How to survive on Maui

Living on Maui is very different from visiting. The key to surviving on an island known for high cost of living, few jobs, and low wages is to be able to live within one’s means. Another is to have income independent of the local economy.

All my training in living frugally has come in handy. I grew up in a family conscious of costs and mindful of waste. My father taught me to save from a very young age.

Think of living frugally as a process of optimization, a fundamental principle in a discipline known as Operations Research or OR for short. You optimize your return on what you spend by minimizing your costs and maximizing what you can get with as little as possible. Stretch your budget. Practise the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle.

The field of operations research (OR) grew out of the industrial revolution — efficiency in manufacturing had a direct impact on competitiveness. Later OR was adopted in the military (logistics), hospitals (queueing theory), and air transportation (optimal routing).


What does this mean in practice? First you need to develop an awareness of costs and improve your ability to control your spending and saving. Herr are some tips.

  1. Freebies can’t get any cheaper. Go to free events, free concerts, free tastings. Costco gives free tastings in its store. Visit when you are hungry and have no money on you. You do need to be a Costco member. Be on the lookout for freebies — free outdoor movie nights at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, free live music at Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall and First Fridays. Swim at the beach or at public swimming pools, if you don’t have access to hotel pools or have one yourself.
  2. Only shop if you need to. Otherwise, don’t.
  3. Barter. Example: trade your home-grown papayas for apple bananas someone else grows at home.
  4. Don’t waste. Always buy only what you need and consume ALL of it.
  5. If you have to shop, do it wisely. Choose optimally — where, when, how often, and how much. Become a smart shopper. Know where to get the cheapest price for your item. Example: tofu is cheapest at Cash and Carry in Kahului. It’s about $1 cheaper than at Safeway or Foodland.
  6. Use your credit card instead of cash, cheque, or debit card as much as you can. Always pay off your credit card in full.
  7. Buy in bulk to get quantity discount and then divide the bulk with your family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc. Example: shop at Costco
  8. Buy second-hand. Shop at garage sales, Ross Dress for Less, Savers and other thrift stores (especially when they have SALES!)
  9. Shop online. Check Craigslist. Check Amazon. Compare prices.
  10. Control your energy use. Electricity tariffs in the state are the highest in the USA and twice that of the next highest (New York) and three times that of average in the USA.
  11. Because we have the highest gasoline prices in the country, it really does not make sense to drive far. Live close to where you need to be most of the time. In other words, be able to walk to work, school, shops, etc. If you do need a car, get an efficient one — not a gas guzzler.  Consider carpooling. Consider riding a bicycle. Walking is the best exercise though.
  12. Get Costco gasoline. It’s cheaper than any other petrol station. Honest.
  13. Switch off your hot water breaker switch when you are away for a minimum of 24 hours….. unless you have solar water heater.
  14. House sit. Homeowners with pets and plants who travel or go off island from time to time need help caring for their pets and plants.
  15. Always ask if there’s a “kama’aina rate” — in other words, on production of a Hawaii state identification card or a Hawaii state driver’s license, in certain off-peak seasons, restaurants and hotels offer special rates to local residents.

Some of the above tips are useful anywhere. If you can think of others to share, please comment in the REPLY BOX below.

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Three years on: how to get on and stay on

Three Years On, composed by Anne Ku

Three Years On, for piano solo, composed by Anne Ku (click for page 2)

Three years is the invisible mark of being able to last on Maui. I made it my goal to last three years to convince others that I’m here to stay. Besides explaining that I came here because my family is here, that I bought a one-way ticket, that I took whatever job I could get to live here, it was necessary to pass the three year mark.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that the most searched phrase that reaches this blog of mine is “cost of living on Maui” —- interesting in that if you’re not concerned about cost of living, you wouldn’t need to read this blog. You’d be spending your time doing other things.

Certain behaviors that puzzled me when I first arrived now make a lot of sense.

People who live here are protective of their jobs. They dislike those that sound arrogant or come across as being entitled. They are weary of those who say they’re here to stay and leave after a few months or a year. These are interruptions that cause a jolt in the daily lives of the people who live here.

Plenty of smart, experienced, and accomplished experts come to Maui and expect to get a job — just like that. Unless your profession is in great demand, such as medicine, don’t expect you will get hired immediately. It takes a lot to hire someone better than yourself and risk yourself being made redundant. I’ve heard of army veterans applying for work as security guards, but their own qualifications top that of the head honcho. There are numerous better qualified people but there’s only one job.

