20 Impressions from Paradise: October 14—Hawaii

This has been the first true adventure on our journey. It is unfamiliar, and the endless "to do" lists are either done, or mostly impossible to be done at this point. We are finally on the road! Granted, we still have the safety net of being with dear friends, and in the United States where the structure is still familiar and the escape routes are clear. But it is still about as exotic as you can get and still be in the U.S. (at least to those few of us Alaskans who have never been to Hawaii).

Many of you have probably already been to Hawaii; after all, it has been the vacation capital of the U.S. for many decades. But for us it was our first time, and we landed in Honolulu filled with preconceptions and curiosities.

"Come, faeries, take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind
And dance upon the mountains like a flame."
W.B. Yeats

The omens for a good trip kept appearing—starting with our stumbling first on some great shave ice, and next on our friend's off-the-beaten-track home (he was as surprised as we were!). On our first day we saw dolphins playing on our first swim in the sea (Waimea Bay on the North side of Oahu). We were entranced as we watched them twirling, splashing and playing--reminding us what pure joy is. Then they would execute that graceful and elegant circular dive made immortal on Grecian pots, reminding us of the interconnectedness of both place and time. We saw more rainbows than one can count (no, not just on the license plates!), and hit the two not-to-be-missed north island eateries quite by accident--one famous for its hamburgers and mahi-mahi, the other for its shave ice. By day two, we went snorkeling with the beautiful reef fish, including--Sam and I both swear--a butterscotch plaid fish.

Here are a few of our "snapshot impressions" as we toured three of the eight main islands (for those of you interested in trivia, at low tide the Hawaiian archipelago has over 100 islands that show above the surface of the Pacific Ocean).

Cassidy looks at a setting of red jade flowers.

1) The air is actually scented with flowers. When we first stepped out of the airport in Honolulu and gathered on the sidewalk trying to decide what to do next, we all were struck by the fragrance, a perfumed air we found over most of Oahu, all of Kauai and much of the Big Island.

2) This ever present fragrance is due to the fact that everywhere you look there are blooming flowers: in the trees, on the trees, around the bases of trees, throughout the hedges—a rainbow of colors and types. And if that wasn't enough, Hawaiians then fill all the remaining available spaces with picked flowers: bowls of fresh floating flowers in living rooms, elaborate leis each with its own meaning to drape around necks, baskets of dried flowers to hang from porches, and sprinkled garlands on walkways. To top of this obsession, many of the design motifs on shirts, sarongs, and quilts are flowers.

Green ("oma'oma'o" in Hawaiian) is incredible here. Unlike the deep greens and vertical shapes of Alaska's evergreens and Birch, the green here is horizontal, varied, hued and multi-faceted. The Monkey Pod spreads its huge canopy of lacy leaves with long dangling seed pods and occasional brilliant orange flowers, the long graceful fronds of the Ti (the good luck plant) crinkle in the trade winds, tall date and coconut palms wave as if from the movie "South Pacific," and the plumeria with its rounded deep green leaves and fragrant white and yellow blossoms (the most common flower used for making most leis) billow from yards and hillsides. Myriad other patterns are created with exotic plants including ginger (what varied and fragrant flowers these plants have!) citrus, Bougainvillea, Norfolk pine, palms, ginger, banana tress, orchids, pineapples, macadamia trees, avocados, taro and other exotic plants create a maze of patterns, more shades of green than I ever thought possible and brilliant, clear colors that make up the background of Hawaii's canvas.

3) Cassidy observed that Fall here doesn't have colored leaves piling on the ground, but instead is the gentle fall of Plumeria blossoms carried on the trade winds. (I suspect that kind of Fall happens all year.)

4) We delight in the fact that we don't see greenhouses to protect delicate plants from the, cold, but instead see "screen houses" that serve basically the same purpose— except its function is to ward of the sun and heat that could destroy delicate blossoms.

5) Hawaii is a foot-fetishist's fantasy. Shoes seem to be only used by the military stationed on the island, with the exception of teenagers in the malls who shod themselves like all American teenagers in the most expensive and zoomy athletic shoes. Thongs, or more often cheap rubber "flip flops" are the primary mode of transportation (all such shoes are known as "slippahs"). Like Japan, before entering a house you take off your shoes—a fact that also prevents tracking in the volcanic dust and mud that's so difficult to get out.

