I’ll start with leaving, because in the moment, any moment, there is only perception and response. Reflection happens after, at the end. So I only know what Hawai’i means to me now that I am home. But I want you to know at the outset, to better frame your experience of mine.

We began our visit to Hawaiʻi on the Big Island – and we left from Hilo’s airport too – but our last week was spent on Kaua’i. Kaua’i is the oldest island in the chain and yet at first take it is the least Hawai’ian of the two. So many visitors and visitor accommodations, so many beachy-surfy-natural foodie-hippie-new age-y transplants, so few Pacific Islanders that the esprit or elán or living culture of the island is hidden. You have to go deep to find it. All the guidebooks point you to physical recreation and natural features (often combined), but the heightened sense of wonder thereby gained (yes, Hawai’i is a wonder-full place) blinds you at first to the subtle, comparable beauty of its social fabric. Already I am missing it, stuck here in the combative, competitive Northeast. Islanders are gentle, polite, friendly. To put it another way: People are chill.

One of the first things I noticed – instinctively at odds with, but then accepting, acclimating, and in the end relishing – was the de rigueur conformance to speed limits, the zones themselves conservatively and carefully staked. What was the need, I wondered, on rural stretches and regional highways with little traffic, for maximum speeds of 35mph? And why did no one (local) ever exceed the limit? Here in Connecticut driving over the limit, especially during rush hour on a highway, rarely results in a ticket, and obeying the speed limit can put you on the receiving end of some real rage.

Up north at Hanalei, the mountain-sheltered bay offers one of the most magical swimming pools on Earth, and we swam there every morning until the sun and sand got just too hot for our haole skin and feet. At that hour, and during low (tourist) season there were few others, and no one appeared to be local. All the privately owned houses along the road that runs just behind the beach were empty and looked vacation-y and screamed money too (like the one we rented near Anini). It wasn’t until we went to Salt Pond Bay (a little east of Waimea on the southern coast) for an evening dip by moonlight, that we saw people of Hawaiian lineage at the beach. They were there for dinner, large extended families cooking out, children playing, adults relaxing at the end of a work day – engaging the ocean in a most different way, as a setting for life. As the boundary of life. But even more, this:

The palms that ringed the parking lot were written on in faded white paint,

Is Not
Will Be

We were on Kaua’i first and foremost for Jamie and Max’s wedding. Jamie was born on Kaua’i, and her family history goes back to sugar cane plantations and the migrations of people from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, who came to work the fields. To this day her dad talks pidgin, and Jamie likes to go “all Moke” when she is home. And so she wanted the wedding up in the mountains on her parent’s farm. It was an honor to share the occasion and place with her people. All the Aunties and Uncles – and cousins and brah’s and friends – gave her the wedding of her (anyone’s!) dreams. They cooked all of the food – light and heavy pupu (delicious shrimp and salmon and pickled vegetables and pork braised in taro leaves (lau lau) and sushi and pork belly, the buffet went on and on and on) – for two hundred and fifty guests, and some did the setup and breakdown, one provided live, another recorded music, yet another designed and baked the cake, while the bridesmaids decorated the ‘chapel’ and tables. Family and friends made beautiful, funny, and tearful toasts. And everyone welcomed those of us from the mainland and Europe and Australia with their words and acts. Her dad, in the greatest show of a father’s love for a daughter, by himself cleared back the jungle on an acre-sized parcel to make a parking lot. It took him almost two years.

On our way to the airport the Thrifty shuttle driver spoke with us about our visit. We were the only passengers, and it freed us to talk. He asked about our most memorable time, our favorite thing about the islands. I told him we had tried the night before to make a list of Our Hawai’i Top Ten, but after naming more than twenty we realized the futility. He laughed – we laughed – but then in the quiet that followed I told him what would really stay with me, what I would never forget about the islands.

It bubbles up. First the careful driving. Then you become aware of absences: the litter-less environment – none, anywhere. The beach sand pure, all shell and coral and volcanics and nothing else – no plastic, no butts, no bottle tops. No one is smoking; I cannot recall a whiff of tobacco or anyone even fingering a cigarette. Out in the wild you are not burdened with excessive signage, warnings, and safeguards; instead respect for the power of nature is implied, understood, a baseline that even haoles intuit. Back in town there are no liquor stores, or bars. Rather, you purchase spirits at the grocery store. Restaurants serve drinks, but at your table. Or they host a happy hour outdoors on a covered patio, with appetizers and waiters. I saw no inebriated persons, no vagrants. I saw no evidence of drugs or addiction. I saw no one left behind. Everyone is so careful – with each other, with wildlife, with nature. I felt safe, and free in Hawaiʻi.

His reply: “Hawaiʻi is a dangerous place. The ocean is dangerous. There are volcanoes here and hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunami. We are alone and small in the middle of a big big ocean. We have to take care of each other.”

Andy Bumatai said it, too, with his own poetics on the podcast The Daily Pidgin (episode #87): “It’s not a me culture in Hawai’i, it’s an Us culture. We all one island, Man!”

Culture like a woven basket. It holds everyone, islanders and haole alike, sheltering embracing, carrying – protecting – without crushing or suffocating or stultifying. It let me be open. The people of Hawai’i let me open, easily, reflexively by the time we left. To be there was a meditation. I told the driver so.

“Aloha”, he said. Our eyes met and pooled, each into the other’s.
“Aloha”, he said. “Come back.”


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