Night on the Kahawai

TA shrimp

For three non-native white guys, going out in pursuit of Hawaiian freshwater shrimp meant intruding on the protective nature of the Big Island’s north shore communities.

A short story by Tim Akimoff

We drove the 53 miles from Kona to Hawi in silence with no air conditioning, and it was at 95 degrees out on the lava flats. It was exhausting to do anything but drive or stare out at the Martian landscape.

It was all highway noise. Guys don’t talk just for the sake of talking.

The old GMC truck we were riding in was rusted out on the bottom, so that you could see road running beneath the threadbare floor mats.

The north side of the island was cooler than then sun-baked Kona coast. The clouds were rolling down from the volcano like liquid nitrogen boiling over a beaker.

We stopped for gas at Kawaihae and grabbed two packages of rotting squid for bait, some new Gamakatsu fish hooks and a new rubber for Sam’s spear.

The big local at the station asked where we were going, and Jay, the smartass of the group said, “Know any good spots around here, brah?”

The big guy just smiled at the joke and rolled up a couple bills in change and handed them to Jay.

We had heard about this place at a party a few months before, when a local girl started talking about her ex-boyfriend’s favorite place to catch opaekala’ole, these tasty little freshwater shrimp native to the pristine Hawaiian streams on the north shore.

She made the spot sound like the garden of the gods, at least for fishermen looking for that magical place with a wide channel where you could find the hundred-pound Uluas that seemed to favor that side of the island.

At the base of the stream was a little half-moon beach covered in small boulders with a steep shoreline that seemed to fall into a roiling, ever-present shore break. The ocean rolled heavily toward the shore, but things calmed down the further out you went, because of a deep channel that ran straight out to sea.

The magic, she told us, is that you can swim your bait out through the channel, and there is no second reef.

Uluas, silvermouth trevally, are big fish that like to run when they are hooked. They’re like little marlin, all muscle and razor-sharp fins. They’ll run you up, under or over a reef to cut your line, so a deep channel with no second reef was like Xanadu to serious shore casters like us.

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A giant trevally, also known as an ulua in Hawaii.

Haoles never fare well in surf movies, when they invade the locals’ secret surfing spot. Imagine the response when you combine the secrecy and passion of fishing with the protective nature of the north shore communities in Hawaii.

We agreed that there would be no fights over access rights. We respected the land and the people, but we lusted after those big fish.

What we didn’t know was where we could access the stream on public land. Everything was fenced off on that grassy part of the island, and the stream crossed the road through a series of pipes that ran under the roadway.

We arrived in the evening, just before the sun set to the west of us, which seemed to put the shadows of the big volcano over the top of us and sucked all the warmth out of the air.

We grabbed our spears and our 14-foot Ugy Stick shore casters and nets and put tabis, rubber socks on our feet with felt bottoms, on our feet.

Well-laden with gear, we opted to take a side trail for the two miles down to the small beach and leave our shore casters there before hiking back up to join the prawn harvest.

We never saw another soul on our way down to the beach, but we stopped to eat some guavas from a tree that were as yet unmolested by birds.

Daylight lasted us the entire journey down, and we stepped onto the rocky beach with just enough light left to set our rods up in their holders , where we left them up and baited until our prawn hunting journey downstream finished.

Jay and I worked our way back up the trail using headlights when we couldn’t see well and turning them off when the moon provided enough light for us to see our way.

At the top of the stream, Sam informed us that he’d already ran into one local guy in another beat-up truck who said this is all private and that we should stop in and ask permission. But he wouldn’t say which ranch.

“I say we just go for it,” Sam said. “Ask forgiveness later.”

Jay and I worried about that idea, based on the fact that while total haoles, we had spent most of our adolescent years in the islands, and we had come up with survival mechanisms that included not pissing the locals off whenever possible.

It was dark now with the moon setting over the volcano, which would give us good sight for finding prawns by using our headlamps.

Sam wanted at least five pounds of prawns, part of which he planned to sell to some tourists in Kona Town.

