Now, My Final Reflections

Now that the shock of returning to normal life after two weeks in Hawaii has subsided, the time has come for a list of final observations made during my trip:

Diamond Head

  1. Good luck enjoying dinner as a vegetarian in Waikiki. My nightly menu consisted of either a $10 Gardenburger or a $14 cobb salad. I am like the world’s least-annoying vegetarian but I still want options, people!
  2. Birds are highly evolved in Waikiki. White pigeons saunter through the front door of a restaurant, eat crumbs off the floor, then exit the way they came in and enter the dining establishment next door for another meal. This is all done in a calm and orderly manner.
  3. Oahu, particularly Waikiki, is a true tossed salad of international diversity. As such, I developed stereotypes for travelers based on perceived nationality — Japanese, American, western European, Chinese, Russians. But to share any of those stereotypes would get me in trouble.
  4. There must be so much trash in the ocean. I could not believe how much litter I saw floating around — and that I tried to retrieve. Are people actually that irresponsible and uncaring? Or are they just oblivious? Either way, it makes me mad.
  5. If I lived in my hotel for a few months, I would be so popular and have so many friends. In two weeks, I became a homegirl with the hotel bartender, hotel bellhop and the Vietnam vet in the wheelchair on the street corner.
  6. I, with the help of a traveling buddy, am capable of spending $300 during two weeks at the ABC stores. For that accomplishment, I received two free hula girl mugs and a pictorial calendar of Hawaii, thank you very much.
  7. I don’t like the idea of someone being lonely. On several occasions during the first week of my trip, as my sister and I lounged on the beach, a middle aged man sat down near us. He carried a large, stuffed black backpack and black jacket, which he stacked so the items were visible from the ocean. He looked Native American, and wore a pair of faded maroon pants into the water as he floated over the waves. “I hope he has friends,” I told my sister, as we watched him one  afternoon. “It makes me sad to think of people being lonely.” She paused, eyeing the man and contemplating my concern. “He might have a really killer nightlife,” she said.
  8. I observed that my sister is a total weirdo.
  9. Despite the availability of high-priced rental cars and hotel shuttles to various tourist destinations, I found that the public bus system was, in fact, the most convenient and reliable mode of transportation.
  10. The culture of Hawaii is so rich. It’s crazy (in a great way). I just cannot imagine white mainlanders possessing such a deep respect of, commitment to and knowledge of traditions and historical people and places and culturally significant entities. This, of course, does not apply to Americans and professional sports.
  11. As Cole and I hung out at dry dock for Hokule’a with members of kapu na keiki, a group of young voyagers, Cole made an observation. He remarked on how impressive it is that these young people choose to spend their time performing this manual labor — sanding fiberglass, drilling holes and so on. They don’t get paid. They don’t get school credit. It won’t look flashy on their college-entrance essays (most have already graduated college). They do it, as they say, out of pure “aloha.” It was a beautiful thing to see.
(Just because this post is called “final reflections,” that doesn’t mean this blog is done yet! More to come!)

Me In Waikiki

Here I am, in Waikiki, staying in a modest hotel across from Kapiolani Park, a block from the beach. Waikiki is, of course, overrun with tourists from all over the world who’ve come to explore the most isolated archipelago on Earth.

Surfboards, just cause

They’re — we’re — always out walking around. Seriously, always. Heavy pedestrian traffic had started, or never ceased, by the time we went for a run at 8:30 a.m. It was happening at 5 a.m. when we awoke, still on West Coast time. Returning from dinner, I remarked that Waikiki’s sidewalks appeared more crowded than New York City’s. My sister (my week No. 1 traveling companion) said, no, New York is busier. I told her it’s exactly the same.

We’ve been here two days and already had enough sun exposure, and burns, to personally insult a dermatologist. Today, we swam with fishes, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed when I managed to stop freaking out about the possibility of stepping on corral and killing a precious living creature long enough to watch as tang and butterfly fish passed by, or stopped for a nibble.

