As my more observant Instagram followers probably know, I just returned from vacationing in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, where I spent five days indulging in the most pleasant weather known to man. If it wasn’t 80 and sunny with a warm breeze, it was 75 and overcast with a warm breeze. I had a blast cruising around the island with Oliviah in our state-of-the-art Ford Escape rental, though I regret never pulling over to purchase a coconut with a straw sticking out of it.
This blog is all about my Hawaii trip and thus represents a departure from my typical offer of over-thought and over-wrought personal essays. I always hesitate to write plainly about my experiences because I assume people will be bored out of their minds (you biked to work how many days in a row?? wow!). However, I found writing about this trip extremely satisfying and easy – I hit 4,000 words in no time, and as I wrote I realized just how many funny little moments I’d encountered. So I decided to keep most of this very detailed account on the page. For a true Virtual Spills Experience, I recommend playing the album below as you read: it’s a lovely sequence of instrumentals, and was my soundtrack for most of the trip.
Oliviah and I flew Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu; I flew United back on Sunday night. The former was a real treat, and the latter – well, let’s just say there isn’t any complimentary rum punch on United!
This was my first trip to the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve always pictured Hawaii as a blend of Disney World, Ocean City Maryland, and tropical paradise. Thankfully the paradise outweighs the kitschier elements of the islands; also, once you learn to acknowledge and even embrace the tackiness of other tourists, it becomes easier to find the kind of fun you want. For example: boarding the Hawaiian flight, I walked past a thirties-something couple dancing in their seats, chanting “we’re on vay–cayyyyy–tion!” repeatedly into their selfie camera. As an introduction to the Hawaii experience, seeing these people early on allowed me to say to myself, “yknow, they are having some lame, harmless fun, which is fine, but I’m going to try my hardest to avoid people like this while I’m here.” I was able to, though their vacuous chant still haunts me.
The six-hour flight was painless. Hell, it was luxurious: Oliviah and I managed to get seats right in front of a bulkhead (right next to the bathroom!) so we could lean our chairs back as far as we pleased. I got my first free meal on a flight in years, and guess what? The honeydew melon wasn’t like biting into a block of wood – it was actually tender! Amazing!
We touched down in Honolulu around noon. The airport is a series of open-air gangways and wood paneling that hasn’t been touched since the 1970s. I enjoyed the breeziness of the terminals, but was not a fan of the cramped, hot shuttle but that takes you and fifty other people to baggage claim. I’m not savvy with Hawaiian politics, but clearly putting a tram in the airport is not in the budget, or at least not a priority. They must have bigger fish to fry – like a nice mahi mahi!
(A quick aside on Hawaiian culture/politics – recycling is not a priority. In five days I was given more styrofoam trays than I would otherwise use in a year. Yes, I know I live in Portland. But I feel like a place that is so big on “plate lunches” could invest in some compostable eco-trays, amiright?? Apparently, though, the excessive Styrofoam waste powers entire Hawaiian neighborhoods, according to this dubious news article.)
Being millennials and therefore unable to trust ground transportation that does not spawn from cellular data, Oliviah and I elected to walk about half a mile from the airport to order a Lyft (we don’t use Über anymore, apparently). We found that even Hawaiian underpasses are teeming with tropical flowers and birds, a microcosm of the fundamental strangeness of Hawaii: it is Americanized to the point that sometimes I forgot I was on a volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific. But then I’d notice all the trellises crawling with hibiscus vines, or a cluster of feral chickens cavorting with a local bird that looks like a mini-toucan.
After trudging past 100 yards of idling taxis with our heavy bags, we found a spot to catch a ride and were on our way to Waikiki with Robert, an Army surgical tech moonlighting as a driver who pretty much begged us to charge our devices using a spiffy universal charging chassis he probably spent too much money on. Finally at the hostel, we saw that we had to wait an hour until we could check-in, so we schlepped across the street to a hole-in-the-wall Korean lunch counter called Me BBQ. I assumed that dining in Honolulu/Waikiki would be ubiquitously expensive, but this isn’t quite true: yes, there are a lot of hotel restaurants where you can spend a fortune on what amounts to burgers and nachos with some raw fish sprinkled on top. Or you can get a huge serving of chicken katsu with four sides at Me BBQ for $10. Add a can of guava nectar and this is a great way to kill an hour!
