Hawai'i: aloha from the Big Island
The flight from LA arrived into Hilo just after sunset, so the only thing I remember from my first evening is the bright lit interior of a supermarket where I stared in horror at the price-tags and tried to make sense of an entire aisle dedicated to Spam. Hawaii appeared to involve considerably fewer garlands of flowers than I had anticipated, instead placing a far greater emphasis on tinned meat and flavoured macadamia nuts.
Lava was something I had been expecting to see – although the lava defence systems in place in Pahoa were a touch basic in appearance. It turns out that, once flowing, lava is well nigh impossible to stop; Pahoa agonised for months as the thick black flows inched closer to the town, a collective relieved confusion setting in when it stopped mere feet from the main buildings.
“I stared in horror at the price-tags and tried to make sense of an entire aisle dedicated to Spam.”
Pele, the Hawaiian Fire Goddess, was surely responsible for the lava flow stopping so abruptly. The miracle of 2015 can perhaps best be appreciated at Pahoa’s recycling depot, where waves of lava once poured through a fence: ripples of now-rigid black rock are wrapped around the wires.
Hawaii is a name that connotes wealth and luxury lifestyles, yet nearly 16% of Big Island’s residents live below the poverty line (significantly more than on any of the other Hawaiian islands). The level of hardship many people endure there was unexpected and unavoidable, and it was clear that despite the efforts of the authorities there is a heavy reliance on hard drugs and alcohol. But with a bottle of Moonshine costing less than a loaf of bread, perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising.
Despite the obvious poverty, the Big Island is magical. Roads appear to meander through enchanted forests, a brief submersion at any point along the coast reveals a never-ending whirlwind of fish showing off impossible collections of colours, and at night the total lack of light pollution reveals more stars than almost anywhere else in the world.
“I crossed over the smooth folds of pahoehoe – billowing, undulating lava that advances in waves creating whimsical patterns…”
The so-called Hawaiian Walking Tree struts alongside each road; the Autograph Tree delivers branches of thick leaves waiting to be signed with a stone, and Red Ginger pushes its crown of flames through the masses of deep, rich greens.
Perhaps one of the more unnerving activities on Big Island is to head to South Point. Not only is this the most southerly point in the United States, it is also one of the most isolated areas in the world. Antarctica lies 7,500 miles to the south; Asia is 5000 miles to the west; the USA 4000 miles to the east. The separation from everything else, the overwhelming isolation, becomes almost a tangible physical presence. It somehow provides clarity – albeit a little fleeting – to those impossible questions: who am I, and what am I doing with my ‘one wild and precious life’?
I spent many days picking my way across coarse black lava fields. I crossed over the smooth folds of pahoehoe – billowing, undulating lava that advances in waves creating whimsical patterns – and onto the sharper, harder aa that has a rough, broken surface. In Hawaii I learned to call a porch a lanai, how to hook papayas from a tree with a special telescopic basket, and to understand the mysterious variations of lava.
“What the translator failed to mention was the dancing was organised by an elderly outreach programme.”
Mauna Kea is the highest point on the island: if the dormant volcano is measured from its base far beneath the surface of the sea, it becomes the tallest mountain in the world. Since Big Island is so isolated, the lack of light pollution makes it ideal for astronomers. China, Japan, Canada and India stand alongside the USA in wanting to create the TMT atop the volcano – the Thirty Metre Telescope. Protests by Native Hawaiians who regard the land as sacred have halted the construction; angering Pele may mean Pahoa isn’t spared a second time.
Life on the islands of Hawaii is far from easy: there are volcanoes constantly rumbling and threatening to erupt, and summer storms frequently batter the southern and eastern coasts. It takes nearly five days for a ship to get there from mainland America, so any serious damage to infrastructure is catastrophic. Hurricane Iniki in 1992 is the most devastating to date, a Category 4 hurricane that went directly over Kauai causing six deaths and $1.6billion of damage.
The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 letters, five of which are vowels. I saw a lengthy notice in a local paper that whittled down in English to: ‘Free hula dancing display, Hilo.’ What the translator failed to mention was the dancing was organised by an elderly outreach programme, and so I spent one blustery morning in a cast iron bandstand watching the most genteel hula movements ever performed. One old man defied his age and creakily wiggled his way around the stage with theatrical winks and gummy grins.
“Hipsters have reignited a desire for vinyl, typewriters, craft beers and beekeeping – and the moustachioed brigade are also partially responsible for a resurgence of interest in traditional wooden boards.”
Women with multiple hip replacements and recourse to oxygen tanks between dances eased their way through the classic ‘ami movement, rotating their hips more seriously than sensuously. The bright dresses and care they had taken over their hair and make-up was – at the risk of sounding patronising – just adorable. If only there were programmes such as this throughout the world to ensure all octogenarians could be as happy as these ladies on that hot Hawaiian morning.
As iconic as the hula dancing, hired jeeps buzz around the island. There can at times be something reassuring about the predictability of tourists, and it is also jolly useful when moderately lost to be able to forgo such modern companions as Google Maps and instead follow somebody else who is giving a good impression they’re heading Somewhere Very Interesting Indeed.
Alongside shirts decorated with pineapples and palm trees, it is impossible to separate Hawaii from surfing. In Honomu, a display of surfboards tells the story of a lifetime spent riding the waves. Hipsters have reignited a desire for vinyl, typewriters, craft beers and beekeeping – and the moustachioed brigade are also partially responsible for a resurgence of interest in traditional wooden boards. Almost a hundred years after they went out of fashion, demand for the handcrafted boards is now outstripping supply.
“I read to him from the local newspaper, and he tried to convince me that bright blue eyeshadow was very much ‘in’.”
Near to Honomu, buried deep in a rainforest, the Akaka Falls pour dramatically off a cliff. Less than an hour of walking along boardwalks with handrails (this is still America, after all) is a reward that easily outstrips the $1 entrance fee.
This is Tarzan, the Madagascar Day Gecko who left the safety of his rainforest every morning to accompany me at the breakfast table on the lanai. I read to him from the local newspaper (‘golly, Tarzan, they’re building the island’s first roundabout!’) and he tried to convince me that bright blue eyeshadow was very much ‘in’.
A breakfast shared with a gecko will always be infinitely superior to one eaten alone. On an island where everything is so impressively dramatic, this little guy created the most memorable moments. Aloha is used today for hello and goodbye, but in the Hawaiian language it means love, peace and compassion – and it was a wide-eyed lizard licking my bowl clean of yogurt who reminded me the world is infinitely more giving when approached gently with kindness.