By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
As the story goes, it was prayer that saved Uncle Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu’s property on Kapoho-Kalapana Road from Pele’s fury.
The year was 1990, and the Kilauea lava flow that would completely bury the town of Kalapana altered the coastline and surrounding communities forever. But, Uncle Robert’s land was spared.
Since then, his family has worked to show its appreciation and pass on its good fortune, said Keli‘iho‘omalu’s son, Prince.
“This is about sharing, about opening up our property,” the 40-year-old said Wednesday evening from a makeshift parking lot amid the lava fields between Uncle Robert’s Awa Club and the shoreline. “Our property got saved, and we were blessed. We want to share that blessing with people.”
Each Wednesday night for the past several years, the Keli‘iho‘omalu family has opened up the area around their home and the kava bar to the public for a ho‘olaulea, complete with live music, dancing, food, fellowship and good old-fashioned fun.
It’s one of the more eclectic crowds to be found on the island, a hodge-podge of humanity featuring representatives of various races, and social and economic classes, including native Hawaiians, families with young children, elderly retirees, students, tourists, organic farmers, young people wearing face paint, and old hippies bearing dreadlocks and friendly smiles.
“Where else in the world you gonna see people of all different races like this?” Prince said as he waved his hand around the property and smiled. “We believe we need to work together. More alike than different.”
Beginning around 5:30 or 6 p.m. on Wednesday evenings, cars begin backing up at the end of Kapoho-Kalapana Road, jockeying for parking spots on the side of the road and along a stretch of red gravel amid the lava fields makai of the road. Uncle Robert’s family — including his 11 children — and friends take turns wearing
reflective orange vests to guide the cars in and out as the crowd grows.
While the party has been going on for years, it’s really started to grow into an island-wide draw in the last year, Prince said.
“We started to notice how big it’s getting over the last year,” he said. “All word of mouth — coconut wireless.”
As the sun began to recede Wednesday, some walked out over the lava to take in the sights at the water’s edge. Others sauntered up to the various vendors’ tables to grab a bite to eat. Everything from typical plate lunch fare, to Southern barbecue, to wood-fired pizzas, to Thai green papaya salad can be had for a reasonable price, and long, wooden tables foster a communal dining feeling as the attendees take in the sweet sounds of live Hawaiian music being played by bands on the stage.
“The Wednesday night market is great,” said Hawaiian Paradise Park resident Bill Stone, who moved from San Diego to the Big Island in February. “It helps break up the week and gives you something to do on a weeknight. The location, the ocean, the Hawaiian atmosphere, the music. … It’s not your typical commercialized event.”
Steve VanDermyden agrees — so much so that he’s willing to make the drive from Captain Cook every Wednesday to participate in the night market.
The owner and operator of Oven & Butter Artisan Bakery, VanDermyden stands behind a table loaded down with handmade rounds of sourdough, deli rye, olive and feta cheese bread, focaccia and others. A long row of covered plastic containers offers small, fresh sample squares for customers to sample his wares.
“I heard about it from the girl at (Big Island Booch) Kombucha. We were doing the farmer’s market in Captain Cook, and she kept telling me, ‘You’ve gotta come over, you’ve gotta come over,’” he said. “I’ve been doing it for three months now, and it’s excellent. I wish I could come over more.”
VanDermyden explained that the communal feeling at the market, and the one-on-one interaction provides a special advantage to small business owners.
“At a market like this, it’s about engaging with your customers. People like to know who makes their food, the work that goes into it. They like to see the people behind the artwork, the jewelry. People like to be more connected, more personal and meaningful.
Big Island Booch vendor Kela Cosgrave said the market has been a major boon to her business, allowing her to prepare to open up a new storefront on Kilauea Avenue in Hilo.
But, she said, “It’s so much more than that. It’s more than about business. It’s so special to be at this property with the people that come here. This is a cultural draw, it’s family.”
That’s a feeling that seems to be shared by many of the folks at the market, especially by the response that Uncle Robert elicits from attendees when he drives by in his golf cart, greeting visitors, tourists and vendors, alike.
“Get on your feet! Get on your feet! It’s Uncle Robert! It’s the man!” said one enthusiastic vendor who had been seated on the ground preparing coconut milk drinks with a machete as the cart approached.
Keli‘iho‘omalu, who is in his mid-70s and has become hard of hearing, warmly greeted everyone who stopped to talk story, firmly gripping and enveloping their hands with his own, massive and warm hands.
“It’s so beautiful to have all the people here, regardless of who they are,” he said. “I feel the aloha and the fellowship they share with us and one another. This is how God wants it to be here. Like a sanctuary. … Where the road ends, the aloha begins.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.