A little over a month ago, I found myself sipping white wine in an airport lounge in Manila. COVID was already crawling out of China and into other parts of Asia, but no travel bans had been in place yet and both our head of security and the head of school thought I’d be OK flying from Manila to Hawaii, so here I was.
This is not to say I was reckless. I changed all of my seats from aisle to window after reading an article about how not to get sick on planes, and I packed what I called a “Corona Kit”: my N95 mask from the Taal Volcano eruption, hand sanitizer, vitamins, and wet wipes.
The trip had felt wild and giddy from the beginning. With 5 days off school at the end of February, most rational folks hopped 4-hour flights to Japan or stuck to the Philippines. But Hawaii had been on my radar for some time, and my friend John (who I’d met on safari nearly 8 years ago now) had a couch in Honolulu.
“Is it worth it for 3.5 days?” I’d asked him.
“You only live once,” he’d replied. So I booked my ticket.
Boarding the United Airlines flight from Manila to Guam, I felt that familiar anxiety. What kind of person flies 11 hours to Hawaii for 3.5 days? (Me. A crazy person.) But when would I get the chance again?
Hawaii – and Guam, for that matter – are tiny specks in the Pacific, so any doubts about the rationality of my choices were magnified by the fact that I’d be flying for hours over miles of uninterrupted ocean, which terrified me. But, halfway to Guam, when I pressed my face against the window, I was stunned by how dark the sky was and how innumerable the stars. It was like the gods were having a feast and went crazy with the salt. It was beautiful.
Landing in Guam was surreal in itself. Guam was a place I’d grown up hearing about but never imagined I would go to for the exact reason I always heard about it: it epitomized the farthest place away you could possibly be. Landing in Guam felt lonely. I felt like I was standing on a rock in the middle of nowhere, the most isolated little island in the Pacific. (John corrected me later and said it’s actually the largest island in the Mariana chain.)
And then I was up and descending into Honolulu, onto another island tossed into the sea but not quite alone because Oahu has a handful of little island companions.
I landed in Honolulu at 6:45pm, exactly 4 hours earlier than my flight departed Manila on the same day. The International Date Line is a strange thing. Waiting outside the airport, in a cool breeze that was the only real noise for miles, I felt gleeful to be out of Manila. Or maybe it was the champagne top-ups my flight attendant was being so generous with. When John arrived – with a fresh scented lei! – I felt reinvigorated.
As John drove us into town, I kept grappling with this weird feeling that I wasn’t really in the US. But Hawaii is far enough out from the mainland that it does sort of feel like its own country. John mentioned that Hawaii is the only place in the country with a palace, so that sets it apart.
We grabbed food at OMG, Oahu Mexican Grill, which served up heaps upon heaps of beans, cheese, veggies, sour cream, and guacamole, if you felt like paying $3.50 for it. (I did! And it was worth every damn quarter.) After dinner, we went to a tap station near John’s place that had 100 beers on tap. Beers on tap. Sigh.
I have to say, I was thrilled to find that catching up with John – who I’d really only known in the flesh for maybe 7 days almost a decade ago – was easy. Throw in the fact that John’s a history buff, a science nerd, and a natural storyteller – though he hones his skills regularly – and basically I won the lottery of hosts to crash with in Hawaii. (Thank you!)
Add to that the fact that John’s house – a cute little bungalow – is tucked walking distance between Waikiki Beach one way and Diamond Head the other. I curled up on the couch that night and fell asleep to strange sounds – the windows all cracked open, a warm breeze blowing through the entire house and rattling the frames, the back door. Compared to my Manila apartment where my air conditioner sounds like it’s about to launch into space, I felt like I was being caressed to sleep by wind nymphs or something.
I hate a touristy hike, but I had to hike Diamond Head because it was there. It was as I expected: you join a river of jolly hikers and trudge glacially up the mountain trail until you come to the top, where you then pack onto a viewing platform and take turns obstructing each other’s photos of teal ocean and swaying palms. But as I gulped the island air, I felt grateful that it wasn’t jeepney fumes I was inhaling.
From there, I ventured down to the beach, turning away from the Waikiki strip and walking in the opposite direction. I found a little strip of quiet beach and threw down a towel before plunging in the ocean with the fishes. And I mean, with the fishes. Some of them were as long as my arm and patterned this beautiful aqua and teal and pearl, and they drifted marvelously close to my calves. One fish was long and silvery-white with a sort of tube for a nose. It looked like an ambitious ribbon that wanted to be a fish.
Oh, perfection! I thought, as I found my towel and stretched out on it, toes in the sand. I forget how the ocean waves bring me back to life. What could spoil a day like this?
As if on cue, a couple shuffled over next to me and threw their towel down. Immediately, the girl waded ankle-deep into the surf and started posing while her boyfriend snapped photos. She encouraged him to continue, to try new angles. I closed my eyes and blocked them out. To each their own, right?
But then – another sound: a drone. The man had swapped his phone for a drone and stood with his little controller and the propellers whirred and his girlfriend shrieked excitedly, because aerial angles are way more Insta-worthy!
My quiet afternoon was pierced with shrieks: no, not that way, this way! Bring it out here! Pop a hip, smile up at the sky.
And then – a wind came and pulled the drone out over the sea. Oh no!
“Get it back! Come back to me!” cried the man.
I hate to say it, but I wished the wind would take it away. And then it did. The drone drifted out and out and then, in a slow streak, descended with a plop into the waves.
The man got his goggles and trudged to the edge of the sea. “Is it even waterproof?” his girlfriend shouted after him. “No,” came his reply.
When I left the beach 30 minutes later, he was still searching for it. At least he got a little snorkeling in while his girlfriend watched YouTube videos and tried to occasionally gesticulate at him.
I sat for a bit at AR’s, a chic little cafe-art gallery, and sipped medium roast Maui blend coffee through salty lips.
That evening, John took me to a storytelling event held by Civil Beat (check out the stories here). We pulled up at a round building at 5:30 as the sun went down and entered to find a full house – and an entryway packed full of shoes.
We were left to pad over to some chairs on the periphery, barefoot. There is something wonderful and novel about being barefoot indoors in public. I love it. John got us some free wine – because there was free wine while we listened to the storytellers! He snagged some red and a glass of Chardonnay for me.
For free wine, this was swell. Sweet, crisp, fruity on the nose – I have no idea what the nose is like, actually, but I’m used to free stuff tasting shitty so this was a nice surprise.
Equally nice was the event itself. The theme for the evening was “What does it mean to be a local?” Who knew such a common word had such a complex meaning? The event featured 6 storytellers sharing their experiences, from a girl who felt ostracized for speaking “too normally”, a haole (pronounced: howlie, meaning white), a guy with mixed ancestry who was hilarious and ended on a song called ‘Hilo Moon’, and a few others. Each speaker, before they shared, emptied a bag of their favorite snack into a large bowl so by the end, there was a sort of snack mix. One of the storytellers carried it over to the doorway and everyone who wanted some could scoop it into a leaf boat.
Basically, what I got from it all is that “local” is hard to define in Hawaii, as people trace their lineage back to loads of places: Japan, Philippines, China (many who came over in the 1700s to work the sugar plantations), Micronesia, South Korea, Ireland, Scotland, the mainland. But if you’re white, no matter how long you’ve lived here, you’ll never be local.
We grabbed pizza at Pieology after, and it was so good I almost licked my fingers. (But I would never put my fingers in my mouth.)
Categories: United States (USA)