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Hawaii: Honolulu and Hilo--and Honolulu

sunny 80 °F

The boys were determined: after nearly four months of travel, they'd had enough of cultural enrichment. Visiting Pearl Harbor, snorkeling, and throwing the football on the beach--that was what Hawaii would be all about. So we gave up on the idea of a Polynesian luau; we didn't even mention Honolulu's museums; and we went straight to Pearl Harbor on the morning of our arrival.

Pearl Harbor's Arizona Memorial is handsomely done. We met five survivors there at a book signing, some of the lucky few who emerged alive from the December 7, 1941 attack.


After watching a documentary, we took the ferry to the Arizona Memorial, a white structure that looks like a train squashed in the middle and floating on the water. From inside it you look out over the remains of the sunken Arizona, the ship with the largest number of dead, 1,177 crewmen, many of whom are buried with their ship.


The boys were absorbed by the narrative of the surprise attack. They noticed the bubbles still rising from the sunken hulk and the oil still gurgling up to smear the surface. I was torn between solemn reflection on the dead and unease over the nationalist display. Maybe it was sailing from Japan to Hawaii that made us aware that the larger history had to be more complicated than the official narrative of unprovoked-attack-on-innocent-giant.

Hawaii harbors a competing narrative that's less familiar on the mainland: not America the victimized innocent but America the victimizing empire. Neither narrative is adequate to the complexities of Hawaiian history, but I felt the discordance between them as our Hawaiian bus driver drove us up into the mountains behind Honolulu, speaking of his pride in Hawaiian heritage and yet politely omitting mention of the American conquest of these Polynesian islands. Instead, his Hawaiian story was about internecine combat and unification. As we arrived at the Pali Lookout, we heard about how King Kamehameha I and his men pushed 400 opposing warriors off the 1000 foot cliff in 1795--part of the price of Hawaiian unity.


The views were misty but spectacular. The steep volcanic ridges conjured images of dinosaurs. Indeed, we learned that Jurassic Park and many other such films had been made along these ridges.

I kept thinking about what the tour guide wasn't mentioning, the strange colonial history of the Hawaiian islands, from the time of Captain Cook to the missionaries, the American sugar and pineapple businesses that took root, the takeover of most of the land by people of European descent, the disenfranchisement of the native population, the sad fate of Queen Liliuokalani, deposed by the U.S. in 1893, and the long delay before statehood in 1959, partly because of fears of the island's dangerously multicultural and multiracial mix. It's a strange history partly because it conflicts with the myth that the U.S. has no history as an empire. But Hawaii is no less "postcolonial" (or still colonial?), no less hybrid or culturally in between, than India or South Africa or Barbados.

That afternoon, my friend Susan, a former UVA PhD, along with her family, generously hosted us at her home. It's across the mountain range that separates Honolulu from the other shore. Susan's daughter, Radhika, played soccer with our boys in the backyard, and they were soon joined by brother Sangha.


The views from their backyard up the volcanic ridge were incredible.


Susan showed us her wonderful book gallery downstairs, including lots of exciting publications she's edited for Tinfish. From her and her family, we learned much more about the joys and tensions of Hawaiian multiculturalism. While we talked and the kids played, we also enjoyed a home-cooked meal for the first time in many months.


Bryant turned out to be not only a generous chef but also a scientist impassioned about the wonders of Hawaii's volcanoes. He provided us with invaluable suggestions for our fast approaching trip to the Big Island.

With Bryant's helpful tips about the bus system on Oahu, we were able to devote the next day to snorkeling. Early in the morning, it took about an hour and a half, with one bus transfer, to wend our way from Aloha Tower, where we were berthed, to Hanauma Bay, a reserve that's said to be the best place for snorkeling on Oahu. It's a sunken volcanic crater that's now teeming with reefs and marine life.


Although this gorgeous bay is usually sheltered, strong currents and waves rippled the water's surface, making it especially hard for Cyrus to snorkel, at least as well as he had in Mauritius. Still, we all saw a vast abundance of different kinds of fish, and especially thrilling for me and Caroline was our experience of swimming alongside a sea turtle; we lingered to watch this magical being chomp on the reef life.

Overnight we sailed from Oahu to the Big Island, or Hawaii proper, the island that's still growing to the southeast because of the volcanoes that continue to spew lava, adding acres and acres of new land to the coast. After arriving in Hilo, we drove in our rental car 45 minutes up the gentle grade to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which includes the world's largest mountain, at least when measured from its undersea base to its top. At the visitor's center, about 4,000 feet above sea level, we watched volcano videos and gathered information for our day's adventures. From the lookout point near the Jaggar Museum, we watched the sulphurous spume from Kilauea's caldera. At first we could see little, because of the vog (fog + volcanic spume), but once the air cleared, we were in awe of what we could see at the heart of this live volcano.


In the area, we stopped at one of the steam vents. The rain puddling in the earth's hot cracks creates steam that's so hot Cyrus got a little too close for comfort.


After lunch at the aptly named Volcano House, we embarked on the most exciting part of our visit, the circuit hike that our Honolulu friends had suggested through Kilauea Ike Crater, directed by an informative guidebook we'd picked up.


