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Calming on the surface – A review of Hawaiʻi

I stare at the waves.

At 5am, while the kids sleep, I drink coffee on the 24th floor balcony afforded a spectacular view of Waikiki Beach. It is meditative. I breathe in the ocean’s breath on my face. I have just turned 40. The vast ocean is my lungs, the waves my breath, slowly undulating. My computer and work are 4500 kilometres away. It has been six years since I have had totally disconnected vacation.

The mottled colour of the morning ocean washes up on the shore. The formative volcanic crater Diamondhead rises in the distance, imposing yet spent. On the water’s surface is a peppering of early morning surfers, at the mercy of nature. Under, are the dark grey blotches of dead coral, at the mercy of man.

I stare at the waves.

Waikiki is tourist wonderland, avoided by many visitors just for that as well as for the prices. My early morning scrambled eggs and toast, with juice and a coffee are more than USD $40. But even on the other side of the island at a local mall carpeted in the mid 1980s we paid dearly for a couple of sub sandwiches. How do the locals cope? 2% unemployment seems like a good sign, but many people I spoke to work two jobs and one taxi driver told me homeless families are a problem. Atop the posh Ala Moana shopping center are multimillion dollar condos, all pre-sold and mostly uninhabited, overlooking a beach park where a tent village houses the homeless. The gentrification of the surrounding neighbourhood is in full force. We asked a taxi driver to drive us through the downtown Kaka’ako district on the way to the Palace so that we could see the wall art. The youth express themselves on walls that will not keep out international real estate “investors.”

Another force distorting the local economy is the US Department of Defense. The 8 lanes of traffic between downtown Honolulu and Pearl Harbour (just about everywhere else the highway is single lane) pass by some of the main military housing developments on the island. Rows of two story single family homes with well-manicured, postage stamp front lawns. It is a little piece of Virginia in Hawaii. Well, not a little piece since nearly 40,000 military personnel are stationed in this tiny state. Each house has a driveway for what looks to be the standard military issue SUV. Morning and evening the freeway is bumper-to-bumper with these SUVs, each bearing a single occupant to work.

US military personnel have been here for a long time, since even before the Americans took over the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi 120 years ago. So many mainlanders stationed here on per diem warps an economy that already suffers under the Jones Act. Since 1920 the Jones Act has prevented ships carrying cargo to the US from unloading in Hawai’i, forcing them to the mainland first. Effectively this means most products (since most come from Asia) must travel 3 times the necessary distance, and with no subsidies to offset the inconvenience it is local Hawai’ians who bear the cost.

Waimānalo, on the east side of Oʻahu, is the hometown of Chad Rowan the champion sumo wrestler known as Akebono. It is also a region where the average person makes about $25,000 annually. We came here because I wanted to see the statue of Akebono. Unfortunately it had been torn down by vandals a couple of years ago and was gone. There was not much else here. I couldn’t help speculating about the amount of expenditures by the Defense Department on Oʻahu… would it take just 1 per cent to eradicate poverty on the island? A half? On the way to Pearl Harbour we drove in the shadow of an incomplete monorail… stopped because “the government ran out of money.”

Driving featured heavily on our trip. I rented a car so that we could make our way from Waikiki, around the south end of the island, to our hotel on the east side, and further up to the North Shore where we stopped at Banzai Pipeline and Laniakea Beach to see some massive sea turtles resting on the shore.

As I cannot snorkel (for medical reasons) thus I was really looking forward to Hanauma Bay on the southeast tip of Oʻahu. This is an ancient volcano crater breached by the sea to create a calm inlet supporting many kinds of sea life. My wife had been here some twenty years ago and assured me that I would only have to go to my knees to see some colorful marine life. While at Waikiki we took a submarine tour and even down at 110 ft it was a little underwhelming. All the natural coral was dead so the submarine company had brought in two sunken ships, two sunken airplanes, and a few other manmade reef structures to try and attract back all the fish. Walking down into the Hanauma crater with a hot sun pounding on my delicate, exposed neck, I imagined all the colourful fish and turtles we would see.

