Going to Hawaii is like stepping back to a simpler time.
Because vacationers dream of Hawaii as an idyllic backwater paradise, it knocks people’s socks off to learn that by the mid-1800s Hawaii had the highest literacy rate in the world, the first newspapers west of the Rockies, and that Iolani Palace, the home of Hawaii’s monarchs, had telephones and electricity before the White House in Washington, DC.
It was good to be the King.
The city of Honolulu, which melts seamlessly into the tourist mecca of Waikiki, is the 10th largest city in the United States. On the isle of Oahu, Hawaii’s largest population center, islanders spend on average more than two hours a day in stop and go traffic, ranking Honolulu the third worse commute in North America, just behind Los Angeles and Vancouver.
You can imagine the shock this causes honeymooners from Nebraska who are expecting grass huts nestled near waterfalls.
The good news is if your perfect Hawaiian vacation depends on grass huts and waterfalls, we do have a few of those around. For around $130 tour buses will pick you up from your Waikiki hotel and take you to an authentic reenactment village. Just don’t expect the locals posing for your photos as you try your hand at pounding poi, weaving lauhala mats, or hula to actually live there. Most are islanders, not Hawaiians, and your once-in-a-lifetime Kodak moment is probably their second job after a two hour commute.
But they’ll try their darndest to make it special. We get the power of vacations, too.
Hurricanes, active volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and traffic jams aside, we still think we’re lucky we live Hawaii.
Because we are.
Once at a fancy restaurant I watched the wait staff run the entire time I was sipping my guava juice and nibbling French toast. The maître d’ was orchestrating it all with a glance, a raised eyebrow, a slight head tilt, and the staff was hopping! I was so impressed with the service I was checking out their shoes, wondering if they had special soles that gave them superhuman ability to carry a loaded tray, pour coffee, and take orders simultaneously. While this amazing ballet was going on, at the table next to me a foursome was enthusiastically waxing on about how laid-back everyone in Hawaii was, how easy it must be to live here, no pressure, people practically live at the beach.
Huh? Did they not recognize that everyone baking in the sun at Waikiki was from Minnesota? It takes serious snow to get that shade of pale.
Chances are if tourists are at the beach, the locals are busy at work. Those guys you see by the beach pavilion? Life guards, tour guides, surf instructors, grounds maintenance…
Hawaii has the highest cost of living of any state in the union, but wages average somewhere in the bottom third. Consequently people often work two or more jobs to make rent. Multi-generational households are common because the cost of a modest three bedroom “starter” home begins around $700,000—and that usually doesn’t include the land. Most homes are lease-hold, meaning someone else owns the land and you just rent the right to build and maintain a house on it at your expense for the next 30 years.
Believe me, islanders know all about working hard and saving for a rainy day.
But because things are so expensive and space is at a premium, people don’t tend to care much about stuff. In Hawaii the relentless pursuit of things—signs of ambition and progress in the west—is less important than building relationships with people. Spending time talking with family and friends, doing things as a community, not stressing over things that aren’t important in the long run—that’s what I think visitors are really seeing and why they confuse laid back with lazy—as another umbrella drink magically appears.
Next: #5 Going to Hawaii is like stepping back into a simpler time.
#3: You need a passport to visit Hawaii.
But only if you’re not a US citizen since Hawaii is the 50th State. That means it’s as much a part of the United States as Kansas, except it’s surrounded by ocean and separated from the American continent by a few thousand miles.
We speak English, use American money, have indoor plumbing, movie theaters, and yes, Costcos. You don’t need special vaccinations, water purification tablets, voltage adaptors, or snakebite anti-venom to visit. Pack lightly. If you do forget something and really need it, don’t worry; you can buy it here. Promise.
Next: #4: Laid-back means you’re lazy.
If you live in Hawaii, you’re Hawaiian.
Unlike New Yorker or Californian, Hawaiian refers to a Polynesian race. To be Hawaiian you have to have Hawaiian blood, meaning ancestors that were living in the islands prior to Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778. In Hawaii you’ll hear kama‘aina, meaning of the land, used to refer to Hawaii residents, but even this word isn’t quite right unless your family has deep roots here. Locals, islanders, or simply from Hawaii are all more accurate descriptions. Keep this in mind if you hear ex-pat islanders in Idaho call someone local. Hint: they aren’t saying he’s from Boise.
