I knew it was going to be bad. I’d read all the one and two star reviews and looked at the pictures of weird murals and overgrown gardens but I kept circling back to the listing every time I looked for accommodation on Kauai.
Everything else was just too bloody expensive. It was two hundred dollars a night just to stay in a van.
So I hit the ‘book now’ button and promptly forgot all about the place until we rocked up on a sunny day in July several months later. For reasons that will become obvious it’s no longer available on Air BnB so I’ll refer to the place by the name on the listing – Elephit House. In a real Phillip K Dick move Airbnb has wiped any trace of the place from my ‘previous bookings’ so I can’t tell you exactly what they put in the description.
I can tell you that the person listing the room said they were ‘420 friendly’. That’s supposed to be code for ‘we don’t mind if you smoke weed here’. In reality it usually means ‘I, the host, will be high when you get here regardless of what time you arrive’. It’s supposed to be a code but once people like Elon Musk start tweeting about offering Tesla shares at 420 dollars a pop it’s safe to say it’s not really serving its purpose anymore.
Elephit house was on a dead-end road in a housing estate near Wailua and, at first, it was hard to tell how big the place was because the jungle was trying to reclaim the building from three sides. Presumably when their lease expires they’ll just finish their game of ‘Jumangi’ and it’ll all go back to the way it was. It was even hard to tell where the front door was supposed to be. Wooden extensions had been built onto other wooden extensions until it resembled some sort of Escher bungalow. One timber staircase led down from the top floor to the front yard where a piece of plastic sheeting had been strung up over a decent crop of cannabis. A rusty Mini Cooper and what looked to be an abandoned pickup truck occupied the driveway so we parked our rental car further up the street and cautiously went looking for the owner.
The dog guarding the plantation greeted us as we arrived. It was some sort of bull-terrier cross and not much higher than my knee but, what it lacked in size, it made up for in lung capacity. I assumed his barking would bring someone down to investigate but it turned out that he barked pretty much all the time.
Like all good sharehouses Elephit House had a lot of disused fitness equipment. There was a complicated rack for core training rusting away by the fence. It looked like the sort of device you see advertised on a late night infomercial. Further inside there was a dust-covered Everlast punching bag and free-weights dating back to the era of two cannonballs connected by a rod. Everything hollow at waist height had been converted into an ash-tray.
To make sure we had the right place I leafed through the unopened mail on the coffee table – hoping to find the name of our host. Instead every letter seemed to be addressed to a different person and you could date each envelope by the degree of rain damage. Most of it was marketing material for county elections, some of it looked judicial.
Eventually a friendly bronzed surfer named Mike appeared, bleary eyed, at the top of the staircase and showed us to our room on the ground floor. The door was made of balsa wood and the air inside was stiflingly hot. The room had that foot-smell of old weed. Still, I reminded myself, it was only 90 dollars a night and it had a ceiling fan and a kitchenette. Mike pointed out the tiny bathroom under the stairs and left us to settle in. The first thing I noticed was the terrifying monk seal portrait looming over the bed. The second thing I noticed was the dead gecko stuck to a piece of fly tape over the toilet. For ventilation there were slatted windows on the bedroom that couldn’t be closed but the flyscreen on the outside was mercifully intact.
When we took stock of the kitchen we discovered a portable electric hotplate and a George Foreman Grill™ that someone had pre-stocked with a demonstration toast. Unfortunately turning on more than one appliance at a same time tripped the breaker so meals had to be prepared in a strictly linear fashion.
As we got unpacked we discovered another resident – a big black Siamese cat with its belly distended from one recent or several historic pregnancies. In contrast to Elephit hound, Elephit cat was very friendly – it forcefully demanded head rubs and boldly followed us into our room only to launch itself out the door if either of us made any sudden moves.
While the decor at our accomodation left something to be desired the island itself was beautiful. A short drive took us to Kilauea lighthouse where thousands of seabirds circled overhead or huddled like little bright patches of snow in the cliffs. Further inland we found a stand of rainbow eucalyptus and waterfalls that disappear into deep wet gorges. We kayaked up the coast and walked along the beach at Hanalei – ignoring the disaster relief camp set up in the school grounds.
Two months before we arrived heavy rains had triggered landslides and flooding which cut off the northern parts of the island. Residents and tourists had to be flown out by the military. The damage on that occasion was substantial but it wouldn’t take much to cut off Kauai’s coastal townships. There’s not much in the way of infrastructure on the island. The airport is tiny. The roads are sketchy. There are no cruise ships or ferry terminals and the bridges are mostly single-lane. There’s only one main road and the end of each town is only a few hundred meters from the start of the next. The effect is magnified by how quickly you pass from through different micro-climates as you work your way around the island. Owing to weird rain-shadow effects and constant trade winds there are places on Kauai that are among the wettest places on earth right next to places that get about as much rainfall as Mildura.
