Saturday, March 01, 2014

What Hawaii Is. And What It Is Not.

"In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer." (Albert Camus)
I was sitting at this table, right against the glass of a greasy spoon place, called Seaside Bar and Grill, on Kuhio Ave. in Oahu, Hawaii, one morning, trying to open a small pack of sugar, to add to my coffee. The sugar sticks inside the packs here, something awful, because of the humidity, and it’s hard to shake it loose to pour it out in your coffee.

I was watching how, confused tourists, felt apprehensive about walking in for breakfast, because the place doesn’t look inviting at all, with its rusty and holy, run down awning in the front, musty, green, moldy rug under it, and with an Asian woman who could have been 100 years old as the hostess, sitting on a crooked wooden chair, with eyes small from the bright sun who blinded her. She sat there, almost unmoved, waiting for her guests, with a faint smile on her thin lips, staring at the crowd.

The food I was eating was pretty good. The coffee – horrible. The prices were surprisingly low, for Hawaii, you know. I wanted to encourage people to go ahead and come in, because there was no wait for a table like in other places, the food was decent and I wanted the hostess (maybe the owner, too), to earn enough money to allow her to fix the awning and maybe even get better tables in the joint.

When I sat down to write this blog, I didn’t have a clue what I as going to write about. There is so much to say about Hawaii, or at least, Oahu, because that’s the only island I have seen. My breakfast at Seaside Bar & Grill was the first image that popped into my head, when I opened this white page to write.

Before you go to Hawaii, you’ll have a chorus of people you know that have been there before telling you the same thing, in unison: it’s Paradise. Period. One word. End of story. The air smells like flowers and the water is so blue and clean. And there is music in the air, and exotic flowers and birds at every pace. You’ll never want to come back to the Mainland. You’ll want to move there. That’s what you’ll hear everyone say. You’ll search online and you’ll read much of the same reports.

Not sure whether I went to the “wrong island” (how could have I?! – aren’t all of them part of … Hawaii …?!) or what, but Hawaii was much more, or maybe sadly, even much less to me that just simply Paradise.

This blog will be about what this unique place on Earth was to me. It’s as subjective and biased as it will ever get and much less succinct than one word. I hope you bear with me. I will say “Hawaii” but keep in mind, I am always talking about Oahu, where I spent a week this February.

What Hawaii isn’t …
A Paradise. Let’s bust this one myth first, and then, we can move on. When I came off the plane, the air smelled much like every other air in any airport – of old carpet. There weren’t any Hawaiian beauties throwing leis of orchids at me. Other than flying over the very blue, deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, landing in Hawaii was pretty much just like landing in Miami Beach, maybe, except with less high rises. When we stepped outside, I smelled airplane gas, not flowers. When we finally got into the parking lot, I did smell, very fainted, plumeria and hibiscus in the air, or maybe orchids … Finally! But it was not very strong – if one had not pointed this to me, I would not have noticed. The air is thick with humidity, so thick that I thought Southern humidity is only a joke compared to Hawaii in February.

Driving around the streets of Honolulu is no different than driving around any other big city of the world. Traffic. Dirt. Homeless folks and Wal-Mart and Target carts in the park. Tons and tons of graffiti walls. The exit and traffic signs all look “American” but the names of the streets give away the fact that you’re in a different country. Really. Kuhio, Kalia, Ala Wai, Kamehameha are some examples. What is different than most American buildings is the amount of decaying walls, clad in mildew, you see on every street. The mold, and fungus growing on everything is overwhelming. Even beautiful, architecturally, buildings are covered in mold, even in “fancy” and high end neighborhoods. Roofs with what almost looks like moss growing on them are everywhere – in the city, and out, in the mountains  – which gives the whole place a run down, decrepit, sort of poor and sad look.