Oh, and Hawaii is the only state where everyone is a minority—no one race or nationality is anywhere close to 50% of the population. Most islanders are a mixture—having five or more nationalities isn’t uncommon.
Next: #3: You need a passport to visit.
Ah, Hawaii. Everybody surfs. Beautiful girls in grass skirts smile as you pass by. Coconuts fall off trees and tumble into coolers where they sprout little paper umbrellas…
Paradise? You bet. There’s a reason locals say lucky you live Hawaii. However, most people experience Hawaii on vacation. Even a trip to Costco is exciting if you’re on vacation. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be discussing my favorite myth-understandings about Hawaii.
#1: If you put pineapple on it, it’s Hawaiian.
Nope. Pineapples originated in Brazil, not Polynesia. Pineapple on pizza? California, just like coconut bras, tiki bars, tiki torches, and fire-knife dancing. Grass skirts? Micronesia. Those super-fast hip shaking dance moves you see at hula shows? Tahiti. Ukuleles? Portugal. Flower leis? Technically from Spanish cowboys who took the original Hawaiian idea of green leaf garlands one step further and created showy love-tokens for their sweethearts and horses.
Sadly, much of what reminds people of Hawaii was invented by Hollywood and Trader Vic’s.
Hawaiian civic groups are understandably tired of I got lei’d in Hawaii shot glasses, tiki god ashtrays, and plastic placemats with nonsensical Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. (One of my favorites: Katherine = Kakalina, which really means gasoline. Most don’t even make that much sense.) Fortunately, big grassroots campaigns are gaining momentum to set the record straight. Many hotels now have mandatory Hawaiian culture classes for their employees and hold free workshops for tourists—all in an effort to bring the real Hawaii back to the vacation experience.
Up next: #2 If you live in Hawaii, you’re Hawaiian.
My cousins, sister, and I were supposed to be doing the dishes, so of course we were fighting.
“Bruce! Don’t dump silverware in the rubbish can!” I shrieked.
“What? What did I do?” Eyes wide and fake innocent.
“You threw away the fork when you scraped the plate,” my sister Heidi said. “I saw.”
“Not!” Bruce snapped.
“Yes!” Heidi said, tipping the rubbish can forward. “You can just see the edge of it right there!”
“Where?” Bruce said.
“Right there! Under the napkin!” Heidi said.
“Busted!” Carly chortled, putting leftovers in the fridge.
“Get it out,” I said.
“No way,” Bruce whined; “It’s ugi! I’m not putting my hand in there!”
I turned from the sink where I was washing the chopping knife. “Do it!”
“Make me,” he said.
I waved the knife at him. “Eyes or alas, your choice!”
“You gonna get it now, Bruce,” Taylor said, dumping a stack of plates on the counter.
“Better choose alas, Bruce,” said Glen with a sly eye. “It’s not like you going need them.”
“Ooooooooh!” everybody inhaled.
“Good one, Glen!” said Taylor the troublemaker.
“I mean it, Bruce!” I snarled and waved the knife some more.
“That’s not how you hold a knife, Lehua.” Uncle Dave stood in the doorway, amused.
We all jumped back. Although if we were going to get caught fighting, we’d rather it was by Uncle Dave than anyone else. Anyone else usually involved more chores and sometimes lickings. With Uncle Dave the odds were better he’d just say knock it off. On a really good day, he’d just laugh and take us to the beach to cool off.
“What?” I asked, soap suds dripping off my wrist and running down my elbow.
“Nobody’s going to be afraid if you wave a knife like that at them.” We all looked at the knife in my hand, nonplussed. “Give it,” he said. “When you’re in a knife fight, you gotta hold the blade like this.” He whipped it around, sharp edge up. “Stand like this. Put your weight like this. See?”
It didn’t matter that Uncle Dave was almost as wide as he was tall. We watched him weave the knife through the air, shifting and swaying like a palm tree in the breeze. I kept thinking about West Side Story. I didn’t think the Jetts knew what Uncle Dave knew.
“That’s how you hold a knife,” he said and handed it back.
“Thanks, Uncle,” I said. “Now everybody back to work!” Being bossy comes naturally when you’re the oldest cousin and expected to keep everyone else in line. “Bruce, get the fork out of the rubbish can.”