TA prawns

Capturing Tahitian prawns, an invasive species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in 1956.

The fence proved more difficult than we imagined, snagging everything, including our nets and spear rubbers.

It was tight, new wire, obviously designed to keep us out rather than cattle in.

We saw the first no trespassing sign as we approached the place where the stream came out of the tubes that ran under the road.

It was pretty clear.

Trespassers would be shot on sight.

With a little sign of a rifle for emphasis.

Sam didn’t care, but Jay and I knew this could end badly.

Jay found the first group of opaekala’ole a few feet downstream and started spearing them as fast as he could.

He had a half pound in the first quarter-mile of stream.

I had a more difficult time seeing the little eyes that glowed like burnished copper in the water, having always struggled a bit with my eyesight, but I had speared another half pound after the first half-mile of stream.

Sam was moving furiously, probably just stabbing at anything that moved, but he had managed to find his bag full of big prawns, probably a full pound by the time we took a break from the cool water to go find the guava tree up on the trail.

Jay and Sam turned off their head lamps before the small pathway that led from the stream to the side trail gave way to open fields.

Unfortunately, I did not.

I emerged onto the side trail a few yards above the guava bush just a bit later than Jay and Sam, and I swiveled my head around to get my bearings.

That’s when they saw me, two paniolos in the bed of a truck being driven by a big local guy.

They were screaming at us to stop, which we did in spite of Sam’s advice that we go back to the stream.

“Come on, guys, we don’t want to fuck with these yahoos,” Sam said, ducking back into the brush below the guava bush.

Jay instinctively did the same.

I did the old deer-in-the-headlights look and stayed where I was as the truck bore down on me.

The two local guys in the back were certainly carrying rifles slung across their backs as they held on to the roll bars across the top of the truck, which was careening across the grass.

It was at this point that I decided to shut off my headlamp.

By the time I headed back into the bushes myself, the truck’s headlights had framed my position, which made my sudden dive back into the bushes awkward.

The men stopped and jumped down from the truck, and they were yelling at us, no, screaming at us to come out.

My heart was thumping so hard, it felt like a jack hammer as I hugged the ground and closed my eyes.

Sam and Jay were already back to the stream, hiding under one of the embankments together.

But the locals found me first and rather easily too. I wore black clothing,  but I was so close to the field they had driven in on, that my legs were visible just inside the first row of vegetation.

“Bettah come out now,” a surprisingly calm voice said to me. “I no wanna shoot you if I no have to, brah.”

I risked looking up and into the eyes of a smallish local guy in a black tank top with a rifle hanging over his shoulder.

He had his hand outstretched toward me.

“Come out, it’s okay, I only gonna shoot you if you run,” he said, and there was a smile in his eyes that belied his threats.

I rolled over and extricated myself from the bush and sat down on the grass on the other side of the trail.

The gun stayed over his shoulder, and I could hear the other two guys walking along the trail calling out for anyone else.

“How many people you got with you?” he asked.

I didn’t say anything, just sat looking at the ground all guilty like.

“Brah, my name is Kimo, what’s your name?”

“Tim,” I said.

“You from Kona side?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What, you guys thought you come down and do some fishing, eh?”

“Yeah, and maybe find some opaekala’ole too,” I said.

“Shit, man, I love opaekala’ole from da stream, too. I like fry ’em up in da butter and garlic with some soy sauce. I serve ’em on da eggs too.”

We sat quietly for a few minutes trying to figure out the bearings of the others.

“You know you can no trespass out hea, brah,” he said after a few minutes of listening.

“I know,” I said. “We didn’t think we’d get permission, but we really wanted to experience this place.”

“Dat’s da problem wi choo haoles, brah,” he said. “You feel privileged to do whatever you want to do on someone else’s land. For sure, you maybe no get da permission to fish here, but you no let dat stop you.”

“If I go walk around on the lawn of one of those big Kona houses, ho, brah, da cops gonna come tackle me so fast,” he said.

