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On a typical day in Lahaina, Maui, most clients visit shops and restaurants or take boat rides from the busy harbor. But if they look again, they might see a small group of people eagerly pounding poi, printing barkcloth or playing nose flutes as part of Maui Nei Native Expeditions’ Discover Old Hawaii tour.
The 3.5-hour walking and interactive tour immerses clients in Hawaii’s traditions, history, legends and lifestyle. As participants stroll around Lahaina, stopping at significant sites, they meet kumu (revered teachers) who lead them in time-honored activities.
Discover Old Hawaii debuted in 2016 in response to increasing visitor interest in the destination’s heritage, according to Karee Carlucci, program director for Maui Nei Native Expeditions.
“The tour gives guests a chance to really dig into the culture,” Carlucci said. “They can learn hands-on in a way that they wouldn’t be able to at a resort.”
On the day I joined this trip, kumu Keoki Sousa took us to several Lahaina landmarks, including a birthing stone used by ancient high chiefs and the foundation of Kamehameha the Great’s 1798 brick palace. Sousa also showed us Mokuula, a royal residence from the 16th to 19th centuries; it’s currently being restored and preserved by Maui Nei’s parent organization, Friends of Mokuula.
Sousa introduced us to three other kumu, each of whom taught us a cherished skill. First, we sat in a circle with Maile Keawe Bryan, who led us in the art of barkcloth printing. Using natural ingredients such as hala seeds for brushes and red dirt and salt for the dye, she demonstrated how to decorate the cloth using bamboo stencils. On our own cloths, we created designs that told our own stories, which we then shared with one another.
At the next stop, we spent time with Wainani Kealoha, a passionate advocate for taro, Hawaii’s most important agricultural crop. She discussed its value to Hawaii’s people and talked about uses of its corm (root) — the source of poi — and its leaves, often steamed for a dish called laulau. With her guidance, we took turns pounding the corm, adding water and tasting the finished product.
Our last kumu was Kalapana Kollars, an expert nose-flute performer and carver. Hawaiians, he said, believe that the song of the nose flute imparts the player’s true essence. After showing how he prepares a piece of bamboo, Kollars helped us make our own instrument. The final thrill came as we held our flutes up to one nostril, breathed in, exhaled and emitted beautiful, haunting tones.
At the end of the tour, we took home a tote bag of our creations, symbols of our journey through Hawaii’s culture and the treasured people we met along the way.