Monday, June 16, 2008

Postcard From Hawai'i

Hawaiian Style Band--"Kaimana Hila" (mp3)
Willie K--"You Ku'uipo" (mp3)

I'm not above making gross overgeneralizations, so I'll start with one here: Maui is Hilton Head on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. That's right. Whiteyville. Resorts, golf courses, and a island menu softened and elevated for a blander, wealthier clientele. Prime land that once belonged to indigenous peoples taken from them by developers through the use of skyrocketing property taxes.

Oh, yeah, Maui is also just about the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Coincidence?

And if you're really wealthy, then Maui is probably a bit too crowded and common for you, so you move on to Lanai. Lanai has the highest gasoline prices in the United States at $5.80/gallon. Coincidence?

And I tend to forget until I get here that Hawai'i was a sovereign nation that we basically took over with the help of some Marines and the desires of some plantation owners. We felt the need to protect American interests on the islands. Sound familiar?

Our trip was to O'ahu. And but for a queasy trip back and forth on the Super Ferry and a bit of self-exploration around Maui, we've spent all of our time on this crowded, touristy island. O'ahu is sprawling, messy, at times, even ugly, but it an authentic Hawai'ian experience if you are willing to venture away from the South Beach-lite area of Waikiki (which I also really like, by the way), and given the melting pot of foreign tourists, hotel staff, and restaurant workers, even if you're not willing to leave Waikiki. All that is true on Maui is true here, but to a lesser degree because so many peoples have staked out turf in this crowded city already. So the wealthy are snatching up the North Shore, where the big waves come in the winter.

Just a sampling of a few items will give you an idea of what I mean about the blend of cultures that makes for the Hawaiian experience on O'ahu. The best doughnuts on the island, called malasadas, come from the Portuguese. The "plate lunch" with its meat, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad, is originally from the Phillipines or Korea. The ukelele (of course I bought one and have already learned to play Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," among other things--the lyrics sound pretty damn stupid when you're singing and strumming a ukelele) comes from contact with Mexican cowboys who came here with the cattle. Pineapple are a transplant from South America; coffee the same. The incredible shrimp trucks, like Giovanni's (pictured here) are Italian in origin, basically serving shrimp scampi with enough garlic to kill the vampire Lestat. The Hawaiian shave ice, now ubiquitous, of which I ate the original, complete with some kind of baked beans (azuki beans) at the bottom, is Japanese. The Italian restaurant where last night I had Opah fish sauteed in garlic and olive oil with a light white wine sauce is staffed by Vietnamese and run by a Vietnamese chef. And the traditional Hawaiian food, with slow-cooked pork wrapped in taro leaves, a tomato, salmon, and onion salad, a tender beef jerky, and poi (the healthiest starch in the world), which tastes like uncooked, fermenting bread starter, to dip everything in is perhaps the best eating/immersion experience of all. You get the idea. All cultures meet here on O'ahu.

Which is to say that Hawaii is a lot like the rest of America. Those whites who can flee to their safe havens where they/(we?) can recreate safety and comfort, but occasionally they'll venture out for a brief foray into the "real thing." Or maybe not. We were on a bus tour around the island the other day, and the driver/guide Mele, a native Hawaiian, said, "Hey, let me ask you all. We have these new restaurants now called P.F. Chang. Do you have them on the mainland? Are they any good? Should I go?" The chorus around us yelled, "Yes, it's awesome!" This is an area glutted with authentic Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino eateries, but where the people who staff those restaurants speak those languages.

Sorry to be preachy and condescending. I leave you with the sign across the street from our hotel, with its syntax-challenged attempt to lure the tourists: "Totally Nude and Billiards."

Having a great time. Wish you were here. Though by the time you see this, I'll probably be back. Mahalo. Aloha.

Both songs above come from the compilation CD, The 50 Greatest Hawai'i Music Albums Ever.

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