After a few minutes, one of the other guys from the truck was leading Jay up the trail towards the spot where I was sitting.

“You all right?” Jay asked me.

“I’m fine, man. Sorry about that.”

“No worries, mate,” Jay said. “Didn’t want to leave you here by yourself.”

“How many more out there?” Kimo asked Jay, but Jay shrugged his shoulders.”

Jay’s captor, a taller local guy with a thick mustache and long hair tucked into an Island Pride hat, shoved Jay to the ground about 10 feet away from me.

TA.opae

Atyoida bisulcata, also known as ‘Opae Kala’ole, is a Hawaiian freshwater shrimp.

“Look, guys, make dis easy on yourselves, we jus tryna make sure you no damage nothing wit your trespassing. If no cooperate, we gonna call da cops.”

Jay didn’t say anything, so I didn’t say anything.

“How many opaekala’ole you guys find, before we catch you?

“I don’t know, man, I got like a pound maybe,” I said.

“You gotta stick dem in some water, brah or dey gonna die and no taste so good den,” Kimo said.

“For why you talk this haole?” Jay’s captor said.

“For real, Manni, dey jus fishing,” Kimo said.

Jay’s captor took the butt of his rifle and struck Jay in the back, which caused him to fall forward and get up slowly.

“How many you guys in her?” he asked.

Jay is a serious guy. He’s big, he’s tough, but he’s got a huge heart, and he’s really soft spoken.

“We’re three of us, just doing some fishing, mate,” Jay said, through gritted teeth.

“Where da udder guy den?” Manni asked.

“Man, I don’t know. I came back here to see if my mate was okay,” Jay said.

“Ho, where you from, brah, widat accent and all?” Kimo asked.

“I’m from New Zealand,” Jay said.

“Kimo, I think Jay is hurt bad,” I said.

“For real?” Kimo said.

“Yeah, he’s wincing every time he talks, man. Can you help him?”

Jay asked if he could stand up, which took some of the pressure off his lungs, and he took a big, ragged breath.

“I think he broke my rib,” Jay said.

“Should be glad I no break your skull for trespassing on dis land,” Manni said.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Jay said. “I knew better, and I should have kept my mates out of trouble.”

“For sure,” Kimo said. “You can breathe bettah now, brah?”

“Yeah, it’s sore but I can take a full breath,” Jay said.

A gunshot suddenly rang out from somewhere downstream.

Jay looked horrified, and Kimo and Manni both got up quickly and walked down the trail a ways.

Kimo hollered out into the darkness, “Hey, Keolani, no shoot deze guys, eh.”

I thought he was trying to be funny to deescalate the situation, but Jay was worried.

“Oh, no, mate, don’t shoot Sam, we didn’t mean any harm. We know we made a bad decision,” Jay said.

“I no think Keolani shot him,” Kimo said. “Unless your buddy got da gun, eh.”

Jay and I knew Sam didn’t have a gun.

There was a second gunshot, and this time Kimo went running down the trail.

“Manni, stay hea, I wanna find out what he shooting at,” Kimo said.

Jay had a wild look in his eyes that I couldn’t tell if it was fear or panic.

I moved down the trail to be closer to Jay, because Manni had his back to us looking down the trail towards the sound of the gunshot.

“You okay, bro?” I asked.

“I’ll be fine if I can stand up. Hurts like hell when I sit down,” Jay said,

Every kind of fear ran through my head as we waited for news.

Did they shoot Sam? If so, would they shoot us? I would have rather been stuck with Kimo than Manni who seemed to have a short temper.

I wondered who their third guy was. Was he nice like Kimo or short-tempered like Manni?

Jay was wounded and couldn’t run, so that pretty much screwed any chance we had of making a run for it up the trail to the truck.

And our cell phones didn’t work at all out here in the shadow of the volcano.

“Mate, I’m scared,” Jay said.

And it sounded strange coming from a big guy who descended from some of New Zealand’s fiercest warriors.

