As the cool atmosphere engulfs us, the overwhelming smell of jet fuel and coffee fills our senses. Slowly moving within the shuffle in our quest to reach our seats and quietly arguing over who gets the window, reality is slowly beginning to sink in. I start to feel self-conscious as the seated passengers display a look that I’m sure is because I haven’t put on any makeup this morning. Oh no, I look like an ogre! I begin to hide my face by pulling the hood of my jacket over my head when I realize that the seated passengers are giving their skull-piercing glares in their telekinetic attempts to make the line of the non-seated passengers move faster. After what feels like miles of the walk of shame, we finally reach our row of three seats. I volunteer to endure the dreadful middle seat, to somewhat settle the inevitable arguments to come, and I sit in between my two hula sisters.
Holy cow. We’re going to Merrie Monarch. I take a deep breath as the plane begins to taxi down the runway. I look out the window to see a dimly lit sky and what seems to be a mirror of the night sky on the ground when it’s really just the strategically placed lights to guide the plane’s pilot. My eyes begin to sting with the sensation of forming tears, and I try to hide it by faking a yawn. I decide I need to escape my own emotions, and I fold myself in half so my face is in my lap on my penguin Pillow Pet that I decided to bring along. I suppress my tears and begin to say a silent prayer in my head. Dear God, thank you for blessing me and letting me be selected to dance in the Merrie Monarch line this year. I’m so grateful for my hula sisters and Kumu Lani and Kumu Denise. Please keep us safe on this trip and our flight. Let everything run smoothly once we get to Hilo, please. Amen. I finish my prayer and sit up to see we’re beginning our descent into the Hilo International Airport. All my life I’ve dreamt of dancing on the Merrie Monarch stage and in a few days, I’ll be performing two songs we’ve practiced enough during the past year that it is permanently embedded in our minds and hearts like a tattoo. Wait, did I bring my costumes? I quickly rack my brain as if I’m digging through files in a huge cabinet and remember that they are in the overhead storage directly above us. Phew.
The plane smoothly lands on the runway, and I look out the window somewhere into the heavens and mouth “thank you.” I notice that the sun has begun its slow ascent as if someone on the opposite horizon is tugging it on an invisible string. It’s about seven o’clock in the morning and the gentle drizzle of rain outside our plane window is slowly setting the mood of the day. I quickly rummage through my purse that is swollen with all the items that couldn’t fit in my luggage. I grab my phone and snap a picture from my point of view on the plane looking out the watermarked window over the wings and onto the flight path. “The rain is a blessing from Jesus, ladies. Don’t worry,” Kumu Lani’s voice overpowers the hum of the aircraft. The flight attendant announces in her too-cheerful-for-seven-in-the-morning voice that we’re allowed to unbuckle, gather our belongings, and disembark from the plane. My hula sister, Theresa, leans over from her seat across the isle and whispers to us, “Game on, bitches.” The three of us try to stifle our laughs after hearing the inside joke that was intended to encourage us and lighten the mood.
After we’ve gotten our luggage and our three rental vans, and have all piled ourselves in according to the limited seating due to all the oversized luggage stacked like Tetris blocks in the vans, we head out to Deep Hawaii. I learn that Deep Hawaii is in Kea`au, which is very close to the Edith Kanaka`ole Stadium where the Merrie Monarch Festival is held annually. We make last minute stops on the way to pick up necessities that were forgotten at home such as earplugs to block out the overwhelming sound of the Coqui frogs, blankets, and other toiletries. We drive for what seems like an eternity through a lush forest filled with beautiful flowers that I have only seen in paintings and photographs. There is no way that there are actually houses back here. We’re in the jungle! Oh jeez, that means bugs. I grimace and shudder at the thought of having to sleep with tropical bugs flying and crawling around me. We make a few turns and end up on the property where we’ll be staying.
Overgrown trees filled with colorful flowers only nourished by nature itself surround the area. At this moment, my senses quickly become overwhelmed with the surrounding beauty. The sight of butterflies fluttering through the foliage and the gentle chirping of birds off in the distance bring me into a whole new world. I soak in the sweet aroma of the tropical flowers and the smell of rain that’s just fallen as I relish the sense of security from being with my hula sisters. We’re given our room assignments and begin to move our luggage from the car to our new home for the next five days. Four of my hula sisters and I are crammed into a room that’s about ten feet by ten feet. There’s one surprisingly comfortable full-sized bed, covered with a fluffy, flowered comforter, an inflatable queen-sized mattress with a set of sheets and a blanket folded neatly in the center and one single-person cot set up in the center with a blanket folded on it. Once we’ve finished analyzing the room, we all rush in like horses released from the gate at a horse derby. We each claim our area and use our bags as a fence in our attempts to mark our territory. After we’ve tried to organize our clutter in our room, we’re called to lunch to establish our plans for the rest of the week.
Throughout the week, we visit craft fairs, endure the sweat and tears of our last-minute practices before the competition, and most importantly learn more about our songs. As we’re being taught about the ancient hula which has been passed down to our two Kumu generation after generation, emotions begin to swarm through us like bees. One moment we’re laughing and smiling at each other, and the next, we’re in tears. The tears are brought on by a multitude of emotions ranging from pride, sorrow, nostalgia, and even gratitude towards our fallen Queen Lili’uokalani, whom our songs are about.
It’s Thursday already! Time is flying by…we compete tomorrow! My hula sisters and I begin to get ready for the first night of the festival, the Miss Aloha Hula Competition. Oh my. As we take our seats in the stadium, the scent of the fresh tropical flowers being worn as lei or hairpieces by the participants, kumu, or the spectators fills the air. The stage lighting gives the whole stadium an orange hue as the sun is setting and the Coqui frogs begin their melodic chirping. The anticipation heightens as we wait for the first dancer to step on stage. The soft murmurs of the crowd begin to diminish as the emcee introduces the first soloist.
Today is the day. We wake up before the sun, our hair in braids hopeful that we’ll achieve the look of the historical Hawaiian hula dancers, and head to our first stage rehearsal. Wow. The stadium is filled with energy even with no one in it. We quickly run through our dance mentally marking our spots on the stage and are soon ushered out of the arena by security to protect the authenticity of the dance as the next hālau is brought into the arena.
“Aloha,” we repeat as we hug each other in the van, on our way from our temporary home to the stadium. We quietly line up as we prepare for our entrance. “I love you guys. We got this,” I whisper to my hula sisters as we stand behind the stage. Our line begins to move towards the stage and we take our place on the four ramps at each corner of the stage. Mahalo ke Akua. I thank God for bringing us this far as I become oblivious to my surroundings and begin to absorb the mana, or power, my hula sisters and I are giving off. The melodic rhythm of Kumu Lani’s ipu heke fills the stadium, and suddenly we are one.
Written for Cara Chang’s ENG 100: Composition I