It’s fitting I’m based in Waikiki for this little 15-day adventure — the tourist trap where culture comes to die. Or live? I’m not quite sure. There are, after all, plenty of free hula performances, ukulele playing and “mahalo” floating around. We must surely take something away from this cultural exposure, right? Oh, yes, traditionally speaking, Native Hawaiians pass down stories through hula song and dance. Ah, “mahalo” means thank you in their native language.

But there’s also the Gucci, Cheesecake Factory, Victoria Secret, Forever 21, street performers, club-goers, teenager runaways, honeymooners, tweakers, Japanese women in high heels. As a 20-year resident described Waikiki this afternoon: “It’s like driving through a mall.” Just with more interesting, and diverse, characters.

I get the impression Waikiki isn’t exactly a place locals appreciate. But many of them work here, behind the counters of ABC shops, as waitresses in perpetually busy restaurants, as instructors giving surf lessons on the beach.

In a few days, I finally get to meet with some of my interviewees for the article. I expect about seven of them. But that’s all I’ll say for now. I don’t want to show my whole hand! (or whatever that saying is. I’m bad idioms.)

Disrupting A Packaged Paradise

Not the exact issue, but still.

Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …

I plop down on a bench in downtown Honolulu and wait for my friend Lisa to get done with her job at a native Hawaiian law firm.

I open a copy of Honolulu Weekly and flip to my favorite section: letters to the editor. That’s where you find the good stuff. Let’s see, what’s cooking among local residents?

A German tourist complains of homeless people begging for money in Waikiki, disrupting the mirage of paradise she expected on her vacation. Ugh. So obnoxious.

Lisa walks out of the building, so I close the publication and we go on our merry little way. The next week, true to routine at 4:55 p.m. — after my “work day” of writing at a coffee shop — I once again claim a bench spot in front of Lisa’s office and peruse the letters to the editor, finding a response from the a Honolulu resident to the previous week’s German tourist.

“What the letter writer wants is a packaged paradise, an escape from the harsh realities that occur when millions of outsiders drop in on our Islands for two weeks at a time, taking, using and consuming, but not giving back … Sorry, but we’re busy worrying about how to create affordable housing for the families and multiple generations of Hawai’ians and other longtime residents who have been displaced by tourism development.”

Oh, snap! (Wait, was that term around back in 2006? I can’t remember).

But, technically, I’m one of those tourists — ah, the guilt! But I’m totally more enlightened and would never say something like that German tourist. Right? Heck, I boycotted a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center after learning Mormons operate the joint. I don’t want to take advantage of the islands and its residents. But how should I avoid that? Plus, I want the authentic Hawaiian experience. But just what is that? And why do I deserve to have it?

I was beginning to notice a theme during my short stay on O’ahu: frustration over tourists and commercialism. But these aren’t the only things worrying Hawaiians of Polynesian descent.

Native Hawaiians have the worst health and socioeconomic indicators of any ethnic group in Hawaii. They have the shortest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate. They have 44 percent higher rates of death from heart disease and cancer than the rest of the U.S. population. Native Hawaiian women have increased incidence and mortality breast cancer rates compared with other ethnic groups in Hawaii.

This island state has the worst crystal meth problem in the nation, with some health officials describing it as “worse than an epidemic.” While meth surfaced in the late 1970s, its usage skyrocketed in the past decade. State lawmakers originally responded by establishing mandatory minimum prison terms for meth users and then thought to develop treatment facilities.

In addition to public health concerns, a higher proportion of Native Hawaiians live below the poverty line than any other ethnic group. They compose 40 to 60 percent of the state’s prison population despite making up only about 10 percent of the total population. Fifty-five percent of Native Hawaiians do not complete high school and only 7 percent have college degrees.

It is within this context we find the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and other movers and shakers in the Hawaiian Renaissance who are eager to share their cultural and political awakening.

Or, as activist George Kanahele said back in 1979 near the start of the renaissance’s second phase: “Like a dormant volcano coming to life again, the Hawaiians are erupting with all the pent-up energy and frustrations of people on the make.”