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In this period of increasing political unrest in Hawaii and daily rants from a panicked U.S. president facing impeachment, it is calming to know there are places of refuge in Honolulu to regroup.
I find solace in out of the way establishments such as the Hare Krishna temple in a quiet residential neighborhood in Nuuanu where for $13 you can eat as much comforting Indian food as you want.
Since 1991, Honolulu devotees of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness have run Govinda’s café, offering vegetarian buffet lunches at the temple at 51 Coelho Way.
Tourists from India pull up in carloads at Govinda’s, often coming straight from the airport, to eat the food they consider true vegetarian because it is cooked without onions and garlic.
I go there to eat the papadams and curry and relax in the garden by taking picture of my friends under the giant Indian banyan tree.
The temple and restaurant are in a mansion on almost two acres of manicured gardens.
The property once was the family residence of my Punahou School classmate, Hugh Klebahn, a descendant of the missionary Wilcox family, whose parents Frederick and Lois Klebahn built it in the mid-1930s.
When the Klebahns sold their home in 1974 they thought the buyer was an attorney from Detroit. But the attorney turned out to be a representative of Alfred Ford, a great grandson of Ford Motor Company founder, Henry Ford.
Alfred Ford is a Krishna devotee who gave the property to the Hawaii Krishna group for its temple which surprised and upset the Klebahns who were worried their neighbors would be furious with them.
It was not unusual then for wealthy Krishna devotees to give a portion of their fortune to religious groups like Ford did. In 1973, the Beatle’s George Harrison donated a 17-acre estate in Hertfordshire, England, to the Hare Krishna movement.
One of the early devotees at the ISKCON Hawaii temple was Chris Butler, a guru with close ties to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and her parents. But in mid-1970s Butler broke off ties with the Hawaii temple to form his own sect called the Science of Identity Foundation. The Gabbards followed him.
All of these political connections might make the Govinda’s restaurant seem like a stressful place but it is strangely peaceful.
The devotees do not proselytize.
“We feel the food itself is our offering,” temple president Kusha Dayna Fiorentino says. “We don’t see a need to shove our beliefs down anyone’s throat.”
Fiorentino is a 1969 Kailua High School graduate who became a Krishna devotee during her freshman year at the University of Hawaii and has remained faithful ever since.
Once, she was among the Hare Krishna regulars chanting and seeking donations in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. Since then, the popularity of the religion has grown in Russia, Australia and Japan but has declined in Hawaii and the rest of the United States.
With only seven devotees living in the mansion, Florentino says it’s difficult to round up enough followers to do “congregational chanting” which she says is an important part of their practice.
She estimates there is a total of 500 devotees who still practice in the islands. That’s about half the number of the faithful who were here when the religion flourished in the 1970s.
Florentino says nowadays more non-believers than Krishna followers come to the restaurant to eat. She calls them “the lunch crowd from downtown, primarily interested in inexpensive food, easy access and ample parking.”
Florentino says many of the regulars are families with children who like relaxing over lunch while their children play in the garden as well as people wanting to eat a lot of food.
Some regulars eat so much, she says, that the temple soon will raise the lunch price to $13 for the first plate and $5 for each additional plate or offer diners the option of paying $8.99 for each pound of food.
Another place that is a soothing hideout in this time of political discord is Spalding House, Honolulu’s only contemporary art museum. But that’s not for long.
The Honolulu Museum of Art, which merged with Spalding House in 2011, is putting the Makiki Heights property up for sale. It will close Dec. 15.
I love the museum’s sweeping lawns and the fact that it was once a home.
Anna Rice Cooke hired architect Hart Wood to design the property in 1925 to be her new house after she donated the site of her Beretania Street residence for the construction of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, later renamed the Honolulu Museum of Art.
What is most relaxing here is walking down the stone paths in the home’s Japanese stroll garden created by Rev. K.H. Inagaki between 1928 and 1941 in a dry and barren ravine on the property.
Inagaki, who had been injured in a car crash, directed the construction of the stroll garden from his wheelchair. The American Society of Landscape Architects in the 1990s was so impressed with the Japanese stroll garden the group named it a national treasure.
It is a soothing mini hike to follow the trail to the bottom of the ravine and back up to the house, carefully moving through the winding paths between the rocks, tall trees and plant features.
If you call 24 hours ahead of time, Spalding House café will prepare a picnic lunch for $20 a person to enjoy on the lawn after the hike.
The last place of refuge I mention is not a nonprofit hidden away in a residential neighborhood or situated in a former family home like the other two places. It is Wing Ice Cream Parlor, operating at a small profit out of a storefront on Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
Ice cream maker Miller Royer’s place is comforting mainly because of his quiet demeanor as he dishes out some of the strangest ice cream flavors I have ever tasted including black sesame and Thai soup.
There is always something new at Wing, such at Cheez-It flavored ice cream or ice cream made with garlic or an ice cream blended out of mashed avocados.
Royer’s girlfriend Thao Nguyen is a chef and helps him dream up new flavors such as pizza and an ice cream flavor called “Brie and caramelized pear.”
Royer says the strangest flavor he’s ever made was mushroom soup.
“It was a very weird taste experience, even for me. Mushroom soup is supposed to be hot but when it was iced cold, my brain could not compute the taste. It was confusing. I will never make it again.”
Ice cream offers comfort for a relatively cheap price. Royer says he likes to see how happy it make his customers. “Sometimes eating ice cream is the only affordable thing to do when times are bad. I call it ice cream therapy.”
Royer is a McKinley High School graduate, who grew up in Kukui Plaza in Chinatown. His mother operates a fruit stand on Mauna Kea Street.
His customers are school children who live in Chinatown, Hawaii Theatre goers and passersby coming from Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, which are not noted for having good desserts.
Says Royer, “It makes me happy to be improving the neighborhood in which I grew up.”
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