Do not eat until you are full; eat until you are tired,” calls Chief Sielu Avea, a Polynesian entertainer who, according to his bio, is “internationally known as the Coconut Man.” Making our way to the plastic table, paper plates wilting in our hands, we are tired already.
Here at the Chief’s Luau, “Aloha” means last to the buffet. The feeders in the “Royal” service tier ($159 per ticket) got first crack at the chafing dishes. And then team “Paradise” ($119) went at the sheet cake and roast pig. And if we stragglers in the Aloha group are not enraptured with our feast of sweetly lacquered chicken chunks and puffy dinner rolls, the fault is ours for booking steerage at $87 a head.
But you do not come to the Chief’s Luau for the food. You come because you have traveled thousands of miles only to fetch up in Waikiki Beach, a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage-dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport. Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles west on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars. The luau leaves no doubt: You are in Hawaii now.
Beyond the buffet, there are traditional activities. Under the instruction of shirtless men in sarongs, you can fling a plastic spear at grass. There is the weaving station, where the spectacle includes a pregnant woman shoving her young daughter for trying to horn in on her work at a frond headband. And there is a fire-starting clinic where we rub sticks on logs in the hope of making flame. This proves no more possible than it was in the forests of our childhoods, but we go on rubbing in the faith that we are in a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.
And for many of us, it is a magical evening. The magic has to do with the moon, the thud and rustle of the surf. The magic is working on Jed, my 1½-year-old son. He is off to the side of the action, trying to seduce a girl of 7 or so. She is engrossed with her tablet. A cultist of the night sky, Jed touches her wrist, points overhead and says, “Stars.” The girl’s eyes do not flicker from her screen.
My wife is similarly resistant to the enchantment. “This luau is making me feel bad about myself, and it is making me feel bad about humanity,” she says. We are now watching an entertainment where Hawaiian women in grass skirts dance the hula, and Hawaiian men with painted faces do a grunting spear-dance and stick their tongues out tikistyle. To my wife, this smacks uncomfortably of minstrelsy, which, yes, it does. But at least it is a two-way minstrelsy. The dancers pretend to be tiki warriors, and when the chief, in parting, bids us officially welcome to “the land of happy people,” we pretend to believe that such a place exists.
Can it be true? The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?
Not until 2017 has Hawaii held for me even a vague temptation. The 50th state has always seemed to me a meretricious luxury product whose visitors bring happiness with them in the form of money. I am not constitutionally geared for paradise. I am not one for cocktails containing patio equipment, for lazing on talcum-soft sand, eyes gone to pinwheels, grinning madly at the sun.
Hawaii is notoriously nice, and unremitting niceness is what I do not want out of a vacation. This is because I’m cheap. I want a maximum memory harvest for my travel dollar, and a trip rarely sticks in my long-term storage cache without the sharp edges of mishap and discomfort to snag on. I do not, for example, remember nice meals I have eaten so clearly as the wet duckling I disgorged on a street in the Philippines, and the delight this brought the locals. I cannot recall the nice hotels I’ve stayed in half so well as the New Zealand jungle cabin where I inadvertently slept on the rotting carcass of a rat and woke up with a heart murmur.
But in a political moment so well supplied with nastiness, I don’t need to bunk with carrion. Give me a slack-keyed, macadamia-dusted holiday where things are pretty and people are smiling, if only because it’s in their job description. In a gesture of spiritual surrender, I have booked a five-day stay in the Hawaiian Islands with no greater hope for the voyage than that it may be merely nice.
Our itinerary is at risk of proving mindlessly splendid: Oahu for two nights, before we board a prop jet for three nights on Hawaii Island to the east. But a 19-month-old, as it turns out, is excellent insurance against a frictionless travel experience. Our first morning on Oahu, Jed does me the kindness of waking up at 4 a.m. He insists that we dress and begin making the most of our day. I put on an algae-print shirt I have lacked the courage to wear since I bought it years ago in Thailand.
We are staying in a room at the Waikiki Beach Hilton, which, with its ocean views and high-pressure shower head, is dangerously close to nice. But in the corridor I am pleased to meet a fat and saucy cockroach, thoughtfully dispatched, perhaps, by a concierge who has gotten wind of my preferences. In live-and-let-live aloha spirit, I do not molest the animal. My wife, however, in consideration of the sleeping guests the roach might visit, bruises the creature with a sack of dirty diapers before it jogs off down the hall.
