Toe lady: "You're taking some local's job!"
No, no. I tried to explain this project to her: Change the List. Encourage voting. Atlanta resident. Non-surfer. Get it?
Her response was no more comforting.
"You think people are going to stop doing nothing to vote!?"
That's when she laughed in my face. It was one of those cackles so loud and belly-felt that you can see the person's gums. Time froze briefly in that moment: me staring at the tartar on her gumline, thinking the whole project was doomed before it began.
'You could eat a sea urchin'
The Maui where Elle Cochran grew up is exactly like the one you picture in your mind, especially if, like me before this trip, you've seen "Lilo & Stitch" but never been to Hawaii.
"As a Hawaiian, we are always connected to our environment: to our streams, to the aquatic life, to the mountains," Cochran said. "Growing up, we could live off the land. You could pick a fruit off the tree. You could go in the ocean and get a fish. You could pick limu, or seaweed, off of rocks. You could eat a sea urchin."
Cochran, the non-voter who decided to run for the County Council, learned to swim by age 2 or 3. The beach on the west side of Maui, near Lahaina, was her life. She swam and snorkeled, canoed competitively. Drive up and down the coast today, and you see packs of surfers, looking like seals as they bob up and down on the waves.
With so much else to do, Cochran never enjoyed school. It certainly didn't prepare her to run for the County Council -- or to vote. "It wasn't part of my upbringing," she said of elections and politics.
Eventually, she left for boarding school in a less-idyllic location: "up-country," as she says, near a cattle farm. Partly because of the distance, she quit school at 16. The call of the water was too strong, and she didn't want to be "cooped up in a classroom."
She went to work as a bartender in a touristy hotel -- the one that's now the Westin Maui -- and, over the course of about a decade, got tangled up with drug abuse and the law.
She came out of that experience stronger, she said, and more confident. When she left rehab, she took up a new aquatic hobby: surfing.
The ocean again became her refuge.
'We're stuck in a vicious cycle'
On my first night in Honolulu, a surprisingly tall, dense city of computer-server-looking buildings backed by misty mountains, I met with a group called Kanu Hawaii.
Kanu, which means "to plant" in Hawaiian, was founded about five years ago by a group of about 40 young people. They'd read a 1970s book called "Hawaii 2000." That year had come and gone, and modern Hawaii -- with its traffic, poverty and low civic engagement -- looked nothing like the island paradise outlined there.
They started Kanu Hawaii to try to plant seeds of nonpartisan change.
If anyone knows how to get Hawaii to vote, I thought, it's surely them.
And if nothing else, they had to be more enthusiastic than the woman on the plane.
A group of mostly young, T-shirt-wearing Kanu volunteers gathered in a community center to discuss strategy. Several pecked at laptops as Kanu's executive director, James Koshiba, gave a slideshow presentation about the dismal state of voting in Hawaii.
"We're stuck in a vicious cycle of people who are disappointed in government and politics, and they don't vote," he said, pulling up a chart to illustrate this point.
The only way to break this cycle, for politics to be responsive again, he said, is to get people back into politics -- and to take money and special interest groups out.