But there was something about being in the wrong. We knew it. And there was nothing to do but face the music.

Kimo came running up the trail whooping and hollering, which was really confusing for us.

Manni pulled his gun off his shoulder again and turned around to face us.

He was as confused as we were.

“You two get down on da ground,” he said.

“Please, Manni, Jay can’t breathe when he sits,” I said.

But it was too late, he started advancing on us with the rifle pointed at Jay’s belly.

Kimo’s gibberish suddenly became clear.

“Ho, Keolani shot da pig, brah,” he said, with a huge smile on his face, “Was dat big one he trackin last week. Dis crazy haole sees da pig and tells Keolani he’ll go around and flush it out. Keolani gets da nice shot in da clearing. One shot for bring it down, one shot for make sure no slice him up wit da tusk.”

The pig story completely threw us off our guard. Manni just looked at Kimo and re-slung his rifle and started walking down the trail.

“No, Manni, Keolani want you bring da truck down to da cleaning for hoist da pig up, eh?”

Manni turned around and got in the truck and fired it up and pointed the headlights down the hill. We waited for Kimo to get to us and catch his breath.

The next two hours were surreal. We were covered in dirt and pig blood from hoisting this huge boar on to the truck, where this guy Keolani butchered it right in front of us.

TA stream

A Hawaiian freshwater stream on the north shore of the Big Island.

Then Manni and Kimo and I continued down the stream spearing as many opaekala’ole as we could before we reached the mouth of the stream. When we got there, Kimo damned off a small pool where we put the shrimp. Then he grabbed the nasty squid bait and opened the bail on my Penn Reel and took off into the waves of the shore break.

I could barely see him swimming out into the bay in the dim starlight, but Manni had a one million candlepower flashlight he used as a beacon for Kimo.

It took 20 minutes to swim it out of the small bay into the open ocean, but I could see the line was taut as Kimo crawled back onto the beach.

“Watch dat line closely, brah, some big fish in dis place,” he said.

The bell atop my pole started ringing within a few minutes, and Manni and Kimo coached me through setting the hook, which I did just as they instructed.

I wrapped one leg directly around the rod with my hands holding the rod about two feet apart to give myself some leverage.

Whatever was on the line wasn’t big, but it was way out there.

It was a long, steady pull.

I kept the rod tip up high and reeled until my arms felt like they were going to fall off.

When our quarry was about 15 feet from shore, Manni and Kimo took our spears and waded out into the shore break holding on to the line.

It got really rough for a few minutes in the boisterous shore break, but then my prey came sliding onto the beach as if it was hand-delivered by the gods.

It was a huge puhi uha, otherwise known as a conger eel. It was gray with large stripes, and it writhed around on the beach. I fully intended to try and extricate the hook and let the creature go, but Manni and Kimo had other ideas.

They both stabbed it with our spears at the same time, causing the eel to straighten out to its full length of about four feet.

“Why are you guys killing it?” I asked, in as light a tone as I could muster.

“For real, dis puhi uha, is da kine, brah,” Manni said. “Grill it on da skin, best ting you evah taste.”

They tossed the still squirming eel into the prawn pond, and Kimo rebaited the hook and swam the bait out one more time.

“No get da ulua tonight,” he said when he returned and caught his breath on the beach. “When see da eels, no catch da ulua.”

But the next fish to take the stinking squid was a nice seven- or eight-pound papio, which fought admirably all the way onto the shore break, where Kimo stabbed it in the head with a spear.

“Ho, brah, now we make da feast,” he said, smiling.

Keolani, Jay and Sam had butchered the pig and taken it to the ranch and Sam and Keolani returned to the beach just as we were reeling in for the last time. They brought cold beer and some dried fish, and we sat around drinking and eating for another hour, recounting all of the evening’s adventures.

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A traditional Hawaiian imu, a type of pit oven used to cook pig.

I couldn’t believe that three hours earlier, I thought these guys were going to shoot us for trespassing.