Our hotel room, in the heart of Waikiki Beach, smelled like musty air, although the air conditioner never stopped. My sterling silver necklace left blue marks on my neck, from the very humid and hot air. And this was supposed to be the rainy season. Our bathroom never dried up. If Paradise is this humid, I am second guessing my wanting to go there.

What Hawaii is …
Everywhere you turn, in Hawaii, even on the busiest of streets in Honolulu, you’re drowned in a see of green vegetation. The island is lush! This is the first place I have ever visited where you really do feel like people live amongst the wild vegetation where they’re intruders. Banana trees, coconut trees, every kind of palm tree, eucalyptus and bamboo species you can think of, green vines, and brown, all dressed up in blooms, like Christmas trees, are everywhere. It didn’t matter that we got lost in the “poorer areas” of Honolulu (I am sure this expression is relative – nothing here seems to be less than $1mil)  – every shack was surrounded by gorgeous tropical greenery. I think landscape architects are non-existent in Hawaii. It looks like the island will grow around every abode, every car, every bridge into the water, everything. This is, truly, breathtaking.

All the pictures I have taken show this amazing richness of vegetation, and we never went to a botanical garden – it’s things we shot while walking around the island. Actually, I did see a couple of brown street signs for botanical gardens, and I told myself: “OK! Hawaii, now, you’re just showing off!. Why would you need a botanical garden in this?!”

What Hawaii isn’t …
Incredibly, over the top expensive.
The gas was $2.85 in Utah when we left. It was $3.94 in Honolulu. I was expecting it to be at least double, but only a dollar more. Yes, there are higher than Utah prices, but I have been more shocked by prices in Seattle and New York than I have been by the ones in Honolulu! You can eat street food everywhere and in small restaurants, unknown to tripadvisor, which are amazingly good and fresh, and you’d spend about the same amount as anywhere else in small town America. The best food we had, I think, was at this Thai Restaurant (Siam Square), and the price for an entrée was around $10-13, for dinner, which is what we pay in Provo, UT, as well. Yes, there are extremely expensive places (and we did dine at Morimoto Waikiki, too, for comparison), too, but so are everywhere else in the nation.

Sometimes, Hawaii gets a reputation of being a tourist trap, a place where you pay for everything, where they try to squeeze every little penny from you. At one of the largest flea markets in Hawaii, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, most of the vendors don’t accept credit cards at all. It’s all cash. I feel more trapped for spending in the Salt Lake Farmers’ Market where everyone accepts plastic for any amount of purchase, than I did on Oahu! A place that would be interested in robbing you blind would accommodate any type of payment, I think.

What Hawaii isn’t …
American. I know, I know, you proud folks out there think I am crazy, but hear me out here. It’s not that I deny its belonging to the Union or legality at all. But I didn’t feel (outside the street sign colors and exit signs) like I was in America at all. Everyone outside of the tourists like you is either Hawaiian or … Japanese. Just looking at people in the street, you’ll see at least 4 Japanese persons for every white or Hawaiian individual, and that is probably an understatement. All the menus in restaurants are in English and Japanese. The Caucasian trolley drivers speak both English and Japanese and outside of maybe two waitresses, we didn’t run into any white staff at all for the whole stay in Oahu. Everyone we talked to had an accent and looked foreign. Everyone.

The whole island felt very exotic, and not very American at all.

What Hawaii is …
A true melting pot of cultures, architecture, foods and people. Out of all the things that will stay with me from these islands, diversity and richness of cultures is definitely one of them. We have seen Buddhist temples, right along with Hindu practicing folks (judging by bumper stickers), “Iglesia Ni Cristo” – a Christian church with services in Pilipino, even a Greek Orthodox church about 5 minutes from our hotel in Waikiki Beach. It’s a beautiful mélange of all cultures, rites and traditions – all coexisting together in absolute harmony. I missed that so much, where I live now. It’s a beautiful reminder, especially nowadays, than harmony can happen peacefully and gracefully.

