Hawai‘i: the world’s biggest waves, Hula, and Housing issues

September 13, 2021
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FROM MIAMI, I flew to Kona International Airport in Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i was meant to be the icing on the cake, my final stop in the USA before heading on home to New Zealand. I had been away for months now and was looking forward to getting back to some normality.

Well, I’ll tell you, my introduction to Hawai‘i was not the tropical relaxing time that I had envisioned and been looking forward to. I was still in the throes of severe food poisoning picked up in Baracoa, Cuba, a country I visited for three weeks after my stay in Miami: a city to which I then briefly returned in order to catch the plane to Hawai‘i. (I write about Cuba in my book A Maverick Cuban Way.)

In honour of the fallen astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who grew up locally, Kona International Airport has been officially known since 2017 as Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keāhole.

Kona International Airport is close to a town called Kailua-Kona on the largest island of the Hawai‘ian archipelago: an island that is also known as Hawai‘i but more usually just called the Big Island.

From Kona, I caught a local flight to the smaller but more densely populated island of Oahu, more correctly spelt O‘ahu, about 250 km or 155 miles to the northwest, where the city of Honolulu and Hawai’is busiest airport by far, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, are both located. There weren’t any direct flights from Miami to Daniel K. Inouye, which is why I arrived at Kona.

Honolulu’s famous beachfront suburb of Waikiki was brilliant, but a bit touristy for me!

I got stuck into the food there, I figured it had to be cooked properly! So, I had Mexican corn bread pizza with cottage cheese — delicious! I also got four fajitas for about $ 10 which I thought was super cheap! While I was sitting there eating I got talking to a young native Hawai‘ian guy, and he said he felt his land was invaded. I couldn’t help wondering what the Cubans would have done in a situation like that. Well, I suppose the Hawai‘ians do have a right to feel invaded. Freedom is priceless.

I also visited a traditional village that had statues so like the Māori ones from New Zealand that I was quite surprised! Though, I shouldn’t have been. Māori lore speaks of a semi-mythologised ancient homeland called Hawaiki, cognate with Hawai‘i in the same way that I say tomahto and you say tomayto.

The New Zealand Māori, Tahitian and Hawai‘ian languages are all quite similar, to the point that a Tahitian named Tupaia on Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour was able to serve as an interpreter to New Zealand Māori, even though a vast expanse of ocean separated Tahiti from New Zealand.

Since then, there has never been any real doubt that the most immediate ancestors of the New Zealand Māori came from the Hawai‘i-to-Tahiti region of the Pacific, ‘Eastern Polynesia’ as it is known. The ancestral Hawaiki of the Māori is not though to be literally the same as modern-day Hawai‘i. But both Māori and modern Hawai‘ians have kept the ancient ancestral name in the process of colonizing new lands, one in their folklore and the other in the name they call themselves.

I was booked into a hostel, and really the hostels in Hawai‘i are amazing! It only cost me $50 a night to stay in a duplex. Hotels were hideously expensive. I looked online, and by the time you added up all the hidden surcharges and booking fees, hotels were well into the two-to-three hundreds. Over-priced in my opinion — so hostels again it would be.

(A quick note on accommodation arrangements and bookings for future or current travellers, I was using, and hostel world. They have apps for smartphones or tablets, so booking accommodation was actually a breeze! I avoided Priceline though, because they started charging a $50 fee.)

I heard other travellers talking about the Ha’ikū stairway on the island of O‘ahu, an incredible climb along 3,922 steps (by one count) along the razor-sharp spine of the Ko’olau mountain range. I don’t think I’d make it to them on this trip, but I made a note for next time.

The Ha’ikū stairway was originally built by the US Navy in 1942 to facilitate access to a special military radio transmitter called an Alexanderson alternator, a name that just rolls off the tongue. The Alexanderson alternator produced radio signals at a much lower frequency than ordinary broadcast radio signals.

The low-frequency hum of the Alexanderson alternator could be picked up loud and clear all over the Pacific but required huge antennae to intercept it. Ships were large enough to sport the antennae required, and the alternator itself broadcast from an antenna that spanned a whole valley, from mountaintop to mountaintop.

