Lifelong Ohana

E hele me ka pu’olo
​A Hawaiian proverb meaning, “Make every person, place or condition better than before, always.”

‘Pipeline Poetry
Only the best can take on the infamous Pipeline of North Shore Oahu, where the full force of the ocean’s power meets a hidden layer of jagged reef. Yet surfing pro, Kalani Chapman somehow managed to make the ride look effortless as he soared along the waves.

Everywhere my partner Cristina and I went in Hawai’i, we were given the same advice; “Whatever you do, do not go to the end of the road on the West side of Oahu.”

So naturally, that became our destination. As a photographer and storyteller, almost always, the gold lies at the end of forbidden locations.

​With the rental car packed full of expensive camera gear and a National Geographic deadline looming overhead, the two of us set out to photograph one of the last major holdouts of Hawaiian culture. We expected the due and deserved suspicion, wariness, and even hostility that so many people had warned us about. What we had not anticipated was the generosity, warmth, and unrivalled hospitality from what would become our lifelong ohana.

‘Below the Storm‘​
Cristina Mittermeier plunges deep beneath a monster wave, looking completely in her element. No matter the weather, there is sanctuary to be found beneath the surface of our great ocean

Where the tourists dare not go …

Mornings on the western shores of Oahu begin before the sun’s light crests the horizon, with surfers gathering on the shores. By the time they hit the water and head to the takeoff zone, the rest of the island begins to stir. Coffee is poured, music blares and cars brave the one poorly patched road to deliver locals to their various jobs and kids to school. The makeshift tent communities clamour to life, and roosters can be heard crowing down the beach where Cristina and I sat in the shade with Brian Keaulana — a celebrity-status surfer, stuntman, and member of one of the most respected families in Hawai’i.

Mākaha is where surfboard shapers continue to pass on the tradition of their craft, stubbornly standing against the mass production of factories spitting boards out every minute. Wayfinders are learning to read the stars as their ancestors once did, and surfing is much more than a lifestyle or sport. It’s in your blood. Much of the community is made up of Polynesian descendants and highly respected watermen and women whose ties to the land and sea-run deeper than words could ever describe.

With Brian’s help, Cristina and I were lucky to meet some of the heroes on the island. We spent time with Brian’s daughter Ha’a Keaulana, a surfing prodigy and granddaughter of the legendary Buffalo Keaulana. Her daily surfing regimen included carrying a 50-pound boulder underwater while her fellow surfers clung to her waist in a train. We also met the traditional tattoo artist Sulu’ape Keone Nunes who taught us the meaning behind each design and how Hawaiians proudly wear their stories on their skin.

The more we uncovered about the community’s history, the more we understood why it was guarded with such ferocity against outsiders.

‘Rock Runner’
Surfer Ha’a Keaulana, daughter of Brian Keaulana and granddaughter of legendary Buffalo Keaulana, trains by sprinting across the seafloor for a full minute with a 50-pound boulder in tow. 

By the time Hawaii was officially annexed in 1898, only 40,000 Hawaiians remained, their communities decimated largely by diseases and bloody conflicts. Over the past century, they kept the fragile ties to their ancestors and lands carefully guarded, passing them onto each new generation. The Mākaha communities in particular have weathered their fair share of rough times. Addiction, violence, and homelessness continue to tear many families apart. Still, at the heart of the story is a people deeply tied to the ebb and flow of the sea. They may seem guarded, but only because what they have is very much worth protecting.

When Cristina and I left the island many weeks later, we returned home teary-eyed and promised our new family we would return someday.  ​Just last week, we finally had the chance to fulfill that promise.

As Cristina and I drove over the bridge and approached the famous beach, it was as if we were crossing back in time. The coastline was still teeming with local surfers and beachgoers, music carrying down the golden shores. I had just been saying to Cristina how amazing it was that, in the past, the locals seemed to know when we were around, and they always protected a parking spot for us. As the words were coming out of my mouth, Moki, a dear friend of ours and local resident, walked out onto the road and pointed at his baby stroller guarding a space for our car. Here we were, ten years later, and they were still saving a spot for us. We could barely get out of our car as we were greeted with Alohas, hugs, laughs and endless smiles, all under the familiar lifeguard station of 47B. 

You will never find more caring and compassionate people in all the Pacific. To have the courage and strength of heart to remain generous even through hardship, to ensure everyone has a parking spot and shady place to sit — that is the aloha spirit.