It can be intimidating.

I have experienced it both ways. I was desperate to hire someone to help me. I was even willing to pay that person more than my own salary, but the rules didn’t allow it. I tried anyway. In hindsight, I should have taken more time, i.e. do the due diligence of checking the person’s references and having the person go through interviews with others, so that it wasn’t just my decision. In the end, the person quit after a few weeks. A jolt in the system. Poor fit. This has nothing to do with the person’s abilities and competence.

Yes, it’s all about the fit.

Will you fit in? Will you try to fit in? Are you able to get over island fever? Are you able to blend in and be a part of the solution?

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Paradoxes of paradise

When I first started this blog, I simply wanted to record the discoveries I made and share the bits of useful information I learned from others. I was curious if it was possible to fly here on a one-way ticket, make a living somehow, and call Maui my home.

Nearly 3 years later, I daresay that all of the above have been possible.

Everyday is paradise as I had imagined it: predictable perfect weather, friendly and polite people, endless outdoor possibilities, low population density giving to plenty of personal space, slower pace of life requiring one to chill out to adapt, and tropical fruit and vegetables galore.

The low population density translates to one degree of separation. Everybody knows each other — and as long as you’re not in the black book, this is fine. It’s easy to find the person you’re looking for. Transactions are based on who you know and who knows you. The more people that know you, supposedly, the easier things get done. The reverse is also true — a bad reputation travels fast.

If you like variety and choice, Maui may not be the place for you. Pretty soon you run into the same people or see the same faces but don’t remember when or where. Some things you simply don’t get to choose, e.g. electric kettles and book cases. You’re lucky if there’s one model in stock, usually the last item on the shelf!

And so, I’ve passed the honeymoon stage of culture shock. I’m also long past the homesickness stage. Certain activities remind me of what I miss in the places where I have lived before, and that’s when it jolts me. I miss my own tribe — people that I discover by myself (and not introduced) and want to get to know through collaboration and activities.

I am at that stage of culture shock where I feel pretty well adapted and adjusted, except for the paradoxes that puzzle me.

  1. Why are we squeezed between high cost of living and low wages?
  2. Why is it difficult to find a job if you have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher — unless you’re in the health and medical profession?
  3. Why are energy prices higher than average, or rather, among the highest in the country when we see an abundance of wind and sun? Why are we so dependent on petroleum — or rather, dependent on fossil fuel imports — when we are blessed with natural sources of energy, i.e. renewable energy?
  4. Why is there such a big gap between the very rich, famous and in hiding, flown here to retire and those that were born and bred here, juggling 3 jobs to survive?
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Tracking #Flossie

Is it me or is it everybody who has got time and addiction to track every piece of information that helps to reduce the uncertainty of a natural event that may hit Maui?

First it was the tsunami warning of March 2011. Then the tsunami warning of October 2012. Now it’s tropical storm Flossie, brewing in the Pacific Ocean, heading westbound to the Hawaii islands.

By the time this post is read, it would have passed.

Each of these three events caused me a late night’s sleep. In every case, it was over by the time I woke up the next morning, except for Flossie.

Why would news, forecasts, and gossip about such an event eclipse everything else?

Having experienced 9-11 as an observer in Manhattan, i.e. that of a visitor who felt like she was not supposed to be there and not knowing where to go or what to do, my antennae perk up whenever a potentially catastrophic event is about to occur. Unlike 9-11, you can predict natural disasters. You can track #Flossie the thunder storm.

Living in paradise is steady state. The weather is nearly the same everyday: sunshine and perfect conditions for wearing sleeveless tops, shorts, or dresses/skirts. You don’t have to plan or prepare for tomorrow. Unless you’re an advanced surfer, snorkeling enthusiast, or sailor, you can pretty much count on good beach weather everyday. Life is pretty easy, if you have a roof over your head, a means to get from A to B, and three jobs to make ends meet.

You could say, we’re robust, i.e. not easily affected.

But when an event like tsunami or hurricane happens or heads our way, that’s when we’re reminded that we are hiding behind the illusion of paradise. We’re very vulnerable.

All it takes is for food and fuel to stop coming to the islands — we will get nervous. Each full plane of tourists bring $ to the islands. Each plane carries cargo for the local stores. Gas prices will rise. Shortages will occur, sped up by panic and a run for what’s left.

