Where they Live: Waimea, Hawaii
From my clock radio, a men’s choir singing a Hawaiian blessing coaxes me out of sleep, into the promise of sunshine, trade winds, and the smell of jacaranda blossoms outside my kitchen window.
This is how I wake most days on Hawaii’s Big Island, where my husband, Kiyoshi Najita ’88, and I have made our home for the past eight years. I turn to whisper good morning, but Yosh is already stretching and watching the sunrise over the mountains.
At 2,500 feet, our little ranching town of Waimea lies in a valley graced by verdant hills and misty rains. Waimea means “red water,” a reference to the seasonal streams which froth with rusty volcanic soil. In summer, low-lying Hilo and Kona swelter, while here in the upcountry summers are comfortably warm. Fragrant white ginger blossoms mingle in the air with molasses grass, horses and damp loam, forming a scent I call “Waimea Summer.”
In winter, surfers catch swells at nearby beaches before work. Our three mountains loom dark against gray skies, in stark contrast to the cherry trees that dazzle historic Church Row Park with their fuchsia-colored blossoms. Snowstorms blanket our highest peak, Mauna Kea, providing the rare pleasure of snow-boarding for teens, while dads haul pickup trucks full of snow for their kids to frolic in before it melts in the tropical sun.
No one who visits us asks why we live here—it’s clear. There’s a magic to this place, born of both the natural landscape and the Hawaiian culture that reveres it. We live aloha. Besides hello and goodbye, aloha means warmth, friendship and welcome. A tooting car horn means a friend is greeting us. We never visit empty-handed, and we leave our shoes outside. We kokua, help one another out. Aloha combined with a low population breeds safety: I keep my engine running when I dash into the post office to check my box, and my children wander freely at the beach and playground.
People do ask what brought us here; they are even more intrigued once they learn we came from Chicago, and before that, New York. For Yosh, it was a natural step. “I always knew I’d live here one day,” he says. “My children are the fourth generation of my family to live on this island.” Although his parents made their lives in Chicago, a deep family connection to Hawaii roots was cultivated in regular summer visits. Yosh brought me here after graduation, and three years later, we were married on the beach at sunset.
For me, moving here wasn’t quite so simple. My family is on the East Coast; years go by without seeing them. We have few museums, and independent bookstores are a rarity. I miss the diversity of ethnic foods I was raised on in New Jersey. Despite Hawaii’s melting pot of Asian and Polynesian cultures, rural life on the world’s most remote archipelago doesn’t offer an abundance of choices in anything, including food. Many days, I could die for a slice of real New York pizza, dripping with cheese, the oil running down my arm.
There are 53 SLC alumnae/i living in the Hawaiian islands, which, given the size and remoteness of our state, seems enormous to me. But as a portion of the total alumnae/i pool, we are a tiny minority. Undoubtedly, some among us have always called Hawaii home, their time at Sarah Lawrence a sojourn from islands to which they always knew they’d return.
Others are probably like me; we’ve taken the big leap, trading hot corned beef on rye with deli mustard for natural beauty and the spirit of aloha.
—Gillian Culff ’88