The Hostelling International Waikiki is maybe the tamest hostel ever. During my travels through Europe I stayed in a lot of different hostels – some had fun lobby bars or breakfast nooks, others were quiet but cute, some had staff that would take everyone out on the town at night, and one was a giant tent in Munich with cold, nasty showers. Aside from the beautiful robin’s egg-blue building, this Waikiki hostel had such little character that its austerity became sort of charming after a while. Chris and Paul at the front desk were straight-shooters, bordering on humorless, or at least humor so opaque it’s disarming. When I asked Paul if we could reserve a parking space, he repeated my question back but way slower, as though I’d just inquired about their lounge’s masturbation policy. I grew pretty fond of Paul and Chris after a couple of days.
Not surprisingly, our room was bare-bones: cinderblock walls, stiff mattress and starchy covers, a couple of fans, a small bathroom with a shower that took five minutes to get above lukewarm. It got the job done. And walking out the door in the evening was a treat.
When we laid out on Waikiki Beach for the first time I was a little disappointed, though not surprised by how little space we had and how many people were surrounding me, enjoying the late afternoon sun. My first day and a half on the island were marked by a weird nervous energy, a need to capitalize on every moment, to do everything at maximum efficiency. I’ve learned this is very hard to do on the first day of a trip: we stayed till sunset, then put on our night clothes and spent the rest of the night at Wang Chung’s, a tacky K-pop themed karaoke bar that had great cocktails and an incredible nacho platter – fried wontons instead of chips! Oh, and this was after a little souvenir perusing at a funny little night market in the “King’s Village” shopping center near the hostel. FYI: if you’re planning a Hawaii trip and are freaking out because you don’t have an aloha shirt yet, don’t worry. You can get one in Waikiki for $10 if you find the right vendor, preferably a pushy Japanese lady.
Thursday morning was pivotal: time to pick up my first ever rental car! Most of our most ambitious plans relied on our portability, so I didn’t want to screw anything up. Leading up to 11 AM I had nightmare visions of a shrewd employee using his cunning to up-sell me on a variety of insurances and promotions, and me eventually crumpling in despair before the key ring ever met my sweat-streaked palm.
The process was incredibly easy. I was driving out of the Enterprise garage within ten minutes of walking into the office. The brand new Ford Escape (somehow an “economy” car) handled like the Batmobile compared to my rattly Toyota Matrix. It had separate A/C for the passenger side, automated seat controls, a capless gas tank, and a fuel-efficient engine that would shut off when the car came to a full stop. Incredible! Enterprise should consider changing their slogan from “We’ll Pick You Up” to “We’ll Make You Cum.”
My weird nervous energy didn’t really dissipate until we settled in at Kahuku Beach on the North Shore – the hour-long drive up was mostly overcast, with intermittent bursts on white-gold sunlight. I was convinced we’d missed our chance at a glorious sunny afternoon on the beach. We passed by little shacks and roadside food trucks advertising “cold coconuts” – I would’ve stopped, but I felt a desperate urgency to get to our destination. In another life I would’ve bought a coconut and driven with it between my knees.
Kahuku Beach is behind (or in front of?) a golf course facing the sea. To get to the beach you have to walk about a quarter-mile on a small sandy path that weaves through the green. You may not find this path unless you do a little research first; for this reason the beach is largely unfrequented by tourists. We had the whole thing to ourselves.
By the time the neck of my Mickey’s was gone, so went my anxiety, and in my little beach chair I entered two hours of awesome serenity. Kahuku Beach itself is not postcard material, but a strange harmony exists there, despite the curiously large volume of industrial plastics washed up along its shore. Unlike the slow, patient waves off Waikiki beach and the southern tip of the island, the breakers off Kahuku are relentless and wild, and the winds on the beach are strong but not unpleasant. This constant din of crashing waves and swirling wind paired well with the Yo La Tengo coming out of my Bluetooth speaker, as well as the delicious container of raw fish I cradled between my thighs (this first poke bowl was dressed in a shoyu marinade with scallions, gingers, sesame seeds, and a heap of white rice). I watched the ocean and I watched Oliviah watching the ocean, and let my mind wander. Maybe this is too abstract an observation, but some places on Earth are colored with a melancholy so dense it feels like a bit of eternity is trapped there – the limitless potential of humanity and our inevitable fate among the elements are both eloquently represented and tethered to each other. The barnacled crates and sand-crusted buckets are integral to the landscape in this sense.
