Hilo opened whole new world for me

Hilo, that in-between city, half cars, half canoes, a city without shoes.

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Hilo, that in-between city, half cars, half canoes, a city without shoes.

What memories I have of that little town of rivers and waterfalls, bamboo jungles and sweeping waves, it was too quaint to be real.

I was there in 1973 and it could have been 1873.

Wooden buildings, some built in the 1800s, iron rings in the sidewalk to tie up your horse. Sampan buses driving around like on a movie set, but it wasn’t a movie set, it was real. I had to rub my eyes to make sure.

In that sleepy, rustic town I spent my college years. Some people attend grand academic bastions but in 40 years the classes fade, the fancy diploma sits in the closet, only the memories remain.

A degree is a degree, and I received mine in paradise; Walking to class was filled with wonders. A giant monkey pod tree where you could wander in its roots like a maze, gold koi gliding through Kalakaua Park, a Greek Temple for a post office, a singing bridge.

Sometimes after school we would run downtown to the Wailuku River, cross a bridge, pass by sugar baron mansions, down into a jungle area we called South America.

It had to be South America, it was too lush to be mere Hawaii. It had a triple-decker waterfall, tumbling into three separate pools.

I remember jumping in the icy water, swimming the lower pool. Carefully climbing along a 6-inch wide ledge to the next pool. There I stood under the gushing waterfall taking a blasting cold shower while everyone laughed.

Back in town we waved down an old Sampan bus. This was a long, open-air taxi with a cloth top. It stopped, and a Chinese man in a plaid shirt, khakis and slippers motioned us to get in. We scrunched under the low roof next to Japanese and Portuguese men grinning away.

I handed the driver a dime, yes, 10 cents was the fare, and he said, “T’anks, eh.” And drove us right to our door at Hilo College. Sampans ran on aloha.

Hilo was always perfectly manicured, acres of emerald-colored grass smooth as a putting green, like menehune had come in the night and waved their wands over the grass. The Wailoa Pond was a perfect Oriental painting with just the right number of flat bottom boats with old Japanese men slumped over in straw hats, flicking their thin bamboo rods out to catch 1-inch fish, God knows why.

Hawaiians carrying their ancient-carved canoes to bay front and paddling like they’d done for a thousand years, heaving forward and paddling under the watchful eye of age-old Mauna Kea.

The whole pageant kept a young college boy dizzy in a world so different from his own. Growing up by freeways and malls and stucco houses, I was now in a world of streams gurgling beside cane houses I’d only seen in brown-tinted photos.

Real coconut trees, avocados, mangoes, that anyone could pick up and eat.

Whole towns with storefronts out of a cowboy movie. The Palace Theater with chandeliers, red satin drapery with gold brocade.

A place out of another time, left alone by the rest of the world.

This is where I went to school captivated for three dreamy years. Others went to UCLA or Berkeley and remember their big city campus. I went to Hilo College and remember walking to class through high weeds and petting the nose of a big brown horse that wandered around the school all day.

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Hilo, mahalo for the memories.

Dennis Gregory is a teacher, musician and artist who mixes truth, humor and aloha in his biweekly column. He can be reached at makewavess@yahoo.com