Islands

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…

Author: Christopher-Dorset

A Bloody Kangaroo

12 thoughts on “Islands”

  1. Fascinating snapshot of your excursions Christopher. (Why are you not a published and famous writer of travel books!) It is always good to read your travel journals. You bring us there through your descriptive use of the five senses.

  2. The Hawaiian archipelago was an inviting destination for us Brits, when, admittedly a while ago, it was just tiny bit offshore from California and within relatively easy reach.

    Shame then about that geological break-off, shame about that massive North Pacific undertow that produced the 2000+ miles drift westwards out into the oceanic vastness and emptiness.

    Time methinks to find a solution to undisciplined Global Wandering…

  3. PG: Professional writing bores me. Most of the time these days I simply do whatever strikes my fancy.

    CB: One thing that many Britons and Europeans simply can’t do is grasp the scale of the United States. Strictly speaking, a trip from Hagatna to Bangor (Maine) is considered domestic. Likewise, flights between Honolulu and
    Boston, New York City and Orlando are considered domestic in spite their being longer than flights from the West Coast to Japan, South Korea or Europe.

  4. P.G is right – your comments are very interesting!
    but, I don’t think that many publishers would want to publish your comments re Hawaii! You’ve certainly confirmed my opinion that I really don’t want to go there…

  5. Boadicea: I absolutely adore Hawai’i. I could very happily live on the Big Island again. I was happy there, I felt at home there — especially in Hilo. Its decay is like that of Venice or New Orleans. It’s far from dead and it’s a complex, fascinating place that exists in a dream-state as it does reality. Kaua’i was hit and miss, but it was beautiful.

  6. “It’s far from dead and it’s a complex, fascinating place that exists in a dream-state as it does reality. “

    Some first visits to new destinations may admittedly fail to make that first impression.

    Solution: find a nice pavement cafe, order the local drink, maybe a second, maybe a (oh, let’s skip that tiny detail).

    Chances are that most new tourist destinations will start, by degrees, to come across as “complex fascinating places” etcetera, etccetra, eretcerata – as the immediate impact of localized harsh reality gradually begins to wear off…

    .

  7. Sipu: The answer to both is, of course, Alaska. The Aleutian Islands go a long way.

    CB: (Almost) All places have their moments. Some places exist in a dream-state. Venice, New Orleans and Hawai’i are among them. Then there are places within cities that have that ability.

  8. Am only familiar with one of those places, C-D, i.e. Venice, having made some 3 visits or more.

    “Dream-state”?

    Maybe the first few hours, finding oneself cut off from the modern-day world, lacking as Venice does traffic-filled streets, the standard plethora of crowded shops, restaurants etc.

    Yes, the major waterways are jam-packed with tourist and other boats. But not so the vast network of minor narrow canals with just the narrow pedestrian side path and sighting/access to occasional hand-propelled gondola.

    No, I found with Venice that the initial dream-like state quickly evaporates, once one finds oneself trudging the same old narrow lanes to get between one’s hotel and sightseeing spots, and/or the few widely-spaced boat excursion ports for visiting the other nearby islands etc. etc.

    Aching leg muscles, rapidly disappearing shoe-leather, limited cafes etc. all tend to return one quickly I found to the realities of the real world. I blame the insubstantiality, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t quality of at least one of your shortlist of three dreamy tourist destinations …

  9. I like to hear the descriptions of places I wouldn’t go to if you paid me!
    I HATE heat, I hate aeroplanes, I hate tourists. I like to stay home and mine the drive! (Except to gardening friends!)
    Which is why we live in one of the very best corners of the US.Beautiful scenery, good climate, plenty of fresh water, no carpet munchers, agricultural in nature and a bloody good place to be. Never could understand this need to run round like some kind of idiot gawping at everywhere else. Generally pretty mucky and full of wogs.

  10. CB: Those are minor grumbles. A quiet, lonely, fog-shrouded morning or evening in January? Relative silence, just what’s left of a city like no other gradually decaying into the lagoon? It’s a different experience, one governed more by pathos than box-ticking.

    CO: Likewise, I’d rather gargle a solution of pure bleach and glass shards than go to Washington State. Miserable and dreary place — the people worst of all. All the sincerity of Los Angeles, all the humility of Boston and all the intelligence of Idaho. I have the misfortune of having to deal with pasty-skinned people utterly devoid of personality on a regular basis. In general, they drive cars that say “Washington” and “Oregon”. Not that I much care for California these days — gone to the dogs, I fear. I rarely leave this one particular county. Unfortunately, about 90% of the US couldn’t interest me less. There wouldn’t be much difference for me between living in Hawai’i or the Motherlode — I wouldn’t see any less of this country.

  11. “It’s a different experience, one governed more by pathos than box-ticking.”

    Tricky decision I know, C-D, – whether to go for pathos, which sadly brings tears t0 the eye, or, for example, Paxos (near Corfu); both islands, in a spirit-raising manner, could be said to bring tiers to the “I”. 😉

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