Half-drunk and happy, we left after two hours. The image of white-capped waves unfurling in layers before Oliviah’s bare shoulders and burgundy dress will be with me for a while.
After a gorgeous sunset over Shark’s Cove – we brought our snorkels but the 10-foot swells dissuaded us – we ended the long day with a stop at Zippy’s, the Hawaiian Shari’s, and called it a night. If you don’t to Zippy’s during your Hawaii trip, you are not missing much.
Friday was our “let’s catch the sunrise” morning – we drove out to the southeastern tip of the island. It was nice cruising through the early morning rose light, but unfortunately a wall of thick dark clouds occluded what would have been a fabulous “crack” of dawn. Oh, well. We treated ourselves to breakfast at Cinnamon’s in nearby Kailua, which I guess is a bit of an institution. I was very pleased that they had a reasonably priced crab cake plate, and even more pleased that it was good. Also their guava nectar was much thicker than the typical canned variety. A real treat.
Earlier in the week we’d reserved a double-kayak through Holokai Adventures, an outlet based right on Kane’ohe Bay. Their main selling point is that they house their kayaks right on the water (we didn’t have to strap one to the rental car) and our plan was to paddle out to the famous Kane’ohe Sandbar, a wide swath of waist-deep teal water a mile offshore where people go and have a good time. We succeeded in getting out there in the kayak, and we had a great time, but before our journey the Holokai folks warned us that the winds were particularly high today and the going would be rough. Pfff. We paddled through some headwind going out, but it wasn’t that bad. However, I did get my copy of Less Than Zero totally soaked because I forgot to put it in the dry bag. After my second warm beer I was convinced that Kevin from Holokai was full of shit and didn’t respect my ability to competently pilot a sea-going vessel.
Then it was time to head in. Getting back up in the kayak was a bit of a challenge. We finally managed it, and after only a couple of strokes a crosswind put us parallel to the chop – we tipped. This was very frustrating and slightly traumatic for me, but much more so for Oliviah – she’d never paddled the ocean before, and us capsizing allowed her fears and anxieties to quickly spiral into a panic attack. Since I was hanging off the opposite end of the kayak, I couldn’t see her flailing for her life, and my trademark rationality-combined-with-lack-of-empathy led me to assume that she was similarly assured by her life preserver. The crew on a nearby catamaran, however, noticed her distressed state and within a minute (literally) we were being instructed to board, and that this was a “rescue.”
I am very grateful for this catamaran full of Japanese tourists, especially given how shook up Oliviah was. They treated us well (they even brought us hot cups of tea), were not snarky or condescending, and so I have some regrets about the way I comported myself. When they were towing us in I kept saying “I got it, I got it” in an annoyed tone as they asked me to drop the paddles. The captain asked me “is your wife doing all right?” to which I immediately replied “she’s my girlfriend, and she’s fine” – the correction just sort of spilled out, but boy, on paper it reads even douchier than it must have sounded to him at the time. For more on my pathetic masculine tendencies, check out this aptly-titled blog post from a few months ago.
Parker, an effervescent West Coast dude from Holokai, retrieved us from the Japanese tour group on a noisy motor boat. He made good conversation, and even took us on a detour to a spot of coral where we saw a turtle pop its head out of the water. We were back on land in no time, for no extra cost or prying questions from the desk people. The “rescue” ended up being incredibly convenient, since after all the vodka-Sprite and Pringles I was really not excited for that paddle back to shore.