“No,” he pouted.
I waved the knife at him the way Uncle Dave taught me. “Do it!”
“Okay, okay,” Bruce grumbled, “no need get huffy about it.”
“Not bad, Lehua,” Uncle Dave laughed, “not bad.”
More than 30 years later when I was writing the first draft of One Shark, No Swim it suddenly occurred to me that Zader was fascinated with knives—that’s one of the reasons he carves. When I wrote that lua training scene it was really Uncle Dave I saw in my mind dancing and fighting off imaginary dragons with a kitchen knife. A hui hou, Uncle Dave. Rest in peace.
When I was nine I flew all the way to Salt Lake City, Utah from Honolulu, Oahu all by myself. I had to change planes in San Francisco, but I wasn’t worried. I had my snacks, a couple of good books, and I looked forward to the movie—any movie—on the plane. The stewardesses matter of factly handed me off to each other, and sitting in their airport lounge waiting for my last flight was eye-opening and educational, although I still don’t understand why bras that make points are better than bras that curve.
It’s amazing what people will say if you’re quiet and holding a book.
Everything was 5 by 5. I was flying under the stewardesses’ radar and hearing all about Brad and Belinda and something about a layover and cockpit that didn’t involve airplanes when I decided that what this live-action play needed was a couple of snacks. I pulled out a sandwich bag, untwisted the tie, and started to munch.
“Oh, #*^&*@#$^%$! What the hell is that?” screeched a southern bleached blonde with pointy tips.
“Cuttle fish,” I said, using my best company manners to shake the bag open wider and holding it out toward her. “You like?”
Wow, I never know that was possible, I thought, filing the phrase away for future reference. Does that mean yes or no? “It’s ‘ono. I mean, it’s good. Packed fresh this morning.”
“Relax,” laughed a perky brunette, “I’ve tried it before. It’s dried and shredded squid. They eat it in Asia.”
“Fish jerky?!” The southern belle’s painted on eyebrows couldn’t go higher.
“No,” I said earnestly, thinking of beef jerky. “Jerky’s hard and tough. This is soft and kinda salty-sweet. A little chewy. You like?”
She shuddered and closed her eyes, the cat eyeliner and turquoise lids reminding me of King Tut. “I need a drink,” she said.
The brunette laughed again and reached under a counter for a mini bottle. “Hair of the dog?”
“A whole poodle, if you’ve got it.”
I thought about my other snack bags filled with kakimochi, iso peanuts, and crack seed. Should I bring those out to be polite? I wondered. Nah, I decided, anybody who eats dog hair but turns up her nose at cuttle fish doesn’t deserve them.
- As you’re packing the cooler, remember a little too much is the perfect amount. The coldest drinks are going to be at the bottom. The beer goes in first.
- Carry meat tenderizer in your beach bag for jelly fish stings. Pat stings with wet sand; don’t rub. Suck it up and get back in the water.
- If you’re caught in a rip current, don’t fight it. Relax. Slowly work your way across the current, usually parallel to the shore until you’re free. Once out, if you continue to swim a little farther parallel, there’s a good chance you’ll hit another current that will take you back to shore. Do not tire yourself out by fighting the current or waving your arms or shouting. I’m busy. You can handle this.
- Ice cold water from the beach showers isn’t cold. Suck it up and get back in that water. No way you’re coming near the car like that.
- After washing all the sand off, if you walk correctly—high, flat, carefully placed steps, no flicking your slippahs or dragging your towel, you can make it to the car sand-free. Otherwise you have to start all over.
- At volleyball, old and treacherous beats young and enthusiastic every time.
- Spitting into a swim mask keeps it from fogging, but unless you’re a tourist or spear fishing you don’t need a mask. Just open your eyes. It’s good for you.
- If you don’t want someone to pee on your foot, watch out for wana when climbing around the tide pools.
- When the sun sets, get out of the water. Sharks come in and feed at dawn, dusk, and through the night, especially near harbors and the mouths of rivers. Better you don’t swim there. Everybody knows sharks prefer white meat, and you look way too haole to chance ‘em.
- Run to the big wave, not away.
- Nobody ever died from rolling up the beach no matter how much ocean and sand they coughed up. Told you to run to the big wave, not away. Now suck it up and get back in the water.