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March 17, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

KAUNAKAKAI, Hawaii — Little has changed on Molokai...the clock has moved ahead barely a moment...the island slumbers peacefully in the warm Hawaiian sun. Trade winds funnel into Halawa Valley. It's a lifetime removed from crowds and traffic of the cities--so still one can nearly hear a petal drop.

A huge moon shines down on Molokai tonight and the Ebb Tides are picking away at the strings over at the Pau Hana, which is the island's oldest inn.

They're doing their number under an immense banyan tree next to the ocean. Four guys the size of Brahman bulls playing "Tiny Bubbles" while barefoot islanders in tank tops and shorts boogie under the stars.

Because it's Saturday night, customers are hit with a cover charge. That's right, no one gets in free at the Pau Hana. Not on Saturday. This is no backwater joint. It costs a buck to make your way past the big moose at the door. What's more it costs another buck for a beer. Hey, who's kidding? Isn't this the same Hawaii where they get $4 and $5 for mai tais at those fancy hotels over in Honolulu?

Well, sure, but Molokai has escaped those shenanigans. Molokai is different. Molokai is old Hawaii--Hawaii before the tour buses and high-rises and too many tourists and third-rate talents like Don Ho with his low-life humor.

On Molokai it's a tradition on Saturday night for locals to gather at the Pau Hana. Island girls in minis and muumuus and island guys in red tank tops and shorts. Torches flame beside the ocean and candles flicker at tables scattered under the old Bengalese banyan with its gnarled branches and a trunk bigger than the bar itself.

Besides Hawaiian melodies, the Ebb Tides grind out pop tunes and the crowd dances until the moon vanishes. After the bartender waves everyone off, they leap into a bunch of battered pickups and VW Bugs and chase off down the road to parties that go till dawn. Or sometimes till the sun is high in the Hawaiian heavens.

I remember when the Pau Hana was called the Seaside Inn. A Coke machine rattled all night long outside my door and trade winds blew through the window. The place had no air conditioning, but no one minded. Weather-beaten frame cottages stood in a grove of palms and rain pounded the rusty old metal roofs like hail hitting the side of a barn.

The fragrance of plumeria drifted into my room and outside great bursts of bougainvillea wrapped themselves against the entrance. Moisture dripped from the ceiling and the room was musty, but this is the tropics, so who cared? In my mind I was a million miles from the crowds and traffic snarls of the cities and it was simply wonderful.

Happily, little has changed on Molokai. I don't mean just at the Pau Hana where a few new bungalows and a swimming pool have been added. I am talking about the entire island. On Molokai the clock hasn't moved ahead hardly a minute. The only concession to big-time tourism is a development along the western shore.

Otherwise, the island remains unchanged. It slumbers peacefully in the warm Hawaiian sun, trade winds blowing through the old plantation town of Mauna Loa and funneling into Halawa Valley, and down 2,000-foot cliffs that dive straight to Kalaupapa, the colony where Father Damien shared his faith and his compassion with the forgotten.

On Molokai the roads are mostly deserted. Hawaiians who occupy little frame shanties by the sea are content to live the simple life. I recall when there was but a single daily flight to Molokai. It landed at a ramshackle old terminal that a heavy gust would have toppled.

A few jalopies were for rent, but there was no Hertz or Avis--and no one guaranteed you'd get as far as the street in one of those wheezing old disasters. Ours broke down and we wound up pushing it two miles back to the owner's house near the airport. He gave us a vintage coupe and less than a mile away it blew its radiator, sputtered and stopped.

Molokai's frontier town, Kaunakakai, resembles the scene from an old John Wayne flick. It hardly stirs during the heat of day. Sometimes it's so still that one can nearly hear a plumeria petal hit the earth.

Islanders shop in a Chinese grocery and buy bread and pastries at Kanemitsu's Bakery, and there's a decrepit old poolhall where the locals gather to play snooker and drink Primo, the local beer. Sometimes on Saturday night they get into beefs and punch each other out.

By morning, though, it's forgotten. They meet at a coffee shop/bar that's run by an old Hawaiian woman where they laugh it up and order another beer. Besides, usually they're too hung over to start the fight over again. And anyway, this old Hawaiian lady with the stringy hair and the wrinkled muumuu gets plenty miffed whenever someone starts a beef in her joint.

Several years ago the foreman of a ranch up the road stormed into her cafe. He was after a couple of guys who'd stolen his cattle. This time the old Hawaiian woman said nothing. She remained behind the counter. She sensed that this paniolo meant business.

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