After another poke bowl (octopus – tako – dressed in sesame oil and some kind of sea-green) and a late afternoon nap, we headed to The Pig & The Lady in Honolulu’s Chinatown for maybe the best dinner I’ve had in a year. I was a little concerned by how hip and crowded it appeared as we approach the hostess podium, but the high ceilings and warm incandescent lighting accommodated many spheres of intimacy among an otherwise loud and bustling restaurant space. What were the highlights? Well, I don’t know what they did to their octopus, but I’ve never before eaten a tentacled organism that was so…not chewy, and well-seasoned. And tastefully adorned with dragonfruit petals or something like that. Overall the food was refreshingly light compared to the sinful plate lunches and rice bowls I’d been consuming up to that point. Our Hawaiian server had sparkling eyes and the biggest smile, which I watched disappear and amazingly reappear as he went from table to table. I really admire people who can fake it so convincingly.
Saturday was our “chill” day: I returned the beautiful Ford Escape, then picked up some breakfast burritos for our morning bed-viewing of Kingsman: The Secret Service – a very fun flick!
One thing you’ll notice if you visit Hawaii is that the tourist population is split down the middle between Japanese and American – this fact made wading through the tourist-heavy zones a lot more interesting, and the “people watching” much less depressing. Also, the local culture reacts accordingly, and some amazing “synergy” happens – my favorite example of this is the Shirokiya Village Walk (in laymen’s terms, it’s a food court) in the basement of the Ala Moana Center, which is otherwise a pretty standard American mall. The Village Walk features bar stations serving $1 beers ($4 pitchers!) surrounding endless rows of ramen, musubi, and tempura peddlers. If you know me at all, you know that I absolutely love places like this. I wish I had brought more cash with me, though: a big part of the fun in market-style dining pavilions is getting the maximum amount of food and drink with the money you have. It just isn’t the same with four or five debit card swipes.
This trip to the Village was my last outing with Oliviah before dropping her off at the Pagoda Hotel for the ASLO conference, i.e. the whole reason we came to Hawaii in the first place. We were both content with how we’d spent our vacation and all the time we had together, but I was excited to have a window of time to myself before my flight home Sunday night. I love travelling alone, being able to follow nothing but your own intuition and making decisions on-the-fly. My walk back to the hostel from the Pagoda was pensive and dusky (it was almost dusk). Honolulu/Waikiki is fun to walk around in: there is a lot to see, like a three-story Tommy Bahama with a rooftop bar. I used their restroom – this was definitely the highlight of my twilight stroll. I was also very satisfied when I came across a large group of people gathered around some kind of ceremonial Hawaiian singing-and-ukelele circle and I managed to walk past without looking over my shoulder once.
On Sunday I checked-out of the hostel, leaving my suitcase with them for the day and departing with a backpack full of essentials. Except for the very essential tube of SPF 50+ sunscreen, which I’d deliberately swapped out of the pack for a tube of foot powder. If you are ever in Hawaii and come to a decision between foot powder and sunscreen, then you obviously have never experienced a sunburn on the underside of your thighs. Take the sunscreen, and the foot powder. You can afford to leave behind the field guide of edible plants.
My first solo adventure was the Diamond Head Crater hike, which I walked to from Waikiki, and featured a cameo appearance from Oliviah(!), who was there doing field work with her conference people. The hike sucked. It’s really more of a long ramp with some steep stairs at the end, and you know exactly the view you’re gonna get at the top. And you’re basically walking single-file with a bunch of other tourists. For a while I strode in front of a very college-y couple – big built bro with a deep voice and tie-dye tank, skinny girl in black yoga pants and a black sports bra – who entertained me with their banter. Unprompted, the guy remarked, “man, I was really getting my sweat on up there!” Imagine that sentence being said in the dumbest intonation possible, and you’ve nailed it. His girlfriend cracked up for the same reason I almost started laughing – “what?” he said, confused, to which she responded with an impression of him and the classic cover-up line, “sorry, you’re just so funny, Derrick.” I know what she really wanted to say, which was “you’re just so fucking stupid, Derrick.”
I much preferred the nearby Diamond Head Beach, which I hiked towards after a lunch break featuring a Styrofoam tray with two preparations of pork, and the purchase of 3 ounces of sunscreen for $10. I spent the whole afternoon on the beach, bronzing my extremities and searing the aforementioned undersides. After a couple hours I walked back to Waikiki in a sun-soaked daze – then things got heavy, fast. If you’ve been waiting for a climax, HERE IT COMES!!
