Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hawaii Journal 1996

Hawaii Journal

This is mostly a diary of a trip taken 15 years ago but the questions remain.

I have lived a relatively sheltered life. I spent the first 18 years of it in a city outside Boston now known for it’s toxic waste site, 4 months in Japan in 1976 and the remainder in the Pacific Northwest. I teach Environmental Science now but I do not preach environmentalism.  I feel that unless someone lives the ascetic life of Mahatma Gandhi or, perhaps, Ralph Nader, they are standing on shaky ground if they criticize those next to them.  Still, I was shocked when my husband, my then 8 year old son and I left the sheltered ecohaven of the Northwest for our first conventional travel experience in the fall of 1996. We went to Hawaii on the spur of the moment.  This is part of my journal.

When we arrive in Honolulu the friends we will visit are working so we decide to spend the afternoon at Waikiki Beach. 

It is hot.  I burn the bottom of my feet on the sand almost immediately.  There is so much exposed flesh - huge pale German women in bikinis.  I find a spot on the beach in the shade of a lifeguard tower.  The piece of shade is big enough for about three beach towels.  While my husband and son go boogie boarding I do my favorite thing, which is to rest and watch.  On the towel next to mine is a group of young Japanese men who smoke continuously.  They leave and a young couple with skin untinted by the sun place their towel in the spot and go to swim.  A family comes and takes the next spot.  They see the empty foot of space between my towel and  theirs and proceed to move their towels closer to me. I sit up and openly stare as the father/husband does this hoping he will stop.  He starts a friendly conversation with me about the water as he continues to move the towel.  He and his older children go to swim. His wife and younger child stay on the sand. 

I am surrounded by cigarette butts.  About 20 feet away two overflowing trashcans are being pored through by an elderly woman.  She removes aluminum cans. There are no separate recycling bins.

When my husband and son return we drive to our friends condo.  It is in a 15 story building with a pool, pool table, party room and hot tub.  They are happy to have moved back here from the Pacific Northwest where we met them and where they suffered the cold and rain for two years.  The unit they are in has a view of the beach and many wall mirrors so that you can see the view from almost anywhere.  We are feted and fed in such grand style we feel guilty but we enjoy it.  Thinking about the contrast of the old woman on the beach, I ask our host what they do with all of the garbage in Hawaii.  These are, after all, islands.  He doesn’t know. The question stays with me through our whole trip.

At night we sleep with the windows wide open.  People outside are awake long into the night talking.  A barking dog is finally silenced after an angry discussion between neighbors.

To Kauai
We chose to go to Kauai for the majority of our trip because everyone said it was the most “natural” island.  We hadn’t really had time to research the more remote locations.
“Natural” turns out to be a relative term.  I was not surprised to see a lot of condominiums but I had expected them to be separated by expanses of lush tropical forest.  Instead, they are well connected to each other by resorts, shopping centers and “activity centers”; the last being a euphemism for an information booth where you can ask questions and get answers but also be offered many ways to spend your money on “adventures” such as kayaking, helicopter rides and boat tours.

On our first night at Poipu, Kauai we leave the windows of our condo open.  We hear the kenneled dogs behind the condo (the canine force of the local police we are later told), the talk and footsteps of the people above and around us, refrigerators, TVs and air conditioners.  My continuing impression is that Hawaii is an experience of human noise.  The pounding surf is two blocks away but we can’t hear it.  We walk away from the artificial light and noise to see the sky and listen to the surf.  The sky is so clear we see the Milky Way exactly as it is poured into the sky.  Even in the mountains of the Northwest it is not the fluid entity it is here.  We look forward to our first day on the beaches of Kauai.

Kee Beach, Northern Kauai
It’s our third day of snorkeling and I am snorkeled out. My husband and son are out in the coral reef swimming with sea turtles.  It is raining and I am sheltered in the car.  I sit and savor the time and think about whether I can remember the sound of each individual wave crashing.  Each time a wave touches the coral it touches it a little differently.  I imagine the water entering each void in the coral like thoughts reaching remote parts of my brain.  Some thoughts will only be discovered once and then permanently forgotten.  I wonder if there is water in some void in the coral that has been there for 10,000 years.  Would it tell us 10,000 year old stories of Hawaii, of volcanoes breaking through the surface and settling into the surf to be constantly massaged by it; stories of a peaceful people coming to enjoy the flowers and light their fires in the exotic vegetation? My son stands in the water in the warm rain and asks why I don’t go out and swim with the turtles.  He doesn’t understand that this is what I came for.  It is enough for me to know that the turtles are there and that he swam with them. I know I won’t get these moments back.

