It's been an exciting summer as far as travel goes. Last year, the most exotic place I went was Durant, Oklahoma. This year, I went not only to Korea, which would've been plenty to satisfy the travel bug for a while, but also to Hawai'i.
The vacation in Hawai'i was the brilliant brainchild of my fabulously generous parents, who decided that we needed to spend more time together as a family, and as my dad had enough frequent flyer miles to get him a round-trip ticket to Mars, well, why not meet in Hawai'i? Nobody objected - who in their right mind would?
Nevertheless, I have to admit, Hawai'i isn't a place I've ever had a burning desire to go see. In my head, I have a list of places I want to travel: the Silk Road (Beijing to Venice). Mongolia. Russia. Bhutan. Egypt. Bolivia. Eastern Africa. There are places I've already been that I'd love to revisit, too: Morocco. Ireland. Peru. Guatemala. It's a wide range of places, but there's one thing they all have in common, and that is that they're not so much about the beaches.
I hate beaches. I sunburn easily. (Eventually, I tan, but only eventually.) I have no patience for lying in the sand, and I hate the way you find pockets of sand everywhere for days afterward. Not to mention that without my contacts or glasses, I'm one point away from legally blind, so being without them - which you kind of have to be if you're in water with waves - doesn't exactly thrill me. Beach-hating, however, has not really been much of an issue for me, ever. The closest I came was one summer years ago, when I was traveling with my friend through Italy. He wanted at least a few days at the beach. I said sure, whatever. We went to the beach. He, though hailing from Norway, was half Chilean, and had no problem with sun. I, being nearly as pigment-deficient as they come, was less fortunate. My burn was horrible. For the next week, he carried my backpack as well as his, because nothing could touch my back without causing me pain. For a couple years afterward, whenever I took a particularly hot shower, you could still see the outline of my swimsuit on my back.
Mind you, not that I'm complaining. As problems go, disliking beaches ranks up there with world issues like not finding the right microbrew at your local bar or preferring cross-country to downhill skiing. It's not much of a problem - I'm just trying to explain why Hawai'i never made it on my list of places I'd like to go. Hawai'i is, after all, nothing if not beaches.
And this is where I was wrong. Sure - it's an island in a warm part of the ocean, and it's got beautiful beaches. But there's so much more to Hawai'i than that. It's an incredible place; the big island, Hawai'i itself, has all but two of the world's climates in an area of about 4,000 square miles - that's smaller than the state of Connecticut. The mountaintops are subarctic; the valleys and beaches are tropical. The landscapes are incredibly varied. Some of it looked like the arid plains of New Mexico, and other places looked like you'd just walked into a tropical postcard. There were times when you could've convinced me I was in Scotland, with lush green slopes where cows grazed. Other times it felt like we were on the moon; the lava beds were surreal, and fascinating.
The guidebook I was using - the Lonely Planet, of course - pointed out that in Hawai'i, people run toward volcanoes, not away from them, and that was the truth. The volcano started spewing fresh lava flows right around the time we arrived, and it was spectacular.
The oddest thing about Hawai'i, and one that kept striking me every time I pulled out a dollar to pay for something, is that it's part of the United States. Here's this island, one of the remotest islands anywhere, thousands of miles from the nearest landmass, time zones away from even California, an island that is clearly culturally and historically Polynesian - and it's an American state. It's weird. Like going to France and having everyone there speak English and give you change in dollars.
There are, of course, rumblings about just this fact. Many Native Hawai'ians are hoping and working for an end to U.S. colonial domination of the islands - after all, the history of US-Hawaiian affairs is a colonial one, and while statehood changes the colonial situation, it doesn't eradicate it.
Hawai'i belongs to an entirely different cultural circle than any other place in the U.S.; It's clearly Polynesian. Its cousins are Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, and Aotearoa New Zealand, not Topeka, Petoskey, or Orlando. Native Hawai'ian religious traditions have many Tahitian roots, and the language bears similarities to other Polynesian languages. And sure, the islands we visited - Oahu and Hawai'i - are very anglicized, but even there, it's easy to find elements of Native Hawai'ian tradition or language. (The way those are used for tourism, and the questions of cultural appropriation and consumption that tourism raises, will be the topic of an upcoming column.)
And in the end, I even enjoyed the beach, because I discovered snorkeling. It's a beach activity, so my expectations weren't too high, but once I realized I could keep my contacts in, I started getting a little excited. I might actually get to see things!! And once I hit the water, I was addicted. We didn't even go to the more remote areas - just walked in off of one of the several recommended beaches, and wham, stunning fish, corals, massive sea turtles, and even moray eels. It was breathtaking. Fish swam up to me, curious; I floated over corals, keeping an eye out for prowling moray eels. We spent hours in the water without realizing time was passing. It was just spectacular.
So it's been an incredible summer: Korea, Hawai'i, and just now, a weekend in New Orleans. But now the semester's starting again. I'll be teaching a new class, working extra hours, taking classes, continuing to write the prospectus for my dissertation, and of course keeping up with Karate. And yeah, I'll definitely miss the travels of this summer. But all that travel has also made me really happy to be home, and at least that'll make the transition into the semester somewhat less painful.
Aug. 8, 2002
More about Hawai'iFirst off, my pictures. They're all linked from the essay at left, but if you don't want to spend time on the actual words, you can just skip to the pictures by following the links below. The easiest way to see all the pictures is to start at the first link and then just follow the "next page" link at the bottom of each page. However, you can also use the links below, which link to the first page of each category of picture.
Hawai'i - The Big Island
Volcano National Park
Lava Flows (in Volcano National Park)
Place of Refuge National Park
Snorkeling - underwater pics!
Hawai'i: Independent and Sovereign. A comprehensive homepage for the movement for Hawai'ian independence. It has a lot of great links, including both news and historical information, and is a good place to start.
Hawai'ian language website. Want to get a feel for the Hawai'ian language, or even begin to learn it? This is the place!
Polynesia, culture and history. An interesting site that looks at issues and cultures of Polynesia, which is useful if you want a feel for the cultural context of Hawai'i.
Pele comes to Hawai'i. One of the key legends of Hawai'i, this tells the story of how Pele, the volcano goddess, came to Hawai'i.
Hawaii: Culture and Customs. A useful guide for visitors on how to visit the islands respectfully. It includes a pronunciation guide and a list of commonly used Hawaiian-language phrases.
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last updated 8. August 2002