There’s a small sticker I keep in my office that says Mālama Pono. It’s a Hawaiian saying that kind of means to take care of one’s self. Ultimately, its meaning depends on the context in which it’s used, but if you look at the words more carefully – mālama, meaning to care for, protect, preserve, support, or serve, and pono meaning righteously, carefully, morally, justly, or in a good or upright way – you’ll see that it can stand for much more than simply “take care”. To me it means that not only should I always take care of myself, but that I should protect my highest self, serve my true nature, act morally, hold myself accountable. That small sticker carries a big message, and I keep it around as a constant reminder of how I want to conduct myself, and of the beautiful Hawaiian culture, a culture near and dear to my heart.
I have family in Kailua, Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, and from my very first visit as a child I’ve been in love with that magical place. The natural beauty is simply breathtaking, the people there are some of the friendliest and welcoming you’ll ever meet, and the lessons and traditions passed down from generation to generation are rich in meaning and wisdom. There’s an undeniable energy in Hawaii, an aloha spirit that majestically permeates all things. Whenever I go back, I try to return stateside with a new lesson or insight, and will often bring back a small memento – like that sticker – as a pleasant reminder. I recently visited my family in Hawaii and had such a stroke of insight. This time, though, the lesson was not pleasant. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as rightly illustrated by the what I brought back with me as a reminder – a Ziploc bag full of trash. Let me explain.
During this visit, I was walking along the ala loa, or long path, that dates back to ancient Hawaii and was used as a foot trail that linked settlements from Kealakekua Bay to Kawaihae. The part of the ala loa I was walking along was a little special, as it was also believed to be a traditional route for the huaka’i pō, a nighttime procession of spirits of the deceased in the area. It’s a sacred place to the locals, and one should conduct themselves respectfully when walking there, making sure not to disturb any of the rocks along the path, being mindful of the nature in the area.
On the beautiful meandering trail surrounded by lush green on one side and lava rocks and ocean on the other, you can feel the spray of the waves as they splash on the rocks, smell the fresh sea air, and on a clear day see across the sea to Haleakala on the neighboring island of Maui. It’s also teaming with marine wildlife, and on this particular day, I was lucky enough to see lots of Honu – the green sea turtle native to Hawaii.
The Honu is the only indigenous reptile to Hawaii, and it’s been around for 150 million years, a real Hawaiian local! It’s an important part of the Hawaiian ecological story, but to the people of Hawaii it represents much more. The Honu is a symbol of wisdom and good luck, it represents the navigator and acts as the eternal link between mankind, the land, and sea. It’s honored by natives, protected by law, and downright adorable to see basking on lava rocks in the sun.
There’s a strict rule in Hawaii that forbids people from coming too close to the Honu or from touching one. Regrettably, on this particular visit, I broke that rule. I didn’t pet the Honu, or take a crazy picture pretending to ride it, or anything of that nature. I did, however, come within a few feet of one that I encountered resting peacefully along the beach. But I had good reason.
As I took a moment to rest a little from walking, to experience the mālie (the calm), I noticed a bit of tangled fishing wire on the beach beside me, so I went to pick it up. Then, I noticed a bit of blue plastic, so I picked that up. From there, some duct tape, then more plastic, an old screw, a Costco receipt, and within a few short minutes I had my hands full of trash. It was frustrating, sad, and disheartening. Every time I looked down I spotted more litter – most of it plastic of varying sizes, some pieces so tiny they blended in with the sand. And that’s when I spotted her. Minding her own business, taking a nap on the beach, a beautiful Honu, and just a few feet away from her was more bits of plastic. So, I broke that honorable Hawaiian rule, and walked up alongside her, respectfully of course, and collected as much of that plastic as I could before I left.
Honu like these, and marine life in general, are threatened by small plastics and micro-plastics, partially because the animals mistake them for the foods they eat. Once ingested, the plastics go undigested and lead to harmful health issues or death. In the case of this particular Honu, I didn’t want her thinking it was a delicious algae afternoon snack to munch on, so I did what I thought was right. As a reminder of that day I brought some of that plastic home, it’s sitting on my desk next to me as I write this, so I won’t forget that I have a responsibility to do my part whenever I can.
That brings me back to mālama pono. In general, I do not believe humankind to be evil or that we consciously pollute our world, but I do believe we’re not always holding ourselves to our highest standard. The fact that such a sacred path, home to such honored animals, could be so full of trash is hard proof of that (I know for a fact Honu don’t shop at Costco). And, the irony of the symbology of the Honu as the link between us and nature surrounded by harmful plastic is not lost – it’s a powerful lesson in present circumstances. I DO believe, however, that at the heart of mankind, we mean well, and once aware of something we will do our best to help if we can. We don’t mean harm, but we can be careless, and that carelessness can be destructive. We’re all responsible for the trash on that beach, for the well-being of the Honu in Hawaii, and for the well-being of our natural environments at large. I’m not asking you to organize beach clean-ups, or to completely eliminate plastic from your life – as awesome as that would be – I’m just asking you to be aware. Let’s start there.
Mālama pono – to care for, protect, preserve, or serve, righteously, carefully, morally, in a good or upright way. What I’m really asking you to do, GoodTraveler, is remember this saying, to take care of yourself in this manner, but also to extend your pono to the rest of world so that no matter where you go, good goes with you.