6) Hawaiian culture shows respect, affection and tolerance. It seems like everyone is an "Auntie" or an "Uncle"—children "Junior -Boy" and "Honey-Girl." We were told that teachers are respectfully "Kumu," but are often addressed with the affection of "Auntie" or "Uncle." Affection and respect are easily displayed, from the placing of leis round necks, to the hugging and kissing that is just a natural part of life.

7) We were in Hawaii during political season. Because, our friends tells us, there is a ban on political signs, politicians running for office take to the streets with groups of supporters. They aren't going door-to-door, but are standing along major streets holding signs and waving. The candidate wears a lei in order to be told apart from supporters.

From a high observation point we looked down a long valley that led to the wild Na Pali coastline of Kauai. We could see at least three waterfalls from here, threading their way back to the sea.

8) The "shaka" is a hand sign made by making a fist, then extending your thumb and forefinger and wiggling your hand back and forth. It is a standard greeting meaning "no problems," "hello," or "hang ten"--meaning to hang all ten toes off the edge of your surf board.

9) There were three words used constantly by all of our Hawaiian friends: "pow" meaning done, finished, or over, as in: "The blossoms on that ginger plant are pow." "Mahalo" meaning thank you, and "aloha" meaning both hello and good-bye. We also picked up the term "stink eye" which translates as the "evil eye" that mothers are so good at!

10) Time seems to stand still on Hawaii, one can imagine that it would be very easy to let time slip by--growing old and dying and looking back and wondering "now just what did I do?"

11) For much of my life I've (George) heard the term "Trade Winds," a romantic image found in many of his favorite writer's works. The term conjures immediate images of old sailing ships with billowed sails. For us, the trade winds were a godsend. Since the thermostat on our Alaskan blood was still set for high, as the day's temps and humidity would climb we'd begin to wilt. And then along would come a trade wind, convecting off our sweat and billowing out our sails. We'd perk up, smell the flowers and get on with the day. Local Hawaiians talk about the late summer days when there are no trade winds with the same horror as we Alaskans talk about the deep freeze days of January.

On the west coast of Hawaii is a very special place, Puohonua O Honaunai, the City of Sanctuary. In the ancient times if someone committed a grave offense, the kind that could lead to death, they had a way out. All they had to do was make it to this place and be saved. However, that meant having to brave the sea, swimming through sharks and nasty breakers and coral, and running a gauntlet of armed guards to make it through the doorway. Once inside they were safe, and the Kahuna, the priest could proclaim them spared. These carved idols were part of the pantheon that protected this sacred place.

12) Along with the omnipresent flowers and foliage, Hawaii is also filled with songbirds. Unfortunately few of these are native. In fact, Hawaii is one of the most threatened places on earth for loss of native flora and fauna. On the southernmost tip of the Big Island, we watched dozens of mongooses slithering across the roads, an introduced critter that has decimated local populations of birds. And the state bird, nene, an endangered and odd creature who most often appears only in the New York Times daily crossword puzzles, is the world's only goose with talon-like feet (all the better for running on the lava flows).

13) If you're like us, and spelling has always been a problem, we now know why. Hawaii is to blame. Secretly for the last few centuries the Hawaiian language has been stealing all the vowels. Take for example the major city of Molokai, Kaunakakai—60 percent vowels! Or the island of Kauai, a word that is 80 percent vowels. Streets all over Hawaii are a mainlander's nightmare in trying to remember their names due to the profusion of vowels. It's no wonder I keep havng dffculties spllng.

14) Pineapples: now here is something that made us all feel like bumpkins from the sticks: we didn't have a clue how pineapples grew. When we first saw pineapple fields with their bushy, short pointed-leaf plants, we thought perhaps pineapples were dug up like potatoes—there just didn't seem to be any on the plants. When we finally stopped at the pineapple demonstration field in a triangular shaped patch at the junction of several roads, we saw that they grow like little torches being lifted from the center of the plant. According to one piece of literature, a pineapple plant will only produce two pineapples, the first taking two years to mature, the second maturing the year after. Some of our Hawaiian friends disagree, saying each pineapple takes two years.

15) Dance: the graceful dancing is reminiscent of the motion of the major island elements—the sea and the wind. It is grace itself. It tells a story. It speaks of being Hawaiian—remembering a way of life and the core values of Hawaiian life. It is a way of sharing in movement, joy , music and story. Since ancient times there have been several "schools" of dance, each unique. But what is shared by all is the fact that every part of the dancer's body is integral to telling the story: eyes, expressions, and finger tips.