Hanauma Bay panorama

I saw nothing of course. My wife snorkeled out into the depths and was saddened at the lack of fish. Just 20 years! Hanauma Bay is a national park, a protected area. Before descending to the beach you must watch a 9 minute film that features a plethora a marine wonders, showing how to keep the area pristine. The reality at the beach is the inverse. My elementary school-age children, their young minds steeped in the “rules,” constantly pointed out infractions: a smoker here, a litterer there. Enforcement seems to be an issue. Stray cats and mongeese darted in and out of the foliage on the crater walls. Birds picked at the trash along the beach. They didn’t mind the hoards of people at all.

I was finally vindicated in seeing colorful fish while “snorkeling” at some natural reefs near a sandbar on the east side of O’ahu. The guide explained how the temperature of the waters surrounding Hawai’i have risen 2 degrees in the past 10 years, contributing to the death of the natural coral. That and of course all the tourist sunscreen, which can kill coral (he claims at sunset the surface of Waikiki looks like an oil slick). A local university is working on a coral transplantation initiative, bringing coral from warmer waters to grow here, and try and attract back all the fish that used to swim in these waters.

He spoke of this initiative as a shallow draft skiff drove up onto the sandbar next to us in a drunken manner. Shaking his head he told me that it was a rental, pointing across the water to the US Marine Corps base, sitting high on a bluff overlooking Kāne‘ohe Bay. “As a local, I would love to rent them, but I can’t because I am not military.” Apparently these rental skiffs were always running up onto the coral too, damaging what they did not know. Both the guide and the pilot gave each other an exasperated, but resigned look. The guide drew our attention to the right of the marine base, to Coconut Island, where the old sitcom Gilligan’s Island was filmed. In the opposite direction were the distinctive mountains of Kuoloa Ranch, where Jurassic Park, LOST, and many other shows were filmed.

The cloud-topped mountains, with steep verdant shoulders sloping into the waves were almost as amazing to stare at from our Paradise Bay balcony as the ocean waves had been at Waikiki and Kahala. From that balcony at night we saw our second fire knife performance. This one too was a Samoan performer, just like our first fire knife show at a luau on Waikiki. It highlighted to me the shared history of all the peoples of the Pacific. Through cultural exchange and projects like Hōkūleʻa you can see Pacific Islanders not only struggling to rebuild their local island cultural identity, but also the wider pan-Pacific identity.

Indigenous culture is always on display in Hawaiʻi, but it is highly performative — a mere cultural commodity for sale to tourists. I am sure if you dug deeper you could learn about the social movements to have indigenous Hawaiʻians recognized with “native” status. Around the city and on television you can see the advertisements for indigenous schools. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most tourists leave it at looking at statues of famous Hawaiʻians such as Kamehameha I and Queen Liliʻuokalani without knowing their history. Possibly they would stop at the Polynesian Cultural Center, a theme park run by the Mormons who have a BYU canvas next door (I just drove by…). I heard the Bishop Museum is a good place to learn, but I didn’t make it there — there were so many Japanese sights to see! Besides going to the local versions of Izumo Taisha and Byodo-in I ate a lot of excellent Japanese food, and was just amazed at how much “Japan” was in Hawaiʻi.

In many ways visiting Hawaiʻi is a lot like visiting the future. Culturally, it has always been a crossroads. The ukelele comes from Portugal, the fireknife from Samoa… Hawaiʻians are proud of their heritage of adopting different cultural practices. It is ethnically diverse too. Hawaiʻi is the only US state where white people are a minority. It seemed like everyone was mixed. A hundred years from now we will likely see more places around the Pacific Rim looking like Honolulu. Even the current battles with environmental degradation, economic disparity, gentrification, militarism and after-effects of colonialism make Hawaiʻi a harbinger of sorts.

I only had 9 days on Oʻahu. It was extremely relaxing, but also very challenging. I am glad I saw it myself as it is different than I expected. I can see why people can think of it as a paradise, it certainly seems so on the surface. All you have to do is look out at the vast blue, and stare at the waves.

See the photos