We did not make it to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), because I have very little patience for “theme parks”. But if you visit the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu, which I highly recommend, you will learn about the rich history of this nation, about where from they come and how they found these lonely islands, in the middle and near nothing else, how they settled and developed them pretty much alone, over the centuries, how their monarchs, men and women alike, were culturally rich, intelligent people and how they welcomed diplomacy before anything else when developing relationships with the US and other countries of the world. I think America is this much richer, and hopefully the Mainland will travel and learn one or two things from these island folks, along the lines of tolerance, respect and love.

The PCC, as the name shows it, is a park where Polynesian culture, which is close, geographically, to Hawaii and has influenced Hawaiian culture, over time, is recreated in the way people dress, dance, eat and live (in re-enactments).

Dinner at Gyu-Kaku BBQ Restaurant was one of those out-of-place experiences. The whole place made us feel like we stepped through a time or a space trap, into Japan. It started with the name, that I still have to think about to remember, which is evidently very foreign and told us nothing of what it offers, really. The staff, was all Japanese, and we and 3 other people in there were the only white-looking folks in an over crowded joint. The furniture, the pagoda-looking booths, and sake bottles labeled in Japanese mounted on wall shelves looked very outlandish. We felt lost, but so good, because we knew we were getting an experience we have never had before, anywhere else in The States. Every 2 seats came with our own gas grill, where we would cook everything for our meal ourselves, outside of our rice, which came already steamed.

The meats were fresh and the veggies came wrapped in foil, and seasoned, ready to grill. Everything was fresh and well soaked in various marinades of garlic, ginger and sesame oil. If the chicken was not done, we had only ourselves to blame.

As hot as Hawaii was, many restaurants and stores didn’t have the A/C running. This place was one of those. With two dozen gas grills on and cooking, it only had ceiling fans working, and people soaking in sweat. They like their island breeze in most of the establishments around Honolulu. Very un-American, if you asked me.

What Hawaii isn’t …
Cheesy. Beach resorts especially get a reputation of cheese, dirt, and overpriced t-shirts. Hawaii shouldn’t. Yes, you have gifts and beachwear stores, much like you would expect, but every one of them is clean, with even (instead of sunken and dingy) floors that don’t squeak, and neatly organized shelves. I have never seen so many beach stores where food and drinks are not allowed, as I have seen in Hawaii.

What Hawaii is …
Artsy and tasteful. Hawaii has a long history of beautiful wood workings. At every corner, you will see unique and beautifully carved benches, tables, paddles and surf boards, gorgeous balcony railings and wall panels. If you ever visit Oahu, take a ride towards Turtle Bay, onto the North Shore, and stop in Haleiwa, a small community on Kamehameha Highway. There are several art galleries full with local art, anything from paintings, photography, to blown glass and embroidery. Local scenes, people, flora and fauna are frozen in these handmade beauties. They are not cheap, of course, but just strolling through them will open and inspire your mind and heart and will give you a glimpse of Hawaii through the eyes of artists.

What Hawaii isn’t …
Scary, dangerously wild. This was my fear before I went there, at least – that there will be some species of snakes and reptiles, along with wild boars and monkeys that will eat me alive, and I won’t even know how to explain to the ER what bit me or tried to kill me!

But much to my surprise, outside an elusive ocean snake that lives solely in the Pacific, there are no snakes at all on Hawaii! Mosquitoes are about the only thing that “attacked” us. We hiked in the rain forest, and there was no ant to be seen, no spiders (although they’re out there, I am sure!), no monkeys. Lots of beautiful, exotic birds, but nothing much else.

What Hawaii is …
“Wild” (as in “natural”, not as in “untamed animals”) life is very much part of the every day life, I would say – as everything is so very close on the Island. We hiked the rain forest of Manoa Falls, and it seemed like the trail was in the middle of this very residential and quiet neighborhood with cats and chickens running around the parking lot.