At the Taro Festival many "sisters (or brothers) in hula" were called to the front to dance in their jeans and tees with the costumed dancers. Special dances and songs had been composed to honor dancers, teachers and legends of dance.

We wonder at the comparison between Alaskan Eskimo dancing with its firmly planted feet, rhythmic bounce, and sharp hand and arm movements timed with a skin head drum shaped like a large tambourine. Again, the dance tells a story. It reflects the environment—cold with the few resources available on the tundra. Dancing was traditionally done in small enclosed spaces where dancers and viewers were crowded together to keep warm. Small movements would have been necessary.

The first place we saw traditional Hawaiian dancing was at the Bishop Museum. We smelled the dancer before we saw her, decked out with fragrant Plumeria blossoms—delicate white with deep yellow centers, the first gentle assault on our senses. She floated onto the stage, and danced while "kumu" told the stories of the dance and explained the difference between the formal religious dance during which the dancer did not smile, and the dances for joy during which the dancer smiles as she told her story. Kumu played a ukulele (a Portuguese import) and a double chambered gourd drum that was slapped and hit on the ground to give different sounds, from the deep echo created by a thump on the ground, to the higher pitched slap—um-pat, um-pat-pat.

She also told about "boat days" in the old days of elegant steamers—happening as late as the '50's and '60's. People would paddle out to meet the ships at Diamond Head where steamship passengers would toss coins to boys in the water. Hawaiian dancers and musicians would climb on board and entertain until the ship reached the dock at Honolulu, and women would greet everyone with leis.

16) Ukulele: One can't think of Hawaii without thinking about the ukulele, which of course leads you to think about Tiny Tim, but that's getting way off track. The ukulele means literally "jumping flea" and is adapted from a Portuguese instrument called the braguinha that arrived on a ship in Hawaii in 1879.

17) Art: we noted that there were similarities in Southeast Alaskan Native art and Native Hawaiian art. We were most struck by a carved meat platter in the Bishop Museum from the early 19th century that had human forms at both ends. Its inlay work, big-eyed style on the humans, and shape are very similar to a huge potlatch bowl in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

18) Hawaiian Gods: ancient Hawaiians had many gods and goddesses. A few of these include: Kane, the creator of heaven, earth and the things that fill them. Ku, the god of war and human sacrifice. Lono, god of peace, agriculture, fertility and sports. Kanaloa, god of the ocean and ocean wind. Pele, the volcano god. Laka, god of the hula. Gods in total are called "akua." The temples built to honor these gods were called heiau, and were filled with god-images, or tikis, carved from local woods.

19) Houses: as a rule, Hawaiian houses have no insulation, no air conditioning. They are bare shelters from the elements with lots of screens and louvered glass windows for catching the cooling breezes that blow though. Everyone we visited had lots of vegetation around their homes—beautiful trees, bushes and other plants bearing flowers and fruit--avocados, bananas, coconuts, macadamias, breadfruit, the list is endless. They also come equipped with geckos, chameleons, ants and other small wildlife. Our friend Bill had a great defense for his sugar bowl: a water-filled moat!

20) Kauai is famous for its red dirt. Of all the islands, it seems to have the most pronounced supply of this ubiquitous stuff. It gets into everything, especially clothes, and never comes out. Some island entrepreneurs started the "Red Dirt Shirt Company" making red-dirt colored tee shirts to sell.

Kauai is known as the "Garden isle"—it is the oldest of all the islands. But we were surprised to see that it has such a variety of climates that in truth, plant life ranges from cactus on the nearly desolate west side, to the lush rain forest trees and vines of the south. In between it's mostly cane and coffee fields--or grazing areas for cattle.

Kauai should also be famous for its wild chickens—especially its beautifully colored (but noisy and stupid) roosters. These guys not only crow at dawn, they crow at moonlight (and when the moon plays hide-and-seek with the clouds this is really fun) and headlights and porch lights. They roost in trees and hide under porches. They can be seen at the beach or backyards or in state parks.

We had one particularly 'ornery' fowl who liked to tip-talon up to our bedroom window and bellow out his morning chant at about 4 a.m. George and Samantha decided to fix him, so they chased him around the yard one morning, cornered him and scared the dickens out of his scrawny frame. The next morning he returned and got even by setting off his alarm at 3 a.m.

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