The stairs are nowadays used by tourists hoping to catch sweeping views across the island of O‘ahu. Because of land disputes and liability concerns they are not officially open to the public, and the fine for illegal ascent is $1,000. But daredevils seem to illegally ascend the rickety World War-II- era structure almost every day, regardless: an obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I had prearranged to go back to the Big Island. Roughly 150,000 people live on the Big Island, which is full of stunning scenery and volcanoes. That was my main reason for heading there — volcanoes! My food poisoning was just starting to settle slightly — I still felt off but that was not going to stop me going there. So, I hopped on the plane and went.

I arrived back at Kona International Airport and went straight to the closest Walmart in the nearby town of Kailua-Kona to buy myself a whole lot of camping gear, as it was my plan to go and camp all around the island. I had read up my guidebook, and it suggested going camping because it was a great way to see everything on an island that wasn’t too overrun by tourists, apparently. The campsites around Hawai‘i are mostly located out of the towns and are a better way to see the real Hawai‘i.

It turned out that camping in Hawai‘i is an effort, a big effort with a lot of thinking ahead and planning involved. My guidebook told me to just turn up and pitch my tent — in fact, you have to book online. I turned up at one campground in Kohanaiki Beach Park near Kailua-Kona and just pitched my tent. I stayed there for one night, and then I had to move on because I hadn’t pre-booked, and I didn’t have a permit.

Well, it was lucky for me then that I ran into a guy called Dana from San Diego, who was staying on a campsite at another locality called Spencer Beach Park. He said he’d lend me his permit to use while I was there until I could sort something out. So, I stayed for two nights with him at the Spencer Beach Park. We talked and enjoyed the scenery and life in general.

He was an interesting character. He had been homeless in the mainland of the United States but had wound up here after a rather eventful and sad journey. He had lived in San Diego and there was a set up for homeless people there by the state government where they gave land to the homeless where they could build themselves homes or whatever they needed. Quite a grand gesture too. Anyway, Dana had set himself up quite well — built himself a house and a room he rented out on Airbnb to earn some extra cash. The thing though is that in areas like that you don’t always get the loveliest of people — so it ended up the neighbours were dodgy and running a methamphetamine lab, right next door.

I do believe that some people just seem to miss out on things in life through no fault of their own. Sometimes it’s just down to bad luck and getting taken advantage of by other people. Sometimes people can even be too trusting. He told me how a book he had sent to the publishers was stolen and published by someone else. (He has since written six books, and good on him.)

Anyway, it was quite interesting just sitting there and listening to his take on life and his stories. He left San Diego after living there for seven years. As he told it, the meth lab neighbours worked with some crooked police officers and Dana ended up having his house burnt down, and all his stuff stolen, and then the neighbours accused him of threatening them with a gun so he ended up in jail for 5 weeks. It turned out they were lying and so he got off the charge. One of the neighbours who had accused him was in court because she had a list of criminal charges herself — I’ll bet one of them was stealing his stuff.

I don’t judge homeless people — I know that sometimes it is simply bad circumstances that lead them to where they are.

I got a rental car and drove down the coast past Kailua-Kona and Kealakekua Bay, the site where Captain Cook was killed in 1779. I loved the scenery — it was beautiful and reminded me a little bit of home in New Zealand. I also went for a short stroll in one of the national parks there, I wanted to do more walking and trails — but that wasn’t going to happen!

I heard about a local Hula festival that would be happening at the Sheraton hotel that night, so I decided I would go. It was well worth doing and the Iolani Luahine Hula Festival held so much meaning behind it. Iolani Luahine was a well-known Hula dancer, famed in Hawai‘i for her dancing. She enrolled at one of the missionary schools set up on the island, only to find out Hula dancing was forbidden, so she changed schools. After graduating from university, she started up Hula classes — realising her goal in life was to keep the traditional dancing alive. She made huge steps in preserving the cultural dancing and so the festival is in memory of her and her efforts. I was so glad I went. It was fascinating to watch the performance and a really good show.

I met a lot of people on the beach who were homeless. They would put up a hammock every night and would sleep there on the beach. I talked to a few of them. Homelessness affects our societies, and something needs to be done. One lady I met was in her fifties and she did studies for the council – she smoked cigarettes and marijuana and then couldn’t afford housing, so that’s how she wound up homeless. I ended up sharing half my breakfast with her and getting her a coffee while she talked to me about her situation. I think I had enough after a few days though, it does get tiring — you can’t help everyone, and you can’t give 24/7. Anyway, a lot of the locals told me that they felt Hawai‘i had become a dumping ground for the mainland USA homeless, which was quite sad.