We offered all the opaekala’ole to Manni, Kimo and Keolani, but they told us to bring it up to dinner at the ranch.

We hiked back out to the truck with sacks full of prawns, a four-foot conger eel and a nice papio.

When we arrived, Jay was sitting on a bench near the house with a large bandage around his mid-section with a pretty local girl attending to him.

“Well, this couldn’t have gone any more differently,” he said with a big smile stretched across his face.

We dropped the night’s bounty on the kitchen table, where three ladies started taking out the prawns and dropping them into a basin full of cold water. One lady picked up the eel and grabbed a filet knife and split that thing faster than I’d ever seen a fish filleted before.

In one corner, the largest rice maker I’d ever seen sat steaming away, infusing the house with the intoxicating scent of jasmine rice.

I walked back outside, where Kimo, Manni and Keolani were hanging up the pig in the barn. Kimo grabbed my arm and dragged me out the back of the barn to show me a spot where the ground looked recently dug up and reburied.

“We cook da whole pig in da ground,” he said. “You evah had da real pig in da imu?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I went to the luau at the Royal Hawaiian a couple years ago.”

“Dis not real,” Kimo said, indignantly. “That’s for da tourists.”

If they were hanging the pig that Keolani shot tonight, I wondered where they got the pig that was cooking in the ground oven known in Hawaii as an imu.

But I followed Kimo back through the barn.

There was more beer, and then we were introduced to the ranch owner.

This guy was as haole as we were, at least by appearance. He spoke pidgin, and his wife was definitely local.

“You guys no trespass on deze lands,” he said, with no trace of a smile. “Otherwise I’m going to have to start shooting you guys instead of da pigs for my imu.”

We apologized collectively and individually to the ranch owner who was introduced to us just as John.

He looked us each in the eyes and then shook our hands. He was big and seemed gracious enough.

And then he broke into the biggest grin and shotgunned a beer. “Let’s eat dis food,” he said to everyone.

It was now 11 at night, and we sat out beneath the stars watching cars arrive down the long lane that led from the road to the ranch.

People brought all kinds of food and added it to the growing table of food with the rice cooker on it.

Six men, including Manni, Kimo and Keolani unearthed the pig, which had been cooking all afternoon, revealing a steaming pile of bones with succulent meat falling off them.

I saw a bowl of prawns, now bright red and steaming fresh from the boil. My papio was cooked whole with the head on and served with some kind of seaweed. And the eel was now cut up into six-inch pieces, which were grilled on both the skin and meat sides after marinating in soy sauce.

And there were crabs and slipper lobsters, more prawns served in some kind of curried liquid. There was purple poi, which I could just make out from the faint light coming from the house.

I have never seen a feast like this in my life, and to be sitting here, when we probably should be sitting in a jail cell was completely mind blowing to me.

Tim Akimoff Kona

Tim Akimoff on the Kona Coast, 2012.

I’ve met hospitable people all around the world, but sometimes I’m still surprised at how a situation can go from dire to dining together in the space of one evening.

“You guys want to come back and fish on my property, no problem,” John said after he had pushed his plate away finally. “Just come down to da ranch and ask first, so my guys no mistake you guys for da pig and shoot you.”

We promised to always ask permission, and the feast went until well after 3 o’clock in the morning, after which we fell asleep on the couches on John’s lanai.

I woke up to the smell of jasmine rice cooking, and the little kids were up and running around.

We ate prawns and eggs and rice with some Spam, and Manni had the biggest smile on his face.

“I told you is good, brah,” he said. “Best food you evah tasted.”

All photo illustrations: Tim Akimoff

***

Tim Akimoff says: ” ‘Night on the Kahawai’ ” is a short story that I started writing almost 20 years ago when my wife and I were living on the Big Island of Hawaii. She worked long hours at Kona Coffee Co., while I spent a lot of time fishing for our meals. I still look back at my 20-year-old self and think about the lessons I learned about entitlement, how we treat others and overcoming cultural differences from this experience. Some mistakes have a way of shaping our lives for the better. This is one of those mistakes.”