At time of writing, many flights have been cancelled in anticipation of the tropical storm Flossie though the decreasing momentum of its center may get it downgraded to tropical depression status.

Long time residents know that heavy winds may cause power cuts. Flashflooding may rupture main pipes, contaminate what is normally potable water.

There is a silver lining to tsunami and storm warnings. Surfers get excited by the possibility of high surf. Unlike the rest of us who seek safe shelter and equip ourselves against power and water interruptions, they monitor the web and liaise with their “gang” to see where to catch the waves, if it’s worthwhile.

Monday 29 July 2013 Maui 10:40 am HST

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Free things to do on Maui – free concert

After over a year of hiatus, I am back.

Note: if you google “Maui Tips” or the URL you’ll get all sorts of websites. This blog is not affiliated with any of those websites. It’s just a blog about a newcomer’s discoveries to share with other newcomers or want-to-be newcomers.

There are plenty of free things to do on Maui. I will do a spring cleaning of old blog posts, deleting those that are no longer relevant (e.g. some businesses have disappeared).

Free concert, Saturday 13th July 2013 at the famous old church on the beach in Makena, at the southern tip of Maui, past Wailea. If you want to experience sitting at a concert with the background sounds of ocean waves, don’t miss this. I went there last summer and thought, “how awesome!”  It was truly wonderful and unique to be in the audience and probably even more memorable to be the performer because you get to practise in lovely surroundings all day.

Duo Diorama, young husband-wife piano-violin team, from their base in Chicago, will give an exciting program ending with John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata (1963) which catapulted the then 26-year old composer to fame. Later he won the Oscar for original score to the movie “The Red Violin.”

Pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm. Concert starts at 7:30 pm. Free parking. Free entry. Free refreshments and snacks during the intermission. Stay for the post-concert reception at Monkey Pod Restaurant in Kihei.

Too many freebies. Oh yes! Free sunset. Don’t stay home for this. See you there!

More information, visit Ebb & Flow Arts.

Ebb & Flow Arts presents Duo Diorama, Saturday 13 July 2013 at the Keawala'i Church in Makena, Maui

Ebb & Flow Arts presents Duo Diorama, Saturday 13 July 2013 at the Keawala’i Church in Makena, Maui

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Tsunami Blues

On Saturday 27 October 2012 at 8:37 pm HST, I received a text message on my mobile phone from an old friend in Colorado Springs. It was a direct tweet “@UncleKorm: @MauiTips be alert>> “@NWS_WCATWC: Sun Oct 28 03:08:37 UTC 2012 event picture”  To those of you who do not tweet, this SMS may seem cryptic and impersonal. It caught my attention as I was expecting a quiet night of writing.

Earthquake of 7.7 magnitude off Queen Caroline Islands in West Coast of Canada may generate a tsunami, heading to Hawaii. First to hit Maui at 10:28 pm HST. Highest wave expected at Kahului Harbor, Maui. [The Mauitips blog photo above is a picture of the harbor, as seen from elevated Wailuku.]

After doing my due diligence and tweeting #hitsunami with what I knew and saw, my friend called me at 9 pm. It was 1 am his time.

“What are you doing at this hour? Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” I cried.

He was worried about me. I reassured him that I had been through the Japanese tsunami watch in March 2011 and that I had written an elegy for the South East Asia tsunami in 2005. Neither of these qualified me an expert in tsunamis but I felt I knew more than he did.  The Japan earthquake of 2012 was of magnitude 9.0 and had to travel a long distance to get to Hawaii where it did cause damage. The size of the Canada earthquake was much lower but the tsunami had less distance to get to Hawaii. I did not have a regression model in my head to figure out which was the greater evil.

I walked to my landlady’s house to ask about our elevation. She’s lived here her entire life. “It won’t get up here,” she shrugged. She must know, I thought.

Unlike 9/11 which took us all by surprise, we have warning systems in place for natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. I experienced 9/11 in Manhattan as a stranger in a ghost town, unable to help or grieve for the thousands who perished. I watched TV throughout the night, switching between news channels, addicting myself to live news coverage. Getting news was a panacea for the earlier lack of information and inability to be useful to anybody. I never wanted to feel so helpless again.