That night while we are celebrating my husband’s birthday at an archetypal Hawaiian tourist restaurant with the coconut motif, and which overlooks a small bay, I say that I think it’s great that my son swam with sea turtles but I wonder if in 20 years he would still be able to do that.  My husband gives me the kind of look people do when they have been taken out of a deep reverie; but then we talk about Hawaii.  When did it become a tourist Mecca? In the 40’s, the 50’s?  In the 60’s was it a surf Mecca? I was in Honolulu in 1976 and it didn’t seem that different from now.  We decide it was probably with the onset of inexpensive air travel.

For the next two days we see more beaches and do more snorkeling.  I observe the tourists.  They consume time like it is a material thing.  Every minute has value.  They consume sights and pieces of the landscape.  No wonder primitive people say cameras steal their souls. They are stealing the soul of Hawaii.  Bit by bit the landscape is being broken into “views”.  The views are printed onto postcards with borders of island script letters in white on black.  I imagine a collage of postcards.  Between the script edges of the postcards are the resorts, the tourist traps and the adventure tour guides booths.  The tourists are consuming the views but ignoring the edges.  Soon the soul will be consumed by the edges.

We check out of our Poipu condo early because I can no longer tolerate the dogs and air conditioners.  September is the off season in Hawaii and I have found a good rate on a cabin at Waimea Plantation, a restored group of former sugar plantation workers dwellings.

The next morning, I semi-willingly go on a hike to Waimea Canyon.  I would prefer to stay with the quiet at the plantation.  We arrive carsick at the top of the winding 11 mile road to the hiking trail.  There is only one other car there and I am surprised.  I’m sure we are in the wrong place.  I had expected 20 or 40 cars. It’s cool and cloudy.  We hike down the Hanaluma Road to a trail that is modestly marked with hand painted arrows on three-foot-tall wooden posts. 

After 1 ½ miles of walking we get our first glimpses of the canyon.  It is deep and red with the horizontal lines of hundreds of lava flows layered on each other to the bottom.  White terns circle below us on updrafts.  It is almost pristine and it is the most quiet place we have been - in years - not only in Hawaii.  I gravitate to the ground and resist movement or speech.  We take our time smelling gardenia-like flowers and watching copper headed salamanders whose color matches the soil. Our son is anxious to go but I linger and loll and resist returning.  These are the first truly peaceful moments I experience in Hawaii.  I had not expected them all to be like this but I had not expected so few.  Waimea Canyon becomes my most favorite serene place in Hawaii.  When the first heli-tour-copters come up the canyon it momentarily breaks the silence but, thankfully, they are occasional.

As we return, I start to think that walking two miles is too taxing for most tourists and that we will have the canyon to ourselves all day.  However, we had just been fortunate in our timing.  Apparently, most tourists don’t wake up at 6:30 and start hiking by 10:00.  As we start to leave they all come in.  Each one asks us how far it is.  I’m tempted to lie to them so they will turn around; and the salamanders and terns will have a day off.  It is still silent but although my experience of Waimea Canyon itself will be unfettered by the images of these tourists I realize that it is just as much a postcard as the rest of Hawaii.  It is just a bigger one where the edges are not yet clearly defined.

That afternoon we return to Waimea Plantation.  Our little cabin has a ceiling fan in each room.  We can hear the surf and there are more kinds of fruit-bearing tropical plants around us than we can count.  All of the windows and doors have screens.  The hotel desk people had given us a ripe mango, which we eat with ice cream.  The geckos scamper around on the screens catching mosquitoes.

On our last day in Hawaii we all agree not to get in the car.  In the morning we eat our breakfast on the porch.  I walk to the town library and ask the librarian if anyone has ever studied the carrying capacity of the Hawaiian Islands.  She gets very excited and gives me lots of references.  On the way back I observe the little village the locals live in.  It is a group of small 1 story houses raised about 2 feet off the ground with dirt alleyways in between.  A cute little mongrel dog - a “poi” dog - follows me.

For the rest of the day our 8 year old is happy to enjoy the plantation and think about playing croquet, which we never get around to.  Instead, we take the risk of walking through the coconut groves and maybe getting hit by a coconut falling from about 50 feet in the air.

The day we leave Waimea we wish we had been there for our whole visit.

I have many thoughts about Hawaii.  Although I criticize the tourists and tour guides, the adventurers and consumers as a group, as individuals I realize they are just products of their own culture and the ethos of the world in all developed countries is becoming one of consumers.  Tourists consume landscapes.  I came here to consume peace and quiet.  As an individual I didn’t really do anything there that was that much different from other tourists although I like to think I try harder.

We talked to our friends in Honolulu again.  He thought the trash was taken off the islands in barges.  I asked to where.  He thought out to sea.  He seemed concerned.  He had never really thought about it - he said.

As I leave Hawaii I wonder; will my son’s children swim with sea turtles?

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