The island of Maui, Hawaii – one of the most remote landmasses on the planet — is rated consistently as the #1 island destination in the world by many major travel guides. In some this has been the case for as many as fourteen years running.
Maui is pure magic. Many people become almost immobile with wonder, and then return home using terms like synchronicity and serendipity. Those of us who live here, where such things are commonplace, simply say, “Oh, you got Maui-d!” You’ve heard of the Sea of the Unconscious? Well, look at a globe and see where Maui floats!
This is not a pretty Maui story. Whereas cell phones play a central role, they are merely symptoms. But, like Kaposi’s sarcoma is an agent of the rapidly accelerating destructiveness of A.I.D.s so, too, is the cell phone an ominous sign of a greater disease as well.
People from all over the world are familiar with a beach on Maui called Little Beach. Little Beach is adjacent to a larger and more tourist-oriented shore. To get to it you have to climb over an ancient lava-flow. Those who make the effort find themselves in an incredible world.
The beauty of the place is beyond question. A lava-rimmed cove embraces perfect body-boarding waves that lap up on a white sand beach sheltered by a mesquite (kiawe)-lined hill that looks down into a natural bowl. On Sundays, that site becomes one of the most entertaining and fulfilling multi-ringed circuses in the world.
Back sometime in the 1960’s, locals and visitors began an organic ritual. Each Sunday afternoon, island residents, their guests, and a variable amount of tourists clamber up and over the rise to enter this zone of freedom of expression.
A drumming circle there anticipates, greets, and bids farewell to sunset and hello to the night. The backbeat of as many as fifty drums of all orientations (the rhythms and sounds of African drums and drumming predominate), echo to the four directions. They provide a unifying rhythm for a conglomeration of adults and children who come to what is arguably the most famous clothing-optional beach in the world.
About ten years ago, a new element entered the mix; fire. Since then, fire dancers, both male and female, from Maui and all over the world, at all levels of experience and representing all age ranges, have come there to share. As the sun dips into the Pacific, fire arises on land. Here, fire is offered not as a buffer against the night, but as celebration of its mystery, all within the context of community. About six years ago, the State began closing the beaches in the area at 9:00 PM, leaving plenty of time to experience the full impact of the gathering.
There are as many reasons to be there as there are people that show up. It is a regular, no-fee event that embraces dancers, bubble-blowers, musicians, hula-hoopers, acrobats, twirlers, surfers, snorklers, swimmers, meditators, proselytizers, singers and a steady flow of whom you could call “surprisers” of all gender-orientations, colors, nationalities and ages.
Whether participants see themselves as performers, entertainers, healers, poets, priests or priestesses, artists, technicians, practitioners, clowns, sportsmen, teachers, or even observers, they offer themselves with focused intent. It is the power of that collective intent to be part of a “scene” that embraces many in a positive way (no matter how each person defines it) that has made Little Beach the sacred haven it is.
I missed less than ten Sundays there from late 2004 to August of 2006. It is a weekly sojourn that allows me to recharge my intent to be a vehicle of healing through drumming, music and dance. As a photographer, I’ve been documenting the spirit within the gathering. In the context of the healing arts I’ve been taught things there that have potent applications in the work I do with others.
Behind my viewfinder, however, I’ve noticed a shift that has turned this beauty into a harbinger of scary things to come. Its agents, whether they know it or not, whether they want to be or not, are the users of cell phones.
Not too long ago, I could take photographs without concern of having another photographer in the image. The people with cameras were few, aware, and cooperative enough to make adjustments to each other and the revelers. But then, almost abruptly, something shifted. Some time just before the beginning of 2006, people were able to receive and transmit cell phone signals on Little Beach.
I began to become annoyed at how difficult it was to get a sunset or fire dancing shot without getting the telltale glow of a red or blue cellphone screen on the image from someone talking, or taking shots and blasting them to friends in the Great Wherever. The trend was most evident within people whom were not regular attendees, especially tourists. More and more people on Little Beach were spending more and more time being somewhere else through their cell phones.
Tourists are central to the financial health and well being of the Hawaiian Islands. Their safety, not to mention good will (in hopes of return visits, without forgetting the guiding spirit of Aloha), is a legitimate concern of the local government and we who live here. The vast majority of the regulars on-site respect them. Tourists are often invited to participate more fully by regulars. Many are freely offered healing sessions.
Little Beach, to those who attend regularly, is a self-regulating entity. Until the pernicious spread of cell phones, however, the authorities had little reason to be concerned. But now it is looked at as an accident waiting to happen.