The hike was gorgeous – very green and incredibly rich in vegetation. Plants that my family and I have grown only indoors on the Mainland, are here plenty, and unbothered to be outside. Blooms we normally wait for years to see on our indoor plans are here everywhere, and seemingly grow like weeds.

Outside birds and a mouse as big as maybe an apple, we saw no creatures. Of course, except for the mosquitoes which bit us despite the Off! we used all over our exposed skin.

A short drive of only 20-30 minutes from Waikiki Beach will put you in the heart of the Ko’olau Mountains, and they are breathtaking. Like no mountain I have ever seen before, they spring straight up, with almost a perfect 90 degree incline, from the sea level. Not one square inch of them is bare – they are clad in a thick coat of lush green. They are majestic and mysterious, as I cannot imagine anyone able to climb something so steep. The mix of urbanism and wilderness is what Oahu is, in my mind.

What Hawaii isn’t …
All beach, fun, escapism, and no substance. I have always heard people talk only about the paddle boarding, snorkeling and expensive sunset cruises when going to Hawaii. Even when I got back, the first question out of people’s mouths when they find I out I went to Hawaii is “oh, cool! What Island? And which beach did you go snorkel at?”
Hawaii was all snorkeling and dipping into waterfall pools for me, before I went there.
Those places exist, don’t get me wrong, but for people like me who don’t like water that much and can’t swim, those places are no attraction.
And  the only place we saw a waterfall pool had signs all around it warning people not to dip in the water, and speaking of falling rocks’ dangers.

What Hawaii is …
For us, outside the water fun all around which people seem to be enjoying, Hawaii was a place imbued with history. Not only the very popular and renowned, so important for the history of the World, Pearl Harbor, but the local history museums are great escapes into a past that is rich and extremely well documented. I already mentioned The Bishop Museum, but the Iolani Castle (which was booked for months in advance!) and the US Army Museum are places I would recommend as well. I take history where it is, and where it happens, not only when I go to Europe or Washington, DC … And Hawaii is not poor in historic sites.

What Hawaii isn’t …
“You can hear music in the air” is what I used to hear. I imagined Hawaii a place where at every street corner, you’d find a hula dancer, much like in New Orleans, you find a zydeco band in every bar.

But that is, unfortunately, another myth. Outside of a three person band (two guys playing ukulele, and one woman singing backup, with plumeria in her hair and curvy hips) that played for exactly one hour on a patio bar, on the shore, one night, I heard no Hawaiian music whatsoever in one week of being in Oahu. Yes, there are restaurants who will charge you a fee for the all Hawaiian experience, complete with roasted pork and hula dancers, but impromptu Hawaiian music “in the air”, at every corner – not so much. Traffic noise, sure. Music – I couldn’t hear it.

There is something very peaceful and very quiet, and very fresh, even, about the Pacific Ocean around Oahu. Unlike The Atlantic, which is almost angry and roaring with fury, The Pacific is calm and patient. Maybe not everywhere, but definitely around this island. We enjoyed many a nights just drinking and having finger foods on the patio at The Edge off Waikiki, watching the sun set and the catamarans taking people into the dimming horizon. The swishy music of the waves is the only music I will forever associate with Hawaii. That and the song of the many colorful birds which sing in peculiar and foreign tones in every bush.

What “myths” aren’t myths …
We heard that everyone in Hawaii greets you with “Aloha” (after all, they call themselves the ‘Aloha State’) and appreciates you for your business with “Mahalo”. And that one is true! I felt cheesy saying them back, in the beginning, but everyone is so friendly and they sound so natural saying these two greetings that by the time we left, we finally said them right back, promptly.

“Shave ice” is everywhere. This one is also true. And it’s advertised as typed: “shave”. It’s in bars, restaurants, on the beach, at the beach stores, in the ABC Stores, in the streets at a mobile cart – everywhere! So are the mai-tais. They are not even on menus, but if you ask for one, they will make you one, everywhere.

