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Mika Villaren: Funny, fabulous basket weaver

By Staff | Jul 8, 2010

Andrew Burckardt of Chicago, 20 months old, displays a made to measure hat by funny man/weaver Mika Villaren.

KAANAPALI — Time for a change of pace. When increasingly famous bartender Dale Sorensen (“Voices of Maui,” Jan. 21) said he made 40 mai tais a week

for 40 years, a simple calculation yielded 400,000 of the sweet drinks created over a long career. Enter basket weaver Mika Villaren, another possible record holder.

Over 20 years, basket weaver Villaren — who also happens to be a very funny man — has made 20,000 coconut palm leaf hats and decorative bowls. (The formula is 40 a week, time-out for six months of vacation each year, times 25 weeks, times 20 years.)

Mika’s basket weaving came later in life. Asked to talk about his upbringing, he went back to his very first day on Earth, noting he did not remember the doctors and nurses who helped bring him into this Hawaiian world. 

Mika’s grandfather worked in a pineapple plantation on Lanai as a luna (boss). Mika’s mom worked as a pineapple lab tech for Maui Land & Pine in Kahului. Mika’s dad was a mason, mixing mud and carrying bricks in the hot sun to build the old Hilton (now the Royal Lahaina) and other resorts. Mika wanted no part of masonry.

After boarding school at Lahainaluna High School, the genial weaver by profession reported he was soon eating grits — the kind you get in South Carolina when you join the U.S. Army. After three years of service, as he puts it, “I retired.” 

Missing home, he came back to enter the tourism

industry, working for the old Tropical Rent-A-Car, then driving a tram and entertaining for eight years at Maui Tropical Plantation.

During another eight years at the famous Club Lanai, the since-closed oasis where visitors were brought to snorkel and ride mountain bikes, Mika was asked to begin making baskets in the Hawaiian tradition. Today, the newborn weaver sometimes uses scissors to sheer the leaves (ancients used sharp shells to do the same job).

Sitting on a stone-faced low wall at Kaanapali Beach Hotel four mornings a week, Mika weaves, luring visitors in to watch, sometimes to buy, and more often to listen as he talks story.

Holding long strands of palm, he tells observers, “This is a Hawaiian cockroach. It’s a big one. If you run over it on the road, it’s like a speed bump.”

“I am not a standup comedian,” he volunteers. “I’m a sit-down one.”

With a few deft twists, he makes an angelfish, offered free to a bystander.

“When you pack it, keep it flat,” he advised. “When you get home, push it here. It will pop up. You can use it in a low-maintenance fish bowl.”

A lady from Oregon who has come here six years orders a six-inch bowl, which she said she might put bread in. Mika creates it in a few minutes. “Wrap it in your dirty laundry in your suitcase,” he said.

“Maybe not such a good idea if you are going to put bread in it,” said the columnist.

The lady pays. “Thank you very much — maaahalo,” Mika says before starting a hat. “Nice people. People at this hotel like to talk. At other places, they don’t,” he volunteers.

A visitor from New Jersey (who happens to be gorgeous) and her 13-year-old daughter amble along while her husband and son were off playing golf.

Mika extends an invitation. “I’ve been to New Jersey. Sit down.” He quickly asks, “Like to learn how to weave?” 

Though he rarely teaches, Mika proceeds to teach, handing palm leaves to their outstretched hands.

“Put the leaf in your hand like this. Let the end out like this. Now bring the leaf down and over. Loosen that end up. Leave some space. Poke the other end up. Now under and over. Bring it around. Now take your other hand and do the same thing,” Mike instructs, as the visitors laugh incredulously.

Each of the two made a passable fish. For them, it’s off to the beach. “You can go now — it’s open,” Mika tells them.

To round out the day, the weaver will go on to give a ukulele lesson at 1 pm. across the courtyard. Tomorrow, after more weaving, it will be off to Hula Grill, where Mika will play guitar at a new lunchtime gig.

Although the visitors he meets become instant fans, locals like him, too. A few hours later, Chantelle Crossman, a friend, sums him up: “You know what? He’s the sweetest guy.” 

Indeed. Can’t wait for the next encounter.