Editor’s note: I met Tim in 2005 when I recruited him to The Oregonian for a reporting internship. I was astounded by the breadth of his travels and cultural experiences — he had been to about 50 countries by then. I continue to be impressed by his journalistic growth as he has moved from Alaska to Montana to Chicago and back to Oregon, where he is now social media outreach coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. And, by the way, he is a terrific writer and storyteller.

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The Lady and the Lotus

LJ lotus

In Asia, the delicate, beautiful lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

The flat round leaves, anchored with bulbous stems, float gently in the water like giant saucers. A black-and-white bird steps on a leaf delicately with one leg, walks on water and gently skitters on to another leaf.  Scattered throughout the floating barge of green are ethereal blooms of water lily radiant in the morning light – pale yellow, pink or with a peach colored hue. In Asia, the lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence – of purity rising from the muddy waters.

I am in a cottage on stilts on Lake Inle in Myanmar. The lotus-filled water stretches out for miles to hills in the distance.  It could easily be the time of the King Anawrahta, who founded a kingdom by developing an irrigation system in a dry land and turning it into the rice granary of the region. In a way, this trip is also a quest for roots. A great uncle lived in Rangoon in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, Burma was a province of British India. An aggressive Burmese king had prompted the conquest, not to mention the need for teak and rubies.

LJ lake inle

A cottage on Inle Lake in Myanmar evokes a feeling of serenity, a world away from urban stresses.

I hear the gentle splish-splash of a boatman who stands on a stick and uses his leg to row the boat. It’s far away from a world of mass shootings and barbaric terrorist attacks. No traffic gridlock, no phone calls or appointments. It is life reduced to the bare elements, water, sunshine, air and lotus. Except for one thing – the 4G here is better than in the U.S. For years the country was undeveloped because of military rule, but now, since there was no slow evolution of technology here, cutting edge mobile connectivity is instantly available. So I post my lotus picture on Instagram – not so much for validation, but in a feeble attempt to freeze the present moment.

I love that the women seem empowered, somehow, in their fitted blouses and stylishly draped longyi skirts. No hiding hair with scarves or hunching behind veils to cover their breasts.  Whether it’s a village woman cleaning fish on the banks of the lake or a smart businesswoman in the capital, they seem confident and are treated with respect. The only restrictions are in pagodas. For some reason, the management is obsessed with “spaghetti straps” and there are warning signs everywhere not to wear them. Or shorts. And women are not allowed in the inner sanctum.

Lotus cloth is a big industry in Lake Inle and designers from Europe pay big money for this cloth more expensive than silk. I can see why as a woman at a weaving house extracts lotus fiber from a stem – the process is very labor intensive. And the end result is cool like cotton – not smooth and fine, but a great alternative if you have ethical concerns about silk.

LJ pagoda

A couple worshipping at the Shwedegon Pagoda sport their longyis, traditional Burmese attire.

The night sky feels primeval as a full moon shines over the lake. This phase of the moon is considered holy, and there is chanting all night in the monastery across the water.

Coincidentally, the next day is also a major national holiday – Martyr’s Day – the day the “Father of the Nation,” General Aung San, was assassinated by a political rival. When we get back to Yangon we discover that admission is free at the Bogyoke Aung San museum (his former home) because of the holiday.

From the crowds that throng the house, it is obvious how much the brilliant statesman is still venerated. There are pictures of him with world leaders.  I read a letter he has written to the British government announcing Burma’s choice for independence. A picture of him playing joyfully with his young kids shows so much hope and promise, that it’s sad to see the following one –  of his wife weeping over him on his last day. The sadness seems to permeate the house even now.

At the doorway, you have to take your shoes off and carry them (this is something you have to do a lot in Burma – in temples and, apparently, sometimes even in offices). The furnishings are stark and simple – a teak bed with a mosquito-net stand, a coat rack and a glass cabinet displaying the leaders uniform. A wedding picture graces the wall.