That’s not an inaccurate observation. The climb over the lava-flow, sometimes accompanied by a high tide line that reaches the outcropping’s base, can be harrowing, especially the return trip in darkness. Any concentration of revelers can draw alcohol and drug abuse leading to bad behavior. The handling of fire, anywhere, at any time, holds dangerous potential. Add to this the presence of children and inexperienced and vulnerable teenagers, nudity and maze-like woods and the blind power and indifference of the ocean itself, and you get the picture.
Yet, in over 80 weeks of my participation, I was very impressed with how consistently hard we, as regulars, work to assure a high level of security and safety for everyone.
Passage over the lava flow is taken seriously. Helping hands are always available. At night, they hold torches and flashlights. Fire dancers are constantly monitoring the perimeter of the fire circle, as well as the relative experience and awareness of new dancers. Many of them have been doing this – some professionally – for ten or more years and are a consistent presence.
Rowdy abusers, if threatening at all, are often encircled by a number of regulars, tightening a loving circle around them until they can be confined and escorted back over the lava flow to the parking lot. The beach is usually left cleaner than when the gathering began. Injuries and incidents on-site are stabilized and emergency services called only as a last resort. When they do arrive, their personnel are respected and assisted.
Here, on Sundays, there has been an unorganized community that has gathered and consciously made much effort to look out after its own. This temporary, self-sustaining community has worked for the last forty years because the participants have been personally involved with each other.
But, a few months ago I began to notice a more frequent presence of Maui Police and Dept. of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) personnel on Little Beach. What I observed was someone would get rowdy, someone would get scared, and rather than allow the regulars to regulate the situation in their own time, in their own way, someone would pick up a cellphone and call 9-1-1.
The final weekend of July, 2006, at about 8:15 P.M. as everyone was filing out to the parking lot after an uneventful but fulfilling night of celebration, 9-1-1 was notified that someone had been in a physical altercation and his backpack stolen. By the time the Maui Police Department got to the scene, there was hardly anyone on the beach, let alone victim and perpetrator (non-tourists). The incident had been handled.
The next week, signs were put up notifying all beach-goers that the DLNR was closing down that particular State Park at 6:00 P.M. “Safety concerns” were cited.
For balance, as an ex-paramedic, I know that there’s nothing more frustrating than being called to the scene of a reported emergency – often risking life, limb and peace of mind enroute – to find the call was bogus. The Maui Police Department is understaffed, and the DLNR even more so. These are not minor considerations. From their point-of-view, I have no quarrel with their reasoning.
The crux of the matter, however, is it has become easier to involve the authorities than it is to take the time and personal responsibility — within the context of community — to work things out. This is where cell phones are accelerating our loss of connection under the illusion that they provide more opportunities to connect. While they promise friendships, they create strangers.
The next week, after an uproar, the DLNR modified the closure to occur slightly after sunset. Each week since, the DLNR has been a stronger presence. The drumming has been limited because many regulars work on Sunday to survive economically on Maui and only have the evenings to participate. As for the fire dancers? You can count them on one hand now, and measure their impact in minutes where the healing arc of the spectacle once lasted for hours. By no means does it feel like a Police State, but something important has been lost.
The continuity of community at Little Beach has been dealt a severe blow. Whether or not it is fatal is yet to be determined. There are protests going on and lawyers working on it, but, in this report, it’s not the situation, per se, it’s all about its implications. Yes, I can blame cell-phones, but we all know that’s not the central issue. The issue is the way we use the powers of technology and instant communication to distance ourselves from our immediate experience of each other.
I have watched the cancer of the institution spread slowly but insidiously over the last fifty years. People once had to rely on each other within the context of hands-on, personal relationships. That is not the case any more. Nobody gets dirty except the care-taking professionals, and they bear an undue burden for the rest of us. Everyone suffers alone.
Medicine dictates what is done with our bodies. Law determines how we relate to others. Our police enforce policies that place undue burden on those of color and poverty. Our government decides whom we should fear and who is sent as cannon fodder to foreign lands. Corporations determine who makes out like a bandit and who pays. The extended family has turned into the nuclear family, which has even lost the glue that once held it together. (Whatever did happen to regular sit-down family meals, anyway? And how many cell phones are at your kitchen table?)
It’s far too easy to miss how the simple, life-affirming skills of interpersonal connection are taking a dangerous back seat to technology while we’re figuring out how to get the cellphone to remind us, find us, prime us, protect us, detect us, capture our images, store our information, tell us where to go, what to buy, what to watch, and who to listen to.
Cell phones connect us to the illusion of connection. They also link us to a system that can easily make sure that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, when and where we’re supposed to be doing it, and how Big Brother wants it all to be done.
It’s only a matter of time.
Things are moving so fast in our drunken love affair with the damned things, it won’t be long before we awaken to find we’ve allowed rapists into our beds.
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