Dinner was on my mind, but so was the desire to download John Wick on my Kindle for my red-eye flight. My ideal scenario was a little non-chain café where I could relax for an hour, use the Wi-Fi, and eat something that won’t give me gas. This proved difficult: I poked my head into a couple of promising Yelp picks, inquiring about the Wi-fi to no avail. My utopian hopes shattered, I settled for Plan B, a Subway that I noticed had a secure network. This is where things fell apart. At the front of the line I wasted my one free pass for a non-food-related, not-annoying-yet question on a dud: “is there a bathroom in this plaza, upstairs?” – “Yes, there’s one upstairs.” I already knew there was a restroom upstairs! Now I had to wait and ask about the Wi-Fi after I ordered my sandwich, so as not to come off as a whiney, opportunistic leach. I got a Veggie Delite, which didn’t give me gas but was heinously overpriced – the cashier was not only a trainee but a total dolt who I’m pretty sure didn’t know how to input the “meal deal.” Then I popped the question, to which he deferred to a more senior employee. She told me that, yes, there is Wi-Fi, but the GM wasn’t in tonight. So she couldn’t give me the password because she doesn’t know it, because only the GM knows the password. What the fuck? How can you be a chain restaurant with a secure Wi-Fi network and only one employee who knows the password? Don’t you realize there are people who hate your awful sandwiches but will buy one as a courtesy for using the Wi-Fi?? I almost lost my cool, but settled for a dramatic lip-bite and eye-roll as I left the counter, then filled my 20oz cup with Pepsi and stormed out to the little outdoor table where I ate the sub sandwich in silent rage.
I was running out of time. I tried three different coffeeshops, and none of them had Wi-Fi! At each one I made sure to mention that I’m not usually a “Wi-Fi guy” but that I really needed to download a movie for my flight (I didn’t tell them that it was John Wick). At the last coffeeshop I visited, the barista told me in the slowest way possible that while the particular coffeeshop I was standing in doesn’t have Wi-Fi, the shopping mall in which the coffeeshop is housed has free Wi-Fi, and there’s no password but you have to agree to its terms via a pop-up window. Great, thank you. WHEW!!
With John Wick downloaded (as well as James L. Brooks’ 1983 schmaltzy classic Terms of Endearment) I grabbed my bag from the hostel, said farewell to Paul, and took a cab to the airport. The flight was a textbook United flight, with several miscues around checking bags at the gate to kick the night off. I finally made it on, but of course the sun-bleached hag sitting next to me convinced me to give up my aisle seat to her because she “wasn’t feeling well” and might be getting up a lot. She didn’t get up once and slept like a fucking giraffe the whole flight with her head dangling over her crotch. It was disgusting.
I had a layover in San Francisco that started with a Burger King breakfast bag and transitioned nicely into three hours of dozing in a surprisingly comfortable egg chair. The highlight was definitely at the Burger King window, when an eccentric-looking foreign man asked me to pass him exactly ten packets of sugar, and chuckled when he counted the fistful I set in front of him – “you’re off by just one! Eleven!” He was alone, with one cup of coffee.
The SFO to PDX flight was like a dream, I was so tired. In Portland when I landed it was in the mid-thirties, spitting cold rain. Let’s be honest: Portland isn’t a “green” city, it’s a gray one, especially in winter. The MAX ride back to 60th Ave was the ugliest it has ever looked. February is a great time to go to Hawaii, but a terrible time to return. I wonder if I will ever just move to a place simply because I want to be there, because of the weather, like the genial sixty-year-old Virginian cashier who told me she moved when to Oahu when she was 20 and been there ever since. “It was too cold; I just wanted to see swaying palm trees.” That was the 70s; I wonder what the Oahu housing market was like back then, the job market and cost-of-living, how she has spent her life. Everyday since returning to Portland I’ve been trying to finding the upsides of life her and life in general, thinking positively, maybe more Hawaiian. Alas, if it weren’t for this amazing trip, I may have never noticed that you can buy a poke bowl at WinCo….