To Maui – In Search of Paniolo

Maui is what happened after Mexico – an incredibly last minute bit of decision making on my part. I’m less inclined to call it a brain fart, although that phrasing wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. Let’s just say that weighing the merits of the decision was a spottily vague process, at best.

Why Maui, you might ask? Well, you probably wouldn’t to be honest. Most people equate Maui with paradise and leave it at that. But growing up close to some of the best beaches in the world in SE Asia leaves you immune to the often flaunted – and superficial – idea of Maui as paradise. If this sounds harsh, let me put it this way, paradise is in the eye of the beholder and living in a wildly over-priced, over-ghettoised island where I have to pay $6 for a bag of spinach while I enjoy the blue sky and balmy weather, isn’t it. Throw in the colonial history and its present incarnations, what this means for the native Hawaiians, plainly there to see for the open-eyed, and no, I wouldn’t say I was in paradise.

Admittedly, Maui was a bit of a weird step to take after Mexico, and one I definitely would not have thought to take had I not received a personal invite from two guests I met at the Rancho in Mexico. The offer: come stay with us and check out the local Paniolo – or Hawaiian cowboy – scene while you figure out what comes next. Having been the first stop on my trip, and leaden with the expectation of a warm and hospitable welcome, I was left a bit shattered when Mexico didn’t turn out well, and needed a quiet place to regroup. Misogyny was not something I had planned on encountering at the Rancho. Horse poop, tired and achy muscles, rides out into the countryside, perpetual sweatiness – YES. Misogyny – NO. That quiet place turned out to be a house in the Upcountry, in a so-called paniolo town called Kula, on the famed (and very windy) Haleakala Highway.

My hosts Heather and Sara (Heather more than Sara, for Sara had a tendency to run to her room as soon as she got home from work … I did ask why … regrettably) helped put me in touch with anyone remotely having to do with horses and riding through their super spidey network of facebook friends and acquaintances in Maui. That’s when H and I (I had a lot more in common with H, a bubbly and compassionate soul) weren’t busy having to the death bananagram tournaments, rocking out road trips (Road to Hana and Oprah’s house anyone?), baking (I assisted) banana bread and chocolate chip cookies (I had died and gone to heaven), hiking volcanos and bamboo forests, and finding out we had a heck of a lot in common.

My first paniolo (or maybe paniolo-lite) experience was at a Longhorn cattle ranch that also did trail rides, a place run by an ethically challenged little guy – a transplant from the mainland somewhere – who spat out his tobacco wad with disgusting frequency. I also saw him cheat a volunteer out of promised tip money from working days and those four hour trail rides – and here I thought he couldn’t get more disgusting. I had to revise my opinion when I met his wife and listened to them spout off about Christ. That really made me want to upchuck.

But Oh god, those trail rides. With some of the most enticing canter and gallop tracks on the property – you could potentially, or I imagined you could, feel as if you were racing to the ocean with the mountains at your back – these rides were done in a tail-nose fashion, entirely at a walk. This was painful on a whole other level. Mind numbing would be an appropriate description, and one that left me wondering at the point of having the horse in the equation. Could we legitimately call these rides? What sane person would shell out close to $300 per person for a four hour walk in a straight line while seated on their ass? In any event, the whole island was populated with similar ‘trail rides’, the reason behind which were primarily liability issues.

Things were slow after that. I visited a few ranches but didn’t lay eyes on any paniolos. Little did I know, the paniolo has come to be identified mostly by remnants of their past now currently occupied by trendy (read overpriced) boutiques and cafes in downtown Makawao. Suffice it to say the paniolo scene was a bit of a disappointment. Legend has it the working paniolo do still exist at cattle ranch Ulupalakula but alas I only found out after leaving Hawaii.

Funnily enough, I did learn that Maui’s local traditional cowboy scene had serious ties to Mexico. At least, in that historical dimension, my decision to go to Maui made some sense. As it turned out, Maui’s paniolo culture was born when vaqueros (or Spanish cowboys from Mexico) were brought in by King Kamehameha III (in 1823) to deal with the rapidly burgeoning cattle problem. The vaqueros taught the native Hawaiians their ways, and hey presto – cutting a bit of a long story short here – the paniolo came to be. While the pop culture figure of the mainland American cowboy has achieved something of an iconic and global status symbol, the paniolo (although first on the scene by about fifty years) has quietly retreated into the dusty background and remains somewhat stubbornly rooted to the local landscape of shopfronts and folklore fancy.

I said my farewells to Maui, and the lovely Collins family who hosted me for a spell, and packed for my flight. Before I left though, I spent a few days at Jillian’s – a local hunter jumper equestrian school – and was given the contact details of a polo club in Argentina. I had a few things to take care of on another continent, Asia this time, but it looked like my next horsey stop was going to be Pilar, Argentina.


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