LIHUE — Ismael Tabalno is a military veteran, author, taxi driver and tour guide.
He’s also a legend.
Better known as Pineapple Sam, he grew up in Koloa, worked on sugar and pineapple plantations, and then ventured around the world with the U.S. Marines for 21 years.
The 67-year-old was disabled in combat, much like his three older brothers who also served in the military.
“My oldest brother is almost 93, the others 70 and 80,” Tabalno said. “We’re handicapped, and trying to find wheelchair is almost impossible unless you buy them. That kind of inspired me to go and get a wheelchair when in Honolulu. When I take myself and older brothers, it helps out to have a wheelchair. Plus, you get to go on the airplane first.”
Since it was cheaper than shipping a new wheelchair, he flew one back to Kauai. Then his other sibling wanted one. When they flew to Honolulu last year to pay regards to their oldest sister who passed away, they transported her wheelchair back to Kauai. After that, his brother in Washington brought over another wheelchair for personal use. Now he has plenty of wheelchairs ready to use.
“A couple of years ago, I bought a taxi van, a 2011 Honda Odyssey. Then I got into Uber, and I noticed that we got wheelchairs here,” Tabalno said. “When I had clients that needed wheelchairs, I incorporated that if you went on a tour. I would take a wheelchair with me, and that’s how I started using it in my tours for taxi or Uber.”
With the help of his 80-year-old brother Vince, the two Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs started two fitting businesses, Kauai Wheelchair and A1 Lift Taxi &Tours. Now they have four standard wheelchairs and a transport chair with small wheels for island tours.
“At our age, one tour trip to Waimea driving and talking story to visitors, you get tired. We both born and raised here, so I know the island real well,” Tabalno said. “The visitors are happy that I can give a good narration about where we going and the interesting spots.”
Although they mainly caters to tourists, they also deliver wheelchairs to locals hindered by injuries, like broken legs and other disabilities. He even has a lightweight electric wheelchair in the trunk,
“I like meeting people from all over the world, from Sri Lanka, Europe, Russia, Africa, from all over,” Tabalno said. “I really enjoy it, and I like to flaunt the island you know.”
Tabalno loves to talk story and has published several books. His biggest seller is “The Life and Adventures of Pineapple Sam,” a 400-page autobiography sold through Amazon and Barnes &Nobles. He is writing volume two, and plans to complete five volumes full of his life stories.
“Most of my book sales is through my Uber or taxi,” he said. “They want a souvenir or signed copies and all that stuff, so that’s how I sell a lot of books.”
The simple wheelchair service provides greater mobility for disabled people to enjoy the island paradise. Rental rates for standard wheelchair and transport chairs are $17 daily; the EX Lite Cruiser Electric Wheelchair rents for $40 per day.
“My next career goal is to do public speaking, because a couple of schools have already asked me to talk to the kids about how I started writing, even though English wasn’t even my first language,” Tabalno said.