Naka Nathaniel: It's Time To Remember We Can Live With Less And Be Patient - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Living on an island often means making do with what we have. 

This is the time of year we start to remember the moments when our lives were turned over three years ago. We recall the stoppages, the illnesses and the deaths.

We remember the lessons we learned and we wistfully recall the lessons that didn’t stay with us. Especially, those around coming together and making do with less.

Last week, while notarizing documents at a UPS store, I was surprised at the pile of boxes dropped off by a delivery person. We joked with the notary that there sure were a lot of St. Patrick’s Day presents this year. She laughed and said that the number of boxes was crazy and that the volume hadn’t slowed since the holidays.

She pointed to a wall of boxes and said they were there to be picked up and she pointed to the other side of the store and said, “Those are the returns. It’s way too much.” 

I saw the boxes and immediately thought, this is not island living. The boxes were stacked to the ceiling. The resources needed to move those boxes to this corner of the planet were considerable. As were those needed to return the goods to the retailers.

I thought back to one of the lessons learned during the pandemic when the disruptions in the supply chain caused scarcity and forced us to adapt. That situation was a reminder of growing up on an island near the intersection of the equator and the dateline. 

On our small and remote island, Kwajalein, if Christmas presents weren’t ordered around the beginning of the school year, Santa would be showing up in January. Those images of Santa kicking back on a beach? He wasn’t relaxing — he was working overtime because Santa’s helpers had missed the monthly barge. 

And if staples weren’t available, you improvised. No tomato sauce for pizza? Try ketchup.

Dealing with scarcity and busted supply chains during the pandemic meant empty shelves, temporary desperation and then making do. We all were resourceful and it made us feel good when we had our “Castaway” moments where we made fire, cut our spouse’s hair or baked bread and sweet treats. 

Aunty Ida's sweet bread recipe.
Aunty Ida’s sweet bread recipe. (Courtesy: Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

I found an echo of “the making do with less because you live on an island” ethos when I made a special birthday cake for my sister who lives in Volcano. My plan was to bake sweet bread, turn it into bread pudding and top it with haupia. To start, I pulled out the family cookbook my Aunty Violet authored and found our ohana’s original recipe for “Aunty Ida’s Sweet Bread.”

The ingredients were simple and the measurements were standard, except for one thing: One can cream.

I was stumped. One can cream? What kind of cream and what size was the can? Baking recipes are supposed to be precise. If the numbers are off, you end up with a mess. I was stumped because a modern day supermarket had too many answers for a simple ingredient.

Did one can cream mean heavy whipping cream? Which was sold now in two different sized cartons? Condensed milk? Now sold in two different sizes of cans? Evaporated milk? And again, two sizes of cans. There was also Mexican crema, table cream and creme fraîche available. I had too many solutions.

Sadly, Aunty Violet passed eight years ago and I couldn’t call her to ask, “Aunty, what’s one can cream?”

My solution was to search the grocery store for any of the aunties who might have known what “one can cream” meant in Hilo in the middle of last century.

Thankfully, I found one who looked at the recipe and laughed. “Evaporated milk. Big size can. That’s one can cream.”

One large can of evaporated milk turned out to be the answer to “one can cream” in Aunty Ida’s sweet bread recipe. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

One can cream. This was an ingredient before the conveniences of the continent became readily available here in Hawaii. A lot of delicious food was made with the limitations of island life.

On the continent, having everything available to you in less than 24 hours is great for consumers. It can be tough to leave those conveniences behind when you move to a remote Pacific island.

When my wife decided on the car she wanted, she called a local dealership and found out she was in luck: There was one left on the island. However, she didn’t care for the color. She asked when they might get a car in the color she liked and they told her: Maybe six to nine months. 

I reminded her that she lived on an island and this was one of the compromises she needed to make. Just say yes. She acquiesced and her decision was validated when her teenaged cool kid nieces saw the car and told her how much they luuuvvved the color.

Our politicians and activists are in deep discussions about the notion of what sustainable living looks like in 2023 and the future ahead of us. A first step is to realize that we live on an island and that the conveniences of the continent aren’t suitable for our ecosystem.

Globalism has made it too easy to click and have anything we want shipped to us. We know that we don’t own stuff, stuff owns us. And what’s shipped here, stays here. 

Most of us learned during the pandemic that we could do with a little less and be patient. That has always been a lesson learned living on an island.

Read this next:

Neal Milner: Old Folks Are A Lot Less Fragile Than You Think

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

For some things, it is best to buy local like food, supporting cultural events and artisans. But we live in an almost hyper connected world where it just doesn't make sense unless you want to go totally off the grid. We can't make our own cars or computers. Not a lifestyle I would guess many would or even can take. Still I would suggest that individually we can make choices to lessen the environmental footprint we make. Consuming less where we can, buying needs instead of wants.

oldsurfa · 2 months ago

I appreciate your perspective and your wonderful writing. It cuts deep. More, please! Mahalo.

jb808 · 2 months ago

I must say I had a completely opposite pandemic experience. I ordered probably 10x more stuff online during the pandemic than before, because 1) not many stores were open, and 2) I was so bored sitting at home and needed something to do.I also don't agree that island life means we need to force ourselves into artificial scarcity. I love taking business calls on my iPhone with my noise cancelling Airpods while I sit on the beach doing work on my Macbook Pro...all while my mainland counterparts are sitting in an office. And I love ordering so much stuff online that I forget what's in the box that arrives each day.Not that anything's wrong with entertaining yourself with bread making. It's just not my island life. To each their own, I guess.

FutureNihon · 2 months ago

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