In the lobby, we lay down $12 for two coffees and one banana and browse the morning paper, which proves a clemency from anticipated horrors. The front page of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser bears not a single presidential headline. “Legislature Considers Funding to Combat Rat Lungworm Disease” is the story of the day.
Dawn finds us waterfront on Oahu’s North Shore, downrange of the Banzai Pipeline. The sand has a forthright cornmeal consistency. The water is the blue of telegraph insulators. The waves transmit a disaster-movie feeling with every crash, even after you have watched a thousand of them land. The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can come only from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics. Just up the shore, two young women are seriously engaged in the business of aiming a big professional camera at the tanned, professional butt of a third young woman who, I’m guessing, is a big deal in a modeling niche I didn’t know existed. One thing is sure: No way will I be bathing here.
My son gives not a damn. He uncloaks fully his cloudlike body and hits the sand like an oyster in a breading dredge. The day is perfect room temp with a breeze. In the distant shallows, surfers shoot the tube or gleam the curl or whatever that amazing thing is called. My wife and I breakfast on fresh coconut — neither sweet nor flavorful but fun to gnaw, for the feeling that you’ve acquired termite superpowers. Jed squats and tumbles and packs his nethers with 20-grit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” is his ecstatic report on the sensation. I am right there with him. It would be overselling things to claim that I’ve achieved rapturous mind erasure my first morning in Hawaii, but this is, well, rather nice.
For lunch we motor clockwise down the coast to the Kahuku Superette. The Superette is a homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it. Inside, they dish out poké of world renown. Poké is sashimi salad doused in soy and sesame and other things. We get a tub of traditional shoyu poké and a tub of limu poké with crunchy bits of seaweed. The place to gobble the Superette’s poké is in your hot rental car in the muddy parking lot. Gemlike blocks of tuna nearing a full cubic inch are bright and salty as the sea.
Back in Honolulu, the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center is out of tickets to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial site, so we resolve to take in our ration of history with a trudge around the Makiki neighborhood, where Barack Obama grew up. It is an area of cinder-block buildings and auto-parts shops well off the luau trail. On the sidewalks, hard-luck people push baby strollers full of cans and bottles because the redemption center forbids the use of grocery carts. Parking is free on the street, one of Makiki’s practical concessions to the paradise theme. No plaque marks the Punahou Circle Apartments, where Obama lived during his middle- and high-school years, and where, just before the 2008 election, he returned to visit his maternal grandmother as she was dying. It is as regular an apartment building as you could find anywhere in America, a putty-colored tower whose minute balconies hold garbage bags, golf clubs, a vacuum cleaner and one (small-size) American flag.
Nearby on King Street, we nip into the Baskin- Robbins where I heard Obama worked in high school. It is the sort of cramped little parlor that, if you had a job there, would make you sink into despair or go on to be president. I ask the young woman on scooping duty if it’s true that Obama used to dip cones at this very counter, and she says, “Yeah.” No plaque in there either, just a newspaper clipping taped to the sneeze guard next to the smoothie machine.
“ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.” “FISH AND EELS MAY BECOME AGGRESSIVE.” “DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK.” “DO NOT ENTER IF YOU HAVE OPEN WOUNDS DUE TO RISK OF BACTERIAL INFECTION.” So runs some but not all of the cautionary signage at the Ahalanui Warm Pond. My kind of place!
We have fled the Banzai Pipeline and the crowds of Waikiki to spend four aimless days poking around Hawaii Island, a.k.a. the Big Island, the easternmost landmass in the archipelago. The Big Island, which is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, is big because the volcanoes here (the only active ones in the state) keep making more island every day.
The volcanoes also supply natural hot tubs like the Ahalanui Pond. The only trouble is that renegade bacteria like a nice warm soak as much as we do. If you don’t want to go home majorly colonized, the internet advises that you hit the pond early in the day, when the night seas have rinsed the pool and the day’s throng of bathers have not yet added their personal contributions to the stew.