Pineapple comes from Hawaii. This definitely feels true, here! There is, of course, the Dole Plantation, which advertizes themselves as the “Pineapple Experience” and they sell, well, everything pineapple, including, ice-cream. But every restaurant has pineapple glaze on their meats and dressings, and deserts, and fresh bowls of fruit, with a bed of pineapple to start. It is, for sure, the sweetest, and freshest pineapple I have ever tasted. You can buy pineapple candy and pineapple dressed in chocolate even, in every ABC store.

And fruit, in general, is more plenty, more exotic, more fresh and more sweet than anywhere else I have been in the world.

What I will call “Hawaii” for the rest of my life …
The calm waters of the Pacific ocean, bathing the sandy beaches of Oahu … The happy marriage between the wild, exotic, unruly vegetation , the eerie dreamy landscape wrapped in misty, 100% humidity clouds  and modern, urban, decayed, busy big city … The sweetness of pineapple … The multicolored tapestry of cultures, religions, art media, races and histories … The plumeria and hibiscus photo ops at every street corner …Green geckos, perched on every bush …  The best pulled pork sandwiches in the world, nothing but smoke and lean meat, soaked in pineapple glaze …The tiki torches that light up the island every night... The Hawaiian shirts floating around in the breeze, everywhere ...

We kept chasing, desperately and hopelessly, the iconic Hawaiian rainbow  that you see in every commercial and movie, with people bathing under waterfalls crowned by it. It is so specific of Hawaii, it’s even on their license plates. We never did find it.

We never did find the Paradise everyone is talking about (shouldn’t Paradise have at least one snake in it?! Hmmm …) and we never did want to move there. We felt truly remote. In the more than 6 hour flight solely over the Ocean, I felt like I was going into an exile and there was apprehension about the journey, not relief. I joked that if we were to crash, no one would even bother looking for us, much less be able to find us.

They told me that the series Lost was filmed on the North- Western Shore of Oahu, and just like in Lost, we kept wondering where in the world we are?! Because when you’re there, you make your own rules of where you are, as everyone else’s input is not so true, or so we found. You feel, with every pore of your body, a different air, a different temperature, a different smell than anything anyone else tells you about before you land.

There is one thing, and one thing for sure, that will always and forever stay with me, as a purely Hawaiian trait, and that is … the people. They are some of the most friendly, generous, courteous, loving, patient and helpful people I have ever seen in my life. I heard no one argue, or being snappy. Every time we asked for directions, or help, at the hotel, for instance, everyone gave us complete, very well documented answers, and everyone did so with a smile and kindness.

I felt oftentimes that the people I came across with, the wait staff, the bus drivers, the ticket box attendants, are the poorest people in Hawaii. Against houses that were listed for $2 mil to start everywhere we went, these simple looking and behaving folks were in stark contrast. In the middle of the expensive Waikiki Beach, where a pork sandwich sells for $15 alone, the little old lady at the Seaside Bar and Grill was making a living, when she should have been home cradling grandchildren, perhaps. But they were always the most gentle and composed people around, too.

They are people that know no snow, and no harshness They are as warm as the air in the rain forest – soft and binding. They are people who know the rage of lava and monsoons, as well as the whispers of the Pacific ocean hitting the shores. They move as slow and as graceful as the sea turtles sometimes, and they are as sharp as the peaks of the Ko’olau Mountains.

Although in the beginning it felt unnatural and cheesy, in the very end, if there is one thing that I will miss the most about Hawaii, is hearing the beautiful “Mahalo!” from these folks. In a world that is often too rushed, and too paranoid to be humane anymore, the Hawaiian people, with their various heritages, will remain in my heart as a solid island of smiles, internal beauty, patience and class. 

The yellow hibiscus is the Hawaiian state flower. Click on the image to view the complete album from this trip. It's not a slim one, but I believe it's worth it. Enjoy!

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