Kauai might be ten years behind the Big Island economically but in geological terms it’s 5 million years into the future. As the Pacific plate has shifted north-westward over the last few million years the ‘Hawaiian hot spot’ has bubbled up lava through the seabed and created the Hawaiian islands. The further north-west you travel the older the islands become. Being the first link in the chain Kauai has none of the dark lava fields or black-sand beaches you see on the Big Island. Instead you find a dense tropical mountain range with some of the most spectacular geological formations anywhere in the world – the giant cliffs of Nāpali on one side and the deep gorges of Waimea Canyon on the other. It’s an amazing landscape- all the more so because it encompasses almost the entire landmass of Kauai.
Photos of Waimea Canyon can be deceiving because they make Kauai seem vast but, in reality, the island would fit inside Port Phillip Bay with room to spare. Travelling along the coast felt like being in some sort of lush, open-world computer game. It’s as if Kauai’s creator was worried there wouldn’t be enough RAM to render a full island of dense jungle so they squeezed everything into a few square kilometers.
Kauai’s permanent population of 70 thousand people ensures that local elections are very personal affairs. The actual candidates stand by the side of the road near the island’s one Wal-Mart holding up signs with pictures of themselves and throw the ‘shaka’ at passing motorists. At peak season the population of the island can increase by as much as 50% as tourists descend on the ‘garden island’ for honeymoons and summer vacations. At those times everything comes to standstill as traffic jams form all the way from Hanalei in the north to Poipu in the south. Waiting with the windows down you hear tour helicopters drone overhead all day as they recreate the opening scene from Jurassic Park for another batch of tourists by flying up the ravines of Nāpali.
While tourism is the lifeblood of Kauai’s economy the relationship between residents and visitors is complicated. Our kayaking guide told us that the best primer for understanding the social dynamic on Kauai is to watch the South Park episode ‘Going Native’ which depicts an uprising by self-described Hawaiians (read; white people who own timeshare properties) against government officials that want to take away their sacred ‘Mahalo Rewards Card’. In the show the actual residents of the island can only look on in confusion and horror as the standoff escalates. It’s a very niche bit of social commentary sharpened by the fact that one of the show’s creators – Trey Parker – owns property on Kauai.
The real residents of Kauai mainly have to contend with the lack of affordable housing. Stories of staff at restaurants and bars forced to live in cars or camp on beaches for weeks at a time are common. Even jobs at major resorts have become difficult to maintain as local residents are priced out of their own neighbourhoods by short-stay accomodation providers like Airbnb. Although the numbers fluctuate with the seasons it’s estimated that one in eight homes on Kauai is used as a vacation rental.
Seen through that lens the situation at Elephit house starts to make sense. Clearly the people who live there needed the Airbnb income to pay their rent even if they didn’t really want the trouble of hosting visitors. That was made clear by one of the other residents who just glared at me when I said hello. Hawaiians are pretty chill people and you could see how much effort it took to be standoffish – he was clearly fighting the instinct to be civil with every ounce of his being.
His girlfriend smiled apologetically on his behalf and they both drove off in the rusted-up mini. From the sound of the car I figured he must have upgraded the engine somehow. In hindsight I realise it probably just had a broken muffler. When everything has to be imported at a premium most people put off getting anything fixed. A few days later I saw the same guy wandering through the front yard shirtless as he watered his cannabis crop. His whole torso was covered in florid tattoos – front and back – like a Yakuza crime boss. Maybe he was one of the people who got his mail sent to Elephit house. Maybe he was the one with letters from the Fifth Circuit court in Lihue.
We stayed in Elephit house for a few days but Yamaguchi Dude and his dog never stopped thinking we were DEA. When people use the phrase ‘his bark is worse than his bite’ they generally mean that their dog only looks dangerous. After listening to Elephit hound wrestle with his demons outside the window for several hours I felt like putting the phrase to the test. If I let him gnaw on my leg, I thought, would that shut him up?
As drug policy gradually shifts in the United States there’s rarely any discussion of the unseen victims of marijuana legalisation – people like Yamaguchi Dude that once looked forward to a short storied career as a low level drug dealer are now condemned to languish as hard-arse horticulturists. But I understand his resentment. If I had to sell weed and sub-let my garage just to pay rent on a place with ten other people I’d be annoyed too.
So I gave the place five stars.