We began in the rain forest that surrounds the crater.


Soon we could see the dull red eye from which the 1959 eruption had spewed.


It had thrown up a whole new mountain and cast massive boulders hundreds of feet onto the opposing mountainside, while pouring enormous quantities of molten lava into a bubbling hot lake. As we walked in the rain across the immense hardened lava lake, we looked at the remarkable lava of different colors and shapes. Plumes of steam rose from the fissures in the now cold lava.




During our two and a half hours of hiking across this scorched and barren landscape, where we saw new life struggling to break through the cracks, we felt closer to the primal energies that course inside the planet.

Near the end of the hike, we descended into the Thurston Lava Tube, a throat of hardened lava through which molten rock once rushed.


There was so much to be seen in and around the volcanoes that I'd have loved to have spent another day there. But we decided that our next day would be devoted largely to the Big Island's tide pools an hour away from Hilo; our Charlottesville friend Claudia had told us there was wonderful snorkeling to be found there. Unfortunately it rained all morning, and we had a hard time finding the Kapoho tide pools on the southeast coast. When we did, we walked around the lava rocks and peered into the pools looking for coral and fish but, in the rain, could see little.


After asking a few kindly locals, we decided that our best bet for a rainy day was to go to the hot pools nearby, filled with volcanically heated sea water.


The calm warm water was lovely in the rain, and a few warmth-loving fish could be seen beneath the surface. But I still very much wanted to find the right tide pools, so we retraced our steps, and this time, venturing out much farther toward the ocean, I finally discovered a large tide pool with some of the most spectacularly colorful coral and fish I'd ever seen. Unlike the bleached coral at Hanauma Bay and even in Mauritius, this was live coral, and the purples and greens and yellows could hardly have been more vibrant. The volcanic rock was spiky and sharp, so I snorkeled in my running shoes. The kids meanwhile romped around in the shallower pools.


I'd have loved everyone to join me, but the terrain was rough, and as so often on this semester's voyage, our time was ruled by the kids' stomachs. So we set out on the coastal road, astonished by the huge, unfamiliar trees that spanned the road with their gnarled branches, and finally found a New Age retreat that sold us sandwiches.


The sun shone, at last, so we decided to look for a black sand beach where the kids could throw a football. We first stopped at the steep, hillside descent to a "clothing optional" beach, but at the sight of naked older gents and ladies romping in the surf, the kids reversed course and clambered back up to the car. Our next stop was near the lookout where at night you can see lava pouring into the sea; we watched enormous plumes of steam shooting up from the union of molten rock and surf.


The beach was beautiful, made up of land just a couple of decades old. Plants tried to gain a foothold in the volcanic terrain, but maybe most remarkable were the swirling patterns of hardened lava that we clambered over.


The boys threw the football and tackled each other on the black sand.


That night, sad as we were about to leave our last port, we learned the last wasn't the last. Because a Pacific storm was creating dangerously large swells, the captain decided to return the ship to Honolulu and shelter it there.

The bonus day in Honolulu was both a gift and a curse.


Caroline and I had planned to spend the day grading. Like our students, who had final exams the next day, we were torn between the work we knew we had to do and the allure of the beach. We tried to do both. The kids had befriended the newly engaged college students Kyle and Deborah, and we took the public bus with them to the far end of Waikiki Beach. There, the boys had a great time playing football and cockfighting in the surf.


But when Eli came out of the ocean, he couldn't find his backpack, and we suddenly realized that, while I was taking pictures like these and both Caroline and I were grading papers, someone had stolen it. To make it all the way around the world safely and then, on the last day in port to be robbed, in our own country, came as a shock. Eli took it in stride, though we were all upset over the loss of his father's baseball glove and Eli's cap and backpack. Only days later did Eli realize that his camera was probably in the backpack as well. When we reported the theft to the police, their response was nonchalant. Apparently this happens all the time on Waikiki, as recent victims of similar thefts quickly began to tell us.

After lunch, we decided to retreat to a less crowded part of the beachfront, to the east of Waikiki and closer to Diamond Head, where the boys could play football in the park.


We loved our fifth day in Hawaii, but the loss of Eli's backpack and of grading time took a toll. Other thoughts were crowding our minds--finishing the semester, packing, arriving home--so much so that we weren't altogether there, under those gleefully upward thrusting palm trees. We'd love to get back to Hawaii some day, to climb those steaming volcanoes and to frolic again on unspoiled beaches, plunging into tide pools and snorkeling amid the incredible array of fish and seeing our kind friends--oh yes, and maybe even taking in a luau and some museums.

Posted by JR-CR 19:07 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel

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How wonderful that you are so adventurous. We went to Hawaii once, but never got to see a volcano or tide pool or coral reefs!!! So your blog and photos have given me an almost firsthand experience of seeing them. I had always wondered what a volcano looked like -- and now I know. Thank you for taking the time to write these blogs. They have been so informative, so reflective, and so engaging. Isn't it amazing that we have a president who spent some time in such a multicultural environment? Your political insights and comments were most thought-provoking.

by Nesta Ramazani

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