09/30/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Jungle Beat #1: Who We Are

The marketing wonks did a bang-up job promoting Hawaii since before jet travel existed. They successfully convinced everyone in the world that Hawaii is a paradise of sunny skies and white-sand beaches, and that being here causes all cares to vanish.

But the reality of the situation is that only a small percentage of Hawaii fills these fantasies. Honolulu and its urban scene are the exceptions, not the norm. Much of the Island State is rural and many people are hardy expatriates from big cities and stressful careers.

I'll be writing about life on the Big Island, whose official name is Hawaii. A mere 187,000 people live here, compared with Oahu's 950,000. And on the east side of the Big Island, the County seat of Hilo has but 43,000 residents. How many others live in the jungles north, west and south of town? That's a matter of speculation because many of these souls want to remain anonymous.

We are a mixed bag of ethnicities, ages and backgrounds. We are retired professors, welfare moms, farmers, county employees, nurses, waitresses, weed dealers, babysitters, artists and even HuffPost bloggers. When you venture off the main road, the power poles end, and residents rely on generators, solar power and water-catchment systems. Not so long ago, before the cell phone revolution began in the 1990s, you had to climb the tallest coconut palm tree around and install the hardware for a radio-operated phone, if you wanted phone service at all. When the wind blew hard, you lost your connection and had to climb up again to repair it.

Permaculture and sustainability are typical ways of life for many in East Hawaii. You'll even find edible plants growing in downtown Hilo, thanks to volunteers with the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association's "Let's Grow Hilo" effort. When you travel to the rocky coastline, which locals call "the beach" even though there's no sand, you'll usually see fisherman trolling for dinner. And nearly every suburban backyard has a papaya tree or some pineapples growing. I always say that if the boats and planes that bring us 90 percent of our groceries were to stop, we would never starve.

We also live on an island with an active volcano, Kilauea. It's been erupting continuously since 1983, but people here take it in stride. There's very little danger unless you do something stupid like hike into an area where the lava is still hot. The molten rock slowly creeps over land in remote areas, so when it approaches homes, residents have plenty of warning. I've heard of people removing everything from their house before the lava claims it, including toilets, doors, faucets, and other fixtures you don't ordinarily take with you when you move.

Tragedy does sometimes strike, as it did in 1991 when lava inundated the small village of Kalapana. The molten rock filled in an entire bay and destroyed two beautiful black-sand beaches, Kalapana and Kaimu. But if you hike out to the ocean where the new rocky coastline now exists, you'll find a black-sand beach and coconut trees locals have planted to make it look the way it did before Madame Pele, the Volcano Goddess, took it as her own. As the island adds land, life goes on.