Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Hawaii Cure

Do not eat until you are full; eat until you are tired,” calls Chief Sielu Avea, a Polynesian entertainer who, according to his bio, is “internationally known as the Coconut Man.” Making our way to the plastic table, paper plates wilting in our hands, we are tired already.

Here at the Chief’s Luau, “Aloha” means last to the buffet. The feeders in the “Royal” service tier ($159 per ticket) got first crack at the chafing dishes. And then team “Paradise” ($119) went at the sheet cake and roast pig. And if we stragglers in the Aloha group are not enraptured with our feast of sweetly lacquered chicken chunks and puffy dinner rolls, the fault is ours for booking steerage at $87 a head.

But you do not come to the Chief’s Luau for the food. You come because you have traveled thousands of miles only to fetch up in Waikiki Beach, a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage-dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport. Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles west on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars. The luau leaves no doubt: You are in Hawaii now.

Beyond the buffet, there are traditional activities. Under the instruction of shirtless men in sarongs, you can fling a plastic spear at grass. There is the weaving station, where the spectacle includes a pregnant woman shoving her young daughter for trying to horn in on her work at a frond headband. And there is a fire-starting clinic where we rub sticks on logs in the hope of making flame. This proves no more possible than it was in the forests of our childhoods, but we go on rubbing in the faith that we are in a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.

And for many of us, it is a magical evening. The magic has to do with the moon, the thud and rustle of the surf. The magic is working on Jed, my 1½-year-old son. He is off to the side of the action, trying to seduce a girl of 7 or so. She is engrossed with her tablet. A cultist of the night sky, Jed touches her wrist, points overhead and says, “Stars.” The girl’s eyes do not flicker from her screen.

My wife is similarly resistant to the enchantment. “This luau is making me feel bad about myself, and it is making me feel bad about humanity,” she says. We are now watching an entertainment where Hawaiian women in grass skirts dance the hula, and Hawaiian men with painted faces do a grunting spear-dance and stick their tongues out tikistyle. To my wife, this smacks uncomfortably of minstrelsy, which, yes, it does. But at least it is a two-way minstrelsy. The dancers pretend to be tiki warriors, and when the chief, in parting, bids us officially welcome to “the land of happy people,” we pretend to believe that such a place exists.

Can it be true? The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?

Not until 2017 has Hawaii held for me even a vague temptation. The 50th state has always seemed to me a meretricious luxury product whose visitors bring happiness with them in the form of money. I am not constitutionally geared for paradise. I am not one for cocktails containing patio equipment, for lazing on talcum-soft sand, eyes gone to pinwheels, grinning madly at the sun. (...)

We are staying in a room at the Waikiki Beach Hilton, which, with its ocean views and high-pressure shower head, is dangerously close to nice. But in the corridor I am pleased to meet a fat and saucy cockroach, thoughtfully dispatched, perhaps, by a concierge who has gotten wind of my preferences. In live-and-let-live aloha spirit, I do not molest the animal. My wife, however, in consideration of the sleeping guests the roach might visit, bruises the creature with a sack of dirty diapers before it jogs off down the hall.

In the lobby, we lay down $12 for two coffees and one banana and browse the morning paper, which proves a clemency from anticipated horrors. The front page of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser bears not a single presidential headline. “Legislature Considers Funding to Combat Rat Lungworm Disease” is the story of the day.

Dawn finds us waterfront on Oahu’s North Shore, downrange of the Banzai Pipeline. The sand has a forthright cornmeal consistency. The water is the blue of telegraph insulators. The waves transmit a disaster-movie feeling with every crash, even after you have watched a thousand of them land. The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can come only from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics. Just up the shore, two young women are seriously engaged in the business of aiming a big professional camera at the tanned, professional butt of a third young woman who, I’m guessing, is a big deal in a modeling niche I didn’t know existed. One thing is sure: No way will I be bathing here.

My son gives not a damn. He uncloaks fully his cloudlike body and hits the sand like an oyster in a breading dredge. The day is perfect room temp with a breeze. In the distant shallows, surfers shoot the tube or gleam the curl or whatever that amazing thing is called. My wife and I breakfast on fresh coconut — neither sweet nor flavorful but fun to gnaw, for the feeling that you’ve acquired termite superpowers. Jed squats and tumbles and packs his nethers with 20-grit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” is his ecstatic report on the sensation. I am right there with him. It would be overselling things to claim that I’ve achieved rapturous mind erasure my
first morning in Hawaii, but this is, well, rather nice.

For lunch we motor clockwise down the coast to the Kahuku Superette. The Superette is a homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it. Inside, they dish out poké of world renown. Poké is sashimi salad doused in soy and sesame and other things. We get a tub of traditional shoyu poké and a tub of limu poké with crunchy bits of seaweed. The place to gobble the Superette’s poké is in your hot rental car in the muddy parking lot. Gemlike blocks of tuna nearing a full cubic inch are bright and salty as the sea.

by Wells Tower, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Dina Litovsky/Redux

[ed. So close and yet so far. Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to my son during my last trip over when the power went down for nearly three days. Small town, small island, completely different scenario, but still... There are so many facets to Hawaii that reflect and refract whatever you bring to it:

"It's been crazy. Last Friday the winds started howling, then really began ripping on Sat. all over the islands, peaking Sat. night. We lost 17 power poles at the power plant and the island's been without power for the last few days. Just came back on early this morning. Really interesting to be in a (mini) disaster again... normal barriers break down between people and everyone pulls together and you see the best come out in folks. Everything closed - restaurants, grocery stores, gas station. Nothing hot or cold to eat (I had some canned sardines). No hot water for showers. No electrical outlets to charge phones. No ice. Food spoiled in refrigerators and freezers. People forced to grill whatever they could before it all went bad (and most of it did). Yesterday the stores opened briefly with generators to let people buy whatever non-perishables they could find, but cash only (and the ATMs didn't work either, so I'm down to $6 today). There were lines of 50 people or more at both stores, and they were just letting in a handful at a time, I guess to keep a mob from forming. No cash registers, just hand calculators. Really interesting. Then the gas station opened with generators and the line ran 20+ cars around the back of the station and down the street. $50 limit, cash only there too. Everything cash only, and no place to get cash! But like I say, the best comes out in people...when I was at the bank some lady (a stranger) asked me if I was visiting and when I said yes, she said she would loan me money. A stranger! I declined, then [T.] across the street made the same offer. Declined that too, but today I would have had to take the offer. I shared a loaf of bread and some canned sardines and chili with him. I was also down to fumes in the jeep so couldn't go anywhere, either.

Fun, eh? Then, the sun goes down at 7pm each night and you get to lay in the dark and talk to the geckos until hopefully falling asleep (and waking up at 4am and laying in the dark till sunup at 7am). Nobody knew how long it would take, just hopeful rumors that kept getting dashed. If this went on another couple days I think people would really be desperate. I went to the hospital (I heard their generators) and the people there were nice enough to let me re-charge my phone so I could make sure I had a seat out on a flight, just in case it really got bad.

But, another interesting thing: everybody was OUT. Walking the streets, talking with each other, kids playing and biking and doing kid things. I met a few new people just that way. There was nothing else to do but socialize (and grill). Really nice to see and experience that again. This really is the friendliest Isle."]