I also heard about the now ex-CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and how he had been trying to file a lawsuit to force the sale of ‘quiet titles’ to the land surrounding his home that he brought with wife Priscilla Chan in Hawai‘i. Land rights in Hawai‘i were of interest to me. Hawai‘ians traditionally use a system like many other Pacific Island countries whereby ownership of land is passed through the family without formal deeds of transfer, only oral tradition, which can result in people having title to bits of land that they don’t even know about, if the traditions start to be forgotten.

Zuckerberg claimed that for most of the owners he identified, after careful research, the compensation that he planned to pay would have been a welcome and unexpected windfall. However, the whole thing looked a bit suspect to many people all the same, part of a long process of alienation of native Hawai‘ians from their own land. A sugarcane magnate named Spreckles was one of the first ‘Californian white’ people to obtain land in Maui — purchasing vast amounts of it from the King. His sugar cane farm became one of the largest in the world.

Traditionally Hawai‘ian people believe land is ‘aina’ — a spiritual entity that cannot be owned! Anyway, at the end of January 2017, Zuckerberg and Chan said that they would only buy land from willing sellers and would give up trying to force people to sell land that they weren’t doing anything with right now.

Hawai‘i was the 50th State to join the United States, and with a population of 1.4 million people, it is the only US state that lies in Oceania or Polynesia. Sadly, of the 1.4 million people who call Hawai‘i home only 30,000 of them speak the language as native speakers although this is up from as few as 2,000 in the late 1990s. It must be undergoing a revival in the schools and preschools, much as Māori did in New Zealand some thirty or so years ago.

My next stop was in Kalapana. I made my way there feeling horrible and almost delirious from my bug and went to one of the first beach resort hostels I saw — I got a room for $60 a night, I think they felt sorry for me in my dire state. But it was great and the lady, Anita, who ran it was lovely. (One Hawai‘i travel tip — ask the locals where to stay. You might get cheaper accommodation that way!)

I stayed there for two days trying to recover — I think it was just the constant travelling that was wearing me down also. On the first day, I ate some packaged tuna — not canned stuff — with gluten free pasta and tomatoes and that set me off again. I was getting really fed up so on that third day I pumped myself full of pills and made a spur of the moment booking. I thought, to heck with this cheap lifestyle, I am going on a helicopter ride — so I did. It wasn’t cheap but I was getting sick of feeling sick — ha! So off I went, Hell, what an experience! There were no doors on it and they were worried about things blowing out into the rotor blades so they told me to make sure everything I had was thoroughly secured.

It wasn’t till we had taken off and I’m looking down and my jandal (or thong) clad feet that I regretted not wearing my sneakers, which I had literally worn for the last four months except today. I spent the whole time worrying I was going to either vomit or my shoes would blow off into the rotor blades and that would be the end of that.

It was an amazing experience and one I thoroughly enjoyed and would do again- yes, I got a flutter in my stomach: not because of the food poisoning but because I can get scared of heights!

You could bike from Kalapana to go and look up close at the eruptions and the lava. I found this place called ‘Uncle Robert’s’ and that’s where I got talking to a lot of the locals. The locals I talked to were sick of the homelessness. Homeless people stole their food and were living in public buildings in Pahoa and then accidentally burning them down, buildings like the Akebono Theatre. Fair enough, too, that they were sick of that.

One thing I noticed around the island was the abundance of wild fruit that just grew everywhere. Avocados in particular were everywhere and all over the roads!

I went up the coast to Hilo and did a very silly thing. I brought this sausage meat that should have been heated up more, it was merely warm. So, I ate it along with some vegetables and boom, hello, return of food poisoning.

Apart from that, Hilo seemed to be a quaint and pleasant town.

I flew back to O‘ahu once more, for I was to depart for New Zealand from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Also, I wanted to visit O‘ahu’s North Shore to see the Banzai Pipeline: the huge wave system that is ridden in the world-famous local surfing competitions. And yes, Hawai‘i is where surfing was invented — when the first European explorers arrived it was already an established tradition. O‘ahu’s North Shore was a great place to finish off my trip although I am still annoyed that I couldn’t eat any of the beautiful island food.


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