WAIPOULI — Titako Lefai said the eyes facing down on the tiki symbolize love.
He was working Wednesday in the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott at Coconut Beach, the tap-tapping of wood against wood becoming a beacon for the activity taking place amidst the bustle of people checking in and checking out of the hotel.
“If the eyes face up, that means protection,” Titako said, interrupting his work to strum a few chords on his ukulele before returning to the block of milo seated firmly between his legs. “I learned how to do this from my father in Tonga.”
Barbara Gusman of the Courtyard by Marriott said Titako and his wife Maledina are part of the resort’s Lu‘au Makaiwa which has been relocated to the eastern side of the property due to the construction activity which started on the property adjacent to theirs.
“Titako and Maledina are very loyal people,” Gusman said. “They took over from their son who originally was a vendor here. They took over and now are more than just vendors. They perform and provide explanations during the luau when Titako plays his ukulele and Maledina dances and explains what is going on.”
Gusman said she believes the couple are associated with the cultural center operated by Darryl and Leilani Low at the neighboring Coconut MarketPlace shopping center.
“In Tonga, you cannot go to church without a ta‘ovala,” Maledina said. “I have three grandchildren and am working on one for them. Ta‘ovala is woven from the bark of the hau tree and worn to church and other special occasions.”
Titako said they moved to Kauai in 2006 with their son, bringing with them cultural traditions and other Tongan practices.
“Honu means good fortune and long life,” said Maledina. “We have a lot of honu, and there is one piece where the honu sits atop the tiki for protection, surrounded by the Hawaiian Island chain. We use leaves and tree bark to decorate because in Tonga, we use them for medicine. Tiki may look scary, but the meaning is good.”
During their appearances at the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott, they continue to spread awareness of the culture, both Hawaiian and Tongan, and are ambassadors for the resort’s luau.
“During the days, we come by 7 a.m.,” Maledina said. “We work until 2 p.m., and sometimes, if we’re not tired, stay until 3 p.m. On the luau nights, we start at 5:30 p.m. and stay until 9 p.m. The luau people are real nice because they feed us afterwards, if they have food left over.”