I flew back to Hawai’i after many years. The Hawai’ian Airlines flight left Sacramento at the same time as it did then. The aeroplane, an Airbus A330, was the same model as I flew back then. After a multi-billion dollar renovation, Honolulu Daniel K Inouye International Airport looks much the same as it did then. The experience of seeing the Hawai’ian Islands below felt much the same as it did back then. After thousands of miles of empty ocean, the high, mountainous islands provide a striking contrast, a contrast like the waters that surround them: deep blue turning into aquamarine, aquamarine turning into a green-tinged steel. Distant Diamond Head is as iconic as it was back then. Honolulu has grown since then, there are more skyscrapers, a few more hotels, but…
I didn’t linger in Honolulu. I had no desire to. It’s actually an interesting city. It can be rough in places. Like so many other things over past few years, places that were frayed around the edges have become truly dodgy. Honolulu’s Chinatown is fascinating, but for all its historical interest and distinctive architecture it’s… Well, it has a long history of looking the other way, of turning a blind eye. In its beginnings, it was a home of sorts for down-and-out Chinese men. Over the generations, many have made it home, learning to look away and ignore the inconvenient. This has given many desperate people comfort and security, but it’s also turned into a fulcrum for many social problems. No… Honolulu, with all its brilliant museums, historic sites and cultural depth is too busy for this ageing piece of human driftwood. The gathering place it might be, but I’d rather have my quiet.
I flew to Hilo. It, more than Honolulu, is still recognisably the place I once lived so many years ago. The airport is the same, as is the languid tropical air. Hilo is wet. Hilo is humid. Hilo is a place where there is scarcely a day without rain. This keeps it green and fertile. This also keeps most mass-tourism at bay. Not all of it, of course. I landed the day a cruise ship docked. The taxis that would usually be queued up in front of the arrivals egress were at the port. There was someone assigned to help arriving passengers get ground transport — a cheerful, good-humoured Pinay. She rang up as many taxi companies as it took to find someone to come for us. I waited 20 minutes. What’s the rush? The driver came. A good-natured, cheerful Pinoy arrived. I made use of his services several times and tipped generously. He took me to the place I had stayed many times before, dans les temps.
Things were much as I remembered. There was new management, but the rest… That hadn’t changed. I walked to the beach in the morning and the evening. I could hear the waves crash on the shore every night. There was a group of builders staying there. They invited me for a chat. We got on straight away and we partied every night I was there. Against all logic, I could talk them under the table. I told the filthiest jokes, used the raunchiest double entendre and could take the piss out of myself with unusual efficacy. I needed that.
Hilo is much as I remembered it. Even its decay remained unchanged. Some old haunts had disappeared. The ‘awa shop was gone, a victim of the past two years of political errors. Other places had folded, but many remained and some new placed had sprung up. The company that makes the mamaki I like to drink is based there. I loved the coffee I could buy there. The people who owned the coffee shop grew and roasted their own coffee. They also grew cocoa and made their own chocolate. The farmers’ market was still there. The fruits were as I remembered.
I remembered the sound of the frogs, the parks, the waves. I remembered the gentle lilt of the way people speak. I visited the museum and the old missionary house. I was the guide’s first one-person group and also the first person’s hand she shook in two years. I remembered… The taste of the spam musubi. It’s like a warm Japanese rice ball stuffed with spam. It tasted the same as it did then.
I hired a car for only one day. I’ve always been partial to the Hilo side of the island, but there was a place I wished to visit in Kailua-Kona: Hulihe’e Palace. It was once the summer palace for Hawai’ian royalty. Its European-style construction was, for much of its active history, a show. The older generations, the more traditionally-minded, preferred to sleep in grass huts. It makes sense. Many of its artefacts still belong to the Hawai’ian royal families — the Houses of Kamehameha and Kalakaua. There is an aura there, a sense of presence that even the vulgar tourist strips that surround it can’t diminish.
When I drove around the island… I remembered it. The small towns are much as I remembered them. The highlands are as grand as I remembered. The Hamakua Coast is as inspiring now as it was back then. I spent my night in Kailua-Kona at a working horse ranch. You could watch the sunset from a window that comprised the better part of a wall. You could see the ocean and the palms. I met a pleasant young Polish couple there. Good fun and good company. It was not the raucous good time of Hilo, but it was pleasant and cheerful.
I flew out to Lihu’e the next morning. Or… At least that was my intent. I returned my hire car on time and arrived at the airport on time. The error I experienced whilst trying to check in for my flight online the night before repeated itself. Hawai’ian Airlines had cancelled the morning flight from Kailua-Kona to Lihu’e soon after I booked it. For whatever reason, they had never contacted me about it. The clerk was bemused by it all, but she rebooked me on the earliest possible flights via Honolulu. I arrived some four hours late, but I arrived.
Kaua’i is the oldest Hawai’ian island. Hawai’i is the youngest. The two islands are very different, as was my experience. Kaua’i, the island itself, is sublime. It’s a place of heart-shattering beauty and there is an energy that I can’t quite describe. I could, very easily, lose myself in Kaua’i nearly as completely as I could lose myself in Hawai’i. But… Whereas Hawai’i might not quite possess the sublimity of Kaua’i, the people there are overwhelmingly a merit. In Kaua’i, they’re a demerit. In Hawai’i, I immediately felt as if I had come home. I didn’t want to leave. Curiosity kept me cheerful. I didn’t really speak to anyone in Kaua’i. The staff at the hotel were remote at best. The woman working at their restaurant would seem to be a better fit for a scrapyard cur than a waitress. I simply turned around and walked away. I had found a small restaurant owned by a Chinese couple my first night on the island. The food, local Hawai’ian fare, wasn’t particularly brilliant but it was true to the flavour of the Islands and they were cheerful and welcoming. Better to give my money to them than Ms Karen Cur. Or the fact that I had a faulty lock on my room which allowed a man to walk in and see me in semi-nudity and that my room was filled with insects.
Still… I was mesmorised by Kaua’i, though I found that my times in solitude were the times best spent. Riding around the island on a coach was interesting. Beyond the spectacular scenery, I could observe social dynamics. I could also travel without any stress or need to focus on anything beyond my own curiosity. I also enjoyed my walks around the backroads of the island, visiting small cemeteries.
As ever, all things had to end. I flew back to Sacramento via San Diego. The flight was unpleasant. The people were unpleasant. Most travelling on Hawai’ian Airlines were locals or people with strong connexions to the Islands. Those travelling on Southwest Airlines were overwhelmingly Mainlanders. I felt uncomfortable around them. The woman who sat next to me was from Oxfordshire, but other than her, it was a wretched flight. The staff did their best, but the passengers left much to be desired. The atmosphere in San Diego was grim. The people were grim. I eventually arrived back in Sacramento, but only after one passenger was escorted off the aeroplane for having packed explosives in his suitcase. Since then, life has carried on. My schedule has returned back to normal after a bit of disruption and the days keep passing…