His name was Kimo, which, he said, means James in Hawaiian. We nearly missed him sitting Indian-style on his blanket in the park as we strolled along on a Sunday in Lahaina Town.
Kimo makes jewelry – not just any jewelry mind you. He travels the islands for days on end, collecting shells and seeds for his earrings, bracelets, anklets and necklaces. Each creation is simple and unique, many of which are rare finds. The main beaches of Maui have been scoured by tourists pocketing their keepsakes, so he has to travel to the outer islands, Lanai, Molokai and others. He travels by ferry, then hitchhikes or walks to where he searches for his treasures. Kimo lives solely on what he makes selling his pieces. The one we purchased would buy him lunch he told us, saying he was getting pretty hungry and would be willing to negotiate. We saw no reason to do so as the prices he asked were very reasonable, and his stories were worth more than the asking price.
It was difficult to tell Kimo’s age, but he looked as if he’d led a bit of a hard life, living outdoors, on the edge. He sat on his blanket, head wrapped in a red bandana, dressed nicely, simply. He had a paperback novel lying open behind him – he was more than a homeless man, he was a man of stories.
He’d arranged his colorful pieces in a semi circle around him, all laid out with love and care, each in its own section. He had a small tackle box he opened to share with us some of the seeds and shells he’d collected. On the blanket lay a small drill, a roll of fishing line and a pair of sheers. As we started to walk past, spoke in the softest of tones, pointing out he had some very special pieces and how he wrapped them all just – naturally – in pieces of coconut husk with a rough tie. He lovingly held up one of these natural bundles to show us. He drew us in with his stories. He told us of a beach that was covered with pink crabs, thousands of them. He said it looked like the whole beach was moving and that as he walked through them, they parted and then as he looked behind him, they closed in again.
He told us of the red sand beach in Hana, inside the old cinder cone, where he’d camp, saying that there was a spring there where you could drink – right from the sand. He loved Hana and said nothing ever changed there. It was simple and slow and worth the long drive.
He told us about the special Wili-Wili bracelets and anklets and how he had to dig below the surface to find the brilliant red seeds. The Wili-Wilie trees all succumbed to a terrible disease here in Hawaii the last few years, every single tree dying of a wasp infestation. I asked if they would plant more trees and he said he’d tried planting some, but the seeds weren’t viable. He was an intelligent man. He cared about every single seed and shell he strung on his fishing line and offered up as his life for a bowl of soup or a piece of fish.
He told us about his grandmother and how he’d gone to O’ahu when she passed away a few years ago. He told us how different it was now, unlike when he was a young teenager and would camp out in the beach parks. Now, there are many homeless in the parks and it doesn’t feel safe anymore there. Even though he, too, is homeless, he is somehow different.
All the while he told us stories he had his eyes downcast, pointing to and showing off his jewelry. Not until we were getting ready to leave did I see his eyes clearly. We purchased a bracelet made of Wili Wili seeds. He clipped a small square of the coconut husk, telling us how he had a hard time finding it anymore for his wrapping. They trim up all the trees because they’re afraid a coconut will fall on a tourist he told us, so finding the rough pieces of curled husk is getting harder to find. His thumb was bandaged – he had a slight accident with his drill – so had a harder time wrapping the bracelet and tying the small string around it, but did it perfectly. When he handed it to me, I saw his eyes – the most brilliant blue, like the ocean when the water sparkles in the sunlight on the clearest of days. It was almost as if there was a light behind them, shining through. They were the eyes of a traveler, an artist, a storyteller, a man who offered himself through his artwork to passers by every day. But only the fortunate who stopped where he had his wares displayed were lucky enough to hear the tales behind the pieces he created. And only the very fortunate were able to look into those intense liquid blue eyes to the soul of a man who knew far more than anyone walking by can dream.