Perhaps that’s why tsunami warnings in Hawaii are so irksome for me. My natural tendency in times of crisis is to try to get as much information as I can in a short space of time. Yesterday was the first time that I felt the tweets were popping up too slowly. Later Peter Liu, who was tweeting from the Noble Chef event at the Fairmont Kealani and wrote a personal blog of his experience, told me that there was limited information. Unlike other states, to get from county to county in Hawaii means you have to fly. Each county is an island. This is when the locals can provide more information than newscasters who are based elsewhere.

It was a waiting game. Sirens started sounding. I counted 5 in my area. I walked outside to try to see the waves in the dark but moonlit night.

I found maps of evacuation zones. Water was scheduled for a shut down. We were told not to flush our toilets.

I watched live streaming TV from Honolulu at Hawaii News Live and KITV. I checked various live web cams on Maui. I updated Facebook. My friends from Singapore noticed my status updates and immediately responded with their concern.

The first wave of the tsunami is not the largest. It’s not a wave but a surge — a wave that does not stop. But 5 ft is not earth shattering. I decided to call it quits at 11 pm.

And it was a good thing, as I read in the paper the next morning.

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Extended test drive: part 2

As my guest and I approached Sansei Restaurant in Kihei, we secretly hoped that no one would be parked in the two designated EV parking spaces or charging their electric vehicles from the dual port Level 2 Better Place charging stations. Sure enough, I spotted a small Toyota gas car about to park into the only vacant EV spot. On the left was a black Volkswagen, a non-EV already parked.

What were they doing parking in EV parking spaces? I quickly got out of the Chevy Volt just as a petite mature lady came out of the driver’s side of her just-parked Toyota Yaris.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is for electric vehicles. We need to charge,” pointing to my borrowed white Chevy Volt.

“Darn,” she exclaimed under her breath and slid back into her little blue Toyota.

We were in luck. Had we not spotted the driver, we would have had to park the EV elsewhere and not benefit from the free charging of Better Place (free in 2012).

Next step: charging the car.

I clicked on the Volt key chain and the charger door flipped open. I then swiped the thin, light blue Better Place key FOB on the key chain over the top of the charging station pedestal. As if by magic, two tiny white lights came on. There was really nothing to it. I mildly recalled one of EV owners from the “Drive Electric Maui” event telling me that the real charger was on the car and not on the charging station. That said, the activity of taking the black cord and plugging the charger into car brought the attention of those customers queuing for Sansei.

We felt like celebrities as we walked into the restaurant to reserve a seat. We asked for the manager, who had appeared in the first episode of Maui EVA TV and embraced EVs wholeheartedly.

The 1+ hour of dining on exotic designer sushi at Sansei’s put 18 miles into the electric vehicle. It was enough for me to get home.

Once home and in the dark, I grappled with the task of finding the extension cord and level 1 charging kit in the back of the car and fixing it to the outside outlet.

A Chevy Volt being charged

A Chevy Volt being charged

Level 1 Charger: a 110 V 3-prong outlet and extension cord

Level 1 Charger: a 110 V 3-prong outlet and extension cord

The next morning I was relieved to see that the overnight charging on a 110-volt outlet had added 46 miles to the range. How would the car fare going uphill? The famous Iao Valley was a stone’s throw away. As expected, the range quickly fell during the steep incline. By the time my 3rd test driver and I reached the park entrance, it had gone to 29 miles. Fear not, I recalled that going down hill would “win” back the miles — a so-called “regenerative braking” process.

Throughout the day, I noticed an insatiable urge to share my EV experience with others. “Have you ever driven a Volt before?” I asked my colleagues. “Here, try it.”

In less than 24 hours, I had given 6 people test drives in the Volt: an IT specialist in Kihei, the manager of Sansei, three colleagues, and the transportation director of Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO). I can now understand why the owner of the Volt wanted me to try it for an extended test drive, beyond the usual spin around the corner. It’s viral. You just want to share it.

Resisting the urge, I found myself thinking — but they could easily go to the local auto dealer, why should I provide this test?

I suppose it’s like sharing good music, good food, and good wine. It’s human nature to want to share, just like it’s human nature to want to remember, and hence my blog.

Chevy Volt by Hawaiian Electric Vehicle Network (HEVN)

Chevy Volt by Hawaiian Electric Vehicle Network (HEVN)

At the end of March, the author was interviewed in the back seat of a Chevy Volt at the first Auto Festival at UH Maui College. The article appeared in Maui No Ka Oi, July/August 2012: Maui EVA and the Smart Grid.

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