Journalism sample: commuter live-in

Traveling to and from the job can be an all-day affair, especially when you live in rural Hawaii. I spent a day with several hotel workers as they made the commute from one end of the Big Island to the other to bring home a paycheck.

Where do people in Kau work? by Coletta Teske

Where do people in Ka’u work?

Many Ka’u residents make a long commute to Kona, Kohala

Special to West Hawaii Today (February 7, 2007)
Pages C1 and C2 (Island Living section)
Word count: 1010

It’s 3:20 a.m. on a Monday morning. I’m waiting at the Hele-On bus stop in Pahala for Guy Enriquez, my traveling partner for the day. Enriquez is the president of O Ka’u Kakou, an organization whose goal is to help the Ka’u community make informed choices about its growth. Our mission: to spend the day in the shoes of the Ka’u worker.

The Hele On bus waits for its first riders of the day. The bus stops at the s mall Pahala strip mall in front of the post office.
The Hele-On bus waits for its first riders of the day. The bus stops at the small Pahala strip mall in front of the post office. (Photo by Coletta Teske)

At 3:30 a.m. we board the bus with several men. Our long trip through Kona to Kohala begins. We take our cue from the other riders. We get as comfortable as possible in the hard, straight-backed bus seats and attempt to catch a nap.

Along the route, on a dark stretch of deserted highway, a petite woman carrying a flashlight waves down the bus. As the bus doors open, we are rudely awakened by the interior lights.

At 4:15 a.m. the last load of Ka’u workers boards the bus. There are now 18 of us from Ka’u. Many are going to Kona. The first stop is at Henry Street. It’s 5:30 a.m. and still dark. Others get off at K-Mart, Kaloko and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. A few more are dropped off on the side of the highway where they walk to the Four Seasons Resort. Enriquez and I get off at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. It is 6:30 a.m. and still dark.

Enriquez and I have been on the bus for three hours this morning. We wonder to ourselves, “How do these guys do this?” We’re tired, so we sit down for a cup of coffee and talk about the situation in Ka’u. He wonders what happened to some of the other young people that used to ride the bus to the Four Seasons. He knows a few could not handle the long hours of commuting and have moved to Kona.

“Ka’u has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, welfare, and unemployment in the state,” Enriquez said. He tells me that the three schools in Ka’u are in the bottom 10 in the state. He says there are no jobs in Ka’u, no places in Pahala for high school kids to get a part-time job.

“Who wants to pick mac nuts?” he asks.

Enriquez tells me about O Ka’u Kakou. He explains the organization is working to address the community’s needs for education, employment, and preservation of the Ka’u lifestyle. They want the community to know that they have a voice and that development, should it occur, should benefit the community.

While having coffee, we talk with Linda, a waitress at the Hilton who grew up in Ka’u. She tells us that several of her co-workers drive to work from Ka’u every day. She worries about them because of the accidents that she regularly sees on her drive into work.

Enriquez and I both have some work to do. We find a comfortable spot and wait until the Hele-On bus returns to pick us up for the long ride home at 3:05 p.m.

As the bus heads down the highway, it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic from Kona International Airport all the way through Kailua-Kona. At Kamehameha III Road, traffic comes to a halt.

Traffic has come to a standstill in front of the bus. The traffic jam adds an extra hour to the commuters' long bus ride back to Ka'u.
Traffic has come to a standstill in front of the bus. The traffic jam adds an extra hour to the commuters’ long bus ride back to Ka’u. (Photo by Coletta Teske)

“It’s more stop than go,” comments Enriquez.

During the hour wait until we reach Honalo, I talked with Kaiwa, who has been riding this route from Ka’u to his job at NELHA for two years. Why does he do it?

“There are no jobs in Ka’u,” he says.

His brother and several of his friends also make this trip every day. How does this affect his life?

“I give up plenty – time with my girlfriend,” Kaiwa said.

Why does he make this commute?

“I can’t afford to live closer to work,” he said. “The bus is free. I cannot afford the gas.”

But not everyone can afford to ride the bus. For some, the bus is not convenient. It does not run at a time that works with their schedule. Or, they must walk too far from the bus stop to their place of employment. These people must drive themselves to work.

One of these daily drivers is Dale, an elementary school teacher who drives one hour each way to her teaching job. What does Dale give up to make the long commute to work?

“Exercise time,” she said.

Dale drives a small, fuel-efficient car. She estimates that it costs her $650 per month to get back and forth to work.

Another of our traveling partners today is Duane, who rode the bus from Pahala to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. He has been riding this bus for the past year. Today, Duane spent seven hours on the bus.

Duane is the lucky rider. He is the first one on the bus so he can grab the back seat, stretch out and get some rest before he goes home to his two boys.

Duane stretches out in the back of the bus after a long day on the job. It's his last chance to get some rest before he goes home to take care of his two boys.
Duane stretches out in the back of the bus after a long day on the job. It’s his last chance to get some rest before he goes home to take care of his two boys. (Photo by Coletta Teske)

Duane is a single parent. His parents and the A+ program at the elementary school take care of his boys while he is gone during the day. Duane explains that it is too expensive to rent in Kona or Waikoloa and that there would be no one to watch his boys.

Enriquez does the math. “That’s 7 hours a day, 35 hours a week that he’s on the bus,” figures Enriquez.

That means Duane spends almost 73 full days a year riding the bus. Or, 219 8-hour workdays for which he does not get paid.

When does Duane have time to do anything?

“I have no time to go out. I spend the weekends with my kids, doing laundry, house chores,” he said.

How does all this time on the bus affect his job? “I get grumpy at work.”

At 7:15 p.m., we get off the bus in Pahala. It’s the last stop. As I get off the bus, my body aches and my head hurts. It’s been a long day. I wonder to myself, “How do these guys do this day after day?”

Then I recalled something that Duane said to me. “My boys need the money.”

Copyright 2020 Coletta Teske
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