LJ General Aung San

A wedding portrait of Burmese General Aung San, “the father of the nation” and his wife.

Another bedroom contains Aung San Suu Kyi’s crib. As it is with Burmese names, her name actually consists of her father’s first name, her mother’s (Kyi) and a grandmother’s – Suu. I can relate to this because in South India – we don’t have last names either. It’s hard for me to understand the sacrifices Suu Kyi was willing to make. She refused to leave the country to see her dying husband because she knew the military regime would never allow her back. But her prioritizing country over family can be explained by her spiritual beliefs – the Buddhist concept of embracing suffering as a meditation practice.  It might also explain the patience and gentle demeanor of the people that we encounter everywhere, despite the poverty and the hardship they must have endured.

Even though Suu Kyi’s party won a historic election in 2015, rules concocted by the military did not allow her to become the President.  Instead, she is the “State Counselor” and also has to share power with the military which retains 25% of the seats in parliament. She is poised to implement agricultural and infrastructural reforms so Myanmar can join the global economy, but the path could be difficult since democracy is so new. Another serious issue is the persecution of religious minorities and armed ethnic tension.  I learn that for an American NGO based in Yangon, conflict management education is an important task.

LJ. weaver

Lakshmi Jagannathan with a woman who is a weaver and also teaches the skill to guests.

On the last day of our stay there is a heavy downpour – it’s peak monsoon season. We are in a fancy new pizza place, that serves microgreens, but when it’s time to leave, the compound is flooded. “No problem” says the manager. A taxi is hailed and people place benches on the water so we can step across and sit in the car seat. Burmese hospitality at its best.

Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi came into office, expectations are very high for her, but the challenges are many.  I hope the peace they have now lasts and the country continues on its path of reform and accomplishes its goal of a brighter future for its people.

***

Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer, startup cheerleader, reiki healer/counselor and tree-hugger. “Lately,” she says, “I have found that if I call myself a writer I get asked too many questions by immigration officials in different ports, so now my official occupation on application forms is ‘counselor.’ It works — the junta left me alone in Myanmar.” Follow her @BeavertonWriter. Read her Living La Vida Pura blog on WordPress and her Veggie Travel posts on Facebook.

Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writers program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world. Through her VOA posts, I feel as if I’ve traveled to multiple Asian and African countries.

Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, A haven for political junkies

Susie Reimer & The Humdinger

susie-reimer-tired

Long hours and hard work have taken their toll on Susie Reimer. She’s managed to keep her small business afloat for 35 years, but now faces great uncertainty as she considers retirement. (Photo by Krystyna Wentz-Graff, The Oregonian/OregonLive)

By George Rede

This is Portland Burger Week and the place should be packed at the lunch hour on a weekday. Sadly, it isn’t.

When I arrive at the Humdinger Drive-In just before noon Monday, I pull into an empty parking lot and glimpse a darkened restaurant interior. With its yellow-themed exterior and old-school menu, this little burger stand has been a neighborhood landmark on Southwest Barbur Boulevard for more than 30 years.

You may know about the Humdinger. I wrote a lengthy news feature a year ago about the business and its do-it-all owner, Susie Reimer. The front-page story resonated with readers of The Oregonian/OregonLive like few others I’ve written.

(If you missed it, here’s a link to the story and Krystyna Wentz-Graff’s marvelous photographs.)

Hard work, long hours not enough as retirement nears for Portland burger stand owner

front page - humdinger

Susie was 27, a high school dropout and the divorced mother of two young sons when she bought the place from the original owner. She had no experience and no business knowledge, but she worked hard behind the grill, ran the cash register and maintained the property — even painting the parking stripes and resurfacing the parking lot. But at 63, she is weary after 35 years of work and not alone in worrying about how she’ll get by.

“Many who make up America’s aging labor force are heading to retirement after a lifetime of work. Susie, like an increasing number of baby boomers, has no nest egg and no clear path to retirement.

