sunny afternoon in Mountain View, California — to understand what it means to lose your home. It’s your home. If I’m able to recount so many memories of a place that I  merely visited, how many memories they must have of their home — of their lives? Your home and your hometown are a part of you — they become a part of your identity. And I say this applies even more to the people of Hawaii. 

Unlike my city life, the people of Hawai’i live connected to their land in a way that we only see among outdoor enthusiasts — the adventurous rock climbers, backpackers, skiers, scuba divers — and others I cannot relate with, due to my lack of proclivity to “dangerous” sports. I’ve seen locals track upcoming storms by observing the movement of the clouds. I’ve never once looked at the movement of the clouds — I’ve never even thought about the fact that they do, in fact, move. I feel ashamed of myself when I discover that I hadn’t even noticed the beautiful full moon, lying low in my backyard sky. I can barely see any stars from our house, and there is no awe of nature felt in my daily life. 

The Hawaiians live simple lives, compared to our Bay Area hustle. They don’t live in big houses with big backyards. Their land is the island — not a fenced demarcated square behind their house. Lahaina struggles with a growing homeless population, as land prices soar, and tourism takes over the island. It is with a tinge of guilt I take pride in my Hawaiian home, knowing it is the ultimate symbol of capitalism, built off the sacrifice of those who once called that same land their home. I justify my guilt by saying that we are bringing tourism and jobs to their economy. 

And then the anger that I feel. For the self-created destruction of our world. It is a matter of time — a “when” and not an “if” — that we experience a natural disaster of insurmountable magnitude in our own hometown. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes — any one of them could leave us homeless within hours. And I know you’re probably saying that California would never get hurricanes. But no one thought that Texas would freeze over winter. As I said, it’s a “when,” not an “if.” 

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Then I wonder — but isn’t this the natural order of life on earth? Natural disaster, and survival? I think of the natives who lived on this land long before technology ruled the earth — how they would migrate from one safe place to another. It’s not that their uprooting was any less emotionally or physically traumatic, but they knew how to live off the land, and slowly build a new home in another place with their tribe. Not only do we have no idea what it means to “live off the land,” but our society doesn’t allow for building a new home from nothing. You need money, insurance, a job, health care, and other countless resources in order to live life in the present day. Time and time again, I am reminded of how far we have come from our natural, evolutionary selves. We’ve made ourselves the top of the food chain — destroying everyone and everything that comes in our way, including our own planet. 

I’m grieving, knowing that a beautiful paradise has been destroyed. Knowing that tens of thousands of people will live in a lifelong trauma of their loss, creating a generational trauma that will continue to affect our people for decades to come. I feel helpless, and hopeless about our world. When will we change? Will we ever? Or, perhaps, this is the modern-day “survival of the fittest,” which should aptly be renamed “survival of the richest.” 

Hawaii needs us right now. For those of us who have had the privilege of spending time in Hawaii in a no-doubt glorious vacation, PLEASE donate at this time of dire need. If the 9 million people who visited Maui last year donated $100 each — think of the impact our $900 million could make. Americans spent $19.29 billion on their vacations in Hawaii in 2022 alone — can’t we even sacrifice a few dinners out to ensure our beloved Hawaii is safe again? 

Please donate to the Maui Strong Fund. And those of us who have employers that match donations, please double your impact at a time when it is most needed. 

Antara Bhardwaj is a Kathak artist and filmmaker based in Mountain View, California, where she lives with her husband and son. She runs a dance company and school by the name of Antara Asthaayi Dance. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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