Discover more from The Crunchwrap by Adam Chandler
Can We Talk About Maui for a Sec?
Paradise’s problems are our problems on steroids
Dear Friends…especially those who didn’t unsubscribe after last week’s Crocs unboxing…welcome back to The Crunchwrap.
My mind has been on the news from Maui, where earlier this week fires swept through the historic area of Lahaina and, bolstered by high winds, more or less incinerated the town in a very short period of time.
If you missed the particulars, they were terrifying; warning sirens didn’t go off, residents jumped into the ocean to avoid the fires. As of this morning, this fires are still going, but are almost entirely contained. The death toll is nearing triple digits, which makes it the deadliest wildfire in modern American history.
Now, there’s a lot to sift through in this story, but I wanted to narrowly frame what’s happened in terms that I think could be useful. Namely, the popular association with a place like Maui as an edenic tourism destination, which sort of obscures its fixture as a real place with real (American) problems.
There’s no way to say this without sounding unbelievably annoying, but back in February, I went to Maui. Nominally I went to do some work, but mostly it was a bucket list trip with the future Mrs. Crunchwrap.As a traveler with open ears, one refrain you hear is that there is actually no good way to visit a place like Hawaii. The ecosystem is fragile, the economy is stratified, and most tourism tends to make both of these problems worse.
Indeed, the best you can aspire to is to not be awful. A few ways to do this:
Make an effort to know local customs and history (here’s a useful, but depressing primer about how Hawaii came to be annexed by the U.S. in 1898)
Not be a douchebag to locals you meet
Vote with your wallet for local interests to the (often limited) extent that you can.
All of this preamble interlocks with the story of the disaster. Yesterday, the Times had an instructive piece about the challenges of rebuilding an area that went from once serving as the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom to becoming a popular tourist hub with deep cultural importance. Before the fires, Lahaina was a place where the median home cost $1.7 million and where 40 percent of housing was used for short-term rentals. From the story:
Many of the neighborhoods that burned were densely populated with many of the town’s original plantation-style homes that, over time, had been bought by investors and subdivided into apartments that were rented out to workers. Because of the town’s density, [one local real estate manager] said, the destruction of the hundreds of homes there translates into as many as 6,000 people who are now homeless.
During my visit, I ended up meeting a transplant named Ron in line at a fish place. He had moved to Maui from Illinois four years earlier to work there and spend as much as time outdoors as possible. We ended up having lunch together and he explained what life was like as someone who works a handful of travel and hospitality gigs at some of the nicest properties on earth.
A built-in part of his budget was paying rent to a health club where he could shower and use the facilities.
What stood out to me though was what his reality was like as a permanent resident in paradise. Rather than find space in a partitioned apartment with six to eight people, which is a common housing solution there, he had decided to buy a van and live in it by himself. A built-in part of his budget was paying rent to a health club where he could shower and use the facilities.
This is one version of what life looks like in a place like Maui, if you’re lucky enough to have the cash for a life-sized car. Minus the natural beauty, it looks a lot like life across the mainland as well, particularly in what public intellectuals call superstar cities on the coasts. From a brutal housing crunch to the shocking cost of living to a glut of lower-paying service jobs (servers and retail workers are the two most predominant occupations in Maui), the challenges facing Maui as it eventually endeavors to rebuild should sound familiar to all of us.
In short, paradise’s problems are many of our own problems on steroids.
Small Call to Action
Last night, I was watching a baseball game and the predictable American Red Cross banners popped up during the broadcast soliciting donations for Maui. (ProPublica has done some critical reporting on why the American Red Cross is terrible at what it does).
If you are inclined to help, I wanted to point to a good mutual aid operation currently on the ground in Maui that’s in need of donations.
That’s it for this week. Thank you for enduring this madlibs of virtue signaling. I’m grateful for you as always!
If I had the physique – and the accompanying lack of shame – I am sure I would have posted a tribute photo of myself in Maui looking svelte on the beach. (I became an expert on Big Macs instead, and that has made all the difference.)
I’d like to say we did our best; we mostly stayed in a rental owned by a local in upcountry, far away from the tourism scrum. And when we did devote a few nights to the West Maui tourism zone, we chose an independent hotel just north of Lahaina that had been billed as “Hawai‘i’s Most Hawaiian Hotel.” (In a perfect flourish, in June, the hotel was acquired by a hospitality group called OUTRIGGER that owns 26 properties around the islands and offered some passing language about its “commitment to the community” during the acquisition.)