The old expression ‘wild horses wouldn’t drag me there’ came to mind today as we drove down into Waipi’o Valley. Downhill traffic had to give way to those making their way up what was at times a 17 degree incline. Hair-raising. Actually, were this classified as a road, it would be it would be the steepest road of its length in the United States and possibly the world.We had hopes of seeing the famous wild horses and magically, they obliged. 2013 is starting off well. The valley is the last of the big island’s undeveloped valleys, a place where thirty or so families farm taro, speak Hawaiian and live the old life. To venture in is to venture back in time. Some fitter, braver souls walked down (and back up again) n but the silver lining in the series of back injuries in our jeep meant we drove.
Just how many horses there are in the 3000-acre valley is anyone’s guess. Some say there might be 40, others put the numbers in the hundreds. They were first introduced to the area back in the 1800s but when trucks and tractors made their appearance at the end of the Second World War, the horses were let loose. Descended from the Mexican cow horse and Arabian horses gifted to the king, they come in shades of brown, black, pinto, and silver and have curiously flat foreheads. Back in 2006, one taro farmer decided he’d had enough of their pilfering ways and shot dead six of them. In the ensuing outrage, suggestions of a sanctuary for the horses, seen as part of Hawaiian heritage, were tabled. Six years later, the horses still run free.
Waipi’o taro is reputedly the best on the island. Taro (colocascia esculenta) is a Samoan word; in Hawaiian it’s kalo. It was introduced to the islands by the Polynesians about 450 AD and is a staple part of the diet. Babies move from breast milk to poi, a purple paste that brings luck when eaten on New Year’s Day. In ancient Hawaii, the cultivation of taro was associated with the god Kane, procreator and life giver, provider of water and sun. Only men could plant, harvest and pound taro. When the poi was on the table, people were not to argue or speak in anger.
It’s a root vegetable somewhat similar in appearance to a turnip. Traditional preparation has you remove the skin and then pound the white flesh on a board with a a rock (pohaku ku’I). Add water, pound, add water, pound until you have a paste which is then dried, diluted with water, kneaded, and aged. Depending on its thickness, it’s said to be one-finger, two-finger, three-finger….For those not weaned on it, it’s said to taste of Elmer’s glue. Having not tasted either, I can’t comment. Interestingly, taro – sometimes called the potato of the humid tropics – is said to be similar to the Irish potato. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of potato flour being used in baby milk, though. Still, poi has now officially made it onto my list of foods to eat before I die and wild horses have taken on a whole new meaning.