She believed in the American Dream, that if she served great food and kept her customers happy, she’d make a good living and maybe even have something to pass along to her children.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Recently, I learned the story won two awards in regional and statewide journalism contests:

— Third place for Business Reporting from the Pacific Northwest Society of Professional Journalists.

— Third place for Best Feature Story (Personality) from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

Relatively small potatoes, I know, but the awards were nonetheless satisfying, validating the effort I’d put into telling Susie’s story with care and context.

I took a buyout offer from my former employer at the end of the year, so I haven’t done any professional reporting for months. I also hadn’t been back to the Humdinger since late December. With the city’s diners celebrating Portland Burger Week Aug. 8-13, I decided to pay a visit to Susie and get an update.

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The weather was uncharacteristically gloomy. The sky was gray and cloudy, and the outdoor tables and chairs were still moist with condensation from that morning’s rain.

At 11:45 a.m., my car was the only one in the parking lot. Susie’s husband, Gordon, now 76 and still working the cash register and counter, had just opened the restaurant and was schlepping things inside. Susie arrived a few minutes later, a lighted cigarette in hand, and immediately began tidying up, collecting twigs and leaves from around the outdoor seating area.

“I saw your name in the paper recently,” she said, tossing a handful of greenery over a wire fence.

“Really? What for?”

“It was something about you winning an award.”

“You saw that? I’m glad you did.”

Part of the reason for my visit was to thank Susie for letting me tell her story in such detail, warts and all. There would have been no awards — heck, no story — without her cooperation, I told her.

There had been a spike in business after the story was published last August. Customers crammed into the tiny space and filled the tip jar for several days. Someone made an offer to buy the business late in the year, but nothing had panned out and things had returned to normal by year’s end.

I knew that summer was typically the busiest, most profitable time of the year at the Humdinger. But business recently has been just “OK, not great,” Susie said. She was unaware of Portland Burger Week.

(Click on images to view captions.)

From noon to 1 p.m. that day, I was one of five customers. A young guy in a baseball cap and a thirty-something couple sat at two of the four vinyl booths, and I claimed a third. After the others left, a woman came in and placed an order to go.

The expansive handwritten menu, already featuring children’s “fun platters,” garden burgers and 1/4 pound kielbasa hot dogs, advertised yet another item: whole Cornish game hens with gravy.

My lunch was delicious. I chowed down on a quarter-pound deluxe with crinkle-cut fries, accompanied by a root beer float. The burger had the usual lettuce and pickles, but also slices of yellow tomatoes grown in Susie’s yard. That was just one of a trio of nice touches I noticed.

— Each order came with hard candies handmade by Susie.

— Outside, a handwritten sign encouraged visitors to take free squash grown in planters on the Humdinger property.

On previous visits, I’ve seen people settle in with their meals at the brightly colored picnic tables lining one side of the parking lot. Not this time. The tables and benches were wet and all the table umbrellas were closed up.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Neighboring businesses, with their weathered signs, gave off a tired vibe. Next door to the Humdinger is a discount tobacco store. One block north, across Southwest 19th Avenue, there’s an old-school family restaurant, a used car lot, a barber and beauty shop, and a shuttered typewriter repair store.

At 1:15 p.m, a red pickup pulled into the Humdinger lot, bearing the sixth customer of the day.

I asked Susie what she’d like to see happen in the next year or two. She sighed.

“I would like to sell the place and see if we can get by,” she said. “I turned 64 in July, so I’m another year closer to Medicare.”

susie-reimer hands

The hands of a woman who has cooked, chopped, cleaned, painted and resurfaced her asphalt parking lot for more than three decades.

A couple from Nevada had recently stopped in and said they were interested in buying the place but nothing had come of that either, Susie said. People talk but don’t follow up, she said. It happens frequently.

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “Things can happen. You never know.”

Photographs: George Rede

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Tomorrow: Rachel Lippolis, U.S. lags on maternity leave

 

 

 

 

 

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