This story is about aroma. An aroma so irresistible, so heady, that flavor almost became an afterthought. Of course, we all know that these two senses are eternally linked, so that point might be moot, but let me tell you about the most intense food experience I have ever had.
My daughter was young. I had been back to work for some time and I wanted a break. In those carefree days of my mid-twenties, when we didn’t have a mortgage or even a car payment, the decision was easily made. My ex-husband supported the idea of me taking a trip with my girlfriend, Emily. She had been to Maui before and spoke fondly of her experience. I was up for a trip to a warm clime, it being fall in New England where we lived. We both also had some contacts there, so we set about creating an itinerary, with a small budget in mind.
We took off a generous 10 days and we had many adventures, from experiencing our first nude beach, known for its red sand, swimming in the pool of a waterfall that sat right next to the ocean, and snorkeling in an area called the “aquarium”, where fish were so close you could touch them. We got up one morning at 2:30am to make the long, slow, winding drive up Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano, to watch the sun rise. The name, indeed, means House of the Sun, and this was a singular, if frigid experience. At over 10,000 feet, it was literally freezing on top of the volcano before daylight emerged. We also drove around the entire island, which is not something most people do, but I highly recommend. Of course it violates your rental car agreement, as you go off-road, but for us it was worth it to see the progression from arid, almost desert-like conditions, to miles and miles and literally hours of black volcanic rock, to rain forests filled with tall, rustling bamboo and about everything in-between.
One day we decided to hike in the Iao Valley State Park to further explore what this island had to offer. We had met a man named David at Haleakala the previous day, and we invited him along. This park is lush with bright green vegetation as far as the eye can see. The valley is formed by a gorge about 5 miles long, flanked by mountainous walls reaching almost a mile high. Within the park is a tall, narrow, spike-like, towering rock pinnacle called the Iao Needle, considered a sacred place in Hawaiian mythology. It soars 2,250 feet high, practically straight up from the floor of the valley, forming a very phallic looking natural monument. Some of the mythology involves birth creation and it’s not hard to see why.
David, Emily and I parked the car and walked on the paths laid out for us by the park service. Many walkways had rails along the side, guiding visitors to stick to the approved areas. We came to what appeared to be the “end” of the line. Higher, more serious looking railing was installed at this point, holding a sign which made it clear that you were not to go further, or literally, out of bounds. We found ourselves standing there next to a family – a husband, wife and son, perhaps around age 12. I cant really explain to you what was said or who spoke first, as I don’t remember those specifics, but the next thing you knew, all of us, a newfound group, decided to climb over the railing and proceed. It looked like there was a well-worn path beginning right on the other side of the fence. Although the signs said not to, hiking further really didn’t seem that subversive. There were other people around, and no one stopped us, so off we went.
We just kept following the path, which was easy to see. It was not easy to see much else, as the flora was so dense. We walked in a single file and quickly got to talking, exchanging names and brief stories. Lighthearted stuff such as what brought us to Maui in the first place, whether it was school vacation for the boy, and where we were all staying. It was fairly mindless walking at first, as the path just kept going. I don’t think any of us knew where the path was leading us, or even more crazily, now that I think of it, none of us seemed to think this was important to know!
So we walked on. It was mid-October and it was warm, but not overly so. The forest provided moisture from the humid conditions. The trail at times would angle up or down, but mostly up, and we reasoned we were climbing the actual needle. We walked for hours and the public park area seemed light-years away. And then, the smell hit me first. It was like a wall of scent, it was so strong. It was sweet, almost to the point of being overpoweringly sweet, but my nose was terribly excited and I had to know what it was. It smelled like delicious. By now we all smelled it and were looking around. And then, in that way that a picture comes into focus and you can actually see what was in front of you all along, I noticed that we had been not only stepping on exceedingly ripe guavas, but that they were hanging from trees all around us. We started grabbing fruit, left and right and biting into the juicy globes, the mottled green exteriors giving way to that dense pink-coral flesh. The term embarrassment of riches was made for such a situation. We were giddy with our discovery, in awe of our find. There were so many fruits, that you could bite into one, eye another that looked a tiny bit riper, and just discard the first to move onto the next without any thought whatsoever. Apparently the overly ripe ones were literally littering the forest floor, and as we stepped upon them, we had been releasing their pungent tropical aroma. The smell was intoxicating. The taste was intense, thirst quenching and immensely satisfying. I was immediately aware that I had never had such a pure, vivid, food moment in my life. I had stumbled upon a natural foodstuff, in its own environment, at its most perfect point of ripeness. A day before or a day after would not have been the same, or so it seemed. I felt as though I was experiencing fruit as it was meant to be experienced, and almost never is. This made me so sad. Here was this plethora of perfect fruit. If we hadn’t come upon it, they all would have landed on the ground and rotted away.
After our interlude, we continued walking. At first I think we tried to carry fruit with us, but although the trees petered out a bit, there was still fruit to be had at arms reach, so we just grazed as we ambled on. Soon it became apparent that not only did we not know where we were headed, but that it was going to get dark soon. And the trail had disappeared. One of the men noticed that there was still a trail of sorts. If we looked low to the ground below the thick vegetation that clustered around knee-height, we could see a sort of three-dimensional, cylindrical path. It looked like a bullet shaped express train had created a corridor through the plant material at that low level. Someone mentioned that there were wild boars in these mountains and that we were probably seeing their paths! “Let’s hope we don’t run into one,” someone offered helpfully. We really didn’t have a choice, as it was the only trail to follow. We reasoned since the boars were native, and we weren’t, we would follow their “freeway”.
It did get dark, and we did get back, somehow returning to where we started, or at least close enough so that we could find our cars. We never did meet up with a boar. We had solidified a new friendship with the family of three, and actually stayed with them one night in their rented condo. Everything about the day smacked of the magic that Maui somehow creates every time I am there – natural beauty beyond measure and people of such friendliness and kindliness, that it reminds us of what we miss in our day-to-day lives. But more than anything, every October, for the last decade or so, I think back to my guavas. I can smell them as soon as their image unfolds in my mind. And I wonder if they are still there waiting for me to return.