Impressions of Hawaii

A little while back my mom asked me to write up some thoughts on the whole trip, as she was interested in my take. I sent that along to her along with some other things for her birthday yesterday (which sounds like it was a great one!) — with a lot of editing, as there’s a fair amount of personal stuff only of specific interest to us both in the original letter, here’s my thoughts in retrospect on a good experience that still provoked many questions:

“…Of course the whole reason why we went there is because of where you and Dad met, and that to me was probably the most pleasurable part of the entire trip. Without sounding too sentimental, it’s a rare gift to be able to see a landscape through the eyes of enthusiastic young people with the world open to them, and who made their respective decisions to embark on work and life in a route that ended up taking them to Hawaii, those wonderful isolated rocks in the middle of a vast ocean. I think not many families and people get to fully see things this way again, or at least in a way that combines appreciative distance, a rush of memories and reflections on what has changed and what stayed the same. All the overlapping stories – about where you all lived, your goals and dreams when you both came out, hanging around with other people, dates and then finally when you met and what you did then, as well as what we all did later as a family when we returned in the early seventies – was a treat. It made the vacation much more of a celebration than it would have been had we just simply gone to Hawaii for the reason than it was fun to go to Hawaii – there was something invested in all of us (even [my sister], though she was the only one without a direct memory) in the place. And not just for the simple reason that if you hadn’t met there I wouldn’t be around, which is one of those minor things I’m admittedly appreciative about. 😉

With that as a baseline, it meant that the whole time was a wonderful stretch of feelings, where retracing old steps that for [my sister] and myself were newer ones that had a different level of meaning than simply going “Oh cool.” That covered everything from driving along the windward side and just drinking in the sight of the green cliffs to wandering the Foster botanical gardens to just simply lazing and enjoying sun and shade and that omnipresent heat (but also the omnipresent breeze!). Enjoyable for itself and for those other reasons, and just for hanging around again together (but also for those moments of doing nothing and being by oneself – you know me!). It was also very interesting to hear and see the changes you described from then to now – how the central part of the island was now mostly empty and pineapple free, much to your surprise, and how the new highways and sprawl of Honolulu changed your memories of it, even as there was much that remained the same as before….

[At the same time,] the disparity between the impressions of paradise and what life in ‘paradise’ actually is proved extremely acute at times. In ways I don’t have to explain this to you, as people who live in Hawaii for any stretch of time must be aware of those differences too – you still have to wake up and make your living as you do, and while it’s easier in some respects it must be harder in others (I especially liked your use of the term ‘rock fever,’ because I too might feel a bit hemmed in if I had spent all my young years there – it’s no surprise to me now that so many of the students here at UCI who come from Hawaii do so because they wanted to literally get away for at least a while, and see what life was like in a drastically different psychogeographic setting, where instead of small and defined islands you have endless stretches of land and coast).

The parts that stuck with me the most were the parts that confirmed that life on the islands is like life most places – one of disparity. There were signs of poverty everywhere, even a block or two from our hotels, of people scraping by or fallen through a safety net. You could sense the crime rather than see it many times. The old suburb west of Pearl Harbor where you used to live made me think of many similar places in Southern California, down to the architecture, and made think of how ‘paradise’ must seem like anything but when you have little to rely on, where instead of beauty there’s grinding urban dullness, heat, a kind of mental oppression. The fact that’s where the oil ships come in to provide the energy that keeps the island moving seemed even more appropriate, it was like the necessary ugliness that helps keep the fiction alive (but more on that in a bit).

The part that made me feel the most depressed, in a weird sort of way, was the base we passed at the center of the island, with the businesses right outside the gates that I would expect – bars and cheap thrills, all the evidence of unthinking jingoism that eats away at an informed and aware patriotism. I remembered thinking to myself that we could be anywhere in America at that point, really – Oceanside outside Camp Pendleton, whatever’s outside a base in the Deep South – and how the humid heat and the distance of the mountain ranges reduced everything to a dull, sluggish trudge. It was weird to think of being in the middle of the ocean and then to being in a middle of an island where, if I lived and worked there all the time, everything would seem like a bit of a flat misery rather than, by implication, one of the most unique and remarkable landscapes on the planet.

So when I said earlier ‘keeping the fiction alive,’ it’s that there’s always going to be an image of Hawaii that seeks to trump reality. The idea of a place like the Halekulani, or any hotel on Waikiki or near the shore, is that you put everything behind you, literally, and imagine it’s all like ‘this,’ whatever this is – nothing but beaches and sand, heat and cool drinks, soft music and hula, that the whole sprawling superstructure of Honolulu and the 21st century, with all its ups and downs, continuing behind your back as you face the ocean, can be forgotten somehow, so long as the power stays on and the money keeps coming in. And I don’t mind this at all, it’s sometimes just a bit hard to square away everything in my head.

Which may make this a depressing note to end on! I should add by way of conclusion that in a way it’s no different from what one senses in life in general, that there’s parts in this world which may never be made better to anyone’s satisfaction in the end, that I am fortunate to have been born and raised in the situation I found myself, and that’s there’s a difference not only between ignoring and recognizing the realities of life, but between recognizing them and trying to do something about them, even if in a small way – which is what I hope I do, in all my different ways around life. That may seem rather ‘big’ to talk about when discussing the reflections of a vacation like this, but it’s how my mind is drifting right about now!….”