We arrive at the pond just after 9 a.m. It is a partly man-made, not-quite Olympic-size lagoon walled with volcanic rock over which the Pacific spills. Three other folks are breast stroking the green shallows, none of them microbially “hot” in appearance. In we go.
Through heat-jellied water, my diver’s mask reveals an aquarium of striped fish and fish with long Hitchcockian faces and tiny minnows hungrily scrumming at a scratch on my boy’s knee. Now my son is shrieking. I surface. Not shrieking but crowing. Jed, a connoisseur of bath water, is sampling the pond by the bulging cheekful and finding it superb.
As usual, Jed’s judgment is on point. This pond is excellent, maybe the closest I have ever found to my mind’s ideal of the great American swimming hole. It is a wallopingly beautiful place where admission is free. No “Royal”-access luxury cabanas, roving pedicurists or sling chairs for rent. It is not up a mountain or deep in a jungle but near enough to a parking lot that the infirm can enjoy it, too.
By 10 a.m., a little bit of everybody is shouldering in for a wash. There are local families with babies and senior citizens with foam flotation noodles and tourists with sun-scalded calves the color of Spam. Through modern advances in waterproofing, four young women have brought their telephones with them into the pool, fending off a potentially cloying surplus of timeless splendor. The bacteria deserve credit, too, for their silent encouragement against loitering. After an hour’s swim, still free of visible rashes, we make for dry land.
Out in the poolside park, Saturday things are happening. A mom wonders when the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting will clear out from the picnic shanty and make way for her 2-year-old’s birthday party. A guy is washing his dog in the foot bath, near a sign that says “no animals allowed.” Over in the parking lot, we are glad to find a man dealing coconuts from his beat-up S.U.V. Shirtless, veiny and tan beneath a blown-out wicker hat, he puts the nuts down on his tailgate and machetes them with great flair. This coconut man (the second in our mounting tally) seems a little offended when we ask what his coconuts cost. “I prefer donations,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a business. I’m just out here trying to feed the people.” My wife worms it out of him that, really, he wants $5 per nut. I hand him a 20 for two. Clutching my money, he goes into a thing about how the green of the coconut is the same green as the dollar. Then he tells me how coconut water is chemically identical to human plasma and how World War II field hospitals would transfuse soldiers with coconuts when they ran out of blood. I have heard this fable before and know it to be hogwash, but I say, “Oh, wow,” and await my $10 change that does not appear to be forthcoming. After a weirdly long interval of communing with my bill, Coconut Man No.2 looks up at me and says in a put-out sort of way, “Oh, did you want some change?” I allow that I do, and he produces it.
I go away full of gratitude for this fellow, not only because his coconuts are very fine, but for nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island. His brand of coconut palaver is, I suspect, common in these parts. Encountering it on any sort of regular basis, straight-world mainlander that I am, would drive me out of my mind.
Flouncing on Oahu’s beaches has given our boy a taste for sand, so we pile into the car in search of some. Motoring out, I feel my fondness for the Big Island deepening. Cataracts of blossoming vine pour from the roadside jungle. Tire-flattened mongooses make regular appearances on the double yellow line. Even the roadkill here astounds! Real estate in these parts would probably cost you a thumb, yet the houses are unfussy hip-roofed bungalows built in a kind of army-base vernacular. While some citizens keep spectacular gardens, this is also a place where if you want to leave some old mattresses or an engine hoist in your yard, you just go ahead and do it.
The internet directs us to Carlsmith Park, just east of Hilo. We are dubious. The approach runs through a district of petrochemical tanks, tire dealerships and self-storage facilities. Then, in the middle of all that, hard by the highway, is a waterfront park. It has a couple of nice microbeaches for sand freaks like Jed and undulant, green-turf realms for pro-league picnicking. Another dumbfounding spot. A coastal shire plunked down in outer Cleveland. And again: It’s free!
A stealthy concentration of snorkels prowls the limpid bay. Something must be going on down there. I don my rig. Not only are there eye-popping rainbow sherbet fish in this water, but a gang of Hawaiian green sea turtles are nodding around in the tide. I mean, whoa. There goes one about eight feet away. I badly want to crowd it, but turtle-crowding is forbidden by signs on the bank. So I just sort of mooch about nearby, in a playing-it-cool-around-a-celebrity sort of way. In what appears to be the general mode of Hawaiian magnificence, the turtle’s grandeur is even grander for its casualness. Majestic is not the word for this unseaworthy looking creature, which resembles an antique truck hubcap that rolled in off the overpass.
