Hidden somewhere between Honomu and Hakalau, about 30 minutes up the Hamakua coast from Hilo is a small town called Wailea.
I'm here scouting for my film, digging for some remaining traces of Hawai‘i's past lives. Driving up the coast from Hilo we visit the old sugar plantation communities on the Hamakua coast, quaint towns with insane views of the Pacific Ocean. A lot of the former plantation workers have passed on and moved out, and the mainlanders are starting to build.
But then we arrive at the ghost town of Wailea. No development here, all the main street shops are boarded and abandoned. It smells like cat piss. Empty chairs and metal signs. I walk up the street -- there are a few homes left, and the old timers eye me like the suspicious tourist that I am.
"How many people live here?" I ask Akiko, our host.
"30? Every month it's less and less. Another one passed over just last month." Akiko closes her eyes when she speaks. Originally from Honolulu, she moved out here decades ago, opened a bed & breakfast in an old plantation home and built a zazen space next door. A storyteller at heart, she cares about the community. Every week she organizes a farmers market, and every month she holds a community lunch at the Japanese temple.
She changes the subject to a local artist that just passed, Randy Takaki, but I'm still stuck on the town. Who is left? Who calls this place home?
Nights in Wailea, the coqui frogs sing a chorus you wouldn't believe. This loud invasive species of frog has infested large swaths of the island, and without any natural predators to keep the population in check, they've flourished. One local told me that they've begun mating with other species of frogs; another told me that they've started to eat their own kind.
At night, these mutant cannibal frogs are all you hear.
As I lay in bed, listening to their mating song, all I can think is: the old timers are dying and the mutant cannibal frogs are thriving.
The next morning I look up Randy Takaki and realize that the artist Akiko mentioned had just passed was a fucking genius. I'd previously seen his work in passing but had not known his name. Now, I wanted to know everything. I find out that he worked as a parking attendant, or maybe a real estate agent, and that he struggled financially. That he died suddenly after visiting his ex-girlfriend, his muse, at her workplace. Or maybe he was at the library and later with his mother. That he lived like a monk. That his studio was full of unused slabs of wood he'd collected over the years.
That morning at breakfast, as I contemplated asking Akiko how I could visit this deceased man's studio without seeming crass, another visitor mentioned that Justin Bieber was staying at a home down by the shoreline. He was paying $10K a night to party at a mansion built on old plantation farmland.
Randy Takaki is dead, but Bieber thrives.