The turtles don’t make a big deal of themselves, and topside, no one is making a big deal of them either. Two teenagers are fretting out whether tall guys are preferable to “built” guys. Somebody is cooking hot dogs. A couple of older kids are letting my son hog their football, an appreciated decency after Jed’s frosty luau crush. It bears mentioning how unaffectedly nice people are on this island — from incidental children, to park rangers, to our Airbnb host who for two days lets me brazenly refer to him as Steve, only to let slip, in parting, that his actual name is Sean.
The niceness and the beauty have the standard effect. Though the odds of our returning here are minimal, my wife and I keep getting into grown-up fantasy conversations about the quality of the local schools and whether maintaining a big greenhouse could get us a farm-tax subsidy.
One gripe about the Big Island: There is reliable 3G coverage, bearing news of an America we’re not eager to get back to. A bigot shot an Indian man in Kansas. The White House is extending its powers into the nation’s bathrooms. Lawmakers in our home state, North Carolina, want to overturn a constitutional ban on secession.
Put that phone away.
Our last full day in Hawaii we have reserved for Kilauea, the youngest and most effusive volcano on the island. In Hawaiian, “Kilauea” translates to “spewing” or “mush spreading.” Since 1983, it has been continuously spewing to the delectation of tourists and geologists. The spew is distantly glimpsable at the volcano’s caldera in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. But who wants to glimpse magma from afar when you can get close enough to jab it with a stick?
Getting to the lava spot is slightly tricky. The terrain is too unstable to support a parking lot, so you have to walk or rent a bike and pedal in. My wife and I agree that toddlers pair badly with molten earth, so she dumps me at the trailhead where we’ll reconnoiter later. It is a four-and-a-half-mile pedal through a field of fissured magma that looks like a giant brownie.
The road ends at a cordon where lava pilgrims, scores of them, make their way down toward the viewing place. The lava lies in knuckles, folds and challah braids. It creaks hollowly underfoot like frozen snow.
And there, not too far but not too close, is the magma pouring into the sea. It is a flaming cliff, exploding every couple of seconds in a grayscale fireworks of liquid rock meeting water. In a concession to our unsubtle political age, the cliff is doing a good impression of Abraham Lincoln in profile with a vicious orange fulmination exploding from his head.
Night starts coming on. I should be getting back, but inland, up the grade, there are the city lights of incandescent mush spreading from the volcano’s flank.
Now this is really something. This magma, you can walk right up to it, get close enough to sweat. It lies in glowing, buxom lobes, ticking glassily as it cools. Tomorrow, we head home. There will be CNN in the airport. But right now, all I can think is, Man, would I like to poke that lava with a stick. “Boy, I wish I had a stick to poke that lava with,” a nearby tourist says at the very instant I am thinking this. Here, perhaps, lies some hope for our divided nation. We would all like to poke lava with a stick.
Rain starts falling, an irrelevance in the lava’s heat-field. No one moves. The glow is transfixing, a campfire mesmerism of geologic scale. “We are very fortunate,” a woman beside me murmurs. Everybody stands beautifully quiet, watching newborn wads of America bulge and slip toward the sea. Lava at this range is powerful stuff. You can’t get near it and not become a stoned teenager. Whoa — consciousness, language, satellites, ginger snaps — all made possible by this sloppy, tectonic incontinence. I have an idiot hunch that this will somehow turn into a thought worth having if only I can sit out here another hour or two and see how fine the lava looks in the full black of night. I call my wife to say that it is frankly too miraculous out here for me to be leaving anytime soon.
She is parked at the trailhead. She is hungry. A Kilauea situation has happened in Jed’s Pampers, and they’re trapped in the car by the rain. She has many valid opinions about spending even one more minute like that. The lava is getting nicer by the instant. I could probably embezzle another moment or two of watching it ripen, but I put my back to the miraculous and get on with life.
This article was sourced from http://idahonewsradio.com